The Manifestation of Messiah to Nicodemus (John 3:1-21)
Several years ago a certain educator was appointed to the presidency of a well-known university which has a theological school known for its extremely liberal theological position. When this president was asked to speak to a group of local businessmen, he told them a story which he considered quite amusing. While the president was downtown, he passed by a Salvation Army kettle and stopped to put in a contribution. The elderly volunteer who stood by confronted this dignitary with the question, “Are you saved?” He replied that he supposed that he was, but she pursued, “I mean, have you ever given your full life to the Lord?” It was at this point that the president said he thought that he should inform this persistent woman with his identity. He said, “I am the president of such and such university, and as such I am also president of its school of theology.” The lady gave that a moment’s thought and then replied, “It doesn’t matter wherever you’ve been, or whatever you are, you can still be saved.”
The most tragic part of this story is that the seminary president actually thought this story was amusing, and so did his audience. The reason why I have shared this true story with you is because it is strikingly similar to an account recorded in the Word of God in the third chapter of John’s Gospel. The renowned theologian of this time in history was named Nicodemus. His problem was precisely that of the man who was confronted by the elderly Salvation Army volunteer—he thought that his position and his religion was what constituted him as acceptable before God.
Before we go on let me caution you that this may be your problem, too. The thing that will keep many men and women from God’s heaven is the very thing upon which so many men rely—their religion. It would surely not be an original title, but this account might well be labeled “How to Be Religious Without Being a Christian.” The question which John will pose to us in this lesson is simply this: Are you a Christian, or merely religious?
For the Christian, there is much instruction in this passage concerning the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, and how it can be shared with others. In addition, we find in Nicodemus a beautiful demonstration of that fatal disease which troubled Judaism. For in this interview we see the theology of the Jews contrasted with that of their Messiah.
The Man Who Met the Messiah
One’s initial temptation in being introduced to Nicodemus is to berate and belittle. We are inclined to think of him as the man who was so cowardly that he had to sneak into his interview with Jesus by cover of darkness. To the twentieth century Christian, Nicodemus has several strikes against him. First of all, he was a Jewish leader. John tells us that he was a ‘ruler of the Jews.’ By this, John meant to inform us that Nicodemus was a member of the Sanhedrin, which was the highest and most powerful religious and political body within Judaism.66 It was this body of men which was ultimately responsible for the shabby trial and unlawful execution of our Lord. Second, Nicodemus was also a Pharisee.67 By and large, it would probably be safe to say that the Pharisees were the religious conservatives of their day, while their counterparts, the Sadducees were the liberals. The Pharisees believed in the inspiration and authority of the Old Testament Scriptures and in the supernatural (miracles, life after death, angels, demons). The Pharisees were separatists (in fact the word Pharisee means separated), who made every effort to keep Judaism pure of heathen influences. You and I would be far more comfortable in the company of a Pharisee than a Sadducee. The great problem with Pharisaism was that they had become highly ritualistic and legalistic. The Old Testament was to be interpreted in accordance with oral traditions passed down and recorded in almost endless volumes. Traditions became of higher priority than sound biblical interpretation. Nicodemus’ problem was that he relied upon conformity to the moral codes of Judaism and observance of religious ritual for entrance to the kingdom of God.
Having said all this, we do Nicodemus a great disservice to suppose that he was some kind of weak-kneed coward, coming to Jesus as he did. Our Lord implied that he was perhaps one of the most well-known and respected religious teachers of his day.68 In John 7:50-52, we read of Nicodemus taking a very unpopular stand with his colleagues in defense of the Lord Jesus. In John 19:39 Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea came forth publicly to bury Jesus when all of the disciples had fled.
