3:1-6 There was a man who was one of the Pharisees who was called Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him: "Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one can do the signs which you do unless God is with him." Jesus answered him: "This is the truth I tell you--unless a man is reborn from above, he cannot see the kingdom of God." Nicodemus said to him: "How can a man be born when he is old? Surely he cannot enter into his mother's womb a second time and be born?" Jesus answered: "This is the truth I tell you--unless a man is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born from the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit."
For the most part we see Jesus surrounded by the ordinary people, but here we see him in contact with one of the aristocracy of Jerusalem. There are certain things that we know about Nicodemus.
(i) Nicodemus must have been wealthy. When Jesus died Nicodemus brought for his body "a mixture of myrrh and aloes about an hundred pound weight" ( John 19:39 ), and only a wealthy man could have brought that.
(ii) Nicodemus was a Pharisee. In many ways the Pharisees were the best people in the whole country. There were never more than 6,000 of them; they were what was known as a chaburah (compare Greek #2266 ), or brotherhood. They entered into this brotherhood by taking a pledge in front of three witnesses that they would spend all their lives observing every detail of the scribal law.
What exactly did that mean? To the Jew the Law was the most sacred thing in all the world. The Law was the first five books of the Old Testament. They believed it to be the perfect word of God. To add one word to it or to take one word away from it was a deadly sin. Now if the Law is the perfect and complete word of God, that must mean that it contained everything a man need know for the living of a good life, if not explicitly, then implicitly. If it was not there in so many words, it must be possible to deduce it. The Law as it stood consisted of great, wide, noble principles which a man had to work out for himself. But for the later Jews that was not enough. They said: "The Law is complete; it contains everything necessary for the living of a good life; therefore in the Law there must be a regulation to govern every possible incident in every possible moment for every possible man." So they set out to extract from the great principles of the law an infinite number of rules and regulations to govern every conceivable situation in life. In other words they changed the law of the great principles into the legalism of by-laws and regulations.
The best example of what they did is to be seen in the Sabbath law. In the Bible itself we are simply told that we must remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy and that on that day no work must be done, either by a man or by his servants or his animals. Not content with that, the later Jews spent hour after hour and generation after generation defining what work is and listing the things that may and may not be done on the Sabbath day. The Mishnah is the codified scribal law. The scribes spent their lives working out these rules and regulations. In the Mishnah the section on the Sabbath extends to no fewer than twenty-four chapters. The Talmud is the explanatory commentary on the Mishnah, and in the Jerusalem Talmud the section explaining the Sabbath law runs to sixty-four and a half columns; and in the Babylonian Talmud it runs to one hundred and fifty-six double folio pages. And we are told about a rabbi who spent two and a half years in studying one of the twenty-four chapters of the Mishnah.
The kind of thing they did was this. To tie a knot on the Sabbath was to work; but a knot had to be defined. "The following are the knots the making of which renders a man guilty; the knot of camel drivers and that of sailors; and as one is guilty by reason of tying them, so also of untying them." On the other hand knots which could be tied or untied with one hand were quite legal. Further, "a woman may tie up a slit in her shift and the strings of her cap and those of her girdle, the straps of shoes or sandals, of skins of wine and oil." Now see what happened. Suppose a man wished to let down a bucket into a well to draw water on the Sabbath day. He could not tie a rope to it, for a knot on a rope was illegal on the Sabbath; but he could tie it to a woman's girdle and let it down, for a knot in a girdle was quite legal. That was the kind of thing which to the scribes and Pharisees was a matter of life and death; that was religion; that to them was pleasing and serving God.
Take the case of journeying on the Sabbath. Exodus 16:29 says: "Remain every man of you in his place; let no man go out of his place on the seventh day." A Sabbath day's journey was therefore limited to two thousand cubits, that is, one thousand yards. But, if a rope was tied across the end of a street, the whole street became one house and a man could go a thousand yards beyond the end of the street. Or, if a man deposited enough food for one meal on Friday evening at any given place, that place technically became his house and he could go a thousand yards beyond it on the Sabbath day. The rules and regulations and the evasions piled up by the hundred and the thousand.
