John2v23 to John3v12: JESUS AND NICODEMUS

(A) Introduction (Read the reference.)

This is by no means an easy passage to interpret because once again Jesus speaks in riddles or mashals. We have two basic questions to answer: (1) Why did Jesus leave Nicodemus seriously perplexed? (2) What does his conversation with Nicodemus mean?

Nicodemus was left puzzled at the end of his interview with Jesus. He did not hear the wonderful words from verse 13 onwards that include: For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life. v16. AV. These are not the words of Jesus but John's commentary on the dialogue between the aging Pharisee and the Lord. It is quite easy to see where John's remarks begin. It doesn't make sense for Jesus to say at the beginning of his ministry: "No-one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven - the Son of Man." v13. Jesus was on earth when he talked to Nicodemus! He did not return to heaven until the ascension. Jesus said to Mary Magdalene in the garden after his resurrection: "Do not hold onto me, for I have not yet returned to the Father. John20v17. Surely it is plain that John is writing after the event rather than Jesus speaking before the event.

(B) The group to which Nicodemus belonged.

(1) Nicodemus was one of those who saw the miraculous signs he (Jesus) was doing and believed in his name. John2v23. He acknowledged that Jesus was a teacher come from God. v2. Many people, including Nicodemus, were impressed by the miracles Jesus performed and thought he might be Messiah.

(2) Why wouldn't Jesus entrust himself to these people? But Jesus would not entrust himself to them for he knew all men. v24.

There were numerous nationalistic factions in Jerusalem longing to throw off Roman rule and for God to establish his kingdom. There were the Zealots, the Pharisees, John the Baptist's disciples and others. Each group had its own ideas and its own agenda. The different parties were eager to probe Jesus about his future plans, to recruit him to their cause or to advise him on how to proceed. Some would love to hijack Jesus for their movement, others hoped to be consulted and a few would have offered him their support - at a price. Jesus did not trust any of them; he wasn't going to be manipulated; he certainly wasn't going to be told what to do! He knew just what they were like. He knew that he could not entirely trust Nicodemus who sought an interview at night.

Nicodemus came by night probably because he was hoping to plot against the Romans. It wouldn't do for a member of the Sanhedrin to be seen talking to a young revolutionary. Nicodemus may have represented a political group who wished to achieve the rebirth of the nation under the leadership of one appointed and inspired by God. So he came to Christ intending to offer cautious and conditional support after he had sounded him out.

We must remember that Jesus did commit himself to the Galilean fishermen and their friends. When they asked him where he stood Jesus told them that he was the Messiah. Jesus was wary of the sophisticated politicians in Jerusalem. If he got involved with them Jesus knew that he would be distracted, compromised, misrepresented and misdirected. The young men from Bethany and Capernaum were different. Jesus said of them: "I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children." Mt11v25. Even so we know Jesus had one disciple who had his own objectives and ended up in conflict with the Saviour. Judas reveals how dangerous it was for Jesus to be associated with anyone whose ambition was essentially political.

Jesus does not entrust himself to everyone to day. He will not empower or indwell those who make use of him for gain or to advance their own reputation. He does not approve of those who hitch his name to their bandwagon. I used to teach with an animal rights activist. She used to say that Jesus loved animals no less than people and that his death was as much to put an end to animal sacrifice as it was to save us from our sins.

(C) Where Nicodemus went wrong.

(1) First of all Nicodemus commenced his interview by saying, "Rabbi, we know.... v2. He implies that the status of Jesus depends upon the collective decision of himself and his friends. It is important that Jesus performs miracles and that God is with him but it is equally important that Jesus is validated by Nicodemus and the clique of high-minded Pharisees he represents. Nicodemus informs Jesus that he had been assessed, cautiously approved and judged worthy of further investigation. There was no humility in such an approach. Nicodemus did not come to Jesus humbly seeking the truth but to tell him that he had met with the approval of the committee. Perhaps he was even arrogant enough to believe that Jesus would be pleased!

(2) Secondly it is likely that Nicodemus and his associates had some reservations about the strategy of Jesus. This can be deduced from Jesus' words: "We speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. I have spoken earthly things and you do not believe, how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things." v11and12.