It is hard to conceive of the difficulties which Nicodemus overcame to speak with Jesus. When Jesus cleansed the Temple, it was the Sadducees with whom our Lord most dramatically clashed, for they were the establishment. The Pharisees no doubt detested the ‘simony’ going on in the Temple courts under the auspices of the Sadducees. But it was also clear from the ministry of both John the Baptist and Jesus that Jesus had not come to ally Himself with traditional Judaism. To put it in Jesus’ own words, He had not come to put a patch on Judaism, but to replace it with something entirely new (cf. Mark 2:21-22). Jesus had not come from within the system. He had not been trained at the feet of men such as Gamaleil. He had no diplomas from the leading Jewish schools. Worse yet, He was a Galilean, disdained by any Judaean Jew.69 Nicodemus’ coming to Jesus was somewhat akin to the president of the AMA asking the medical advice of a hospital orderly or Muhammad Ali seeking boxing pointers from a ruffian on the streets of New York. It was like the Pope seeking advice in a passage of Scripture from Martin Luther. What I am saying in all of this is that in focusing our attention on the fact that Nicodemus came to our Lord at night, we lost sight of the significance of the fact that he came at all!
The Theology of Nicodemus Turned Upside-Down
As we begin to focus upon the interview between Jesus and Nicodemus, it is important to understand why John chose to record this incident. I personally suspect that John was present at this conversation. John does not record this encounter with Jesus to show us the conversion of Nicodemus, for no affirmation of faith is recorded here. Nicodemus came to Jesus, perhaps out of his own personal interest in Jesus, but in spite of this he beautifully represents the classical stance of orthodox and conservative Judaism at the time of Jesus.70 This seems evident in the words of our Lord in verse 11: “Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak that which we know, and bear witness of that which we have seen; and you (plural) do not receive our witness.”
In this discussion, the theology of Jesus is contrasted against the backdrop of contemporary Jewish orthodoxy, represented by Nicodemus. Here is how Nicodemus and all of Judaism must change their thinking before they can see the kingdom of God. Nicodemus’ evaluation of the person of Jesus is stated in verse 2: “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.”
From this, I would conclude that to Nicodemus Jesus was at least accepted as a prophet, a bonafide spokesman for God. The signs our Lord had performed in Jerusalem had convinced him of that. But the theology of Nicodemus and his contemporaries did not go nearly far enough. Because of this Jesus overturned Jewish theology at several crucial points. This is spelled out in the following verses.
(1) The Kingdom is experienced, not by reform, but by rebirth, verses 3-4. Essentially, Judaism believed that would come when all Israel obeyed the Law for one single day. The problem for Nicodemus, and others like him, was to reform the nation. The kingdom was almost exclusively an earthly one to the Jews, and it would begin when they could ‘clean up their act’ sufficiently for Messiah to come. Jesus had something far different to say on this subject: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again,71 he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3).
The figure of speech ‘born again’ was not foreign to Nicodemus. It was a figure applied to a bridegroom on the occasion of his marriage, to the Chief of the Academy on his promotion, to the king on his enthronement, and to the proselyte on his entrance into Judaism.72 The application of this expression to the entrance of a Jew into the kingdom of God left Nicodemus’ head reeling. A literal interpretation of these words seem most likely, but made no sense at all. This statement by our Lord caught him completely off guard, and the complete lack of understanding on the part of Nicodemus is apparent. “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).
(2) The essence of rebirth is not physical, but spiritual, verses 5-8. There is a material aspect of the kingdom. Our Lord will come bodily to the earth and establish the Millennial Kingdom for the nation Israel, fulfilling Old Testament prophecies. But this was all that the Jews could think about—just the physical and material side of the kingdom. Nicodemus revealed that he was thinking materialistically and not spiritually. Our Lord restated the biblical requirements for entrance into the kingdom in different terms: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God” (John 3:5).
This expression, ‘born of water and the Spirit’ has not clarified the issue, but clouded it, at least for many theologians. Some have found in it evidence for the unbiblical doctrine of baptismal regeneration (i.e., that baptism is the means of salvation, rather then the manifestation of it). Others interpret it to mean that men must be born both physically (of water) and spiritually (of the Spirit). This position has much to commend it, for water was employed in those days symbolically for human sperm.73 Also, the next verse (verse 6) contrasts that which is merely physical from that which is spiritual in nature.
