“There was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews: the same came to Jesus by night”(John 3:1,2).
When we turn in the Bible to John chapter three we find recorded for our learning the interesting interview between the Lord and Nicodemus—a dialogue full of the very deepest and most important instruction. We may truly say, if ever there was a time in which the history of Nicodemus claimed special attention, it is just today, in this day of man’s proud pretensions, when the utter and hopeless ruin of human nature and the absolute need of the new birth are so loudly and extensively called in question.
When we look at Nicodemus, “a man of the Pharisees,” “a ruler of the Jews,” “a master of Israel,” we find a man of the very highest position and religious reputation. To be a Pharisee in the days of Nicodemus was something to be proud of as a man. It was viewed as an advantage of the very highest order. Yet Nicodemus gave clear indication by the fact of his coming to Jesus by night that he felt in himself that all was not right, that he lacked something which could not be found in all his religion. We may here learn that no system of religion under the sun can ever satisfy the cravings of an awakened conscience, or hush the anxieties of an earnest soul that has been roused to a sense of the reality of eternal things.
How much is wrapped up in the words, “The same came to Jesus by night”? This fact is noted three times by the Holy Ghost. Indeed, Nicodemus is never once named, save in immediate connection with his coming to Jesus by night. See John 7:50; 19:39. This fact is never forgotten. Why did Nicodemus seek the cover of darkness for his interview with One whom he recognized as a Teacher come from God? He was not prepared to break with Judaism, or abandon his position, because the natural heart of man clings to these things with a fond and earnest tenacity. He was not prepared to meet the scorn and derision of those with whom he was socially and religiously associated. He was not yet able to count his own righteousness and all his religious advantages as dung and dross.
“Rabbi, we know that Thou art a Teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that Thou doest, except God be with Him” (John 3:2). The very opening words of Nicodemus to the Lord reveal his misapprehension of Him. It was most assuredly true that our blessed Lord was a Teacher come from God, but He was much more than that. He was Himself God over all blessed for ever, whose mission in the world was to save men from their sins by imparting life—that eternal life which was with the Father, and was manifested in the Son. Nicodemus needed more than a teacher or some new system of doctrine or morals. He needed a Saviour, though he had not yet learned this. Just like many today, Nicodemus did not realize that the whole system in which he stood was a wreck, corrupt and condemned. It was not a question of some defective points, which a Teacher come from God may set right. The fact is, there is nothing right. Human nature, in its very deepest springs, is utterly and hopelessly corrupt. Man was dead, morally and spiritually. There was not so much as a single pulsation of spiritual life in man.
It is most important to lay hold of this great foundation truth of our common ruin. We are all born in sin, and “there is no difference: for all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:22,23). The moment you take “the glory of God” as the standard by which every man must be judged, at once all distinctions fade away. Whatever does not come up to that high and holy standard must be rejected. A man may try to do his best, to live according to the dictates of his conscience, to live up to the light he has. But the question is, “Have you lived up to the glory of God?”
Now this “no difference” doctrine is most unpopular to all those who pride themselves on their reputation, and are seeking to work out a righteousness for themselves by their good works, prayers, religious services, good morality, benevolence, or philanthropy. Such people cannot endure the thought of being classed with the very scum of society. They cannot believe that all men are alike. Why is this? Simply because they are measuring themselves by a false standard. They “measure themselves by themselves, and compare themselves among themselves;” and in so doing, “are not wise” (2 Corinthians 10:12). No one can form a proper estimate of himself by comparing himself with his fellows. It is only in the divine presence we can get a true view of ourselves.
Jesus answered Nicodemus, “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). This brief yet comprehensive utterance went down to the very deepest roots of man’s condition, and there applied the sharp axe of God’s eternal truth. It declared in the very plainest terms the absolute necessity of a new birth for every man, woman and child. It matters not to God what a man may possess in the way of human righteousness, moral character, social standing or reputation. He must be born again, get a new life, to see and enter the kingdom of God. The absolute, indispensable necessity of the new birth, for every man, proves beyond all possible question the utter and hopeless ruin of man.
Reformation in any shape or form is of no avail. The most improved, cultivated, polished, religious man in nature is as far from the kingdom of God as the most degraded sinner on the face of the earth. New birth is not the old nature improved, but the new nature imparted.
The devil is seeking, in every possible way, to cast dust in people’s eyes, to prevent them from seeing this truth as to themselves. He has no objection to moral reform or religiousness without Christ, anything and everything but this—”Ye must be born again.”
Nicodemus then asked Jesus the oft-repeated question, “How can a man be born when he is old?” (John 3:4). We believe Nicodemus was thoroughly in earnest, and his soul anxiously sought the answer to his question. How is the new birth accomplished? He now realized he was not in the kingdom of God, for he had never been born again, nor did he even know the meaning of it. This being born again was entirely beyond his grasp. He had no doubt considered himself in the kingdom of God, inasmuch as he was one of Abraham’s seed; but now this heavenly Teacher insists on new birth as indispensable for entrance into the kingdom. How is it possible for a man to be born again?
