Jesus And Nicodemus
A few times while playing golf we have played a hole or two and were thoroughly disgusted with our play. So, when no one was “behind us” we have gone back to the first tee and started all over. Recreational golfers have a thing called a “mulligan.” Whoever Mulligan was, I like him! A “mulligan” allows you to hit an extra shot off the tee of your choice. If you aren’t happy with a particular tee shot, you can re-tee with no penalty. It’s a “do-over.” Don’t you wish there were “do-overs” in life? Aren’t there times when you’ve wished you could go back to the tee and start all over? In his conversation with Nicodemus Jesus suggested that as far as God is concerned you can! Here’s their conversation.
1There was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. 2This man came to Jesus by night and said to Him, “Rabbi, 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.”
3Jesus answered and said to him, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
4Nicodemus said to Him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?”
5Jesus answered, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ 8The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
9Nicodemus answered and said to Him, “How can these things be?”
10Jesus answered and said to him, “Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not know these things? 11Most assuredly, I say to you, We speak what We know and testify what We have seen, and you do not receive Our witness. 12If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things? 13No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of Man £who is in heaven. 14And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.
Nicodemus is one of the Bible’s most enigmatic characters. In verse 1 he is described as “a man of the Pharisees.” This was the sect dedicated to the complete observance of the Mosaic law and all the rabbinic traditions. They looked forward to the coming of the Messiah and his rule. This particular Pharisee is described as “a ruler of the Jews.” (verse 1) This, no doubt, means that he was a member of the Jewish ruling council, also known as the Sanhedrin. They governed all religious matters in Israel. This would include investigating any new prophets, rabbis or would-be Messiahs. In verse 10 Jesus identifies Nicodemus as “the teacher of Israel.” This suggests that he was a very prominent rabbi who would have been considered an expert in the law. He is mentioned only three times, each of which is in the Fourth Gospel. Aside from this reference he appears again in 7:50 and 51 where he is seen defending Jesus before the rulers. He doesn’t argue that Jesus is the Messiah but that they should hear from him before they condemn him. The third time he is mentioned is in 19:39 where he joined Joseph in burying Jesus. Joseph was also a member of the Sanhedrin and a secret disciple of Jesus who looked forward to the coming of the kingdom. Each time Nicodemus is mentioned John identifies him as “he who came to Jesus by night.” (3:2; 7:50; 19:39) Why did he come by night? And why does it seem so significant to John? The best guess is that he wanted to avoid being seen lest someone assume that he believed in Jesus. But to some degree he was impressed with Jesus as verse 2 suggests.
“Rabbi, 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.” He may want to know what Jesus is claiming of himself. Is he claiming to be a prophet? Is he claiming to be the Messiah? Jesus doesn’t answer those questions but answers a much more personal question, “How can a person start his life over?”
You Must Be Born Again
Ignoring what may be flattery on Nicodemus’ part, Jesus “cuts to the chase” and says, “Unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” In verse 5 he elaborates and says that one must be “born of water and the Spirit” in order to “enter the kingdom.” Then in verse 7 he says, “You must be born again.” Jesus refers to God’s coming rule to which the Pharisees looked forward. The prophets promised a kingdom at history’s end, governed by a son of David. But Nicodemus probably misunderstood both the nature of the kingdom and the means to its entrance. The kingdom Nicodemus and his associates were anxiously anticipating can be seen and entered but only by being “born again.” What does it mean to be “born again?” The word “born” is probably better translated “begotten” as it refers to a father’s action. “Again” allows for two possible meanings. It can mean “a second time.” That is how Nicodemus took it in verse 4. “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb?” He means, “Surely that is not what you mean?” It isn’t what he means. But he does mean that you have to be given a new start to enter into God’s rule. And God is the God of new beginnings, of second chances. But the word translated “again” can be translated “from above.” That is to say, the new birth must come from heaven, an experience requiring Divine action as the first birth required human action. Jesus touches on the contrast in verse 6. “That which is born of flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” As we saw in our previous lesson, these double-meanings are probably intended. It isn’t one or the other. It is both. William Barclay captured the dual meaning in his translation. One must be “born anew from above.” To enter God’s kingdom a person must start his life all over again. And that start can only be facilitated by Heaven. He can’t do it himself. God must do it.
