John 3:1-17 & The Nicene Creed

A. INTRODUCTION

1. Our Experience as a Whole
In life we experience things that are meaningful, and things that are not. There are things that we see and hear which give us purpose, and there are things which are not relevant at all. We hear people making profound statements, and we hear other things which border on the trivial. And we have conversations which are deep and give us lots to think about, and there are those which are superficial—and may simply be an exchange of pleasantries.

Of course in reality we need both—the meaningful, and the meaningless—and all the shades in between. And we have different times, different moods, and different situations where one or other is appropriate.

2. The Church in Particular
And just as that’s true of life in general, so can it be true of the church.

For example in ninety-nine percent of churches there is a set pattern of worship. Some follow a book, and others . . . well after a while you get to know what’s coming next. But regardless, some days the services can be full of meaning, while others… well it doesn’t seem to do anything for you at all.

3. The Nicene Creed
And one of those things, that fits that description, particularly in the more liturgical churches, would have to be the Nicene Creed. A creed that has been recited by many in the context of a Communion service over the centuries.

And yet I wonder how often the words of the Creed are full of meaning—and are relevant to day-to-day life—and how often they seem to be a statement whose true meaning has been lost, and which today seems to have little value.

And with that in mind, I’d like to recall a very meaningful conversation, between a man named Nicodemus and Jesus. Because it’s a conversation that has parallels with aspects of the Nicene Creed. And it can be a reminder to us of how important the words of the Creed are, and how it can be great help even in our lives today.

B. NICODEMUS (1)

Now the thing about Nicodemus was that he was a Pharisee—a ‘teacher of Israel’. And his religious background would have taught him the need to carefully observe God’s laws (and the traditions of the elders). And his upbringing would have taught him, that if he was able to achieve this goal, then he would earn God’s favour, and win salvation.

But Nicodemus had obviously heard something about Jesus. He didn’t believe him to be the Son of God, but he did know that there was something special about him. So he was intrigued enough to go to Jesus at night.

And night time would have been a time when he knew Jesus would more likely be alone, a time that he could be sure of a leisurely and uninterrupted conversation, a time when it was deemed commendable by Rabbis in general to pursue their studies, and a time when he—an official ‘teacher of Israel’—was less likely to be seen consulting the unofficial ‘Teacher of Galilee’.

However, whether he was ready for the conversation he had with Jesus is doubtful. For even though he was ‘a teacher of Israel’, he certainly had difficulty understanding what Jesus was talked about.

C. THREE STATEMENTS BY JESUS

Because, in their discussion, Jesus made three statements about God and salvation. Statements which turned Nicodemus’s beliefs on their head. And these three statements reflect aspects of the Nicene Creed which is said by many on a regular basis.

1. The Father (3)
Because in the opening part of the creed are these words: We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen. To which Nicodemus no doubt, in theory, would have agreed. However, when Jesus explained something of the depth of what that meant, in terms of a proper relationship with God, he shattered all Nicodemus’s hard felt beliefs.

The words of Jesus to Nicodemus: ‘Unless one is born from above, he will never see the kingdom of God.’

According to Jesus, it was all very well believing in the existence of a creator God, but regarding a relationship with him . . . Well, Nicodemus and the other religious leaders had got it all wrong. According to Jesus, God’s favours weren’t something they could buy. What they needed was to be re-made by the power of God.

The man who would enter the kingdom of God, Jesus said, must be born in a radically new fashion. And that would require an intimate relationship with God. Entry into the kingdom could not be achieved by way of human striving, while keeping God at a safe distance. No! Entry into God’s kingdom could only be achieved by rebirth, which only an intimate relationship with God could affect.

2. The Son (13)
In the second section of the creed we say: We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one being with the Father; through him all things were made . . . etc. etc., to which the concept for Nicodemus would have been quite new. For sure, he, with most other Jews, were expecting a Messiah, but perhaps not a Messiah of the magnitude that Jesus suggested.

Because Jesus said to Nicodemus: ‘No one has ever ascended into heaven. Only the Son of Man, who has descended from heaven, can do that.

Now Nicodemus had been brought up in a religious culture that had an emphasis on the need to follow a strict set of rules to earn one’s salvation. So Jesus, for a second time, told Nicodemus that that just wasn’t possible.

And this time, he told Nicodemus, that he, Jesus, was the expected Messiah. But not only that, he was nothing short of God’s son as well. Indeed, Jesus emphasised his own authority, teaching, and actions. He was the Christ. And his heavenly origin marked him off from the rest of mankind.

While people could not get to heaven on their own merit, the ascent into heaven was possible. But only through new birth—which, in some way, only he, Jesus, could affect.

3. The Holy Spirit (5)
And, in the third part of the creed we say: We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son. With the Father and the Son is worshipped and glorified, who has spoken through the prophets. To which Nicodemus might well have recognised references to Old Testament prophecy.

However, he expressed his surprise when Jesus said: ‘Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.’

