It’s easy to be intimidated by the intellectual giants and academic elite of this world. But the gospel message profoundly levels that playing field. The conversation between Christ and Nicodemus illustrates that human accolades and prestige don’t diminish a person’s need for the blunt truth of the gospel.
When Nicodemus first approached Jesus in John 3, the Pharisee was not yet truly a believer (his future conversion is confirmed by John 19:38–39). But he was clearly intrigued by Christ. He showed Him the utmost respect. In fact, Nicodemus’s greeting was an unqualified acknowledgment of Christ’s prophetic authority — an affirmation given by no other Council member either before or after this. He said, “Rabbi, we know that You have come from God as a teacher; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him” (John 3:2).
The title “Rabbi” was an expression of honor. Coming from a ruling Pharisee like this, it was a signal that Nicodemus regarded Jesus as an equal. Of course Nicodemus intended that as a great compliment.
Jesus’ reply was abrupt and to the point, a demonstration of the prophetic authority Nicodemus had just acknowledged: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). Ignoring the verbal honor Nicodemus had paid Him, changing the subject away from His own ability to do miracles, Jesus made a statement that was plainly intended as a remark about Nicodemus’s spiritual inability and blindness.
It was a breathtaking reply, especially given Nicodemus’s stature as a religious leader. Nicodemus was no doubt accustomed to being shown great honor and deference. Jesus’ first recorded words to him instead conveyed the clear and deliberate implication that this leading Pharisee was still so far from the kingdom of heaven that he was unable to see it at all. If Nicodemus had been motivated solely by pride, or merely looking for affirmation, he would certainly have been offended by Jesus’ reply.
But Nicodemus was clearly being drawn to Christ by the Holy Spirit, because his answer to Jesus was surprisingly unruffled. There’s no hint of resentment, no insults directed at Jesus, no iciness. He continues to show Jesus the respect due an eminent rabbi by asking a series of questions designed to draw the meaning out of Jesus’ words — words that must have hit him like a hard slap in the face.
Nicodemus had devoted his life to a rigid observance of the Pharisees’ traditions, which he no doubt firmly believed were fully in accord with the law of God. He might have expected commendation from Jesus for his personal piety. He might have hoped he could help reconcile Jesus and the Sanhedrin after the Temple-cleansing incident. That was, after all, Jesus’ only public conflict with Israel’s religious leaders so far. Nicodemus may well have heard about John the Baptist’s advocacy of Jesus. He had obviously heard about — possibly even witnessed — the miracles. In fact, the language Nicodemus used (“we know that You have come from God as a teacher”) suggested that he had discussed Jesus’ prophetic credentials with others who agreed that He must be from God. Clearly, Nicodemus approached Jesus with high hopes and eager expectations.
How Jesus’ reply must have stunned him! Nicodemus had honored Christ by calling Him Rabbi; Jesus suggested in return that Nicodemus was not even a spiritual beginner yet. He had no part in the kingdom whatsoever. Jesus wasn’t being unkind or merely insulting; He was being truthful with a man who desperately needed to hear the truth. Nicodemus’s soul was at stake.
“Born again?” Nicodemus did not instantly seem to grasp that Jesus was talking about regeneration — the new birth, the spiritual awakening of a dead soul. But it was clear enough that Jesus was calling him to make a whole new start. That was a lot to ask of someone like Nicodemus, who (like any good Pharisee) believed he was accumulating merit with God by a lifetime of careful attention to the law’s tiniest ceremonial details. What did Jesus want him to do — cast all that aside like garbage?
That, of course, is precisely how the apostle Paul would later describe his own conversion from Pharisaism in Philippians 3:7–9:
Whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ. More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ, and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith.
Jesus chose the perfect language to convey all that to Nicodemus: “You must be born again” (John 3:7). With that simple expression, Jesus demolished Nicodemus’s entire worldview and value system. His Jewish birth and upbringing; his attainments as a leading Pharisee; the care with which he kept himself from ceremonial defilement; the respect he had earned in the eyes of his countrymen; all the merit he thought he had stored up for himself — Jesus reduced it all at once to utter worthlessness. Whatever else Jesus meant, this much was plain: Jesus was demanding that Nicodemus forsake everything he stood for, walk away from everything he had ever done as a Pharisee, abandon hope in everything he ever trusted, and start all over from the beginning.
Nicodemus’s reply has often been misunderstood: “How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born, can he?” (John 3:4). Don’t imagine that Nicodemus was so naive as to think Jesus was telling him he literally needed to be physically reborn. Nicodemus must have been a highly skilled teacher himself, or he would not have attained his position. He was clearly a perceptive man — perhaps the most discerning of all the Sanhedrin. So we must give him credit for a modicum of intelligence. His question to Jesus should no more be interpreted as a literal reference to physical birth than Jesus’ original remark to him. How well Nicodemus understood Jesus’ point isn’t spelled out for us in detail, but it is clear that he got the gist of the idea that he needed a whole new start.
Thus his rejoinder to Jesus merely picked up on Jesus’ imagery and employed it to show Jesus that he understood the impossibility of what Jesus had prescribed for him. He was a mature man — patriarchal enough in both age and wisdom to serve as one of Israel’s chief elders. Membership in the Sanhedrin was an honor not often bestowed on young men. So when Nicodemus asked, “How can a man be born when he is old?” he was pointing out that men his age don’t simply decide to start over at the beginning. And when he asked, “He cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born, can he?” it’s only reasonable to assume he was remarking about the utter impossibility of causing himself to be “reborn” in any sense. Nicodemus had that much right. And as he was about to find out, the rebirth he needed was nothing less than a regenerative work by almighty God.