“How can this be?”

Posted: December 29, 2012 in Sunday school
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Nicodemus Comes to Jesus (3:1-9) – A clandestine meeting, where Jesus reveals a new (but not really new) paradigm to replace the existing Jewish ideas of election and justification: faith in the One sent from God, and the transformation that informs that faith, is the only way to heaven – it’s not “Who’s your daddy?”, but rather “Who is your Father?”

1 Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that You are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs You are doing if God were not with him.” Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”“How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at My saying, You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” “How can this be?” Nicodemus asked

(v.1-4) – The Apostle introduces a new character, Nicodemus, who is called “a Pharisee…of the ruling council”. This sect of Judaism prided itself on study and knowledge of the Scriptures, and scrupulous adherence to the fine details of the Law, or at least their intricately detailed interpretations of it. Theses are the very people we saw questioning Jesus is the previous chapter about His authority; also note these are the same officials, asking the same questions, that we saw interrogating John the Baptist in Chapter One. For them, everything revolves around “authority”, because theirs has not been challenged in centuries; they are used to having their way, and intend to keep all dissension suppressed. However, this one man, Nicodemus, comes at night, seeking a private audience with Jesus. There are several small details in this introduction that bear a closer look.

In v.2, Nicodemus makes a startling admission with the words, “We know…”. Whether this “we” is but a small group within the Council, or reflects the general consensus is not clear; in either case the effect is the same: the public accusations of blasphemy that are later leveled against Jesus are not believed by all of those making them. John includes this statement as an indictment of the hypocrisy of the religious leaders, as evidenced by their own words and actions – a theme Jesus repeats in nearly every subsequent encounter with them. This hypocrisy is highlighted by the fact that Nicodemus chose to come to Jesus at night, when he had a reasonable certainty that he could escape public scrutiny, and thereby protect his reputation, and by extension that of the Council as a whole. 

While Nicodemus may be using this approach to “butter up” Jesus, in v.3 we see that He is having none of it. He bluntly dismisses the Pharisees’ presumption of superior knowledge of God with His statement that no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”  (emphasis added)  He is informing Nicodemus that the concept of election used by the Jewish leaders is fundamentally flawed, and He does so by the distinctive phrase, “born again”. Nicodemus misunderstands Jesus, leading to his puzzled response in v.4. It is important to see that Jesus says, “born again”, not “re-born” – He is using this very particular wording on purpose. That phrase could be understood as “going through the natural birth process a second time”, but “re-born” is the idiom more commonly associated with that meaning. “Born again” would be more familiar – and in fact should be, to a Pharisee – as referring to “the process of being adopted into a Jewish family”; it is the exact term applied to Gentile converts to Judaism, after going through the ritual cleansing (read: baptism) that was required of proselytes seeking entry into “the family of Abraham”. These “new born children of Israel” were not returned to the womb, as Nicodemus protests, but treated as if they had been “born from heaven” or “born from above” – the very words Jesus uses.

(v.5-9) – Jesus is patient with Nicodemus (and perhaps any around them, listening in on the conversation – sometimes the words we say are most intended for those not directly addressed). He explains again His meaning, adding more depth and detail to assist Nicodemus as Jesus draws him from darkness into light. Commentators have given many and various interpretations of the phrase “born of water and of Spirit”, but I personally believe that what the original audience would have most naturally understood in that time and place is the most correct meaning. Jesus is clearly referring to the baptism of converts, AND the regeneration of the Holy Spirit which allows conversion to occur – just as John the Baptist preached that, while he was baptizing in water for repentance, he would be followed by Another who would baptize in the Spirit (1:19-28). Jesus’ use of the wind as a metaphor supports this, as the Greek word pneuma (wind) was also used to mean the Spirit. This would be a direct contradiction of traditional Jewish belief that the Spirit of God resided only in the Temple, and only occasionally would visit Himself upon a person.  Jesus is declaring a “new” status quo – the Spirit of God will truly inhabit the people of God personally. This is not really new, but only a fulfillment of Old testament prophecy; again, something a Pharisee should have been aware of and expecting. Nicodemus, however, does not seem to understand…something stands in the way of him apprehending this vital truth, and his plaintive cry in v.9, “How can this be?” only underscores the separation from God that this world, being in darkness, labors under. In the next lesson, we will see how Jesus responds to this distress – a response aimed not only at Nicodemus, but at all of us who would seek to understand.

I am presenting short versions of the Sunday school lessons I have taught at my home church. We are studying the Gospel of John, with the focus of seeing Jesus as the Apostle wishes: the holy Son of God; the Messiah prophesied by all of the Old Testament; the fulfillment of God’s plan of redemption. Once we see Him, we will have to believe, and thus be saved.  Scripture references are NIV unless otherwise noted.

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