“Nicodemus came at night so he wouldn’t be seen by men
Saying, ‘Master, tell me why a man must be born again.'”
– Bob Dylan, “In the Garden,” 1980
I have always found the story of Nicodemus, told in three separate passages in the Gospel of John, among the most fascinating stories in the Bible. Like much of Scripture, there’s a lot more to it than meets the eye.
Here was a Pharisee and a member of the Sanhedrin whose very Greek name has two seemingly relevant meanings – “Innocent Blood” and “Victory of the People.” With a name like that, Nicodemus might have been expected to be on the lookout for the Messiah who would restore the world to the way it was intended to be at Creation before the fall. Or maybe we read too much into some Bible names.
But Nicodemus discreetly came to Jesus by night, proclaiming Him “a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him.”
Before we go any further, consider the fact that the central conflict in all four gospels is between Jesus and the religious authorities of His day – chiefly the Pharisees, who spied on Him, heckled Him and plotted against Him, and the ruling Sanhedrin which sought to have both Herod and Pontius Pilate crucify Him.
Yet Nicodemus comes to Jesus one night calling him a miracle-working teacher from God, we learn in John 3:1-21.
Note that Jesus doesn’t smile and thank him for the kind words. He didn’t think, “Gee, I wonder if maybe Nicodemus can win over his fellow Pharisees and his colleagues on Israel’s ruling council and get them off my back?” Nor did he make small talk. Instead, seemingly out of the blue, but more likely reading Nicodemus’s thoughts and his heart, Jesus responds: “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
What is Jesus doing here? He is sharing the Gospel. We should know that because we’re told in all four gospel accounts that the Gospel Jesus preaches was “the gospel of the Kingdom” – His Kingdom. Jesus knew that something was holding Nicodemus back from surrendering himself entirely to Jesus. It wasn’t enough to see Him as just a “teacher from God,” or as a worker of miracles, or as someone God was with. To be saved by Jesus, one must see Him as the long-awaited Messiah, the Son of God, the King of kings and the Lord of lords and respond accordingly.
Jesus didn’t beat around the bush with Nicodemus. In effect, He told him what he needed to do – be “born again,” born of the spirit, born anew or born from above. It was time to ensure his very salvation, which doesn’t come from acknowledging that Jesus is “a teacher come from God,” a miracle worker or someone who God is with.
Nicodemus responds: “How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb, and be born?”
Jesus answers: “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again. The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.”
Nicodemus, one of the most revered, learned and powerful men in Israel asks: “How can these things be?”
Jesus answers: “Art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not these things? Verily, verily, I say unto thee, We speak that we do know, and testify that we have seen; and ye receive not our witness. If I have told you earthly things, and ye believe not, how shall ye believe, if I tell you of heavenly things? And no man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.”
Then Jesus shares with Nicodemus what has become one of the most familiar and oft-quoted verses in the Bible – a shorthand version of the “gospel of the Kingdom” that Jesus preached throughout Galilee, Judah, Samaria and Jerusalem: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.”
“He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God,” Jesus continued. “And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For every one that doeth evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved. But he that doeth truth cometh to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest, that they are wrought in God.”
I suspect these words had a very profound effect on Nicodemus. After all, he had come to Jesus when it was dark, perhaps so his own deeds would not be reproved by his high and mighty friends. Nicodemus saw the light, but had not yet come to surrender to the light.
Most Christians would recognize this passage as the first of only two specific references in the King James Version of the Bible where the term “born again” is used. (The other being 1 Peter 1:23.) It was obviously foreign to Nicodemus, a scholar of the Word. Yet Jesus seems astonished that this learned man of the Scriptures is unfamiliar with the concept. So, here’s the mystery of Nicodemus: Why would Jesus expect him to understand a concept that is not specifically mentioned elsewhere in the Hebrew Scriptures?
I’ll get to that soon enough, but first I want to explore the rest of Nicodemus’s story as it unfolds in parts two and three of the Gospel of John.
