Jesus and Nicodemus

Kenneth Wuest

From Word Studies from the Greek New Testament


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WE ARE to study together the account of a conversation that took place almost two Wuest's Word Studies - Greek for non-Greek Students 5 starsthousand years ago. It was held in Aramaic, a modified form of Hebrew spoken in the first century by the Jews. The inspired writer, John the Apostle, has recorded it for us in koine Greek. The word koine is a Greek word meaning "common." Previous to 330 B.C., the Greek language was confined for the most part to the little country of Greece. This country was divided into a number of different sections in which the people spoke different dialects. It was all Greek, but the various localities spoke a slightly modified language from that spoken in the neighboring section. These various dialects were merged into one common Greek language as a result of four things: Greek colonization around the shores of the Mediterranean, the conquests of Alexander the Great, the great national festivals of the Greeks held at the religious centers as Olympia, Delos, and Delphi, and the close political and commercial affiliations of the separate Greek tribes. This unified language was spoken all over the Roman Empire in the first century, a language of international exchange. Where a person knew more than one language, it was usually the case that he knew Greek as his second language. This is one of the factors that caused the tremendous and rapid spread of Christianity in the Roman world. The New Testament was written in this language.


For 1500 years, until the age of printing, the manuscripts of the New Testament were copied by hand. During this time mistakes crept in. But through the labors of textual critics, these mistakes have been eliminated, with the result that in the best texts of the Greek New Testament in use today, scholars tell us that 999 words out of every 1000 are the same as those in the original manuscripts. The 1000th word over which there is some dispute, is of so minor a consequence that it affects no historical fact nor doctrine. These textual critics had a vast amount of material with which to work, 4,000 Greek manuscripts, 8,000 copies of the Latin Vulgate, and 2,000 copies of the New Testament in other languages, 14,000 available sources from which to reconstruct a correct text.   Furthermore, these Greek manuscripts go back to the third century in an unbroken succession, and with the writings of the Apostolic and Church Fathers, which are commentaries on the Greek New Testament, and which quote the entire Greek text with the exception of the first eleven verses of John Chapter 8, form a direct link with the original manuscripts of the New Testament.


Tertullian, an early Church Father, tells us that the original manuscripts were still in existence A.D. 200. Thus the record of the conversation which we are to study together, the reader in his easy chair, and the writer at his study desk with his Greek New Testament before him, is correct, and in its every word, it is the inspired Word of God. The A.V. begins the account of this conversation with the third chapter. One glance at the Greek text tells us that John began the account in what we know as chapter two verse 23, where he introduces the conversation. John writes, "Now there was a man of the Pharisees." That word "now" which is not handled by the A.V., sends us back to the previous verses where we read,


"Now, when He was in Jerusalem at the Passover, at the feast, many believed on His name, viewing with a critical and discerning eye the miracles which He was constantly doing. But Jesus Himself was not entrusting Himself to them because He was constantly knowing by experience all things, and because He was not having need that anyone should bear testimony concerning the individual man, for He Himself was constantly knowing by experience what was in the individual man."


The connection is as follows: Jesus knew what was in the heart of the individual. John's purpose now is to show what Jesus found in the heart of man, not by telling us in so many words, but by bringing to the attention of the reader, various individuals who would be exhibits. John records what these people say. Because man speaks out of the abundance of his heart, the reader can see what is in the heart of man. This gives us an insight into the plan of John's Gospel. John is primarily a theologian in his Gospel, whose main purpose is to demonstrate the deity of our Lord. But in connection with his theology, John has an evangelistic out-reach for lost souls. He tells the reader what is in man, and thus shows him what is wrong with man. Then he brings to his attention the divine cure for sin, namely, the Blood of the Lord Jesus.


Nicodemus is exhibit number one. We will look at his character. He belonged to the sect called the Pharisees. These were the religious ritualists of that day. The Judaism of the first century was no longer that supernaturally revealed system in which the Israelite was taught to look ahead in faith to a coming Sacrifice which God would offer for his sins, this Sacrifice being typified by the Tabernacle offerings and priesthood. It was merely an ethical cult, preaching a salvation-by-works message. Nicodemus subscribed to this system of teaching. His name is a Greek name. It was a custom at that time amongst the Jews, for the parents to give their boys two names, a Jewish and a Gentile name. It was so in the case of the great Apostle, his Jewish name being Saul, and his Gentile name, Paul. The name "Nicodemus" is made up of two words, a word which means "to conquer," and one which means "the common people." The total word means, "One who conquers the people." Evidently, this name was given the boy at his birth.


The Pharisaic tradition at that time included this idea, namely, that of a subjugation of the common people. The Lord Jesus spoke of the burdens which the Pharisees were wont to put upon the backs of the people in the form of religious practices which were extra-biblical. The fact that Nicodemus preferred to be known in Jerusalem by his Greek rather than his Hebrew name, indicates that he had a definite leaning towards Greek culture. It might even indicate that he was a Hellenist, namely, a Jew who read the Old Testament in the Greek translation called the Septuagint. He was certainly learned in Greek. There was a sentiment in the Hebrew nation against Hellenism. This crept out even in the Christian Church, in the case where the Church neglected the widows of certain Jews who had been reading the Old Testament in Greek (Acts 6:1). This sentiment certainly must have been most intense at Jerusalem, the center of Jewish culture. This would indicate that Nicodemus was a prominent man in Jerusalem, and big enough to be able to maintain his position in spite of the antagonism which his leaning towards Greek culture aroused.


But not only was Nicodemus a Greek scholar. He was also learned in Hebrew lore. This is clear from the words of Jesus, when, wondering at his spiritual obtuseness, He said to him, "As for you, are you the teacher of the Israel and do you not have an experiential knowledge of these things?" (3:10) The A.V., takes no note of the definite articles before the words "master" and "Israel." The article points out Nicodemus as the teacher of the unique nation Israel. He was thus looked upon as an outstanding teacher of Israel. He is described by John as a ruler of the Jews. The word "ruler" in the Greek text has in it the idea of one who is first or preeminent among his associates. Thus, the man to whom our Lord was talking, was one of the most prominent in the nation of Israel at that time, a Pharisee, a member of the Sanhedrin, the ecclesiastical council of the Jews, a Greek scholar, and a Hebrew theologian.


