The last three verses of John’s Gospel chapter 2 set the background to the account in chapter 3 of Christ’s meeting and discussion with Nicodemus. Nicodemus, a leading religious figure of his day, would have heard about Christ’s miracles in Galilee and that He had driven from what they considered to be God’s house, the temple, those who engaged in commerce there. He would have listened as Christ taught the people in Jerusalem, heard His claim to be the Messiah and learned something of the kingdom He had come to establish. These things were of great interest to Nicodemus as a religious Jew. His greatest desire would be to become a member of God’s kingdom and his whole life would be given to achieving this through keeping the law and its overlay of tradition.
Some translations link the closing verses of chapter 2 to chapter 3 with a conjunction. Young, Young’s Literal Translation, uses the word, ‘But’, and Darby, New Translation, the word, ‘And’. In this way Nicodemus is presented as an outstanding example of humanity. The Lord Jesus carefully explains to him that none, religious Jew or indifferent Gentile, can enter into God’s kingdom on personal merit.
There are two further references to Nicodemus in John’s Gospel and in both it is recalled that he came to the Lord Jesus at night. Much has been said and written about this, but the reason may be less complicated than is sometimes suggested. Could it simply have been that he was deeply troubled? Did the things he had seen and heard in Jerusalem trouble him so much that he needed to discuss them urgently with the One whose words had given rise to these concerns? He could not rest in his bed that night.
The chapter reveals much about Nicodemus. He was a member of the main religious group of the day. He was a Pharisee. Pharisees believed that the greatest of all blessings was to be born a Jew. They taught that all Jews had a right to blessing in God’s kingdom and that Abraham their father guarded the entrance to Gehenna to keep them from judgement. Nicodemus was a ‘ruler of the Jews’, 3. 1, and so was a member of the Sanhedrin, the highest Jewish council of the day. Young translates the phrase in verse 10 as ‘the teacher of Israel’, which shows Nicodemus to be head of one of the rabbinical schools in Jerusalem and, as such, on a par with the apostle Paul’s esteemed tutor, Gamaliel.
Nicodemus states his reasons for seeking out the Lord Jesus, ‘We know that thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him’, v. 2. The matters that troubled him most lay behind the words he spoke and it was these that the Lord Jesus addresses in His reply, ‘Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God’, v. 3.
The Lord would not have spoken to a troubled Nicodemus in terms he did not understand. ‘New birth’ or to be ‘born again’ were expressions familiar to Nicodemus. He understood them to relate to any entry into a new phase of life or to the formation of a new association. He could, therefore, in his terms, truthfully say he had already known new birth and would quote as examples his ordination as a Pharisee, his appointments to the Sanhedrin and as head of a rabbinical school, or even his marriage.
This explains his puzzled and perhaps impatient reply, ‘How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb, and be born?’ v. 4.
In effect, he was saying, ‘I know about new birth and it has been my experience on a number of occasions! What more can you expect of me? Do you expect me to enter again into my mother’s womb and be born?’ Christ patiently explains to Nicodemus important matters about new birth and then, as the supreme Teacher, illustrates these by reference to an incident from the Old Testament scriptures.
Nicodemus had some difficulty under-standing the distinction between physical birth which could give only earthly privilege to a few, and spiritual birth that could bring eternal blessing to all. The Lord Jesus said, ‘That which is born of the flesh is flesh’, and implied it could only remain as such. All Nicodemus’ attainments, many and commendable though they might be, were generated in and by the flesh and would remain things of the flesh. They were fleeting in their nature, would die with his physical death and so could never enable entry into God’s kingdom.
New birth results from the action of the Holy Spirit of God. It is a secret process of conviction and regeneration in the heart that enables knowledge of God, affection for Him, and strength to follow and serve Him. It is a personal relationship with God that becomes visible to the human eye only in its results and consequences. It is a principle that if new birth exists it must become evident through its growth and development. The Lord Jesus explained this by reference to the blowing of the wind. The wind is invisible in its being but we become aware of its action and the consequences. So the Lord Jesus said, ‘Verily, verily, I say unto thee, except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again’, vv. 5-7.
The Lord Jesus then goes on to illustrate what He had already explained, by reference to the Old Testament scriptures, Num. 21. 5-9. Nicodemus would have been familiar with this incident involving the children of Israel in the wilderness. He would have read and taught it in the synagogue, to the people and to his students. God judged the people because of their sin and disobedience by sending fiery serpents amongst them. They lay dying, but in mercy healing was provided in the form of a brazen replica of a fiery serpent lifted high so that it could be seen by all in the camp. The simple and only requirements for healing were repentance and a look in faith upon the raised brazen serpent. Many looked and were healed. None knew how the healing was brought about; it was a work of God seen only in its results. In no way could they physically contribute anything to their healing. It depended entirely upon God’s provision and their willingness to accept it. This would have spoken powerfully to Nicodemus.
The Lord Jesus then identifies Himself as the One who would complete and give final meaning to the illustration, ‘Even so must the Son of man be lifted up’, John 3. 14. He indicates eternal blessings that result from simple acceptance, ‘That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life’, v. 15. The discussion is finally placed in the context of the clearest statement about salvation in the New Testament, v. 16.
The further references in the Gospel of John reveal the changed attitude and feelings of Nicodemus. In chapter 7 verses 45-53, the chief priests and Pharisees express anger toward officers sent to trap and capture the Lord Jesus but who returned without Him. Nicodemus opposes the rest of the Council and asks, ‘Doth our law judge any man, before it hear him, and know what he doeth?’ v. 51. In chapter 19 verses 38-40, he, with Joseph of Arimathea, took the body of Christ, lovingly anointed it with a mixture of myrrh and aloes, bound it in linen cloth with spices, and laid it in the tomb.
The pursuit of knowledge and practice of religious ritual came as a barrier between this sincere man and God. Salvation is finally a matter of the heart, hatred of sin and sins, and affection for the One who makes forgiveness possible. Nicodemus had to learn of his sinful condition, 2. 23-25, his hopeless position, 3. 5, that to remain in such a state would bring judgement, 3. 16, and that Christ is the only Saviour, vv. 14-15. As Christ revealed Himself to Nicodemus, his affection was drawn to Him and he entered into the eternal blessing of new birth.
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