In John, chapter 3, Christ is speaking to one person, a Pharisee by the name of Nicodemus, who had cowardly come to Christ during the midnight hour. It is possible that the conversation was only attended by The Jewish Rabbi and the Jewish Pharisee. In John 3.22, we see the direct mention of the disciples, of during the all important conversation – a conversation which has reverberated throughout the history of Christianity, and more so, it seems, since the Reformation – this conversation involved two people, a Teacher and a man who could talk to the Light only in the dark.
After dark one evening, a Jewish religious leader named Nicodemus, a Pharisee, came to speak with Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “we all know that God has sent you to teach us. Your miraculous signs are proof enough that God is with you.” Jesus replied, “I assure you, unless you are born again, you can never see the Kingdom of God.” “What do you mean?” exclaimed Nicodemus. “How can an old man go back into his mother’s womb and be born again?” Jesus replied, “The truth is, no one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit. Humans can reproduce only human life, but the Holy Spirit gives new life from heaven. So don’t be surprised at my statement that you must be born again. (John 3:1-7 NLT)
There is debate on whether the Greek should be translated as ‘again’ or ‘above’. I will accept merely, ‘reborn’ or ‘born anew’. The sense is best understood by Nicodemus who questioned the possibility of again returning to before-childhood to once more come from the womb. John Gill, the great commentator of ages past, sites a Rabbinical source, for verse 3,
“one that is made a proselyte, כקטון שנולד דמי, “is like a child new born”.” – T. Bab. Yebamot, fol. 22. 1. 48. 2. 62. 1. & 97. 2.
Whether it is ‘again’, ‘above’, or ‘anew,’ the sense is the same – there requires a very physical reaction to the Gospel. There is a connection between the earthly and the heavenly, as says the Jewish Carpenter,
But if you don’t even believe me when I tell you about things that happen here on earth, how can you possibly believe if I tell you what is going on in heaven? (John 3:12 NLT)
Let’s put aside our Tradition and our doctrine on the ‘new birth,’ whether baptism is required, or whether the Spirit is the fire of Pentecost or the dove from heaven. What did this meant to Nicodemus? Here was a man, a Pharisee, which no small position in 2nd Temple Judaism. He, as far as he was concerned, as a Jew, he was in the Kingdom of God. He was most likely a middle-aged man, with children and grandchildren. He was well established with a good report in his community. He is often thought of as the Talmudic Nicodemus Ben Gurion, a wealthy 1st century Jew who was a leader of the community against the Zealots (not Canaanites).
For Nicodemus, the words of Christ had to mean more than baptism, it meant an entirely new form of existence. Had Nicodemus forsaken all at that moment to follow Christ, he would have had to give up his position at the Sanhedrin, perhaps his family, and indeed, he would have been seen as casting his lot in among the heretics. For him, it was not merely about becoming a new creature, but about a new – not new in the Gospel sense, instead different life, one which everything he knew before might very well be taken away from him.
For Nicodemus, the new birth was not something spiritual, but something physical. It very well included the loss of his family and friends, and his standing in the community. It was not some ‘feel good moment’ where the trees came to life and danced for joy – of some warming of the heart; no, for Nicodemus, it was the very real end of a very prosperous life, and the start of one which meant following a very poor Rabbi and his band of rabble rousers.
Remember, this conversation was not public, and very well might have excluded the disciples. This is a very personal decision for Nicodemus, which he wrestled with for the entirity of John’s Story. We find that he defended the Rabbi, calling for a fair trail (John 7.50) and brought enough funeral dress for a king (John 19.39-42). Something starting working on him that night, but it was until the murderous rage by the Romans that Nicodemus declared the Rabbi King.
No one but Christ and Nicodemus know of the words spoken that night – perhaps the Master would tell John later, or perhaps, even Nicodemus would tell John; nevertheless, one of the key passages in John (including the famed 3.16) was spoken at night, in the dark, among two Jews.
According to early Christian Tradition, Nicodemus would be martyred for the cause of Christ.