John (Part 8): Nicodemus, the Beginning (Ch 2:23 – 3:10)
The last three verses of chapter 2 provide a transition from the temple cleansing to Jesus’ discussion with Nicodemus. In verses 23 and 24, John presents a contrast. He says that many of the people in Jerusalem trusted in Jesus, but that Jesus didn’t trust them. The fact that Jesus didn’t trust them has led many commentators to suggest that these people were particularly untrustworthy, and therefore their faith was not a true faith. These people are contrasted with, for example, the disciples who believed Jesus truly (2:11). But I don’t think that’s the point. First of all, John tells us that these people “trusted in His name” (2:23). This indicates just the opposite of half-hearted believers. Trusting in his name means trusting in who he truly is. I don’t think John would use the phrase if he intended anything less than true belief.
John is not contrasting the hearts of these people with the hearts of the disciples or any other group. The contrast is between them and Jesus himself. They may trust Jesus because he is from God. Jesus can’t trust them because they all are of the fallen race of Adam. Although in the very next passage (and also in the previous passages), the humanity of Jesus and his likeness to humankind is stressed, here his uniqueness is the focus.
The point of this contrast continues the progressive revelation of Jesus’ replacement of the old covenant with his New Covenant. In John’s first illustration, he highlighted John the Baptist’s speech about Jesus. Notice that John skips over the baptism entirely, picking up the story only afterwards—probably after the 40 days that Jesus spent in the wilderness. But the highlight of the incident is in the speech which the Baptist begins saying, “I baptize with water,” and ends describing Jesus as one “who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.” That contrast highlights the physical manifestations that really are the point of the old covenant with their symbolic meaning in the Spirit that is the emphasis of the new covenant. Of course the spiritual reality that was imaged by the rituals was nevertheless there in the old covenant, meant by God to be seen. But not only were the Jews missing that reality, the reality had to be made manifest as it was now happening through Jesus’ ministry.
The next incident in sequence is the gathering of the disciples, especially Nathanael. This illustration provoked reflection on Jacob, the first Israel, and his interaction with God in which he gave up self-serving deceptiveness to trust wholly in God’s direction. This is what Nathanael had done beneath the fig tree, and why Jesus then recognized him as “a true Israelite” (1:47). In this story, Jesus (the one who will baptize with the Spirit) looks at his heart.
The next account is of the wedding in Cana. Again, Jesus looks at the heart—this time of Mary. Again, Jesus emphasizes following God’s way, and when Mary accepts this, he provides additional revelation in the miracle performed. And that miracle showed in even greater progressive detail the movement from the old covenant (water in the purification jars) to the new covenant (the wine of abundant life). This also gives particular emphasis that the replacement Jesus is making is not to toss out the old covenant as unworkable to try a different approach with the new covenant. Rather, the new covenant flows from the old covenant. The old covenant was necessary to bring about the messiah from a covenant formed in faith as well as to show the earthly representation of the spiritual reality.
John next takes us to the temple cleansing. Especially here we recognize that John is not merely lining up stories to recount chronological sequence. The temple cleansing occurred at the end of Jesus’ ministry. But John uses it here because it fits in wonderfully with that progressive revelation of Christ effecting the change from old covenant (temple) to new covenant (himself). And then we get to these verses at the end of chapter 2 that also mention that theme that has carried through—Jesus looks at the heart, the hearts of the people. And here we see the contrast between their hearts—born of the fallen race—with Jesus’ heart—which is born of God. And then John brings us the story of Nicodemus in which he will present this old to new covenant change in discourse.
Right away in 3:1 we notice a strained phrase: “There was a man from the Pharisees….” Why not simply, “There was a Pharisee”? Making sure we read this as continuation from the transition verses helps provide an answer. From 2:25 John writes: “and because He did not need anyone to testify about man; for He Himself knew what was in man. There was a man from the Pharisees….” John repeats “man” to emphasize one of these whose hearts are dark. (The Greek here translated man is, in all three cases, anthropos meaning person rather than male.)
This person was a Pharisee—a teacher—and a ruler, meaning a member of the Sanhedrin responsible for leading the nation. This person, we’re told in verse 2, comes to Jesus at night. Did he come at night because he didn’t want to be seen by the other rulers? Probably not. Even if he were more sympathetic to Jesus teaching, Pharisees were coming up to Jesus all the time, questioning him. And John gives no further hint that Nicodemus was acting in stealth. Rather, he came by night because that’s when people talked. They normally had workday responsibilities. And in the evening there was no television for distraction or shelves of books to occupy the mind. So it is natural that at this time people would interact.
But if it is the natural time to do so, why does John mention it? Is he merely filling up the scroll with extraneous information? I think John has specific literary reason for including the thought. In his Gospel, John constantly works in the motif of light. In this segment, John associates Nicodemus with darkness here at the beginning which contrasts with the light that Jesus provides in the passage, ending with the concluding remarks that “light has come into the world” (3:19ff).