Nicodemus’s first reaction to Jesus’s words would probably have been puzzlement. After all, how could you be born twice? It was just not physically possible. His second reaction, however, may have been one of offence. Was Jesus’s reference to water a comment on baptism? And if so, didn’t Jesus know that the Pharisees had refused the baptism of John the Baptist, as well as having rejected Jesus too?

But, despite that, after a few moments the more natural meaning of Jesus’s words would have sunk in. Jesus was talking about the need for anyone born in this world, to submit themselves to spiritual regeneration.

For those who want to belong to God, for Jesus, there was no substitute for spiritual regeneration. No person could make it into God’s kingdom, without having first been completely renewed, born again—or whatever other term we want to use—by the power of the Holy Spirit.

D. NICODEMUS (2)

In one visit then, Nicodemus, a Pharisee, had his whole system of beliefs turned upside down. God wasn’t just someone up above who could be worshipped at a distance. Someone who, if you tried to keep his laws plus all the extra bits that man had added to them, would simply let you in to heaven. No! The relationship with God needed to be much more intimate than that. Getting to heaven required spiritual regeneration. And that was only possible through an intimate relationship with him.

So in that one visit, Nicodemus was introduced to the idea of the need to have an intimate relationship with God. Holding God at a distance was just not a viable option. As a consequence, Jesus challenged him to have a more personal relationship with God. Is it any wonder, then, that he described the three different aspects of God, which in the terms of the creed can be described as: God, The Father, the Almighty; Jesus Christ, the only Son of God; and the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life.

Now we know that the effect of that discussion on Nicodemus (and probably other events) was quite profound, because Nicodemus gets mention later in the gospel story.

Indeed, sometime later, when the chief priests and Pharisees are plotting to arrest Jesus (Jn 7:50-52), it is Nicodemus who shows great courage in protesting the condemnation of Jesus, who he believed had not been given a fair hearing.

And after the crucifixion, it was Nicodemus, who accompanied Joseph of Arimathea to get permission to take Jesus’s dead body away, so he could be buried. And at the same time he brought a lavish gift of spices to anoint the dead body of Jesus. Indeed, enough spices appropriate for a royal burial (Jn 19:39-40).

But it all began with this one conversation. A conversation in which Jesus turned Nicodemus’s beliefs of their head. And a conversation that has serious links with the later Nicene Creed.

E. IMPLICATIONS

Now, of course, the Nicene Creed is only one of the expressions we use regarding our Trinitarian faith. And it has its origins in the need to counter a heresy in the Christian church, particularly in regard to Jesus’s eternal being.

Nevertheless, the example of the story of that first visit by Nicodemus to Jesus, demonstrates that the concept of the Trinity—as expressed in the Nicene Creed—is not just meaningless or some religious mumbo jumbo. Rather it’s an expression of the living God—the living God who should be very much part and parcel of all of our lives, and on whom our salvation depends.

For Jesus, the Trinity was not just an intellectual theory to be read about and studied. Rather it was a living reality to be experienced in all its fullness. As a consequence, when the Nicene Creed is recited, it should be meaningful. And it should have the effect of challenging us to the kind of God that we believe in too.

1. The Father
As a consequence, when we recite the words about the Father, the Almighty, do we hold on to the belief, like the Pharisees, that God is someone that we can keep at a distance, that, somehow, we can buy him off, and all that matters is that we keep his laws and whatever other rules we can think of to add on? Or is he the kind of Father with whom we wish to pursue an intimate relationship, and that we can depend upon him, not only for our salvation but for our daily needs too?

2. The Son
When we say the words regarding the one Lord, Jesus Christ, is Jesus just an historical figure, who stories have been written about, and stories we like to hear, and apart from that, he really makes no difference in our lives? Or is he our Messiah, our saviour? Is he the true Son of God, whose act of self-sacrifice has made salvation possible, even for us?

3. The Holy Spirit
And when we speak about the Holy Spirit, the Lord the giver of life, is he simply a mystery of something that was talked about, even by the prophets of Old Testament times, and even, may be, made an appearance many moons ago at Pentecost but has no relevance to today? Or is he the part of God that lives inside us, encouraging, nurturing, and guiding, and providing us with the guarantee of eternal life with God?

4. The Church, Baptism, Resurrection and Eternal Life
Yes, of course, the words of the creed then go on to talk about the place of the church, baptism, the resurrection of the dead and eternal life. But these only have meaning, provided we engage in an intimate relationship with God first.

F. CONCLUSION

In our daily lives, then, there are some things which are meaningful and other things which are not. There are things we see and hear which are relevant, and other things that serve no real purpose at all. And just as that’s true of life in general, so is it true of our church and our faith as well.

But one of the things that should always have meaning, is our belief in the one God, who has revealed himself in three distinct ways.

The Nicene Creed may be a few words on a piece of paper—words that were written to refute a heresy of the past—but they are also a reminder of the nature of the living God.

They are a reminder that God is not distant—that he is not remote—and that true faith requires an intimate relationship with him. They are a reminder that God is to be experienced in all his fullness. And it is this God—this one and only God—on whom our salvation depends.



Posted: 27th October 2021
© 2021, Brian A Curtis
www.brianacurtis.com.au