As we approach John chapter 3 let’s get a running head start…
John 2:23-25, “Now when Jesus was in Jerusalem at the Passover, during the feast, many believed in His name when they saw the signs which He did. But Jesus did not commit Himself to them, because He knew all men, and had no need that anyone should testify of man, for He knew what was in man.”
After cleansing the Temple John tells us that Jesus remained “in Jerusalem” for the entirety of “the feast” of “Passover.” During this week it’s likely Jesus was engaging the people by teaching as well as addressing practical needs by preforming “signs” or literally miracles. Sadly, we have no record of any of these things, but we shouldn’t be all that surprised.
Once again, at the end of his Gospel, John tells us that “truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book.” It’s a point many fail to consider, but if you were to create a harmony of all four Gospel narratives eliminating the redundancies you’ll come to find we only have a record of 36 miracles of Christ.
If, as we noted last Sunday, Jesus’ ministry spanned approximately 2.5 years this is only 1.2 miracles a month. My point is Jesus did much more than what we have recorded in the Bible!
John adds that as a result of these incredible miracles “many believed in Jesus’ name” specifically because of what “they saw” Him do! This would therefore explain why is was that “Jesus did not commit Himself to them.” While lost in English the Greek word stating these crowds “believed” is the same word translated here as “commit.” John is making his point utilizing a play on words. “Many believed in His name… But Jesus did not believe them.”
Because Jesus “knew all men… knowing what was in man” Jesus “had no need that anyone should testify” or literally bear witness of who He was and what He’d come to accomplish. It’s interesting but in the very next scene “what was in man” becomes a central topic!
Jesus knew faith based in what a person “saw” was in actuality the weakest form of faith - one that could easily be discouraged and fail. These crowds were wowed by the miracles, but would their faith remain when following Jesus led to a cross? Sadly, we know it wouldn’t.
So keep in mind the context for John 3 is that Jesus has just publicly cleansed the Temple and spent several days in Jerusalem teaching the multitudes and preforming miracles…
John 3:1-2, “There was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said, ‘Rabbi, we know that You are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.’”
Before we get to Jesus’ response and the fascinating conversation that ensues let’s begin by discussing what we know from the text about this man “Nicodemus.” First, John introduces “Nicodemus” (name meaning “conqueror”) as a Jewish “man” known specifically by his Greek surname. Since his Hebrew name is not provided, it’s likely Nicodemus was uniquely a Roman citizen with lots of clout in and outside of Israel - similar to Saul of Tarsus.
Because of this we can surmise that Nick grew up in a noble home, wealthy, and educated in both Jewish law as well as Greek culture. Nicodemus was well rounded. He knew the ins and outs of the Roman world, but remained deeply religious and loyal to his ethnic roots.
Secondly, John tells us Nicodemus was a member of the “Pharisees.” Historically, we know that within Israel the Pharisees had become a powerful political party that rose to prominence during the Second Temple Period following the failed Maccabean Revolution.
In actuality one of the most famous Pharisee was a first-century historian named Josephus. Josephus claimed the Pharisees received the “backing of the common man” in contrast to the more elitist, liberal Sadducees. The Pharisees were the majority party in Israel.
Fun Fact: While it’s impossible to say for sure, there does seem to be some historical evidence this Nicodemus presented in John 3 may have been the brother of Josephus.
Aside from being the party of the working man, the Pharisees were also known as the conservatives or the fundamentalists of their day. Every Pharisee was religiously educated holding to a strict, literal interpretation of the Scriptures. The Pharisees also had come to accept extra-Biblical authorities (Talmud and Mishna) as being divinely inspired as well.
As the afore mentioned Josephus noted in his chronicles, “The Pharisees were considered the most expert and accurate expositors of the Jewish law.” Their authority was considered so great they claimed prophetic or Mosaic authority for their interpretation of Scripture.
The biggest difference between the Pharisees and their contemporaries is that they believed all Jews had to obey the laws of purity (which applied to Temple service) in their daily lives.
