Mentioned only in the Gospel according to John, Jesus’s late-night meeting with Nicodemus gave us the most influential verse and the summary of the entire Gospel in John 3:16. Nicodemus was a member of the Jewish ruling council and came to Jesus one night with a whole bunch of questions. Whether he was sent by the Pharisees or came of his own accord is not clear and John leaves it for the readers to decide the true intentions of Nicodemus.
Following suit, the Pharisees always sent someone to Jesus with a set of questions, to trap Him whenever they would lose a public argument. John places the late night Bible study between Jesus and Nicodemus right after Jesus visiting the temple, wherein the Pharisees questioned Jesus’ authority to clear the temple of the merchants. Nicodemus also admits that he had been discussing Jesus with the Pharisees when he says, “We know that you are a teacher…” and later Jesus rebukes Nicodemus along with the other Pharisees for not accepting His testimony. This is what leads most to believe that Nicodemus was sent by the Pharisees. However, John also pointed out that Nicodemus came in the night which causes more doubts about his intentions. Some feel that Nicodemus feared the other Pharisees and wanted to keep his meeting a secret while some others feel that the busy schedule which kept both Jesus and Nicodemus occupied during the day meant that the only possible time to have a deep conversation with Christ was at night.
Nicodemus starts off by first complimenting Jesus on the great work He was doing, to which Jesus responds rhetorically.
“Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” “How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”John 3:3-4
That seems like a weird response to someone telling you that you are sent from God. Maybe Jesus knew the questions Nicodemus wanted to know and came straight to the point. All his life, Nicodemus thought that following the laws religiously will gain him access to the kingdom of God. This new ‘born again’ statement would have come as a rude awakening. Nicodemus thought of a natural birth whereas Jesus was talking about the spiritual birth. Even we misunderstand the scriptures when we try to place it in the context of what is familiar to us.
Nicodemus would have lived under the assumption that he is righteous because of his obedience of the Law. But Jesus just flipped the script when He said that no one can enter the kingdom of heaven until they had taken this “New Birth”. In the Hebrew Bible which Nicodemus was a scholar of, God talks to the prophet Ezekiel about this moment that Jesus is referring to. The moment when God cleans us and fills us with His spirit but still Nicodemus was blinded by satan and could not understand the meaning of the scriptures that he so diligently studied throughout his life.
I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.Ezekiel 36:25-27
Jesus went on further in distinguishing the natural birth and the spiritual birth but Nicodemus still could not understand what ‘born again’ meant. Perhaps he did not want to leave behind the rituals and works which he thought brought him closer to God. Sometimes, our act of kindness towards our fellow beings or our works for our church lead us to believe that we accumulated some sort of ‘bonus points’ and that we are closer to the required target to gain access to God’s kingdom.
“You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things?John 3:10
Jesus rebukes Nicodemus for his lack of understanding of the scriptures. Being a head Pharisee and teacher of the word, he would have known the scriptures by heart but he never understood what it meant. People interpret the Scriptures in different ways and as it is the living word of God it is applied to our situation differently by the leading of the Spirit. We should not interpret scriptures in ways we find it comfortable to our respective lifestyles but only by the leading of the Spirit.
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.John 3:16-17
Everyone knows John 3:16 by heart but the next verse is equally important, for Jesus did not come to condemn us but save us. If he wanted to condemn us for our wrongdoings, He would have brought the day of judgment upon us but rather He came with the sole intention to be an atonement for our sins. Jesus uses the example of Moses and the bronze snake to reiterate this fact (Numbers 21).
Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”John 3:14-15
The bronze snake that Moses built on the Lord’s instructions did not have any magical powers but when the Israelites looked up to it, they acknowledged that they had wronged God and their lives were spared due to this acknowledgment. Similarly whoever looks to the cross in acknowledgment that Jesus died for our transgressions has been saved. The poison came through snakes for the Jews and through another snake the poison left their bodies. Likewise, sin came in us through man and through another Man sin is being taken away from us. Whoever believes in Him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.
Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.John 3:20-21
John paraphrases Jesus’s last recorded words to Nicodemus as, that anyone who lives by the truth comes into the light. Jesus calls Himself the light and says that people want to remain in darkness out of fear that their deeds would be exposed otherwise. This could also be Jesus’s parting shot at Nicodemus for coming in the night as he regarded his position in the Jewish council more than following Jesus.
The City on a Hill
On the other side of Jordan, John was baptizing people at Aenon when those gathered with him started arguing about ceremonial washing. They started to even question about the ‘other man’, whose disciples were baptizing (seemingly to them) without John’s consent.
“Rabbi, that man who was with you on the other side of the Jordan—the one you testified about—look, he is baptizing, and everyone is going to him.”John 3:26
The followers of John were threatened by Jesus’s ministry and thought that their identity of being the sole group of people who professed the need for the baptism of repentance would be diluted if more people started doing the same. John did not argue with them but simply reminded them of his own words where he gave all Glory to the Son that had come from the Father.
He must become greater; I must become less.John 3:30
Just as a city on a hill cannot be hidden, in the same way, the one who stands for God cannot follow in secret. John’s testimony about Jesus was firm and acknowledged the need for him to be lowered in stature for Christ to increase. He did not care if his followers left him and went to the other side of the Jordan as he was clear about his purpose, to make a way for Christ. But like Nicodemus, for many of us the stance is different wherein we want to give glory to God without losing our stature in the society. There are even some for whom the goal is to achieve self-adulation at the expense of the Grace that Jesus has poured out on them.
The next time we read about Nicodemus is when the Pharisees were plotting to kill Jesus and Nicodemus did not stand up for his faith. We don’t know whether Nicodemus ever openly proclaimed that he accepted Jesus’ testimony but after the crucifixion of Jesus we read that Nicodemus assisted Joseph of Arimathea in the burial of Jesus. What about us, where do we place ourselves? Do we find it difficult to confess our faith to our friends, neighbors and coworkers? Are we just Sunday Christians who are we far from the light the rest of the week?
The one who comes from above is above all; the one who is from the earth belongs to the earth, and speaks as one from the earth.John 3:31
- Why did Nicodemus come to Jesus?
- What does Jesus mean by saying “No one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit”?
- Why is Jesus comparing himself to a snake?
- Why were John’s disciples worried about Jesus and His disciples?
- What is the difference between Nicodemus and John the Baptist?