Wind And Spirit
In verse 4 John incorporates, not a “double-entendre” but a play on words. To assist Nicodemus with his misunderstanding Jesus says, The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit.” The word translated “wind” in the first part of the verse and “Spirit” in the latter part is the same word, pneuma. It has three possible meanings. It can be translated “wind.” We drive our cars on “pneumatic tires.” They are filled with air or wind. It can be translated “breath.” An inflammation of the lungs that causes serious breathing problems is called “pneumonia.” And it can be translated “spirit.” How the translator renders the word depends entirely on the context. Verse 8 is an illustration from nature. “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes.” The wind is, in a sense, “sovereign.” That is it “blows where it wishes.” We have no control over it. And it is observable but only in its effects. You don’t see the wind, but you do see what it does. The same is true of the Spirit and his work in our lives. The Spirit of God is sovereign. He must effect the new birth or a new birth cannot occur. And, although he is not observable, his work is. In Acts 10 Peter knew Cornelius and his family had received the Spirit when they spoke in tongues. In Galatians 5 the Spirit’s presence is known by “the fruit of the Spirit.” It is even appropriate, I think, to speak of the Spirit of “the breath of God.” In John 20 Jesus breathed on the disciples and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” (John 20:22) As God breathed into Adam’s nostrils “the breath of life” and thereby animated his lifeless body, so God breaths into those who are “born again” and thereby animates their lifeless spirits.
Nicodemus’ response leads to yet another case of the “double-entendre.” “How can these things be?” (verse 9) D.A. Carson suggests his meaning to be, “How can this happen?” (The Gospel According To John, D.A. Carson) Nicodemus’ question doesn’t reflect stupidity but skepticism. He knows that “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” He knows that a man is the sum of all his past. So how can a person possibly start his life all over again? Jesus answers in verses 14 and 15 by drawing an analogy between his mission and an incident involving Moses and the Israelites.
14And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.
In Numbers 21 the people of Israel, on their way to the land of Canaan, began to complain about the hardships of their journey. So God disciplined them by sending fiery serpents into the camp. Many were bitten and many died from the bite. So the people cried out to Moses. In obedience to God’s instructions Moses made a bronze facsimile of the serpent and put it on a stake in the midst of the camp. Everyone who looked in faith to the bronze serpent that was “lifted up” would be saved of the poisonous bites. In a similar way Jesus must be “lifted up” so that all who look to him in faith will be saved. Let’s focus on that line, “So must the Son of Man be lifted up.” (verse 5) “Must” suggests that atonement must be made for sin without which the new birth is impossible. Starting all over is one thing, but it doesn’t account for the sins a person has already committed and the guilt he has incurred. In answer to Nicodemus’ question, “How can these things be?” (verse 9) Jesus says that he must be “lifted up.” The lifted-up serpent was God’s means of giving new birth to Israel. Just so, the lifted-up Son is His means of giving the new birth to sinners. But what does it mean to be “lifted up?” It has two meanings, both of which are probably intended. First, it refers to his being fastened to a cross as the means of atonement for sin. He says in 12:32, “And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all peoples to Myself.” Then John explains, “This He said, signifying by what death He would die.” (verse 3) But “lifted up” can also mean “exalted.” Isaiah said the following about the Servant of God. (Isaiah 52:13)
Behold, My Servant shall deal prudently;
He shall be exalted and extolled and be very high.
The Suffering Servant who was lifted up on a cross would be lifted up in his resurrection, ascension and exaltation. Jesus understood that his being lifted up on the cross was the means to giving new birth to sinners and the means to his being lifted up to the right hand of God. As a result, “Whoever believes in Him” would “not perish but would have eternal life.” To “perish” is to be eternally condemned. “Eternal life” actually means “life of the age to come.” Experiencing “eternal life” is equivalent to entering the kingdom of God.
As we look back over this discussion between two great rabbis we can make three observations. Verses 3-7 speak to the necessity of the new birth. The word “unless” in verses 3 and 5, and the word “must” in verse 7 both imply that the new birth is absolutely essential to seeing and experiencing God’s kingdom and eternal life. Verse 8 speaks to the evidence of the new birth. As the wind is “seen” in its effects, so the Spirit is “seen” in his effects in the lives of those who have been born again. And verses 9-15 speak to the means of the new birth. The means of the new birth is two-fold. One, for there to be a new birth for any sinner, atonement for sin must be offered. By Jesus’ atoning death God has dealt with the guilt of sin. Two, for there to be a true change in a person’s life, there must be a change within. The person must be given the Holy Spirit to deal with the practice of sin which cannot be broken without him. By the way, this may be the meaning of “born of water and the Spirit.” in verse 5. Because of baptism’s association with cleansing Jesus may be saying that one enters the kingdom by having his sins atoned for and by receiving the life-giving Holy Spirit to empower him to live a righteous life.