Nicodemus: Night Becomes Day

Please read Genesis 12 v 1-4 and John 3 v 1-17 and then pray; “Living God, open my eyes and my heart to receive your living and active Word that I might be fully aware of the presence and the majesty of your everlasting Kingdom, through Jesus Christ my Saviour and Lord. Amen!”

 The apostle John in his glorious gospel was intent on sharing the testimonies of several individuals whose lives were revolutionised by Jesus. The Son of God had turned their world upside down and brought them “fullness of life.” (John 10:10) After the initial call of four named disciples (John 1: 35-51), the first individual John focuses upon in his gospel was a man by the name of Nicodemus and it is his transformation that we will consider today (John 3: 1-17). But there were others, namely the Samaritan woman who met Jesus at the well (John 4: 1-26), the Gentile official who came to Jesus desperately seeking healing for his son (John 4: 43-54), the invalid at the pool of Bethesda who picked up his mat and walked away (John 5: 1-15), the man born blind who Jesus dramatically healed (John 9:1-34), and Lazarus, the friend of Jesus whom he raised from the dead (John 11: 1-44) testifying to the fact that Jesus was/is the Resurrection and the Life. (John 11:25)

It is not difficult to detect that John loved to share detailed testimonies of lives that had been transformed by the power of Jesus. These precious testimonies take up significant space in a gospel whose primary purpose is to encourage people to “believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20:30) One of the common themes in all these testimonies is that of a brand new start. Jesus enabled each person to start afresh and to live in His light and life. In our OT reading, Abram was called to start all over again as God called him and his family to a new life full of the adventure of faith. Abram, by faith, embraced a radical new start in life.

In the NT, that radical new start with Jesus which involves entering his Kingdom and his kingdom entering us, is referred to in terms of a new birth, a brand-new spiritual start in life, becoming an entirely “new creation in Christ.” (2 Cor 5:17) This is essentially Christian conversion – becoming a new creation in Christ through the personal intervention and invasion of the Holy Spirit into the human heart. As Paul will stress to the Galatians in his letter to them – what counts above all things is this new creation. (Galatians 6:15) Can you testify to such a new creation in your own life?


This leads us nicely into the fascinating story of Nicodemus. Who was Nicodemus? Well, this story is based in Jerusalem where Nicodemus came to meet Jesus at night. We are told several important things about this man. He was a member of the Jewish ruling council – the Sanhedrin – which meant he was powerful, wealthy, influential, of good reputation and highly respected.  He was a Pharisee which indicated he was morally and theologically conservative. He was a man who would have kept the law meticulously. He was an esteemed teacher and someone who was clearly interested in the advent of the promised Messiah. His was extremely curious about Jesus, especially because he recognised Jesus as a highly gifted, powerful, and inspired teacher. Nicodemus also seems to have been aware of Jesus performing significant miraculous signs. Could Jesus be the long awaited Messiah? Nicodemus was very curious to know more about Jesus. He wanted to talk with Jesus – one to one.

It is interesting to note that he felt the need to come and meet with Jesus at night. He was clearly concerned not to be seen by others. He wanted to keep his meeting with Jesus a secret – under the cover of night, under the cloak of darkness. He was concerned about his reputation, what others might think of him meeting with the Rabbi from Galilee who was already proving a threat to the authorities. Nicodemus felt he had to go and personally meet Jesus and probe him with questions – but not until it was dark. It is important for us to understand that elsewhere in John’s gospel “night” is used metaphorically to describe moral and spiritual darkness (John 9:4, 11:10) – no more so than in John 13:30 where this is especially stressed by John as he reveals the duplicity and treachery of Judas Iscariot.

As soon as Judas had taken the bread, he went out. And it was night.

 And it was night when Nicodemus came to first meet with Jesus. But what we notice later is Nicodemus coming out from the cover of night and begin to be open about his respect for the One he came to see as the Christ, the Son of the living God. Nicodemus will over time become a new person. In John 7: 50-52, we meet Nicodemus again, this time seeking to be fair-minded toward Jesus despite dismissive pressure from many other religious leaders. Finally, we see Nicodemus alongside Joseph of Arimathea playing a major role in Jesus’s prompt burial – but this is now in broad daylight. (John 19: 38-42) These two men of the Sanhedrin have become disciples of Jesus and are determined to give him a proper burial. Something powerful had happened within both of their hearts.

