This message is something of a follow-up to my post a couple of months ago concerning "Reconciling the Abijah Accounts"...and it concerns a passage (John 3:1-21) that I have read and studied dozens of times, and yet I keep coming back to it, much like I do the message in chapter 4 concerning the Samaritan woman. Why? I have come to believe that there a many nuggets of gold to mine out of these places, and the Holy Spirit continues to bless and help in this matter…and for this, I am grateful. A study of the Gospel of John reveals that this is a gospel that is not as interested in a chronology of the life of Jesus as much as a theology concerning His belief and activities. This is why I believe that this story concerning Jesus with Nicodemus is at the front of the book following closely the primarily introductory material, although it is certainly important in and of itself.
What we have tried to do…particularly those from our fellowship, but not exclusively so…is to rationalize a spiritual concept that is not going to fit into the tidy box that we have tried to fit it in. This is why I believe that Jesus was really saying more to Nicodemus than he…or anyone else…was going to understand at the time. I have heard the arguments concerning whether this passage is even concerning baptism and conversion…and whether it was a looking ahead to Christian baptism (or not). I am now convinced, more than ever, that it is concerning these matters and so much more.
Nonetheless, let us consider what is taking place in this section of John. There is much concerning this passage that is familiar. We know that Nicodemus, a member of the Sanhedrin (the rulers of the Jews), comes to Jesus to see him and visit with Him, and he does so at night. We can surmise that he does this in order to avoid detection by his fellow-Jewish leaders who would immediately become suspect of Him since Jesus was already on their “watch list” of religious leaders who were suspect because of their teachings. This is also, in part, why I believe this material would likely fall later in a “chronological” gospel, because this story seems to assume that Jesus has already gained a certain number of antagonists. Another reason for His coming at a late hour would be to avoid the multitudes of people who would otherwise be crowding around Him during the day, making it difficult to impossible to speak with Him. Nicodemus is apparently not only speaking for himself, but some others who would like to understand more about Jesus…as he says, “’We’” know that you are a teacher who has come from God” (3:2). Most of the Jewish leaders would not make this assertion, certainly…as in other passages…they indicate that Jesus is from Beelzebub, and that He has a demon. Nicodemus and some others recognize Jesus as a “teacher” or “Rabbi”…one who is learned in the ways of God, as well as the Jewish teachings and culture. They understand that Jesus has to be from God or else He would not be capable of performing the signs that He has been doing to this point.
In typical fashion, Jesus gives an answer to a question that has not even been raised…or at least has not been raised yet. As the Sovereign Lord, Jesus had the ability to know the heart of those with whom He was dealing. He does this a number of times, and here are a couple of examples -- with the Syro-Phoenician woman, Jesus makes leading statements in order to engage her in a conversation concerning salvation…and with the Samaritan woman, He asks a leading question so as to peak her curiosity concerning who He was. Now, in this case, Jesus makes a statement concerning salvation, "I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again” (John 3:3, NIV). Apparently Nicodemus is wondering if Jesus really is the One who has the words of life. Perhaps it is because time is short, or that Jesus understands that Nicodemus needs the line of reasoning He is going to pursue, but He does not mince words here, coming right to the point with Nicodemus. Many might believe that Jesus has overestimated Nicodemus’ reasoning abilities, as he misunderstands what Jesus is saying here, thinking that Jesus is speaking “literally”…that he would have to born again physically, rather than be born again “spiritually.”
Why does the story from John 3 concerning Jesus’ discussion with Nicodemus inspire us so? Is it the innocence? Is it the one on one meeting with Jesus? Is it that we can relate to this man in so many ways? I have always loved this story because Jesus sets Nicodemus straight. He tells him about Christian baptism -- be born of water and Spirit -- and that settles it, right? Get it right Nicodemus! I guess I have always thought that Nicodemus was somewhat clueless. What is wrong with him? Why doesn't he get it? (And this always has been easy enough to say, since I/we have had the benefit of the 2000 years since the Word became flesh). After all, he should at least understand the "water" aspect of baptism, since he was a teacher of the Jews, he should have been aware of mikvah -- the ritual purification washings which the Jews would undergo. Also, he should have been aware of what was taking place concerning the baptism of John. Still, he thinks that being "born again" is to re-enter the womb and go through the process all over again! But, it is the Spirit...that is also causing him to stumble. There is not a great deal of mention of the Spirit's work in the Old Covenant...enough that Nicodemus should have been familiar with Him, but in this context? No. The Ephesian disciples (Acts 19) would also be "brought up to speed" by Paul in relationship to the connection of the Spirit to baptism. As with the Ephesians, the Spirit is an important part of the equation for Nicodemus to consider (v.8) as it relates to understanding Christian baptism.
It is likely that the wind was blowing the evening that Jesus and Nicodemus were having their conversation...it may have been an easy segue for Jesus to talk about the Spirit. It is interesting to note that the word "wind," (pneuma in the original language), is the same word used for "the Spirit," as well as "breath." In fact wind or breath are symbols of the Spirit of God elsewhere (Job 33:4, John 20:22, Acts 2:2). Like the wind, the Spirit is invisible, but powerful -- He is subtle at times, and at other times, mighty in His work. We can't fully explain or predict how the Spirit is going to work in the life of a believer...but we know that he does, be it like a breeze, or like a storm. This is precisely why so many people resist Him. Many Christians want their "faith" and "religion" to be nice and comfortable. Yet, as we see with Nicodemus, even, this is not always going to be the case. Striving to live by faith is challenging...it requires allowing God "to tip over our religious box" so that His Spirit can really begin working in our lives. Nicodemus had to know that this was going to take place, as He came to Jesus by night, so as not to upset the Sanhedrin apple cart.
