This passage of Scripture, John 3:1-21, is one of the most familiar, and also one of the most unusual conversations in the Bible. From the previous chapter we learned that the Lord Jesus had performed many miracles during the week of the Passover celebration. Many people were amazed when they witnessed Jesus’ miracles. He was told that many were believing in Him, but Jesus did not commit Himself to them because there was no genuine commitment on their part. However, in this passage of Scripture we find an exception. There is a person who earnestly wants to know more about Him.
I. AN INTRODUCTION TO NICODEMUS (verses 1)
Verse 1 says, “Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews.” We learn two important facts from this verse. Nicodemus was a Pharisee, meaning “separatist” or “separated one”, and the Pharisees were very strict about following the Law of Moses and the traditions. During the lifetime of Christ on earth, there were about 6000 Pharisees. I wondered, “What did a Pharisee look like?” “Did they wear distinctive clothing and wear their hair and beards a certain way to set themselves apart as “separatists”? The answer to those two questions is “yes” among those Pharisees who criticized Jesus, and He rebuked them because their motive was to be seen and acknowledged by others. Nicodemus, as we shall see, doesn’t appear to fit that description, and he may not be alone.
Nicodemus is also described as a “ruler”. This means that he was a member of the Sanhedrin, the supreme court of the Jews, composed of 70 members. The word Sanhedrin means “seated with” and refers to a person who sits with the council of elders. The Roman equivalent was the Senate. So Nicodemus was in a position of power and influence, as well as being a caretaker and administrator of God’s Law. One of his responsibilities as a member of the Sanhedrin was to keep the Jewish religion pure and undefiled by examining and dealing with false teachers and false prophets
II. THE UNANNOUNCED VISIT (verse 2)
Verse 2 begins with the words, “this man (Nicodemus) came to Him by night”. The sun had gone down, and the evening meal was probably finished at the place where Jesus was staying. An unexpected visitor was entering the courtyard hoping to talk to Jesus. He was, no doubt, dressed in the elegant garb of a Pharisee, and probably wearing a serious, puzzled look on his face, considering how he is going to begin the conversation as Jesus greets him. Verse 2 continues: “and he (Nicodemus) said to Him (Jesus). ‘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 by night, either so that he might not be seen by his companions, or because Jesus was surrounded by crowds during the day, or both. His desire is to have a quiet, uninterrupted conversation with Jesus. Nicodemus greets Jesus respectfully and begins the conversation with a confession, and seems to indicate that the religious leaders privately recognized that Jesus spoke with divine authority, even though they opposed Him publicly. He uses the word “we”, probably including the other 69 members of the Sanhedrin.
Nicodemus doesn’t know it yet, but he is going to learn much more from this conversation with Jesus than he could ever have imagined, and he’ll have many things to ponder when the conversation is over. Jesus is now going to take the lead in the conversation and is going to use four different illustrations: birth, the wind, the serpent on the pole, and light and darkness. These illustrations will be used by Jesus to instruct Nicodemus about the basics of salvation.
I. BIRTH (verses 3-7)
Jesus begins in verse 3 by saying, “Truly, truly, I say to you”. He’s telling Nicodemus that what He is about to tell him is a very important truth. Then He says, “unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” The Greek word “anothen” literally means “from above”, but can also be translated “again”. As we shall see from the context, Jesus meant “from above”. Unless this happens, you “cannot” see the kingdom of God because it is an impossibility. Commenting on these words of our Lord, preacher and evangelist Dwight L. Moody said: “You can see many countries, but there is one you shall never behold unless you are born again. You can look abroad and see many beautiful trees, but you shall never behold the ‘tree of life’ unless your eyes are made clear by faith in the Savior. You may see the beautiful rivers of the earth, but bear in mind that your eyes will never rest upon the river which bursts out from the Throne of God and flows through the Upper Kingdom, unless you are ‘born again.’ When you are in London you may go to the Tower and see the crown of England which is worth thousands of dollars, and is guarded by soldiers, but bear in mind that your eyes will never rest upon the ‘crown of life,’ unless you are ‘born again’. You may see ten thousand beautiful things in this world, but the city that Abraham caught a glimpse of – and from that time became a pilgrim seeking the Lord – you shall never see unless you are ‘born again.’ ”
Those are some sobering words from Jesus and from Mr. Moody. It must have been discouraging for Nicodemus to think that his strict observance of the laws and his position and responsibilities would not get him into the kingdom of God. Jesus’ words were puzzling to Nicodemus. He thought that Jesus was talking about physical birth, and couldn’t make any sense of that. He responds with these words: “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?” I am amazed by the composure of Nicodemus. Any other Pharisee would have become angry at Jesus and told Him that He was crazy. But out of respect for Jesus, and with a desire to know the truth, Nicodemus is trying to sort this out and make sense of it. Have you ever used the following phrase in a conversation: “This may sound stupid but I’ve got to ask . . . “? You took the risk of having the other person in the conversation be angry or impatient with you for having to take the time to give you an explanation because you just had to understand what that person was saying. That’s especially hard to do with someone you don’t even know, isn’t it!? You’re wondering whether the person is going to stare at you, take a deep breath, exhale loudly, and then drone on like a father explaining something to his child for the umpteenth time! But Nicodemus overcomes his pride and humbly asks that question anyway. Bravo!
