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Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

23. Nicodemus (John 2:23-3:12)*


At that Passover when Jesus cleansed the temple he also worked a number of miracles. John calls them “signs”. These made a great impression, so that “many believed in (into) his name”. This phrase normally indicates thorough-going conversion to acceptance of Jesus as the Messiah. Yet, strangely enough, “Jesus did not trust himself unto them, because he knew all men, and needed not that any should testify of man: for he knew what was in man” (Jn. 2: 23-25). This triple emphasis on a guarded attitude towards the people reads strangely, coming as it does immediately after the first mention of many believing in his name. No clear-cut explanation of this difficulty has been advanced.

Perhaps this passage should be interpreted in the light of what happened two Passovers later (Jn. 6: 15). Then a great multitude believed on Jesus as their Messiah, so fervently indeed that they sought to compel him to be their king. It was a terrific surge of nationalistic spirit. The temptation to line up with this movement must have been very strong indeed. But Jesus would have none of it, and from that day forward his popularity with the people declined.

It is not unlikely that what is alluded to here in John 2 is the first burst of enthusiasm greeting Jesus as a national leader. Knowing what it meant and how wrongly based it was, Jesus shrugged off this wave of popularity and very shortly betook himself to the open country (3: 22). By this very act he required those who would be his followers to separate themselves from the fever of politics which dominated the capital.

Human Paradox

There is here one of the continuing themes of this gospel: People believing, but not to be trusted. A bare catalogue of the human encounters narrated here will serve to make the point:

3: 1-12
Nicodemus, by night.
4: 48
The nobleman: “except ye see signs and wonders.”
5: 1-16
The man of Bethesda, healed and disloyal.
6: 15
The multitude seek to make Jesus king.
6: 30,31
A selfish demand for repeated miracles.
7: 3
The Lord’s brothers cynical, unbelieving.
8: 59
Convinced by argument, they attempt stoning.
9: 34
Convinced by blindness healed, they excommunicate.
10: 1-18
The thief, the robber, the hireling, the wolf.
11: 47
The Sanhedrin convinced and plotting.
12: 10
And against Lazarus also.
13: 30
Judas went out, and betrayed.
13: 37
Peter: “I will lay down my life” – and made denials.
19: 12,13
Pilate weak and giving way.
20: 25
Thomas loyal (11: 16), but stubbornly disbelieving.
21: 3
Disciples go back to their fishing.

By contrast with this long list there are those whom this gospel shows in a good light: The woman of Samaria, Martha and Mary, the women at the cross, and Mary Magdalene; and also the Greeks who would see Jesus, and the blind man (a type of Gentile believers).

So if Jesus had not known at the beginning of his ministry “what was in man”, he would surely have learned by the end of it.

Action at the highest level

However, before he came to this decision to abandon Jerusalem, a temptation of a different character beset him: a proposition for a working agreement with the Sanhedrin. The Greek text makes a definite link with the sombre words just considered.

The proposal was put to Jesus by a learned rabbi called Nicodemus. The name Nicodemus ben Gurion crops up a number of times in the Talmud and early church writings, sometimes with reference to this Nicodemus and sometimes with reference to his son. The probable but not certain details are these:-

He belonged to one of the wealthiest families in Jewry, was thrust out of high office and expelled from Jerusalem (because of his faith in Christ?). Out in the country he took refuge in the home of Gamaliel, who was his kinsman. One mention says he was the priest responsible for adequate water supplies for the multitudes who came to Jerusalem for the feasts. At the time of the siege in A.D.70 the family fell into the most dire poverty. It must have been the son who negotiated the final surrender of the city to the Romans.

The Sanhedrin had three leading members: its President, called The Teacher of the Law; a vice-president, The Father of the House of the Law; and a second vice-president, The Wise One. It may be inferred from the words of Jesus that Nicodemus filled the first of these offices: “Art thou the Teacher of Israel, and knowest not these things?”

