Nicodemus, who makes his first appearance in John chapter 3, is an encouragement to the rich Pharisee in us all. Whatever happens to him here is enough to kick start his journey toward the Kingdom and we should be delighted when he reappears at Jesus’ burial with a truckload of spices and some burial cloth.
“Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God for no one can do these things that you do unless God is with him”. Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God”. (John 3:2-3)
Throughout John’s gospel, the old adage that seeing is believing holds true. Nicodemus can see the signs but unless there is a dramatic change within him he cannot see or put his trust in the kingdom that Jesus is proclaiming.
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)
Nicodemus is a serious character. He is not being childish or facetious with his question to Jesus.
How can you undo the past? How can you change the way you are? How can you turn back the clock and start over?
Jesus’ reply to Nicodemus about being born of water and spirit draws our attention to creation, which has been the backdrop to John’s gospel so far (John 1:1).
Our fleshy bodies are not a bad thing, they are part of what it is to be the image of God. Moreover, Jesus established the high value God puts on our fleshy bodies by becoming flesh Himself.
But, unless there is a new creation, a dramatic change in our corrupt nature, we cannot move forward. We can’t even see what it is we need to see.
Of those who are born again, there is a mystery involved. Like the wind (John 3:8), we see its effects, but we do not see its origin.
Nicodemus sees the signs of the Kingdom, but he does not see the Kingdom. And since he cannot see it, he is not, by himself, able to enter into it.
This was something that John explained right at the beginning of the Gospel (John 1:12-13). Dead men don’t walk. No one can come to the Father unless He is drawn.
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Nicodemus finds these things perplexing and, being a pharisee, he replies, “How can a man…” In other words, “How can I do that?” And that’s the whole point, isn’t it? He can’t. You can’t.
The Spirit blows where it wills and cannot be caught and harnessed. God must come to you, where and when He wills. Eyes must be opened and the heart revived. And the Good News is that that is exactly what God has promised to do, and to be fair, as Israel’s teacher, Nicodemus should have known this.
I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleanness, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. (Ezekiel 36:25-26)
But, sin makes you dull and Nicodemus had missed this. And unless Jesus had come to you and me we would have missed it too.
This why it is possible to agree with everything that Jesus said and yet never be saved. Apart from divine intervention by God, we are like people trapped in a dark room. All we can do is bump into the furniture.
If we are not mindful of our absolute dependence on God, we may find ourselves seeing Jesus as a good teacher, a prophet, a magician or a poker machine sent from God: But not as Lord and Saviour.
Jesus then does the kindest thing He can possibly do for Nicodemus. He points him to the thing he needs to see and believe.
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)
This prophecy of Jesus is grounded in the events of Israel’s wilderness wanderings and would not be lost on Nicodemus. Look and live. If you want to see the Kingdom, if you want to be born again and inherit eternal life, then there is only one place you need to look and that is up to the cross where we see both the curse and the cure.
Jesus then provides us with the motivation for God’s intervention and the motivation is love. In John 3:16 Jesus tells Nicodemus that God loves this world and has provided the remedy for that which was destroying us, just as He provided the remedy for those being destroyed by serpents in the wilderness.
Nicodemus was a man looking for the Kingdom. He couldn’t see it and Jesus knew that, but Jesus does not turn Him away. Neither will He turn us away if we draw near to Him in our blindness.