Take the case of carrying a burden. Jeremiah 17:21-24 said: "Take heed for the sake of your lives and do not bear a burden on the Sabbath day." So a burden had to be defined. It was defined as "food equal in weight to a dried fig, enough wine for mixing in a goblet, milk enough for one swallow, honey enough to put upon a wound, oil enough to anoint a small member, water enough to moisten an eye-salve," and so on and on. It had then to be settled whether or not on the Sabbath a woman could wear a brooch, a man could wear a wooden leg or dentures; or would it be carrying a burden to do so? Could a chair or even a child be lifted? And so on and on the discussions and the regulations went.
It was the scribes who worked out these regulations; it was the Pharisees who dedicated their lives to keeping them. Obviously, however misguided a man might be, he must be desperately in earnest if he proposed to undertake obedience to every one of the thousands of rules. That is precisely what the Pharisees did. The name Pharisee means the Separated One; and the Pharisees were those who had separated themselves from all ordinary life in order to keep every detail of the law of the scribes.
Nicodemus was a Pharisee, and it is astonishing that a man who regarded goodness in that light and who had given himself to that kind of life in the conviction that he was pleasing God should wish to talk to Jesus at all.
(iii) Nicodemus was a ruler of the Jews. The word is archon ( Greek #758 ). This is to say that he was a member of the Sanhedrin. The Sanhedrin was a court of seventy members and was the supreme court of the Jews. Of course under the Romans its powers were more limited than once they had been; but they were still extensive. In particular the Sanhedrin had religious jurisdiction over every Jew in the world; and one of its duties was to examine and deal with anyone suspected of being a false prophet. Again it is amazing that Nicodemus should come to Jesus at all.
(iv) It may well be that Nicodemus belonged to a distinguished Jewish family. Away back in 63 B.C. when the Romans and the Jews had been at war, Aristobulus, the Jewish leader, sent a certain Nicodemus as his ambassador to Pompey, the Roman Emperor. Much later in the terrible last days of Jerusalem, the man who negotiated the surrender of the garrison was a certain Gorion, who was the son either of Nicomedes or Nicodemus. It may well be that both these men belonged to the same family as our Nicodemus, and that it was one of the most distinguished families in Jerusalem. If that is true it is amazing that this Jewish aristocrat should come to this homeless prophet who had been the carpenter of Nazareth that he might talk to him about his soul.
It was by night that Nicodemus came to Jesus. There were probably two reasons for that.
(i) It may have been a sign of caution. Nicodemus quite frankly may not have wished to commit himself by coming to Jesus by day. We must not condemn him. The wonder is that with his background, he came to Jesus at all. It was infinitely better to come at night than not at all. It is a miracle of grace that Nicodemus overcame his prejudices and his upbringing and his whole view of life enough to come to Jesus.
(ii) But there may be another reason. The rabbis declared that the best time to study the law was at night when a man was undisturbed. Throughout the day Jesus was surrounded by crowds of people all the time. It may well be that Nicodemus came to Jesus by night because he wanted an absolutely private and completely undisturbed time with Jesus.
Nicodemus was a puzzled man, a man with many honours and yet with something lacking in his life. He came to Jesus for a talk so that somehow in the darkness of the night he might find light.
When John relates conversations that Jesus had with enquirers, he has a way of following a certain scheme. We see that scheme very clearly here. The enquirer says something ( John 3:2 ). Jesus answers in a saying that is hard to understand ( John 3:3 ). That saying is misunderstood by the enquirer ( John 3:4 ). Jesus answers with a saying that is even more difficult to understand ( John 3:5 ). And then there follows a discourse and an explanation. John uses this method in order that we may see men thinking things out for themselves and so that we may do the same.
When Nicodemus came to Jesus, he said that no one could help being impressed with the signs and wonders that he did. Jesus' answer was that it was not the signs and the wonders that were really important; the important thing was such a change in a man's inner life that it could only be described as a new birth.
When Jesus said that a man must be born anew Nicodemus misunderstood him, and the misunderstanding came from the fact that the word which the Revised Standard Version translates anew, the Greek word anothen ( Greek #509 ), has three different meanings. (i) It can mean from the beginning, completely radically. (ii) It can mean again, in the sense of for the second time. (iii) It can mean from above, and, therefore, from God It is not possible for us to get all these meanings into any English word; and yet all three of them are in the phrase born anew. To be born anew is to undergo such a radical change that it is like a new birth; it is to have something happen to the soul which can only be described as being born all over again; and the whole process is not a human achievement, because it comes from the grace and power of God.
