“You must be born again.”
These words of Jesus, spoken in John 3:7, are so central to the evangelistic message of the Gospel that one can scarcely imagine a Gospel without them. Yet what do they mean to us? What would they have meant to Nicodemus, the teacher of Israel and a member of the Sanhedrin?
Part of the answer may be found in the words, “…unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). Here, at least, was a point of contact. As a first century Jew, Nicodemus would long for even a glimpse of the kingdom of God. But Jesus’ revelation of the kingdom and the prevailing Jewish understanding of God’s kingdom promise were far apart-yet they remain instructive to those today who, like Nicodemus, seek the Messiah even under the cover of darkness.
Alfred Edersheim, the reknowned 19th century biblical scholar who was himself Jewish, provides valuable insight in his The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah. In it Edersheim writes, “…according to the Jewish view, this second birth was the consequence of having taken upon oneself ‘the Kingdom’ not, as Jesus put it, the cause and condition of it.”1
In other words, Jesus establishes the “new birth” as the basis for entering the kingdom. It is a teaching that Nicodemus would have found revolutionary in the truest sense of the word. It establishes the priority of spiritual rebirth and Jesus’ implied teaching is that without it, one could not even hope to see, let alone enter, the kingdom. Nicodemus found this hard to grasp for the same reason many seekers today might shy away. It takes the initiative away from us. It makes us powerless and dependent upon God. Jesus makes the same point in Mark 10:15 when He says, “Assuredly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will by no means enter it.”
But Nicodemus had one thing right. Something prompted him to come humbly and seek Jesus in spite of his privileged position. Did he come to faith? We cannot know for certain. But if we truly surrender to Messiah, we will certainly know what it means to be “born again.”
1. Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1962), vol 1, p. 384.