John says, "There was a man of the Pharisees." There are two words in Greek which mean "man," aner, which refers to a male individual of the human race, and anthropos, which is the racial, generic term, and which has the general idea of "mankind." Some Greek scholars think that this latter word comes from another one which means "that which walks erect," in contradistinction to the animals which walk on all fours. John, in using the latter word, tells his reader that Nicodemus was a representative man, an individual having racial characteristics. What was in his heart is found in the heart of every man. Nicodemus, although a religious, sincere, educated, cultured individual, was yet unsaved, and spiritually blind. He needed to be born again.


This man, John said, came to Jesus by night. The Greek has it, "in a night-time visit." The emphasis is upon the kind of time which Nicodemus chose, not day time, but night time. It seems that this fact of a nighttime visit was prominent in the thinking of John, for in the two places where he mentions Nicodemus later (7:50 and 19:39), he mentions the fact that he came by night. In the latter scripture, John speaks of Nicodemus as coming at first by night. Subsequent to his first visit, Nicodemus takes the part of Jesus in a meeting of the Sanhedrin, and after His crucifixion, brings myrrh and aloes for the preparation of the body. All this indicates that the reason Nicodemus came by night was because he did not want anyone to know of his visit to Jesus.


He addresses him as Rabbi. The Hebrew name is one used by the Jews as a term of respect for their teachers. It means "My great one, my honorable sir." Jesus was not an official rabbi amongst the Jews, but His prominence as a religious teacher gained him a certain respect even amongst his enemies, and they gave Him this title. He says, "We know." The use of the first person plural points to the fact that Nicodemus is including the members of the Sanhedrin in the estimate of Jesus which he is about to give. It is clear from I Peter 2:7 that the official leaders of Israel investigated the claims of Jesus regarding His Messiahship. Peter refers to "the stone which the builders disallowed." The stone refers to our Lord, and the builders, to the religious leaders of Israel. The word "disallowed" is the translation of a Greek word which means "to put a person to the test for the purpose of approving him should he be found to meet the requirements laid down, and having found that he does not satisfy the prescribed requirements, to reject him."


Israel was looking for its Messiah. The Lord Jesus announced Himself as such. But Israel wanted a Messiah that would deliver it from the political domination of Rome and not from the power of sin. Nicodemus came, it seems, as a private investigator, to satisfy himself regarding the claims of Jesus. To open the conversation, he makes a statement as to what official Israel believed concerning this new claimant to the Messiahship. He says, "We know that from God you are come a teacher." The particular Greek word John uses, refers to absolute knowledge, knowledge that is so sure that it is beyond question. It is a "peradventure beyond a doubt knowledge." By using this word, John quotes Nicodemus as putting the Sanhedrin on record that this august body which later turned out to be the group of ecclesiastical wolves who crucified the Lord of Glory, was absolutely sure that Jesus was a true teacher come from God.


The words "from God" are in an emphatic position in the Greek text, the idea of Nicodemus being that Jesus was not a teacher who came from man, but from God. Nicodemus says, "We know that from God you are come a teacher." In reporting this statement, John uses the perfect tense, which in Greek refers to an action completed in past time having present results. By the use of this tense, John is telling us that Nicodemus not only spoke of the coming of Jesus as a teacher to Jerusalem, but that He had established Himself there as a teacher in the hearts of the people. He had taken root, so to speak, in their affections and respect. The Jewish leaders were losing the crowds, and they were following the new Teacher who was causing such excitement in Jerusalem. After stating the fact that the Sanhedrin was positive of the fact that Jesus had come from God as a teacher, and that He had already established a reputation for Himself among the people, Nicodemus tells the Lord Jesus why the members of the Sanhedrin had come to this conclusion. The reason was that they were convinced that no one was able to keep on constantly performing the miracles which Jesus was doing, unless God was with him. The Greek text here emphasizes the fact that it was the constant performance of miracles which proved to the Sanhedrin that Jesus was from God, the idea being that, had He performed one or a few miracles, there might have been a possibility that they were mere impositions and not true miracles. Thus, the proof for the divine source of Jesus' teaching was absolute.


Furthermore, Nicodemus testified to the fact that these religious teachers of the Jews, were acquainted with the divine economy of miracles in the first century, namely, that their primary purpose was to prove that the person who performed them spoke or wrote from God. Miracles were the divine authentication of the spokesman of God. This is also taught us by the particular word John uses in speaking of the miracles. There are seven different Greek words used in the New Testament which speak of miracles. Each one describes a miracle from a different standpoint. The one the inspired writer uses here looks at a miracle from the viewpoint of its character of a divine authentication of the person who performed it. Thus, we have the statement of the first century false teachers in Israel to the effect first, that Jesus was a teacher who came from God, second, that He performed so many miracles that there could be no imposition or deception practiced, and third, that the primary purpose of these miracles was to prove that the person who performed them spoke or wrote from God. This is enough to prove that Jesus was what He claimed to be, the Son of God, yes, God the Son, possessing co-eternally with the Father and the Spirit, the essence of deity, and that He came as the Messiah of the Jews, was crucified, thus becoming the atonement for sin, and being raised from the dead, He became the Saviour of the one who believes.


