Nicodemus’s conversation with Jesus in John 3:1-15 is sometimes regarded as an illustration of the tremendous stupidity of the Jews of our Lord’s day. Nicodemus is treated as just some guy who comes to Jesus at night because he doesn’t want to get into trouble by being seen with Him. Nicodemus tries to butter Jesus up by telling Him that he and his pals know that Jesus has come from God. Then, when Jesus says that one must be born again-from-above, Nicodemus is so dumb or sarcastic that he says, “Uh, duh, well, uh, how can a person be born when he’s already old, huh? Uh-hyuh, uh-hyuh! He can’t just crawl back, uh, into his momma and be born again, can he?”
Well, uh, duh, no, that’s not what is going on. First of all, the Holy Spirit is not wasting His breath showing us Jesus putting down various morons. This conversation is included because it is profound. Second, John’s gospel deals with profound depths, as all expositors agree, and so again this is not some stupid conversation. Third, Nicodemus was a member of the great Sanhedrin (John 7:50), which means he had served in a local sanhedrin as a judge for a number of years before being selected to the first small sanhedrin, then after more years advancing to the second small sanhedrin, and finally being approved to be one of the 70 members of the Great Sanhedrin (Article, “Sanhedrim,” in McClintock and Strong, Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature ). He was therefore an older man, probably twice Jesus’ age and worthy of respect. Fourth, Jesus tells us that Nicodemus was “the teacher of Israel” (John 3:10). Are we to take this as sarcasm, unworthy of the spotless son of man who knew to respect the aged? No, Jesus means what he says: Nicodemus was the preeminent theologian and teacher in Israel, and therefore on the surface of the earth, and not a fool.
Finally, Nicodemus was not at all reluctant to defend Jesus in public (John 7:50) and to be seen helping to bury him (19:39). (I’ll bet Caiaphas was pretty angry about that.) He came to Jesus at night in order to have a long conversation with Him uninterrupted. The notion that Nicodemus was not a believer does not stand up. He certainly was a faithful old covenant believer who was headed for paradise. If by “regeneration” we mean someone who has a life with God and is destined for heaven, Nicodemus was regenerated every bit as much as Abraham, Moses, David, and Elijah.
So then, what Nicodemus says is not stupid, but powerful and profound. We have only a very brief summary of his conversation with Jesus, which means we must pay careful attention.
My purpose in this essay is not to write 50 pages on all the background and theology in John 3. My sole purpose is to expose just who it is that is being born again here. The answer is Jesus. It is Jesus who is born again, and our experience of a new birth can only be in union with His.
As is so often the case in John, something is said or written that is deliberately ambiguous and joins two ideas in one. In this case it is Jesus’ statement that one must be born again, or born from above. Arguing which of these is in view is a mistake because both are intended, as the conversation shows.
Jesus begins “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless someone is born again/from-above he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Now, if you’re Nicodemus you might be frustrated by this. Let’s fill in the conversation in a sane and careful way. “But Jesus, rabbi, we both know that God’s people have been born again over and over from above. God has give us new births many times, and showered new blessings of His Spirit on us. We got a new start at the Flood, but then look what happened? Then again at Sinai, a nation was born in a day! And then look what happened!! After the Babylonian wilderness we got Cyrus the New Imperial Messiah, a believer with Daniel at his right hand. We got the wonderful 49-fold lampstand of Zechariah 4, the bronze pillars became bronze mountains in Zechariah 6, and we rode out bringing peace to the nations, spread out as the four winds of heaven. And now look where we are!!
“What you are saying, Jesus, gives me no hope. One more new birth? One more new kingdom of God? Jesus, the human race is old, and the way I see it, the only way to get out from the death-nature we have from Adam would be to go back into our mother’s womb and be born again.”
