Only John’s gospel tells of a Pharisee, a ruler of the Jews, by the name of Nicodemus. We are introduced to this man on the occasion of his coming to Christ at night with an observation (Jn. 3:2). We also read of Nicodemus as John records a discussion between some officers, the chief priests, and Phraisees about an attempt to arrest Jesus (Jn. 7:45-53). Finally, Nicodemus is revealed as one who assisted in the preparation of the body of Christ after the crucifixion (Jn. 19:39-40). Outside of these accounts we know nothing of the man named Nicodemus.
The Pharisee is best known for his night-time discussion with Jesus about the new birth and the kingdom of God as recorded in John 3. The apostle records,
“There was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews: The same came to Jesus by night, and said unto him, Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him. Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. Nicodemus saith unto him, How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter the second time into his mother's womb, and be born? Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God” (Jn. 3:1-5).
An important question for a 21st century reader to ask is, “How did Nicodemus understand what Jesus was saying?” It is rather obvious from the immediate context (v. 4) that he had a misunderstanding about what Jesus was saying. In fact, Jesus said, “Art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not these things” (Jn. 3:10)? Is it possible to connect a burial in water (baptism) to what Jesus was saying to this man? Was there anything happening in those days that could have led to that understanding? Consider the following:
The kingdom of God was being preached by Jesus, John the Baptizer, the twelve, and seventy disciples sent out by Christ (Matt. 4:17; Matt. 3:2; Matt. 10:7; Lk. 10:9). There were at least 84 people preaching on the same subject during the lifetime of Christ and Nicodemus. They were going from house to house saying, “The kingdom of God is at hand!” We know from all four Gospel writers that the Pharisees heard this teaching and even questioned Jesus about His doctrine. From these facts one can safely make the inference that Nicodemus had heard of the kingdom of God prior to the encounter recorded by the apostle John.
When the message of the kingdom of God was being preached by John and others, what was being done? Matthew records about John’s preaching, “Then went out to him Jerusalem, and all Judea, and all the region round about Jordan, and were baptized of him in Jordan, confessing their sins” (Matt. 3:5-6). John records the following of Jesus and the apostles, “When therefore the Lord knew how the Pharisees had heard that Jesus made and baptized more disciples than John, (Though Jesus Himself baptized not, but His disciples,)” (Jn. 4:1-2). With the message of the kingdom of God came the message of immersion in water! This also occurred after the establishment of the Lord’s church as recorded in Acts 8:12 when the gospel went to Samaria by the hands of Philip.
Why is it that so many today do not understand the simple teaching of Jesus as recorded in John 3:3-5? When one considers the above stated facts, the passage should become crystal clear. John, his teaching, and his baptism were well known throughout the region at that time. In fact, after his beheading, the memory John the Baptizer haunted Herod, “Herod…said unto his servants, This is John the Baptist; he is risen form the dead; and therefore mighty works do shew forth themselves in him” (Matt. 14:1-2). Jesus said of John, “Among them that are born of women there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist” (Matt. 11:11). Many do not believe the connection with baptism and John 3 simply because they are dishonest. On one occasion this writer was told “I just can’t believe that John 3 is talking about baptism.” If one is not honest with the word of God, the truth will never be found and obeyed.
There are others who may not understand the teaching of John 3:3-5 simply because they have never been taught the truth. Only the gospel of Christ can save one from the eternal consequences of sin (Rom. 1:16; 6:23). When the pure gospel is sown into an honest and good heart, it will produce good fruit (Lk. 8:15).
God expects man to read and understand His word. Paul wrote, “Wherefore be ye not unwise, but understanding what the will of the Lord is” (Eph. 5:17). The subject of baptism is one of eternal consequence because to it is connected the forgiveness of sins (Acts 22:16) and salvation (1 Pet. 3:21). May we all seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness on the subject of baptism (Matt. 6:33).
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