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Nicodemus in the Night — Extraordinary Encounters with Jesus

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Commenting on Jesus’ ministry, Sinclair Ferguson says, “The pulse beat of God’s heart has an evangelistic rhythm.”1 Jesus even identified His mission in terms of evangelism: “The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10).

Jesus had numerous extraordinary encounters throughout the Gospels. In Mark 2, He forgave a paralytic’s sins and restored his ability to walk. In John 4, He encountered a religious nobody who, in the middle of the day, asked for a drink and found living water. And a chapter earlier, in John 3, Jesus encountered a religious somebody named Nicodemus.

“A man of the Pharisees,” this high member of the religious establishment approached the Lord under cover of darkness (v. 1). In the conversation that followed, Jesus stressed the insufficiency of superficial belief and the necessity of the new birth. From this exchange that occurred over two millennia ago, we can learn a great deal about God’s relationship to man—and about what God requires of us.

The Opening Gambit

Nicodemus had presumably heard enough of Jesus to recognize that He was “a teacher come from God” (John 3:2). Yet while this opening statement was pretty good, it’s a far cry from proclaiming Jesus to be the Promised One. We might wonder: What led Nicodemus to Jesus by night on this occasion? Alfred Edersheim suggests one possibility:

It must have been a mighty power of conviction, to break down prejudice so far as to lead this old Sanhedrist to acknowledge a Galilean, untrained in the Schools, as a Teacher come from God, and to repair to Him for direction on, perhaps, the most delicate and important point in Jewish theology.2

If Edersheim is right, that it was “a mighty power of conviction” that guided Nicodemus to Christ, then we might say that the real darkness surrounding the events in John 3 was a moral darkness. Nicodemus’s own night was blacker than the cover of darkness under which he came. Unknown to him, he approached no ordinary Galilean carpenter. He was in the presence of “the true light, which gives light to everyone” (John 1:9).

Jesus stresses the insufficiency of superficial belief and the necessity of the new birth.

Scripture makes perfectly plain that even upright, sincere, religious individuals—a group to which Nicodemus would have belonged—are without hope and without God in the world (Eph. 2:12) if they are not born again. The religious and the irreligious are under the same indictment: devoid of spiritual life, born in transgression, and unable to rectify their predicament (Eph. 2:1–3). Such individuals need regeneration, not information; they require spiritual transformation, not renovation. The same was true for Nicodemus.

A Striking Response

As a good Jew, Nicodemus was no doubt acquainted with the kingdom of God. You can probably imagine, then, how much Jesus’ response would have startled the Pharisee: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3).

In Jewish thought, the kingdom of God was to be inaugurated at the end of the age. Entry into the kingdom was guaranteed, they believed, so long as one was a good Jew. But Jesus wasn’t talking here about the kingdom in its future dimension. He was talking about the kingdom’s present reality. For Jesus, the kingdom of God was “at hand” (Mark 1:15), concurrent with His life and ministry—and entrance into this present-reality kingdom was only possible if one was born again, from above. 

Nicodemus’s response to Jesus’ statement is a strange question for such an intelligent man: “How can a man be born when he is old?” (John 3:4). Too clever to think Jesus has in mind some physical reconfiguration, Nicodemus was probably saying, essentially, “Look, I’m too advanced in years to turn over a new leaf. I can’t possibly start over.” But Jesus reiterated, “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (v. 5).

Entrance into God’s kingdom is only possible if we are born again.

We have the benefit of reading this encounter in light of the prologue to John’s Gospel, two chapters earlier. There he says of Jesus’ arrival,

He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. (John 1:11–13)

Nicodemus hadn’t yet put all the pieces of the puzzle together. His religious background didn’t exempt him from needing a new heart and a cleansed conscience—a truth to which the biblical writers attested (Ezek. 36:25–27; Psalm 51:10). Jesus employed this Old Testament language in John 3. The experience of cleansing from the old life, symbolized by water, and the regenerating power of the Spirit, symbolized by wind, pointed Nicodemus to the absolute necessity of being changed by God (vv. 5–8).

Jesus was talking about, in a word, conversion. He wasn’t interested in urging people toward superficial interest in divine things. To be born again—to be truly saved—is to have a radical, God-ordained, heart-changing encounter with Jesus. We must steer clear of what James S. Stewart calls a “theologically vague and harmlessly accommodating” Christianity.3

The Christian’s claim is simple: There is no one else who can save, because no one else is qualified to save. Therefore, Jesus had every reason to chide a religious Jew like Nicodemus. “Are you the teacher of Israel,” Jesus asked in astonishment, “and yet you do not understand these things?” (John 3:10). There’s no way that Nicodemus would grasp the future aspects of the kingdom if he couldn’t perceive its present reality (vv. 11–12).

Jesus made clear the absolute necessity of the new birth, the supreme tragedy of Nicodemus’ Jewish unbelief, and the complete sufficiency of His impending death. Indeed, Jesus preached the Gospel from the Old Testament in verses 13–15: “No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

With these words, Jesus reminded Nicodemus of the scene in Numbers 21, where God had sent a plague of poisonous snakes as judgment against Israel’s sin. In response, Moses had constructed a bronze snake and placed it among Israel’s camp. God used the bronze serpent to give new physical to life to those who believed God’s promise. By faith, they looked, and they lived. In a similar fashion, Jesus described His death in terms of His being “lifted up” that all who look to Him would receive spiritual life. (Incidentally, that’s the believer’s appeal to our nonbelieving friends: “Look to Christ, the Savior, and live!”)

To be born again is to have a radical, God-ordained, heart-changing encounter with Jesus.

Importantly, the people in Numbers 21 weren’t saved on account of their proximity to the bronze serpent. They were rescued only when they rested all their hopes upon that which was promised. And so it is with Christ. Though many appear to be close to God in their religious profession, like Nicodemus, they will remain alienated from God without a faith that embraces Jesus’ words and work. “Whoever believes in him,” Jesus concluded, “may have eternal life” (John 3:15).

A Message for Everyone Who Believes

Christ’s message is for everyone who believes. Put another way: salvation isn’t given until the Gospel is believed (John 3:16). We see God’s love for men and women in His sending His Son to bring us to repentance and faith. Indeed, the early saint Augustine referred to the cross as “a pulpit, in which Christ preached his love to the world.”4

If our hearts reflect God’s evangelistic pulse, then our lives will echo Jesus’ words in John 3: “You must be born again” (v. 7). We will stress the need for repenting and believing. We will drive home man’s need for conversion. And we will proclaim the kingdom that our new birth enables us to call our forever home.

This article was adapted from the sermon “A Man in the Night” by Alistair Begg.

Sinclair B. Ferguson, Man Overboard: The Story of Jonah (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 1982), 10. ↩︎

Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1883), 1:381. ↩︎

James S. Stewart, A Faith to Proclaim (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1953), 16. ↩︎

Augustine, quoted in Thomas Watson, A Body of Divinity (1962; repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2015), 175. ↩︎

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