Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesusby 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 unless God is with him.”

Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to 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, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘Youmust be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.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.” 

Nicodemus was a religious leader. He came to Jesus by night, which is to say that he came in secret. He did not want the public to be speculating about whether he endorsed Jesus. More importantly, he did not want to disturb his fellow religious leaders who, as a whole, considered Jesus to be a threat to their authority and well-appointed lifestyles. Nonetheless, to be fair, it should be recognized that meeting with Jesus was risky business for Nicodemus. It appears that Nicodemus genuinely suspected that Jesus was a prophet of God, but he was hedging his bets.

Nicodemus says, “we know that you are a teacher come from God.” It’s not clear who the “we” is. Perhaps the “we” is a sub-group of the religious leaders who were wondering about the Messianic rumors, who found something compelling in the message of John the Baptist, or who had seen some of the miracles Jesus had performed. The evidence was becoming difficult to ignore.

A more cynical interpretation is that the “we” represents the religious leaders as a whole. If this is the case, what we have is a group of men who believe that Jesus was sent by God but that that wasn’t as important as their positions and possessions. It’s hard to imagine how people can reconcile the thought that God is Sovereign of the universe while also believing it doesn’t matter. I don’t believe people can function while holding to contradictory ideas. There must be a psychological resolution. “If there is a god, he wound up the world and abandoned it long ago.” Or, “God is the opiate of the masses…and the masses need to be sedated for their own good. And I feel no qualms about being handsomely compensated for my services in this.” Or, “We keep the idea of God alive because it helps preserve our culture and identity as a people.” 

Whatever thought process the religious leaders were conjuring up, Jesus called them a “brood of vipers”. Viper are venomous. Having a limited supply of venom, a viper acts strategically, injecting smaller or larger amounts of venom, as needed. A bite can range in effect from a local pain, to the loss of a limb, to the loss of life. Vipers are usually nocturnal, and ambush their prey. They tend to bite and release, which allows them to keep a safe distance while the prey remains dangerous. The viper is then able to sense the injected venom and track the prey to the place where it has collapsed. A viper is a sneaky predator. Here’s a lesson: When the holy Christ calls your club a “brood of vipers”, it’s time to find another club. 

While Nicodemus comes to Jesus hedging his bets, it seems that Jesus accepts Nicodemus’ confession that Jesus is a teacher sent from God. Jesus does not affirm or deny Nicodemus’ confession. Rather, he assumes it to be true as he immediately provides Nicodemus with a new teaching: “Yes, that’s right, and here is the critical teaching for you—you must be born again.” Notice that Jesus says, “truly, truly” three times during his conversation with Nicodemus. This word repetition is a literary device used to make sure the listener is focused in. We might say, “Make no mistake about this…” When I’m using a dangerous tool I will make eye contact with anyone near me and then say, “Listen to me now…” We should always listen to Jesus when he speaks. When he says, “Truly, truly,” it’s time to put all distractions aside and make sure we fully understand what he is about to say. 

The idea of rebirth is a New Testament theme but is virtually absent from the Old Testament. Thus, Nicodemus seems utterly lost and confused by Jesus’ new imperative. Nicodemus defaults to a literal understanding of Jesus’ teaching which, to us, seems ridiculous. But Nicodemus knew he was out of his element. He knew Jesus had extraordinary powers. He had no idea where Jesus was going with his teaching. Maybe Jesus really was talking about a literal rebirth. 

We have already observed Jesus’ use of metaphor when he stated “Destroy this temple and I will raise it up again in three days.” In this case he was referring to his body rather than the Jewish temple in which he stood. To understand the teachings of Jesus it is important to be on the lookout for metaphors. He often resorted to parables, which are extended metaphors. Sometimes it’s not clear whether Jesus is using a literary device, such as hyperbole, or he is being literal. For example, when he teaches that we should “turn the other cheek,” is this a literal command? Is it a principal with a range of applications? Is it hyperbole? Sometimes we are left uncertain, wading through the range of possibilities. Perhaps that is what God wants—that we should be continually engaging our minds, pondering how teachings apply to us, pondering whether they may mean something new as our situations change. This is not to say that truth is subjective. God’s truth is absolute. But we are subjective and our situations change. God, having made is in his image, expects us to apply truth to the situations in our lives. One evidence of God’s grace is that he gave us minds. He expects us to use them.  

