Nicodemus in his fascinating visit with Jesus sought information from the Messiah (John 3:1-15).

     Jesus responded to the opportunity by telling him about the essentiality of the new birth. Jesus made a single point: Understanding and participating in the new birth are essential to recognizing and entering God's kingdom.

     As a Pharisee, Nicodemus' convictions were founded on these understandings. 1) One must know the Mosaical law. 2) One must apply the meaning of the law. 3) One must clearly practice the laws of purity and proper worship of God.

     As a member of the Jerusalem Sanhedrin, Nicodemus was a member of Israel's highest, most prestigious court of 70 prominent leaders recognized as experts in Mosaical law. They protected Israel from false teachers and religious heresy.

     Nicodemus came to Jesus in sincerity and honesty. He genuinely believed that Jesus was a teacher sent from God. As an honest observer, he acknowledged the obvious: no person performed Jesus' miracles unless God was with him.

     With his background, position of religious leadership and knowledge of Scripture, Nicodemus should have understood the new birth. Amazingly, this learned man could not comprehend that teaching.

     All knowledgeable, devout Israelites held two basic understandings. 1) Anyone born of Jewish parents and circumcised on the eighth day was in covenant relationship with God (Genesis 17:10-14; Exodus 12:48; Leviticus 12:1-4). 2) Faithful obedience to the Mosaical law was essential for maintaining that covenant relationship with God (Deuteronomy 4:1-8). Circumcision placed one in covenant relationship with God; obedience kept one in covenant relationship with God.

     Devout Pharisees defined all aspects of faithfulness in terms of obeying the law. These ultimate legalists applied the law to every area of life. In their conscientious commitment to applying the law, they created applications based on their perception of the law's intent.

     The laws of purification were prominent in Pharisaic lifestyle. Purity was the result of ceremonial purity. Purification occurred when one cleansed his body in exact obedience to purification ordinances.

     When a woman gave birth, she was unclean for a specified time (Leviticus 12). She could not touch anything sacred or go to the temple. When that time ended, she offered a sacrificial animal at the temple and cleansing occurred.

     A person who touched a corpse, a human bone, or a grave was impure for seven days (Numbers 19:11-22). A clean person offered a sacrifice for the unclean person, took the ashes, and mixed those ashes in a single container with water from a flowing stream. The clean person sprinkled the unclean person with that water on the third and seventh day. After the final sprinkling, the unclean person washed his clothes, took a bath and was clean at nightfall. In that process, if the clean person touched the water of impurity, he also was unclean for seven days.

     On must understand these teachings and convictions if he is to understand the way Nicodemus thought.

     Nicodemus said, "We know you are a teacher sent by God because no one can perform your miracles unless God is with him." Perhaps Nicodemus attempted to lead Jesus into a discussion of his identity. However, Jesus did not wish to discuss His identity.

     Jesus replied, "Nicodemus, I tell you the truth: Unless a person is born anew (born again, born from above) he cannot see the kingdom of God." To Nicodemus, this was a strange, new condition for entering the anticipated kingdom. His study verified that any circumcised Israelite who kept the law was assured a place in that kingdom. Also, his training taught him to consider religious truths in literal, physical terms. A literal rebirth to become part of a physical kingdom was impossible.

     Nicodemus responded, "How can that be possible? Can anyone re-enter his mother's womb and experience a second physical birth?" Nicodemus' legalistic training in literalism controlled his thinking. It never occurred to him to think in terms other than the literal, the physical. He was not being frivolous or foolish! He was giving serious response in the only way he was trained to think!

     Jesus answered, "Again, I tell you the truth: If a person is not born of the water and the spirit, he cannot enter God's kingdom. That born of the physical body is physical; that born of the spirit is spirit (spiritual).

