What Jesus told Nicodemus revisited teaching that he already knew
Scriptures on this page are taken from the Amplified Version for additional clarity
John 3:1-17 is the account of a wealthy Pharisee and Bible teacher with the Greek-sounding name of Nicodemus (he is influential enough to be mentioned in other documents of the time) who visited Jesus at night, away from crowds and prying eyes to have a proper discussion. Nicodemus had heard of the miracles and healings that were associated with Jesus’ ministry. He recognised these as “signs of the kingdom” and wanted to find out more about this unusual prophet and teacher called Jesus of Nazareth, who was bringing signs and wonders, not to Judea but to provincial Galilee.
He asked Jesus about these signs of the kingdom, and Jesus gave him a reply that must have seemed like a riddle. He told strict, observant Nicodemus he would not be able to “see” – know, be acquainted with, and experience – the kingdom of God until he took a step of commitment. He had to move from his detailed *religious* knowledge of God, into a real and personal relationship.
To complicate things slightly, or possibly to simplify them, Nicodemus was actually face to face with God – God’s Son. But this was not the time for such a revelation. That could wait until the time of Jesus’ death, when Nicodemus enters the story again, assisting Joseph of Arimathea with the burial.
To Nicodemus’ honest question, about how it was that Jesus could be doing signs which showed so clearly the entry of God’s justice and healing for those afflicted by the devil, Jesus answered him: “I assure you and most solemnly say to you, unless a person is born again – reborn from above, spiritually transformed, renewed, sanctified – he cannot ever see and experience the kingdom of God.”
Nicodemus found this hard to grasp. From a human point of view, this talk of birth made no sense. Birth is not a repeatable experience… but then it begins to dawn on him, this is about spiritual birth, and spiritual birth is different.
Jesus went on to explain about the spiritual transformation, the new heart and new motivation that Ezekiel and Jeremiah in particular had foretold – passages that were familiar to Nicodemus.
It is worth us taking a moment to study these passages and getting familiar with them, because Jesus assumed that Nicodemus was familiar with them. We are not so well grounded with what we call the Old Testament as he was. So we need to ‘get on the same page’.
Starting back in the time of Moses it had been foretold:
And the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the hearts of your descendants – that is, He will remove the desire to sin from your heart – so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul, so that you may live as a recipient of His blessing.
For I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your uncleanness and from all your idols. Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you, and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will keep My ordinances and do them. You will live in the land that I gave to your fathers; and you will be My people, and I will be your God.
“Behold, the days are coming,” says the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel (the Northern Kingdom) and with the house of Judah (the Southern Kingdom), not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them,” says the Lord. “But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” says the Lord, “I will put My law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they will be My people. And each man will no longer teach his neighbour and his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they will all know Me (through personal experience), from the least of them to the greatest,” says the Lord. “For I will forgive their wickedness, and I will no longer remember their sin.”
Jesus answered, “I assure you and most solemnly say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot (ever) enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh – the physical is merely physical – and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be surprised that I have told you, ‘You must be born again – reborn from above: spiritually transformed, renewed, sanctified.’ The wind blows where it wishes and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it is coming from and where it is going; so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
Born of water and the Spirit
When He says “born of water and the Spirit” He is loosely quoting the Ezekiel saying: “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your uncleanness and from all your idols. Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you.”
Although Nicodemus would have known of John, he would not have understood “water” as referring to John’s baptism; he would be aware of John saying that he was the forerunner and not the Messiah.
In the early church (and much of the church today) baptism is a public act of commitment following becoming a Christian through new birth (and so not for infants).
The Christian faith is about changed lives, people becoming Christian disciples who encourage other Christian disciples. One of the things that makes baptism an exciting aspect of Christian worship is the opportunity to give glory to God for a changed life. As the candidate is surrounded by their friends, and prepares to enter the water in a symbolic death to the old life, and rising again to a new Sprit-empowered life, they first tell the story of discovering Jesus and His leading in their spiritual conversion.
The early church was well aware of the prophets who had spoken about the new heart and the new life, where God’s design for holy living would not be the constraints of being under law but the release of being empowered and envisioned by a power greater than human will, the Holy Spirit. This is what they were living out, in day by day gratitude to the Saviour who had redeemed them and purified them from their former independent lives in all their murkiness. That’s why Paul, writing to his protegé Titus, referred back to the language of Ezekiel and Jeremiah:
But when the goodness and kindness of God our Saviour and His love for mankind appeared – in human form as the Man, Jesus Christ – He saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we have done, but because of His own compassion and mercy, by the cleansing of the new birth –spiritual transformation, regeneration – and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out richly upon us through Jesus Christ our Saviour, so that we would be justified – made free of the guilt of sin – by His [compassionate, undeserved] grace, and that we would be [acknowledged as acceptable to Him and] made heirs of eternal life – actually experiencing it – according to our hope –His guarantee.
God’s intention, the Great Commandment
God plan was always to enable people to make a choice for Him and to love Him wholeheartedly, not as a duty like a crowd in a dictatorship holding aloft images of their supreme leader, but as a genuine response to discovering God’s heart of love. This is what happens when we come to know Jesus personally. His Holy Spirit enters our human spirit and we find ourselves needing to express in worship what words can only partially convey: our love for the Lord our God with all our heart and all our soul, in the words of Deuteronomy 30:6 above and in Jesus’ teaching about the ‘loving God’ part of the Great Commandment, Matthew 22:37.
Prayer to receive Jesus personally as Saviour and as Lord
Father, I am so grateful that You didn’t leave me lost and hopeless but sent Your Son, Jesus to be God that I could more easily relate to and know. Thank You so much that Jesus entered this world with all its sin and took that ungodly independence and selfishness rebellion on Himself, dying a shameful and horrific death to pay the price for that sin, of which my sin is a part.
Thank You that by receiving Jesus as my Saviour, I can know what it means to be accepted and in right standing with you in a way I could not possibly have earned or achieved. I receive it as Your gracious, undeserved, unmerited gift.
And as I acknowledge, You, Jesus, as My Saviour so I ask you fully into my life and all its decisions, priorities, preferences, possessions and human pride and I ask You to have the Lordship. May I grow as your disciple, empowered by Your Holy Spirit, and may the joy and peace and insight He gives me overflow to others, that I might encourage to become disciples of Yours, too.
Thank you for new life, for eternal life starting now, and for giving me a new perspective of Your kingdom order over and above the complexity of the world I live in. As I have received Jesus into my heart, so enable me to be Jesus, and to show Jesus, to others. I pray this as one who is His and giving all glory to You, Almighty God and loving Father. Amen.