When I read in John 3 about Nicodemus coming to Jesus at night, I wonder what his motivation was for doing so. This is mere conjecture on my part, but did he think that he was going to take Jesus under his wing and help Jesus smooth out some of the rough edges (of both John the Baptist and Jesus) that kept the Pharisees from following him? “Y’know, Jesus, if you hadn’t run the money changers out of the temple the other day, maybe people would like you more. And if John the Baptist would just get a haircut and dress like a respectable citizen, the leaders of Israel might be willing to bear with him and listen to him. Jesus, if you’ll stick with me and listen to me, I think I can help you accomplish your objectives.”
Nicodemus started the encounter out by calling him Rabbi and stating that “we know you are a teacher come from God.” But Jesus abruptly interrupts Nicodemus and seemingly out of nowhere he tells him “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.”
So, we don’t really know exactly why Nicodemus approached Jesus in the first place. Jesus changed the subject and started talking about being born again. Why did Jesus choose this time to talk about a person being born again?
Maybe this was something that Nicodemus needed to hear about (more than anyone else). But why would Nicodemus need to be born again? If you could choose how you were going to be born, wouldn’t you want to do it the way that Nicodemus had done?
First of all, he was a Jew. He was a descendant of Abraham, the man that God had made his covenant with. The chosen people, the people that God led to the promised land and God had made his covenant with, blessed them with His law and with His prophets. The people that God abides with.
Second, he was a man. And I don’t mean any disrespect to the women here. It’s just that in the culture of that time, people had many prejudices, and one of those prejudices was against women. Even though God exalted the place of women in Israel’s history, people tended to ignore that and hold to their prejudices. Look at Debra, the judge, the book of Ruth, Hannah, the mother of Samuel, the book of Esther, Proverbs 31. In spite of this, people still thought that it was better to be a man.
He was a Pharisee, a member of the Jewish ruling council. Nicodemus had taken what he started with and accomplished quite a bit to be a member of the ruling council.
He was quite possibly a wealthy man. Being that he was a teacher, he was educated. So, he probably didn’t have to work with his hands from dawn to dusk. He had time to study. So, he was probably a man of means.
So, why of all people would Nicodemus need to be born again? Didn’t he do it right the first time? Shouldn’t Jesus have said “Blessed are you Nicodemus, for you were born into the best of situations.”
But from our vantage point today 2000 years later we know that there were spiritual disadvantages to being a Pharisee. How many times did Jesus rebuke the Pharisees for their lack of understanding? In this chapter Jesus said to Nicodemus, “You are Israel’s teacher and you do not understand these things?” And in John 9:39, in reference to the Pharisees, Jesus said “For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind.” Obviously God expected much from the Pharisees, for all of the advantage that they had. But they were not living up to that expectation. In spite of being steeped in God’s law and the prophets they didn’t seem to be living up to the advantage that they had.
If anything has proven true, those born with advantage some times have the hardest time humbling themselves to God. The outward, material things that look like a blessing actually keep us from seeking a pure, loving relationship with God…
So Jesus wasn’t coming out of left field when he answered Nicodemus. He knew exactly what Nicodemus needed to hear. Jesus was completely in touch with the situation. Nicodemus literally needed to scrap everything, start all over, and begin anew as a child, wholly dependent on God, not dependent on the worldly advantages that he had.
The very things that would seem to set Nicodemus apart and qualify him to see the kingdom of God were stumbling blocks to him. What about those advantages that he had? He and the Pharisees were descendants of Abraham. But did the Pharisees have that same spirit of humility, obedience and trust that Abraham showed to God? Were they as compassionate and caring as Abraham that he would beg for God to save the city of Sodom if only ten righteous people could be found there?
With God’s law and religion, the Pharisees should have been able to get close to God in worship and praise, but they seemed to put up a wall between them and God. With their wealth and education they could have been a blessing to the people around them, instead these things put a wall between them and the people.
These good things were useless in bringing Nicodemus closer to God and closer to the people. Things can never bring us closer to God. Only the rebirth of water and the Spirit can bring us close to God.
(Of course, when a person’s basic needs are not being met, getting things such as food or shelter or clothing from God’s people can certainly bring a person closer to God. But, when we have abundance, if our eyes are on the abundance, those things will only separate us from God.)
