[This chapter is based on John 3:1-17.]
Nicodemus held a high position of trust in the Jewish nation. He was
highly educated, and possessed talents of no ordinary character, and he
was an honored member of the national council. With others, he had been
stirred by the teaching of Jesus. Though rich, learned, and honored, he
had been strangely attracted by the humble Nazarene. The lessons that
had fallen from the Saviour's lips had greatly impressed him, and he
desired to learn more of these wonderful truths.
Christ's exercise of authority in the cleansing of the temple had
roused the determined hatred of the priests and rulers. They feared the
power of this stranger. Such boldness on the part of an obscure Galilean
was not to be tolerated. They were bent on putting an end to His work.
But not all were agreed in this purpose. There were some that feared to
oppose One who was so evidently moved upon by the Spirit of God. They
remembered how prophets had been slain for rebuking the sins of the
leaders in Israel. They knew that the bondage of the Jews to a heathen
nation was the result of their stubbornness in rejecting reproofs from
God. They feared that in plotting against Jesus the priests and rulers
were following in the steps of their fathers, and would bring fresh
calamities upon the nation. Nicodemus shared these feelings. In a
council of the Sanhedrin, when the course to be pursued toward Jesus was
considered, Nicodemus advised caution and moderation. He urged that if
Jesus was really invested with authority from God, it would be perilous
to reject His warnings. The priests dared not disregard this counsel,
and for the time they took no open measures against the Saviour.
Since hearing Jesus, Nicodemus had anxiously studied the prophecies
relating to the Messiah; and the more he searched, the stronger was his
conviction that this was the One who was to come. With many others in
Israel he had been greatly distressed by the profanation of the temple
He was a witness of the scene when Jesus drove out the buyers and the
sellers; he beheld the wonderful manifestation of divine power; he saw
the Saviour receiving the poor and healing the sick; he saw their looks
of joy, and heard their words of praise; and he could not doubt that
Jesus of Nazareth was the Sent of God.
He greatly desired an interview with Jesus, but shrank from seeking
Him openly. It would be too humiliating for a ruler of the Jews to
acknowledge himself in sympathy with a teacher as yet so little known.
And should his visit come to the knowledge of the Sanhedrin, it would
draw upon him their scorn and denunciation. He resolved upon a secret
interview, excusing this on the ground that if he were to go openly,
others might follow his example. Learning by special inquiry the
Saviour's place of retirement in the Mount of Olives, he waited until
the city was hushed in slumber, and then sought Him.
In the presence of Christ, Nicodemus felt a strange timidity, which
he endeavored to conceal under an air of composure and dignity.
"Rabbi," he said, "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." By speaking of Christ's rare gifts as a teacher, and
also of His wonderful power to perform miracles, he hoped to pave the
way for his interview. His words were designed to express and to invite
confidence; but they really expressed unbelief. He did not acknowledge
Jesus to be the Messiah, but only a teacher sent from God.
Instead of recognizing this salutation, Jesus bent His eyes upon the
speaker, as if reading his very soul. In His infinite wisdom He saw
before Him a seeker after truth. He knew the object of this visit, and
with a desire to deepen the conviction already resting upon His
listener's mind, He came directly to the point, saying solemnly, yet
kindly, "Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born from
above, he cannot see the kingdom of God." John 3:3, margin.
Nicodemus had come to the Lord thinking to enter into a discussion
with Him, but Jesus laid bare the foundation principles of truth. He
said to Nicodemus, It is not theoretical knowledge you need so much as
spiritual regeneration. You need not to have your curiosity satisfied,
but to have a new heart. You must receive a new life from above before
you can appreciate heavenly things. Until this change takes place,
making all things new, it will result in no saving good for you to
discuss with Me My authority or My mission.