This is testimony, not from believers, not from within the ranks of Christianity, but from the opposition in the first century. The testimony to the fact of the miracles of the first century, is not confined to the writers of the four Gospels. Josephus, the Jewish historian of the first century who wrote the history of the Jewish nation, his works accepted by the Imperial Library at Rome, writing in his book Antiquities of the Jews, Book 18, chapter 3, paragraph 3, testifies to three supernatural things about the Lord Jesus. In his words, "if it be lawful to call him a man," he testified to the fact that He was Deity. When he wrote that He was "a doer of wonderful works," he testified to the fact of His miracles. When he spoke of His crucifixion, and said that "he appeared to them alive again the third day," he was speaking of the resurrection of the Son of God.


In an attempt to break the force of this passage, Modernism claims that it was placed in the writings of Josephus by the Christian Church to strengthen the argument for miracles.   There are three considerations which show that this paragraph is not an interpolation.   In the first place, the Jewish nation has never accused the Church of doing so, and had such been the case, that nation would have been the first to raise a cry against it. In the second place, Kirsopp Lake, D.D., Litt. D., of Harvard University, a Modernist, accepts this passage as authentic, while rejecting other passages from Josephus. In the third place, the late John A. Scott, Ph.D., LL.D., formerly head of the classical language department at Northwestern University, quotes this passage in his book, We Would Know Jesus, as authentic. Professor Scott was a Christian.


Again, Suetonius, a first century Roman historian, records the fact that Christianity was a magical religion, by the use of the term "magical," referring to the miracles of Christianity. We have also the testimony of three infidels, Celsus in the second, and Porphory in the third century, who were scholars writing against Christianity, but who testified to the fact of miracles, and Julian the Apostate, in the fourth century, a Roman emperor, who also bore witness to his belief in the same. In addition to this, we have the testimony of the thousands of martyrs in the early Church who with their lives testified to the fact of miracles. One could possibly conceive of a few or a dozen individuals suffering a horrible death such as crucifixion for their testimony to something they knew was false, but one cannot conceive of many thousands doing the same. Again, the secular historians of the early centuries do not contradict any fact of the Gospel records, including the fact of miracles. Then, we must also consider the generation which lived at the time the miracles were purported to have taken place. The Synoptic Gospels were written during the generation which saw the miracles take place. These were scattered among the people, none of whom rejected their contents as false.


One might be disposed to wonder at the lack of reference to the Lord Jesus in the secular history of the early centuries. The following four considerations explain this failure of the historians to mention Him. First, He was born in an obscure remote land, far from the hub of the universe, Rome. Second, He came from peasant stock in a nation that was hated and despised. Of course, we Christians recognize the fact that He came from the royal family of David, but so far as the Roman world was concerned, He was just a peasant in a remote country of the Roman Empire. Third, crucifixion was a common event in the world at that time. Fourth, it was a common practice of Roman rulers to deify themselves, and when Jesus went about Palestine claiming to be the unique Son of God, He was to the general populace, just another person claiming to be a king, who deified himself. Again, the first century could not have been deceived either by reason of an optical illusion, an hallucination, or a human imposition, because the miracles were very numerous, were varied in character, extended over a period of years, were performed over a large extent of territory, took place in public, were observed by the learned who were too smart to be fooled, and by the ignorant who were too stupid to think of such a thing, were seen by the friends and the enemies of the gospel, were not performed for profit, and were worthy of the dignity and majesty of the Son of God.  


Included in all this testimony, we have a scholar and a theologian of the first century, outstanding in Israel, giving his testimony to the fact that the Sanhedrin which crucified our Lord, was positive to the extent of absolute knowledge, that the Lord Jesus was a teacher from God, that He performed so many miracles that the first century world could not be fooled, and that these miracles authenticated Him, His claims, and His teachings as divinely inspired. This constituted the introductory statement of Nicodemus as he came to Jesus. To this statement of Nicodemus, Jesus answers, "Verily, verily, I say unto thee, except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God." This reply shows that behind the cautious designation of Jesus as a teacher, there was in the mind of Nicodemus a suspicion that He might be the Messiah.  


Certainly, Nicodemus had listened to or heard of the preaching of John the Baptist, announcing Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah. Jesus does not directly answer the exact words of Nicodemus, but speaks to the intention and mental attitude of the Jewish teacher. He sees what is in the background of his thinking, and directs His answer to that. Jesus spoke of the kingdom of God. This Pharisee was thinking of the Kingdom of Heaven as spoken of in Matthew's Gospel. The term "Kingdom of God" is the inclusive term speaking of all moral intelligences willingly subject to God in any age or dispensation. The term, "Kingdom of Heaven" refers to the millennial reign of the Lord Jesus as Messiah over Israel and King over all the earth. Nicodemus was looking for the latter. But Jesus in His use of the former term, is teaching him that the only one who can rightly look for the Kingdom of Heaven is a saved Jew. That person must enter the Kingdom of God first, that is, be saved, since the promises of God to Israel were made to a spiritual Israel, not an apostate nation. His answer, therefore, in effect is as follows: "Nicodemus, you are looking for Messiah and the earthly kingdom of Israel. But you are unsaved, and need to be born again. Only to a saved Jew is the Kingdom of Heaven promised." This is in line with our Lord's teaching in Matthew 5:3, "Blessed are the poor in spirit; for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."


Since Nicodemus was a representative man of the human race, having in his heart that which is found in every other person, since he needed to be born again, and since John was writing for the Gentiles, it follows that every human being needs to be born again. Our question now is, "What does Jesus mean when He speaks of the necessity of a man being born again?" The answer lies in the meaning of the Greek word here translated "again." The Greek word is anothen. It has two meanings, "again" and "from above." When a Greek word has more than one meaning, the context decides as to what meaning is to be used in any particular instance. For example, this word is found in John 3:31, "He that cometh from above is above all: he that is of the earth is earthly, and speaketh of the earth: he that cometh from heaven is above all." The context here speaks of the earth as contrasted to heaven.