If Scripture is best interpreted by Scripture, the best commentary on these words of our Lord is to be found in Ezekiel 36:24-27, where the prophet speaks of the future restoration of the nation Israel:
“For I will take you from the nations, gather you from all the lands, 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 filthiness 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. And I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances.”
Here the rebirth of the nation Israel (cf. also Ezekiel 37) is described in terms of washing (with water) and the induement of the Spirit. As a teacher of Israel, more than this as ‘the’ teacher of Israel (vs. 10), Nicodemus should have associated the statement of Jesus with the words of Ezekiel concerning the establishment of the kingdom. Ezekiel used both water and the Spirit with reference to the process of spiritual birth, by which men entered into the kingdom of God. Israel must not enter into the kingdom by means of reform, but by rebirth. And more than this, it is by means of a spiritual rebirth, whereby God cleanses His people and places within them His Spirit.
The work of the Spirit is distinct from that of the flesh. They are real in two different dimensions. Rebirth is a spiritual process. The work of the Holy Spirit cannot be observed or controlled, but its effects, like that of the wind, are obvious (verses 6-8).
Further Clarification, verses 9-12. Nicodemus could not seem to grasp what he was being told, for he questioned, “How can these things be?” (verse 9). Our Lord gently rebuked the ignorance of Nicodemus, for as yet He has not gotten to the more difficult aspects of His teaching. As ‘the teacher’ of Israel Nicodemus should have immediately recognized what our Lord was talking about, for entrance into the kingdom of God by rebirth was revealed by the Old Testament prophets. Our Lord had not yet ventured from the theological stomping ground of those who taught from the Old Testament Scriptures.
Nevertheless, it was at these very crucial points that Jesus differed from contemporary Judaism, including Nicodemus (verse 12). When our Lord used the expression ‘we’ (‘we speak,’ ‘we know,’ ‘we have seen,’) it may be that He was alluding to the presence of some of His disciples. I am more inclined to think that our Lord was referring to Himself and John the Baptist, His predecessor. If Nicodemus cannot understand those things of which the Old Testament writers spoke (the ‘earthly things,’ verse 12), how would he be able to grasp the even deeper spiritual truths which our Lord was about to reveal (in verses 13-21)?
(3) Jesus: Not a Man sent from God, but God come as Man, verse 13. The one thing about Jesus that impressed the crowds (Matt. 7:28-29) and irritated the Jewish leaders (Matt. 91:23) was that He taught and acted with authority. The basic issue for a Pharisee like Nicodemus was the authority of Jesus. Nicodemus was willing to grant, by virtue of the signs performed by our Lord, that Jesus was a man sent from God, but this was not nearly enough. Jesus was God sent as a man. Our Lord’s heavenly origin set him apart from every other Israelite, even the great men such as Abraham, Moses and the prophets: “And no one has ascended into heaven, but He who descended from heaven, even the Son of man!” (John 3:13).
This is why Jesus was qualified to speak to Nicodemus of ‘heavenly things’ (verse 12)—He is the only one come down from heaven. He is the Son of Man. In my opinion, our Lord employed the term ‘Son of Man’ with reference to Himself with the specific intent of identifying Himself with the Messiah, referred to in Daniel 7:13 as the ‘Son of Man.’74 Neither Nicodemus nor anyone else can give sufficient heed to the words of our Lord Jesus, until they have come to grips with His person. He is God come as man. Once that is settled, men must heed His teaching.
(4) Jesus: Exalted, not by a crown, but by a cross, verses 14-15. Every devout Israelite eagerly awaited the coming of Messiah. They looked for Him to be lifted up, to be exalted as the King of Israel. But what they failed to comprehend was that the kingdom was not initiated by a crown, but by a cross. The triumphal entry was Israel’s idea of the introduction of the kingdom. What the nation failed to understand was that God’s sequence is suffering, then glory; the cross, then the crown (cf. Philippians 2:5-11).
“And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; that whoever believes may in Him have eternal Life” (John 3:14-15).