In the case of Nicodemus…who in this scenario represents all humans, Jesus presents the new command: “You must be born again.” Perhaps this provides a useful insight into the nature of evangelism. Christian evangelism generally takes on the tenor of persuasion and appeal. “If you understood who this Jesus really is, you would want to identify with him; you would want to be a part of his kingdom.” True enough, but the emphasis here is that rebirth is a command from God. It is as binding a law as “Thou shalt not kill,” and, frankly, it is a subset of that same commandment. For us to disobey the command to be born again is the same as committing suicide. We need to boldly tell the world, “Your Maker has told you to be born again. It is your responsibility, it is your privilege, and it is your only beneficial option.”

Jesus elaborates by explaining that a person must be born of “water and Spirit.” “Water” here may be a reference to baptism, as the New Testament frequently talks of being baptized in water and by the Holy Spirit, but the context suggests a different understanding. Jesus’s next line is, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” So Jesus is talking about two kinds of birth. The first birth is the birth of the flesh, which all who are reading this have experienced (even if you can’t remember it.) We are born in water—in amniotic fluid. But then there is a second birth that comes through the Spirit. For humans, both births are required in order to enter the kingdom of God. 

What is the kingdom of God? Entire books have been written on the subject, and for good reason. Even so, our understanding is incomplete. We see in a glass darkly. That being said, I will try to provide a summary: The Kingdom is a growing entity. This growth is a description primarily of what takes place on earth in that the kingdom continues to add members, but also that every one of the members grows in wisdom. 

Humans have been created to to serve as royalty in the kingdom and to lead in its administration. The kingdom exists now but much of it is currently involved in a war on earth between God and those who rebel against him. This war has a foregone conclusion but will not end until Christ returns. At that point all will kneel before him, either with great joy or in despair. 

Those who belong to him will continue to participate in the kingdom but in a perfected state, neither subject to physical nor spiritual corruption. The Kingdom will then be completely free of chaos & decay. People will be active, working, playing, creating, learning, building, and so forth. More fundamentally, people will freely love one another, love themselves, and love God. Peace and wisdom will reign. People will care for one another. Fear will be gone. Tears of sorrow will be replaced by tears of joy. People will speak openly to one another and relationships, rather than being stunted, will be healthy and continually developing. Life will be as it is meant to be. Finally!

I would think that being part of this kingdom would be attractive to everyone. Just being eternally healthy seems like an overwhelming advantage over the alternatives. But many are unpersuaded. One thing they seem unwilling to give up is their love of pleasure. This is simple-mindedness. God is not opposed to pleasure. He is the creator of color, smell, sound, touch, and sex, after all. It’s simply that, in the kingdom, pleasure is a by-product, not a goal. Others are reluctant to give up their independence. This, too, is simple-mindedness. God does not want us to be his slaves. He wants us to serve him, certainly, but service to God is always in our best interest. God really loves us. Our parents didn’t insist on us cleaning our rooms because they liked bossing us around. No doubt, it would have been easier for them to let our rooms remain toxic waste dumps. Some parents have caved on this because the battle was too frustrating. Or, perhaps, they were trying to let their children experience the negatives of chaos. No clean clothes to wear? Well, that’s because they’re in a heap under the bed. Can’t find the homework? Can’t find a pen to do the homework? Can’t find the phone? Can’t stand the smell of your room? Finding a lot of mouse turds in everything? Could that be the result of leaving partially eaten food all over the place? There are reasons for clean rooms. There are reasons for clean lives. Turning down the Kingdom is the ultimate foolishness. C.S. Lewis put it this way: “Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea.” 