Nicodemus had heard the preaching of John the Baptist concerning
repentance and baptism, and pointing the people to One who should
baptize with the Holy Spirit. He himself had felt that there was a lack
of spirituality among the Jews, that, to a great degree, they were
controlled by bigotry and worldly ambition. He had hoped for a better
state of things at the Messiah's coming. Yet the heart-searching message
of the Baptist had failed to work in him conviction of sin. He was a
strict Pharisee, and prided himself on his good works. He was widely
esteemed for his benevolence and his liberality in sustaining the temple
service, and he felt secure of the favor of God. He was startled at the
thought of a kingdom too pure for him to see in his present state.
The figure of the new birth, which Jesus had used, was not wholly
unfamiliar to Nicodemus. Converts from heathenism to the faith of Israel
were often compared to children just born. Therefore he must have
perceived that the words of Christ were not to be taken in a literal
sense. But by virtue of his birth as an Israelite he regarded himself as
sure of a place in the kingdom of God. He felt that he needed no change.
Hence his surprise at the Saviour's words. He was irritated by their
close application to himself. The pride of the Pharisee was struggling
against the honest desire of the seeker after truth. He wondered that
Christ should speak to him as He did, not respecting his position as
ruler in Israel.
Surprised out of his self-possession, he answered Christ in words
full of irony, "How can a man be born when he is old?" Like
many others when cutting truth is brought home to the conscience, he
revealed the fact that the natural man receiveth not the things of the
Spirit of God. There is in him nothing that responds to spiritual
things; for spiritual things are spiritually discerned.
But the Saviour did not meet argument with argument. Raising His hand
with solemn, quiet dignity, He pressed the truth home with
greaterassurance, "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." Nicodemus knew that Christ here referred to water baptism and
the renewing of the heart by the Spirit of God. He was convinced that he
was in the presence of the One whom John the Baptist had foretold.
Jesus continued: "That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and
that which is born of the Spirit is spirit." By nature the heart is
evil, and "who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean? not
one." Job 14:4. No human invention can find a remedy for the
sinning soul. "The carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not
subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be." "Out of the
heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts,
false witness, blasphemies." Rom. 8:7; Matt. 15:19. The fountain of
the heart must be purified before the streams can become pure. He who is
trying to reach heaven by his own works in keeping the law is attempting
an impossibility. There is no safety for one who has merely a legal
religion, a form of godliness. The Christian's life is not a
modification or improvement of the old, but a transformation of nature.
There is a death to self and sin, and a new life altogether. This change
can be brought about only by the effectual working of the Holy Spirit.
Nicodemus was still perplexed, and Jesus used the wind to illustrate
His meaning: "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 everyone that is born of the Spirit."
The wind is heard among the branches of the trees, rustling the
leaves and flowers; yet it is invisible, and no man knows whence it
comes or whither it goes. So with the work of the Holy Spirit upon the
heart. It can no more be explained than can the movements of the wind. A
person may not be able to tell the exact time or place, or to trace all
the circumstances in the process of conversion; but this does not prove
him to be unconverted. By an agency as unseen as the wind, Christ is
constantly working upon the heart. Little by little, perhaps
unconsciously to the receiver, impressions are made that tend to draw
the soul to Christ. These may be received through meditating upon Him,
through reading the Scriptures, or through hearing the word from the
living preacher. Suddenly, as the Spirit comes with more direct appeal,
the soul gladly surrenders itself to Jesus. By many this is called
sudden conversion; but it is the result of long wooing by the Spirit of
God,--a patient, protracted process.
While the wind is itself invisible, it produces effects that are seen
and felt. So the work of the Spirit upon the soul will reveal itself in
every act of him who has felt its saving power. When the Spirit of God
takes possession of the heart, it transforms the life. Sinful thoughts
are put away, evil deeds are renounced; love, humility, and peace take
the place of anger, envy, and strife. Joy takes the place of sadness,
and the countenance reflects the light of heaven. No one sees the hand
that lifts the burden, or beholds the light descend from the courts
above. The blessing comes when by faith the soul surrenders itself to
God. Then that power which no human eye can see creates a new being in
the image of God.