By Night

This distinguished man came by night because it could have caused a big sensation in Jerusalem if word had gone round that so important and influential a religious teacher had chosen to consult this new prophet from Galilee. Moreover the purpose of his visit would have been immediately divined, and the plan of the Sanhedrin to persuade Jesus to co-operate with them would have been torn to shreds. It may be that already — as certainly proved to be the case later—the Jewish Council was split down the middle over the question of policy or attitude towards the preacher from Nazareth, and that Nicodemus came as representative of the more moderate section.

That phrase “by night” has an ominous ring about it (cp.13: 30). Here was a man honest enough to recognize from the first that the claims of Jesus were true, but without the strength of character to declare his conviction openly (7: 50-52).

Certainly this visit to Jesus was not just to satisfy curiosity: “Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God”, indicates clearly enough that he came not just on his own behalf. And that word “know” does not signify “we are beginning to learn”, but rather “it is immediately obvious to us.”

The entire procedure of coming secretly with a proposal for a party alliance is condemned by John’s mention that Nicodemus came “by night”, for at the end of this discourse comes the comment: “men love darkness rather than light, because their deeds are evil. For everyone that doeth evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved.” This was true of the party which Nicodemus belonged to, and at this time it must have been true, though to a much less extent, of Nicodemus himself.

There was no hypocrisy or fawning insincerity about his addressing Jesus as “Rabbi”. Nicodemus had the honesty to recognize that here was a religious teacher of surpassing insight and power. This was an attitude the more extreme leaders of the Jews were never prepared to consider: “How knoweth this man letters having never learned?” (7: 15). For a man without university training they had no use whatever. By contrast, the essential humility of Nicodemus is shown in his willingness to talk on equal terms with an uneducated carpenter.

Recognized as a Prophet

The frank admission: “We know that thou art a teacher come from God”, really represented a remarkable concession from a group of highly important men. It carried the implication that on certain conditions they were willing to accept his leadership. There was also a brief but explicit summary of the grounds for their accommodating attitude: “No man can do the signs that thou doest except God be with him”. Here is a further indication that that Passover in Jerusalem had witnessed a number of remarkable miracles done by Jesus. These had been carefully pondered by the leaders, and some — at least — were satisfied that they were the credentials of an outstanding prophet.

Deuteronomy 13:1 warned that a prophet working miracles was to be accepted only if his teaching also was wholesome and true. The cleansing of the temple by Jesus would certainly be recognized by the more devout members of the community as a reform long overdue. Probably, also, Jesus had spent each day of the Passover week discoursing in the temple court, as he did later at other Feasts, and men like Nicodemus looking for the kingdom of God would appreciate that a vast gulf lay between the searching principles of this Jesus, spoken in such an authoritative tone, and the wild extravagances of the false prophets who arose in the Land from time to time.

Immanuel

It is possible that, in making acknowledgement of these things to Jesus Nicodemus implied: “You are Immanuel.” The words: “Except God be with him” are equivalent to that prophetic name. Certain details in the context might support this. There is the reference to “signs” - compare: “God himself shall give you a sign” (ls. 7: 11,14). The Lord’s insistence on being born again (which many consider to be puzzling in these circumstances) can now be paraphrased thus: “You say I am Immanuel. If you wish to share Immanuel’s kingdom you must share Immanuel’s birth by divine power.” Also the allusion in verse 12 to “heavenly things” and “earthly things” would correspond to Isaiah’s words concerning the sign: “Ask it in the height or in the depth.” Isaiah’s “if ye believe not” (7: 9) is echoed twice by Jesus in the same connection.

It is not impossible that the Lord’s allusion to birth of “water and Spirit” goes back to “the waters of Shiloah” and “the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him” (ls. 8: 6; 11: 2). Both of these are Immanuel prophecies.

