Nicodemus' Night To Remember
An Up Close And Personal Conversation With Christ
As I was watching a television talk show and I came across a very interesting question. During the interview, the host asked her guest, “If you were asked to choose to talk with any person in the past, who would it be?” Based on the ‘general consensus,’ it’s noted that almost everyone says either Jesus Christ with the choice of Albert Einstein following a far second. Our passage in John 2:23-3:16, recounts the story of a prominent individual who got that golden opportunity to visit Jesus one night and carry on a conversation with him ‘up close and personal.’ Perhaps out of curiosity, and possibly out of conviction, but certainly led by God, the visitor came to Jesus. John 2:23b reminds us, “many believed in his name because they saw the signs that he was doing.” For this very reason, this individual, who ‘saw the signs,’ was counted as one of the ‘many’ who believed in Jesus’ name. Seeking an audience with Jesus, he comes to him by night, a night he will remember for the rest of his life. In this study we will ask three questions: First, who was this nighttime visitor, second, why must we be born from above, and third, how did this Jewish leader respond?
Who Was This Nighttime Visitor?
Why Nicodemus came to Jesus “by night” (2:2) is uncertain. The best clue lies in the author’s use of ‘night’ elsewhere in this gospel. In verses 3:2; 9:4; 11:10; or 13:30, the word is either used as a literary symbol for moral and spiritual darkness.[i] Carson notes, “Nicodemus approached Jesus at night, but his own ‘night’ was blacker than he knew.”[ii] Who was this nighttime visitor? Who was this prominent individual? Who was Nicodemus? The answer to these questions is found in John 3:1,10.
First, we understand in verse 1 that he is “a Pharisee.” Who were the Pharisees? The Pharisees, pharisaios, from an Aramaic word peras, signified “to separate.”[iii] In Jesus’ day, they were the most respected and influential religious group in Judaism. They were a committed fellowship of “separated ones” determined to follow, to the letter, everything that was required of the Mosaic Law. Nicodemus belonged to this closely organized order that was very loyal to the party and to each other, yet separate from others, even their own people. So Nicodemus was a very well respected and influential religious man.
Second, we gather that he was “a leader of the Jews.” In the NIV translation he is identified as “a member of the Jewish ruling council.” The name of this council was the Sanhedrin, the highest Jewish tribunal during the Greek and Roman periods.[iv] The council was always composed of the highest social class of nobility especially belonging to wealthy families. During the Roman period the internal government of the country was practically in this ruling body’s hands.[v] So Nicodemus was a prominent national leader, of noble decent, and born into a wealthy family.
Third, Jesus in verse 10 reminds Nicodemus that he is “a teacher of Israel.” The teachers of Israel, otherwise known as “teachers of the law” or simply “scribes,” were frequently mentioned in connection to the Pharisees, with whom they formed one party. The two groups were clearly distinguished in that the scribes were ‘the theologians’ and the Pharisees were ‘the men of practice.’[vi] The scribes would study the law of God all their lives while the Pharisees would apply the law of God in their lives. It was apparent that Nicodemus exercised the best of both worlds. He, therefore, was a highly intellectual man who taught as well as wielded great religious authority concerning matters of the law, tradition, and salvation.
Fourth, he comes to Jesus and addresses him as “rabbi,” and confirms that “we,” speaking not for himself but in behalf of at least some of the Pharisees or members of the Jewish ruling council, are in agreement that he is “a teacher who has come from God” (3:2). This they attest to due to the fact that the signs they have seen Jesus perform cannot be done “apart from the presence of God” (2:2b). So Nicodemus is the designated secret spokesman of his religious group, but is somewhat hiding behind the robes of his colleagues with the usage of the pronoun “we.”[vii]
Under the cover of darkness, this well respected and influential religious man, this prominent national leader of noble decent and inherited wealth, this intellectual man who wielded great religious authority, this designated secret spokesman who represented some of his colleagues from the Jewish ruling council, stands before Jesus. He does not admit that Jesus is neither a prophet nor the Messiah who has come from God, but simply a teacher who is supernaturally endowed with God’s power.[viii] Nicodemus was openly curious about Jesus, but still in short supply of the faith necessary in believing and confessing that he is the Christ, the promised one of God.[ix] So here stood Nicodemus, a most gifted individual with impeccable credentials among his peers and an outstanding stature among his people, before this young, relatively unknown rabbi. What does Jesus tells him? He didn’t mince words, but went straight to the jugular. Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above” (2:3).
