In the Gospel of John, we are privy to read about a conversation that took place between a man called Nicodemus and Jesus (John 3:1-16). I thought that it would be worthwhile for us to reflect on the lessons that we can learn from their conversation, specifically what we can learn from Nicodemus’ beliefs about how to enter the kingdom of God. One of the most important questions that every person must answer and settle for themselves is this: “Am I going to heaven when I die?” Jesus challenged Nicodemus to answer this question for himself and He challenges us to answer it for ourselves. Answering this question after we’ve died is too late! Please don’t put this very important question aside. Consider reading this article and pondering the truth of God’s Word for your own life. The Bible is clear and straightforward about the road that leads to heaven and teaches us how we can know for sure that when we die we are assured of going to heaven. Isn’t that what you want? Assurance of your eternal destiny before your time of departure from this earth? Let’s unpack this conversation together.
Nicodemus believed that there was a final judgement to come
John tells us that Nicodemus was a Pharisee (John 3:1). Pharisees took the name “separated” or “the separatists”. We call them Pharisees in English. They committed themselves totally to God and assumed the responsibility to lead Israel back to Him. They were very religious much like people are today. Knowing that Nicodemus was a Pharisee helps us to know what he believed. One belief that he held in agreement with Jesus and the rest of the Bible is that this life on earth is only temporary and that there is a spiritual world to come that is final. What a person believes in this life directly impacts what will become of their soul in the afterlife. One of the clearest Scriptures teaching this truth is Hebrews 9:27 which says “And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment.” The essential determining factor regarding someone’s eternal destiny is whether or not their name is written in the Book of Life (Revelation 20:15). If your name is not written in that Book, God will cast you into the Lake of fire. Let’s look at the misconceptions that Nicodemus had about getting his name written into the Book of Life and going to heaven. He held two misconceptions:
#1. That he, being a Jew, was automatically secured a place in God’s kingdom
It was a commonly held belief in Pharisaic Judaism that “All Israel has a share in the age to come.” In plain words, Nicodemus believed that because he was born a Jew he would automatically be accepted by God into His Kingdom. If we look at Jesus words to Nicodemus in verse 5 Jesus says to him “unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” I will explain what “born of the Spirit” means later on. For now, I would like you to see that Jesus knew what Nicodemus believed about entering God’s kingdom. The phrase “born of water” referred to Nicodemus and the Jewish belief that because a Jew was one from birth and that automatically secured them entrance into God’s Kingdom. Warren Wiersbe comments on Nicodemus religious inheritance because of his birth “He was a part of God’s covenant people! (Rom. 9:4–5) Certainly his birth was better than that of a Gentile or a Samaritan! And his life was exemplary, for he was a faithful Pharisee! He could well understand Jesus telling the Romans that they had to be born again, but certainly not the Jews!”
Reader please consider your own belief now before God. Are you like Nicodemus clinging to the belief that because you were born into a Christian family with Christian values that you will be accepted by God into heaven one day? If you are, then you need to examine Jesus words for yourself and realize that you need more than physical birth to get to heaven, you need to be born of the Spirit as well. The very reason that God will not accept this response is because of your sin problem. Romans 3:23 and 6:23 teach that we have all sinned and deserve spiritual death. Sin is disobeying the word of God. One sin is sufficient to be called a sinner and sufficient evidence for God to pronounce you guilty for all eternity.
#2. That he, was born again, on the basis of his own doing
Jesus told Nicodemus very clearly “unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). Many people assume that Nicodemus did not know what the phrase “born again” meant. However, because he was a Jew and “the teacher of Israel” (V10), a term meaning that he was a well-respected teacher of a Rabbinic academy which produced future Rabbis, Nicodemus had a preconceived Jewish understanding of this term already. According to Pharisaic Judaism he had already been born again four times.
a. First when he turned 13 years old and performed his Bar Mitzvah– This was a ceremony in which he took upon himself the obligation to obey and live according to the Torah (first five books of the Old Testament).
b. Second when he got married at the age of about 16 to 20– Nicodemus could be a Pharisee without being married so that doesn’t tell us if he was married or not. However, John tells us in verse 1 that he was “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.
c. Third when he was ordained as a rabbi at the age of 30– After years of training you would be officially ordained into the rabbinate. Being a Pharisee Nicodemus was an ordained rabbi.
d. Fourth when he was inducted as a “Rosh Yeshivah” at the age of 50– This was 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. As I already mentioned we know this because Jesus calls him “the teacher of Israel” (V10).
In light of this information notice the first part of his question in response to Jesus in verse 4 “How can a man be born when he is old?” Nicodemus does not respond to Jesus statement as though he does not know what it means. He already believes he knows how to be born again and in fact that he is already born again- four times! At the ages of 13,20,30, and 50. If his problem was the meaning of the phrase “born again”, what difference will age make now? However, he is confused because he has been taught that being born a Jew automatically guaranteed his entrance into God’s Kingdom and that he had gone through all the options of being born again already. He is now over 50 years old and has no more ways to achieve born again status. For him the mere suggestion by Jesus that he needs to be born again is ludicrous and crazy. That is why he follows up his first question with the second “Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” This question does not infer that Nicodemus was stupid and ignorant. It was a reasonable question based on his understanding on what it means to be born again. He was personally out of options and the only way, as far as he could see, to be born again was to return to his mother’s womb and start the process again.
