Nicodemus Came by Night -John 3:2

John 3:2 – The same came to Jesus by night, and said unto him, Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him.

We are told that Nicodemus came to Jesus by night. The reason we are told this is obviously because Nicodemus at this time didn’t want to face the shame of openly associating with Jesus. Most of his fellow Pharisees were growing increasingly hostile toward Christ, and they quickly despised anyone who associated with Him. Nicodemus would obviously want to avoid such a taint to his spotless reputation, and to avoid losing all the recognition and honor and religious achievement he had earned for himself. Note, the more a man has (religion, honor, achievement, wealth, power), the more he has to sacrifice to become a follower of Christ.

Notice here the vast difference between the “wise” and “foolish” things of this world (1 Cor. 1:17-28). “In that hour Jesus rejoiced in spirit, and said, I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes: even so, Father; for so it seemed good in thy sight” (Luke 10:21). Nicodemus, certainly one of the most wise things of this world, respected by all, well-advanced in learning and religious devotion, comes to Jesus under the cloak of night. Yet, the shamed Samaritan woman, to whom Jews wouldn’t even associate, full of sin and adultery, considered among the most foolish things of this world, is not ashamed to proclaim Jesus openly to all out of excitement that He is the Savior. Nicodemus sees many the miracles of Jesus and comes to the conclusion that He’s a great teacher sent from God, but the Samaritan woman sees just one of His miracles (His gift of prophecy) and comes to the conclusion that He is the Messiah! Nicodemus is afraid to confess Him openly, but the Samaritan woman boldly proclaims Jesus as the Christ to her whole town as soon as she meets Him! (see John 4:5-42.) Away with the wisdom of this fallen age! We need simple, child-like faith in the Savior. This simple faith is no doubt the essential evidence of the New Birth.

But even though Nicodemus came by night, at least he came! This is saying a whole lot more to his honor in the Word of God than the majority of the other Pharisees and religious leaders. There had to be at least some risk involved in coming, even at night. But notice that even though Nicodemus starts out very timid, scared, and worried about the cost of following Christ, it is significant that His exposure here to Christ more personally did not turn him away from following Him, but actually increased his desire to follow. In the Gospel of John, Nicodemus will grow progressively bolder and stand up for Jesus. In the midst of the Pharisees accusing and condemning Jesus, Nicodemus boldly sticks up for Him and is ridiculed (7:50-51). Then later, after the crucifixion of the Lord, Nicodemus isn’t afraid to publicly identify himself with the crucified Christ by bringing a whopping hundred pounds of spices for his burial and preparing His body alongside Joseph of Arimathaea (19:39-40).

It is noteworthy that this was at a time when all the Apostles themselves had fled! While Peter was very bold and started out his race with a fast sprint, he would fall and bite the dust hard at this time, but while Nicodemus was very timid and started our his race with a careful step at a time, he picked up strength and over time, his pace quickened and he gained ground, showing his faith by his perseverance and gradual growth. It’s not always immediate, fiery passion and zeal that characterizes true followers of Christ, but it’s faith with perseverance that counts (see Luke 8:15). We are not told specifically that Nicodemus finally believed with all his heart and actually experienced the New Birth, however, there is noteworthy evidence which leads us to have hope. Perhaps he was among the number of multitudes that were openly added to the church in the book of Acts, since there we are told that even many of the Jewish leaders believed (compare John 12:42 with Acts 6:7).

Nicodemus shows us his timidity at this time not only by coming at night, but by using the word, “we” when acknowledging Jesus’ authority: “we know that thou art a teacher come from God”. This appears to be a classic way of avoiding any appearance of personal commitment while at the same time acknowledging truth –by keeping the personal “I” out of it and just talking in general terms. This ploy is used in politics even to this day to avoid the appearance of conviction and commitment. But perhaps the main reason that the Apostle John, inspired by the Holy Spirit, informs us that Nicodemus used the word “we” rather than “I” is because as a ruler of the Jews and leader in the Sanhedrin, his case is representative of the case of Judaism as a whole; his spiritual condition was representative of the majority of the Jewish people and leaders. They acknowledged a lot of truth, saw the obvious when it came to Jesus, but still lacked spiritual life in them, still lacked the inward power of grace in regeneration, still lacked the Spirit of God, still lacked the real spiritual meat and substance of the Kingdom of God, and were ignorant of the righteousness which comes by faith.

