It may be a stretch to call Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus (John 2:23–3:15) a conversation in any conventional sense; it was more of a master class between a professor and student.
For me it recalls the early 1970s and weekly seminars in Professor Paul Woolley’s church history course at Westminster Seminary, Philadelphia. The prof’s every question exposed gaps in our grasp of things, but always led to fresh understanding of the subject. It was our weekly grilling, but we were none the worse for it.
Nicodemus was neither a novice nor seminarian, but ‘a man of the Pharisees’ and ‘a ruler of the Jews’. He was serious about his faith, well-schooled in his theology and possessed of real standing in the community.
He had an eye to his reputation with his peers and took the precaution of coming to Jesus ‘by night’, perhaps like Joseph of Arimathea ‘for fear of the Jews’ (3:1; 19:38). He was, however, about to meet his Waterloo!
Jesus did not need instruction about what makes people tick, because ‘he knew what was in man’ (2:24-25). John connects the condition of ‘all men’ and the Lord’s knowledge of it (2:24-25) with his knowledge of Nicodemus (3:1). This is John’s way of signalling that Jesus is about to diagnose the problem and propose the remedy.
The real need
Nicodemus saw something profound in Jesus, but we cannot say that he yet believed him to be the promised Messiah. He acknowledged Jesus as ‘a teacher come from God’, because, as he admitted to him: ‘No one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him’ (3:2).
This reads as a statement, but was really a question, asking: ‘Who are you, Jesus?’ Nicodemus was courteous, sincere, respectful and curious, but still unconvinced as to who Jesus was and what he was about.
It was a fair question, and still is to this day. ‘Blind faith’ is a contradiction in terms. Scripture calls for faith that rests on hard evidence. Nicodemus accepted the signs Jesus did as evidence, but wanted to know more.
How do we answer questions about our faith? The chances are that you and I might give our life story and share our vision for making the world a better place. Too often, we end up talking about ourselves and our church, and somehow Jesus ends up being a stage prop in the story instead of the centre and substance of everything.
Jesus wasn’t going to get bogged down in his personal bio or entangled in an explanation of his activities. In one fell swoop he blew away all the fog in Nicodemus’ question: ‘Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God’ (3:3).
He simply stated the radical claims of the kingdom of God. He stated God’s truth as it bore vitally upon Nicodemus’ spiritual needs.
Can you believe it? Jesus didn’t ‘give his testimony’! He used no formula, no previously memorised series of gospel texts, to bring Nicodemus to confess sin and accept him as Saviour. Jesus didn’t even attempt to ‘close the deal’ by getting Nicodemus to pray the so-called ‘sinner’s prayer’!
Rather, Christ changed the subject from whatever Nicodemus was interested in knowing about Jesus, to what he, Jesus, knew Nicodemus really needed to know.
Kingdom of God
Jesus knew that seeing the kingdom of God was the great issue in Nicodemus’ life, as far as Jesus is concerned. This sounds so abstract to our ears, even cold, distant and strangely forbidding. We warm to the sentiments of belonging and fellowship, from ‘chestnuts roasting on an open fire’ to being ‘safe in the arms of Jesus’.
But seeing the kingdom of God seems more like a theory than an actual blessing, as if to behold a great country from a high mountain. So what was Jesus getting at?
In the first instance, this means the rule of God in the lives and experience of God’s people. The church is the most visible manifestation of the kingdom, for it is ‘the body of Christ’, to which every believer belongs on account of being united to Christ by personal faith (1 Corinthians 12:27). ‘Seeing the kingdom’ means belonging to Jesus and enjoying the communion of the saints.
Christian experience is not a set of technical specifications. It is Christ’s lordship in our hearts and relationships, especially with the triune God and his believing people.
Christ is our king and we are his subjects. And we love him for it, for it flows from his first loving us (1 John 4:19). To ‘see’ the kingdom of God is being in it as a citizen and subject of the true king.
Furthermore, Jesus Christ is ‘head over all things to the church’ (Ephesians 1:22). This means that the work of the kingdom of God pervades human history. God’s kingdom is not only about his rule in the church; still less is it ‘what works for us’ inwardly and subjectively, but it is an over-arching sovereignty objectively at work in, around and for us.
God rules, however wild and wayward the behaviour of those who care nothing for him and his will as revealed in the Bible.
So ‘being born again’ is absolutely essential. John Calvin says, ‘We are taught by this [truth] that at birth we are exiles and complete strangers to the kingdom of God, and there is perpetual opposition between God and us until he changes us by a second birth’. We are, by nature, dead until made alive, blind until given sight, at war with God until reborn as his adopted children reconciled to him.
But what does this involve? It involves a vital event of fundamental renewal — a regeneration or rebirth of our basic nature and disposition. The Greek word for regeneration is ambiguous — being ‘born again’ or ‘born from above’.
Birth ‘from above’ intensifies the idea of the newness of this personal rebirth, because it hints at what Jesus will soon tell Nicodemus, namely that it takes the sovereign God to reach down to darkened souls and bring them into his light. It is necessary that sinners by nature be born again, in order to have a new nature that can be reconciled to God. This means that our heart is the heart of the matter.
Notice that, while Nicodemus comes to discuss the validity of Jesus’ ministry, Jesus decides to discuss the reality of Nicodemus’ faith! He takes Nicodemus to the need of his own soul and of the human race as a whole.
John Calvin is exactly on point when he notes that Nicodemus, for all his learning, had a mind ‘so full of thorns and choked with noxious weeds that there was scarcely room for spiritual teaching’. Jesus is as good as saying, ‘Nicodemus, let’s talk about how we can truly know God. Do you see this is a heart matter, needing a new nature, by a new birth from above?’
This applies to every human being from that day to this, and before and beyond. The new birth is a personal transformation ‘from above’. It is nothing less and nothing more than a work of God in the soul of man.
Jesus’ answer gets Nicodemus thinking, but makes him even more perplexed. He replies: ‘How can a man be born when he is old? Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born!’ (3:4).
His questions are sometimes dismissed as silly or naïve, but this insults the Pharisee’s intelligence and integrity. Nicodemus was not stupid. He well understood that Jesus was speaking of spiritual, not physical, rebirth. And that was exactly what bothered him.
He was saying in his lofty way, ‘You’re having me on, Jesus! No way can there be a “new birth”!’ What he was saying is that a complete remaking of human nature is as unlikely as a second physical birth!
There is also a sub-text to this summary dismissal of Jesus’ assertion. For the Pharisee to grant the need of a new birth would be to admit the bankruptcy of his religious life hitherto. His response shows clearly that he thought Jesus was asking too much. Not only is a ‘new birth’ impossible, but undesirable.
We are reminded that the first offence of Jesus’ gospel is that people are sinners in need of salvation through divine intervention and provision, and that this is bound to go against the grain of fallen human nature.
To be continued
Gordon Keddie served for 40 years in pastoral ministry with Reformed Presbyterian churches in Pittsburgh (PA); Wishaw, Scotland; State College (PA); and Southside, Indianapolis. He is a well known writer and conference speaker.