Why Must One Be Born From Above?
From one teacher to another, Jesus cuts to the chase and answers Nicodemus according to what he knew to be in his heart. John reveals Jesus as the Word of God (Jn 1:1). Hebrews 4:12 says, “Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” Jesus had the market cornered when it came to knowing what was in one’s heart. Nicodemus was no exception. For he had not yet asked anything of the young rabbi like, “Who are you, then? We know you are a teacher from God, but are you much more? Are you a prophet? Are you the Messiah?” And Jesus tells his visitor what he needs to know. “Nicodemus,” Jesus says, “I’m not going to pull the wool over your eyes. In this instance, you come to me as a seeker of the truth. You happen to be the exception to the rule and I’m going to entrust myself to you this one time. In order to ‘see’ and ‘enter’ the kingdom of God (3:3, 5), the bottom line is, ‘You must be born from above’” (3:7).
Listen to the response of Nicodemus and the explanation of Jesus in verses 4-5: “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” Whatdid Jesus mean when he said that one couldn’t gain entry into the kingdom of God ‘without being born of water and Spirit?’ In order to grasp the meaning of the two symbols of water and Spirit, we must be mindful that John, the author of this story, sends us back to the beginning of all things in 1:1-5: “In the beginning was the Word [Jesus], and the Word [Jesus] was with God. He [Jesus] was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him [Jesus], and without him [Jesus] not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him [Jesus] was life, and the life was the light of the people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it (‘Jesus’ added, mine).” John confronts his readers with a strange new Genesis.[x] Whatever else his story is about, it is stretched back to the beginning of all creation and is to be interpreted in that light.[xi] The language that John uses is in light of a new creation coming in and through the Word, Jesus Christ.
Nicodemus’ initial thought was that it would be impossible for one to be ‘born again’ through a second physical birth. How can one crawl back into the mother’s womb in order to be born? So Jesus sheds much needed light in his darkness of understanding the following three questions, namely, “How should the kingdom of God be perceived, why was being born from above necessary to enter the kingdom, and what was the water and Spirit in reference to?”
Kingdom of God. First, how should the ‘kingdom of God’ be perceived? Morris notes, “Most modern students hold that the term “kingdom” is to be understood in a dynamic sense; it means “reign” rather than “realm.”[xii] Jeremias points out “the reign of God always stands for government, authority, and power of the King. It does not refer to a territory in a spatial sense. The kingdom does not stand on a piece of ground—it is always in the processes of being achieved.”[xiii] We can ‘see’ the kingdom of God present before us, when we see people submit their wills to his rule. We can ‘enter’ the kingdom of God when we submit to his reign over our lives as well.
Born from Above. Second, why was being ‘born from above’ necessary to enter the kingdom of God? Jesus is stressing the truth that without this ‘born from above’ experience we cannot enter into or submit to God’s kingdom rule in our lives. Human heresy has it that humankind can gain access into the kingdom of God by our own efforts or merits. Human beings are still in darkness if they think that entrance into God’s kingdom is through their good works on earth rather than God’s divine action from heaven (cf. Eph 2:8-9). Jesus is saying to Nicodemus that it is impossible for him to submit to God’s heavenly rule through his impeccable credentials or outstanding stature on earth.
Water and Spirit. Third, what was the ‘water and Spirit’ in reference to? Granted, there are several possible schools of interpretations to the meaning of water and Spirit, I am submitting the one I feel is closest to the context of John’s story. As ‘a teacher of Israel,’ Jesus referred Nicodemus to the kind of symbolism in the Old Testament that he would be familiar with. If he thought it impossible for one to experience being born again, becoming a new creation, he needed to be reminded that God had promised to do this very thing for his people Israel according to the prophet Ezekiel in 36:25-27: “I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances”(cf. Ezek 37:1-14, The Valley of Dry Bones).