Is that what Nicodemus said? Believe me, something like it surely is. This is the summary in verse 4: “How can mankind be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born, can he?” There are two Greek words for “man.” The one is aner/andros, which refers to an individual person or a husband. The other is anthropos, which is more general and can refer to man generically, or mankind. It is anthropos that Nicodemus uses here. Now, I cannot press this too far. Often anthropos is used for an individual. It does not matter which way we take it. If Nicodemus were being sarcastic or stupid, he would have said, “Can an individual man (aner) climb up his mother’s birth canal and come back out again?” That not what he said. He was asking a serious and profound question.
We can note that in verse 7, Jesus says, “Do not marvel that I said to you (singular), you (plural) must be born again.” I’m saying to you, Nicodemus, that humanity needs a new birth.
I believe Nicodemus was fully aware that he was talking about Adam’s original birth as the generation of the heavens and the earth (Gen. 2:4). Adam was born out of mother earth (adamah, feminine) and the breath of the Spirit of God (2:7). The dust of which he was made was pre-baptized (1:9), a baptism with the waters below. Nicodemus was saying that a new humanity would have to be born again in such a way as to negate the consequences of Adam’s sin. Nicodemus was not a dummy. He knew what the issues were.
Now, again we have to fill in the conversation. Jesus replied to Nicodemus, “Now you’re cooking with gas, Nicodemus. Yes indeed. Only a new start out of mother earth is going to do the trick. You’ll be there, won’t you?” Well, maybe Jesus did not say exactly that, but somehow Nicodemus got the point, because when Jesus died and was about to be buried into mother earth, into a virgin tomb for a new virgin birth, Nicodemus was there to spice up His body. The disciples had fled. Nicodemus had not fled. Nicodemus had a good idea of what was going to happen next.
Before we go further, we have to remember how John’s gospel is structured. It has a series of simultaneous structures. One of them is creation week, and that’s obvious from how the gospel begins. We should not be surprised, then, that here early in the book a discussion of how human beings are born goes back to the birth of the first human.
Being born over again is also being born from above. The reference is to heaven, to what is on the other side of the firmament set up in Genesis 1:6-8. What is on the other side of the firmament is the heavenly ocean. It is sprinkling with water from above, or passing through rivers with water running downstream, that signifies (in the strong sense) being born by the Spirit from above. Jesus told Nicodemus not to marvel at what He was saying, because it was commonplace. All the baptisms of the old time were by sprinkling or by water running downhill. A person who contracted ceremonial death (“uncleanness”) was resurrected by water from above, always. If in Adam we all contract death, is it a birth by water and Spirit from above that will make us a new creation.
But more than that: It is Jesus and ONLY Jesus who is really born again from above. We are born again from above in union with Him. It cannot be otherwise. This is given us in verse 8, “The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who has been born of the Spirit.” So, that’s you and me, right? Really? Is that how you live? I don’t think so. BUT, look at Jesus after His new birth, after His resurrection: He appears here, and then He disappears. He appears there, and then He disappears. He speaks words (Luke 24), and then He disappears. Jesus, in His resurrection, is the One who is born of the Spirit. It is only in union with Him that anything like this is true for us.
Now, Nicodemus says, “HOW can this be?” Yes. That’s probably after an hour or two of discussion. That’s all wonderful, says Nicodemus. I’m so happy to be living now at this time in history. But how? How? HOW?
Then Jesus says, “Nicodemus, if there’s anything you as THE teacher of Israel should understand, it’s how this can happen. Someone has to die, Nicodemus. It has to be a Better Isaac. It has to be the Seed of the Woman-Tree. The Son of Man will be lifted up like the bronze serpent. Do you see, Nicodemus? Have you seen all the crosses the Romans used for the rebels? Can you see what’s going to happen to Me? Do you see HOW?
Well, the point of this essay is to begin to explore this “regeneration” business. Being born again is being in union with Christ, the Reborn One. I do not see anything in the Bible to tell me I can know who is born again permanently and who is not. God predestinates some people to persevere. But God predestinates some people to be united to Jesus, to be inside of the new birth, and then to deny the Lord who purchased them. I’ll try to do a bit with that next time.