As such they stressed a rigorous obedience to the Mosaic Laws and traditions not only for religious purposes, but in the attempts to stay off the assimilation of Jews into Greek secular culture. In contrast to the Hellenists - which were Jews who’d embraced Greek culture, Pharisees were considered Hebraic Jews. They were actively nationalistic in their thinking.
Finally, John tells us Nicodemus was “a ruler of the Jews.” Though the Hebrews were an oppressed people under the thumb of Rome, they were afforded a measure of autonomy.
A group of 70 powerful, Jewish men plus the High Priest made up what was known as the Sanhedrim. This group possessed immense political influence. Note: The only issue outside their authority to adjudicate was capital punishment which had been taken away in 6 AD.
As a member of this ruling body there is no question Nicodemus was a highly connected and a profoundly influential man. Not only was he educated, wealthy, religious, an expert in the Scriptures, and politically savvy, but we can see from our text that Nick was inquisitive and deeply interested in spiritual things. It’s why he decided to come speak with Jesus.
Though we can’t say with any type of certainty that Nicodemus had been to Bethabara to witness the ministry of John the Baptizer, it is safe to assume he had been given a report.
John 1:19-27, “This is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ He confessed, ‘I am not the Christ.’ And they asked him, ‘What then? Are you Elijah?’ He said, ‘I am not.’ ‘Are you the Prophet?’ And he answered, ‘No.’ Then they said to him, ‘Who are you, that we may give an answer to those who sent us? What do you say about yourself?’ He said: ‘I am ‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Make straight the way of the LORD,’ ’ as the prophet Isaiah said.’
Now those who were sent were from the Pharisees asked him, saying, ‘Why then do you baptize if you are not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?’ John answered them, ‘I baptize with water, but there stands One among you whom you do not know. ‘It is He who, coming after me, is preferred before me, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to loose.’”
Aside from Nicodemus being privy to the “testimony of John” claiming himself as the forerunner to the Messiah and hearing of the incredible crowds that had flocked to hear him preach this message of repentance, I’m confident Nick had witnessed Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple. Nicodemus probably stood off in the distance and contemplated what it all meant.
As a religious man Nicodemus knew what was happening in the Temple was a racket. He knew change was desperately needed. He’d seen first hand the greed and wickedness of the Temple Cartel headed up by Annas and Caiaphas. Undoubtedly a part of Nicodemus admired the fierceness of Jesus as He boldly defended the honor of God and took action.
I’m sure Nicodemus had been in the back of the crowd listening intently when (John 2:18-20) the Jews asked Jesus, once the dust had settled, “What sign do You show to us, since You do these things?” Imagine his reaction when “Jesus answered and said, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’” Like everyone else Nicodemus found this perplexing.
The flow of our text suggests Nicodemus’ interest in Jesus deepened the more he was exposed to the man and His ministry. During the remainder of the “feast of Passover,” Nicodemus was in the large mob listening to Jesus teach the Word of God with authority.
Aside from this Nicodemus had seen the miracles. What an amazing display of the power of God. What did all of this mean? Who was this man? At some point something so stirred in Nicodemus’ soul that he had to come and personally meet with Jesus.
John tells us Nicodemus “came to Jesus by night.” While we’re not given the specific location of this meeting, it’s important to point out it was Nicodemus who sought out Jesus. What humility! Understand the decorum would have necessitated a man of Nicodemus’ wealth, stature, and political standing send for Jesus (a relative newcomer) to come meet with him.
And yet, right from the start Nicodemus already realizes there is something about Jesus that made Him much greater than himself. Nicodemus “coming to Jesus” immediately demonstrated an obvious measure of respect. Even without fully knowing who Jesus was and what He’d come to accomplish, Nick’s approach intentionally seeks to honor Jesus.