Nicodemus doesn’t just walk up to Jesus and open his mouth sputtering a comment without thinking. He has been struggling with something; he comes to find it out; and he begins with a prepared thought. He says, “Rabbi (master—although here merely a respectful title rather than claiming discipleship), we know that You have come from God as a teacher, for no one could perform these signs You do unless God were with him” (3:2). Notice there is no question there. Nicodemus probably pauses, but in completion of this introductory throw-away statement before he launches into his real question. But Jesus interrupts his presentation.
Jesus often interrupts or changes the course of the dialogue. One reason is to force the questioner to examine his own assumptions. Remember the other ruler that asks Jesus, “Good, Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Luke 18:18). Jesus doesn’t immediately give an answer to this important question. Rather, he responds, “Why do you call Me good?” He forces the questioner to consider why he came to Jesus in the first place. Jesus is doing the same thing, I think, with Nicodemus. He is forcing him to examine his very opening line. In essence, Jesus is asking back, “You say I have come from God? How can I come from God?” But Jesus immediately offers the solution, “Unless someone is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
Not only does this give Nicodemus pause to consider, it also actually goes to the heart of Nicodemus’s inward struggle. As in the previous incidents in which Jesus knew the heart before hearing from the people (Nathanael In 1:47-48; Mary in 2:4; and the people in 2:24), Jesus knows what’s on Nicodemus’s heart.
Nicodemus latches on to the phrase Jesus uses—“born again”—in simplistic understanding. The phrase or word “again” in the Greek is used another eleven times in the New Testament. The Holman usually translates it “from above” or in some similar construct. In Mark 15:38, the temple veil is torn from the top. In John 3:31, John speaks of one who comes from above. Eight times in all, the meaning is from above. The phrase is also used twice to refer back to the beginning of a sequence (Luke 1:3 and Acts 26:5). Only one other time is it translated “again” (Galatians 4:9). But the word, as Jesus uses it, actually seems to incorporate all these elements. Jesus is asserting a starting over, and one that is directed from above—from God. Nicodemus, however, grasps only the simplest of meanings in a physical sense so that he almost sneers back, “But how can anyone be born when he is old? Can he enter his mother’s womb a second time and be born?” (3:4).
Jesus then explains the crux of the matter. Being born again means a birth of water and the Spirit. Water here goes with the Spirit. It is not meant to be contrasted as in a physical birth first (the water) and a spiritual birth later. Rather Jesus is going to the heart of Nicodemus’s confusion.
Nicodemus came to Jesus with a struggle probably borne up through discussions with his other Pharisee and ruler friends. They see Jesus—a man going about doing good works. Perhaps they had been there in the Matthew 12:24-37 incident when the Pharisees accused Jesus of casting demons out by Beelzebul. Jesus had responded that it made no logical sense that someone would do good by the power of the one dedicated to evil. And perhaps Nicodemus learned that lesson well, for that lesson is exactly what he quotes in his opening statement of 3:2.
But the struggle was that if Jesus is doing good by God’s blessing on him, why isn’t Jesus promoting the old covenant structure led by the Sanhedrin. That too was from God. So their difficulty was in matching up Jesus’ good actions on one hand with his seemingly cross purposes on the other.
And this is the point that Jesus is coming to. The old covenant was a physical one which people could see and touch. The seeing and touching—these physical symbols—were meant to lead to spiritual truths of spiritual relationship. The Jews, however, stopped short. They stopped at the physical exercise, thinking that the mere ritual was all in which God was interested. So, Jesus says no, the physical leads to the spiritual—you must be born of water and Spirit. This is what John had been showing through the illustrative incidents of the past couple of chapters. It is what the prophet spoke of in Ezekiel 36:24-27, linking the washing with water to the spiritual cleansing.
In Nicodemus’s (and the Jews’) thought, the physical washings were accomplishing spiritual cleansing. Jesus’ corrective was that the physical washings were merely symbolic of true spiritual cleansing that he would accomplish in the heart. The Spirit was separate. Jesus explains that the spirit is like the wind. You can’t see it physically. You don’t know where it comes from or goes. And spiritual birth is like that.
Nicodemus is blown away by this realization. All his life he had thought of old covenant ritual in one way. All his teachers had taught it one way. All his friends taught it one way. Now Jesus reveals they were incorrect. All Nicodemus can say in stunned incredulity is “How can these things be?” (3:9). Now it is Jesus' turn to be incredulous. He knows that the whole of Old Testament Scripture unceasingly portrays the covenant activity in exactly the way he has explained. And Nicodemus is a ruler and teacher of Israel, yet he doesn’t understand. And so, Jesus is about to present the detail of his gospel message.