9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? 11 Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you[a] do not receive our testimony.12 If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.[b] 14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
Verse 9-10: There is a Lack of Understanding in Man
Verse 9 begins with Nicodemus asking the question, “How can these things be?” What things? The things we looked at last week in verse 1-8 – the new birth, The Spirit’s work in the new birth, etc. “How can all that be?” Nicodemus asks. Jesus initially responds to Nicodemus’ question with a question – “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?” In other words, when Nicodemus asks, “How can these things be?” Jesus responds by saying, “How can these things not be?” Nicodemus, as the teacher of Israel, should’ve known what Jesus was talking about, as the new birth is derived from the Old Testament, which Nicodemus would’ve known so very well. One of the premier Old Testament texts that we looked at last week was Ezekiel 36:25-27.
This whole idea of the new birth should not have been a totally foreign idea to Nicodemus. Though Jesus of course brings clearer light to the subject, the Old Testament spoke of a New Covenant that was not like the Old, in Jeremiah 31 for example, where God will write His law on their hearts, and all in the covenant shall know him. The Old Testament speaks of the nature of men being dead and wicked and in need of a total new life, and new heart being put them as we saw in Ezekiel 36, and last week in Ezekiel 37 and the valley of dry bones. Yet, in Nicodemus’ framework inheriting the Kingdom of Heaven meant being an ethnic Jew and strict adherence to the law. It was very much outward and religious and not inward and spiritual. In reality, if it wasn’t inward and spiritual, then it wasn’t really outward and religious, in terms of true religion. Jesus affirmed in his discussion on the wind and seeing its effects, that those who are born again will show it outwardly in way of life and obedience – but for that to truly happen, there must be the spiritual new birth. As we see in verse 15 where it says, “whoever believes in him may have eternal life” it has nothing to do with ethnicity or nationality. That too, Nicodemus should have known, as the Old Testament is filled with language of the gospel going to the nations, essentially. Isaiah chapter 2 says in the latter days the nations shall flow to the mountain of God. So Nicodemus does not understand the spirituality of the new birth, or the extent to whom the new birth goes – the nations. For someone who had so much light, there is a real darkness in his understanding. In one sense Jesus is telling Nicodemus that he cannot understand spiritual things unless he is born again.
As A. W. Pink says, “…something more than education and morality are needed to understand the things of God.” Nicodemus certainly had education and morality, yet He did not understand the things of God.
Let this be a lesson for us all. It does not matter how much you know in your mind, if you don’t know Jesus in your heart, then your understanding is darkened. It does not matter how strict your life is, if you’ve only been born once, then it is not true life. You must be born again.
Some of you may be in a comparable situation to Nicodemus. You know so much of the Scripture, you have so much light around you, and yet you may not be born again, and thus have no true understanding. The natural man cannot understand the things of God. It takes a spiritual person to understand spiritual things and that only comes through the new birth, in which we are made new creatures in Christ Jesus.
Verse 11-12: There is a Lack of Belief in Man
Though Nicodemus professed Christ to be a teacher, he did not accept His teachings when they didn’t agree with what he wanted them to be, or with what he already believed, or wanted to believe. It wasn’t simply that Nicodemus did not understand, but he did not receive or believe! That is the problem with the natural man. It is not simply that he is intellectually in the dark and in ignorance and merely needs enlightenment to intellectually ascend to a knowledge of the truth – no, the natural man, does not receive the truth – he will not! He understands not, because he believes not! It is not innocent ignorance, it is willful rebellion. That is why when we are doing evangelize we are not trying to persuade someone to believe the gospel, as if they just need more facts and evidence, then upon seeing it’s truthfulness they will agree with it – no, when we do evangelism we are calling all men everywhere to repent! Men are not uneducated truth-seekers who need more education, they are sinful rebels against the King of Kings who are to lay down their arms and bow the knee to Jesus. Men and women are dead in their trespasses and sins and need new resurrection life in Christ.
Verse 11 is interesting because Jesus begins to speak in plurals. Is there somebody there with Jesus or is He going crazy or what? Well, the plurals in verse 11 could refer to the prophets and John the Baptist, all testifying to Christ; or it could be trinitarian language. I tend to lean toward it referring to the prophets – or in other words, the testimony of Old Testament Scripture that testified to the new birth and new covenant realities. I believe that makes the most sense considering the context – Nicodemus’ knowledge of the Old Testament, and Jesus’ use of it. Jesus is aligning Himself with Scripture, as the Messiah, and Nicodemus would’ve known the Scripture quite well, and would be offended to be told that He is not receiving, believing, or understanding what the Scripture is saying. Jesus is being a good evangelist in turning the tables on Nicodemus and doing the work of pricking his heart and conscience, in exposing his inconsistency. Jesus does so by standing on the authority of God’s Word.
So Jesus tells Nicodemus, “You don’t understand because you do not receive or believe the testimony of the prophets,” then in verse 12 he’s saying, “nor, do you believe the earthly things I have told you. So you certainly won’t believe the spiritual things.” This is one of the marks of Jesus’ teaching: He often used earthly metaphors and word pictures to convey deep spiritual truths, such as we saw in the previous verses “birth” and “wind.” We often think of the parables of Jesus being illustrations to more easily teach spiritual things, but in reality Jesus used them to veil the truth to unbelievers. Even the plain earthly things they do not believe.
