Having just mentioned Christ’s knowledge of what was in man in verse 25 of the previous chapter, we now have reference to a man, this Pharisee named Nicodemus. This man, Nicodemus, was not just one of the ruling class or the Jews, but he was a ruler in that class, one of the leading men in Jerusalem and leading men of the day. A member of the Sanhedrin or National Council, he was one of the movers and shakers, one of the elite, and he was interested in interviewing and learning more about the Lord Jesus. No doubt he wanted to find out about this Man for himself.
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.”
Much has been made of the fact that Nicodemus came to the Lord by night. Many sermons have been preached on this subject wherein the speaker assumed that Nicodemus was ashamed to let it be known that he had talked with the Lord, or that he had come at night to try to hide his actions from the rest of the council. However, there is no reason to think that this is true. Many of us have gone to visit someone in the evening of the day. This might be because we were busy working the rest of the day, and couldn’t make it until the evening. If this is true of us, why couldn’t it also have been true of Nicodemus, a very influential and no doubt very busy man? No doubt the evening was the best time in his schedule to come and visit the Lord. And we have no evidence that he hid this visit. He may very well have openly scheduled this meeting with the Lord for this very time. He had heard about what the Lord was doing and wanted to talk with Him and find out for himself what this Man was all about. There is no reason to assume that he was being timid about it.
In their climate, homes would often get very hot during the day. With the sun baking down on the flat roof and only tiny windows to let out the heat, the houses would become sweltering by nightfall. However, as is common in more desert climes, the air outside would cool off very rapidly after dark, whereas the houses would retain heat. Thus, the roofs of houses were built as a kind of porch, and people would spend most of the evening up on the roof to enjoy the cool of the night. No doubt this interview between the Lord and Nicodemus took place on the roof of whatever house the Lord was staying at while in Jerusalem.
Nicodemus states his purpose for visiting the Lord. He reveals what the council of the Sanhedrin knew. They realized that the Lord was a teacher come from God. Nicodemus states this not just of himself but of all of them, and there is no reason to doubt his word. These members of the Sanhedrin were knowledgeable men, and they could certainly recognize the signs of Who and What the Lord Jesus was. This is what he states, that they knew from the signs that He worked that He must be from God. Yet note that their recognizing the fact did not finalize what they were going to do about it. Just because they recognized that He had come from God did not mean that they had to go along with Him. In fact, many of them did not. Merely recognizing the truth about the Lord Jesus is not enough for salvation. One also has to, upon recognizing the truth, choose to throw in your lot with Him. Otherwise, one might choose to oppose Him in spite of His attachment to God. That is what many of these men actually did choose to do. But it was not because they did not recognize that He was sent from God. They did! That makes their sin all the worse.
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.”
The Lord responds to Nicodemus’ statement in a peculiar way. Nicodemus has claimed that the Sanhedrin know (Greek eido) that He is a teacher come from God. Now Christ tells him that unless one is born again, he cannot see (Greek eido in a different form) the kingdom of God. “Again” here is an improper translation of the Greek word anothen. Palin is the Greek word that means “again.” Anothen means “from above,” as it is translated in verse 31 of this same chapter. It is always translated as “from above” or something similar every time it is translated (when it is translated at all) except when it is used with “born.” This shows that the translators were biased, and did not translate the word correctly. They probably wanted to make being “born again” to be infant baptism. Since infant baptism is not taught in the Bible, they needed to get it in somehow. Being “born from above” could not help them, as that is clearly something that no man can do. But being “born again” is something the priest can do. Thus, they translated this word this way. But it does not mean “again,” it means “from above.” What Christ was telling Nicodemus was that the knowledge that he and the Sanhedrin had was something given to them by God Himself. Now, they were under the greatest possible obligation as to what they would do with that knowledge. Would they believe and submit themselves to Him? Or would they reject what they knew to be the truth? This was the challenge the Lord set before Nicodemus.
4. Nicodemus said to Him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?”
Nicodemus’ reply to the Lord’s answer shows that he misunderstood what Christ was telling him. He latched unto the idea of being born, and asked how one could be born when he was old. Notice that he does not ask how he could be born again when he is old, but only born. This is because Christ did not say “again” but “from above.” In Greek they answered their rhetorical questions, and Nicodemus’ question here indicates that he does not believe that a man could enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born. He was right about this, of course, but that was not what our Lord was saying. He was not talking about physical birth, but the birth of Divine knowledge within a person’s mind.