Reader you may not be Jewish but you may hold to a similar belief system as Nicodemus. He believed that he could merit God’s favour and ultimately His kingdom by his own doing. Nicodemus was relying on his religious inheritance, his good works, his education, and his status in society to be born again. Perhaps you have also been relying on these things, which inherently are not evil, to get you to heaven. The problem is you are evil because of your sins. Your goodness can never out weight your sins in God’s sight. He requires you to be perfect to enter into heaven (Matthew 5:48). If you have come to the place where you realize your sinfulness before God and your incapacity to save yourself then be of good cheer because God responds to an attitude of sincere helplessness and provides a way of salvation.
The brass serpent and the cross
After hearing that he needed to be born again of water and the Spirit (V5), Nicodemus said to Jesus “How can these things be?” (V9) Jesus expected Nicodemus to know this truth because he was a well-respected and qualified “Rosh Yeshivah” (V10). What was Nicodemus supposed to have known? He was supposed to know that entrance into the kingdom of God was not based on human doing but on belief in the Son of Man. Verse 14 says “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.” Nicodemus would have been very familiar with the story in Numbers 21:4–9. As a result of the Israelites rebellion against God, He sent fiery serpents that bit the people so that many died. It is also a story of grace, for Moses interceded for the people and God provided a remedy. He told Moses to make a brass serpent and lift it up on a pole for all to see. Any person who looked at the serpent would immediately be healed.
Looking to Christ for salvation
In the same way that the brass serpent was lifted up on a pole in the wilderness for people to see, so the Son of Man would be lifted up on a cross for all to see. In the camp of Israel, the solution to the “serpent problem” was not in killing the serpents, making medicine, pretending they were not there, passing anti-serpent laws, or climbing the pole. The answer was in looking by faith at the uplifted serpent. If we rely on the very things that Nicodemus relied on: our Christian heritage, church membership, infant baptism, education, good works, social status etc. we will die spiritually and be separated from God forever in the Lake of Fire (Ephesians 2:8-9). The way to be born again is found by looking to Christ by faith who hung on the cross. Jesus then told Nicodemus one of the most well-known and quoted Bible verses “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). God sent Jesus to this earth to willing lift up His life on the cross for us. Listen to Romans 5:8 “but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” What we could not do through our own doing God did by sending Christ to provide a way of salvation for us. He took care of our “sin problem” by paying the price with His own blood.
Nicodemus will believe but it will be a struggle for him
For Nicodemus this was such a new interpretation of the new birth that he could not accept it right away. It is very rare for a Jew to accept the gospel when he first hears it. A Jewish person undergoes a spiritual struggle, a theological struggle, a mental struggle, a family struggle, and an ethnic struggle. He must reprogram his whole way of thinking before he can begin to see the possibility that Jesus could be the Jewish Messiah. Any Jewish believer you meet has undergone a struggle for a short or a long period of time. For Nicodemus the struggle begins here and will continue for three years. He will appear two more times in John’s gospel. The second time will be in John 7, not yet a believer, but as we will see, willing to defend the right of Jesus to be heard before being condemned. And thirdly, at the time of the burial of Jesus, he comes out openly as a believer (John 19:38-40).
Jesus loves you and is waiting for you to accept His offer of eternal life
Reader you may be going through some spiritual struggle right now. Perhaps you, like Nicodemus, are needing to reflect and reprogram your whole way of thinking about this concept of being born again. God understands what you are going through. He will not force His Son upon you but He does desire that you come to Him in faith. He is willing that none should perish and spend an eternity in the Lake of Fire. He loves you unconditionally with a love that is from everlasting to everlasting (Psalm 103:11). He is waiting to offer you a future filled with immeasurable joy and hope “According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you” (1 Peter 1:3-4). So I’ll exhort you to ask yourself once again “Am I going to heaven when I die?” If you acknowledge that you cannot get there by yourself because of your sin and rely instead fully on the finished work of Jesus Christ for you on the cross, then based on the Word of God you are born again to a living hope and God will give you eternal life. By placing your faith in Christ alone for the forgiveness of your sins, God writes your name into His Book of Life. There is no other way to be saved from the Lake of Fire (Acts 4:12).
A prayer to assist you to know Christ
“God I confess that I have sinned against you and am deserving of spending an eternity separated from You. I acknowledge that I am helpless and hopeless to save myself and get to heaven. I believe that you sent Jesus Christ, who died for my sins and rose again on the third day. I place my faith and trust in Him right now to forgive me for my sins and to clothe me in His righteousness. Based upon the promise of your Word, that whoever calls upon Christ in faith, I receive eternal life today. Amen.”