Jesus tries to explain rebirth by the Spirit by talking about the wind. He tells Nicodemus that we don’t know where the wind comes from or where it will go but, still, we are well aware of its presence. He says this is what it is like for those born of the Spirit. I believe this is a hint about who makes up the Kingdom. The great shift has come. The Kingdom is no longer identified with the theocratic nation of Israel; the mantle has been passed on to those born of the Spirit. These people are coming from anywhere. They can’t be recognized by their clothes, their hairstyle, their race, or by their language. Those in the Kingdom are transformed (and are continually being transformed) from the inside. 

The metaphor does not help us understand how one is born of the Spirit. The point Jesus is making, though, is that there is evidence of spiritual rebirth. We don’t know where the wind comes from but we know it when it blows. What is the evidence? Other passages teach us that those who love Jesus obey him. We can identify a tree by its fruit. Christians are not to be self-promoting, so it can be difficult to recognize the Spirit in them unless one looks closely. But there should be a spirit of service to God and to humanity, especially those in need. There should be a sense of discipline of life, and of commitment to relationships. There should be kindness and forgiveness. And there should be integrity. 

There may also be a suggestion here of God’s sovereignty. No one comes to be filled with the Spirit of God on his or her own. God must act to open the spiritual eyes in order for a person to see him as Lord. Rebirth, while it absolutely requires the volitional involvement of the one reborn (unlike the birth of the flesh), is fundamentally an act of the Holy Spirit. Both births are gifts. 

Nicodemus still didn’t understand what Jesus means by spiritual rebirth, and Jesus reacted with frustration. After all, Nicodemus was a teacher in Israel, which meant he ought to have had a sense of the Transcendent; he ought to have had a sense of the importance of the Spirit; he ought to have known the difference between lip service and sincerity. 

Then Jesus told Nicodemus that only the Son of Man had ascended into heaven—the same one who descended from heaven. This claim made Jesus the expert of all experts on the earth. He was the one who had seen heaven first hand. He was the one who had seen God face-to-face. He was the one that Nicodemus needed to look to for understanding. 

Then Jesus, as if he had not been audacious enough in his claims, told Nicodemus that he (Jesus) would be lifted up like the serpent Moses lifted up in the desert and that, like the serpent that was lifted up, it would be necessary for people to look up at him in order to be saved. 

From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom. And the people became impatient on the way. And the people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.” Then the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. And the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you. Pray to the Lord, that he take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live. (Numbers 21.4-9).

Jesus, in this way, illustrated to Nicodemus how rebirth is a spiritual matter, and that it is only possible as an act of God. What sense was there in the Israelites looking at a bronze serpent on a pole? There is no causal connection from the human perspective. It’s like the Israelites marching seven times around Jericho, with nothing, at all, happening until they completed the assignment. Or it is like the great Syrian commander, Naaman, who was afflicted by leprosy. Elisha told him to wash seven times in the Jordan. This seemed ridiculous and demeaning to Naaman but his servants reasoned with him and he relented. He was not cured a little from each washing; he was cured completely after the seventh. It’s all bad science…or, perhaps, it is science well beyond current human understanding. No matter. What does matter is that God knows, and that God commands, and that God fulfills his promises. When the Israelites looked upon the bronze serpent God healed them. It is similar with Christ. Jesus says to us: there is nothing you can do in order to be reborn, but I can do it. Trust in me.

Trust in Jesus is not a momentary trust. Neither is the rebirth a momentary rebirth. It is not a resurrection like the one given to Lazarus, who came forth from the grave, only to die again at a later date. Rather, it is a rebirth into an everlasting life. Therefore, it calls for a belief that also endures through a life that confirms that belief. 

But how does a person come to the place of belief? It is important to understand, for the sake of humility, that even belief is a gift of God. We cannot make ourselves believe or disbelieve anything. Something outside of ourselves always leads us to change our views on a thing. In the cases of the bronze serpent, Jericho, and the Jordan, it is certain that many of the participants were skeptics. But they all obeyed. Sometimes it’s necessary to obey in order to understand. Sometimes it’s necessary to obey in order to believe. God reveals himself to us as we obey him.