Nicodemus was a Pharisee, a member of the ruling council, the Sanhedrin. Jesus refers to him as “the teacher [not a teacher] of Israel.” He must have had a distinguished reputation in Jerusalem. He was a leader of those who specialized in knowing the law of Israel, who led in worship and instruction, and served as spiritual guides. He was so prominent that he chose to meet with Jesus under the cover of darkness so that he would not be recognized publicly. He would be the equivalent of a leading public intellectual or theologian today. Yet, despite his erudition, Nicodemus could not understand what Jesus meant by the necessity to be born again in order to see and enter the kingdom of God. If the distinguished teacher of Israel could not understand what Jesus was teaching, what was the state of those he taught?
Jesus was rebuking him for his ignorance. Nicodemus ought to have known and understood what Jesus was saying. He professed to be a student of the Hebrew Bible. The necessity of the new birth ought not to have appeared strange to him. The Old Testament Scriptures spoke of the need for a new heart and a new spirit: “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you” (Ezekiel 36:26,27).
Jesus said to him, “You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” Why could Nicodemus not understand these things? Because his understanding was limited to his experience of this life.
Nicodemus interpreted what Jesus said only in terms of physical nature. “How can a man be born when he is old? Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Despite his religious training he was controlled by a naturalistic world view and his personal experience. He had a set of presuppositions or assumptions through which he interpreted what Jesus was saying. His set of lenses through which he viewed his life and the world was the result of his training. They reduced reality to what was physically possible. This is called “nothing buttery”: explaining away the meaning of reality by reducing it to its physical components.
“Nothing-buttery is characterized by the notion that by reducing any phenomenon to its components you not only explain it, but explain it away. You can debunk love, or bravery, or sin for that matter, by finding the psychological or physiological mechanisms underlying the behavior in question” (The Clockwork Image, Donald M. Mackay, p.43).
Nicodemus represents all intellectuals and materialists who have rejected the world of the spirit, the supernatural, the revelation of the Holy Scriptures and the presence and power of God. In academia and the media the predominance of this reductionist view of life prevents them from understanding what Jesus is proclaiming. When confronted with the Gospel their response is that of Nicodemus: “How can this be?” This is outside their comfort zone. Jesus is talking about a dimension of life the sceptic is ignorant of. It disturbs them, and when they have no answers to Jesus’ question they think it is irrelevant or irrational, q.v. 1 Corinthians 1:19-29.
There are many professors of theology, religious studies, philosophy and the Bible who know everything about their subject but lack a personal relationship with God and are ignorant of the work of the Spirit in their hearts and lives. They see the parts but not the whole of life. Seminaries who dissect Scripture but do not acknowledge its divine inspiration and authority are closing their doors for lack of students. Some even are members of the clergy who minister in congregations and are purveyors of pastoral care and moral instruction, but they do not understand the things of the Spirit. They may administer the church and manage all its programs but they do not walk in the Spirit. They lead many community and outreach projects, they head up social ministries and serve on many worthwhile committees but they do not know anything about living in the Spirit. That is the problem with ministering only to the physical needs of people and neglecting their spiritual needs.
Jesus goes on to say to Nicodemus, “I tell you the truth, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things?”
It is not a problem of knowledge, or lack of information. There is plenty of evidence of the new birth of the Spirit around them in the Scriptures and the miraculous signs Jesus is doing which Nicodemus acknowledges. Sceptics need to take note of the millions of people who have experienced an inward change of heart through the work of the Holy Spirit. Why do they not believe the evidence of changed lives? Why do they not believe the testimony of Jesus? He can testify about heaven because he came from heaven. “No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven – the Son of Man.” The only sure way we can know the truth about God is that God reveals it to us – as he has in Jesus.
Jesus also gave Nicodemus another reference from the history of Israel. He recalls the plague of venomous snakes related in Numbers 21. Moses was told to make a serpent of bronze and set it on a pole. Whoever looked at it was healed. “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” He was referring to being lifted upon the cross, and being lifted up from earth to heaven at the Ascension. To the outward eye the cross was the death and end of Jesus’ significance. To the eye of faith, through the revelation of the Spirit, it is the atoning sacrifice for the sins of the world. The purpose of Jesus’ death was to give eternal life to those who believe in him.
Unbelievers do not understand eternal life. They believe (on an act of faith) that death is the end of life. Their logic demands that the decay and disintegration of the physical body demands oblivion and extinction. To them there is no eternity. Jesus tells us that those who look to him will be healed of death, the wages of sin. That which plagues our lives and makes us miserable, will be eradicated. Eternal life will never cease. It is not, however, an endless duration of being in time, but being with God in the age to come. Eternal life is life in and with Christ. It transcends and completes earthly life. It is more dense than the purely physical. This life is a preparation for eternity. What is real now is even more real in the life to come. This life is but a mist, a shadow, compared to eternity.
Jesus asks us all, “Do you not understand these things?” Do you, with all your education, all your knowledge, all your information, all your training, all your curiosity, all your openness to discovery and adventure, do you not understand the things of the kingdom of God? Ignorance like that of Nicodemus is all too common in our culture, in our schools and colleges, and even in our churches. Learning, scholarly achievements and intelligence are no proof that the heart is changed by the Holy Spirit. So listen to Jesus. Pray for the gift of the Holy Spirit. Humble yourself. Be open to receiving what God has in store for you in his kingdom. Seek to be born of the Spirit. Look to Jesus and be healed. See and enter the kingdom of God. Welcome eternal life.