Mark the divine reply. “Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God” (John 3:5). It is perfectly evident that a man can have nothing to do either with his being born, or his being born again. Both are independent of himself. The very idea of a man having anything to do with his new birth is as irrational as it is unscriptural. New birth is wholly and absolutely of God. It is an essentially divine operation in every respect. It is wrought by the Word of God and Spirit of God, and nothing else. It is not of man in any way, but altogether of God.
Yet new birth is in itself most simple. It is nothing more than receiving into the heart the precious, incorruptible seed of the Word of God, unfolded and applied by the power of the Holy Spirit. Thus we read in James 1:18, “Of His own will begat He us with the Word of truth.” So also in 1 Peter 1:23-25, “Being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the Word of God, which liveth and abideth forever…. This is the Word which by the gospel is preached unto you.” “As many as received Him, to them gave He power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on His name: which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:12,13). From these passages we learn that the Word of God is the grand agency employed in producing the new birth. The gospel of the grace of God, implanted in the heart by the ministry of the Holy Spirit, is the incorruptible seed whereby the soul is given new life. Wherever the glad tidings of salvation come with power to the heart, there the new birth takes place.
“That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again” (John 3:6,7). Man cannot be trusted. He has been weighed in the divine balance, and found wanting. He has been tried and tested in every possible way, and proved to be utterly worthless. Man, in his very best estate, is unfit for the kingdom of God. “That which is born of the flesh is flesh” (John 3:6) and “They that are in the flesh cannot please God” (Romans 8:8). These are conclusive statements. When the Holy Ghost uses the term “flesh,” He means the whole human family—the first man and all his posterity. It is therefore wholly impossible for any man, woman, or child to avoid the application of these statements.
What, then, is the meaning of being “in the flesh”? Is it the same as being “in the body”? Most certainly not. True Christians, children of God, genuine believers in the Lord Jesus Christ, are in the body, but the Holy Ghost in Romans 8:9 expressly tells such that they “are not in the flesh.” What does this mean? It means that they are no longer viewed by God as connected with the first man—the old Adam—in the old creation. They have entered upon an entirely new footing; they belong to the second Man, the last Adam. They are “in the Spirit,” in Christ, members of His body, of His flesh and of His bones. They are a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17). Hence, although they are in the body, as to the fact of their condition, they are not in the flesh as to the ground of their standing before God.
Looked at personally, Adam was pardoned and saved; but he could not transmit his pardon, his salvation, or his new life to his race, or to any member thereof. These things are not hereditary. They are the fruit of faith; and a father cannot believe for his son. All that belonged to the first man, personally and naturally, he could transmit to his posterity; but all that which he enjoyed by grace, through faith, was peculiar to himself, because faith is intensely individual.
“As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:14,15). In the course of our Lord’s reply to Nicodemus, He unfolds the great foundation truth on which the new birth, together with the whole fabric of Christianity, rests. He speaks of the absolute necessity of the death of the Son of man. If it was essential that man should be born again and get new life, then it was also essential that the Son of man should die. A new Adam has entered the scene, the second Man, the Lord from heaven. For what purpose? To improve the first man? To give him a fresh start? No, but to die: to be lifted up on the cross; to close forever the history of the first man, and to become in resurrection the Head of a new race, a new creation. Here then the cross, the death of the sinless Saviour, is presented as the only ground on which a new and everlasting life can be communicated to man. It is on the ground of accomplished redemption alone that we are brought into association with Christ. The Word and Spirit of God are the only agency in new birth, and the cross is the only basis thereof.
“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). Not only is the cross the grand foundation of the new birth, but now the Lord reveals to Nicodemus that the love of God’s heart is the blessed source from which it emanates.
Did Nicodemus believe the words of this Teacher come from God?
Was he born again? Yes, Nicodemus through grace received into his divinely prepared heart the good seed and was born again. Though the narrative in John three does not inform us of his immediate reception of the truth, yet the Scriptures reveal he was truly born again and a genuine disciple of Jesus. See John 7:50,51; 19:38-42.
Now we must bring things home to ourselves. Have you, dear reader, received the glad tidings in your heart? Have you come to Jesus as one utterly and hopelessly lost in yourself? If you have not experienced the new birth, then you are dead in trespasses and sins, far off from God, and on the way to eternal damnation.
Nicodemus took the first step in the right direction when he came to One who has said “Him that cometh to Me I will in no wise cast out” (John 6:37). These words assure every comer, no matter who he is, or what he is, of a hearty and immediate welcome to Jesus. It matters not how deep the guilt, how many or how great the sins, how unworthy, how miserable, Jesus says, “Him that cometh to Me I will in no wise cast out.”
Come believing on the Lord Jesus Christ now. Take no rest until you know you are born again, and have passed from death unto life, and are a child of God, and have actually entered into the kingdom of God.
Abridged from Things New and Old, Vol.18.