There was a man named Nicodemus. That’s how John begins the next scene of his Gospel. The roughly 470 words (in the English translation) of Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus in John 3:1-21 provides an amazingly succinct explanation of God’s Good News. Woven in these words are themes of Kingdom, rebirth, eternal life, judgment, salvation, light and darkness. Reading those verses is like standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon, there is so much to see that we must stop and get out of the car.
John wrote, “Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews; this man came to Jesus by night and said to Him, “Rabbi, we know that You have come from God as a teacher; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.” Jesus answered and said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”” (John 3:1–3, NASB95)
A bit of background. Nicodemus was a man of influence and power. He belonged to the Jewish sect called the Pharisees and was part of the ruling council. Now, the Pharisees get a bit of a bum wrap in the Gospels since, in their zeal to obey God’s law they missed what was really happening. The Pharisees were striving after God and looking to hasten the coming of the Messiah through strict obedience to the Law of Moses. But they also dramatically missed it, which is common whenever legalism takes the place of relational faith.
Much has been made about Nicodemus coming to Jesus at night. We won’t speculate too far or assign motives that are not provided in scripture. Nicodemus begins by doing the polite thing. He identified Jesus as a Rabbi – a teacher sent by God. He acknowledged the signs Jesus has done but doesn’t enumerate them. But, before Nicodemus can get to a question, Jesus provides a startling answer, “unless one is born again, they cannot see the Kingdom of God.”
Born again is a curious construction. Jesus literally said something along the lines of “born again from above.” But Nicodemus didn’t hear the spiritual part. He responded as if Jesus meant literal physical rebirth. We’ll explore this more in the days to come.
Another theme in Jesus’ response is seeing the Kingdom of God. Remember that Nicodemus started by recognizing Jesus’ works. As if saying, “I see what you are doing, and it seems to come from God.” It seems as if Jesus is saying, “if you really want to see what God is up to, you must be born again from above.”
I’ve often wondered at how two people can absorb the majesty of the mountains or the glory of the Grand Canyon and come away with different conclusions. One sees the eons of time and the scientifically discovered causes for it. How plates pushed together, or rivers eroded over long years. While the other sees the hand of God and how the landscape declares His glory, power, and majesty. One is seeing the work of time; the other is seeing the kingdom of God. Exact same view, entirely different response.
If you can’t see God ‘s kingdom, if you can’t see his hand at work in this world, then perhaps a heart operation is in order. God is working, but until we are born again from above, we are not able to perceive it.
This, of course, leads us to a question. The same question Nicodemus asked, “How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born, can he?” (John 3:4, NASB95) How can I be born again? The answer will have to wait a few days until our next installment.