The kingdom of God comes upon a person, not by what he or she does, but what God alone can only do. It is God who will cleanse us with water and give us a new heart and a new spirit. Our hearts of stone is lifeless and beyond revival. We cannot repair the sinful condition of our ailing hearts by performing a triple, quadruple or sextuple surgical by-pass. Nor can we cry out, “Stand clear!” and apply an ‘electrical shock treatment’ to start our heart. The moment we are born on earth, we are all tagged with the initials S.D.O.A. (Spiritually Dead-On-Arrival). Human beings are in dire need of a spiritual heart transplant: the removal of our old heart of stone in exchange for a new heart of flesh—or a heart that is spiritually alive to God. Only through the hands of a Divine Surgeon can we experience ‘being born again into his kingdom’ and living out God’s kingdom rule from within our new, God-given hearts. Apart from God’s cleansing work and gifting grace, we are Spiritually Dead-On-Arrival, beyond revival or repair, and just plain lifeless and powerless (cf. Rom 3:10, 23; 5:12; 6:23).
How Did This Jewish Leader Respond?
Jesus said, “What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit” (3:6). The flesh can never evolve to the Spirit. That which comes from the earth is earthy, that which comes from heaven is heavenly. The two are diametrically opposed to each other. Like oil and vinegar, the flesh and the spirit don’t mix. There is no other way to enter the kingdom of God except through the miracle of spiritual rebirth. Jesus is saying to Nicodemus, “Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above’” (3:7). “Hey Nic,” he is saying, “Don’t look surprised or shocked at what I have just told you. Remember that you are a teacher of Israel and have studied the Old Testament scriptures (cf. Jer 32:40). How can you say that you knew nothing of the spiritual rebirth promised by God through Moses and the prophets?”[xiv]
The folk-rock, singer-songwriter, Bob Dylan may have unknowingly ‘scratched the surface’ as to how this change was to come about. He sang, “The answer my friend, is blowin’ in the wind, the answer is blowin’ in the wind.” Jesus said, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (3:8). God’s work, like the wind, is a reality wrapped in a mystery. The wind is invisible. We can’t ‘see’ it but we can feel it. When it blows against our faces in a light breeze, we know its there. When it catches a sail sending the ship across the sea, we know its there. When it turns into a tempest to destroy everything in its path, we know its there. We cannot show anyone physical proof that the wind exists, apart from experiencing the effects of its awesome power.
Albert Einstein, the world-renown mathematical genius of the twentieth century, said shortly before he died, “I feel like a man chained. I get a glimpse of reality and then it flees. If only I could be free from the shackles of my intellectual smallness, then I could understand the universe in which I live.” Ironically, Einstein, an influential Jew, echoes the same sentiment of another influential leader and teacher of the Jews in a past generation. After getting a fleeting glimpse of spiritual reality from Jesus, Nicodemus’ intellectual and spiritual understanding is shattered. He cries out to Jesus in the dark, “How could these things be?” (3:9). In order for Nicodemus to believe the heavenly things concerning Jesus, he first had to get a grip on the earthly things about him? In fact, Jesus allows him a sneak preview of the seventh and final sign that he will witness on earth: “And just 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” (3:14-15). What on earth is that sign all about? In Numbers chapter 24 the people of Israel sinned by grumbling against the Lord. In their rebellion, God sends a plague of poisonous serpents, and the people are dying from their venomous bites. So God commands Moses to make a bronze serpent and put it on a pole. Anyone who would draw near and look at the bronze serpent experienced immediate healing. John uses this strange story and brings it to life through its vivid meaning.[xv] As Jesus is lifted up on the cross, anyone who was bitten of Satan’s venomous sinful bite, may draw near, look at him, receive healing from certain death, and experience a newness of life.[xvi]
What about you? What is your world like? And what are the earthly signs that God’s Spirit is showing you along the way? Do you feel empty, dissatisfied, and unfulfilled asking yourselves, “I am there yet?” Do you find yourself stuck under a spectacular sign by the roadside asking, “Is this all there is?” Do sense a spiritual hunger within you begging for more and asking alongside Nicodemus, “How could these things be?”