Religion apart from God
Respect from the world
These things are useless in bringing us closer to God.
Several years later, there was another man who was born with many of the same advantages as Nicodemus. This man named Saul, who was later called Paul, tells us the value of those advantages in Phil. 3, beginning in the middle of verse 4: “If anyone thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless. But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.”
Paul figured out what Jesus was telling Nicodemus. The things that make you important in the world are nothing more than rubbish when we approach God. Paul speaks of confidence in the flesh, the same confidence that Nicodemus may have had (in pride, religion, riches, respect from the world, and education).
Born again…laying down all that I hold dear so that nothing stands in between God and me. God will usually ask you to pick it back up, but not to let it come between you and Him…
“The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.” (Mt. 13:44) All that that man had before was rubbish, it was worthless to him, compared to having the treasure in that field. And so, the kingdom of heaven should be to us.
It’s not just Nicodemus or Paul, or other religious leaders that needed to be born again. Jesus said that no one could see the kingdom of heaven without being reborn. Where the pride of the Pharisees put a wall between them and the true and living God, there are many things in this broken world that put a wall between us and God. That wall is called sin. None of us has the ability to please God on our own. Only by repenting of our sins and being born again of water and the Spirit can we please God.
We were made to fellowship with God. Isn’t that part of being created in His image? I’ve heard non-believers scoff and ask how we could be created in the image of an invisible God, but we are created in God’s image as beings with a spirit. And that spirit is made for fellowship with God. However, sin keeps us from that closeness with God. We are alienated from God and in need of reconciliation to God. Whether you are an exalted religious leader like Nicodemus or a drug addict living on the streets, you need some way to get that wall between you and God broken down. And Jesus provides that way.
“Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation.” (Col. 1:21-22)
“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation. That God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.” (2 Cor. 5:17-19)
God wants to remove those things that separate us from His love and reconcile the great difference that is between us and Him.
I found the following story in an article by Edward Fudge. I thought it illustrates well our need for a new birth:
Picture a seacoast rising in green forested cliffs to mountains and valleys beyond. Imagine mischievous boys discovering turtle eggs in the sand and removing one to an eagle’s nest high on the hillside. In time all the eggs hatch, eaglets and turtle alike. Eventually the parent eagles teach the young to fly. They lecture, explain and demonstrate. They teach, motivate and inspire. One by one parents push the baby eaglets from the nest. One by one the young birds gasp for breath, stretch their wings, respond instinctively and soar into the ocean breezes naturally and without a thought.
The turtle’s launching time arrives. He summons his courage, remembers his lessons, recollects his motivation. He is full of resolution and determination. The parent eagle pushes him out of the nest. The turtle flaps his feet feverishly — and falls to the beach far below. He is not an eagle. He is a turtle. Regardless of his best intentions and most diligent efforts, he cannot fly. That is simply not his nature.
So it is, says Jesus, with us sinful, fallen human beings in relation to God’s kingdom. To a pious and powerful Pharisee named Nicodemus, a teacher and leader in Israel who supposed that he had a reserved seat at the heavenly table, who thought that he could master any required spiritual curriculum and perform any necessary religious duty, Jesus Christ said: ‘Truly, truly, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God’ (John 3:3).
( © 2004 by Edward Fudge. Unlimited permission to copy without altering text or profiteering is hereby granted subject to inclusion of this copyright notice. For encouragement and spiritual food any time, visit our multimedia website at www.EdwardFudge.com .)
John 3:6 says “Flesh gives birth to flesh”…If we are living a life that is focused on pleasing our flesh then we will only reap the corruption of sin and we cannot hope to please God. (Gal. 5:19-21)
But the Spirit gives birth to spirit…But if we are born again and live the new life that is focused on God’s Spirit and obedience to God’s Spirit, then the fruit of our lives will be the things that please God and attract people to us in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. (Gal. 5:22-23)
Jesus’s words to Nicodemus were very relevant. Not just relevant, they were expedient that Nicodemus hear them. And they are so important to us today, for we cannot see the kingdom of God unless we have been born again.
—Chuck Huffine, 3-6-05, p.m.