The next time we read about Nicodemus comes in John 7 in Jerusalem on the last day of the Feast of Tabernacles, or Sukkot, which will begin in a few days, shortly after Yom Kippur. Jesus was preaching and, we’re told, “many of the people believed on him, and said, When Christ cometh, will he do more miracles than these which this man hath done?”
“The Pharisees heard that the people murmured such things concerning him; and the Pharisees and the chief priests sent officers to take him,” it says in verse 32.
Nevertheless, Jesus continues to preach: “Yet a little while am I with you, and then I go unto him that sent me. Ye shall seek me, and shall not find me: and where I am, thither ye cannot come. … If any man thirst, let him come unto me, and drink. He that believeth on me, as the scripture hath said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water.”
All this caused great debate among the people listening – some calling Him a prophet, others the Messiah, while the chief priests and Pharisees sought to arrest Him. There was great division among all. When the chief priests and Pharisees demanded to know why He had not been arrested, their own officers answered: “Never man spake like this man.”
The Pharisees asked, “Are ye also deceived? Have any of the rulers or of the Pharisees believed on him?”
Enter, again, Nicodemus who demands: “Doth our law judge any man, before it hear him, and know what he doeth?”
The Pharisees ask: “Art thou also of Galilee? Search, and look: for out of Galilee ariseth no prophet.”
Of course, Jesus was no mere prophet. Nor was he born in Galilee. He was born in Bethlehem, the city of King David, from whose royal lineage it was prophesied that the Redeemer of Israel and Savior of the world would emerge.
Nicodemus, meanwhile, is no longer lurking in the shadows. But nor has he pledged himself publicly as a believer.
Then comes the final act – John 19.
Jesus is crucified during another holy week – Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread, Jesus, of course, being the sinless “Bread of Life.” Joseph of Arimathaea asks Pilate for His body. He is joined by Nicodemus who offers an enormously expensive mixture of myrrh and aloes to dress Jesus’ tortured, lifeless body before wrapping Him in linen and laying Him in Joseph’s garden tomb – from which He would rise three days later on the Feast of First Fruits.
Nicodemus is completely out of the shadows now. There is little doubt he fully understands and embraces what it means to be “born again,” reborn spiritually, born anew, born from above. In fact, what we know about his story from those three passages in John is indeed a testament to the new spiritual birth of the believer.
But here’s the mystery unraveled: Why did Jesus assume a learned ruler of Israel should have comprehended this new birth before it was ever mentioned in the law and the prophets and the other Hebrew Scriptures?
While I don’t specifically address this question in my newest book, “The Gospel in Every Book of the Old Testament,” I can attest to you that while the specific words “born again” appear nowhere in the Tanach, the law and the prophets are indeed replete with the concept of spiritual rebirth. In fact, one of the references is even hinted at by Jesus in John 3:14: “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up.” That, of course, takes place in Numbers 21. But there’s much, much more – beginning in Leviticus 26:40-42: “If they shall confess their iniquity, and the iniquity of their fathers, with their trespass which they trespassed against me, and that also they have walked contrary unto me; And that I also have walked contrary unto them, and have brought them into the land of their enemies; if then their uncircumcised hearts be humbled, and they then accept of the punishment of their iniquity: Then will I remember my covenant with Jacob, and also my covenant with Isaac, and also my covenant with Abraham will I remember; and I will remember the land.”
In other words, all it takes is a new heart and a reborn spirit.
Let’s first examine what else can be found about this renewed heart and spirit in the Torah – the first five books of the Bible.
Recall when Jesus told Nicodemus: “The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.”
Throughout the Bible, God uses the wind as a metaphor for a spiritual force to do His bidding – dry up the earth after the flood, to bring in locusts in an Exodus judgment and to drive them away, to part the Red Sea and to close it again on the Egyptian army, to rain quails upon the children of Israel longing for meat during their Exodus journey.