Perhaps the most important question here is the one which Jesus would later ask His disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” (Mat. 16:15) Our answer to this question is crucial in determining our eternal destination. Nicodemus at this time would have probably responded to Christ by saying something along these lines: “You are an amazing teacher, a model rabbi, an anointed prophet, and a powerful miracle-worker, and without doubt, you are a man sent from God”. –But even recognizing all this is not enough. Peter would respond with the only correct answer: “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Mat. 16:16). Many people believe that Jesus of Nazareth was a great man, a wonderful teacher, even a prophet. But that’s not good enough if they miss the most important part. He’s all of that and much, much more. He is the Christ, the Savior of the world, the Lord of all, and God incarnate. He is our divine Substitution, our atoning Sacrifice, our Passover Lamb, our reigning King.

An essential part of the new birth is having the veil of sinful blindness lifted away and receiving a personal revelation of who Jesus of Nazareth really is. Jesus responded to Peter’s declaration of faith by saying, “Blessed art thou, Simon Barjona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven” (Mat. 16:17). This was not just a matter of good insight or clever brain power. This recognition was the result of supernatural revelation to the mind of Peter from the Holy Spirit. It wasn’t just an intellectual revelation, but a revelation to the very heart of Peter, producing in him the faith necessary to believe on Christ as His Lord and Savior. This revelation was granted from above. It comes with the New Birth. When God regenerates a sinful man, he opens his eyes and grants the ability to see the things of the Spirit in a way that enables him to believe in the Savior with real faith.

So although we see that Nicodemus certainly recognized these great things about Christ, things which the majority of the other Pharisees failed to recognized (or failed to acknowledge we should say), the knowledge he had of this Jesus was an insufficient knowledge that at this time failed to believe in Him as the Son of God and Messiah of Israel, and therefore is the evidence that he was not yet born again. When someone is born anew, born from above, they will certainly have this divine revelation from above, resulting in a wholehearted commitment to Christ as King. Nicodemus came to Jesus by night, and in fact, we see by this that even his understanding itself was still in the black night of sin and ignorance to the real things pertaining to the light of the glorious Gospel and the power of the Kingdom of God.

Nicodemus realized that Jesus came forth from God, he recognized the supernatural nature of the miracles Jesus did, he admitted the authority Jesus had to teach the Word of God, he showed interest and hunger in hearing what Jesus had to teach, and he even confessed that it’s impossible that Jesus is not from God, since no one could do such miracles apart from God. Yet even with all this acknowledgment of truth, and even despite all his religious attainment, morality, and show of holiness, Nicodemus was still at this time a dead man, dead spiritually to the things of God. He needed to have life imparted to him from above, or else he would never see the Kingdom of God.

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A Man Named Nicodemus -John 3:1

John 3:1 – There was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews.

It seems that this man, Nicodemus was not just any ordinary Jew. He was a man of zealous religious devotion, committed to the Law of Moses and to upholding the truth of God in Israel (or so he thought). He was not your average run-of-the-mill Jew, but he was a man that no doubt far exceeded the common Jew in his religious achievements, capabilities and public recognition among the people.

We’re told here that Nicodemus was a Pharisee. Now, when we read the Bible 2,000 after this time, it’s easy for us to just brush off the Pharisees as a legalistic, semi-heretical sect of Judaism that rejected Christ and trusted in a works-based salvation. It’s especially easy to think of them with scorn in our minds because we know how harshly the Lord Jesus denounced them as a whole and rebuked them sharply on many occasions. However, we have to understand that historically speaking, in Israel at the time of Christ, the Pharisees were the peoples’ choice for religious and political leaders.

The people looked up to the Pharisees for their religious insight and counsel, because they believed the Pharisees were so devout and zealous for the Law of God. After all, who else but the Pharisees would dare to fast for two days every week and give tithes of all they owned (Luke 18:12)? Who else sat in the seat of Moses with such authority and taught the Word of the Lord (Mat. 23:2-3)? Who else was so devout as to travel land and sea just to make a single convert (Mat. 23:15)? Who else would give alms to the poor on a regular basis (Mat. 6:2)? Who else would be so devoted to prayer that they would drop whatever they were doing to pray right on the spot whenever the hour of prayer struck, even if they happened to be in the middle of the marketplace (Mat. 6:5)? Apparently they were, in fact, those who the common people would go to whenever they had spiritual struggles or needed insight from God, looking up to the Pharisees as their teachers and counselors (Mat. 23:7). We can safely assume that Nicodemus was at least equaling, if not exceeding, his fellow Pharisees in such intense devotion.