Therefore, our word anothen, means "from above" here. But in the verse we are now considering, it means "again" and for the reason that Nicodemus in his answer to Jesus, so understands it. He speaks of a second birth. But now we come to even a finer distinction. There are two words in the Greek New Testament which mean "again," palin which refers to the repetition of an act, and anothen, which speaks of the repetition of an act, but adds additional detail. It speaks of the repetition of an act, that repetition having the same source as the first act. It goes back to the outset of the matter, to the original state. Therefore, this being born a second time, has no reference to one's physical birth as the first time one is born, and for the reason that the source of physical birth is natural generation, whereas, the source of the new birth is supernatural generation.


When Jesus speaks of being born again in verse five, he speaks of being born of the Holy Spirit. This consideration takes us back to the original impartation of spiritual life to the First Adam. Genesis 2:7 states, "And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul." Hebrew scholars tell us that the word "life" in the original is plural. It therefore speaks of the impartation of physical life and of spiritual life. The First Adam was the federal head of the human race, and when in his unfallen state the human race stood in him, it partook of the spiritual life which had been imparted to him. But Adam in his fall into sin, lost this spiritual life for the whole human race, and plunged its members into total depravity and a lost condition. Jesus, therefore, speaking to this theologian of the Old Testament scriptures, reminds him of all this, and tells him that since he lost this spiritual life as he stood in the First Adam, he needs a fresh impartation of spiritual life, and this is given him through his being placed in the Last Adam in answer to his faith in a coming sacrifice for sin, the Last Adam being that sacrifice.


All this is implicit in the words of Jesus, and to a theologian such as Nicodemus, learned in the Old Testament scriptures, should have been, at least, intellectually clear. But Nicodemus, wrapped up in the Pharisaic tradition, was blind to all this. In the answer of Jesus, we have an anticipation of the Pauline doctrine of the First and Last Adam, sin, and death by the First Adam, righteousness and life by the Last Adam. Furthermore, John the Baptist had announced the necessity of the new birth also, and in anticipation of the ministry of the coming Messiah. He said to the Pharisees and Sadducees, "Think not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father: for I say unto you, that God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham" (Matt. 3:9). The doctrinal position of these false teachers was that since they were the fleshly descendants of Abraham, they were also God's children. But John the Baptist declares that they must be saved, and thus be born again in order to become children of God.


The same necessity obtains today. The individual as he is born into this world is not a child of God, and in order to become such, he must be born of God the Holy Spirit. It is not a matter of trying to live a good life or of attempting to keep the Ten Commandments.  The sin question enters here, and in the Judicial Courts of the Universe, sin could only be dealt with by death, for the penalty of sin is death. It was the death of the Son of God on Calvary's Cross that satisfied the demands of divine justice, and thus made possible the bestowal of mercy on the basis of justice satisfied, to the sinner who accepts Jesus Christ as his Saviour. John tells us that "as many as appropriated Him, He gave to them a legal right to become born-ones of God, to those who put their trust in His Name" (1:12). The legal right here refers to that privilege procured by Jesus Christ on the Cross for the sinner in which he is through belief in that substitutionary sacrifice, given salvation, the context here speaking of the new birth or regeneration. Jesus therefore says, "Verily, verily, I am saying to you, except a person be born again, that second birth having the same source as the first one, he is not able to see the kingdom of God."


The expression, "to see the kingdom of God," refers, not merely to the act of seeing that kingdom so far as an intellectual and spiritual insight is concerned, but refers to actual participation in that kingdom. This usage, for instance, is found in Luke 2:26, where it is said that it was revealed to Simeon "that he should not see death, before he had seen the Lord's Christ." Thus, the Lord Jesus teaches that the way to be saved and to become a child of God is by being born again, this new birth referring to the act of God the Holy Spirit in imparting to the believing sinner, spiritual life.


Nicodemus reacts to this statement of Jesus, by asking how a man can be born again when he is old. By his second question, Nicodemus shows plainly that he does not understand Jesus to mean a second physical birth, for he says, "He is not able to enter the womb of his mother a second time and be born, is he?" The Greek text here includes a negative which the Greek includes in his question when he expects a negative answer. Nicodemus expected that kind of an answer from Jesus. The emphasis in his question is on the word "how." His question is not, "How can a man be born physically a second time?" but "how can a man be born again?" Nicodemus asks for a further explanation of Jesus' words regarding the new birth. This explanation is found in the words of Jesus, "Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God."


There are various interpretations of this statement which we will consider. Some interpret the word "water" here as referring to human birth as coming in a sac of water, and this in contrast to the birth by the Spirit. But the question arises at once as to whether the Lord Jesus would waste words on such a self-evident truth to the effect that in order for a person to be born into the kingdom of God, he must first be brought into existence by being born physically. Furthermore, we learned that the particular Greek word used here by John, meaning "again," has no reference to the physical birth as being a predecessor of the spiritual birth. Others interpret the word "water" as referring to the rite of water baptism. But we submit that this is pure eisegesis, reading into the text something that is not there. Surely, the word "water" in itself, does not include within its meaning the idea of baptism. Furthermore, the only proper recipient of water baptism is one who has already been born again, the new-birth preceding water baptism, not the rite preceding the new birth.


Again, the question arises as to how such a supernatural change as regeneration produces, could be the result of a mere ceremony. This could not be a reference to the water baptism which John the Baptist preached. The Baptist refused water baptism to the Pharisees and Sadducees because they were unsaved. He said, "Bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance, and think not to say within yourselves. We have Abraham to our father." He demanded of these individuals, evidences of their salvation before he would baptize them. Josephus, the Jewish historian, states that John the Baptist would not baptize any except those who manifested a true faith in God. This makes it clear that our Lord was not speaking of the water baptism administered by John the Baptist, as one of the pre-requisites together with the new-birth which would enable one to enter the kingdom of God.


