We are working our way through the gospel of John always keeping our eyes open for the three main ideas that John is weaving into one single narrative.
We begin chapter three in John's gospel reading about Jesus' encounter with Nicodemus, an elder and teacher of the nation of Israel. We will see in their exchange that John is showing Jesus, the God/Man, teaching with authority and revealing what only God could reveal to this seeker. The essence of their dialogue is about change, the change necessary to enter the kingdom of God.
We often hear the expression "saved by faith," and it is true, but the reason we are saved by faith is because faith changes us, and the change wrought in us by faith is the transition from death to life.
Keep these ideas in mind as we study about Nicodemus' meeting with Jesus the God/Man.
Vs. 1-2 – Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews; this man came to Jesus by night and said to Him, "Rabbi, we know that You have come from God as a teacher; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him."
Nicodemus came after dark for fear of losing his position. He was a member of the Sanhedrin, the ruling religious body made up of 70 priests, Scribes and elders. He himself was a Pharisee (a sect or party of Scribes who were extremely conservative and zealous for the Law and Jewish traditions). Nicodemus believed that Jesus was a prophet and teacher. He also acknowledged that Jesus' miracles were a manifestation of God's power and authority. (Other prophets had done miracles, i.e. Elijah.)
Vs. 3 – Jesus answered and said to him, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God."
Nicodemus expressed his limited faith in coming to Jesus, admitting what he does believe about Him. Jesus, in response to this, begins to explain to him the principle of regeneration, for which He uses the term "born again." The Lord says that unless one is "born again" (changed, regenerated) he cannot see the kingdom of God.
The "kingdom of God" is created and present when the will of God is being done. In the Old Testament period the Jews perceived it as a glorious earthly kingdom where God would guarantee His people prosperity, protection and power in the world (this was their notion of heaven). With the revelation of the New Testament we have come to understand that the kingdom of God is God's will being pursued and carried out in every dimension. It perfectly exists in heaven and it partially exists here on earth in the form of the church. The promise of Christ is that the earthly kingdom of God, in the form of the church, will one day be perfected, when Jesus returns, and joined to the heavenly kingdom to form the perfect union between God and His kingdom.
When all things are subjected to Him, then the Son Himself also will be subjected to the One who subjected all things to Him, so that God may be all in all.
- I Corinthians 15:28
The point here is that Nicodemus was told that in order to enter into "heaven" or the "kingdom" he had to be re-born, changed, regenerated! This was difficult for him to grasp because the Jews in general believed that because they had been chosen by God, no change was necessary. And for a scholar, elder, leader like Nicodemus, the thinking was that his type was guaranteed entry. But Jesus says to Nicodemus, unless he is reborn he cannot enter in. The conclusion was that power, position, training and tradition counted for nothing in the process of being reborn.
Vs. 4 – Nicodemus said to Him, "How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born, can he?"
Nicodemus acknowledges that it is impossible to repeat natural birth, so what is Jesus talking about? He understood that a change was necessary but could not grasp what kind of change and how it could be accomplished.
Look at Nicodemus' attitude: even though he was older and in a better social position than Jesus, he wanted to know the truth and so he humbled himself in order to find it. This teaches us an important lesson: we cannot go forward in spiritual knowledge and understanding unless we humble ourselves.
God is opposed to the proud but gives grace to the humble.
- James 4:6
To go forward means leaving some things behind. This is a basic lesson in the exercise of humility. Change requires that we reexamine what we have learned, what we think, what we believe, and leave behind those things which are false, shallow, inaccurate and sinful.
Vs. 5 – Jesus answered, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God."
Nicodemus humbles himself and Jesus gives him more information concerning this change. The change occurs not by being a Jew, a Pharisee or a teacher: you do not enter the kingdom this way. You enter the kingdom by water and the Spirit. In this short explanation Jesus gives Nicodemus two necessary insights:
- The power of regeneration (the One who makes the change happen) is the Holy Spirit of God.
- The place where this regeneration happens is not in your mother's womb but in the waters of baptism.
Nicodemus would have been familiar with these two concepts:
- As a scholar and Pharisee he knew and believed that the Spirit gave power to the judges, kings and prophets in order to transform their lives and service. "The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me…" (Isaiah 61:1)
- As a contemporary of Jesus, he also knew that John the Baptist as well as Jesus preached that all should repent and be baptized in order to prepare for the kingdom to come.
In His reply to Nicodemus' request for more information, Jesus simply puts these two ideas together for him. The message to the leader of the nation was no different than the message to the common people: repent and be baptized.
Vs. 6 – That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.
Jesus continues to repeat the idea that the power source for change (the change necessary to enter the kingdom) comes from God, not man. Whatever comes from the flesh cannot be transformed into something spiritual and vice versa, whatever comes from God is spiritual and remains that way. In other words, man cannot by himself change himself and avoid condemnation in this way. Only God can change man; 10,000 years of history prove this.
Vs. 7-8 – Do not be amazed that I said to you, 'You must be born again.' The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.
Nicodemus is amazed: that he needs to change (he thought he was okay); that he cannot do it himself (he thought he had achieved righteousness through the Law).