New Birth

In reply, then, to the Sahhedrin’s enquiry (either implied or explicitly put by Nicodemus): ‘We should like to join forces with you, and share your kingdom’, Jesus had only a rather peremptory: “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Their approach was basically in error. The Kingdom which Jesus preached was not an affair of party alliances or human contriving, but of new birth. In a rather enigmatic passage Isaiah had implied as much: “Hearken unto me, O house of Jacob, and all the remnant of the house of Israel, which are borne by me from the belly, which are carried from the womb: and even to your old age, I am he; even to hoar hairs I will carry you: I have made, and I will bear; even I will carry, and will deliver you” (46: 3,4).

More pointedly, Jesus emphasized that this new birth must be individual, and not national or even on party lines: “Except a man be born again...” (cp. Mt. 18: 3). It was essentially a reiteration of John’s caustic warning: “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” (Lk. 3: 8).

The words of Jesus are capable of a double meaning. They may mean either “born again” or “born from above”. Putting the emphasis on the first of these Nicodemus expressed his despair that such a thing might ever be, in spite of the Baptist’s assurance: “God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham.”

His reply has often been interpreted as a deliberate red-herring, to pull the discussion away from a theme which was getting uncomfortably personal. But everything that is known about him suggests that here was a sincere man wrestling with a genuine difficulty.

“How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb, and be born?” This is no prevarication. The second question was intended to throw into relief the difficulty of the first. It is the argument a fortiori. “It is plainly impossible for a man to be born again of his mother’, said Nicodemus; “then, from what I know of human nature, how much more impossible is it for a man to be spiritually re-born and thus become a new creature’

He spoke feelingly out of his own depressing experience of swimming against the tide. Few men, if any, in that generation can have had greater opportunities in life for spiritual growth, yet all was in vain. The regimen and discipline of a law which was “holy, just, and good” had only served to teach him the impossibility of achieving regeneration by one’s own efforts.

The reply of Jesus repeated the ultimatum, stressing that what is necessary (“must”) is rebirth of a kind which a man cannot achieve for himself: “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, except a man be born-of-water-and-Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.”

“Born of water-and-Spirit”

In any attempt at understanding these crucially important words, two big considerations must not be lost sight of. The first is that one new birth — out of water and Spirit — is spoken of, and not two. Any exegesis which breaks the meaning down into birth of water by baptism and birth of Spirit either in conversion or after resurrection does violence to the form of the Greek phrase which very obviously speaks of one birth only. Any two-phase re-birth would require the repetition of the preposition governing “water” and “Spirit”, and this is not found in the Greek text (note the AV italics).

Also any interpretation which does not associate the passage with baptism is almost certainly wrong. The allusions in the context to John the Baptist, the ensuing references to the baptism of disciples of John and Jesus (v. 22,23), and the uniform interpretation of the passage from the very earliest days of the Christian era — these all point to baptism as the essential application of the words.

But in that case, why “of water and Spirit”?

This is an excellent and undeniable example of the figure of speech known as hendiadys (which is really Greek for one-by-means-of-two), that is, employing two separate terms to describe the same thing. Examples of this:

  1. “Philosophy and vain deceit” (Col. 2: 8) eans “philosophy which is vain deceit.”
  2. “Execute ye judgment and righteousness” (Jer. 22: 3), that is “righteous judgment.
  3. “Ye denied the Holy One and the Just” (Acts. 3: 14) - not two persons, but one: Jesus.
  4. “They which shall be acounted worthy to obtain that world and the resurrection of the dead”(Lk. 20: 35).
  5. “He shall baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Mt. 3: 11). Here, again the Greek has one preposition governing two terms.
The words of Jesus, then, require to be read of Christian baptism which is a re-birth “of water and Spirit”, that is, of spiritual water, the baptismal water with a spiritual significance and to which the believer is led by divine guidance. This understanding removes immediately the difficulty which is otherwise involved in the ensuing references (v.6,8) to birth “of spirit” only. Once the hendiadys is recognized, birth of water (that is baptism) is implied and included even when not specifically mentioned.