And we have to acknowledge that not all of the Pharisees were blind hypocrites that purposely chose to be deceived and to deceive others. Some of them, no doubt, were very sincere. They sincerely wanted the truth, they sincerely were devoted to the God of Israel, they sincerely saw themselves as the spiritual guardians and teachers of Israel, and they sincerely desired to be holy. Some of them certainly desired to do what was right. And it is here that we find Nicodemus.

Obviously, Nicodemus wasn’t an intentional rejecter of God’s truth like so many other Pharisees. We see his sincerity here in the fact that he came to Christ in the midst of potential threats to be excommunicated and banned from the religious establishment (John 9:22). Certainly he came by night in the cloak of secrecy, but can we blame him? After all, his whole career, reputation, and everything he had worked for was on the line. Any man risking so much to hear the truth of God would want to make sure that what he was considering was really the truth of God before being willing to suffer for it. He came to Jesus knowing that He was a teacher who come from God, but it’s probable that at this early stage he didn’t yet know Who Jesus really was (i.e. the Messiah).

But the point is that Nicodemus was a devout follower of Judaism. If anybody could be saved by their acknowledgement of the one true God and their religious devotion and good works, it was him. Yet, as we will find out just a few verses later, Nicodemus at this time had no spiritual life in him. He was still “dead in trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1) and was in desperate need of the new, divine, supernatural life which came from above. He needed to be spiritually reborn, to become a new creature, or else he would never enter the Kingdom of God that he was so eagerly looking and waiting for. And as we will see, his religious devotion didn’t impress Christ one bit. Jesus will cut straight to the heart of the matter and address Nicodemus’ great, pressing, desperate spiritual need for salvation through regeneration.

We are also told here that he was a “ruler of the Jews”. In fact, the very name “Nicodemus” means, “conqueror of the people” in Greek. What his name shows us, if in fact it holds some meaning here in the inspired Word, is that in religious piety, devotion, and achievement, he was a man on the top, far above his peers in success as a Pharisee. He was a leader of the people, and had achieved greater status and recognition in Israel than his equals. Furthermore, by calling him “a ruler of the Jews”, the Scripture is informing us that Nicodemus had a seat on the respected governing counsel of Israel, known as the Sanhedrin. This ruling counsel consisted of 70 select elders from among Israel and was overseen by the High Priest. Religiously speaking, no one was viewed as in higher authority over Israel except the High Priest himself. In such a high position of honor, Nicodemus was viewed as an authority for religious counsel, an example for religious practice, and a model for religious learning. Yet, despite his great religious success in the eyes of men, he was a total failure when it came to the eyes of God, in need of the real salvation which could only come as a gift of sovereign grace from above. Jesus will yet tell him, “You must be born again”, or else he will never see the Kingdom of God.

So in the light of understanding that he was still dead in his sins and not saved at this time, we learn several lessons from the background of Nicodemus:

1. He was a man of intense religious devotion. To be not only a Pharisee, but a leader of the Pharisees, means that his commitment to his religious convictions had to be above that of the average Pharisee. Yet all the fasting, praying, proselytizing, studying, teaching, alms giving, tithing, and attending synagogue couldn’t save him. Let us understand that no amount religious works can save us, no matter how good they seem to be and no matter how great they are in quantity.

2. He was a man of committed sincerity to what he understood of the things of God. He was not purposely deceived and certainly did not intend to be a religious leader without truly knowing the God he claimed to represent. We learn from this that sincerity doesn’t always constitute salvation. “For I bear them record that they have a zeal of God, but not according to knowledge. For they being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God” (Rom. 10:2-3). One can be zealous, religious, and intensely sincere, and yet still miss the righteousness which comes from God, and so be spiritually lost and dead.

3. He was a man who sought for the truth. This is proven by the fact that he came to Jesus at a time when the Pharisees as a whole were rejecting Him. They had rejected John the Baptist as the prophet of Christ (Mat. 21:25) and now they were rejecting Christ Himself. But in the midst of it, Nicodemus sneaks away to secretly inquire of Christ, desiring in his heart to know the truth of God and to hear divine instruction from the mouth of Him who he knew to be a “teacher come from God” (John 3:2). This shows us that one can be a seeker of truth, earnestly desiring to know the truth, and yet still be deceived. A real child of God is not seeking truth, they have found the truth, and it has set them free (John 8:32).

