Vol. 2 - No. 2

February, 1983

The Need of Nicodemus

by W. Carl Vernon

Spiritual rebirth was the great need of Nicodemus, a “ruler of the Jews” (John 3:1) who came to converse with the Lord. This Pharisee, and member of the Sanhedrin, could not help but be impressed with Jesus when “he was in Jerusalem at the Passover” (John 2:23). He, with many other Jews, had …believed in his name, when they saw the miracles which he did” (2:23). This activity caused Jesus to be attractive to many of them, but John recorded that “Jesus did not commit himself unto them” --that is, he was not taken in by their acclaim: knowing, as he did, the proneness of man to be unduly swayed by public opinion. Were these who “believed in his name” ready to be his disciples, and be genuine followers of his as the result of spiritual rebirth (which was his reason for condescending to come to this sinful world in the first place), or were they simply excited from a political point of view?

The beginning of John, chapter 3, finds Nicodemus, one of these “believers” coming to Jesus. He, too, had seen these miracles of Jesus and it seems that there is a question lurking in his mind; but, instead of asking Jesus what was going to be demanded of those so favorably impressed with the demonstration of his miracles, he said, “Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him.” (vs. 2). Since Jesus “knew what was in man” (Nicodemus, included!), he began to answer an apparent question which Nicodemus had not even asked, and said, “verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (vs. 3). This Pharisee, speaking for himself, and perhaps others who “believed, acknowledged that “thou art a teacher come from God” -- but this, seemed to be “faith only,” and not the kind of faith that would submit to Him. It was going to take faith that would comply with his teaching, or he could never enter God's kingdom, i.e., be saved. Jesus came to procure redemption for sinners, and “became the author of eternal salvation unto all them that obey him” (Hebrews 5:9). Nicodemus was now faced with the problem of giving up everything known by the Jews under the Law of Moses, and turning to that which would be completely new and different. Jesus is saying that he was going to have to come into a new and different way --being “born again.” It would be good to see here that this man mustered the kind of faith to proceed to obey the Lord, thus having the benefits of the “new birth” -- but such is not the case. Surely, the Pharisees knew something of the baptism of John, which was for the purpose of bringing those obedient thereto into a new way of life. But, the Pharisees, for the most part, steadfastly refused John's baptism. “And all the people that heard him, and the publicans, justified God, being baptized with the baptism of John. But the Pharisees and lawyers rejected the counsel of God against themselves, being not baptized of him” (Luke 7:29-30).

Could it have been that Nicodemus was feigning ignorance of a need to change his life in coming to accept the new birth? He began to ask, “How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter the second time into his mother's womb, and be born?” (John 3:4). Jesus had only emphasized the need for rebirth, but after Nicodemus' reply, he was given the conditions by which this being “born again” is accomplished. He said, “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” Once and for all, he disavows the physical birth as that of which he speaks. He makes plain, that he refers to another birth -- the spiritual birth.

“Paraphrased, this statement means that unless one obeys the gospel of Jesus Christ by believing in him, repenting of sin, confessing his name, and being baptized into Jesus Christ (no genuine baptism is possible without the three antecedents mentioned here), and as a consequence of such receives the Holy Spirit, he can never enter God's kingdom, i.e., he cannot be saved. At the time Jesus revealed this teaching to Nicodemus, the great commission had not been given; and the immediate application of the teaching to Nicodemus regarded John's baptism which was mandatory for all the followers of Jesus prior to the resurrection; but the glowing words of this passage anticipated the great commission and the baptism therein commanded, thus making the passage equally applicable to all of subsequent ages who would enter God's kingdom. See under 7:39.” (Commentary on John, by James Burton Coffman).

John 3:6 continues, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh” This seems to be a reference to the question of Nicodemus, when he asked: “can he enter the second time into his mother's womb, and be born?” The physical birth is one thing, but he continues: “and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” Two births under consideration, but Jesus is emphasizing the spiritual -- not the physical!

Since Jesus “knew what was in man,” he surely knew the thoughts of Nicodemus. Verse 7 continues: “Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again.” There can be no doubt that Jesus knew that Nicodemus marveled at the teaching about the spiritual birth, and there can be no doubt that Nicodemus needed this new birth!

Then, Jesus further explains: “The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, and canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth; so is every one that is born of the spirit.”

Mr. Albert Barnes says, “Jesus tells him that he should not reject a doctrine merely because he could not understand it. Neither could the wind be seen, but its effects were well known, and no one doubted the existence or power of the agent.” Albert Barnes, Notes on the New Testament.)

Many other attempts to explain John 3:8 have been made: some with merit, and others, not worthy of consideration. In explaining and emphasizing the new birth to Nicodemus, Jesus used the wind as an example. He said that the wind is present, but you can't tell where it come from, and you can't tell where it goes but it is there!

This, as I see it, is not His explanation of the working of the Holy Spirit; neither is it to show how the new birth comes about. He did not say, so is the working of the Holy Spirit like the wind.” He did not say, so is the spiritual birth like the wind.” Please note, however, that he said in the conclusion of this example of the wind: “SO IS EVERY ONE that is born of the Spirit.” I take this to mean that there is an unseeable part of man (the inner man) that is different from the fleshly part, and it is this part of man that must be converted. Spiritual birth has to do with the spiritual part of the individual, and it was this part of man to which reference is being made. This is further clarification of the fact that this birth of which he spoke was not involved with fleshly birth, as Nicodemus had mistakenly thought, but with the spiritual part of man -- the unseeable part.

“So is every one that is born of the Spirit.” When the apostle Peter wrote to the brethren, he reminded them that they had purified your (their) souls in obeying the truth.” (1 Peter 1:22). He further said, “Being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God, which liveth and abideth forever” (vs. 23), and concluded: “And this is the word which by the gospel is preached unto you.” This gospel appeals to the spiritual part of man! Whether Jew or Gentile, sin separates man from God. Whether Jew or Gentile, the soul is brought into acceptance with God by the new birth! “Except a man be born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.”