From his background Nicodemus could understand that to be ‘born again’ meant an entrance into a new state, a new condition. He should have understood by now that this rebirth was not a material or fleshly matter, but that produced by the mysterious workings of the Holy Spirit. But the basis of that rebirth is only now revealed by our Lord. The basis for entrance into eternal life is the work of the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ on the cross. It is by virtue of the fact that God’s Messiah has been lifted up on the cross of Calvary that men can be born again.
To facilitate the Jewish mindset of Nicodemus, our Lord likened His death upon the cross to the lifting up of the bronze serpent in the wilderness as recorded in the book of Numbers chapter 21. When the Israelites rebelled against Moses and God, God sent fiery serpents to smite the rebels. When Moses interceded for the people, God instructed him to make a bronze serpent and to lift it up on a pole. Those who were bitten had only to look upon this bronze serpent to be healed.
The death of Jesus upon the cross was much like this. Men are guilty, sinners—rebels against God, and under the sentence of death. Jesus Christ took upon Himself the sins of men and suffered the wrath of God in their place. He was lifted up on a cross, bearing their punishment, and God’s holy wrath. Those who look up to Him, who trust in Him for forgiveness of sins are born again and enter into the kingdom of God.
How is one to see the kingdom of God? He must be born again, that is, he must enter into a new kind of life by the work of the Holy Spirit, based upon the work of Jesus Christ upon the cross of Calvary. To be born again is to admit that you are suffering from the terminal illness of sin and to find healing from it in the work of Jesus Christ on the cross for sinners. It is to believe that He died in your place and provides you with His righteousness, thus accomplishing entrance for you into His Kingdom.
The Heart of God and the Hearts of Men
The previous verses seem to have said it all. What more is there to say? Bible students are not all agreed as to who is talking in verses 16-21. Some say it is our Lord; others, that John is now editorializing. It really makes little difference, for either way it is still the Word of God. Whether or not it is printed in red ink is only a matter of academic interest.
What is important to me about these verses is that we are taken beyond the meaning of salvation, taken beyond the means of our salvation, to the motive behind it. It is not sufficient for the writer of this Gospel under inspiration to simply tell us how God has made salvation available to men, but He is constrained to also tell us why. Here we are exposed to the heart of God, as well as to the hearts of men.
I suspect that most of you realize that I am what would be called a ‘Calvinist,’ not because I am a follower of Calvin, nor because I am overly excited about some others who claim the same distinction, but because I believe this best fits the teaching of Scripture. I hope you will understand what I say when I suggest that in many ways the Pharisees, such as Nicodemus, were very inclined toward Calvinistic viewpoints.75 They believed in the sovereignty of God, for example. They were firm believers in election. The difference is that they believed God had elected Jews to salvation and condemned the rest. The Pharisees were separatists who strove to keep Judaism distinct from pagan influence. They despised paganism. They even disdained the common people of Israel who were not nearly so meticulous on matters of ceremonial cleansings and so on (John 7:48-49). The love of God did not seem to dominate their thinking, or their actions. It is for this reason, I believe, that our Lord did not stop with the plan of salvation, but went on to probe the reason for it.
“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
Here the heart of God is revealed. It is not the love of the Son which is here emphasized but rather the love of the Father Who gave the Son. The cross of Calvary is the measure of God’s love for man. Now any Pharisee would gladly agree with this. The bitter pill for them to swallow was the revelation that God’s gift of eternal life through the death of His Son was for ‘the world.’ The doctrine of election confirmed for the Pharisee salvation for every Jew, and consigned the nations to perdition. But the love of God constrained Him to make provision for the salvation of men from every nation. This was news for the Jews.
If the positive motivation for the cross of Calvary was the love of God, negatively it must also be said that the primary motivation for sending the Son was not in order to condemn men: “For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world; but that the world should be saved through Him!” (John 3:17). Salvation, not damnation, was the purpose of God’s love for mankind. Condemnation was incidental, but not primary in God’s gift of His Son at Calvary. Verses 18 and 19 help to clarify this point:
“He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light is come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the light, for their deeds were evil” (John 3:18-19).