Paul, Isaiah, John

Paul evidently had a similar approach to the subject in his allusion to Israel’s typical baptism “in the cloud and in the sea.” The two experiences were one and the same. As Israel passed through the depths of the sea they were shrouded and protected also by the pillar of cloud and fire (Ex.14: 19-22; 1 Cor. 10: 1,2). And as Israel’s deliverance from Egyptian bondage was in no way wrought by themselves, so also with this new birth concerning which Jesus now discoursed to Nicodemus. It is an experience to which a man is led by the grace of God. Since man is “flesh’—the word stands for all that is weak and unworthy in human nature—anything that he achieves must also be stamped with the same character: “That which is born of the flesh is flesh.” It is the theme of John’s preaching, as enunciated in the prophecy about him in Isaiah 40: “All flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof as the flower of the field: the grass withereth, the flower fadeth: because the spirit (wind) of the Lord bloweth upon it: surely the people is grass” (v. 6,7).

Nothing could have been more appropriate or more needful in the message of these two unorthodox preachers — John and Jesus — than an exposure of the weakness of the Pharisees’ philosophy of justification by works. A man may try as hard as he likes to transform himself into a better creature, yet he will try in vain. The centuries are littered with the wrecks of men who by self-discipline and a devoted pursuit of high ideals have sought to purge themselves of the inherited evils which are human nature. At the end of it all is the groan of failure: “O wretched man that I am, who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” A man needs not only a new physical nature if he is to be rid of the shackles of mortality, but also a new inner nature if he is to be freed from the equally powerful fetters of sin.

Flesh and Spirit

The alternative offered by Jesus is what he calls being “born of the Spirit”. It is an insistence that as he himself had a divine birth, although born “flesh” like all the rest of the race, so also those who would share redemption in him must have a divine birth of a comparable character. The parallel is remarkably close — as is to be expected. In Jesus flesh and spirit fought a sustained struggle the outcome of which was a decisive victory over all inherited propensities of human nature. Put to death in the flesh, he was quickened in the Spirit (1 Pet. 3: 18; 1 Cor. 15 : 40-50). He offers the believer a comparable experience, both now and hereafter.

Nicodemus listened with increasing wonderment. Where was the advantage in being Jews, Pharisees, if they too must experience this new birth, for all the world as though they were Gentiles? This was the revolutionary doctrine preached by the Baptist: “Think not to say within yourselves, We nave Abraham to our father.” And Jesus, “knowing what was in man”, read in the mind of Nicodemus the wonderment which the learned Pharisee sought to disguise.

Marvel not, he said, because I require that even you pious Pharisees be born again. For here is something yet more staggering to marvel at. Do you remember how John used the message of Isaiah: “The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: because the wind, the Spirit of the Lord, bloweth upon it: surely the people is grass” (40: 7)? The Spirit of the Lord can blow in a man’s life not only to wither and destroy but also to make him into a new creature to live for ever. And that Spirit is “the Word of our God who will rise up (to live) for ever” (40: 8).

The winds of heaven do not blow where they please. Like everything else in God’s world, except man, they are subject to law (Ecc.1: 6). But the Spirit of God breathes its regenerating influence in a way that no man can make sense of. You, Nicodemus listening to me now, are hearing the voice of the Spirit — not recognizing my heavenly origin nor my high destiny [v. 7,13; 8: 14), yet being brought to “birth” through being “begotten by the Word of God who lives and abides for ever” (1 Pet. 1: 23). It is in this way that a man is born of the Spirit. The words that I am speaking to you, they are spirit and they are life (6: 63), and there is no new life apart from that which I teach.

Listening to this Man of Nazareth, Nicodemus knew in his soul the truth of what he said, but his mind wrestled with a severely practical problem: Would his proud and learned colleagues ever accept humbly the message of John and Jesus. He had come with a proposal for a spiritual alliance, and was met with the awkward but, indisputable fact that only total surrender to this heavenly Word would get them anywhere. “How can this happen”, he asked, thinking aloud.

‘Look at yourself, replied Jesus. ‘You are The Teacher of Israel, are you not, and yet you are not learning humbly or readily the things I am now telling you, simply because of the tension set up between your present standing in Jewry and the meekness without which there is no new birth. Then what hope is there for your colleagues? John and I both speak a message from God, but because John is John and Jesus is Jesus you learned and notable rabbis hold off instead of coming as disciples to men whom you deem inferior to yourselves.’

