The story of Jesus’ meeting with a Pharisee known as Nicodemus is, perhaps, one the most famous encounters in history. It is certainly a favorite of preachers and Sunday School teachers. And it’s a classic story. Here was man, whose very soul was in darkness, who came to Jesus in the dark of night to talk about spiritual realities. It was during this encounter that the well-known phrase, “you must be born again” is seen for the first time.
A private meeting
Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. (John 3:1 | TNIV)
Nicodemus was a Pharisee, whose name means “conqueror of the people.” His name is in stark contrast to his seemingly timid character. John adds that Nicodemus was also a member of Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council. He was a teacher and interpreter of the Scriptures. That he was a Pharisee shouldn’t be held against Nicodemus. Not all members of that group were hypocrites. Here was one who took his faith seriously.
And this man had everything: prestige, respect, power, and position. All that, yet he felt the need to visit Jesus under the cover of darkness.
He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.” (John 3:2 | TNIV)
It’s noteworthy that his first word to Jesus was “Rabbi.” Jesus wasn’t formally trained; He didn’t attend Rabbi College. But Nicodemus heard enough of what Jesus had been teaching and seen enough of His ministry to know that God was a part of everything this Rabbi was doing. The compliment that he paid Jesus was genuine, and apparently he wasn’t the only Pharisee that could tell there was something different about this itinerant rabbi.
Nicodemus cites the “signs” or “miracles” Jesus was performing as indisputable proof that Jesus was a man from God. What’s really interesting about that single sentence is that the people of that time, including the Pharisees, didn’t doubt the miracles of our Lord. As Dr McGee noted, you have to be a professor in a seminary today to do that. Neither the friends of Jesus or His enemies doubted His miracles.
Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born again. ” (John 3:3 | TNIV)
When you read that verse, it seems like Jesus is talking to somebody else. Nicodemus came to Jesus and, so far, just paid Him a compliment. So why did Jesus say what He said here in verse 3? The key to this, and in fact the key to chapter 3, is something John wrote back in chapter 2:
But Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all people. He did not need human testimony about them, for he knew what was in them. (John 2:24, 25 | TNIV)
Nobody knows any man like Jesus does. John made the observation in chapter 2, and in chapter 3 He gives Nicodemus as His example; His “Exhibit A.” He knew exactly why Nicodemus came to Him, even though Nicodemus himself wasn’t sure.
It should also be noted that what applies to Nicodemus applies to all people. The word John used in both 2:25 and 3:1 (translated as “people” and “man”) is anthropos, a general, all encompasing word. So what is said about this anthropos Nicodemus is said of all anthropos. This is just one of several “universalizations” that can be found in John’s Gospel. Salvation is for “whosoever” (3:16), but all people are in need of being “born again,” or “born from above.” But this isn’t something only John wrote about:
…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. (Romans 3:23, 24 | TNIV)
Nicodemus was pretty sure Jesus came from God, but with a single sentence Jesus informed Nicodemus that only He (and no human being) can see God without being “born from above,” which was really God’s goal for Nicodemus and remains so for all human beings. Westcott made this observation:
Without this new birth – this introduction into a vital connection with a new order of being, without a corresponding endowment of faculties – no man can see – can outwardly comprehend – the kingdom of God. Our natural powers cannot realize that which is essentially spiritual. A new vision is required for the objects of the new order.
That statement from Bishop Westcott sheds a light on this exchange:
Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.” Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you I do not speak on my own authority. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work. Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the works themselves. (John 14:8 – 11 | TNIV)
This is exactly what was happening this night with Nicodemus. The theologian whose natural eyes were unable to see God were able to see Jesus, and that brought him one step closer to the Kingdom of God. But in order to get this man into the Kingdom necessitated a “born again” experience. That phrase comes from the Greek anothen, a word that has several meanings, including “from above,” and “again.” However it’s translated, what Jesus meant couldn’t have been more clear. If a person – Nicodemus in particular but all people in general – is to have eternal life, that life must come into that person. Put another way, we receive our biological life from our earthly parents and that life enables us to live in this world, but God’s life can only come from Him and it’s a “new life” from “above.”
Nicodemus seemed to understand Jesus’ admonition as being “born again,” as his response indicates:
“How can anyone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!” (John 3:4 | TNIV)
The learned Nicodemus, for all his theological education and knowledge of the Scriptures, could not grasp what our Lord was getting at. Paul was somebody who would have understood exactly what was happening between the Pharisee and Son of God:
For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.” (1 Corinthians 1:18, 19 | TNIV)
In order for Nicodemus to pass from being one of “those who are perishing” into one who is “saved,” he would have to experience this new birth Jesus was talking about, and at that moment, his spiritual eyes would pop open. But for now, what Jesus had said was, as Paul noted, simply “foolishness.” Nicodemus had no way to understand what spiritual rebirth was all about. He, like all unbelievers, didn’t have the capacity to comprehend it.
Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” (John 3:5 – 8 | TNIV)
These verses are a restatement and explanation of what Jesus had just said. You can’t read verse 5 without wondering what in the world Jesus meant by the phrase, “being born of the water and the Spirit.” The “Spirit” bit is easy. Obviously Jesus is referring to spiritual rebirth – a regeneration initiated by the work of the Holy Spirit. But “being born of water” is a little more difficult to understand. It could be that our Lord is referencing water baptism, especially since the Pharisees understood water baptism and were familiar with John the Baptist’s baptism, a baptism of repentance. Or it may be that Jesus was talking about physical birth, contrasting it with being born of the Spirit.
We’ll likely have to wait to ask Him personally to get His intended meaning, but what is clear is that every human being must, at some point in his life, be born of the Spirit if he wants to enter into the Kingdom of God. Some kind of “conversion experience” needs to occur; our spirits need to be set free and our flesh brought into submission to the Holy Spirit. Again, Paul helps us understand why this must happen:
The sinful mind (the flesh) is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those controlled by the sinful nature (flesh) cannot please God. (Romans 8:7, 8 | TNIV)
There is no future for our flesh, that is, our old and sinful nature. God has no plan to fix it or improve it. That old nature must be done away with because it cannot get into the Kingdom of God.
For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin—because anyone who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. (Romans 6:6, 7 | TNIV)
That’s what Jesus was trying to tell Nicodemus. And He used an illustration about the wind blowing. You can’t see the wind, but you can certainly tell when it’s blowing: You can feel it against your skin and you can see it moving tree tops and flags and so on, and you can hear it. What you can’t tell is where it started out from or where it will eventually end up. That’s Jesus’ way of saying nobody can control the wind; you can’t make it do what you want it to do, and you can’t really explain it or its behavior. The wind, as it were, has a mind of its own.
There’s a clever play on words here. The word Jesus used for “wind” here is pneuma, which also means “spirit!” The fact of wind is undeniable – even though you can’t see it or control it, you know it’s there. But there is also an element of mystery to the wind – there are things about it nobody can explain – yet that doesn’t stop people from noticing it or commenting on it or even making use of it, like in sailing a boat, for example. That also applies to the Spirit. Sure, it’s hard for anybody, even Jesus, to adequately explain the Spirit or things of the Spirit so that a sinful man may understand it. But that shouldn’t stop that same sinful man from experiencing what the Spirit can do for him. As one scholar noted:
The great mystery of religion is not the punishment, but the forgiveness of sin: not the natural permanence of character, but spiritual regeneration.