When Nicodemus first comes to Jesus at night, he is not aware of his need to be born again. Why would he? Being “born again” is the last thing on the mind of a man who thought he knew all there was to know about key spiritual matters. How do you react to the message that you must be born again? No doubt Nicodemus was both surprised and shocked when after making his initial respectful introduction to Jesus, he hears this quick-fire response from Jesus;

I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.

 Jesus in the ensuing interaction with Nicodemus speaks about three things relating to the new birth;

  • The necessity of the new birth (v 3)
  • The possibility of the new birth (v 5-8)
  • The availability of the new birth (v 10-15)

Jesus teaches that it is simply not possible to either “see” (v3) or “enter” the kingdom of God without being born again. Jesus emphasises the necessity of new birth by using his “Truly, truly – I tell you the truth formula” not once but twice in rapid succession; I tell you the truth…. (v 3 and 5)

This is like a one-two punch precisely aimed at the heart of this Pharisee. Jesus emphasises the “truth” of what he was teaching, and the non-negotiable nature of what he is teaching, when he later says for a third time; You must be born again. (v7)

 Being born again is essential for entrance into the Kingdom and for experiencing eternal life. But what is this new birth which is referred to many times in the NT, not least in the writings of John, and forms an important part John’s magnificent Prologue. (John 1:12-13)

Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God – children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.

 Being born again or born of God can be understood as it relates to the generation or the creation of new life – specifically new spiritual life. Being born again is therefore not simply about a new start or new beginning, although it does involve that, but a whole new way of life and existence. This is life related to God through Jesus which is eternal and abundant – the life of the kingdom. It is therefore about a new and very different life which has Jesus at its heart and his kingdom (his reign) as its passionate focus and experience. It is a life which exists and has its being in the Kingdom of God.

This is spiritual rebirth. It concerns being born again of the Spirit. Born again can also be translated born from above which is why John can also describe it as being born of God. This is a new birth that is the work of God the Spirit. There is, as Jesus points out, two ways of being born. There is the birth of the flesh – natural physical birth, which all undergo, but there is also crucially another birth that comes from the work of the Spirit in the human heart. Flesh gives birth to flesh but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. (v6) God the Spirit brings about this new birth and this new life which enables someone to enter, see and experience the Kingdom of God and the everlasting life Jesus promises. Have you been born again, born of God?

This new life or new birth is necessary because as Paul taught, all are spiritually dead because of their trespasses and sins. (Read Ephesians 2: 1-5) We are all slaves to sin, or as Charles Wesley so aptly puts in his hymn that we sang earlier, “fast bound in sin and natures night”. Our problem and predicament are far more serious than we might think or believe. Our hearts are severely polluted. Our minds are satanically darkened. We are badly estranged from God and under his wrath according to Paul. Spiritually speaking we need to be “made alive,” we need to be reborn; we need to be resurrected from spiritual death – and this is what the Holy Spirit does, and it is what only the Holy Spirit can do. The Holy Spirit moves as mysteriously as the wind upon a human soul and brings it to life – quickens it into new life, causes a human life to be reborn spiritually and brought into the dimension of the Kingdom of God. We can be reborn by the sovereign and special work of the Holy Spirit within us. This must happen if we are to know the life of the kingdom of God. Very “religious and moral” people like Nicodemus may not recognise or understand this, but it is the truth. There are no exceptions. All need to be born anew.

 Jesus explains to Nicodemus that as Israel’s teacher he should know all about this wonderful renewing work of the Spirit. It is plainly taught and promised in the Old Testament. Isn’t Nicodemus familiar with this? He should be. After all, he is a teacher in Israel. Jesus is no doubt thinking about teaching in Ezekiel which promises people clean and new hearts.

