Jesus had come to Jerusalem for the Passover when Nicodemus came to visit Him at night. Many people had believed on Jesus because of the signs which He had done in their midst but the Lord had not committed Himself to them, because He knew the hearts of men would often be devoted one moment and turn against Him the next. The late night visit by a ruler of the Jews must have invigorated the Lord that one in a place of authority and as a Pharisee would seek Him for counsel. The Pharisees constantly harassed Jesus attacking Him because of His miracles and teaching. Nicodemus was not of the same cloth.
The visit at night seems to have some significance as the only other times Nicodemus is mentioned in scripture reference is made to the fact that his visit was at night. “Nicodemus (he who came to Jesus by night, being one of them) said to them … And Nicodemus, who at first came to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds” (John 7:50; 19:39). The recorded conversation was short (just over 400 words). Whether there was more discussion is not revealed in John’s account for afterward Jesus and His disciples went to the land of Judea (John 3:22).
Nicodemus had an honest heart. The signs which Jesus had done (John 2:23) had an impact on this Pharisee unlike what his fellow rulers would come to believe. No doubt Jesus had impacted the Jewish leadership with His actions at the temple (John 2:13-22) and conflict with the establishment of Jewish hierarchy would intensify until they cried, “Crucify Him, crucify Him” (Luke 23:21). But Nicodemus could not deny the power manifested by Jesus and he was willing to acknowledge that no one save one sent from the Father could have such power. “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 3:2).
Belief in Jesus must begin with belief in His Father (2 Thessalonians 1:8). Later Jesus will be charged (by Pharisees) with casting out demons by “Beelzebub, the ruler of the demons” (Matthew 12:24) but Nicodemus believes in the true power of Jesus as being only from God. Jesus sees the enduring faith of this ruler and immediately goes to the heart of what Nicodemus needs. “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). What a radical thought for the Jewish mind. Jesus is telling Nicodemus his life must take on a sweeping change that puzzles the Jewish ruler to ask, “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). The point of the lesson is found from an honest heart asking for clarification as he accepts what the Teacher is explaining.
The Lord is not meaning a physical birth as this would be an impossibility. Yet the spiritual birth would require something as impossible for the minds of the people to grasp as pondered by Nicodemus. 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. 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” (John 3:5-8).
The new birth is unlike the sign of the covenant rooted in the promises of Abraham. Circumcision was the covenant affirmed through Abraham as showing a binding relationship between God and His people. Now Jesus is telling him that salvation is found in being born anew or to be born from above. This new birth is found in water and in the Spirit, not the circumcision of the flesh. Nicodemus is puzzled. Nicodemus answered and said to Him, “How can these things be” (John 3:9)? It is here that Jesus goes to the heart of His teaching in showing to Nicodemus that the signs seen before (John 2:23) and the sign yet to come (the death of Jesus on a cross) would show men the light of the world (John 8:12; 9:5; 12:46).
Jesus was the Son of God seen through “miracles, wonders, and signs” (Acts 2:22) which God did through Jesus in the midst of the people. While Nicodemus did not know what the death of Jesus would mean to him later, Jesus foretells that as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up. The crucifixion of Jesus will be the central theme of man’s redemption and belief in the crucified Savior would give man eternal life. This sacrifice was not because man deserved it but only because of the love of Him who gave His only begotten Son to redeem man. Remember that Jesus is explaining what it means to be “born again” and this birth is “of water and Spirit.” The new birth is rooted in the love of God and the sacrifice of the one lifted up.
Rejection of the new birth would be the rejection of the Son of God. “For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved. He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God” (John 3:17-18). Nicodemus could see the connection between the new birth and the sacrifice of the One lifted up. On the day of Pentecost three thousand souls understood the lesson first heard by Nicodemus. Since that time simple hearts have obeyed the voice of Jesus still crying out in the night to honest heart seekers of truth to be born again.
Sadly many have rejected the teaching of Jesus. “And this is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For everyone practicing evil hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But he who does the truth comes to the light, that his deeds may be clearly seen, that they have been done in God” (John 3:1-21). More often than not many people today reject baptism as necessary for salvation. Yet the scriptures frequently compare the words of Jesus to the promises found in the water burial. “Having been born again, not of corruptible seed but incorruptible, through the word of God which lives and abides forever” (1 Peter 1:23). “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but a new creation” (Galatians 6:15). “Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5).
Paul illustrates that spiritual circumcision is the new birth. “In Him you were also circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the sins of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, buried with Him in baptism, in which you also were raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead” (Colossians 2:11-12). He also mirrors the teaching of Jesus to Nicodemus when he writes of the death of Jesus and baptism. “Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:3-4).
Nicodemus would defend Jesus later (John 7:50-52) and finally help Joseph of Arimathea to bury the body of Jesus (John 19:38-42). The conversation he had with the Lord that single night must have changed his life forever. He had an honest heart and sought honest answers. His faith was in the simple words of a short conversation. He learned of the new birth and the true meaning of the cross he would later remove the body of Jesus from. We need men and women who have the heart of Nicodemus. He knew that salvation was not by faith alone nor did he just believe John 3:16 as his tenet of faith. The ruler of the Jews obeyed the command of water and Spirit.
The challenge of light and darkness still prevails in the hearts of men. Those who accept the appeal of Jesus will be saved and those who reject it will be lost. “He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:16). “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins” (Acts 2:38). “Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning at this Scripture, preached Jesus to him. Now as they went down the road, they came to some water. And the eunuch said, ‘See, here is water. What hinders me from being baptized?” (Acts 8:35-36). What about you?