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One of the well-known stories regarding the life of Jesus is his meeting with the Jewish religious leader Nicodemus, recorded in the third chapter of John’s Gospel. Despite its popularity, however, many readers can be left somewhat perplexed by Jesus’ teaching in this passage. What is the problem with Nicodemus and his understanding of Jesus? What does it mean to be “born again?” Why does Jesus compare himself to a snake on a stick? What importance does this encounter have for our understanding today of Jesus and the Kingdom of God? This article answers these questions by taking a closer look at this important conversation. As we will see, Jesus confronts Nicodemus with God’s supernatural Kingdom and his own unique identity.
A Misplaced Faith
If we are going to understand fully the significance of the encounter with Nicodemus, we must consider the immediately preceding context. In John 2:23-25, John provides two vital pieces of information for correctly understanding the interaction. First, John tells us that while Jesus was at the Passover feast there were many who believed in his name “when they saw the signs that he was doing.” Second, John reveals that despite this apparent belief, Jesus did not “entrust” himself to these men, “because he himself knew what was in man.” In other words, John is telling the reader that there is something deficient about a belief in Jesus which is only based on the signs that he did. Jesus does not entrust himself to men who have only that kind of faith. As we will see shortly, this is because a faith based on signs reflects a fundamental misunderstanding about Jesus and what he came to do. When Nicodemus is introduced in John 3:1-2, John makes it obvious that Nicodemus is an example of the “many” who believed in Jesus with this type of deficient faith. Like the men whom John described in 2:23-25, men whom Jesus did not entrust himself to, Nicodemus’ approach to Jesus was prompted solely by the signs which Jesus did (3:2). The fact that John mentions that the visit took place “by night,” is another indication of the deficient character of Nicodemus’ faith. Nicodemus appears to be trying to hide the fact that he is coming to see Jesus, fearing what the other religious leaders would think about him, yet he was very curious about Jesus, as he recognized from Scripture and the miraculous signs Jesus performed that Jesus came from God as a teacher. Moreover, “night” in John’s gospel almost always carries the connotation of spiritual darkness. For example, in John 9:4, Jesus says: “We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming, when no one can work” (John 9:4). Again in John 11:10 “But if anyone walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.” Thus, when John tells us that Nicodemus came by night, we ought to be immediately suspicious of his intentions.
As the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus unfolds, Nicodemus reveals two significant misunderstandings, which Jesus challenges and corrects. The first misunderstanding has to do with the nature and the recipients of the Kingdom of God, and is exposed by Jesus immediately. Nicodemus begins the conversation with a compliment, acknowledging that Jesus was indeed a teacher whom God was with. Jesus, however, returns this compliment with an immediate and perplexing statement: “Truly, Truly I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (3:3). Two verses later, responding to a confused Nicodemus, Jesus repeats himself: “Unless a man is born of water and the Spirit, he is not able to enter the kingdom of God” (3:5). Both of these statements are intended to challenge the faulty conception Nicodemus had concerning the Kingdom of God and how a person gains entrance to it. Although not explicitly expressed in the conversation, Jesus knew that Nicodemus, like most Jewish religious leaders of his day, was expecting the Kingdom of God to manifest itself in an earthly, political form. Nicodemus expected that the coming Messiah would restore Israel as a nation to a position of independence and power that exceeded even the “glory days” of King David and King Solomon. Jesus’ statement about being born again is intended to confront this view and teach Nicodemus that the Kingdom of God is not earthly, but a supernatural, heavenly Kingdom. As Jesus will say to Pontius Pilate near the end of John’s Gospel, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from this world” (18:36).