5. Jesus answered, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.
Now the Lord tells Nicodemus, not just about perceiving the kingdom of God, as He did in verse 3, but about actually entering it. The Lord never said that being “born from above” was the way you entered the kingdom of God, only how you perceived it. Now he explains that this generation or birth is a prerequisite to entering the kingdom of God. First, one must be born of water and the Spirit before he can enter that kingdom.
Many have argued about the meaning of being born of water and the Spirit. Some would take “water” as being a reference to water baptism. The problem with this is it would make water baptism necessary for entrance into God’s kingdom, something that was never declared in any case where water baptism was actually used. Yet if it does not mean water baptism, many are in a quandary as to what it actually does mean.
To understand this passage, we need to understand the use of the word “spirit,” the Greek word pneuma. This word was in common use for “spirit” in ancient Greek, but in order to really understand its usage, we will have to examine the use of the Hebrew word for “spirit,” ruach. Remember, although the New Testament was written in Greek, it was written by native Aramaic speakers who derived many of their figures of speech and the way they thought of words from ancient Hebrew.
Now that ruach in the Old Testament is synonymous with pneuma in the New Testament can be established from Matthew 12:18, which quotes Isaiah 42:1, “Behold! My Servant Whom I uphold, My Elect One in Whom My soul delights! I have put My Spirit upon Him; He will bring forth justice to the Gentiles.” In the Hebrew of Isaiah 42:1, the word for “Spirit” here is ruach. In Matthew, the Greek word for “Spirit” is pneuma. Thus, by the Law of Divine Interchange, the word pneuma in Greek takes on the exact same value and meaning as the word ruach in Hebrew. The Law of Divine Interchange states that if a word in Greek is used to translate a word in Hebrew in a quotation of the Old Testament in the New, then that Greek word takes on the exact same value and meaning as the Hebrew word had. This Law assumes that the Hebrew words were defined and used by God to set forth His truths. The Greek words, however, often took on pagan characteristics and ideas. When adopting the Greek words into His vocabulary, God purified them to mean what they meant in His Hebrew language, not what they meant in ancient and often paganized Greek. Thus, the meanings of Greek words used by Divine Interchange to translate Hebrew words should be determined from the meaning and use of the Hebrew word in the Old Testament, not by the use of the Greek word by ancient, ungodly Greeks in their pagan writings and myths.
Thus, I believe we should establish the meaning of pneuma by its use in the Old Testament. Since it is used to translate ruach, we assume that it takes on the character and meaning of ruach. Now ruach is the word for “spirit” in the Old Testament, but there is another important meaning attached to it as well. Ruach is also used to mean “wind” in the Old Testament. Several examples of this are Psalm 55:8, “I would hasten my escape From the windy (ruach) storm and tempest,” and Ezekiel 1:4a, “Then I looked, and behold, a whirlwind (ruach) coming out of the north.” Thus, since ruach could mean “wind” and pneuma is used in the same way as ruach, we can conclude that pneuma can also be used to mean “wind.” Now the ancient Greeks did not use pneuma this way. They had a separate word for “wind,” anemos. Yet Christ was using the Greek word for “spirit” in the same way He would have used the Hebrew word for “spirit,” and thus was using it in this case to mean “wind.” The actual meaning of what He said here is that “unless one is born of water and the wind, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”
Now this might seem strange to some. How can one be born of the wind? But when you think about it, being born of the wind is no more strange than being born of the water. Both “water” and “wind” are symbolic for something else. Our translators, however, have translated “water” literally, and yet have interpreted “wind” as “Spirit.” This should not be done to the passage. It makes it sound as if both water and Spirit are literal. The passage should either be translated straight as “water and wind,” or both figures should be interpreted. Ephesians 5:26 says of the church, “that He might sanctify it and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word.” This explains the word as the source of the washing of water. Thus, I believe that water is symbolic for the Word of God. In the same way, “wind” is symbolic for the Spirit of God. There is no word for “the” in front of “Spirit,” so we can understand this as referring to the work of the Spirit, not His person. Thus, in order to enter the kingdom of God, Christ states that one must be born of the Word and the spirit. This is what He means here. One must have truth generated in Him by means of hearing the Word and having it brought home to him by the power of the Holy Spirit. Apart from this, faith cannot be expressed, and the work cannot be accomplished whereby one is allowed to enter the kingdom of God. Both water (the Word) and wind (the power of the Spirit) must work to accomplish this. That is what I believe Christ meant in this passage.