Two verses especially stand out for me:
- Proverbs 30:4: “Who hath ascended up into heaven, or descended? who hath gathered the wind in his fists? who hath bound the waters in a garment? who hath established all the ends of the earth? what is his name, and what is his son’s name, if thou canst tell?”
- Ezekiel 37:9: “Then said he unto me, Prophesy unto the wind, prophesy, son of man, and say to the wind, Thus saith the Lord God; Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.”
What is required for the personal transformation necessary to receive this new heart and spirit? The problem from the beginning, God tells us in Genesis 8:21, has always been with man’s heart: “And the Lord smelled a sweet savour; and the Lord said in his heart, I will not again curse the ground any more for man’s sake; for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; neither will I again smite any more every thing living, as I have done.”
Personal regeneration and Kingdom restoration has always been through renewed spirit, humbled heart and penitence – sincere turning back to God and away from sin:
Deuteronomy 4:29: “But if from thence thou shalt seek the Lord thy God, thou shalt find him, if thou seek him with all thy heart and with all thy soul.”
Deuteronomy 5:29: “O that there were such an heart in them, that they would fear me, and keep all my commandments always, that it might be well with them, and with their children for ever!”
Deuteronomy 6:5: “And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.”
Deuteronomy 10:12: “And now, Israel, what doth the Lord thy God require of thee, but to fear the Lord thy God, to walk in all his ways, and to love him, and to serve the Lord thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul.”
Deuteronomy 10:16: “Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no more stiffnecked.”
Deuteronomy 26:16: “This day the Lord thy God hath commanded thee to do these statutes and judgments: thou shalt therefore keep and do them with all thine heart, and with all thy soul.”
The entire chapter of Deuteronomy 30 is yet another refresher course on how the new heart and new spirit bring regeneration.
This is why we can truly find the Gospel of personal redemption and creation restoration in every book of the Hebrew Scriptures. And this explains why Jesus expressed disappointment that Nicodemus, a master of His Word, would be flummoxed by the notion of spiritual rebirth.
There are hundreds more key references in the Tanach relevant to this Nicodemus mystery, but here are a few more:
- Isaiah 44:3: “For I will pour water upon him that is thirsty, and floods upon the dry ground: I will pour my spirit upon thy seed, and my blessing upon thine offspring:”
- Isaiah 57:15: “For thus saith the high and lofty One that inhabiteth eternity, whose name is Holy; I dwell in the high and holy place, with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones.”
- Ezekiel 36:24-27: “For I will take you from among the heathen, and gather you out of all countries, and will bring you into your own land. Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean: from all your filthiness, and from all your idols, will I cleanse you. A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments, and do them.”
- Jeremiah 31:31-34: “Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah: Not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt; which my covenant they brake, although I was an husband unto them, saith the Lord: But this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; After those days, saith the Lord, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people. And they shall teach no more every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord: for they shall all know me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith the Lord: for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”
Lastly, there’s also a more overt connection made in the Bible between the first birth and the spiritual rebirth. The first birth through a mother follows the breaking of the water. Eight days later, in the case of male offspring comes the circumcision of the flesh, a commandment for all baby boys. It is a symbolic act of obedience by parents. The second spiritual rebirth involves, as previously mentioned in some of the biblical references above, a spiritual circumcision of the heart, followed by an immersion, cleansing ritual or baptism in water. This was not a new thing begun when John appeared to call for repentance and herald the coming of Messiah Jesus, but reflective of commandments in Exodus 30, Exodus 40, Leviticus 8, Leviticus 15, 16 and 17.
Is it a mystery that Nicodemus, one of the most learned Bible teachers of his time, was rebuked by Jesus for not recognizing that His Gospel message was one continually prophesied from the beginning and fully integrated throughout all the Hebrew Scriptures? It shouldn’t be. Yet many today, with even more information available to them, still retain a blindness about the consistency of the entire Word of God.
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