Along with this earthly view of the Kingdom of God, Nicodemus held a faulty view of who was qualified to be part of this Kingdom. As scholar and commentator D.A. Carson observes, “Predominant religious thought in Jesus’ day affirmed that all Jews would be admitted to that kingdom apart from those guilty of deliberate apostasy or extraordinary wickedness.” In other words, Nicodemus believed that entrance into the Kingdom of God was made possible by ethnicity and law keeping. By stating that a man must be “born again” before he is qualified to see or enter the kingdom of God, Jesus is directly confronting this faulty conception. As Jesus goes on to emphasize, the new birth of which he speaks can only come from God, and thus entry into the Kingdom of God is completely God’s prerogative. It is not the result of birthright, ethnicity, or even strict obedience to God’s law, but the result of the act of the Holy Spirit, similar to that of being born, that man cannot bring about on his own. Jesus’ sharp contrast between that which is born of the flesh and that which is born from the spirit in verse 6 makes this plain: flesh can only give birth to flesh, it cannot possibly bring about the new birth from above that Jesus is talking about. Although surprising to Nicodemus, Jesus’ statement echoes what John had already written just two chapters earlier. “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become the 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 1:12-13). This new birth, which brings entrance into the Kingdom of God, can only come from God himself.
A second misunderstanding that Jesus challenges and corrects in this encounter is the deficient understanding that Nicodemus had of his own identity. Nicodemus viewed Jesus as simply a “teacher come from God.” Not unlike many contemporary Americans, Nicodemus was willing to accept Jesus as a good teacher whom God was apparently with, but not yet willing to embrace him as the Messiah and Savior of sinners. Jesus, however, is not willing to let Nicodemus – or anyone else – accept him on these limited terms. As he will unequivocally state later in John’s Gospel, he is much more than merely another rabbi: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (14:6). And although Jesus does not speak these exact words to Nicodemus during their encounter, he makes the same point by reminding Nicodemus of an Old Testament incident that he would have been very familiar with. Numbers 21 recounts how God sent judgment on the Israelites in the form of fiery snakes for their complaining and speaking against him. After the people repented, Moses pleaded with God for the people and God made provision for their healing by instructing Moses to make a bronze serpent, set it on a pole, and instructing all the Israelites who had been bitten by the snakes to look at it. When the Israelites looked at it, they were healed. It is this incident that Jesus reminds Nicodemus of in verse 14-15: “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.” Strikingly, Jesus compares himself to the bronze serpent, which would have been a shocking claim to Nicodemus. Much more than another teacher, Jesus was forcefully proclaiming to Nicodemus the full extent of whom he was: the only savior of God’s people. Just as the snake “lifted up” brought healing from the venom and continued life for the Israelites, so Jesus being “lifted up” on the cross brings healing from sin and eternal life for all who look to and believe in him.
Not Judgment, but Salvation
This is why John can say in verse 17 that Jesus was not sent into the world to judge the world, but rather to save it. The bronze serpent of Numbers 21 was God’s remedy, his solution, to the judgment that had already fallen on the Israelites. The bronze serpent was not the instrument of judgment, but the instrument of salvation that God used to bring healing and life to those who were already dying from the venom of the snakebites. Like the bronze serpent, but far surpassing it in every way, Jesus was sent by the Father to bring eternal life and full salvation for a world, which is already under God’s judgment. As sinners, all mankind is under the righteous Judgment of God, we have all “sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23). Like the Israelites, we are all sick and dying because we are infected with the venom of our sin. Thus, God’s sending Jesus to the world was not an act of judgment, but of salvation. Jesus came to give himself as an offering of atonement in order that we might be spared the righteous judgment of God, and instead receive eternal life. The call on all of us is to look to him in faith, knowing that “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life” (3:16).
By Scott Korljan
 Moreover, the repetition of the word “man” in 2:25 and 3:1 is a grammatical indicator that John is intentionally presenting Nicodemus as one of the men to whom Jesus would not entrust himself.
 D.A. Carson, The Gospel According to John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: William B Eerdams Publishing Company, 1991): 189.
 This is but the first of three “lifting up” sayings in the gospel. As the narrative progresses, Jesus will twice more (8:28; 12:32) speak to the Jews about the necessity and implications of his being lifted up, all of which have a redemptive significance associated with it.