It is impossible for finite minds to comprehend the work of
redemption. Its mystery exceeds human knowledge; yet he who passes from
death to life realizes that it is a divine reality. The beginning of
redemption we may know here through a personal experience. Its results
reach through the eternal ages.
While Jesus was speaking, some gleams of truth penetrated the ruler's
mind. The softening, subduing influence of the Holy Spirit impressed his
heart. Yet he did not fully understand the Saviour's words. He was not
so much impressed by the necessity of the new birth as by the manner of
its accomplishment. He said wonderingly, "How can these things
"Art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not these
things?" Jesus asked. Surely one entrusted with the religious
instruction of the people should not be ignorant of truths so important.
His words conveyed the lesson that instead of feeling irritated over the
plain words of truth, Nicodemus should have had a very humble opinion of
himself, because of his spiritual ignorance. Yet Christ spoke with such
solemn dignity, and both look and tone expressed such earnest love, that
Nicodemus was not offended as he realized his humiliating condition.
But as Jesus explained that His mission on earth was to establish a
spiritual instead of a temporal kingdom, His hearer was troubled. Seeing
this, Jesus added, "If I have told you earthly things, and ye
believe not, how shall ye believe, if I tell you of heavenly
things?" If Nicodemus could not receive Christ's teaching,
illustrating the work of grace upon the heart, how could he comprehend
the nature of His glorious heavenly kingdom? Not discerning the nature
of Christ's work on earth, he could not understand His work in heaven.
The Jews whom Jesus had driven from the temple claimed to be children
of Abraham, but they fled from the Saviour's presence because they could
not endure the glory of God which was manifested in Him. Thus they gave
evidence that they were not fitted by the grace of God to participate in
the sacred services of the temple. They were zealous to maintain an
appearance of holiness, but they neglected holiness of heart. While they
were sticklers for the letter of the law, they were constantly violating
its spirit. Their great need was that very change which Christ had been
explaining to Nicodemus,--a new moral birth, a cleansing from sin, and a
renewing of knowledge and holiness.
There was no excuse for the blindness of Israel in regard to the work
of regeneration. Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Isaiah had
written, "We are all as an unclean thing, and all our
righteousnesses are as filthy rags." David had prayed, "Create
in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me."
And through Ezekiel the promise had been given, "A new heart also
will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take
away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of
flesh. And I will put My Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in My
statutes." Isa. 64:6; Ps. 51:10; Ezek. 36:26, 27.
Nicodemus had read these scriptures with a clouded mind; but he now
began to comprehend their meaning. He saw that the most rigid obedience
to the mere letter of the law as applied to the outward life could
entitle no man to enter the kingdom of heaven. In the estimation of men,
his life had been just and honorable; but in the presence of Christ he
felt that his heart was unclean, and his life unholy.
Nicodemus was being drawn to Christ. As the Saviour explained to him
concerning the new birth, he longed to have this change wrought in
himself. By what means could it be accomplished? Jesus answered the
unspoken question: "As Moses lifted up the serpent in the
wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: that whosoever
believeth in Him should not perish, but have eternal life."
Here was ground with which Nicodemus was familiar. The symbol of the
uplifted serpent made plain to him the Saviour's mission. When the
people of Israel were dying from the sting of the fiery serpents, God
directed Moses to make a serpent of brass, and place it on high in the
midst of the congregation. Then the word was sounded throughout the
encampment that all who would look upon the serpent should live. The
people well knew that in itself the serpent had no power to help them.
It was a symbol of Christ. As the image made in the likeness of the
destroying serpents was lifted up for their healing, so One made
"in the likeness of sinful flesh" was to be their Redeemer.
Rom. 8:3. Many of the Israelites regarded the sacrificial service as
having in itself virtue to set them free from sin. God desired to teach
them that it had no more value than that serpent of brass. It was to
lead their minds to the Saviour. Whether for the healing of their wounds
or the pardon of their sins, they could do nothing for themselves but
show their faith in the Gift of God. They were to look and live.
Those who had been bitten by the serpents might have delayed to look.