Though some Bible scholars believe this meeting occurred under the cover of darkness because Nicodemus didn’t want anyone to know he was meeting with Jesus (as if he was afraid to be identified with Him), I’m more of the opinion he came “by night” because it was the only time he was going to be able to have a one on one conversation with Jesus.
Notice in his greeting Nicodemus confesses two things about Jesus: First, he calls Jesus a “Rabbi” and “a teacher.” What makes this interesting is that Nick affirms a position Jesus hadn’t formally earned. Explain the educational process in first-century Hebrew culture.
So we must ask if Jesus was a carpenter by trade how had He assumed this important title of Rabbi? It’s interesting that while Jesus never once used this title for Himself, He never refused the title when it was used by others. Just do a word study of “Rabbi” and you’ll be amazed how often even His closest followers referred to Jesus using this title.
It would appear the way in which Jesus expounded upon the Scriptures was so dynamic and insightful and that He spoke was with such an undeniable authority that the formal title of “Rabbi” was simply the most appropriate way to describe Him. And yet, the grandest of all ironies is that the more fitting title would have been “Christ” not just “teacher!”
Secondly, Nicodemus affirms Jesus had “come from God” because “no one could do these signs unless God was with him.” While Nicodemus’ understanding of Jesus was obviously incomplete, he does affirm the divine anointing Jesus clearly possessed.
Yes, we know Jesus was in actuality God, but at a minimum Nicodemus was willing to confess that Jesus was acting under the authority and direction of the Most High God. This and this alone was an important concession for the conversation that would soon follow.
One final observation before we dig into Jesus’ response. I find it of a particular interest that Nicodemus begins his confession, “We know…” What’s implied is that Nicodemus was not the only member of the Jewish Sanhedrin that affirmed these things about Jesus. And yet, sadly, it was only Nicodemus who allowed his curiosity to manifest into an encounter.
John 3:3, “Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.’”
What an interesting approach by Jesus. All Nicodemus has done is confess that Jesus was a “Rabbi” who without question had God’s anointing, but he hasn’t asked a question. And yet, Jesus’ response seems to immediately go to the much deeper reason Nicodemus had come.
It would appear the real motive behind Nicodemus’ meeting with Jesus centered upon the topic of “the kingdom of God.” To the Jewish understanding in that day “the kingdom of God” was seen as a literal, physical kingdom whereby the Messiah would rule and reign the world from Jerusalem. And while this was not a false understanding, it was incomplete.
Though we could take an entire study to unpack this concept, for our purposes this morning please note “the kingdom of God” is the spiritual kingdom whereby Jesus Christ rules over the hearts of man through the indwelling of His Holy Spirit. Yes, it will one day be a “kingdom” that will manifest on earth physically with Jesus on the throne, but it’s a kingdom that already exists presently in the spiritual realm extending to the hearts of man.
Not only was “the kingdom of God” the central theme of Jesus’ teaching ministry (Mark 1:14-15, “Jesus came to Galilee preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.’”), but the topic was also central to His post-resurrection ministry as well. In Acts 1:3-8 we read that Jesus “presented Himself alive after His suffering by many infallible proofs, being seen by them during forty days and speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God.
And being assembled together with them, He commanded them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the Promise of the Father, ‘which,’ He said, ‘you have heard from Me; for John truly baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.’ Therefore, when they had come together, they asked Him, saying, ‘Lord, will You at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?’ (The kingdom is still central.)
And He said to them, ‘It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has put in His own authority. But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, all Judea and Samaria, to the end of the earth.’”
Nicodemus comes to Jesus that night because he’s looking for the physical manifestation of “the kingdom of God” like so many of his fellow countrymen. The “kingdom” was something Nicodemus wanted to “see” or better translated “know!” Not only is he interested in when the “kingdom” was coming, but he wanted to know how he could be apart of it!
Imagine Nicodemus’ surprise and obvious befuddlement when Jesus says, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.’” How did Jesus know that was the topic on his mind? Aside from that “born again”? What in the world?