4. He was a man of significant religious attainment. He was not just any Pharisee, but was a leader among them. This man was in essence a pastor of pastors, a recognized theologian in Israel that even the rabbis would look up to. He was viewed as “a guide of the blind, a light of them which are in darkness, An instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, which hast the form of knowledge and of the truth in the law” (Romans 2:19-20). Yet even so, as a leader and a guide among God’s people, his religious achievement, respected status, and lofty position didn’t save him. This shows us that one can be a leader, a pastor, a theologian, and still not be born again. Just because a man holds a high position in the church doesn’t mean that he holds a high position in the sight of God. One can attain a great level of respect and attain a high level of honor among men in the church, and still be in desperate need of regeneration.

And so we learn that religious devotion and works can’t save us, no matter how intense and numerous; commitment and sincerity can’t save us, no matter how sincere; seeking the truth alone can’t save us, no matter how much we sacrifice to find it; and having success in the church and attaining to high levels of religious or denominational achievement can’t save us, no matter how lofty of a position we attain to. Just like Nicodemus, we need to learn to forsake our own understanding, our own works, our own achievements, and to trust in Christ alone. Salvation is not in outward actions; it is in spiritual life from above being implanted to us inwardly. We need to be transformed on the inside by the mighty power of the grace of God in regeneration.

The New Birth -John 3:1-8

John 3:1-8 – There was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews: (2) The same came to Jesus by night, and said unto him, Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him. (3) Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. (4) Nicodemus saith unto him, How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb, and be born? (5) Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. (6) That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. (7) Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again. (8) The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.

This whole discourse follows a logical flow of thought. Let’s give a brief summary of what’s happening:

Verse 1: Nicodemus comes on the scene, who was a Pharisee and Ruler of the Jews. Note, Nicodemus was not just your ordinary religious person, he was an extremely devout Jew, earning for himself a seat on the famed Sanhedrin of Israel, a choice privilege that only 70 men enjoyed such a position under the High Priest of Israel. Therefore if anybody could be saved by their religious devotion, no doubt, Nicodemus would be the first in line.

Verse 2: Nicodemus however was afraid to confess Jesus openly at this time, coming in the cloak of night to inquire of Him. However, that is much better than most of the Pharisees, who refused to come to Jesus at all! Nicodemus then acknowledges that Jesus is a Teacher sent from God. He recongizes the divine power and authority of the Most High upon Jesus’ life and ministry and understands that He is not just any normal man.

Verse 3: Despite the religious devoutness and traditional devotion of Nicodemus, his good works, and his acknowledgement of Christ as having divine authority, he was still spiritually dead. He needed to be born again and given new spiritual life from above or else he would perish eternally.

Verse 4: Nicodemus reveals his spiritual blindness and thus confirms that Christ was speaking the truth about his spiritual condition. He does not understand that Jesus is speaking in symbolic language about the necessity of regeneration and of becoming a new creature by the power of supernatural grace. A dead man cannot see, and Nicodemus here revealed that he was in fact dead, because he still couldn’t “see the Kingdom of God”.

Verse 5: Jesus now somewhat repeats what He said in verse 3 about the New Birth and our need for it. However, whereas in verse 3 Jesus emphasized the necessity of the New Birth, here in verse 5 He explains the instruments of the New Birth. It is not by religious deeds, but by water and the Spirit.

Verse 6: Jesus emphasizes that religious works cannot save. They are only flesh. They can be done in the strength and ability of the flesh. The natural man can produce them. When trying to do them to gain righteousness as the Pharisees did, they only produce more flesh and more bondage. Only the Spirit can produce in us spiritual life which makes us alive unto God.

Verse 7: Jesus repeats Himself, emphasizing the desperate need of Nicodemus and all sinners that have not been made new creatures by the Spirit of God.

Verse 8: Jesus explains the cause of the New Birth. It is not by any effort, force, power, ability, or desire on man’s part. It is like the wind, which has a mind of it’s own and goes wherever the sovereign will of God directs it. No man can stop it and no man can cause it. It blows where it wills, and God regenerates who He wills. Furthermore, just as the wind is a mystery, so the New Birth is a mystery. We cannot always explain it, but we can certainly feel its effects when it blows upon us.

Next time, Lord willing, we will begin to look at this discourse more in depth.