Now just because this work is done in someone does not mean that he will accept the knowledge that the Spirit gives him or actually receive entrance into that kingdom, but it does mean that he is given the opportunity. And that is what Christ is telling Nicodemus here. By receiving this birth of the Word and spirit, he is now able to enter the kingdom of God. Whether or not he chooses to do so is up to him!
6. “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.
It is a fundamental law of Scripture that everything brings forth “according to its kind” (Genesis 1:24-25,) thus absolutely opposing the hypothesis of evolution, which claims that creatures can bring forth totally different creatures over time. Yet the Biblical law is that things only bring forth according to their kind, and Christ bases His statement here upon that law. That which is born of the flesh is flesh. Anything we can see and imagine and create on our own is of the flesh. Yet that which is born of God’s Holy Spirit is not flesh, as our creations are. That which is generated by the Spirit is spirit. Thus, this knowledge that had been generated in Nicodemus and the other members of the Sanhedrin was not flesh, but spirit, a knowledge that came about in them by the very power of God.
7. “Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’
Christ tells Nicodemus that he should not be surprised when Christ tells him that he has been born from above. That God can give people knowledge that they would not otherwise have had is clear from the Old Testament, and the idea should not have been foreign to Nicodemus. Note that Christ is not telling Nicodemus that being “born again” is something he needs to do in the future, but rather is assuring him that it is something that has already happened to him. He has already had this knowledge born in him from above. Now he needs to decide what to do with that knowledge.
8. “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from or where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
This is another case where the Greek word for spirit, pneuma, is used like the Hebrew word for spirit, ruach, in that it is used to mean “wind.” Yet here the wind is clearly used to illustrate the workings of the Spirit. The Spirit acts just like the wind. It breathes where it wishes, and though you can hear its voice, you cannot tell where it came from or where it goes. The work of the Spirit is indeed a mysterious thing, and wind is a good figure for it. Everyone who is born of the Spirit is like the Spirit Himself. You cannot see where the knowledge given by the Spirit came from, and yet there it is. Thus Nicodemus should not be surprised to learn that he has had the Spirit working in his life revealing this truth to him.
9. Nicodemus answered and said to Him, “How can these things be?”
Nicodemus still does not understand how the Spirit could have birthed this knowledge within him.
10. Jesus answered and said to him, “Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not know these things?
The Lord chides Nicodemus for not having learned these things already. Knowledge of the Holy Spirit and how He works can be gleaned from the Old Testament. The Lord thought that Nicodemus should have already known these things, particularly since he was a famous teacher. Yet how often do men fail to learn the things of God that they should. Alas, all too often even those who are set up to teach the things of God know little themselves about them. Too many of our own teachers are just like Nicodemus, famous as teachers, and yet lacking in the things the Lord would have them know.
11. “Most assuredly, I say to you, We speak what We know and testify what We have seen, and you do not receive Our witness.
Now, the Lord includes Himself with the Spirit. They were both testifying to Nicodemus and the other members of the Sanhedrin, and yet they were not receiving Their witness. That is what the Lord meant when He used “We” and “Our” in this verse. Thus He was including Himself as speaking equally with the Spirit! This is another important reference to the fact that He was equal with God. Notice as well that Christ refers to Himself and the Spirit as witnessing to something. Remember that John’s purpose is to cause us to believe. Thus this story of the witness both of the Spirit and of Christ to Nicodemus is included in this book, so that Their witness can witness to us as well and help us to believe the truth about Christ.
12. “If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things?”
The Lord indicates that Nicodemus did not believe Him. He had told him these earthly things, and he did not believe. How would he then believe if Christ told him of the even greater, heavenly things? This is something that we should all consider. If we do not even believe our Lord when He tells us things about this earth, like how He made it, how will we believe when He tells us even greater things, such as supernatural truths?
