“We sometimes encounter people, even perfect strangers, who begin to interest us at first sight, somehow suddenly, all at once, before a word has been spoken.”
Many who heard the words of Jesus and saw His deeds felt a stirring in their hearts they had never experienced before. Nicodemus, a well-connected Jewish leader, honored member of the Sanhedrin, and respected Pharisee, was one of them. Like many other Jews living in Palestine at that time, he waited for the arrival of the Messiah. His knowledge of the Scriptures was profound. He had dedicated his life to the study of torah, the law.
John describes the nighttime encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus in John 3:1-21. Nicodemus sought out the young Rabbi from Nazareth under the protection of darkness. His heart had been moved—and yet he wasn’t quite sure. He must have carefully thought about his opening statement: “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” (John 3:2).
Nicodemus was courteous and respectful. “Rabbi,” meaning “my master, my teacher,” was the appropriate way to address a spiritual leader. Note that Nicodemus was hedging his bets. He didn’t address Jesus as “Messiah” or “Christ”— even though he recognized the source of Jesus’ signs and wonders as ultimately pointing back to God.
Jesus wasn’t sidetracked by titles or flowery language. His response was direct and left no room for uncertainty, introduced by an emphatic assertion: “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (verse 3). In the biblical text Jesus picked up on a verb used in Nicodemus’ introduction describing the ability of Jesus to “do” these signs. Jesus’ response used the same verb with the negative stating emphatically that, except for being born again, one was not able to see God’s kingdom.
Nicodemus knew about “doing.” As a good Pharisee he was committed to “doing” (or “keeping”) the law—but what did it mean to be born again, or “from above,” as other versions translate?
The figure of a new birth was not entirely foreign to Nicodemus. Judaism used it to describe the experience of new converts. Jesus’ very personal and pointed response, however, hit a nerve in Nicodemus. “He felt that he needed no change,” writes Ellen White. “Hence his surprise at the Saviour’s words. He was irritated by their close application to himself. The pride of the Pharisee was struggling against the honest desire of the seeker after truth.”²
Nicodemus’ response to Jesus’ opening statement expresses some of this irritation. Isn’t it nonsensical to say that an old man (like me) should be born a second time? Let’s rather talk about prophecy and theology.
Jesus did not, however, want to talk about prophecy or theology. He wanted to talk about Nicodemus and his need to be born of water and the Spirit (cf. verse 5).
We can relate to Nicodemus’ reaction. We too dislike it when someone comes too close for comfort—and especially if that person is Jesus pushing us out of our comfort zone.
Nicodemus didn’t turn around and disappear into the darkness of the night. He stayed as Jesus talked about this new beginning. He asked questions (verse 9) and paid close attention. When Jesus introduced the example of the raised serpent in the wilderness, he began to connect the dots. Leaving Jesus that evening, he was ready to continue his search.
Evangelists and professors of practical theology have long studied the art of helping people to make decisions. Jesus seemed to adapt His approach to the needs and the situation of a particular person. To some He simply said, “Follow Me” (Matt. 4:19; 8:22; etc.). Others He left with a question. We have no conclusive biblical record how His conversation with Nicodemus ended.
Ellen White offers some helpful insights: “Not through controversy and discussions is the soul enlightened. We must look and live. Nicodemus received the lesson, and carried it with him. He searched the Scriptures in a new way, not for the discussion of a theory, but in order to receive life for the soul. He began to see the kingdom of heaven as he submitted himself to the leading of the Holy Spirit.”³
Nicodemus’ decision must have grown over time. Following his encounter with Jesus in the early part of Jesus’ ministry, he disappears from the radar of the biblical authors except for a brief reference in John 7:50-52, where he reminds his fellow leaders that, based on biblical law, Jesus should not be condemned without a proper hearing and trial. He doesn’t garner “likes” for this statement from his colleagues.
But Nicodemus doesn’t seem to care, for the next time we meet him in the biblical text is in John 19:39 when he brings a large container of a costly mixture of myrrh and aloe to be used in the burial of Jesus. Right at the end, when most of the disciples had fled, Nicodemus stands up to publicly declare his allegiance to Christ—another win for the gentle Healer from Nazareth, who had taken time to meet a man who genuinely searched for the Messiah.
Wherever we meet our Saviour— on a road to Damascus, during a clandestine nightly encounter, in a family circle worshipping together, or in a classroom studying mathematics or history—He is ready to reach out to us in ways that we can understand. He doesn’t bully. He doesn’t manipulate. He just invites.
Once we recognize our need of His grace, our hearts begin to burst with gratefulness. Something new begins to grow. A new birth leads to new beginnings. We’re eager to share this gift with those around us. We’re ready to become a blessing to our world. We’re excited to go wherever He leads. For some that may mean changing cultures and countries. For others it means the quiet, steady, committed service they offer as Sabbath School teachers or deacons or musicians or elders in a local congregation. For all of us it’s a daily reminder of His Creatorship—for only He can make us new.
“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new” (2 Cor. 5:17).