Title: The explanation of the new birth to Nicodemus part 1
Scriptures to Read: Read John 3:1-4
Here we have the first of John’s seven discourses, the discourse on the new birth.
The significance of Nicodemus being a Pharisee
Now verse 1 says: Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. These Jews took the name “separated” or “the separatists”. We call them the Pharisees in English. They committed themselves totally to God and assumed the responsibility to lead Israel back to him. They believed that Moses had given a two-part law: the written law of the Torah itself and additional oral commandments that had been passed through generations to help the faithful understand and apply the written law. It is important to recognize that the word “law” can mean either (or both) of these “Torah’s” when used in the Bible. It is often the oral Torah that Jesus criticized. Many of their beliefs were in line with that of Jesus. They:
a. Believed in the physical resurrection of the dead (the Sadducees did not) and a coming day of judgment followed by reward or punishment.
b. Believed in angels.
c. Anticipated the Messiah at any moment.
d. Recognized a combination of free choice and divine control in human life.
e. Among the fundamentals of Pharisaic Judaism in that day was, and I quote: “All Israel has a share in the age to come.” What they meant is this: Merely being born a Jew would give someone automatic rights to God’s kingdom. That is not true with the Gentiles. If a Gentile wished to qualify for God’s kingdom, he would have to do one of two things. One was to obey the 7 laws of the Noahic Covenant of Genesis chapter 9. A second option is to convert to Judaism and also take on the Mosaic Law.
To be born of water meant to be born physically
Being born physically was given a specific expression in Pharisaic writings, and that was to be born of water. To be born of water then meant to be born physically. And to be born physically as a Jew gave you rights to Messiah’s kingdom. That is the theology of this man who now comes to Jesus because of what he saw and heard in John chapter 2.
Nicodemus had a Jewish understanding of the term born again
Before the conversation gets too involved, Jesus says to him, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God. Nicodemus said to him: “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Before the conversation gets too involved, Jesus simply says to him, until he experiences the new birth he will not even see the God’s kingdom. His response is often misunderstood. It is popular among evangelistic style speakers to interpret his response to mean that he did not understand what Jesus meant by the term born again, as though it was a brand new term for him that he had never heard before. However, if you look at his question that is not really his dilemma. He is not asking how is one born again. His question is: “how is one born again when he is old?” If his problem was the meaning of new birth, what difference will age make? He does know something about the term. It was a commonly used term in Pharisaic writings. What he does not understand is how one can achieve it once he has reached a certain stage in life, and status in Jewish society.
Six ways to be born again in the Jewish world
The reason for his lack of understanding is that in Pharisaic Judaism there were six different ways of being born again. All six of these ways are in the realm of the physical, in the realm of being born of water only. Of these six ways he did not qualify for two. He did qualify for four.
Two ways that Nicodemus could not qualify to be born again
1. The first way to be born again is when a Gentile was converted to Judaism. Conversion to Judaism is a process. And in the process you would be declared born again. Nicodemus was born a Jew and did not need to undergo that process and so did not qualify for this kind of new birth.
2. The second way to be born again is to be crowned king. And a man being crowned king would undergo a rather lengthy coronation service, at the end of which he would be declared born again. So, in the second way he did not qualify either.
Four ways that Nicodemus was qualified to be born again
But there were four other ways he did qualify to be called born again and which he did achieve.
3. The third way is going through a special type of ceremony at the age of thirteen. It is now referred to as the Bar Mitzvah. That was not the term used in the first century. And the term Bar Mitzvah means “a son of the commandment”. It refers to a ceremony that happens when the lad is thirteen years old. At that age he takes upon himself the obligations of the Mosaic Law. The common teaching was that until that point his parents were responsible for his sins. Afterwards he is responsible for his own sins. And by Jewish law he is legally an adult. By Jewish law you cannot have a service of any kind unless you have ten adult males present. And once you have had your Bar Mitzvah you could be counted among the ten adult males necessary for a Jewish service to be conducted. Now at this point Nicodemus is well past the age of thirteen. He was born again for the first time at that age.
4. Now the fourth way to be born again is to marry. Jewish men underwent a Jewish wedding underneath a canopy and in various rituals he would be declared born again. And nowhere in the passage does John come out and say that he was married, and yet we know that he was married by going back to verse 1 where John calls him two things. John first of all calls him a Pharisee, but that tells us nothing about his marital state. You could be either married or single and be a Pharisee. But the second thing he calls him is “a ruler of the Jews”. This was the title given to the 71 members of the Sanhedrin, and among the prerequisites for membership in the Sanhedrin was to be a married man. Single men of any age or scholarship would never qualify. So the fact that John calls him a ruler of the Jews means that he was a member of the Sanhedrin, which also means that he was a married man. And so he qualified to be born again the second way. And Jewish men married in those days between the ages of 16 and 20.
5. The fifth way to be born again is to be ordained a rabbi. After years of training you would be officially ordained into the rabbinate. Being a Pharisee Nicodemus was an ordained rabbi. Rabbis were ordained at the age of thirty. At that age he was born again for the third time.
6. The sixth way was to become a Rosh Yeshivah, a title given to those who were the head of a Rabbinic Academy, a Rabbinic Seminary, where they were responsible to train and ordain future rabbis. And we know that he attained that level in Jewish society because of the way Jesus addresses him in verse 10 where he says: Are you the teacher of Israel and do not understand these things? Those who were common rabbis had the title of Rav, which means “a teacher”. But those who were the head of an Academy were given the title of Rabban, which means “the teacher”. So Gamaliel is always referred to as Rabban Gamaliel because he was the head of a rabbinic academy, and one of his students happened to be the apostle Paul. The fact that Jesus calls him “the teacher” of Israel, not “a teacher” means that he was the head of a rabbinic academy around Jerusalem, and that he had attained the age of fifty. At that point he was born again for the fourth and also the last time.