Strictly speaking, the coming of Christ to the world and His death on the cross did not condemn men to eternal damnation. Men were already condemned. The Son came to accomplish salvation for condemned men. He came into a world of sinners, who were under the sentence of death. Those who look to Him for salvation are delivered from condemnation. Those who do not remain in the state of condemnation in which they were found. Our Lord’s death is the solution, not the problem. Our Lord came as light to reveal man’s need of a Savior. Men revealed their sinfulness by rejecting that light and nailing Him to the cross. It was because men were condemned sinners that Christ came to provide salvation. It was because men were worthy of condemnation that they rejected His provision.
While verses 16 and 17 reveal the motive of God in sending the Son, verses 20 and 21 expose the wickedness of the hearts of those who reject Him.
“For everyone who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But he who practices the truth comes to the light, that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God” (John 3:20-21).
Man is a sinner. He does not sin reluctantly, but with pleasure. When his wickedness is exposed, he has no intention of forsaking sin, and so he extinguishes the light which reveals it. Man in both deed and motive is a sinner. It is for this reason that he is worthy of condemnation. It is for this reason God sent His Son to save.
Conclusion and Application
We must begin to apply this portion of Scripture to our own lives only after we have grasped what our Lord’s teaching meant to Nicodemus. By these words of our Lord, Nicodemus learned that entrance into the kingdom of God necessitated his forsaking much of the traditional theology of his peers, for the teaching of Christ. The kingdom was to be entered, not by the rigorous keeping of the Law and traditions of Judaism, nor by religious reform, but by radical rebirth. This rebirth is not to be achieved by human effort, but is the work of the Spirit of God. Jesus was not merely a man sent from God, but God sent in the form of man. The Messiah was to be exalted, not with a crown, but on a cross, and by looking to Him, men would be saved. The salvation which Christ was to accomplish was not for Jews only, but for men from all nations who would look to Christ for salvation. God’s primary motive in sending the Son was not condemnation (though this must inevitably result), but salvation. It was the motive of love. Men are condemned, not by Christ’s coming, but by their own condition which is manifested in their rejection of Christ.
If this interview with Jesus had much for Nicodemus, it also says much to us, for there are countless men and women who look to their religion to save them. The university president who relies on his position to save him is representative of all too many today. This last week Pope John Paul died what would appear to be an untimely death. Someone asked what I thought of his passing, and I responded that my only question was whether or not he was born again. My friend, have you been trusting in your religion to save you? You must be born again! God does not demand reform; He has provided rebirth. It is not your efforts which can save you, but God’s reaching out in the person of His Son Who died in your place, Who took your punishment, and Who offers His righteousness in place of your wretchedness.
Several years ago when I was teaching in Plano I was involved in a time of Bible study and fellowship with some of the students. We met in the home of a couple who attended a denominational church. We happened to observe the Lord’s Table that night and I spent some time explaining what the elements represented. The following week as our meeting was getting started some of the kids were sharing their experiences of the week. The hostess could not wait to share what had happened to her. “Do you know what happened to me this week?” she questioned. “I got saved.” She had been a member of that church for years. Years before she had walked down the aisle, thinking that this would make her a Christian. But all along she had not been born again. In what are you resting, my friend? Are you trusting in the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ on the cross on your behalf, or are you trusting in your religion? You must be born again!
There is in this account a word of caution for those of us who count ourselves among those who are labeled Calvinists, for all too often we present the doctrine of election in such a way as to give the impression that God chooses one and rejects the other with no more emotion than a tornado which levels one house and leaves another. It is God Who ultimately determines the destiny of men, but He does so with great compassion. He saves men out of His love. He condemns men out of His justice, but He never delights in it. It is His ‘strange work’ (Isaiah 28:21). In determining to save some, He chooses to pass over others, but they are already condemned by their own sins and they willfully reject the provision of salvation in Christ freely offered to all men.