Others interpret the word "water" here as referring to the Word of God, referring to Ephesians 5:26 where Paul speaks of the washing of water by the Word, and also to I Peter 1:23 where the apostle speaks of being born again by the Word of God. This is a possible interpretation, true in itself. But the question is, is that what Jesus meant here? If He did, would it not be more natural for Him to have used two symbols, namely, water and oil, or two actualities, namely, the Word and the Spirit. One of the basic rules of interpretation is to ascertain just what the Word of God meant to the one who recorded it, and to the one who received it at the time it was written. Another rule of interpretation is to take into consideration the other uses of the same term in other places. Our Lord was talking to a man who was learned in the Old Testament scriptures. He would be expected to use Jewish phraseology in a case like this.


In John 7:37, 38, He uses the word "water" as referring to the Holy Spirit. When speaking to the Samaritan woman who as a Samaritan was familiar at least with the Pentateuch, He uses the word "water" in such a way that we are led to believe that He referred to the Holy Spirit, because He speaks of the water which He will give, as a spring of water leaping up into life eternal. In neither place does He explain the symbol, John finding it necessary to do so in 7:39, and for the reason that he is writing for Gentile believers. Nicodemus, as a Jewish theologian, is supposed to have been familiar with Isaiah 44:3, where water is a type of the Holy Spirit, and also with Isaiah 55:1, where the prophet says, "Ho, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters." These considerations lead the writer to incline to the interpretation that the word "water" here was used by Jesus as a symbol of the Holy Spirit as He does in the case of the Samaritan woman and also when He spoke at the great day of the feast. 


             The Greek word translated "and" has other uses than merely that of a connective. It has an emphatic or ascensive [argumentative or intensive] use, and is at that time translated by the word "even." Thus, the translation here could read, "Except a man be born of water, even of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God." Another consideration pointing to this interpretation and translation is the fact that when Jesus recurs again to the new birth in verses 6 and 8, He does not refer to water at all, but only to the Spirit. Evidently seeing the blank look on the face of Nicodemus, our Lord adds the words "even of the Spirit," thus explaining the symbol to this theologian of the Old Testament who should have understood it. After stating the fact in verse three that it is necessary for a person to be born again in order to participate in the kingdom of God, and explaining that new-birth in verse five by saying that it is the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit, Jesus in verse six presses home the teaching to this Jewish leader that the fact that he has descended from Abraham does not provide him with an entrance into the kingdom of God, but that it is necessary for him to be born spiritually rather than physically to enter that kingdom.


The Pharisees and Sadducees maintained that they were members of the kingdom of God, by virtue of the fact that they had Abraham as their father (Matt. 3:9). Jesus assures Nicodemus that this is not a passport to heaven, and he does so in the following words which are an expanded translation of the Greek here: "That which has been born of the flesh is as a result flesh, is of a fleshly nature, and stays flesh." The word "flesh" here refers to the entire individual, body, soul, and spirit, motivated by the totally depraved nature. Jesus teaches that the product of human generation can only be a totally depraved individual, and even though this individual boasts of membership in the Jewish nation, and that he comes from Abraham, yet he is not a fit subject for entrance into the kingdom of God as such. The perfect tense is used here, which speaks of a past complete action with present results, and in certain contexts like this one, of permanent results. The teaching here is that man in his totally depraved condition cannot be improved. Reformation will not change him into a fit subject for the kingdom of God. The flesh is incurably wicked, and cannot by any process be changed so as to produce a righteous life. What that person needs, Jesus says, is a new nature, a spiritual nature which will produce a life pleasing to God, and which will be a life fit for the kingdom of God. This is what Jesus teaches in the following words: "And that which has been born of the Spirit is as a result spirit, and is spiritual in nature, and stays spirit." That is, the new birth is a permanent thing, produces a permanent change in the life of the individual, and makes him a fit subject for the kingdom of God.


The words of Paul in Galatians 5:19-24 will help us to understand this better: "The works of the flesh are manifest, which are these; Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkenness, reveling, and such like: of the which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faithfulness, meekness, self-control: against such there is no law. And they that are Christ's, have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts."


After speaking of the necessity of the new birth, explaining that the new birth is produced by the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit, and stating the fact that, not a fleshly birth, even though it comes from Abraham, but a spiritual birth from God, is the divine pre-requisite for entrance into the kingdom of God, Jesus still sees a blank look upon the face of Nicodemus. But He sees something else, as we are told in the words, "Do not begin to marvel that I said to you, It is necessary in the nature of the case for you all to be born again, that birth having the same source as the first one." There are several things we must notice in this statement of Jesus. The first is found in the words, "Do not begin to marvel." Jesus was reading the features of Nicodemus, and He noticed there not only a blank look, showing Him that this Old Testament scholar was not understanding His teaching, but that there were signs of him starting to marvel at the teaching. This conversation took place at night. In order to read the features of Nicodemus, Jesus must have plainly seen his face. That means that the conversation took place under light, either natural or artificial.


There is no record of our Lord ever spending a night in Jerusalem. That apostate city was so hostile to Him, that there was no door that would open to Him for a night's lodging. After teaching, preaching, and healing all day long, the tired Son of God would find His rest in either one of two places, either in the hills around Jerusalem, or at the home in Bethany where He always found a welcome from Lazarus. Mary, and Martha. It is not probable that Nicodemus would be able to find Jesus in the hills at night, but it was a matter of common knowledge that He spent many nights in that haven of rest at Bethany. It is the humble opinion of the writer that this conversation took place in that home. He would not at all dogmatize upon this matter. He only offers it for what it is worth, his own opinion based upon the above facts.


The second thing we want to notice is the word "ye" in the A.V. We submit that the average reader would not notice that this is a plural pronoun, and therefore does not refer to Nicodemus alone. In the Greek, the fact that the pronoun is plural, stands out very plainly. In using the pronoun of the plural number, Jesus evidently had several things in mind. First, He recognized the fact that Nicodemus belonged to the Sanhedrin and represented the position of that body with reference to Himself. Second, He was making it plain to Nicodemus that not only was it necessary for him to be born again, but that all his associates in that venerable body of men also needed to be regenerated. Third, there may also be an implication that Jesus was suggesting to Nicodemus that he take this teaching back to the Sanhedrin itself.


