Nicodemus ( John 3:1-21 ) is one of my favorite people in the Bible because he seems to be sincere in his search for the truth. In the face of a growing resistance among the Pharisees to Jesus and his message, Nicodemus goes to Jesus at night so they can talk privately.
Nicodemus was a Pharisee’s Pharisee. We know that Nicodemus was a leader of the Jews, a teacher of Israel (as Jesus called him), and that he lived and taught in the temple at Jerusalem. He had a reputation to uphold, but he took the trouble and the risk to go see Jesus personally and search out things for himself.
I wonder sometimes if Nicodemus was one of the teachers of the Law present when Jesus was twelve and “got lost” at the temple, when Jesus stunned those same teachers with his understanding of the Scriptures. I wonder if Nicodemus went out to listen to John the Baptist in the wilderness, or if he sent out his own disciples to ask John about his mission. Or, perhaps he was present when John chastised the Pharisees and the Sadducees as a “brood of vipers” and urged them to repent.
From the conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus, it seems obvious that Nicodemus witnessed Jesus working miracles. Maybe he even saw Jesus drive the animal traders and money changers from the temple courts during the Passover before their discussion.
Another thing I like about Nicodemus is his reverence for Jesus. “Rabbi”, said the rabbi. The teacher of Israel named Jesus as his teacher. “…we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” Some Jewish leaders went so far as to suggest that Jesus got his powers from Satan, but Nicodemus was honest enough to acknowledge the work of God when he saw it in action.
Don’t Focus on the Miracles; Focus on the Message
The sincerity, reverence, and honesty of Nicodemus were commendable, but notice that they weren’t enough for Jesus. “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” In other words Nicodemus, you need to get a new life from God.
Nicodemus was ready for an academic discussion, the kind of discussion at which the Pharisees excelled. “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?”
Nicodemus wasn’t ready to accept that his entire way of life needed to change along with his understanding of spiritual matters. Jesus didn’t let Nicodemus sink into semantics, sarcasm, or splitting hairs. Instead, Jesus challenged him to step outside of the physical realm of law keeping and think about things from a spiritual perspective. “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus was used to rituals involving water. Ceremonial cleansing was a way of life, particularly for the Pharisees who upheld all the written Law of Moses and all the oral traditions, too.
Don’t Focus on the Physical Rites; Focus on the Spirit’s Work
Jesus continued well beyond Nicodemus’ comfort zone, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
Flesh can only bear flesh. We all know that it’s true in the physical world; a mother gives birth to her young accompanied by a gush of water, but without breath, there is no life. Spiritual birth requires the action of the Spirit of God breathing life into us, unseen by our eyes, just as the wind acts without being visible.
Nicodemus believed in keeping the law in order to obtain salvation: performing the physical rites, keeping the Sabbath, and making sacrifices; however, Jesus knew that Nicodemus didn’t see the spiritual side of those acts. The law had no meaning apart from the work of God’s Spirit, and more than that, Jesus was pointing out that observing the law was about to pass into history.
“How can these things be?” Nicodemus asked.
Jesus acknowledged that they were at an impasse if Nicodemus was having trouble with the concept of God’s Spirit giving new life. “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?” According to a couple of sources I read, the teachers of the Law even used the term “rebirth” for the proselytes to Judaism. You teach it, Nicodemus, and you still don’t understand? The Pharisees had, as far as we can tell, rejected the baptism of John for repentance, yet even Jesus and his disciples submitted to it as a preparation for the new covenant between God and man.
“Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you [the Pharisees] do not receive our testimony. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man…”
If you don’t get this (about rebirth), how will you get the hard part about my death and the necessity of believing in me?
Jesus tried again to connect with Nicodemus by tying his eventual destination (the cross) to a story Nicodemus knew well, the strange story of Moses in the wilderness lifting the bronze serpent up to save any who would look upon it. “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” From there, Jesus goes on to detail why he was sent and how belief in him is essential to eternal life.
I’m pretty sure that Nicodemus went away that night in a confused state of mind. However, and this is the important part, John tells us two more stories that involve Nicodemus:
Nicodemus standing up in the Council John 7:40-52
Nicodemus taking Jesus off the Cross John 19:38-42
Maybe it’s just me reading between the lines, but it seems to me that Nicodemus grew bolder as time went by, and perhaps he finally understood his late night conversation with Jesus after Jesus was “lifted up”. Regardless of what Nicodemus did or did not understand, we need to understand that the Spirit is at work to give us a new life. We also need to accept the words of Jesus that “….unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”
For more about Water and Spirit, check out:
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