MBS016 NICODEMUS: A RABBI’S QUEST
By Dr. Arnold Fruchtenbaum
Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except one be born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God!John 3:5
One of the more intriguing incidents in the life of the Messiah was the famous dialogue between Him and Nicodemus. The timing of this incident was early in the ministry of the Messiah. Shortly after His baptism, Yeshua (Jesus) began His ministry of proclaiming Himself the Messiah of Israel and performing many miracles, signs and wonders to authenticate His Messiahship. This is the point of John 2:23–25: Now when he was in Jerusalem at the passover, during the feast, many believed on his name, beholding his signs which he did. But Jesus did not trust himself unto them, for that he knew all men, and because he needed not that any one should bear witness concerning man; for he himself knew what was in man.
As a result of His miracles, many believed and accepted His claim that He was the Jewish Messiah. Standing in the crowd and observing many of these miracles was a rabbi by the name of Nicodemus. What he saw stirred him greatly and he knew he had to find out who Jesus really was.
The initial part of the interview is found in John 3:1–12: Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews: the same came unto him by night, and said to him, Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do, except God be with him. Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except one be born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God. Nicodemus said unto him, How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb, and be born? Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except one be born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God! That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Marvel not that I said unto you, Ye must be born anew. The wind blows where it will, and you hear the voice thereof, but know not whence it comes, and whither it goes: so is every one that is born of the Spirit. Nicodemus answered and said unto him, How can these things be? Jesus answered and said unto him, Are you the teacher of Israel, and understand not these things? Verily, verily, I say unto you, We speak that which we know, and bear witness of that which we have seen; and ye receive not our witness. If I told you earthly things and ye believe not, how shall ye believe if I tell you heavenly things?
Several things can be deduced concerning Nicodemus from these few statements that we have. First, we find that he was a Pharisee, which means he was a rabbi. In order to understand why this is important to this interview, it should be noted what Pharisaic Judaism believed. According to the Pharisees, “All Israel has a share in the world to come.” Another part of Pharisaic theology stated: “Abraham sits at the gates of Gehenna to save any Israelite consigned thereto.” So, according to Pharisaism, to be born a Jew physically was enough for entrance into the Kingdom. While Gentiles had to convert to Judaism, Jews themselves, by virtue of being born Jews, qualified for entrance into the Kingdom. A second thing that the passage notes is that Nicodemus was a ruler of the Jews. This means he was a member of the Sanhedrin.
As the interview began, Yeshua clearly stated to Nicodemus that, “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the Kingdom of God.” Now it should be carefully noted how Nicodemus responded, for he said, “How can a man be born when he is old?” Nicodemus did not merely ask about being born again. What was confusing to him was how was it possible for a man to be born again when he had reached the age of a senior citizen. For if the question was merely on the experience of being born again, the age would be irrelevant. Nicodemus seemed to understand something about being born again, but what confused him was how this was possible when he was old.
To fully understand why he posed the question as he did, it is necessary to understand that in Pharisaic Judaism, there were six different ways of being born again. Nicodemus qualified for four of the six ways. The two ways for which he was not qualified were: First, when Gentiles converted to Judaism, they were said to be born again. Since Nicodemus was not a Gentile, he could not qualify in this manner.
A second way he did not qualify was to be crowned king, for when a man was crowned king, he was said to be born again. Nothing is said about Nicodemus having been of the House of David, and hence, he was not of royal lineage.
But there were four other ways to be born again, and Nicodemus qualified for all four. First, when a Jewish boy becomes bar mitzvahed at the age of thirteen, he is said to be born again. At that age, he subjects himself to the Mosaic Law and is responsible for his own sins. Since Nicodemus was beyond the age of thirteen, he had already experienced his bar mitzvah.
A second way was by marriage, for when a Jew married, he was said to be born again. Although nothing is said about Nicodemus’ wife, it has been clearly stated that he was a member of the Sanhedrin. One of the rules for becoming a member of the Sanhedrin was that one must be married and so we know from this that Nicodemus was married.
Thirdly, another way that a Jew could be born again was to be ordained as a rabbi. Since Nicodemus was a Pharisee, he had been ordained as a rabbi, and was born again in a third way.
The final way to be born again in Judaism was to become the head of a rabbinical school. In verse 10, Jesus said to Nicodemus that he was “the teacher of Israel.” The one who was the head of rabbinical school was always referred to as the teacher of Israel. Hence, Nicodemus was also the head of a rabbinical school.
The point, then, is this: Nicodemus had undergone every process available in Judaism to be born again. There was no other way available in Judaism and so the only way he could see being born again at his age was to re-enter his mothers’ womb and start the process all over again.
It was to this problem of Pharisaic theology that Yeshua addressed Himself. He clearly told Nicodemus that, “Except a man be born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” To be born of water was a Jewish expression for physical birth. According to Pharisaic theology, being born of water, or being born physically as a Jew, was sufficient for entrance into the Kingdom. But Jesus told him that being born of water was not enough, for “one must be born of water and the Spirit to enter into the Kingdom of God.” In other words, one must be born both physically and spiritually, for physical birth by itself is not sufficient to provide entrance into the Kingdom. He explained this further when He said, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” Here, He again clearly explained the two kinds of births. To be born of water is to be born of the flesh and that which is born of the flesh is flesh. This birth is not sufficient reason to enter the Kingdom. There must be a spiritual birth for one to be able to enter into the Kingdom of God. So Nicodemus’ being born a Jew, was insufficient; he must have a spiritual rebirth to really be born again in the way that is required.
And what is that way? There are two basic steps that Yeshua gave Nicodemus concerning the rebirth needed for his entrance into the Kingdom. They are found in John 3:13–15: And no one has ascended into heaven, but he that descended out of heaven, even the Son of man, who is in heaven. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up; that whosoever believes may in him have eternal life.
Here are the two basic steps required for the kind of new birth that qualify one for entrance into the Kingdom of Heaven. One step was taken by God, and other step must be taken by man. The step by God is that of the death of the God-Man, Yeshua the Messiah. For the God-Man descended from Heaven to be lifted up on the cross and to die for the sins of the world. But now man has the obligation of believing on the Messiah and what He did on the cross in order to have eternal life.
These same two steps are reiterated in John 3:16–18: For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes on him should not perish, but have eternal life. For God sent not the Son into the world to judge the world; but that the world should be saved through him. He that believes on him is not judged: he that believes not has been judged already, because he has not believed on the name of the only begotten Son of God.
Once again, Jesus told Nicodemus how God loved the world and gave His only Son to die for the world. But Nicodemus, as a man, must respond and believe. If Nicodemus would believe, he would be born again; he would have eternal life, and he would qualify for entrance into the Kingdom. At that point, Nicodemus had been only born of water. He still needed to be born of the Spirit.
These same two basic steps hold true today. God has done His part. He let His beloved Son die on the cross for sinful man. Have you done your part? Have you accepted the sacrifice of Jesus the Messiah and made Him Lord of your life? If not, I pray you will do so today.
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