When Nicodemus approached Jesus one night, Jesus challenged him to be born again — to be the main attraction in the delivery room of grace. Without a doubt, Nicodemus was nervous hearing Jesus say that this admirable leader needed to be delivered into a new life!
Nicodemus was the best that religion had to offer. He was a man from the strictest and most devoted sect of the Jewish people, the Pharisees. He was not only a leading teacher among the Jews, but he also was a member of the Jewish Ruling Council called the Sanhedrin. Not many in Israel's history could claim such a pedigree. Most with any religious pedigree in Jesus' day fiercely opposed him. Instead, Nicodemus went against the grain and confessed to Jesus:
"Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him" (John 3:2).
Jesus' response to such a magnanimous gesture on Nicodemus' part was shocking:
Jesus replied, "Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again" (John 3:3).
Nicodemus' reply to Jesus' rebuke was very much to be expected, "How...? Surely...!" It was Nicodemus way of saying, "I doubt it."
While the physical possibility of being born all over again was impossible for Nicodemus (John 3:4), the other possibility was even more ludicrous. For Jesus to tell someone of Nicodemus' exemplary background that he had to be baptized like a Gentile NOTE] and reborn by the Spirit of God was unthinkable (John 3:5-7). Nicodemus was the best of the best! He was as good of a person as Jesus was going to find. He had the religious pedigree, he had dedicated his life to holiness, and he had a heart that sought after God.
This condition is Jesus' point! If Nicodemus needed to be born of God, then all of us do. If Nicodemus needed grace despite all his religious accomplishments and his genuinely God-seeking heart, then we desperately need grace, too. If Nicodemus needed to believe that "the Son of Man of man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him," (John 3:14-15) then so must you and me! After all, that is why God's love sent Jesus to us (John 3:16-17).
None of us is good enough to earn our way to God. God doesn't grade on the curve or weigh our sins against the sins of others to see who gets into the Father's grace. His righteous character and gracious compassion are the standard set for us. We all fail at living up to that standard. So, the Father sent Jesus so that through our faith in the one who was "lifted up" would grab our hearts (John 12:22) and could be counted as our righteousness (2 Corinthians 5:21).
We don't make a claim of being "the best of the best" and get into grace (Romans 3:21-27; Ephesians 2:1-10). We enter the kingdom of God's grace because we place our trust in what Jesus did to save us (1 Corinthians 15:1-7; Romans 6:3-7). Because of our faith in Jesus and his sacrifice, God declares us, "holy in his sight, without blemish, and free from accusation" (Colossians 1:21-23).
This declaration, my dear friend in Jesus, is good news. No longer are we striving to outwork others in holiness to gain God's favor. We don't have to have the religious pedigree or the highest reputation in all the land. The Father has already shown his love and desire to save us. He now asks us to receive his grace through faith and sharing in what saves us — Jesus' death, burial, and resurrection.
Once Nicodemus saw Jesus' "lifted up," something changed in his heart. At the worst possible time for his safety, influence, and position, Nicodemus stepped out of the shadows and demonstrated his faith in Jesus. He helped Joseph of Arimathea take, prepare, and bury the body of the Savior (John 19:38-42). Nicodemus and Joseph did what only family or servants would have done: they make themselves ritually unclean by handling the dead body of Jesus and lovingly burying him. These loving actions disqualified them from their important roles in the Passover celebration and showed their loyalty to and tenderness with Jesus, the crucified Son of God. In the process, these two provided two credible witnesses that Jesus was dead. After all, you cannot have a resurrected Savior without having one who was certifiably dead.
Nicodemus' journey to faith reminds us that someone who is old can take great risks and be born anew. That a person can begin a new life, fresh with the grace that is in Jesus! But, it will not happen "unless they are born again"!
- John had been writing about baptism. He mentions both John and Jesus baptizing people. In fact, the word translated "again" in the phrase "born again" is the same word that is used again in John the Baptizer's teaching surrounding baptism. We find this discussion a few verses later in this same context. John proclaimed that Jesus is the one from "above" (John 3:31). He proclaims this in the context of John's baptizing of those making themselves ready for the Messiah (John 3:22-31). The principle rule of interpretation is to let the context help us discern the meaning of a word, phrase, or idea. With both of our key ideas occurring in Jesus' statement and John's explanation about baptism, we would be foolish to try to make them refer to different things.
- Jews who wanted to show their honor of God would sometimes take part in ceremonial washings that involved immersing themselves in water. However, only Gentiles were immersed (baptized) by someone else. John the Baptizer's practice was unusual because Jewish people came to John to submit to being baptized, demonstrating they needed forgiveness just like Gentile outsiders wanting to come to God! Such a practice would have been unthinkable for someone like Nicodemus who had dedicated himself to holiness and religious achievement.
- While modern practice has tended to separate faith (belief) and baptism, the early practice of the first Christians did not. They went together, as the immediate baptism of the household of Cornelius (Acts 10:44-48) and the Philippian jailer (Acts 16:29-34) show. They were baptized immediately after they had come to faith. As Paul reminds us, baptism isn't separate from faith, but is part of faith being expressed (Galatians 3:26-27) and is a believer's participation in Jesus' death, burial, and resurrection (Romans 6:3-7), the very events we must believe saves us (1 Corinthians 15:1-7).
- Finally, Jesus' words "born of water and Spirit" were universally understood throughout church history until the last several centuries as referring to baptism — a baptism based on faith and the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38-41). Only as baptism began to be called a "work unto salvation" or "an outward symbol of an inner faith" or "a necessary step to be saved" — none of which is found in Scripture — did the more modern idea of separating the two (or worse, pitting them against each other) began to be found.