In the Greek Jesus begins by saying, “Most assuredly!” What we have here is actually the repetition of the same word which can be translated as “Amen and Amen” or “Verily, Verily.” Jesus begins His response by completely agreeing with Nicodemus’ confession!
Eugene Peterson’s commentary on this passage presents the exchange this way… “‘Rabbi, we all know you’re a teacher straight from God. No one could do all the God-pointing, God-revealing acts you do if God weren’t in on it.’ Jesus said, ‘You’re absolutely right.’”
It’s as though Jesus is telling Nicodemus, “Yep, I am sent by God and since you’re curious about the kingdom let me explain how you will see it… You must be born again! There is literally no other way!” “Unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
In the Greek Jesus is being literal and emphatic. The word “born” references the process of physical birth, but the word “again” implies a second time like the first - specifically “from above” or a birth of a different origin. When Jesus uses this phrase “born again” He’s speaking of a rebirth of man (similar to the first) originating from a higher place.
It should also be pointed out what’s being implied… A birth is not something one can do, but is instead a work that must be done for you. You were physically born via the natural processes of the labor of your mother and in the same way this rebirth occurs via the natural processes of the labor of God. It’s a work done on your behalf.
For example… No child exits the womb declaring, “Wow I did it!” As a matter of fact, the smoothest of births occurs when the child gets completely out of the way. You see none of my children chose to be a member of my family. Instead, they were all born into my family! The work of conception and birth happened apart from their specific involvement.
Jesus then adds that apart from this rebirth being done for you - you simply “cannot see the kingdom of God” unless it happens! Once again this word “see” is better understood to mean “know” or “to experience.” “Cannot” in the Greek is “dynamai” meaning power or capability.
Jesus is telling Nicodemus that apart from this rebirth initiated by God “the kingdom cannot” be experienced. Without being “born again” he simply lacks the capability. Jesus is saying it is the rebirth of man that imparts to man the power to experience the kingdom of God.
John 3:4, “Nicodemus said to Jesus, ‘How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?’”
There is no question Nicodemus is tracking with what Jesus is saying and his question isn’t rooted in skepticism as some suppose. The fact is his question is absolutely logical all things considered. Keep in mind, Nicodemus is not questioning Jesus’ assertion about the essential importance of rebirth as it relates to “the kingdom of God.” Instead, Nicodemus is wanting an explanation as to the mechanism by which this can happen!
Aside from the practicalities, Nicodemus’ inquiry gets to the core implications of what Jesus is describing. “How can a man be born when he is old?” It’s as though Nick is asking Jesus in response to this rebirth and transformation… “Jesus, aren’t we the way that we are? Is the fundamental change of oneself actually possible? Can an old man really be born again?”
Isn’t this really the most important philosophical question people grapple with - the ability to change our ways? If we’re being honest this morning it’s the question that drive us to a therapist, a guru, or for that matter religion. In the face of failure, insecurities, or destructive behaviors we want to know… “Can I actually change? Can I really be freed from my anger or addiction? Am I bound to the proclivities of my flawed genetics or sinful tendencies?”
Or… “Can being “born again” really accomplish in my life what it implies? Is it possible for me to become someone different? Is new life tangible? Is the transformation of self attainable? Can I actually become the very person I am not, but desperately need to be? Can I change?”
John 3:5-6, “Jesus answered, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.”
Once again the use of this duplicate Greek word translated “most assuredly” tells us Jesus heartedly agrees with Nicodemus’ question. It was the right question to ask! As it pertains to this fundamental transformation of man initiated by a rebirth through a work of God - Jesus continues by explaining the how by utilizing a concept Nicodemus already knew well.
“Nicodemus, you understand flesh naturally begets flesh. Experientially you get this. With this in mind consider that the rebirth I’m speaking of has nothing to do with man’s flesh and instead has everything to do with his spirit. The spirit of man deadened by sin can be born again through an internal work of the Holy Spirit.” “That which is born of the Spirit is spirit.”