I do not think that by earthly things Jesus is referring to the new birth and work of the Spirit. These are the very heavenly matters that left Nicodemus perplexed. It is probable that Jesus is being ironical. This will be clear if I paraphrase the Saviour's remark: "My disciples and I have discussed publicly earthly issues and you have rejected what has been said. Well, you're hardly likely to believe me when I deal with spiritual topics."

One of the earthly matters that Jesus addressed was the abuse of the temple. Devout Jews were being defrauded in the name of religion. Nicodemus may have disapproved of the violence of Jesus' protest. He was a cautious individual. We know this because Nicodemus became a secret disciple of Christ who was only prepared to offer his Master very tentative support in the Sanhedrin. See John7v50and51. Nicodemus no doubt considered that it was very unwise to antagonise influential men whose support Jesus would need to establish his kingdom. He is unhappy with aspects of the rash young Galilean's campaign and has come to offer him the benefit of his advice!

There remain those who think that their endorsement of Jesus is of some significance. They almost expect Jesus to be grateful for any kind words they say about his teaching and example. The King of Kings and Lord of all will not be patronised. Within the church there are others who have reservations about Christ's teaching on earthly matters such as unity, wealth, forgiveness, legalism and divorce. There are plenty of Christians who jib at going the other mile - obeying state regulations that they find inconvenient and irksome.

(D) The reaction of Jesus to the approach of Nicodemus.

(1) Jesus asserts his authority.
Jesus' response to Nicodemus' opening words was quick, pointed and pungent. It involved a play on words. Nicodemus said, "We know that ..... no one is able to do these signs which you are working except God be with him. Jesus replies, "Truly, I say to you except one is born anew he is not able to see the Kingdom of God."

This is a wonderful riposte from the uneducated, country carpenter to the cautious approval of an aristocrat of Israel. We should not underestimate the status of Nicodemus. He was a godly Pharisee, a member of the Sanhedrin and Israel's teacher. Jesus establishes his authority over a man to whom most would defer by saying, " I tell you the truth ....."

(2) Jesus addresses Nicodemus' problem.
Nicodemus was familiar with Ezekiel's promise of rebirth. See Ez36v24to32. This passage describes the rebirth of a nation not of individuals. The regeneration of Israel through a divinely appointed leader was the very thing that Nicodemus and his friends desired. Nicodemus was surprised by Christ's insistence on the rebirth of the individual. This was a new idea. The emphasis of the Old Testament is upon the nation - the corporate Israel. The belief in a new, divinely constituted Israel was enormously powerful. The disciples them selves had not broken free from it as late as Jesus' ascension.

Nicodemus was also familiar with the idea that when a Gentile was accepted into the Jewish faith he was reborn. Proselytes to Judaism became like new born babes. They commenced a new life as Jews. The converted Gentile became a new person - a child of promise.

Nicodemus was not a fool. He was a highly intelligent, astute man of great learning. He knew about the rebirth of both the nation and converts to Judaism. Jesus reveals what shocked Nicodemus when he said, "You should not be surprised at my saying, 'You must be born again." v7. Nicodemus knew that Jesus was not talking about physical rebirth. When he said: "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;" Nicodemus is really saying, "How can I, an old religious Jew, be spiritually renewed - changed for the better?" He also speaks ironically. He protests that it will be as hard for him to be regenerated spiritually as to be born again from his mother's womb.

What Nicodemus could not understand was that he a pious Jew, a son of Abraham, one of God's chosen needed to be born again. He had been born into the right family. He was a child of promise. If anyone qualified for the Kingdom of God - he did. Jesus' teaching is very radical. He says that everyone, Jew and Gentile, good and bad, high and low, religious and irreligious, rich and poor, nice and nasty, you and me, needs to be born of God.

(3) Lessons:
(a) Most people in Britain call themselves Christians. They have adopted some Christian values like compassion, doing unto others as you would be done by, integrity and freedom of the individual. Many would be happy for society to be modelled on selected Christian principles. This does not make most of those who hold this view Christians. Everyone needs to be born again - to be changed by the Holy Spirit in response to belief in Jesus.

(b) Many church goers don't see the necessity of being born again. I had two lovely colleagues - dear ladies - who sadly always spoke very contemptuously of born again Christians. They certainly did not see the necessity of being born again - it was enough to be a member of the Church of England! I used to tell my friends, "I'm one of those born again Christians you dislike so much." They would reply, "No John - you're not a proper born again Christian." I think they meant it as a compliment! I didn't know whether to laugh or to cry!

