The full impact of what Jesus was saying may not have sunk in for Nicodemus, in that moment.
That is how shock is.
It often takes time for the full array of emotions and realization to make its way through our system. At the least, Nicodemus must have understood that no matter his excellent character, his high standing in the community, no matter his exemplary religious lifestyle, and obedience to every “jot and tittle” of the law, God’s grand scope of salvation would not include him without his belief in God’s Son.
But the implications were far vaster.
Pharisees, whose name derived from the meaning to “separate” or “detach,” were noted for their strict adherence to purity laws and precepts, stemming from one of the oldest theologies in Judaism.
God is set apart from all creation and has given creation certain proscribed and sacred spaces. Humanity is to be set apart unto God. And the people of God, the children of Abraham, are set apart from all other people.
God spoke of this “set-apartness” from Mount Sinai, when the people were still being gathered together as a holy and separate nation, God’s chosen people. To be sanctified, set apart, meant to ‘be holy as I am holy,’ based on God’s proclamation,
For I am the Lord your God; sanctify yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy. You shall not defile yourselves with any swarming creature that moves on the earth.YHWH, in Leviticus 11:44 (NRSV)
Much of God’s holy Law was about living set apart from all other ethnic groups on earth, to be governed in a theocracy unlike any other government on earth, and to foster a set of values, ethics, and to develop a God-centric culture that would be unique in all the world.
Through this, God’s people would bear witness to the truth of God to all nations.
The central components of holiness theology were to:
- Separate from other people groups, including intermarriage.
- Revile what is defiled, profane, corrupt, polluted, etc.
- Observe the Sabbath.
Being sanctified unto God, utterly faithful to God’s Law, kept holy as to the Lord, was the Pharisees’ watchword. They took great care to avoid becoming unclean by separating themselves from those groups they deemed impure—those who were not of the Jewish faith (called “Gentiles,” throughout the Bible), and those of the Jewish faith who were more liberal in their interpretation of purity, namely Hellenized Jewish people.
It seems the only people Pharisees really respected were each other.
But Nicodemus was hearing a radical message from Jesus. He was hearing God actively loves all the world, even those who were not aware of God, or did not worship or love God, those who were ritually impure, those who might have even seemed despicable to others.
Nicodemus was hearing Jesus describe a salvation that offered redemption and restoration without barrier to anyone who believed.
Not just to the Children of the Promise, the Israelites.
To every ethnicity, every culture, every language, every tier of every people group anywhere in the earth, every person who believed.
God loves the world, the excluded are included.
Now, the Bible is pretty clear that every person, regardless of station, nation, religion, or identity starts out in life as spiritually dead. But God sees the awfulness of human degradation. God’s wrath is poised to cleanse all of creation from degeneration, and the Lord wants to rescue people because God loves people.
The rescue was going to be costly. It would, in fact, cost God everything to cleanse corruption and death from humanity, and eventually the entire cosmos. It is a process that is still underway, that through the mysterious supernatural symbiosis of human faith and divine power, those who believe in God’s Son have eternal life.
“Have” is immediate. Eternal life does not just describe the duration—forever—but the quality of life, having the same spiritual life as God, within.
And, Nicodemus heard Jesus upend the entire Jewish interpretation of the Day of the Lord. This interpretation was a thousand years and more in the making, a theology so core to the essence of their hope in God, that it had become like bedrock to their perseverance and endurance through exile, through torture and martyrdom for their religion, through grinding oppression and the onus of foreign occupation. For them, the day of the Messiah’s coming was as judge, to condemn all evildoers, the enemies of God’s people, and destroy them, then restore Israel to the destiny of its full glory.
I think we still have that concept today concerning the Day of the Lord.
How many people see God as a distant and hostile judge, never satisfied, not approachable? One of the main criticisms people have about Christians is judgmentalism, this constant sense of being disapproved of by Christians, being uncomfortable in Christian settings because of this pressure to look and act a certain way.
This is not God’s way at all.
God’s way is love, and compassion, and understanding. Jesus did not come to condemn, or to point his finger at people and tell them what terrible sinners they are. Instead Jesus’ way with even those who were clearly transgressors, was always to be moved by compassion for their hurt and their need, and their shame and loneliness.
This does not mean the Lord Jesus was indifferent to wrong. God knows you and I cannot be truly free until what is broken has been made whole in our lives. Jesus came to free us from the bondage of evil.
This is the Lord’s gift, given in love, and God’s gift does require a response.
Jesus carefully spelled it out for Nicodemus that night.
The one who believes in him is not judged,
but the one who does not believe already has been judged,
because that one has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.Jesus, in John 3:18
The Christian testament, read as a whole, takes the position that humankind has been living under the wrath of God since the days of Cain and Abel. The Lord sees the evil that mars God’s creation and destroys the people God loves, and the Lord intends to get rid of it. God’s wrath consumes evil and wickedness not as the opposite of God’s love, but as the expression of God’s love.
God will protect and set free the object of His affection.
But that is not to say that God’s wrath will not ultimately consume some people as well.1 God’s wrath has been described as a refiner’s fire that purifies. But sometimes God’s presence brought the end to people’s lives when He was dealing with their corruption. God’s wrath, as it consumes what is wrong will also consume people who have become so ensnared by sin they are no longer interested in reaching out to God’s mercy.
Still, it is not people God seeks to destroy but rather the wickedness and rottenness that destroys God’s people. In that sense God’s wrath is far more a cure than it is a punishment.
For, the primary purpose of God’s wrath is not to hurt us but to heal us.
1 I owe this transforming interpretation of wrath to Wayne Jacobsen in his book “He Loves Me! Learning to Live in the Father’s Affection”
[Jesus and Nicodemus | Henry Ossawa Tanner / Public domain]