They might have questioned how there could be efficacy in that brazen
symbol. They might have demanded a scientific explanation. But no
explanation was given. They must accept the word of God to them through
Moses. To refuse to look was to perish.
Not through controversy and discussion is the soul enlightened. We
must look and live. Nicodemus received the lesson, and carried it with
him. He searched the Scriptures in a new way, not for the discussion of
a theory, but in order to receive life for the soul. He began to see the
kingdom of heaven as he submitted himself to the leading of the Holy
There are thousands today who need to learn the same truth that was
taught to Nicodemus by the uplifted serpent. They depend on their
obedience to the law of God to commend them to His favor. When they are
bidden to look to Jesus, and believe that He saves them solely through
His grace, they exclaim, "How can these things be?"
Like Nicodemus, we must be willing to enter into life in the same way
as the chief of sinners. Than Christ, "there is none other name
under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved." Acts 4:12.
Through faith we receive the grace of God; but faith is not our Saviour.
It earns nothing. It is the hand by which we lay hold upon Christ, and
appropriate His merits, the remedy for sin. And we cannot even repent
without the aid of the Spirit of God. The Scripture says of Christ,
"Him hath God exalted with His right hand to be a Prince and a
Saviour, for to give repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of
sins." Acts 5:31. Repentance comes from Christ as truly as does
How, then, are we to be saved? "As Moses lifted up the serpent
in the wilderness," so the Son of man has been lifted up, and
everyone who has been deceived and bitten by the serpent may look and
live. "Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the
world." John 1:29. The light shining from the cross reveals the
love of God. His love is drawing us to Himself. If we do not resist this
drawing, we shall be led to the foot of the cross in repentance for the
sins that have crucified the Saviour. Then the Spirit of God through
faith produces a new life in the soul. The thoughts and desires are
brought into obedience to the will of Christ. The heart, the mind, are
created anew in the image of Him who works in us to subdue all things to
Himself. Then the law of God is written in the mind and heart, and we
can say with Christ, "I delight to do Thy will, O my God." Ps.
In the interview with Nicodemus, Jesus unfolded the plan of
salvation, and His mission to the world. In none of His subsequent
discourses did He explain so fully, step by step, the work necessary to
be done in the hearts of all who would inherit the kingdom of heaven. At
the very beginning of His ministry He opened the truth to a member of
the Sanhedrin, to the mind that was most receptive, and to an appointed
teacher of the people. But the leaders of Israel did not welcome the
light. Nicodemus hid the truth in his heart, and for three years there
was little apparent fruit.
But Jesus was acquainted with the soil into which He cast the seed.
The words spoken at night to one listener in the lonely mountain were
not lost. For a time Nicodemus did not publicly acknowledge Christ, but
he watched His life, and pondered His teachings. In the Sanhedrin
council he repeatedly thwarted the schemes of the priests to destroy
Him. When at last Jesus was lifted up on the cross, Nicodemus remembered
the teaching upon Olivet: "As Moses lifted up the serpent in the
wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: that whosoever
believeth in Him should not perish, but have eternal life." The
light from that secret interview illumined the cross upon Calvary, and
Nicodemus saw in Jesus the world's Redeemer.
After the Lord's ascension, when the disciples were scattered by
persecution, Nicodemus came boldly to the front. He employed his wealth
in sustaining the infant church that the Jews had expected to be blotted
out at the death of Christ. In the time of peril he who had been so
cautious and questioning was firm as a rock, encouraging the faith of
the disciples, and furnishing means to carry forward the work of the
gospel. He was scorned and persecuted by those who had paid him
reverence in other days. He became poor in this world's goods; yet he
faltered not in the faith which had its beginning in that night
conference with Jesus.
Nicodemus related to John the story of that interview, and by his pen
it was recorded for the instruction of millions. The truths there taught
are as important today as they were on that solemn night in the shadowy
mountain, when the Jewish ruler came to learn the way of life from the
lowly Teacher of Galilee.
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