The key to the whole discussion is found in v.10. Nicodemus came at night, but he is still in the dark. He has difficulty understanding "new birth" even after Jesus has fully explained it to him -- "are you the teacher of Israel, and you do not understand these things?" He should know the truths from the OT Scriptures, but this "teacher" knows only the facts. One of the great struggles for Nicodemus is that he, being one of the religious leaders, would not submit to the authority of Jesus (3:11). I believe that this is why Jesus says what he does to him here. After all, why wouldn't Nicodemus think just like the other "religious Jews" -- "Rabbi we know that you have come from God...because no one could do the signs you do unless he was from God" (v.2). Always looking for signs were the Jews. So, perhaps, it is not so much that Nicodemus is "innocent" here, as much as he is "ignorant," which is a significant difference.
I am convinced that Nicodemus did not have an easier time seeing Jesus and grasping what the Lord was sharing with him, in part, because he could not let go. He would or could not let go of his human reasoning, his presuppositions of things that he had already been taught. In this case, he was not going to understand what Jesus was saying until he let go of what he had already known and accept Jesus at face value -- by faith. How many others did Jesus have contact with where the same general situation was evident...the Samaritan woman(?), the rich, young ruler(?), the man born blind(?), the centurion(?). And what about us? How many of us in our own day and time have to let go of what we have been taught by good, well-meaning people in order to see Jesus by faith? How many of us are willing to ask the Nicodemus questions or some similar and be taught by and about the Spirit of God? We have to be willing to lay it all on the table, as Jesus challenges Nicodemus -- all of our reasoning, presuppositions. This isn't easy...in fact, it is often painful, difficult. Jesus was as straightforward with Nicodemus as anyone in the Word. The facts were indeed all laid out on the table for him. Did He come to understand? Read John 7:50-53, 19:38-40 and consider.
All of the above said, I completely agree with the fact that we are saved by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8-9). I also agree with the fact that "baptism" is not the "end of the process" or a "check mark," so to speak. When I was younger, I tended to agree that baptism was the target...that it was the end of the process. I now understand that it is somewhere in the process, but that it also is "a critical portion" of this process. This is not to say that it is an "idol" or a "work" as some have said, but that it is a necessary part of the process of faith in coming to Christ. So, my struggle has not been that baptism is the end or the beginning of the process, but that somehow baptism is "subservient to faith". Baptism is important...I teach it 100% of the time…but somehow the "essential aspect" of baptism, which I believe is also born out in the Scriptures seems "to get lost" somewhat. I believe that much of this is a matter of perspective. I believe that what Peter says in 1 Peter 3:21 is true, however...that there is a certain aspect of baptism that does indeed save us (otherwise Peter would not speak concerning it in this way). He would have said, as does the note in the Ryrie Study Bible, "baptism does not really save you...it is only an appeal." Peter says that "you are saved by or in your appeal through baptism." It is a connection with the grace of God in order for us to be able to experience a clear conscience; but, it is indeed in "the baptism itself" that salvation is able to come and bring us a clear conscience. It is also because of passages such as Romans 6:3-4, Acts 2:38-39, Mark 16:15 and also 1 John 5:6-8 that speak to the subject. It is through baptism that we come into contact with the blood of Jesus that cleanses our sins. We cannot have a relationship with salvation through the blood of Jesus unless our sins have been cleansed -- it is impossible! Sin is what separates us from God. How can we have a saving relationship with Jesus through faith unless there has been cleansing of sin? (This is what the message to the Hebrews is all about, in many respects).
Then there is this confounding aspect concerning the Holy Spirit that we see in the Acts and John passages that is ignored by some, but that makes all of the difference in understanding this message...and baptism itself. The Spirit is evidence that we are children of God according to Paul in Romans 8 and Ephesians 1:13-14. We receive the Holy Spirit at baptism as evidenced in the above passages and it is Him who is the cleansing agent concerning our sins (see also 1 John 1:7) among other things that the Spirit does for us (which is not the point of discussion now). So, my concern is that somehow baptism is more than simply "subservient" to faith, but that it "walks hand and hand with faith through obedience." I believe that they all must go together. Baptism may not be the "target," but it is also not simply subservient to faith in the process; it has to be somewhere in between (particularly concerning the Holy Spirit's portion in the process) for all of the above reasons. I will say, given my fellowship's historic propensity to need book, chapter, verse to explain everything about faith and practice, that it has made baptism...a spiritual subject...difficult to comprehend because we have tried to understand it primarily from a "legal" perspective. This will not work. If the Holy Spirit is involved in it...then it is a spiritual event...and no longer something that we can pigeon hole as "this is exactly how it has to be." I respect that there are certain elements involved in it, and a number of Scriptures that indicate what these are...but, at the end of the day, the most important "element" is what the Holy Spirit is doing through the blood of Jesus in the life of believer...however that is to be for each individual.
In concluding, I have heard great preachers share some significant messages over the years…one sermon by Landon Saunders at ACU some years ago comes to mind. I knew in my spirit that what he was saying was right about Christianity and the church, but it did not square with where I was positioned at the time, theologically. I believe that this passage in John 3 goes a long way in order to address those concerns and "ponderings" that I have experienced. And now, I will allow you to ponder them, as well.