Nicodemus was a teacher of Israel, a Pharisee. The Pharisees were often in conflict with Jesus, and thus we have Nicodemus coming at night to visit with Jesus. The Topical Bible on Bible Hub dot com says this about the Pharisees:
…a religious party or school among the Jews at the time of Christ, so called from perishin, the Aramaic form of the Hebrew word perushim, "separated.”[i]
We see from their name that the Pharisees remained separate. This would be consistent with trying to be Holy. God said, “For I am the LORD your God. You must consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am holy.” (Leviticus 11:44) One of the main ideas behind the word “holy” or “consecrate” is separation, to be set apart. The Pharisees then appear to be trying to follow God’s Law. However, the Topical Bible goes on to say:
The fundamental principle all of the of the Pharisees, common to them with all orthodox modern Jews, is that by the side of the written law regarded as a summary of the principles and general laws of the Hebrew people there was on oral law to complete and to explain the written law, given to Moses on Mount Sinai and transmitted by him by word of mouth. The first portion of the Talmud, called the Mishna or "second law," contains this oral law. It is a digest of the Jewish traditions and a compendium of the whole ritual law, and it came at length to be esteemed far above the sacred text.[ii]
This is the point at which the differences with Jesus began. Jesus said to the Pharisees, “And why do you, by your traditions, violate the direct commandments of God?” (Matthew 15:3)[iii] And, in another place, He said, “And so you cancel the word of God in order to hand down your own tradition. And this is only one example among many others.” (Mark 7:13)
This argument centered on the Word of God and what God required of His people. As the teachers of Israel, the Pharisees were entrusted with the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus told them:
What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you shut the door of the Kingdom of Heaven in people's faces. You won't go in yourselves, and you don't let others enter either. (Matthew 23:13)
As an aside, it was this very argument that divided the Church at the time of the Reformation. Is the sacred text the final authority, or are the traditions handed down to us the final authority?
The point of being a Pharisee was to be right with God, to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven. Therefore, we can assume that this is what is behind Nicodemus’s visit to Jesus.
According to John 3:2, Nicodemus came to Jesus and said:
“Rabbi,” he said, “we all know that God has sent you to teach us. Your miraculous signs are evidence that God is with you.” (John 3:2)
Here is a teacher who wants to know the truth. The main question for a Pharisee would be how one enters the Kingdom of Heaven. How is a person made right with God? Nicodemus does not address this question. He opens the dialogue with Jesus by acknowledging that they all knew that God sent Jesus.
Jesus zeros in on what the real issue is.
Before he was an apostle, Paul was a Pharisee. He said of himself:
…I could have confidence in my own effort if anyone could. Indeed, if others have reason for confidence in their own efforts, I have even more!
5I was circumcised when I was eight days old. I am a pure-blooded citizen of Israel and a member of the tribe of Benjamin—a real Hebrew if there ever was one! I was a member of the Pharisees, who demand the strictest obedience to the Jewish law. 6I was so zealous that I harshly persecuted the church. And as for righteousness, I obeyed the law without fault. (Philippians 3:4-6)
Jesus is talking to a man like Paul, a man who was a leader and teacher of Israel. Therefore, Jesus does not waste time on issues that had no importance, and starts out with the question that is at the heart of Nicodemus’s lifestyle. Jesus says:
“I tell you the truth, unless you are born again, you cannot see the Kingdom of God.” (John 3:3)
This statement summarizes salvation for us. In its most condensed version, to be saved is to be born again. However, there is much to be understood about what it means to be born again. The Holy Spirit moved John to record the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus so that we can understand what it means to be born again.
Nicodemus did not understand what Jesus meant. He is thinking in physical terms. Therefore, he asks Jesus, “How can an old man go back into his mother’s womb and be born again?” (John 3:4)
Jesus’s response gives us a basic understanding of rebirth (also known as regeneration). He says:
5Jesus replied, “I assure you, no one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit. 6Humans can reproduce only human life, but the Holy Spirit gives birth to spiritual life. 7So don’t be surprised when I say, ‘You must be born again.’ 8The wind blows wherever it wants. Just as you can hear the wind but can’t tell where it comes from or where it is going, so you can’t explain how people are born of the Spirit.”
In closing his statement, Jesus makes it clear that “you can’t explain how people are born of the Spirit.” Being born again is a mystery. Through the Scriptures, we have a measure of understanding, but rebirth is a work of God. We can see the results in a person’s life, but we cannot see the rebirth take place.
Jesus begins by pointing out that one must be born both physically and spiritually. Jesus’s statement concerning being “born of water and the Spirit” is further explained in the following statement, “Humans can reproduce only human life, but the Holy Spirit gives birth to spiritual life.” (John 3:6)
To state the obvious, you cannot eat a McDonald’s hamburger if you have never been born. It is foolish even to speak of it. In order to participate in any of the activities of life, it is necessary first to be born, to have physical life.