I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you. I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.  (Ezekiel 36:26)

 When an individual is born anew of the Spirit, everything becomes new. When the Holy Spirit came upon and within me and began his special work in my life, I received;

  • A new heart (which loved God and wanted God more than anything)
  • A new nature (which loved God’s ways and God’s word and set me on a course of becoming like Christ my Saviour)
  • A new kingdom (I entered the reign of Jesus and it entered my heart, and I received eternal life as a present possession and future guarantee)
  • A new Spirit (the Holy Spirit came to live in me and fellowship with me as promised by Jesus)
  • A new family (I became a child of God and was adopted into the family of Christ’s church of which He is the Head)
  • A new love of the bible, prayer, and Christian fellowship. I became interested in holy habits all of which fed my new spiritual life in Christ. The milk of God’s word was particularly important for a new-born babe in Christ. (1 Peter 2:2)

Everything changed. Everything became new. I became spiritually alive and aware of a kingdom. I acquired spiritual discernment. (1 Corinthians 2: 12-16) I understood what Paul meant when he wrote about being “a new creation.” (2 Corinthians 5: 17) The old had gone – the new had arrived because the Holy Spirit had arrived in my heart and life. The kingdom of God which Nicodemus was so interested in became a reality to me – this eternal life in Jesus. It was a whole new start and way of life and living with God at the centre of everything. It was a whole new life with the gift of a new heart. God became my Father, Jesus my Saviour and Friend, the Holy Spirit my ever-present Comforter and Guide. I was born of the Spirit. My mother gave birth to me in 1964, the Spirit gave birth to me sometime in 1979. I came out of the night and into the daylight of God’s love and reign. God spoke into my heart, “Let there be light,” and the Holy Spirit made it so. (2 Corinthians 4:6). As Wesley puts it; Thine eye diffused a quickening ray, I woke, the dungeon flamed with light.

As Nicodemus discovered, being born from above or born again is not optional if we hope to inherit eternal life. It is a necessity. It is the gateway into the kingdom. Jesus is the one who tells the world about the need for the new birth. This teaching does not come from the lips of some hot-headed fundamentalist preachers as some imagine. Being born again lies at the very core of Jesus’ teaching relating to his Kingdom and our entrance into it. We must understand it; we must know it; we must experience it for ourselves. This terminology of “being born again” is something the true Christian is entirely comfortable with and can perfectly relate to.

How does one experience new birth? How does one receive this new life of the Spirit? Like every aspect of salvation described in the bible, regeneration (being born anew) is a gift of God’s grace. As Jesus teaches here, it comes to those who humbly and willingly look to him and believe in him with a trusting heart. (3:14) The emphasis in John’s gospel is placed squarely on belief in Jesus. It is everywhere in this gospel. The message is this: Believe in Jesus and in what he has done for you on the cross as he was lifted up and crucified, and you will receive new life which is eternal.

Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.  (V15)

 And in the next verse – possibly the most famous verse in the entire bible;

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life (the kingdom).  (v16)

 In terms of our salvation – we do nothing – we contribute nothing – Nicodemus could contribute nothing. We are simply invited and urged to become humble like little children, and look to Jesus and to his death for us and for our sin upon the cross; to trust in that death for our salvation, and then to receive the forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Spirit. Jesus is the one who saves us by his death. He is the Saviour. (John 4:42) The Spirit is the one who then applies the merits of his death to us, and causes us to be born again into the life of God’s kingdom. The work of salvation is done by Jesus for us, and it is graciously applied to us personally by the Spirit. This is the new birth and it is all God’s work, so that no one can boast. It is a gift of pure grace and love from God. We therefore simply reach out to Christ who was crucified for us and receive the Spirit of adoption who brings us new life, and new power for daily living. Listen to how carefully Paul puts this in his letter to Titus; (Titus 3: 4-7)

But when the kindness and love of God our Saviour appeared, he saved us, not because of the righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing and rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Saviour, so that having been justified by his grace, we have becomes heirs having the hope of eternal life.

Therefore as we move through Lent and toward Good Friday, we are moving to that crucial point in the Christian calendar where we are once again invited to lift up our eyes to the One who was lifted up for us. We survey again the wondrous cross on which the Prince of Glory died. As we place our trust in Jesus and as we believe in him, we may well feel our hearts strangely warmed once again by the Holy Spirit. A famous evangelist was invited to speak at a series of evening meetings which were intended to challenge people to embrace Christ as Saviour. Each night he spoke on the same text from John’s gospel;

I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again. (John 3:3)

 The organisers of the mission asked the evangelist why he chose to speak on the same text night after night. The evangelist responded by saying this; you ask me why I preach on this text every night. The answer is this: It is because – You must be born again.  AMEN!

Revd Peter J Clarkson (5.3.23)