“Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”
In the next few posts, we will examine some of the things Jesus said during a private conversation which took place between him and a Pharisee named Nicodemus, who was one of the members of the Jewish ruling council, also known as the Sanhedrin. Nicodemus had come to see Jesus at night, presumably so that he could escape observation and keep his meeting with Jesus a secret from the rest of the Sanhedrin. Few would have witnessed this conversation, other than a small handful of disciples (the Twelve had not yet been chosen).
There are some important factors to keep in mind when studying this passage. First, Jesus was not up on a mountaintop preaching to the masses, he was not even speaking to his own disciples; he was having a clandestine conversation with one member of an elite group of learned Jewish scholars. Second, Jesus knew what was in the heart of Nicodemus (John 2:23-25). We might be able to see both sides of the conversation in terms of what was said out loud, but only Jesus knew what Nicodemus was actually thinking, so there remains an unwritten thread to this conversation that we can never be privy to.
Nicodemus opens the conversation by saying, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.” He says “we know” indicating that there were others among the Sanhedrin who were also impressed by the miracles they had witnessed, and he confers upon Jesus the title of “Rabbi,” a title of great honor and deference coming from a man of his rank. But Jesus was not flattered by any of this and quickly knocked Nicodemus down from any remaining claim to a position of spiritual authority by declaring to him, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” In one fell swoop, Jesus negated all of Nicodemus’s efforts of intense study and the strict piety that was required to be a member of the Sanhedrin, and declared it to be essentially of no value at all.
Nicodemus, suddenly on the defensive, responded, “How can someone be born when they are old? Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!” Jesus answered him, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
“The wind blows wherever it pleases… so it is with everyone born of the Spirit“ – Jesus was using a play on words here that becomes lost when translated into English. The word he used for “spirit” was the same as that used for “wind.” Yet, even in English, the essential meaning still comes through – this “second birth” cannot be initiated or achieved by human endeavor, but only by the Spirit of God.
This must have shocked Nicodemus to the core. As a Pharisee, he had spent his life’s work instructing men on all that they must DO in order to please God. But here this “teacher from God” was authoritatively declaring to him that none of a man’s efforts in the flesh could possibly have any bearing upon his entrance into the kingdom of God.
This would be terrible news indeed for anyone who might believe that God is capricious in deciding whom to save and whom to condemn. But that is not the character of God. He is steadfast and unchanging (James 1:17), he is the Lord, “full of compassion and mercy” (Exodus 34:6-7) and he is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance. (2 Peter 3:9)