- The Spirit’s Conversion
The first clue Jesus gives him is in verse 5: “Unless one is 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. Do not be amazed that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’”
Spirit, of course, refers to the Holy Spirit. But what does it mean to “born of water”? Some say it refers to baptism. But how can that be true? Baptism does not save us. Baptism is a testimony that we’ve already been born from above. Others say it refers to the waters of birth. But that can’t be right either. First century Jews weren’t yet aware of the role amniotic fluid plays in the birth of a child. Nor did Nicodemus need to be told that he had to be born the first time before he could be born a second time.
So what was Jesus referring to? Remember Nicodemus was an Old Testament scholar whose mind would have immediately tracked with Jesus, taking him to passages like Ezekiel 36 where God promised His people, “I will…sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleanness…and I will give you a new heart and…put my Spirit within you and make you walk in My statutes and be careful to obey My rules.”
Jesus was referring to the New Covenant that was about to come true in His blood, a promise Nicodemus had known since boyhood. But like all the religious leaders of Israel, he was an apostate Jew who, because he hadn’t experienced the miracle of new life, gave up on God’s promise. And once you do that, what do you do next?
You reject what the Bible says about sin. After all, we are all “good kids” with good hearts, aren’t we? The answer is no! The truth is there’s not one good person among us. But once you admit that, that we all deserve eternal punishment in hell, how do you cope with the fear of judgment to come? The answer is: You ask God for the gift of faith to trust in His promise of new life and forgiveness!
The second clue is in verse 8 where Jesus adds, “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.”
Have you ever done that? Stood outside surrounded by the beauty of God’s creation and heard His wind roaring through the trees? I did that the other night. I was watering the flowers when I suddenly heard and then felt a cool breeze blowing past me. I thought, “What a perfect way to describe the power and refreshment of the Holy Spirit!” I didn’t know where it came from or where it was going. Nor could I control it! Ever tried to get the wind to blow when you want to fly a kite? But I could feel the results of it!
And you can also see the results when the Holy Spirit touches someone’s life because what happens? Just as the dead man heard Jesus say, “Lazarus, come forth!” you come alive in your spirit.
I shall never forget how it happened to me. I was sitting in a college classroom thinking about things I had read in the Bible, when I suddenly sensed a voice saying to me – not audibly, but just as real – “Gary, believe!” And for the first time in my life, I did. I believe in the Lordship of Jesus, His death for my sins on the cross, and His mighty resurrection from the dead. And in that very moment, my spirit, which was dead, suddenly came to life, and I’ve been following Christ ever since.
But what about Nicodemus? Was he ever born from above? John doesn’t say. Nicodemus fades from the scene midway through this chapter, and we don’t hear from him again until chapter 7 where his colleagues on the Council decide that Jesus has to go. But he takes issue with them on a point of Law. John 7:50, “Nicodemus, who had gone to Him before and was one of them, said to them, ‘Does our law judge a man without first giving him a hearing and learning what He does?’” So he hasn’t taken a public stand for Him yet, but I’m feeling better about him. Aren’t you?
The last we read of him is John 19:38 following the crucifixion. He and a rich friend named Joseph of Arimathea summon up the courage to ask Pilate for the body of Jesus, so they can prepare it for burial and lay it in a new tomb that belongs to Joseph. Now I’m starting to love this guy due to his loyalty and love for Jesus! But that’s all the Bible says about him.
Thankfully, church tradition fills in the rest of the details. It reports, for example, that Nicodemus was the only person who stood up for Jesus at His trial, that he was baptized after the Resurrection by Peter and John, and that his preaching of Christ was so powerful that the Sanhedrin he served removed him from his position as teacher, confiscated his property, banished him from Israel, and subjected his wife and children to abject poverty.
His daughter was so poor it was said she had to dig through the dung piles to find a few pieces of grain to eat. A rabbi saw her doing so and took pity on her. “Who are you?” he asked. “I am the daughter of Nicodemus.” “Whatever happened to him?” he asked. “He became a follower of Jesus and was banished from Israel.” So the rabbi refused to help her.
As for Nicodemus himself, he became one of the first martyrs of the church, beaten to death by a mob for preaching in the name of Jesus. This is the true story of Nic at night. He had everything and gave up everything to gain what the world cannot take away. So even though John doesn’t give us all the details, we have our answer: His sins were washed away and he was given new life from above. For so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.