It had already been one of the most unexpected nights that Nicodemus could remember. So august a personage as Israel’s preeminent teacher was not accustomed to sneaking out under cover of darkness in search of a clandestine meeting with a controversial, not to say sensational, itinerant preacher. Nicodemus’ status did not often require him to go in search of people – usually, they came to see him, and counted it an honor to do so. And yet, here he was, scurrying through the nighttime streets of Jerusalem, nervously hoping that no one who could recognize him would be abroad at so irregular an hour. The stories he had heard of this Teacher, the reports of His sayings, and the accounts of His miraculous power all compelled Nicodemus – he had to see this Man, to speak with Him, and to understand the message that this strangely credentialed Messenger surely must have.
As he moved towards his rendezvous, and as the sense of the strangeness of his actions became ever more acute, his surprise grew. But as his conversation with Christ commenced, that surprise would be dwarfed and drowned by the wave of wonder that flooded his soul as the Savior’s words short-circuited the theological discussion upon which Nicodemus was about to embark. Cutting across his flowery words of greeting came a message that was simple, yet astounding: “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (Joh 3:3 KJV). Nicodemus’ response to the message can be gauged by the shift from the smooth oratory of his greeting to the rapid-fire confusion of his questions: “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb, and be born?” (v4 KJV). We can also measure it by the Savior’s response: “Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again” (v7 KJV). Here was no mere sensation of mild surprise, but the amazed reaction of a man whose whole view of the world was being rearranged before his eyes.
More than one factor contributed to Nicodemus’ amazement. Likely he was struck by the authority of the Savior’s words. He was used to men who claimed to speak authoritatively. His own pronouncements came with as much authority as his learning and position could impart. But, as he listened to this Man, he must have felt something like the sentiments of the crowds of Matthew 7 who were astonished by the Savior’s teaching because “he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes” (Mat 7:29 KJV). Here was an authority that was distinct from anything that the learning of Judaism could provide, an authority that utterly deflated even the Pharisee who was a ruler of the Jews and “Israel’s teacher” (Joh 3:10 NIV).
Nicodemus was also likely to have been impressed by the clarity of the message. To be sure, he struggled to grasp the import of the Savior’s opening words. But as he listened to the explanation, he must surely have been struck by the stark clarity of what the Savior had to say. Unless things have changed very dramatically since Nicodemus’ day, his career in government and his activities as an academic would likely have involved him in a great deal of “yes-but-ery” and “what-about-ery.” He was accustomed to the debate of fine points of the Law, the division of shades of grey into other shades of grey. The Savior’s words, with their clarity and certainty, must have hit him with the force and refreshment of an icy wave on a hot summer’s day. “Except,” “cannot,” “must” and “verily” are words that allow little room for argument or interpretation – there was no escaping their force. Teachers, in Nicodemus’ experience, just did not talk like this. But this One did – Nicodemus was coming to realize that this was a very different sort of Teacher, and a very different sort of Man.
But more than its authority, and more than its clarity, it was the content of the Lord Jesus’ message that most amazed Nicodemus. The Lord Jesus’ words, “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (v3 KJV), called for a radical revision of everything that Nicodemus thought he knew. As far as he was concerned, his first birth had qualified him to be a citizen of the kingdom of God. He was a son of Abraham – surely no better credential could or would be needed. But, at a stroke, his certainty was swept away. If he grasped nothing else from Christ’s opening words, he understood that to be born again meant a total, fundamental, and radical change. And Nicodemus could scarcely fail to grasp the corollary: if such a dramatic revolution in his being were necessary to see the Kingdom of God, it could only mean that everything on which he had been depending – his lineage, his religion, his status – was not only useless but was, in fact, irrelevant. And as he listened further, he understood that while this was a deeply personal predicament, it was not only individual. “Ye must be born again” (v7), said the Savior, His use of the plural pronoun widening the scope of the problem and the reach of the solution beyond Nicodemus to the nation.
If the problem was surprising, the solution was more startling still. That it should involve the Son of Man was no surprise – Israel had always expected her Messiah to remedy her condition, to rescue her from her oppressors, and to teach those oppressors a lesson they would never forget. That the Messiah would be of heavenly origin was striking. But that the Son of Man would be lifted up was surprising – more surprising than it ought to have been, given the wealth of OT Scripture that predicted His suffering and death. And then came the most astounding revelation of all – that “God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (v16 KJV). A heavenly Messiah was one thing; that He should be the Son of God was quite another. That God should have a place of special favor for Israel seemed only right; that His love would extend in its scope to the world and in its magnitude to the giving of His Son was the ultimate surprise of Nicodemus’ nocturnal conversation.
That conversation should surprise us still. John 3 is so familiar to us – even those who have only the most limited knowledge of Scripture are likely to know something about this chapter. In their familiarity, its words have lost something of their power to surprise us as they ought. May God help us to marvel as we ought at this unequalled Teacher and His astounding message.