Are the winds of change, the Spirit of God, blowing before you today? You can’t see it but you can feel it—you know that the Spirit’s here. You have sensed this experience in the past yet you hesitated and it escaped you. Remember that Jesus said the Spirit, like the wind, blows where it chooses and it is humanly possible to hear or sense its presence in your life for a brief, fleeting moment. Could it be that the Spirit of God is blowing your way this very evening as it was during Nicodemus’ personal encounter with Jesus? Could it be that though you sense the Spirit’s presence on the outside, he desires to fill you from within? How is the Spirit of God speaking to you right now? Do you long to arrive at this earthly sign’s divine destination? Is it your heart’s desire to receive the Spirit, to see the kingdom of God, and enter into the ‘born from above’ experience making Jesus’ presence a reality in your life right now? Admit that you’re a sinner, and like Nicodemus, no amount of human credentials, religious achievements or good works done on earth can save your soul. Repentance means turning 180 degrees from a life centered around one’s own kingdom, stepping down from the throne of your heart by relinquishing it to its rightful ruler, and asking Jesus Christ, the Son of God, to sit in your stead to be your Lord and Savior.
How about those of us who have already received the Spirit through a ‘born again’ experience? Knowing that he is God’s change agent, do you suppose he is causing you to re-direct your life under his kingdom rule at this time? Are there definite signs, in the last couple of weeks or so, that the Spirit of God is evidently working and making himself known in your life? Could it be that as you are reflecting back on one specific instance where you believe God’s Spirit has been leading you, be it a major decision you have to make, an impossible situation you have to scale or a radical change you have to experience, he is asking you to bend your will and yield your life over to him?
John 1:10-13 reminds us, “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God” “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (Jn 3:16).
[i] D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991), 186.
[iii] W. E. Vine, Merrill F. Unger, William White, Jr., Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1984), 470.
[iv] J. D. Douglas, Rev. Ed. and Merrill C. Tenney, Gen. Ed., The New International Dictionary of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1987), 895.
[vi] Joachim Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1969), 253. According to Jeremias, Matthew and Luke very often lump ‘the scribes and the Pharisees’ as a frequent form of expression. Contra wise, Mark and John do not know it. Jeremias cites the disastrous effects that Matthew raises by uniting the two groups, while Luke clearly makes a clear distinction between these groups to guard against wrong conclusions (see 252-54).
[vii] Carson, 187.
[x] N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 411.
[xii] Morris, The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Gospel of John, Rev. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995), 189.
[xiii] Joachim Jeremias, New Testament Theology (New York: Charles Scribners Sons, 1971), 97. The author points out that the terms “kingdom of God” and “kingdom of heaven” have an identical meaning.
[xiv] Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Peter H. Davids, F. F. Bruce, Manfred T. Brauch, Hard Sayings of the Bible (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 495. It is observed that Jesus certainly knew that Nicodemus was quite knowledgeable about the Old Testament. Thus the image of the cleansing water and the giving of God’s Spirit found in Ezekiel 36:25-27 would be the most likely interpretation for the symbols in question.
[xv] N. T. Wright, Following Jesus: Biblical Reflections on Discipleship (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1994), 35-37.
[xvi] F. F. Bruce, The Gospel of John (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1983), 88-89. Bruce reminds us that there is no healing virtue in the bronze serpent in the wilderness. In itself it was a mere nehushtan, a piece of bronze metal; when in later days people paid homage to it as though it had some inherent sanctity or power. Bruce says “It was the saving grace of God that healed the bitten Israelites when they believed his word and obeyed his command. It’s interesting to note that the Israelites looked up at the pole of the bronze serpent and received a divine antidote that prolonged their mortal lives. On the other hand, when a sinner looks up to the cross of Christ he or she receives forgiveness and eternal life.
© 2009, Gicky Soriano. All rights reserved.
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