‘This message of “earthly things” - that “all flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereon as the flower of the field” - comes hard to men of your standing; then how can I hope to teach you the ‘heavenly things’ concerning my divine origin, my redeeming work, and my future glory?’

So a good deal of progress in spiritual comprehension was needful in these Pharisees beyond the guarded admission that “we know that thou art a teacher come from God”, even though in saying so much, Nicodemus had surely gone further, out of his own convictions, than most of his colleagues were inclined to do.

The evangelist’s inserted comment repeats the truths Jesus enunciated here: “He that cometh from above is above all: he that is of the earth is earthly, and speaketh of the earth (this is John the Baptist with his foundation doctrine of the spiritual sickness endemic in human nature, and the consequent need for regeneration): he that cometh from heaven is above all. And what he hath seen and heard (8: 38), that he testifieth; and no man receiveth his testimony” (v. 31,32). At the time when the apostle John wrote, this was almost or even quite literally true — Jewry had turned its back on the gospel. In the A.D.60’s there came such a hardening of Jewish opinion against the message concerning Jesus that this source of converts to the Faith dried up, and has remained dried up ever since.

Notes: John 2: 23-3: 12

1.
A Man. John should surely have had here the more impressive Greek word to indicate a man of distinction. But, as the Gk. de also suggests, he wanted to make a clear link with 2: 25.

Nicodemus. To a Jewish ear this essentially Greek name would sound like “innocent blood”; cp. 7: 50-52 with Ps. 94: 21.
2.
Can do these miracles. The verb is often used with reference to divine powers; cp. use of dunamis.

Come from God; cp. 1.1c. No definite article here. Nicodemus could not possibly have believed in the trinity. Accordingly, this phrase implies a divine mission, but no descent from heaven.
3.
Answered. This word implies that some proposition had been put to Jesus.

Born Again. The verb is passive (and so also in v. 5,6). No man can bring himself to new birth. Dr. Thomas reads here: from above (Eur. 3: 686) cp.1: 13; 1 Jn. 3: 9; 4: 7; 5: 1,4,18.
5.
Of water and the Spirit. An allusion, following on from those in 1: 1-4, to Genesis 1: 1,2? The Lord certainly intended reference to baptism: “Of all the ancients there is not one to be named that ever did otherwise expound or allege this place than as implying external baptism” (Hooker: Ecclesiastical Polity). John’s record here (and in ch.1) assumes that the nature and meaning of baptism and also the Lord’s miracles (2: 23) are known to his readers from the synoptic gospels.
6.
Flesh... spirit. Gen. 6: 3 RVm; 1 Pet. 3: 18.

Born of the Spirit. With this compare 1: 12,13. Apply Ps. 139: 14-16 to the New Birth. “In thy book” (v.16) seems to require this.
7.
Must. Literally: it is necessary.
8.
The wind bloweth. It is worth considering whether perhaps, as Jesus talked with Nicodemus, there may have been a mighty wind, “the voice of the Lord”, blowing round the house where they sat — not an ordinary gale, but the Lord’s whirlwind: Job. 38: 1; Ex. 15: 10; Ps. 19; 18: 10; 2 Sam. 5: 24; 1 Kgs. 18: 45; 19: 11; 2 Kgs. 2: 1,11; ls. 30: 30; Jn. 1: 4; Ez. 1: 4; Acts. 2: 2 etc.

Hearest the sound there of. The Greek suggests reference to the voice of Jesus at that moment.
11.
That we have seen. This verb is commonly used of seeing some divine ad or revelation.

Ye received not. Here and in v. 12, plural. Therefore reference to those who sent Nicodemus.
12.
Earthly things. Their corruption, their flesh (“as grass”), the inevitable end of their temple.

Heavenly things. The Lord’s message of forgiveness of sins, redemption, and the coming kingdom (v. 3,5).

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