The word for “earthly” here is epigeios, and the word for “heavenly” is epouranios. When the prefix ep- or epi- is placed in front of a word, it accelerates the word, much as our English prefix “super.” Christ had told Nicodemus of super-earthly things, and he did not believe. Therefore, how could he believe if Christ told him of super-heavenly things? This is more accurately what Christ was conveying to him by this question.
13. No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of Man Who is in heaven.
One thing we always need to keep in mind when reading the New Testament Scriptures is that, in the Greek, no punctuation, spacing, capitalization, or paragraph breaks existed. The original Greek text was written as a solid string of capital letters, such as:
No breaks existed at all. All punctuation, spacing, capitalization, and paragraph breaks were not contained in the original text, but were added in later by interpreters. Thus, no quotation marks existed in the Greek text, and the only way the translators could know where a person’s words begin or end is by tradition or by when the quotation seems to begin or end upon examining the text. For example, in the following text you should be able to figure out where the quotations begin and end without too much work:
In this case, it would be obvious after study that the conversation runs thus:
Greg said to me, “Stop that.” I said, “What?” He said, “Making that noise.”
This is the task that is set before our Bible translators. As I said, it is usually not a problem. However, in a few cases, the lack of punctuation, especially quotation marks, can cause a difficulty. This particular passage is one of them.
Most Bibles carry the Lord’s quotation right on to verse 21 of this chapter. Yet there is a significant problem with that, most importantly that verse 13 says that the “Son of Man” IS in heaven. If our Lord said these words to Nicodemus, we can only come to three conclusions. One is that the Lord was not actually standing before Nicodemus, but was actually in heaven. If that was the case, then was the entire incarnation, the entire idea of God manifest in the flesh, just a deception, and the Lord never was on earth at all? Another possibility is that Jesus was not the Son of Man. This is not only put to the lie by the many other times when He refers to Himself as the Son of Man, but also would indicate that He is not the Messiah, which is the exact opposite of the whole point of this book! A third possibility is that the Lord was simply lying to Nicodemus, since He told him that the Son of Man is in heaven, and He was actually on earth standing right before him.
Now I would hope that most of my readers would find all three of the above possibilities totally unacceptable. Yet what possibility is left? Some would say that these words do not belong in the text, and some would omit them. Yet they are contained in the Syriac (the Aramaic version of the gospels, of which we have copies far older than our oldest Greek manuscripts,) and thus their legitimacy can hardly be questioned.
Thus there is only one other possibility, and that is that the words in verse 13 are not the words of the Lord Jesus to Nicodemus at all. The quotation of the Lord’s words to Nicodemus ended with verse 12. Now, the story of Christ’s conversation with Nicodemus has ended. John the apostle, the author of this book, ends the narrative, and begins a monologue of great truth about Jesus Christ. This monologue is what continues through verse 21, not the words of the Lord to Nicodemus. Besides the fact that John says that the Son of Man is “in heaven,” there are several other facts that point to John, not Christ, being the speaker of these words. For one thing, the term “only begotten Son” (verses 16 and 18) was never used by Christ of Himself anywhere else, but was used by John the apostle in chapter 1, as well as in I John 4:9. For another, “in the name of” is also a phrase used by John but nowhere else by the Lord (John 1,2, I John 5:13.) And finally, the verb tenses used indicate that the Lord’s sacrifice was already fulfilled when these words were written. Thus, these are clearly the words of John reflecting back on Christ’s sacrifice and teaching us about it, not the words of the Lord to Nicodemus teaching him about something that was yet to happen.
John speaks of ascending up to heaven. He says no one has done this except the One Who came down from heaven, the Son of Man, Jesus Christ Himself. This does not mean that Enoch and Elijah did not go to heaven, but they did not ascend of themselves but were brought up there. Moreover, “heaven” is singular here (it is usually plural,) and is used figuratively for the One Who dwells in heaven, God Himself. No one ascended up to God like the One Who came down from God. Not only that, but He, the representative of Man, is currently in heaven. Thus, our representative stands before God. And as long as He is there, we can be sure that mankind has a faithful representative to speak on our behalf to God.