The third thing we wish to notice is the Greek word translated "must" in the A.V. One might gather from the English word that the necessity of the new birth was a divine fiat, or an arbitrary imperative. But the Greek word means, "It is a necessity in the nature of the case." The question therefore follows, as to just what it was in the nature of the case that makes the new birth a reasonable or rational necessity. The answer to this question we have already given in detail, but it may be helpful to briefly summarize the points again.


That which makes the new birth an imperative necessity is as follows: There are just two races of individuals in this world, those having the First Adam as their federal head, and those having the Last Adam as their federal head. This first race stood in the First Adam before he fell, and thus possessed spiritual life in him. But the First Adam fell into sin, lost this spiritual life for the human race, and plunged it into a totally depraved and lost condition, and under the wrath of God. The second race, composed of those who are in the Last Adam as their federal head, are members of the Kingdom of God. But to be a member of the Kingdom of God, means that the individual must have a nature that produces in him a righteous life which is fitting to those who are in the Kingdom of God. This constitutes the necessity in the nature of the case. Then Jesus goes on to explain to Nicodemus the mysterious and invisible character of the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit in the new-birth. He says, "The wind is constantly blowing where it desires to blow, and its sound you are constantly hearing, and you do not know from where it is coming and where it is going. Thus is everyone who has been born of the Spirit."


Socrates, one of the great philosophers of Greece, realized something that Nicodemus did not comprehend, for he writes as follows: "The thunder as it comes and goes is not seen; the I winds also are invisible though their effects are manifest; the soul of man is itself unseen; therefore despise not the unseen but honor God." In the teaching of Jesus, there is a comparison between 'the invisible but mighty power of the wind and the unseen but powerful operation of the Holy Spirit in regeneration.   One hears the sound of the wind, but he cannot see where it comes from nor where it is going. It is so in the operation of the Holy Spirit as He imparts spiritual life to the believing sinner. And like the wind which, though it cannot be seen yet produces results that are visible, so the Holy Spirit in regeneration imparts the divine nature which produces results in the life of the individual which can be seen. 


To this explanation, Nicodemus answers, "How is it possible for these things to become?" That is, Nicodemus is not merely asking as to how these things could be, for he does not recognize their existence, but he asks how these things could come into existence. Jesus' answer to this is, "As for you, are you the teacher of the Israel and do you not have an experiential knowledge of these things?" The particular word for "knowledge" that John uses here refers not to absolute knowledge as in the case of the Sanhedrin's estimate of Jesus, but a knowledge gained by experience. Jesus not only expected this teacher of Israel to have an intellectual knowledge of the new-birth, but an experiential knowledge of the same. That is, it should be, not merely a head knowledge, but a heart knowledge. The teaching of the new-birth should not be accepted merely by an intellectual assent, but by a heart appropriation.


There is just about eighteen inches between the heart and the head. Just so, there is just eighteen inches between the roads leading to heaven and hell. A mere intellectual assent to the teachings of the Bible does not save a person. These teachings must be appropriated by the heart, which means the heart's submission to the same. This involves the determination to be done with sin and to receive a new life from God that will make one hate sin and love righteousness. Thus, a heart faith in the Lord Jesus as Saviour results in an experience, namely, that of the individual receiving the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit in his inner being imparting the divine nature.


From this point on, the dialogue ceases, and we have an unbroken utterance of the Lord Jesus. He starts with a certification of the truth which He had just given to Nicodemus. He says, "Truly, truly, I am saying to you, that which we know with absolute knowledge we are speaking, and that which we have seen with discernment, to that we are bearing testimony, and our testimony you all are not receiving. If, as is the case, I told you concerning the earthly things, and you are not believing, how is it possible that if I tell you concerning the heavenly thing's, you will believe? And no one has ascended into heaven except the one who out of heaven has come down, the Son of man." 


The word "if" in the Greek text is a particle of a fulfilled condition, and we have translated it by the words, "if, as is the case." Jesus had told him concerning the earthly things. The latter expression in the Greek is literally, "the things upon the earth." The words do not refer to things of an earthly nature, nor to worldly affairs, nor to things sinful, but to things whose proper place is on earth. Our Lord had just been speaking of the new birth. This, although supernatural in nature, is looked upon as an earthly thing in the sense that it has to do with people on earth. Jesus said that not only did Nicodemus not believe these things, but also the Sanhedrin. This is made clear by the use of the plural verb in the Greek. The heavenly things are literally in the Greek, "the things upon the heavens." These refer, not to holy things as compared with sinful, nor spiritual things as compared to temporal, but to things which are in heaven, to the mysteries of redemption of which Jesus is to speak as He presents the gospel to Nicodemus in verses 1 and 15. Jesus answers the "we know" of Nicodemus by the "we know" of verse 11.   When Nicodemus used that expression, he was speaking for a certain class of individuals, namely, the Sanhedrin. When Jesus used the expression, He was also speaking for a certain class of people, namely, those who had experienced the new-birth, thus, identifying Himself with the recipients of His grace.


In preparing the mind of Nicodemus for the truth concerning the heavenly things, He refers to His incarnation, and in effect, tells him that the Son of man is qualified to speak concerning these things because He is the only one who has come down from heaven. The words, "which is in heaven," are not in the best texts, and so we have not included them in our translation. However, in themselves they are true, and point to a tremendous fact, namely, the omnipresence of the Son of man. To possess omnipresence, is to possess deity. Thus, the Son of man is also the Son of God, and therefore, God the Son. Jesus is now ready to preach the gospel to Nicodemus, and He does it in Jewish terminology. If Nicodemus is too blind to understand the necessity of the new-birth, it might be that he will be able to see his need of salvation from sin, from the standpoint of an atonement offered for him.