There are even those who attend Grace Baptist churches who mutter to themselves, "What do I want to be born again for?" In other words they are quite good enough for God as they are - and probably a lot better than most of those who have been baptised and joined the church.

Nicodemus was a fine, upstanding individual, just the sort of man my excellent colleagues would have respected immensely, but Jesus said to him, "You must be born again."

(F) Jesus responds to the incredulity of Nicodemus by talking to him about the wind.

I have quite a lot of sympathy with Nicodemus. The expression: "You must be born again" is a veiled saying or mashal. Jesus was not going to entrust himself to Nicodemus. He was not told: Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. We are very fortunate - John tells his readers how men and women are reborn - through belief in the sacrificial death of Jesus. Nicodemus remained in the dark.

Professor H. R. Reynolds while writing about the perplexity of Nicodemus in the Pulpit Commentary on John's Gospel is honest enough to admit: Moreover, the same perplexity after 1900 years of Christian experience still encumbers this utterance of the Master. Lots of Christians find it difficult to come to terms with in spite of having the revelation of the New Testament. I sometimes think that I am very little different from my non-Christian friends. The things I would like changed most remain pretty much the same: my disposition, temperament, personality, bias toward sin, carnal appetites and reluctance to do good.

So what does Jesus say to Nicodemus and to what purpose?
(1) First of all Jesus stresses that he is speaking about a spiritual rebirth: "I tell you the truth no-one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. v6. I take the phrase 'born of water' refers to our natural birth and parallels the expression 'flesh gives birth to flesh.' A natural birth is accompanied by the emission of a watery fluid and this may have given rise to the phrase, 'born of water'. The Holy Spirit regenerates our spirits - our understanding, interests, beliefs, aspirations, character and conduct. A man enters God's kingdom through natural and spiritual birth. It was not sufficient for Nicodemus to be born a Jew.

(2) Nicodemus still looks uncomprehending and so to help him further Jesus compares the operation of the Holy Spirit to the wind. "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. v8. Jesus tells him another riddle and it is questionable to what extent this was of immediate help! However the comparison conveys three important truths:

    (a) Spiritual rebirth is like hearing the wind.
    Jesus does not liken the renewing ministry of the Spirit to the more dramatic manifestations of the wind namely its destructive force. Jesus does not draw attention to the power of the Spirit but rather to the way it enlightens the mind.

    Nicodemus should have been aware of this function of the Spirit of Truth. Jesus was ironical about Nicodemus' ignorance on this subject. He says with feigned surprise: "You are Israel's teacher and you do not understand these things?" v10. Jesus asks, "What is teaching in Israel coming to for such an important subject to be neglected?" It doesn't seem to have been on the syllabus! Yet all the prophets were spiritually enlightened. The wind blew in their direction and they heard the sound of it.

    The sound of the wind is something experienced and so is the new birth. One of the itinerant preachers who visits our little chapel often tells us his testimony. One morning David Cordle was loitering in his parent's kitchen when he happened to glance at the daily text on the religious calendar hanging there. It was: 'My son give me thine heart.' Prov23v26. AV. The words challenged him and there and then he gave his life to Christ. The wind blew in his direction and he heard the sound of it. The Holy Spirit took that simple verse and impressed the truth on him in a vivid and compelling fashion. His mind was enlightened as never before about the vital necessity of yielding to Jesus. This is a common theme of many testimonies. A quotation from Scripture is given an enormous impact by the illuminating ministry of the Spirit. There is the consciousness of being brought to the point of commitment yet making the commitment yourself.

    I did not become a Christian like this but nonetheless I have experienced enlightenment by the Spirit. He worked through the godly example of my parents convincing me of the reality of Christianity. It is easier to write about what the Holy Spirit has produced within me. I will just mention one thing. Paul stresses that the Christian's hope is very real because: the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who is given for us. Rom5v5. God's Spirit convinces the believer that God loves him or her. That is my experience even though sometimes the evidence is all against it. I looked after my dear, old father, a Baptist pastor for 40 years, who finally suffered dementia in the final stages of Parkinson's disease. It was very distressing. In my weakness I sometimes asked God if he knew what he was doing but I never doubted that he loved me and loved my father. I was certain of God's love because the wind blew in my direction and I heard the sound of it. It is not something I can take any credit for. It was something given and very precious. Now this is the overwhelming and triumphant experience of millions of Christians. Some followers of Christ have a terrible time. It is amazing that they should believe that God loves them. Circumstances suggest the very opposite. But they do believe - quietly, steadfastly, confidently and gloriously. It is the Spirit of Truth's inestimable gift to all who exercise faith in Jesus.

