John 3:1-81Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews.
2This 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.”
3Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
4Nicodemus 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?”
5Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.
6That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.
7Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’
8The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
This private dialog between Jesus and Nicodemus is one of the most well-known passages in scripture, and for good reason. This is the first time in the book of John that Jesus speaks more than a few words. And these words describe the central experience of those who enter into the kingdom of God. He's talking to Nicodemus but his intended audience is much bigger. He's talking to all of us. All of mankind. And what he says is on the top shelf, it's a stretch for anyone to grasp, but it's not completely out of reach.
I don't think Nicodemus was a bad guy. He wasn't the kind of man who judged someone from a distance, without talking to them face to face. He was obviously successful and well respected and well known. To me that indicates that he was probably hard working and dependable and a good leader. Qualities that make up a good guy.
But this night, in this conversation, as he tried to get a handle on an unconventional young rabbi, this successful and respected religious leader was out of his depth.
Nicodemus' question shows that he is trying to understand, but Jesus knows Nicodemus (and we) won't grasp these words with understanding alone.
Here's what Jesus is telling us: Intimacy with God results in spiritual conception.
A new person is born, a spiritual person, when we are intimate with God. Other places this new person is referred to as 'the inner being...' (Ephesians 3:16) 'a new creation...' (2 Corinthians 5:17) or 'a new heart' 'a new spirit'. And this new person, comes into being and supersedes and replaces the old person that we were. Jesus tells Nicodemus that it is this new person who sees and enters into the Kingdom of God.
No doubt Nicodemus was surprised to hear Jesus refer to it in these terms, but the experience sounds exactly like what King David sought when he prayed, "Create in me a clean heart O God and renew a right spirit within me." (Psalm 51:10). As a leader of Israel, Nicodemus would also be very familiar with the words God spoke through the prophet Ezekiel, "I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh." and "I will put my spirit within you and cause you to walk in my statutes..." (Ezekiel 36:26, 27)
It's gratifying to witness Jesus as he explains 'spiritual truth in spiritual language' to a man who has had no experiences that correspond to these words.
It's gratifying because after we have been born of 'water and the spirit' we are all called and equipped and privileged to have very similar conversations with our friends and family and neighbors. Trying to speak to people about a dimension that they have no point of reference to comprehend. It's comforting to know that even Jesus isn't entirely successful in getting his point across. But wow! His words are so descriptive and powerful. Even if you can't understand them, you want to understand them.
Maybe that is where the problem lies. I said earlier that Nicodemus was trying to understand Jesus' words, but Jesus knew that Nicodemus wouldn't get a grip on his words with understanding alone.
There is one thing necessary for anyone to experience what Jesus is talking about, to experience conception at this point of intimacy with God. And that is to believe.
The thing that distinguishes someone who enters the kingdom of God is that they believe. In fact the early church didn't call themselves Christians, they called themselves believers.
It is only when we believe that we conceive, and when we conceive, that we see, and when we see, that we enter into the Kingdom of God.