Don’t forget that Nicodemus is a religious man who understands the ineffectiveness of religious works changing one’s internal constitution. The entire basis of his question concerning man’s inability to change was his own failure to experience change through his religious efforts. He knew sinful flesh only yielded more sinful flesh. Change was impossible.
You see Jesus is telling Nicodemus that the transformation of man essential to “enter the kingdom of God” occurs not in the flesh (the outward man), but internally - in his spirit! Whereas the human spirit corrupted by sin gives life to the flesh and drives its sinful tendencies, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit of God changes the entire equation. New birth and therefore new life (change) happens automatically in a person filled with the Spirit!
In 2 Corinthians 5:17 Paul would write, “If anyone is in Christ (or the Holy Spirit is in you), he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.”
When Jesus tells Nicodemus, “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” He’s saying “the kingdom of God” requires man experience two births! The first is a physical birth by “water” and the other is a new birth by “the Spirit!”
Man must be first born in Adam, but then because of the death caused by his inherited sin nature he must also be born again in Jesus through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. In Romans 5 Paul expounds on this entire concept concluding in verse 19, “For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners (speaking of our birth in Adam), so also by one Man’s obedience many will be made righteous (a second birth occurring in Jesus).”
John 3:7-9, “Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit.’ Nicodemus answered and said to Him, ‘How can these things be?’”
When Jesus tells him “you must be born again” the look on Nicodemus’ face must have said it all. In the Greek this word “must” is in the imperative. It’s essential. It’s a nonnegotiable. Being “born again” has to take place for you to experience “the kingdom of God.”
But then also notice Jesus says, “You must be born again.” In order to understand how radicle an idea this was for Nicodemus don’t forget how devoutly religious he was. As a Pharisee his entire worldview was based on earning God’s approval through his works.
His entire life had been dedicated to a belief system that demanded he obey every single nuance of the Levitical Law to find favor with God. From his childhood he’d studied hard, memorized the Torah and the prophets, dedicated himself to a strict religious discipline.
How shocking it must have been for Nicodemus to hear Jesus not give him instructions on additional things he had to do, but rather tell him what he must become. New birth is something you become. It’s happens to you, it’s not something you do or manufacture. It’s a work of God preformed on your behalf! Nicodemus’ mind was blown!
It’s almost as though Jesus can perceive Nicodemus’ thoughts. As he’s processing what Jesus is saying he’s thinking to himself, “If this all occurs in the spirit of man, how do you know it’s actually happened?” Jesus exhorts him not to “marvel” before using the wind as an illustration. “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
Jesus is saying evidence of the internal rebirth of man (though you can’t see it since it occurs in the spirit realm) will make itself evident in an outward change. Like the wind, the natural transformation of “everyone who is born of the Spirit” will be something the rest of the world will be able to experience. God will preform this work of rebirth which will then manifest itself through man in a very tangible and public way.
This entire idea is so unbelievably revolutionary to Nicodemus his only reaction is to ask Jesus, “How can these things be?” Though Jesus will answer this question beginning in verse 14 taking Nick back to Numbers, He’ll first issue a challenge to Nicodemus in four of the most radicle verses in the entire New Testament. We’ll get to these things next Sunday.
As we close, if these truths concerning Jesus strike a cord in your heart you’re willing to accept and surrender yourself to, please in the depths of your soul pray…
“Dear Jesus, I know I am a sinner and that I cannot save myself. I believe You are the Son of God who died on the cross to atone for my sins. I place my complete faith in that work as the only basis for my forgiveness, restoration, and righteousness before You. I confess that on the 3rd day You rose from the dead providing me a relationship with You today. Right now, Jesus I choose to repent of my sins and ask that by Your grace You fill me with Your Holy Spirit. Take my broken life and make it whole. Transform who I am from the inside out. Jesus, I confess You as both my God, my personal Lord, and my eternal Savior. Amen.”
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