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The Perplexity of Nicodemus

If Jesus’ statement to Nicodemus, “Except one be born anew he cannot see the kingdom of God” left the rabbi in astonishment, provoking him to ask, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” then Jesus’ response, “Except one be born of the water and the Sprit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God” with further explanation of the one to be born anew left Nicodemus in perplexity (Jn. 3:4). He asked, “How can these things be?” (Jn. 3:9). Jesus had turned Nicodemus’ world “upside down.” First, Jesus taught him that a fleshly birth had nothing to do with entering the kingdom. Second, Jesus explained that the one who was to be born anew was one whom the eye could not see and who was begotten by the Holy Spirit.

Nicodemus’ question brought a mild rebuke from Jesus. Jesus asked, “Art thou the teacher of Israel and understandest not these things?” (Jn. 3:10). Were these comments not enough, Jesus added further rebuke to Nicodemus, saying, “Verily, verily I say unto thee, we speak that which we know and bear witness of that which we have seen and you receive not our witness. If I told you earthly things and ye believe not, how shall ye believe if I tell you heavenly things? And no one hath ascended into heaven, but he that descended out of heaven; even the son of man who is in heaven” (Jn. 3:11-13).

Nicodemus was a Pharisee and as such believed in angels and heavenly beings. He believed in a future resurrection of the body (Acts 23:6-8). Yet, although he was a teacher in Israel, a man of presumed advanced learning, there were some things he had not yet come to understand. This is why he was perplexed. And because he did not understand, he could not have come to a better teacher than Jesus.

When Jesus said, and although “we” is plural, “We speak of that which we know, and bear witness to that which we have seen; and ye receive not our witness” He spoke solely of Himself as the following verses show (Jn. 3:12-13). Jesus’ comments about the new birth and he who was to be born anew were things Jesus had both heard and knew. Jesus’ words to this point were not “hearsay.” He was a witness of the things He revealed to Nicodemus, and if Nicodemus had difficulty understanding things that involved the earthly things Jesus had spoken of to him, how could he possibly have understood had Jesus spoken of heavenly things? And if he were to even know those things, from whom would he learn those things except from Jesus? No one had ascended into heaven and then descended back to earth to tell earthlings what he had seen and heard there except the Son of man who was “in heaven.” While Jesus was on earth as He spoke to Nicodemus, He was also in heaven. He could do this because He is God. David had wondrously written the following: “Whither shall I go from thy Spirit? Or whither shall I flee from thy presence? If I ascend into heaven, thou art there and if I make my grave in Sheol thou art there …” (Psa. 139:7-8). Jesus had taken on a body of flesh but He was still God and thus in heaven as well as the lower parts of the earth.

If Nicodemus had questions and wondered about things which Jesus taught, his conviction that Jesus was “a teacher come from God” held sway. He did not turn away from Jesus because he did not understand at first. He continued to listen, learn, and ultimately take a stand publicly for Jesus when he joined Joseph of Arimathea in giving Jesus a honorable burial. Follow Nicodemus’ progress in faith by reading John 3:3-7, 7:46-52, and 19:38-42.

Sometimes it takes longer for some to see the truth than it does for others. There is only one recorded question the Ethiopian Eunuch asked Philip after he had asked him of whom Isaiah was speaking when he wrote, “He was led as a sheep to the slaughter” (Acts 8:32). Philip began with this scripture and “preached unto him Jesus” (Acts 8:35). The question the eunuch asked, after Philip had explained of whom Isaiah had written was, “See, here is water. What doth hinder me to be baptized?” (Acts 8:36). Sometimes it takes longer for some to learn because they must “unlearn” things already in their minds. But this gives way to learning the simple truths about Jesus. Perhaps that is why Nicodemus responded more slowly to the teachings of Christ than the eunuch did to the preaching of Philip.

Jim McDonald

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