1 There was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. 2 This man came to Jesus by night and said to Him, “Rabbi, we know that You are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.”
3 Jesus answered and said to him, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
There are some passages in the Bible that leave you scratching your head, wondering why the Lord responds the way that He does to people who are obviously zealous in their pursuit of Him (for example, the Rich Young Ruler, or the Gentile woman with a demon possessed daughter). John 3:1-21 is one such passage. A ruler of the Jews seeks Jesus out, finds Him, pays Him admiration, and the Lord seems to be completely unaffected by such praise, (at first glance) ignoring the man altogether.
In fact, the Lord’s words “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” almost seem disruptive and rude.
Where did that come from?
As we read on we see that Nicodemus, although a devoutly religious man, and one who had seen Christ’s works and come to a decision about Him (cf. John 2:23-25)…well, he just couldn’t see who Christ really is. And this is especially evident in the very opening address he gives to the Lord. He says:
“Rabbi, we know that You are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.”
To which the Lord responds:
“Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
Comparing the two we get:
N: Unless God is with a man, he cannot perform great miracles.
J: Unless a man is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.
The parallelism is purposeful and marks the conversation between the Lord Jesus and Nicodemus, serving to underscore a sharp distinction between that which is “fleshly” (i.e. the product of unaided human resources) and that which is spiritual (i.e. the product of the Holy Spirit’s Sovereign working). Nicodemus is evaluating Christ upon what he can physically see and comprehend (according to his natural capabilities), the Lord Jesus is evaluating men on the basis of what cannot be seen. That is to say: Nicodemus, a natural man, can only see natural things. Christ, the spiritual Man, sees the true spiritual condition of men. Nicodemus believes that a natural man can do something to make a proper decision for Christ. The Lord Jesus teaches Nicodemus (and us!) that a man’s ability to see spiritual truth can only come about by a divine work that is God the Holy Spirit’s alone: Regeneration.
Therefore, Nicodemus’ words may seem to be an polite and appropriate response to the Lord Jesus, but when we consider that Nicodemus calls Christ “a” teacher come from God, while retaining the title “the” teacher of Israel for himself, and coming to Christ to report that all within his camp have given Christ the a-okay, what we see is that Nicodemus didn’t see who Christ is at all. Rather, he watched the Lord, evaluated Him according to His own guidelines for such an evaluation, and accepted Him as “a” teacher (seeing as Christ has met his qualifications).
As an unsaved man, he thought that he had the capacity whereby to judge Christ as authentic or inauthentic, as acceptable or unacceptable; but Christ tells him otherwise. It’s as if the Lord is saying:
Nicodemus, you are completely blind to spiritual things. If you want to see the kingdom, you must be born again. The Holy Spirit must sovereignly regenerate you to life, and then and only then will you be able to see and enter the kingdom of God.
It is the work of the Holy Spirit in regenerating a man that is essential to coming to faith, for apart from being brought to life, we are all like Nicodemus. Sure, we can see certain truths about Christ – that he was moral, or a skillful debater, or that he was sinless – however, in our unregenerate state we cannot say, as Peter did, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God!” (Matt. 16:16), for “flesh and blood [can]not [reveal] this to [us],” but only God (Matt. 16:17). Paul the apostle reiterates this when, after relaying the integrity of his own ministry in word and deed to many, he says: “But even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, whose minds the god of this age has blinded, who do not believe, lest the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine on them” (2 Corinthians 4:3-4). Those who are spiritually blind, who cannot see the glory of Christ have no power within themselves to see the truth – that is an act of God and God alone, for we then read: “…it is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6).
Nicodemus could only get some things right, but because the Holy Spirit had not Sovereignly brought him to life, he was still spiritually dead and could not truly see Christ as He is. Here is what he got right and, simultaneously, what he got wrong.
1. Christ is indeed “a teacher come from God”, but Christ further adds to this by saying that “No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of Man who is in heaven.” Jesus is not simply a teacher whose ministry God is behind – Jesus is almighty God in the flesh who alone is the Wisdom of God. Jesus does not need the testimony of men in order to validate His ministry and Messianic status.
2. Similarly, God is indeed “with” Christ, but not in the minimalistic sense that Nicodemus attributes to Him. For we read in John 1:1-3: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made.” Nicodemus could not see that Christ was, is, and always will be One with the Father (cf. John 10:30). Consider the madness of Nicodemus the creature standing in evaluation of his Creator! Yet, that is what the natural man does…
3. Lastly, while Nicodemus is right in seeing that the Lord’s sign are an indication that His work is approved by God/from God, he cannot see beyond that. The Lord’s signs point beyond themselves to His very Person and the truth of His work. Nicodemus, although religious, was spiritually blind. Just as he couldn’t see that the Lord’s miracles had an even greater depth of significance than what he and his friends could see and naturally comprehend, he couldn’t see that Moses’ actions also pointed beyond themselves to Christ (cf. John 3:14-15, which is something that other Pharisees are guilty of as well, cf. John 5:37-39). He was indeed “the” teacher of Israel, and he didn’t know these things – because he couldn’t see them.
All this should make us reconsider one short sentence given by our Lord that is typically overlooked:
“If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things?”
Only by a Divine, Sovereign act of Regeneration. The natural cannot receive nor understand the things of God – he must be born again before he can properly “decide for Christ.”
Soli Deo Gloria.