As we have learned in the story of the past two chapters, Jesus is rapidly gaining fame. As Chapter 3 opens, we meet another character. This man’s name was Nicodemus. Nicodemus was a Pharisee (the sect of the Jews known for being strict adherents to the old Law, also known for being adversaries of Jesus) and a “ruler” of the Jews, this indicates that he was part of the Great Sanhedrin in Jerusalem. The Sanhedrin was a group of men chosen to be the supreme religious leaders. He comes to Jesus at night, possibly to avoid ridicule from fellow religious rulers while he sought answers from Jesus. Unlike many of his fellow Pharisees, Nicodemus treats Jesus with respect calling Him “Rabbi”. In addition to this, Nicodemus acknowledges that Jesus’s signs come God and because of this believes that Jesus must have been sent by God (he uses the words “we believe” meaning that there are others with this same view). Nicodemus comes to Jesus to learn what he can from this God-sent teacher.
Jesus begins his teaching with “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). What can this mean? Nicodemus first believes that Jesus is speaking literally and after all “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) Jesus isn’t talking about a physical birth, but a spiritual one. Flesh is flesh and spirit is spirit. They are two different things.
Jesus speaks about being born of water. Baptism is a symbol of this very thing. One “dies” to the water when he is immersed and is “reborn” when he comes up again. He is a new creation in Christ, a new spiritual babe. Jesus also mentions being born of the Spirit which points to the Spirit’s role in this new birth. Rebirth is impossible without the direct influence of the Holy Spirit.
Nicodemus, a supreme religious ruler, does not yet understand. This man is expected to help lead Israel, and yet he misses what Jesus is saying like so many other “leaders”. Before we are too harsh on him, however, remember, a lot of what we take for granted as common knowledge as Christians today was hidden from the Jews until after Christ’s resurrection. Christ was indeed sent to teach, to teach the true meanings of the Law, meanings that had been missed for a long time. Nicodemus wasn’t the only one in the dark. Thankfully for him, he knew where to seek the Light that was sent to enlighten mankind, the only one to ever descend from heaven to explain heavenly things.
Lifted Up in the Wilderness
Jesus also takes this time with Nicodemus to also give the first hint to His coming death. “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:14-15). If you are unfamiliar with that Old Testament story, it can be found in Numbers 21:4-9. Essentially, the Israelites were continuing to wander in the desert because of their disobedience and began to grumble and complain once again. God became so angry with them that He sent deadly serpents among the camp who bit and killed many Israelites. Those who had not died cried out to God to save them. God commanded Moses to craft a snake out of bronze and to raise it up on a staff for all to see. Those who were sick and dying from the snake bites could look upon the bronze snake and be healed. However, they had to believe and to look. Jesus says that, just like that bronze snake, He too would be lifted up above the people. All who believe and look to Him will not only be healed from all their souls diseases, but will also be given eternal life with God.
Jesus also gives us a glimpse of the vastness of the Father’s love for His children. He allowed His only Son to taste death so that we could have forever life. The Father’s love is not condemning but forgiving (Rom. 8:1). Christ didn’t come to pronounce our doom, but to offer us an alternative, to offer us life. We condemn ourselves by our sinful actions, by rejecting the Light that came to rescue us from our darkness.
John the Immerser
Jesus’s disciples were baptizing people with the guidance of Christ. When John’s disciples heard of this, they were jealous for their own rabbi. John says something interesting “A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven” (John 3:27). John recognizes that all good things come from God and that if God chooses to bless Jesus’s ministry there is nothing he can or should do to hinder it. John realizes that now that Jesus is here, he must yield to His ministry. I wonder if John expected to be “done” so early. All his life he had been preparing for the job that he had been born for and now, at the age of 31 or so, his life calling is coming to an end. Talk about a reason for a mid-life crisis! And yet, John gracefully yields to Christ because he recognizes the greatness in Christ. John is one of the few people at this point who truly understands (through the revelation of the Spirit in him) that Jesus is in fact the Son of God and what that truly means. How wonderful it must have been for him to know that he helped to open the way for God’s one true Son.