Verse 13: There is Full Understanding in Christ
Though Nicodemus knew the Scripture so well, and he should’ve known and received what Jesus spoke of, he ultimately did not know what he should’ve because he did not know Christ in faith. He didn’t truly understand the Scripture because he didn’t have the appropriate hermeneutical key to understanding the Scripture. Christ is that key. Jesus is teaching that to him here. Proverbs 4:19 says, “The way of the wicked is like deep darkness; they do not know over what they stumble.” Nicodemus was stumbling over Christ, and he didn’t know it. At least not yet.
It seems to me that here in verse 13, Jesus is referencing Jacob’s ladder, yet again, as He did with Nathanael back at the end of chapter 1. In Jacob’s dream angels were descending and ascending on a ladder from heaven to earth. At the top of the ladder was the Lord, and in the dream He blessed Jacob. Jacob was so moved, and a bit confused, he thought it was the physical location in which he was sleeping that was the portal from heaven to earth. He said, “Surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know it.” And he was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven” (Genesis 28:16-17). Then he calls the place Bethel, which means “the house of God.” So Jacob thought it was the earthly physical location that was the gate between heaven and earth. Then Jesus comes along and says, “It was me. I’m the gate. I’m the portal from heaven to earth.” In His conversation with Nathanael He says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man” (John 1:51). So there, He’s the ladder and the angels are ascending and descending on Him. But in His conversation with Nicodemus He says, “No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man” (John 3:13). So there, Jesus is the one ascending and descending. Jesus is essentially saying, “I am the way to understanding. I am the key to understanding the Scripture. And I am the point of Scripture. It is through me that you understand these things.”
Colossians 2:2-3 tells us, “…all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, is Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” It is only in and through belief in the Lord Jesus Christ that we understand the Scripture and the things of God. Without Christ all is darkness and vanity. There is an element of faith in Christ that is necessary to understanding the Scripture and spiritual things. I was reading a Charles Spurgeon sermon this week in which he said, “If I set a critical scholar to read a Psalm, he sees no Messiah there; but if I set an enthusiastic lover of the Saviour to read it, he sees him, if not in every verse, still here and there glimpses of his glory.” If we understand something apart from Christ we do not understand it.
Verse 14-15: There is Full Life in Christ
Jesus then goes on to reference another passage of Old Testament Scripture that Nicodemus would’ve known – Numbers 21 (which we will look at in more depth next week, Lord willing). Why does Jesus bring up this passage in reference to Himself? He is teaching the teacher of Israel how to understand the Scripture by preaching the gospel to Him! Jesus is teaching Nicodemus how to understand the Scripture, and He’s evangelizing him!
Essentially what we have here is the answer to the question in verse 9. In the verses we looked at last week, vv. 1-8, Jesus talks with Nicodemus about the new birth. In verse 9, in response to Jesus’ talking about the necessity of the new birth and the sovereign working of the Spirit in the new birth, Nicodemus asks how all that can be. He is essentially asking, “If the new birth is necessary to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, yet it is a sovereign work of the Spirit, who like the wind we cannot control, then how in the world are we supposed to be born again and enter the Kingdom of Heaven?” Jesus essentially says, “Look, you should know, since you have the Scripture, but you have not believed me, so you can’t understand. But if you look to the Son of Man lifted and believe, you will have eternal life.” In other words, “If the new birth is necessary and we can’t do it ourselves then how are we supposed to be saved?” Answer: “Believe in Him! Believe in the Son of Man, Son of God, Jesus Christ!” That is what you are responsible to do. The first and foremost expression and effect of the new birth in a person is belief and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. How is the new birth possible? Through and in Christ. How can dead men be made alive? Through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. How can an old man be born again? Through the Spirit’s application of the work of Christ – the ultimate man, and the Ancient of Days. How can these things be? By looking to Jesus Christ lifted up on the cross and believing in Him.
The implied exhortation to believe in the Lord Jesus lifted up is connected to the discussion on the Spirit’s role in the new birth. The Holy Spirit does not roam around the earth and randomly give spiritual life to people in a vacuum. The Holy Spirit works through the Word of God and the preaching of the gospel to give faith. Romans 10:17, “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” That’s how the new birth happens – the gospel is preached and the Spirit makes effectual that Word and grants faith.
One of the main points in this passage about the necessity of the new birth is that man’s problem is that he needs to be made into a new man. Man’s problem is that he needs to be made into a new man! The natural self is dead in sins, rebellious toward God, unable to understand or believe spiritual things, and excluded from the Kingdom of God. That’s the problem that the new birth solves. It makes us into a new man. The new birth is not done in a vacuum – it’s not an isolated magic trick from God. The New birth is the application of the work of Christ. It applies to us the blood of Christ – forgiveness of sins. It applies to us the righteousness of Christ – our justification. We are filled with His Spirit that our minds are renewed in the truth, and our ways desire to walk in obedience according to our new nature.
The problem of man is that we need to be made into a new man, which is due to the sin of our old man – Adam. We, in our first father, Adam, rebelled against God and death entered the world. In our flesh is sin and death. Our need for a new man is fulfilled in the Son of Man. Jesus calls himself the Son of Man in verse 13 and 14. Why is this? Matthew Henry tells us, “Christ, in calling Himself the Son of Man, shows that He is the second Adam, for the first Adam was the Father of man.” The problem of man is that we need to be made into a new man because of the sin of our old man (Adam), so the Son of Man was lifted up for all men, that our old man (our flesh) could be made a new man.
How can a man be born when he is old? Through the life and death of the Son of Man. So I ask you, have you been born again and made new? Is there fruit? Do you believe upon the Lord Jesus Christ, lifted up on the cross for sinners? Do so now today and you will have eternal life.