The setting is Jerusalem—the holy city, where the brightest and best of Judaism’s religion lived, studied, and taught. Here were the scholars and masters who knew the Torah backwards (joke alert: Hebrew is written right to left) and forwards.
Now there was a prominent Pharisee named Nicodemus. He was educated, powerful, respected, orthodox, theologically trained, and a member of the Jewish ruling council. He is a leader of his nation. He came to Jesus in the cover of night and starts by saying, “Teacher, sir, it’s obvious you have some vital connection with God. Nobody even dreams of doing the unbelievable things you’re doing unless there was a God and he was active in you.” Can you read between the lines? He’s saying, ““I want that connection with God.” I think everyone wants that—the unbeliever, just wishing is were true, and the believer, just wanting more of God’s Presence, more of the immediacy of the relationship. Maybe you’re an unbeliever. Wouldn’t you love to find out for sure whether God is there or not, and what he is like? Maybe you’re a believer. Wouldn’t you love to know God’s presence in a personal, daily, experiential way? You see, no matter who you are and what you believe, you want to listen in on this conversation. Whatever it is Jesus has, you want it. And remember that Nicodemus knew everything about the Bible there was to know, but was still feeling something was missing.
Jesus goes right for the core: “Your education and power don’t matter. Those won’t make the connection you’re after. You need a new nature.” You see, Nic thinks that because he’s a good Jew that’s good enough. And he’s a top-drawer Jew! Jesus says, nope. Were you baptized when you were young? Are you a religious person? Are you a good person? None of those will do it for you—connect you with God. You want to listen to where Jesus is heading with this conversation.
Jesus said if you want to connect with God you need a new nature: to be born anew. You see, God isn’t out to reform your life, but to give you a new one. He doesn’t want to make you good; he wants to make you holy.
Nic misinterprets what Jesus said and meant: “Whoa, whoa, whoa. I can’t go back in the womb!” He is used to thinking in certain patterns, and Jesus is taking him outside of his patterns. He failed to grasp that Jesus was talking about a new spiritual life with a new nature. So Jesus comes right back with, “I’m talking about spiritual life here—your spiritual nature. Nothing of your natural-born human nature can make the connection with God. The question isn’t good or bad, educated or not, religious or not. What matters is whether you have a sin nature or God’s nature. There’s no other way. It’s all internal, and certainly nothing that can be proved scientifically, even though it’s as real as anything else. The scientific method can only take you so far. I’m talking about deeper things.”
Nicodemus admits, “Dude, you’re losing me.” (OK, it’s a loose translation.) Jesus chides him gently: “But you’re a scholar of the Torah and a religious leader of the people.” Here we have a case in point that intelligence and education don’t necessarily give a person understanding. Lots of people are religious, but Jesus would comment, “So what.”
Jesus continues: “People who have this new spiritual nature know what I’m talking about, and have explained it over and over. These mysteries have been made known before, but you reject it. How can I make this clear to you? Let’s try this: A person can only know about spiritual things if they’ve experienced them. A person can only know about God if he knows God. A person can only explain to you about heaven if he’s already been there and then comes here to talk to you about it. Do you remember the story in Numbers 21 where the snakes were sent by God to judge the people for their sins? Of course you do—you’re a scholar of the Scriptures. The symbol of their sin and judgment was hung high for all to see. And whoever looked at it was saved from death. Remember that story? That story is really about me. One day I will be lifted up, and God will judge the sins of the world on me, and everyone who comes to me for a new nature will live.”
This text doesn’t say any more about Nicodemus, but since he helped to compassionately bury Jesus (Jn. 9.34), there is evidence that he made a decision to give up his sin nature and come to Jesus for a new one so that he could be born again. The testimony of a religious leader: This Jesus is God.