     "Does the thought of a second birth dumbfound you? Is that idea beyond comprehension? You cannot explain the wind; you cannot see it; but you know it is real because you see its effect. Explaining the new birth or actually seeing the spirit working in the new birth is unnecessary. It really is obvious in the effects of the new birth produced by the working of the spirit."

     A confused Nicodemus replied, "I do not see how any of this is possible."

     Jesus answered, "You are this nation's teacher, and you do not understand this? I know what I am saying, but you cannot accept it. If you cannot understand things happening on earth, how can you believe heavenly realities if I reveal them?"

     An obvious lesson is easily missed. If a person spends his entire life thinking legalistically as he studies Scripture, he will become incapable of seeing or understanding the true spiritual perspective. The spiritual perspective is unnatural and confusing to him.

     Legalistic thinking has three focal points. 1) Definitions: Exactly what is happening? The occurrence must be explainable. 2) How: How can that happen? A visible cause and effect relationship must be obvious. 3) What: What actually occurs? What occurs must be demonstrable in clear, visible steps.

     Consider the Pharisees' concept of purity. Definition of impurity: The physical body touches something defined by law as impure and becomes unclean. How does that happen? The impurity residing in the impure thing is transferred to one's body by physical contact. What takes place in cleansing? A special purification water destroys the contamination and separates the body from the impurity. A step-by-step, visible procedure cleanses in seven days.

     Purification occurred because there were proper definition, proper answers for how and what, and proper, visible procedural steps performed.

     Jesus said God's work through the spirit is not that simple. Even under Mosaical law, the power was not in the sacrifice, the water, the ashes, the sprinkling, the clothes washing, or the bath. The power was in God who granted the cleansing through the person's obedient faith, which trusted God's promise.

     Tragically, the Pharisee endowed human deeds with divine power. He believed the water, the procedure and feeble human acts contained intrinsic power. Foolishly, he believed the power was generated by doing the right thing.

     Jesus challenged Nicodemus to realize such thinking was foolish. Nicodemus did not think about the wind with that restricted thought process. He did not know where it came from, where it went, or why it began and stopped. He certainly could not see it. However, he knew the wind was a fact, a reality that could not be denied. Its existence was not dependent on an analytical, demonstrable cause-and-effect explanation. An element of mystery was beyond explanation, but that element did not make the wind any less real.

     In the new birth Jesus was discussing baptism. God's work in baptism contains a great element of mystery. God is working through the blood of Jesus, the power of the Resurrection and His Spirit as He cleanses the person of all evil.

     At what moment is the sin destroyed? How does He give spiritual life? How does the person participate in Jesus' Resurrection? We do not know.

     It happens! We cannot explain it or see it occur. It occurs because God is active and using His power. No human power makes it happen. The power is not in the water or in the physical washing, but in Jesus' Resurrection (I Peter 3:20, 21). God uses water to implement our salvation, but the water is not responsible for our salvation. Salvation occurs because a faith-filled, penitent conscience reaches out to God and Christ.

     Some reject baptism because it contains elements of mystery. Because God's use of the blood and Resurrection power cannot be explained, baptism has no bearing on salvation. Just as the new birth made no sense to Nicodemus, baptism makes no sense to them.

     Others place their faith in baptism, not God. Their faith is in the human act, not in God's power working through the act. Thus, their children are baptized at an early age before they are lost, before they are sinners. Have you watched a child lay down a toy to take communion? Also, they pressure a dying, unbaptized loved one to submit to baptism. They stress "doing it" with little or no teaching about Jesus. If the sick adult submits to the act, the act destroys the Christian's concern. In both instances, is there intrinsic power in the water or the act?

     Jesus was discussing conversion. To Nicodemus, Jewish birth combined with circumcision, made one a part of God's chosen people. To Nicodemus conversion was a strange, difficult concept. To the person who reduces salvation and godliness to mere rules and regulations, conversion is still a strange, difficult concept.

David Chadwell

Gospel Advocate, Nashville, TN
August 1992, pp. 54-56

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