When we read the story, it looks at first sight as if Nicodemus took the word anew in only the second sense, and with a crude literalism. How can anyone, he said, enter again into his mother's womb and be born a second time when he is already an old man? But there is more to Nicodemus' answer than that. In his heart there was a great unsatisfied longing. It is as if he said with infinite, wistful yearning: "You talk about being born anew; you talk about this radical, fundamental change which is so necessary. I know that it is necessary; but in my experience it is impossible. There is nothing I would like more; but you might as well tell me, a full grown man, to enter into my mother's womb and be born all over again." It is not the desirability of this change that Nicodemus questioned; that he knew only too well; it is the possibility. Nicodemus is up against the eternal problem, the problem of the man who wants to be changed and who cannot change himself.
This phrase born anew, this idea of rebirth, runs all through the New Testament. Peter speaks of being born anew by God's great mercy ( 1 Peter 1:3 ); he talks about being born anew not of perishable seed, but of imperishable ( 1 Peter 1:22-23 ). James speaks of God bringing us forth by the word of truth ( James 1:18 ). The Letter to Titus speaks of the washing of regeneration ( Titus 3:5 ). Sometimes this same idea is spoken of as a death followed by a resurrection or a re-creation. Paul speaks of the Christian as dying with Christ and then rising to life anew ( Romans 6:1-11 ). He speaks of those who have lately come into the Christian faith as babes in Christ ( 1 Corinthians 3:1-2 ). If any man is in Christ it is as if he had been created all over again ( 2 Corinthians 5:17 ). In Christ there is a new creation ( Galatians 6:15 ). The new man is created after God in righteousness ( Ephesians 4:22-24 ). The person who is at the first beginnings of the Christian faith is a child ( Hebrews 5:12-14 ). All over the New Testament this idea of rebirth, re-creation occurs.
Now this was not an idea which was in the least strange to the people who heard it in New Testament times. The Jew knew all about rebirth. When a man from another faith became a Jew and had been accepted into Judaism by prayer and sacrifice and baptism, he was regarded as being reborn. "A proselyte who embraces Judaism," said the rabbis, "is like a new-born child." So radical was the change that the sins he had committed before his reception were all done away with, for now he was a different person. It was even theoretically argued that such a man could marry his own mother or his own sister, because he was a completely new man, and all the old connections were broken and destroyed. The Jew knew the idea of rebirth.
The Greek also knew the idea of rebirth and knew it well. By far the most real religion of the Greeks at this time was the faith of the mystery religions. The mystery religions were all founded on the story of some suffering and dying and rising god. This story was played out as a passion play. The initiate had a long course of preparation, instruction, asceticism and fasting. The drama was then played out with gorgeous music, marvelous ritual, incense and everything to play upon the emotions. As it was played out, the worshipper's aim was to become one with the god in such a way that he passed through the god's sufferings and shared the god's triumph and the god's divine life. The mystery religions offered mystic union with some god. When that union was achieved the initiate was, in the language of the Mysteries, a twice-born. The Hermetic Mysteries had as part of their basic belief: "There can be no salvation without regeneration." Apuleius, who went through initiation, said that he underwent "a voluntary death," and that thereby he attained "his spiritual birthday," and was "as it were reborn." Many of the Mystery initiations took place at midnight when the day dies and is reborn. In the Phrygian, the initiate, after his initiation, was fed with milk as if he was a new-born babe.
The ancient world knew all about rebirth and regeneration. It longed for it and searched for it everywhere. The most famous of all Mystery ceremonies was the taurobolium. The candidate was put into a pit. On the top of the pit there was a lattice-work cover. On the cover a bull was slain by having its throat cut. The blood poured down and the initiate lifted up his head and bathed himself in the blood; and when he came out of the pit he was renatus in aeternum, reborn for all eternity. When Christianity came to the world with a message of rebirth, it came with precisely that for which all the world was seeking.
What, then, does this rebirth mean for us? In the New Testament, and especially in the Fourth Gospel, there are four closely inter-related ideas. There is the idea of rebirth; there is the idea of the kingdom of heaven, into which a man cannot enter unless he is reborn; there is the idea of sonship of God; and there is the idea of eternal life. This idea of being reborn is not something which is peculiar to the thought of the Fourth Gospel. In Matthew we have the same great truth put more simply and more vividly: "Unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven" ( Matthew 18:3 ). All these ideas have a common thought behind them.