Jesus reminds him of the wilderness experience of the Jews who were on their way to the Promised Land. They had murmured against God, being dissatisfied with the manna which came from heaven. God had sent fiery serpents among them as a judgment, and they bit the people, and as a result, many died. The people acknowledged their sin, and asked that the Lord take away the serpents. Instead of doing that, God had Moses place a serpent of brass on a pole, and when a person was bitten, all he had to do to be cured of the snake-bite, was to look at the serpent of brass. Our Lord uses that incident as an illustration which would give the gospel to Nicodemus. He said, in effect, "Nicodemus, you have been bitten by the snake-bite of sin. Just as that brass serpent was elevated upon a pole, so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whoever puts his trust in Him, might be having life eternal." The words "be lifted up" are used by John to speak of crucifixion. The Greek word for "must" is the same one used when Jesus said to Nicodemus, "Ye must be born again." The Greek word means, "It is necessary in the nature of the case." Notice, if you will, the two divine imperatives. The first one is, "Nicodemus, it is necessary in the nature of the case for you all to be born again." The second one is, "It is necessary in the nature of the case for the Son of man to be lifted up."  The first imperative has to do with an obligation that man must fulfill. The second one has to do with an obligation which the Son of God must fulfill.


There would be no reason for the crucifixion of the Lord Jesus if man were not a sinner. Since the atonement is a divine fact and not a farce, man is clearly seen to be a sinner. In John 3:14, the Lord Jesus says, "even so must the Son of man be lifted up." In 12:32 He says, "And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto Me." It is interesting to note that the preposition "from" is in the Greek text, "out from." Thus, our Lord was speaking not merely of being lifted up from the earth on a Roman cross, for in that case a preposition would have been used which means "from the edge of," but He was speaking of being lifted up out of the earth. That includes His Cross, His death, burial, resurrection, and ascension. In 3:14, the Cross is only in view, and for the reason that only the atonement is mentioned there. But, in 12:32, the drawing power of our Lord Jesus is spoken of. A dead Christ on a cross can draw no sinner to Himself. It takes a crucified, risen, ascended, glorified God-man in the Glory to draw sinners to Himself.


Thus does Jesus preach the gospel to Nicodemus. He speaks of Himself as the Sacrifice for sin to which all the Old Testament sacrifices pointed. He tells Nicodemus by this that the Levitical system will soon be set aside, in favor of the actual atonement for sin which God will offer, and that that atonement will be Himself dying on a Roman cross. He explains to this spiritually blind Jewish teacher, that faith in Him as this substitutionary sacrifice results in the salvation of the individual. This is exactly what the sacrifices taught, all the way from Genesis 3:21 where the Lord God made coats of skins and clothed Adam and Eve, through the Levitical system up to the time when Jesus was speaking these words, namely, that the sinner should look ahead to a sacrifice that would be offered for him by God. Since the Judaism of the first century was a mere ethical cult, having lost that supernatural revelation of a sacrifice for sin in its teachings, Nicodemus was blind to all this.


We have evidences of the fact that this Jewish leader did later accept the gospel message and the Lord Jesus as his Saviour. In John 7:51, he takes the part of Jesus against his associates in the Sanhedrin, and in 19:39 he brings a mixture of myrrh and aloes with which to prepare the body of Jesus for burial. The latter instance is certainly conclusive evidence that Nicodemus was saved, for the Sanhedrin had crucified the Lord of Glory and he was taking his stand with the friends of Jesus.


The conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, so far as the record of John is concerned, closes with verse 15. Verses 16 to 21 constitute John's elaboration upon and explanation of the conversation. This appears clear from the following considerations; first, the words of Jesus, "even so must the Son of man be lifted up," speak of Jesus looking into the future to a sacrifice which was not at the time of the conversation consummated, whereas the words, "God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son," look back to a past act in which God gave His Son. It is not reasonable to suppose that our Lord would change tenses that way in the midst of a conversation. It is Jesus looking forward to the Cross, and John looking back to it. At the time of this conversation, God had not yet given His Son as a Sacrifice on the Cross. Again, verses 16-21 are explanatory rather than progressive. Verses 16 and 17 repeat the object of Christ's mission, which already has been stated. Verses 18 and 19 speak of the historic results in faith and unbelief, results which at the time of the conversation were not in evidence. Verses 20 and 21 exhibit the causes of faith and unbelief.  


Finally, the designation "only begotten Son" is not one of the names by which Jesus designates Himself, but is used by John. It appears that after John recorded this conversation, remembering that the gospel was given in Jewish terminology, and that he was writing for the Gentile world, he saw the need of some explanatory material that would give the gospel to the Gentiles in terms which they could more easily understand. In the last analysis, so far as the divine source and inspiration of these succeeding words is concerned, it made no difference whether Jesus spoke them on earth, or whether through the Holy Spirit, He spoke them from heaven, through John.


John 3:16 starts with the little word "for." This word connects a statement of Jesus in verse 14 with a statement of John in verse 16. In verse 14 we have "even so is it necessary in the nature of the case for the Son of man to be lifted up." In verse 16 we have "God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son." The connection is as follows: The question comes. "What was there in the nature of the case that made the crucifixion a necessity?" It was not the justice of God which required the Son to pay the penalty of sin. God, in perfect righteousness could have required sinful man to pay his own penalty for his wrong-doing. The broken law would have been satisfied, for the wages of sin is death. It was the love of God for a race of lost represented the love of God. John says, "For God did not send off His Son into the world in order that He might judge the world, but in order that the world might be saved through Him." The A.V., translates by the word "condemned." The Greek word is krino. The word meant originally "to separate," then "to distinguish, to pick out, to be of opinion," and finally, "to judge." The act of judgment was therefore that of forming an accurate and honest opinion of someone, thus, appraising his character, and placing him in a certain position with respect to the law of God. The result of such a judgment is commonly condemnation, for the human race is a fallen race. We will translate by the word "judgment," and have in the background of our minds the idea of condemnation so far as an appraisal of character is concerned.


