Do you know the story of Nicodemus?
Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “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.” (Read the full story)
Many churches focus on what Nicodemus grasped in his conversation with Jesus as recorded in John, Chapter 3. Nicodemus seems to grasp these things: Jesus is a teacher from God. He has come to show us how to live. We are to live and to walk in the way of Jesus. We are to love God and we are to love our neighbor. And, we are to go into all the world and teach other people to do the same.
Notice, though, that Nicodemus sees Jesus as another teacher, like Moses and the prophets, who comes from God to tell us what to do. There are many good and moral people who see Jesus in precisely this way. By itself, however, this idea misses a very important truth about Jesus and about Christianity. In this article, I want to focus on what Nicodemus, at this part of his life, did not grasp.
The Infusion of Life from Above
Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (John 3:3)
To see the kingdom of God is to live in the joy of God’s reign. In the teaching of Jesus, God’s reign is something that begins now in God’s people. It will reach its fullness when his kingdom comes in the new heaven and the new earth.
“Unless you are born again,” Jesus says, “you will not see this!” You won’t enjoy the blessing or joy of living in the kingdom of God. If all you have is Jesus as your teacher, and a sustained attempt to follow his way, you will not see the kingdom of God!
Jesus speaks about the new birth three times in these verses. Once in John 3:3, once in John 3:7, and once in John 3:5:
“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” (John 3:5)
‘Born again’ is interchangeable with ‘born of water and the Spirit.’ In other words, the new birth is a birth that cleanses and renews. It is an infusion of life that comes from God himself that in its very nature brings cleansing and renewal. And when this infusion of the Holy Spirit comes, you are renewed. New convictions are rooted in your mind, new desires are planted in your heart, and new capacities are given to your life.
Do you see how far this is beyond what Nicodemus had grasped? Jesus did not come so that you would learn life; he came so that you would have life!
“I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).
The Central Message of The Scripture
Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?” (John 3:10)
Nicodemus had the Old Testament Scriptures, not the New. The words ‘born again’ do not occur in the Old Testament, but Jesus makes it quite clear that a person who had a proper understanding of the Old Testament should be able to grasp this teaching. Here are some verses from the Old Testament that speak to the same idea:
“Man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7)
“I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts.” (Jeremiah 31:33)
“I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean… give you a new heart… put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes.” (Ezekiel 36:25-27)
In other words, Jesus is saying, “You are the teacher of Israel, and you do not understand that people come to live under the blessing of God’s rule when he gives them an infusion of new life in which they are cleansed and renewed?”
Here is a man who knows the Bible well and yet has missed its central message. I fear that many of us may be in the same position—Bible-believing people who somehow have missed the central point.
A true description of your life today would be that you are giving yourself to a sustained attempt at living a God-honoring life, but where is the joy? Where is the love? Where is the peace that is the evidence of life in the Holy Spirit?
Christ Came to Give What He Demands
“How can a man be born when he is old?” (John 3:4)
Why did Nicodemus ask this question? Because when Jesus said, “You must be born again,” Nicodemus heard these words as a demand. And because he hears what Jesus says as something he must do, he says, “How can a man be born again when he is old?” (John 3:4).
“Jesus, you can see that I am not in my 20’s. I am a mature person. I have been shaped by my experiences and by my choices. How can I cleanse myself and make myself new at this stage of life? Jesus, what you are saying sounds like it might be good for the youth group, but it doesn’t sound realistic for a mature person like me.”
How are you going to change what you desire? How will you break out of the ingrained patterns of your life? Or, how can you become a person who truly loves God from the heart? How can you become a person of clear and confident faith in all the promises of God?
Here’s the good news: Jesus came to give what he demands.
This is something that Augustine, the great bishop of the fourth-century African church, saw clearly and so he prayed:
Command what you will, only give what you command. Lord, you can ask whatever you want of me, only you must give it too. All that I have is what I have received from you.
How Nicodemus Responded
Nicodemus also, who earlier had come to Jesus by night, came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds in weight. (John 19:39)
Nicodemus came out into the open as a committed disciple of Jesus, in the light of the cross. In the light of Jesus being lifted up and laying down his life to give what he demands, Nicodemus says, “That’s it. I can’t stay in the shadows any longer. Whatever it may cost and whatever it may mean, I’m taking my stand with Jesus Christ. I am for him, as he is for me.”
You cannot cause yourself to be born again, but you can ask Jesus to do for you what you cannot do for yourself. Because of what he holds in his hands, you can come to him and receive from him what he commands.