In order to enjoy any of the activities of the Kingdom of Heaven, it is necessary first to have spiritual life, to be born spiritually.
All the rules and goodness of the Pharisees were physical. All the rules were about what they did with their physical lives. However, no amount of physical reform, training, discipline and good deeds could bring about a spiritual birth.
This is why the Church is not here to help you be good. We are not here to reform anybody or even to teach a particular set of rules. We are here to be transformed. We are here as disciples of Jesus, to learn from Him, and by calling on His name we now are alive spiritually. We have been born again.
John 1:12-13 says:
12But to all who believed him and accepted him, he gave the right to become children of God. 13They are reborn—not with a physical birth resulting from human passion or plan, but a birth that comes from God.
Upon hearing of this spiritual birth, Nicodemus asks, “How are these things possible?” (John 3:9) In the verses that follow this question, we have Jesus’s explanation of how these things are possible.
First, Jesus makes it clear that Nicodemus should have understood. He was a teacher of Israel, an expert in the Old Testament Scriptures. Later on Jesus says to a group of Nicodemus’s peers, 39“You search the Scriptures because you think they give you eternal life. But the Scriptures point to me!” (John 5:39) To Nicodemus Jesus points out his unbelief by saying:
11I assure you, we tell you what we know and have seen, and yet you won’t believe our testimony. 12But if you don’t believe me when I tell you about earthly things, how can you possibly believe if I tell you about heavenly things?
Unbelief is the problem for most people who do not believe. God provides plenty of testimony, but people do not believe the testimony. Jesus says, “…we tell you what we know and have seen.” Jesus is alone, but He is saying “we.” In the context, Nicodemus has said, “We know you are a teacher sent from God.” Jesus is drawing in the testimony of all the teachers sent by God, the testimony of Moses and the prophets. The plural is purposeful.
In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, Jesus tells of a rich man who ends up in hell. The rich man ends up begging for someone to go back from the dead to warn his family of what is to come in the afterlife. Here is the response he received:
If they won't listen to Moses and the prophets, they won't listen even if someone rises from the dead. (Luke 16:31)
God has not put this out of reach. Jesus rose from the dead, and many still do not listen.
Jesus takes His rebuke one step further when He says:
No one has ever gone to heaven and returned. But the Son of Man has come down from heaven. (John 3:13)
The works Jesus did proved that He was the Son of God. He rose from the dead. We should receive His testimony. Nicodemus and the Pharisees were not accepting the evidence they had. They did not believe Moses, the prophets or Jesus.
The works Jesus did proved that He was the Son of God. He rose from the dead. No other religious leader or teacher did this. How is Buddha supposed to know anything about heavenly things? Has he ever been there? Did he come back from the dead? How is Mohammed supposed to know anything about heavenly things? Has he ever been there? Did he come back from the dead?
The miracles accompanying the prophets of the Old Testament gave evidence that they spoke from God. The works and resurrection of Jesus Christ gave evidence that He is the Son of God. Now we have a simple test to show us who speaks from God. 1 John 4:2 says:
2This is how we know if they have the Spirit of God: If a person claiming to be a prophet acknowledges that Jesus Christ came in a real body, that person has the Spirit of God.
If someone does not acknowledge the truth about Jesus, we know that person is not from God. We have no more excuse than Nicodemus did for his unbelief. Why do you not believe? Do you know something Nicodemus did not? Do you know something Jesus did not? Or, perhaps you have never looked at or considered the evidence. Read the Bible for yourself. Examine Jesus’s claims for yourself.
According to Jesus, God accomplishes the new birth by giving His one and only Son. His Son had to be lifted up just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness. Nicodemus would have understood the story of the serpent in the wilderness. When a plague of serpents was killing the children of Israel, God delivered them by having Moses make a serpent on a pole. Those who were bitten just needed to look at the serpent to be healed. This is a picture of Jesus on the cross. We just need to look to Jesus on the cross to be born again. This is what it means when it says that anyone who believes in Him will not perish but have everlasting life.
God did not send Jesus to condemn the world. Jesus was clear about this. However, there is great condemnation for any who do not believe in Jesus. Jesus put it like this:
…whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. (John 3:18, ESV)[iv]
Being born again is not something we do. Being born again is something we receive. We receive it by believing in the name of the only Son of God.
Have you been born again?
For those of us who have been born again, there is an important question. Having begun by believing, are we now somehow trying to be right with God by what we do? Are we starting to go back to dependence on our flesh?
[i] biblehub.com/topical/p/pharisees.htm. Accessed April 25, 2017.
[iii] Unless otherwise noted Scripture quotations are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation. Copyright © 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Steam, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.
[iv]Scripture quotations marked ESV are from The ESV Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version) copyright 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.