Jesus replies that not only is the Spirit doing the work, but you cannot see the Spirit working to effect this change in you, however the change is there nevertheless. He compares the work of the Spirit to the wind: you do not see the wind, just its effect on other things; you do not see the Spirit, but you see results: faith in Christ, love of others, hatred and remorse for sin (clearest sign).
Vs. 9 – Nicodemus said to Him, "How can these things be?"
Nicodemus asks, "How does the Spirit do this?" He wants more details; it is not enough that the Spirit does this, he wants to know how.
We do not hear from Nicodemus again until much later, but for now we see Jesus giving him more answers, more insights into the process of regeneration.
Vs. 10-11 – Jesus answered and said to him, "Are you the teacher of Israel and do not understand these things? Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know and testify of what we have seen, and you do not accept our testimony."
Jesus points out that it is not intelligence that is lacking, it is faith. Jesus tells him that what He is teaching him, He does so from personal knowledge and experience. Not like the Jewish rabbis who debated each other on the strength of what other rabbis wrote about the Law. His miracles were proof that what He said was indeed the truth.
The problem Nicodemus was facing was that he believed the miracles but was having trouble believing in the one who did the miracles, Jesus. Jesus brings Nicodemus to the core of his problem of not being able to perceive the truth: it began with his disbelief in Jesus. There is no understanding of spiritual things without first believing in Jesus.
Vs. 12-13 – If I told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven, but He who descended from heaven: the Son of Man.
The Lord explains to him the necessity of faith for understanding spiritual things: He says, "I am explaining things that I have actually seen and experienced (because I have seen them in heaven), and you do not believe Me." If you do not believe me concerning things which can be explained using earthly examples (waves, etc.) how will you ever understand when I speak to you of heavenly things, which I have seen, such as glorified bodies, angels, etc, for which there are no earthly equivalents; things that require faith to understand, not mere human intelligence?
Now in saying this Jesus gives Nicodemus a third piece of information: the fact that the power of the Spirit to change a person and thus save him is ignited by faith, not intelligence, position or power. Salvation is possible because there is a change, and change is possible because of faith.
In the last section of this passage Jesus reveals the last point upon which all the process of change, rebirth and regeneration rests: the only faith that will move the Spirit to change us is faith in Jesus Christ the Savior. To illustrate this Jesus uses a powerful image from the Old Testament.
Vs. 14-15 – As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life.
Jesus makes a parallel between this incident that happened while the Jews wandered in the desert with Moses, and His own death on the cross which was still in the future, and He shows how faith connects both events.
In Numbers 21:9, the Bible tells the story of the people rebelling against Moses and God while in the wilderness, and for which God sent poisonous snakes among them as punishment. Many were dying and so they went to Moses for help. He prayed to God and was told to fashion a bronze serpent and place it on a pole/standard, and that whoever looked at the serpent would be healed. All those who did this were healed.
Now the key element for Nicodemus to understand was that it was not the snake that saved people, or just looking at it, it was the faith they displayed in obeying God that healed them. The snake represented an offering for sin.
In the same way, the death of Christ on the cross (lifted up) by itself does not heal men of their sins, otherwise all people in the world would have their sins forgiven by this act. His offering in payment for sin, looked upon with faith by those infected by sin, moves God to forgive men and empower them through the Spirit to change and thereby save them.
Jesus puts all these ideas together in the 16th verse.
Vs. 16 – For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.
If you were the one who had gone instead of Nicodemus, here's what you would have learned:
No one goes to heaven unless a change takes place here on earth first.
We cannot enter into the presence of God unless we are changed from guilty to forgiven; disobedient to a willingness to obey; condemned to accepted as sons; spiritually dead to spiritually alive and fruitful.
If these changes have not occurred in your life, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven.
The change takes place in a particular way.
- It is powered by God. He is the power behind the change, not us.
- The change is based on faith in Christ, not intelligence, self-will, power or position. If you do not believe, there is no change.
- The change happens at baptism. Just as looking at the snake was an expression of faith ordained by God, baptism is now that perfect expression of faith that results in our forgiveness and reception of the Holy Spirit. (Acts 2:38)
Jesus Christ is at the center of this change.
The Spirit that changes us is sent by Him – Matthew 3:11.
It is not faith in general that saves or transforms; it is faith in Him that has the power to regenerate us. He is at the center of our faith – John 14:6.
When we are baptized we are reenacting His death, burial and resurrection. We are saying we believe in His death, burial and resurrection by going through a similar experience ourselves in the waters of baptism. It is the perfect expression because it is an expression of faith in Christ in particular.
Nicodemus' life changed after that night. You only see a few glimpses of him but enough to observe the transformation of faith in him:
In John 7:50 he defends Jesus to the Sanhedrin, not as a disciple, but as a point of Law. A timid defense but a beginning nevertheless.
After Jesus' death, he and Joseph of Arimathea bury the Lord's body. Again by night, again a timid gesture, but this time counting himself as a disciple.
Tradition, not the Bible, has it that he was finally put out of the Sanhedrin, baptized by Peter and John and, at his death, buried in a common grave with other Christians.
Let us hope that Nicodemus experienced the change he sought after when he came to Jesus on that dark night.
Let us also hope that our faith is changing us, not our circumstances, not our self-will, as we look to Jesus for rebirth and eternal life.