Finally, there is much for us as Christians to learn concerning methods of evangelism. We talk far too much about commitment to Christ and far too little about conversion. As James Stahr has aptly put it:
“Conveniently set aside is the Bible teaching that man is an enemy of God who needs to be reconciled (Rom. 5:10; Col. 1:21). Instead, man is pictured as a nice guy with a few problems, who only needs to realize that God is even nicer, and the two ought to get together.
In modern evangelism ‘commitment’ is substituted for ‘salvation.’ Good, moral upright people can make a commitment without the humbling experience of admitting they are sinners, much less lost.”76
Modern evangelists would be greatly troubled at the methodology of our Lord, for He did not press Nicodemus for a decision. I do not personally feel that Nicodemus left this interview saved, but rather greatly troubled. In time he came to faith, but Jesus did not feel constrained to ‘twist his arm’ as so many do today. Presenting the Gospel is a far different thing than selling insurance. Our job is not to get men’s signatures, but to confront them with the truth.
May God apply the truth of this passage to each of our lives.
66 “The Sanhedrin, under the chairmanship of the High Priest, was both the supreme religious council and the national parliament. It was also the supreme court for all except political charges. Their powers were limited by Romans rule, but their influence was still enormous. To the ordinary Jew, they were the true government.” R. T. France, I Came to Set the Earth on Fire (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1976), p. 21.
67 Perhaps no one has more concisely summarized the different sects within Judaism than James Stewart, when he writes, “The Pharisees had externalized religion, had made it a matter of outward observance, not of the heart. There were the scribes. The scribes had professionalized religion; they were the dry ecclesiastics, not saints with the fire of God in them. There were Sadducees. The Sadducees had secularized religion; they were skeptical and worldly. There were the zealots. The zealots had nationalized religion, making it a mere adjunct and slave to their one consuming ambition, ‘Down with Rome and up with Jewry!’” James S. Stewart, The Life and Teaching of Jesus Christ (Nashville: Abingdon, 1978), p. 24.
69 “A certain Galilean once went about enquiring, ‘Who had ‘amar?’ ‘Foolish Galilean,’ they said to him, ‘do you mean an “ass” for riding, “wine” to drink, ‘wool” for clothing or a “lamb: for killing?”’ (Babylonian Talmud, Erubin 53b).
This Jewish joke, which pokes fun at the slovenly speech of Galilee with its indistinct vowels and dropped aitches, indicates the Jerusalem Jew’s attitude to his northern neighbours. Galilee had once been predominately Gentile territory, and even now its population was far from completely Jewish. Cut off from Judaea by the hostile territory of Samaria, and under a different system of goverment, it tended to develop along its own independent lines of speech and character, and of religious tradition. Hence the great disdain in which a Judaean Jew held his Galilean brother.” R. T. France, I Came to Set the Earth on Fire, p. 30.
70 “Wescott comments: ‘It is worthy of notice that St. John never notices (by name) the Sadducees or the Herodians. The Pharisees were the true representatives of the unbelieving nation.”’ Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, p. 1971), p. 252.
71 This expression, ‘born again,’ can be legitimately rendered either ‘born again’ (as Nicodenus obviously took it), or ‘born from above.’ As it is used here it would seem that both senses merge. To be born again is to be born from above.
73 “‘Water’ may be connected with procreation This conception is quite foreign to us and we find it difficult at first to make sense of it. But Odeberg has gathered an impressive array of passages from Rabbinic, Mandaean, and Hermetic sources to show that terms like ‘water,’ ‘rain,’ ‘dew,’ and ‘drop’ are often used of the male semen.” Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John, p. 216.
74 On this title, ‘Son of Man,’ Morris comments: “… Jesus adopted the term, first because it was a rare term and one without nationalistic associations. It would lead to no political complications. ‘The public would … read into it as much as they apprehended of Jesus already, and no more.’ Second, because it had overtones of divinity. J.P. Hickenbotham goes as far as to say, ‘the Son of Man is a title of divinity rather than humanity.’” J. P. Hickenbotham, The Churchman, LVIII, 1994, p. 54, as cited by Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1971), p. 172.