Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night …
– John 3:1-2a (ESV)
One evening, when the disciples were with Jesus, there was a knock at the door. Who should it be but a well-known and highly-respected member of the Sanhedrim. He hadn’t come to chit-chat – it was obvious he had something on his mind.
…”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.”
– John 3:2b (ESV)
John tells us at the end of the last chapter that many believed in Jesus’ name when they saw the signs He did (John 2:23). Nicodemus was one such man, and he came on behalf of others who also believed… who knew Jesus was from God.
To confirm Nicodemus’ statement, Jesus goes directly into another teaching from God:
Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born from above he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
– John 3:3
I suppose Jesus responded this way because the kingdom of God was on Nicodemus’ mind. John the Baptist proclaimed the coming kingdom and many people followed. Jesus spoke the same message, and also told His disciples to do so. The Jews were obsessed with the coming kingdom (i.e. Matthew 18:1, Mark 11:10, 15:43, Luke 13:23).
But what Jesus said about entering God’s kingdom astounded Nicodemus. He didn’t say “unless you keep the Law”. He didn’t say “unless you love the Lord your God with all your heart” or “unless you repent and are baptised”. He said the kingdom of God can only be seen by those who have been born “from above”. (It’s the same Greek word translated “from above” used to describe Jesus’ origin in verse 31.)
Jesus declared that nothing we do can open the door to the kingdom of heaven.
“Yes, Nicodemus. I am come from God. But you cannot go where I came from without being born from above.”
God would have to do something to make us fit for His kingdom.
Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?”
– John 3:4 (ESV)
Nick knew that wasn’t what Jesus meant. Yet, he couldn’t figure out Jesus’ meaning. So Jesus helped him out:
Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, 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. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.'”
(Note: My personal belief is that “water” here refers to natural birth and corresponds to “flesh” in the next verse. If baptism were meant and required to enter the kingdom of God, I think Jesus would have spoken of it also in some detail, just as He did about the Holy Spirit’s part. However, whether “water” refers to natural birth or baptism, it is not from above: it is something man does. Jesus wants us to see that salvation is entirely something God does.)
Actually, “born” from above is somewhat misleading. What Jesus spoke of is a new conception (1 Peter 1:23, 1 John 3:9). The Greek word translated “born” in this passage means to procreate or to conceive. It’s the same word sometimes translated “begat”.
We talk about the miracle of the virgin birth, but there was nothing unusual about it. Mary gave birth to Jesus the same way every mother does. It was Jesus’ conception that was miraculous: He was conceived of the Holy Spirit.
The One who was begotten of the Holy Spirit told Nicodemus he also needed to be miraculously begotten of the Holy Spirit to enter the kingdom of God.
“The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
– John 3:8
At this time, only Jesus was “born of the Spirit”, so He was describing Himself. Nicodemus understood Jesus as having come from God in only a shallow sense (verse 2). He thought of Jesus merely as a man whom God raised up to be a prophet. He didn’t truly realize where Jesus came from (or where He was going). He did not realize he was having a conversation with God in human flesh.
Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?”
– John 3:9
Mary asked a similar question in Luke 1:34, and the angel responded “nothing God says shall be impossible.”
Nicodemus could have learned something from believing Mary (“be it to me according to your word”), who trusted in God to work out the details.
Maybe he did learn something, for it appears that Nicodemus eventually became a follower of Jesus (albeit a secret one).