    (b) The Spirit blows wherever it pleases.
    This can be a worrying statement. There is something capricious about the wind. Is God's Spirit like that? Does he come and go without rhyme and reason? Does a man have to wait fatalistically until the wind blows in his direction? This is an uncomfortable thought even for a convinced Calvinist.

    Let us try another approach. Would we like the Spirit to be contained? Would we like him to be restricted to the Roman Catholic Church, theologians, executive committees, synods or religious cliques of any sort? Some actually claim the Holy Spirit exclusively for themselves! Isn't it a comfort to know that the Spirit of God blows wherever it pleases. There is a rebuke in these words for Nicodemus and his faction who probably thought that they had special spiritual discernment. The Spirit is no respecter of the inner ring, the holy huddle or the defenders of denominational distinctives - thank God.

    The Holy Spirit cannot be cajoled, organised, anticipated, regularised or tamed. He comes to individuals in spite of the authority vested in the establishment, the power exercised by the leadership, and the expertise of the professionals. Religious outcasts, rejected and disregarded souls hear the sound of the wind and are changed to be given an authority of their own. It happens over and over again in the life of the church - from Paul to Luther to Wesley and to the end of time.

    (c) Those most likely to hear the wind are those who listen for it.
    It was no bad thing for Nicodemus to be puzzled; he was beginning to make progress. When he came to Jesus he said, "We know ...." He thought he knew whereas he didn't. So it was beneficial when he advanced to the state of being unsure. Nicodemus could have reacted differently - arrogantly, impatiently, contemptuously, cynically or angrily - and remained in ignorance. It is to his credit that he acknowledged his perplexity and confusion. He must have gone away and thought hard about what he had been told. Nicodemus did not dismiss the teaching of Jesus. He adopted a listening attitude - like Elijah on Mt Horeb. Eventually the wind blew in the direction of the aged Pharisee - he, like Elijah, heard the sound of a gentle whisper. He became a secret disciple of Jesus only to come forward at his death and bury the broken body of his Master - an exquisitely tender and gracious act.

    Nicodemus' experience is shared by others. There is a sense in which even the disciples had to wait for the wind to blow in their direction. They had been adherents of John the Baptist and were looking, like Nicodemus, for the rebirth of the nation. Paul kicked against the goads. Luther agonised over what would satisfy a holy God. Wesley longed for assurance of salvation and inner peace. C. S. Lewis came slowly, slowly out of atheism to belief in God. Philip Yancey chaffed at the legalism of fundamentalist Christianity until he experienced grace. All were in varying states of perplexity until the wind blew in their direction.

    When I was a young man nothing in the gospel accounts perplexed me. I thought I knew when, in fact, I was in ignorance of the meaning of many passages. As the years pass I find more and more to puzzle over. Yet as I struggle to understand something Jesus said, something that doesn't make sense, suddenly the wind blows in my direction. The Spirit of Truth makes it clear.

    It is so important not to have a closed mind when studying a Bible passage. We must be honest, like Nicodemus, and say of a difficult section, "How can this be?" We need to listen out for the sound of the wind in the tree tops. What joy when we eventually hear the leaves rustle.

(G) Conclusion.

Jesus dealt with Nicodemus in a masterly fashion. The encounter between a leading Jewish academic and the Galilean craftsman illustrates perfectly the truth of John's words: He (Jesus) did not need man's testimony about man, for he knew what was in a man. He still does.

Finally, I am sure verse 13: No-one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven - the Son of Man - is part of John's commentary on the interview Nicodemus had with Jesus. The apostle establishes Jesus' authority to speak about heavenly things. He came from heaven and has returned to heaven. Heaven is his home. (I have dealt with the implications of this verse in my Article on Heaven and Hell - section, 'After Death')