William Barclay, in his commentary on the Gospel of John, has given me a new perspective on those words spoken by Nicodemus. Barclay puts himself in the sandals of Nicodemus and then explains his dilemma: “I know that it is necessary (to be born anew), but in my experience it is impossible. There is nothing I would like more; but you might as well tell me, a full-grown man, to enter into my mother’s womb again and be born all over again.” It is not the desirability of this change that Nicodemus questioned; that he knew only too well. it is the possibility. Nicodemus is up against the eternal problem, the problem of a man who wants to be changed but who cannot change himself.”
Jesus responds by giving Nicodemus another important statement which adds some clarity to His first statement. He says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” I personally get the impression that Jesus is welcoming the question of Nicodemus, so that He can provide more information for Nicodemus to remember and consider. I also think that the Lord Jesus is testing his attitude. If Nicodemus is truly a “learner” then he will keep asking and keep seeking.
The Lord Jesus is not talking about baptism when He says “born of water and the Spirit”. Baptism is a symbol of death, not birth. As the apostle Paul says in Romans 6:4 and Colossians 2:12 “buried with Him in baptism”. Jesus is telling Nicodemus that he has the wrong perspective. He is focusing on the physical and material, but Jesus is talking about the spiritual. You not only have to be born physically, you must also be born spiritually. Every year we celebrate a birthday. For some of us there are too many candles to put on the cake! But it’s actually not a birthday, it’s the anniversary of our birthday. We are only born once physically, at a specific place and time. The same is true spiritually. We can only be born once spiritually, and it is at a specific place and time. We may not be able to remember the specific time and place, but God does, and the resulting change in our lives is evidence to us and those around us.
Jesus continues in verse 6, “That which is born of flesh is flesh, and that which is born of Spirit is Spirit.” The two events are not related. What Jesus is saying is, “Nicodemus, you’ve been born physically but you haven’t been born spiritually yet.” Nicodemus must have been thinking, “I’m a Jew, one of God’s chosen people; I’m a Pharisee, a strict observer of the Law and Traditions; and I’m a ‘ruler’ of the Jews; how much more ‘spiritual’ can you get?” Jesus took notice of the fact that the eyes of Nicodemus widened in astonishment, and his jaw dropped in surprise and bewilderment, because He says in verse 7, “Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ It’s a mystery. Evangelist Billy Graham uses an illustration from his past to convey the problem and how it must be resolved.
“I was born and reared on a dairy farm. How can a black cow eat green grass and produce white milk and yellow butter? I don’t understand that. I might say, ‘because I don’t understand it, I’m never going to drink milk again’. And you’d say, ‘You’re crazy.’ — I don’t understand it but I accept it by faith. Nicodemus could only see the physical and material, but Jesus was talking about the spiritual.” In Part II of this conversation, we will see how Jesus uses an illustration from nature to help Nicodemus better understand what He is saying.
LESSONS TO BE LEARNED:+
The example of Nicodemus provides some lessons for us to learn. By coming to meet with Jesus, he probably did what no other Pharisee or member of the Sanhedrin would ever do. I’m sure he fought off many excuses that came to his mind – excuses similar to the ones given by those who don’t go to church. For example, the excuse: “people will judge me”. There’s no doubt that he could have used that excuse because it’s true. His colleges would definitely not approve. How about this excuse: “I don’t have the right clothes to wear.” Nicodemus was wealthy and dressed that way. He probably didn’t have any “poor people’s clothes” around his house. He wouldn’t want to embarrass Jesus by “out-dressing” Him and making Him feel even poorer. Do you see what I mean? There are always excuses to be found for not doing the right thing. One of the unmentioned excuses that Jesus addresses is “I’m already good enough”. What excuses do we use for not wanting to know the truth, or not wanting to see ourselves as we really are? Nicodemus is an example to us of one who considers the knowledge and application of God’s truth to be more important than his personal reputation.
There are lessons to be learned from Jesus so far in this conversation also. The Lord Jesus demonstrates in these first seven verses that He is not in a hurry to convince Nicodemus of the truth of His words. He realizes that many people aren’t “born from above” overnight. His words are not easy to understand because He is talking about the mystery of salvation. The Lord Jesus demonstrates his concern and kindness by not applying any pressure. Instead He offers illustrations from life and from nature, giving Nicodemus time to think it over and respond. He’s providing a comfortable and caring environment for open conversation. It is a lesson for us that it is not the method of proclamation that brings souls to Christ. Though methods can be useful; it is the Word of God, empowered by the Spirit of God that causes change. This occurs according to God’s timing as we build relationships and let the light of Christ shine through us.
This work-in-progress is finished for now. I may do some detailing later. John 3:1-21, which was originally intended to be a “house”, is now turning into a “condominium”! There is going to be a Part II, and maybe even a Part III and Part IV. Much to be learned from this conversation! Thanks for visiting. There are 99 completed sites on this blog. Hope you’ll take a look around the block and see if there is something that interests you. I also hope that your life is still under construction and that God is your Master Builder.