Let us start with the kingdom of heaven. What does it mean? We get our best definition of it from the Lord's Prayer. There are two petitions side by side:
Thy Kingdom come:
Thy will be done in earth as it is in heaven.
It is characteristic of Jewish style to say things twice, the second way explaining and amplifying the first. Any verse of the Psalms will show us this Jewish habit of what is technically known as parallelism:
The Lord of hosts is with us:
The God of Jacob is our refuge ( Psalms 46:7 ).
For I know my transgressions:
And my sin is ever before me ( Psalms 51:3 ).
He makes me lie down in green pastures:
He leads me beside still waters ( Psalms 23:2 ).
Let us apply that principle to these two petitions in the Lord's Prayer. The second petition amplifies and explains the first; we then arrive at the definition: the kingdom of heaven is a society where God's will is as perfectly done on earth as it is in heaven. To be in the kingdom of heaven is therefore to lead a life in which we have willingly submitted everything to the will of God; it is to have arrived at a stage when we perfectly and completely accept the will of God.
Now let us take sonship. In one sense sonship is a tremendous privilege. To those who believe there is given the power to become sons ( John 1:12 ). But the very essence of sonship is necessarily obedience. "He who has commandments, and keeps them, he it is who loves me" ( John 14:21 ). The essence of sonship is love; and the essence of love is obedience. We cannot with any reality say that we love a person and then do things which hurt and grieve that person's heart. Sonship is a privilege, but a privilege which is entered into only when full obedience is given. So then to be a son of God and to be in the kingdom are one and the same thing. The son of God and the citizen of the kingdom are both people who have completely and willingly accepted the will of God.
Now let us take eternal life. It is far better to speak of eternal life than to speak of everlasting life. The main idea behind eternal life is not simply that of duration. It is quite clear that a life which went on for ever could just as easily be hell as heaven. The idea behind eternal life is the idea of a certain quality of life. What kind? There is only one person who can properly be described by this adjective eternal (aionios, Greek #166 ) and that one person is God. Eternal life is the kind of life that God lives; it is God's life. To enter into eternal life is to enter into possession of that kind of life which is the life of God. It is to be lifted up above merely human, transient things into that joy and peace which belong only to God. Clearly a man can enter into this close fellowship with God only when he renders to him that love, that reverence, that devotion, that obedience which truly bring him into fellowship with him.
Here then we have three great kindred conceptions, entry into the kingdom of heaven, sonship of God and eternal life; and all are dependent on and are the products of perfect obedience to the will of God. It is just here that the idea of being reborn comes in. It is what links all these three conceptions together. It is quite clear that, as we are and in our own strength, we are quite unable to render to God this perfect obedience; it is only when God's grace enters into us and takes possession of us and changes us that we can give to him the reverence and the devotion we ought to give. It is through Jesus Christ that we are reborn; it is when he enters into possession of our hearts and lives that the change comes.
When that happens we are born of water and the Spirit. There are two thoughts there. Water is the symbol of cleansing. When Jesus takes possession of our lives, when we love him with all our heart, the sins of the past are forgiven and forgotten. The Spirit is the symbol of power. When Jesus takes possession of our lives it is not only that the past is forgotten and forgiven; if that were all, we might well proceed to make the same mess of life all over again; but into life there enters a new power which enables us to be what by ourselves we could never be and to do what by ourselves we could never do. Water and the Spirit stand for the cleansing and the strengthening power of Christ, which wipes out the past and gives victory in the future.
Finally, in this passage, John lays down a great law. That which is born of the flesh is flesh and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. A man by himself is flesh and his power is limited to what the flesh can do. By himself he cannot be other than defeated and frustrated; that we know only too well; it is the universal fact of human experience. But the very essence of the Spirit is power and life which are beyond human power and human life; and when the Spirit takes possession of us, the defeated life of human nature becomes the victorious life of God.
To be born again is to be changed in such a way that it can be described only as rebirth and re-creation. The change comes when we love Jesus and allow him into our hearts. Then we are forgiven for the past and armed by the Spirit for the future; then we can truly accept the will of God. And then we become citizens of the kingdom; then we become sons of God; then we enter into eternal life, which is the very life of God.