Jesus and Nicodemus, John 3:1—21

Chapter divisions are not part of the inspired text and they are sometimes inserted at awkward moments.  This is the case with chapter 3.  John wrote that Jesus “knew what was in man” in 2:25, and in the original language, without any artificial chapter break, he went on to write about a man, Nicodemus, a man whom Jesus knew well.  He may not have known the Pharisee personally, but He knew what was in Nicodemus’ heart.  Nicodemus, then, is given by John as a prime example of an individual in whom Jesus had perfect insight.  This whole exchange shows that Jesus had a thorough understanding of human nature; He could read people like no other man ever could.

Now while he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Festival, many people saw the signs he was performing and believed in his name.  But Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all people.  He did not need human testimony about them, for he knew what was in them.  John 2:23—25)

This group of verses is like a prelude that introduces three interviews Jesus had with three disparate kinds of people:  Nicodemus, a Pharisee; a Samaritan woman; and a royal official at Cana.

1.  Nicodemus, verses 1, 2

Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council.  He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”

Nicodemus is introduced to us as a man of the upper class, very conservative in his religious beliefs and not at all hostile toward Jesus’ teachings.  He was a Pharisee, a very strict religious sect of Judaism in contrast to the other major religious sect, the Sadduccess, who were less strict in their views and very politically active.  He was also part of the “Jewish ruling council,” which meant that Nicodemus was keenly aware of the doctrinal trends of his day as well as the spiritual needs of his people.

The Pharisees were right on many points of doctrine—the understanding of God’s will, the moral accountability of man, and the immortality of the soul, the resurrection of the dead, the existence of angles and demons, rewards and punishments in the future life, for example.  They also produced some of the most renown theologians of all time—Gamaliel, Paul, and Josephus.  Their one overriding error was that they externalized their faith; the Pharisees had reduced their magnificent faith to a litany of complicated rules and regulations.

His interest in Jesus had been piqued by our Lord’s miracles, and so he came personally to talk to Jesus about them.  The name “Nicodemus” means “victor over the people,” and although it is a Greek name, he was probably not a Greek.

Nicodemus came to Jesus “at night.”  Scholars love to read all kinds of meaning into the fact that this religious leader came to Jesus under the cover of darkness.   In all probability, Nicodemus came at night because he wanted the most privacy possible while he and Jesus talked.

2.  Jesus opening statement, verse 3

Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born again.”

Nicodemus had not asked a question, yet Jesus gives him an answer to a question that was buried deep in the Pharisee’s heart.   Verse three is yet another one of Jesus’ many mashals that must have sounded like a riddle to Nicodemus.  According to Jesus, no human being could “see,” let alone “live in” the kingdom of God without being “born again.”  The Greek word translated “again” can also be translated “born from above.”  The metaphor Jesus used was brilliant.  Birth is how we human beings enter our world, and at our human birth we receive all the “equipment” needed to live in this world.  But the Kingdom of God is not of this world; to be part God’s Kingdom requires different “equipment,” so one must be born all over again, this time into the Kingdom of God.

3.  Explaining the unexplainable,  verses 4—8

“How can anyone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”

Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit.  Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.  You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’  The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”

By his answer, Nicodemus revealed that the meaning of the mashal had completely escaped him.  Most of us read verse 4 and assume Nicodemus was telling Jesus that he was an old man.  However, what Jesus said would apply to a person of any age, so to illustrate the absurdity of what Jesus had just said, Nicodemus states the most extreme case he can think of:  how can an “old man” be born when he is old?

Jesus’ answer has sparked some debate.  Why did Jesus shift from the necessity being “born again” to “being born of water and of the Spirit?”  In John’s Gospel, “water” is almost always seen as a symbol of the Law—the old order—with its emphasis on rituals like baptisms, purifications and cleansings (see 1:33; 2:6, 7; 4:6, 7; 5:2, 3; 7:38, 39).  As we read Jesus’ response to the Pharisee, we need to remember that Jesus did not come to destroy the Law but to fulfill it.  In each of the examples given, the old order represented by water was not destroyed.  For example, Jesus did not destroy the six stone water pots, He filled them with wine, representative of the new order He Himself had inaugurated.  The pots had been more or less “born again.”  In speaking to a “teacher of the Law,” it was as if Jesus had said:  being “born again” will make you even better than you already are.

The problem with the “old order” is that it could only reproduce itself.  A Pharisee’s teaching, for example, could only reproduce other versions of himself.  A human being could only produce another human being.  Sin begets sin; therefore a sinner can only bring another sinner into the world.   What Nicodemus wanted—entrance into the Kingdom of Heaven—could not be achieved with human means, like rules and regulations.  It requires a change on the inside.  Becoming a citizen of the Kingdom of God can only occur by a direct act of God, not by the outward behavior of those desiring it.