The Greek word for "condemnation" is katakrino, the prefixed preposition kata meaning in its local sense, "down," thus giving the idea of condemnation to the verbal idea. This word is an advance upon krino, in that it speaks of the passing of sentence upon the one judged. In verse 18, John elaborates upon his previous words. He informs his reader that God did not send His Son to judge but to save, and that whoever accepts His Son as Saviour, is not judged. Then he takes up the case of the unbeliever, and says that that person stands judged already. He uses the perfect tense which speaks of a past complete action having present results. The unbeliever does not wait until a future trial to see whether he is to be Judged guilty or not guilty, for John declares that he has been already judged with the present result that he is looked upon by God as under His judgment. That is, he stands convicted of his sin of unbelief. The sin of which he is guilty, John says, is that he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God, with the present result that he is in a permanent attitude of unbelief. John again uses the perfect tense here. This is no snap judgment on the part of the unbeliever, John says, but a deliberate and confirmed attitude towards God's Son. This, John says, does not merely disclose human infirmity and passion, but shows a wickedness of man which he chooses and prefers in the presence of the goodness of God which has been revealed in the Cross. 


This is further explained by John in the words, "And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, with the present result that it is here, and men loved rather the darkness than the light." The light here is the Lord Jesus, and its coming into the world refers to the incarnation. The words of the A.V., "is come," are a good translation of the Greek perfect tense, which speaks of a past complete act having present results. It is not as if the Lord Jesus had flashed across the vision of sinful humanity like a meteor through the sky, and then was gone, but that He came and lived here for thirty-three years in full view of mankind, and since His ascension, lives in the hearts and lives of believers.   The human race therefore cannot plead an unfair opportunity to see the light. It stands judged because it rejects the light which it has before itself constantly. The rejection of God's Son, therefore, is not the result of ignorance, but of deliberate choice and preference. But John hastens to inform his reader that this rejection of the Saviour is not fundamentally an intellectual thing, but has its roots in a totally depraved nature, for he says that this preference of darkness to light is found in the fact that men's works were constantly evil.


The word "evil" is poneros which means "evil in active opposition to the good." John continues this thought in the words, "For every one who habitually practices evil, is hating the light and does not come to the light, in order that his works might not be convicted." The distinctive word for "evil" here is phaulos which means "that which is paltry, ugly, poor," and refers to a dull, senseless viciousness. Thus. John states that at the basis of all rejection of Christ, is a totally depraved nature, a love of sin, and a hatred of the good. On the other hand, John says, that the person who practices the truth, comes to the light in order that the character of his works might be openly shown. This he does because he realizes that his deeds have been wrought in God in the sense that God the Holy Spirit dwelling in him, produces the works. 


Expanded Translation of John 3:1-21


Now, there was a man of the Pharisees, Nicodemus by name, a chief one among the Jews. This one came to Him in a nighttime visit and said to Him, Rabbi, we know positively and beyond a peradventure of a doubt, that from God you are come a teacher for no one is able to keep on constantly doing these attesting miracles which you are constantly performing, unless God be with him.


Answered Jesus and said to him. Truly, truly, I am saying to you, unless a person is born again, that new-birth having the same source as the first one, he is not able to see the kingdom of God.


Says to him Nicodemus, How is it possible for a man to be able to be born, being old? He is not able to enter into the womb of his mother a second time and be born, is he?


Answered Jesus, Truly, truly, I am saying to you, unless a person is born of water, even of the Spirit, he is not able to enter into the kingdom of God. That which has been born of the flesh is as a present result flesh, is fleshly in nature, and stays flesh. And that which has been born of the Spirit is as a present result spirit, is spiritual in nature, and stays spirit. Do not begin to marvel that I said to you. It is necessary in the nature of the case for you all to be born again, that new-birth having the same source as the first one. The wind constantly blows where it desires to blow, and its sound you are hearing, but you do not know from where it is coming and where it is going. Thus is everyone who has been born of the Spirit.


Answered Nicodemus and said to Him, How is it possible for these things to be able to become?


 Answered Jesus and said to him. As for you, are you the teacher of the Israel. and do you not have an experiential knowledge of these things? Truly, truly, I am saying to you, that which we know positively and beyond a peradventure of a doubt, we are speaking, and that which we have with discernment seen we are bearing witness to and our witness you all are not receiving. If, as is the case, I told you concerning earthly things and you are not believing, how is it possible if I should tell you of heavenly things, that you will believe? And no one has ascended into heaven except the one who came down from heaven, the Son of Man. And, even as Moses elevated the snake in the wilderness, thus is it necessary in the nature of the case for the Son of man to be lifted up, in order that every one who places his trust in Him might be having life eternal.


For in this manner God loved the world, so that His Son, the only begotten One He gave, in order that every one who places his trust in Him might not perish but might be having life eternal. For God did not send off His Son into the world in order that He might judge the world, but in order that the world might be saved through Him. The one who places his trust in Him is not being judged. The one who is not believing has already been judged, because he has not placed his trust in the name of the only begotten Son of God, with the result that his unbelief is a permanent attitude.


And this is the judgment, that the light has come info the world with the present result that it is here, and men loved rather the darkness than the light, for their works were evil and in active opposition to the good: for every one who practices evil things, is hating the light and is not coming to the light, in order that his works might not be convicted. But the one who constantly is doing the truth, constantly comes to the light in order that his works might be openly manifested, because they have been wrought in God.


Dear Reader: Are you born again? Have you at any definite time in the past, come to the conclusion that what God's Word says of you is true, namely, that you are a sinner and lost? And have you understood and embraced with all your heart the fact that the Lord Jesus paid the penalty for your sins on the Cross? And then did you appropriate Him by an act of faith as your Saviour? And did you thank Him for saving you? If you have not, won't you do so now?