That this is hard to understand is underscored by the fact that Jesus mentions “the wind.”  It is impossible for a human being to track the wind, even though he can see what it does.  So it is with God and the new birth.   One may not completely understand it, but one can witness the change wrought in another’s life, it becomes obvious God has been at work.  The evidence of a changed life proves that the new birth has taken place.

4.  Expanding on the truth, verses 10—15

“You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things?  Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony.  I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things?  No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man.  Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”

Verse 9 indicates that Nicodemus still did not understand what Jesus was patiently explaining.  Three times Jesus spoke of being “born again” (verses 3, 5, and 7), giving illustrations and yet the spiritual truth was not discerned by the Pharisee.  What is especially disturbing about verse 9 is that Nicodemus represented the very best in Judaism; if he could not wrap his highly educated mind around the Gospel, how could any other Jew?  This speaks to the spiritual deadness, darkness, and ignorance that characterized the old order of Jesus’s day and the humanistic, secular order of today.  It was to this order, as well as to Nicodemus, that Jesus came to give live (10:10).

Jesus’ use of “we” is unusual.  Some think He was referring to the disciples, although I think at this very early stage of His ministry, it is not likely He would refer to them.  Jesus certainly spoke with authority, but it was an inherent authority, not an authority derived from His station or rank in life.  Jesus’ authority descended from Heaven; He was the earthly representative of the Godhead, therefore the “we” could refer to the Trinity.  Another line of thought is that Jesus is linking Himself to the long line of prophets who, throughout the centuries, had preached God’s Word to the people, who continually rejected it.  In other words, the message of Jesus—being born again—was not really a new message at all!  It had been declared and rejected in the history of Israel.  As a teacher, Nicodemus should have understood.

The “earthly things” Jesus referenced were probably His illustrations, like the wind.  If Nicodemus could not grasp the meaning of deep spiritual truths when Jesus taught them using elements of this world, there was no way he would understand them if Jesus attempted to explain them as they really were in concrete terms!  Jesus was and remains the only one who has ever experienced the wonder of heaven directly; He was the only truly qualified to speak of spiritual truths.  Revelation—the Word of God—is the only basis for faith, not education or discovery.

Verses 14 and 15 seem out of place, yet they are at the very heart of God’s redemptive plan which Jesus is attempting to explain to Nicodemus.  By taking this Pharisee back to the Pentateuch, Scriptures he knew very well, Jesus was saying in a roundabout way that what He was teaching was nothing new, but as old as Judaism itself.   The plan of redemption had been revealed in type throughout the Old Testament dispensation; particularly the type of the serpent raised as a standard by Moses for all the people to see.

The story Jesus is referring to is in Numbers 21 and that chapter actually is the key to the interpretation of entire book of Numbers.   Although we wish Jesus had explained this in greater detail, Nicodemus probably had an understanding we don’t have.  There are several applications, however, we can glean:

  • The ancient Israelites were guilty of extreme disobedience.  They grumbled and complained continuously and had a thoroughly thankless spirit.
  • They were under the condemnation of God and were being punished for their sin.
  • The snake raised before them was an emblem and reminder of that judgment.
  • They were unable to rescue themselves.
  • The poison of the snake was deadly and there was no antidote for it.
  • Moses urged the people to look at the snake in order to receive life.

Jesus hinted to Nicodemus that He, just like the serpent, would be “lifted up.”  Of course He was referring to His crucifixion; the word translated “lifted up” is elsewhere translated in that way.

Even though Jesus used the snake in the wilderness as a type of Himself, He, being the Antitype, though similar, is very different.

  • In Numbers, the people were faced with physical death, in John man is viewed as spiritually dead in sin.
  • In Numbers, the brazen serpent had no power to heal; in John Christ has this power.
  • In Numbers, physical healing is emphasized:  when the people looked to the brazen serpent, their health would be restored.  In John it is not physical healing but spiritual life that is emphasized—it is given to those who place their faith and trust in Christ.

The lifting up of Christ was never an option.   His crucifixion is not a remedy; it is the only possible remedy for man’s sinful condition.  And though Christ is lifted up in the sight of all, He does not save all.  Only those who believe in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

The brazen serpent, another reference to the old way, once again shows the superiority of  Christ.  That serpent was not real; it had no power in itself; it was just piece of brass.  But through faith in Jesus Christ, the New Way, believers gain eternal life.

(c)  2010 WitzEnd

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