There’s one question I always ask when I read about someone’s encounter with Jesus in the gospels…
“What’s the spiritual condition of the person talking to Jesus.”
I mean… are they a believer… a seeker… or someone not at all interested in the spiritual side of life?
Most people assume that Jesus spent the majority of His time “evangelizing unbelievers”… so they naturally conclude that we should do the same. Our generation has focused much of its efforts on evangelism… because we believe “that’s WJD”.
In this post… we’ll look at an interaction Jesus had with Nicodemus. Most understand this guy to be a “seeker” who is coming to Jesus with questions, but is it possible that he is a believer coming to Jesus to understand more about his Messiah?
Let’s see if we can pull Nicodemus out of the shadows.
What’s Going on Behind the Translation?
There is a lot happening “behind the curtain” of the English translations of John 3:1-21. While I won’t be able to take space to unpack all of it here, I would like to give you some things for further study.
First… John, the author, used one word over and over again in verses 3-5. The Greek word “pneuma“, which can mean a “breath”, a “blast of air”, or “wind” but is often interpreted as “spirit”. In scripture, this can often refer to the Holy Spirit. In John 3:5-8… everywhere the English translation says “wind” and/or “Spirit”… it’s the same word (pneuma) in the Greek language. (For a more complete discussion… please read Zane Hodges’ article).
Second… the Greek phrase that’s often translated, “born again” can also be translated “born from above” (meaning Heaven). Jesus was using this linguistic ambiguity to teach a spiritual truth. Nicodemus originally thought Jesus meant “born again” (physical birth) when Jesus really meant “born from above” (spiritual birth). Jesus liked to play with phrases like that.
Third… there are a bunch of “you” statements in the interaction between Jesus and Nicodemus. The Greek language uses two different words to distinguish whether a “you” is singular (directed to one person) or plural (sometimes in English we say “you all”). English is not so clear. The English language only has one “you” that functions as both a singular “you” and a plural “you all”. I believe the English language brings a lack of clarity to Nicodemus’ conversation with Jesus.
With that said… let’s take a look at the interaction Jesus had with Nicodemus.
Nick at Night… John 3:1-21
Nicodemus, a man of the Pharisees, was coming to Jesus as an individual… but, at the same time, he was representing the larger group of “unbelieving Pharisees”… or possibly the whole Sanhedrin. How do we know this? Just look at his first statement in John 3:2. “Rabbi, we know that you have come from God as a teacher…”. That “we” is plural and says that he is speaking on behalf of the entire group of Pharisees, of which he was a member.
Interestingly enough, in Jesus’ response… He addresses Nicodemus, at times, as an individual… and at other times, as the representative of the whole group of those who spiritually “ruled the Jews”. To help point out these differences, here’s my “really rough” paraphrase of the conversation in John 3:5-12:
v. 5 – “It’s the truth when I say to you (singular… said only to Nicodemus)… unless someone is ‘born from above’ he cannot really understand what’s going on in regards to God’s Kingdom.
v. 6 – Those who are living their lives directed by their ‘flesh’ are only of the ‘flesh’… but those directed by the ‘Spirit’ are of the ‘Spirit of God’.
v. 7 – Don’t be surprised that I said to you (singular…. Nicodemus), ‘All the Pharisees’ (plural you) must be born from above.
v. 8 – The ‘Spirit of God’ blows when and where it wishes… and you (singular… Nicodemus) hear the sound of it… even though you (singular… Nicodemus) aren’t always sure from where it is coming. This is a characteristic of everyone who has had a new birth in the Spirit of God.
v. 9 – Nick said, “How is this possible?”
v. 10 – Jesus answered, “You (Nicodemus) are supposed to be able to explain this to everyone else… and you don’t really understand it?
v. 11 – It’s the truth when I say this to you (Nicodemus). We (the Father, the Spirit and Jesus) testify about what we know to be true… and the Pharisees (plural ‘you’) don’t accept what we say.
v. 12 – If I talk to the Pharisees (plural ‘you’) in parables about earthly realities… and they (plural ‘you’) don’t understand who I am. Do you expect them (plural ‘you’) to believe me when I talk about spiritual realities?
Now… I know that’s a really rough paraphrase… but I’m trying emphasize what Jesus might really be communicating to Nicodemus, the individual, while also speaking to him as Nicodemus, the representative of a larger group. I think Jesus’ use of singular and plural “you” requires us to make this distinction.
I’d like to focus again on what Jesus said directly to Nicodemus in John 3:8. Understood correctly, I think Jesus is describing Nicodemus as one who has already been “born from above”. Jesus later contrasts that, in John 3:12, with a description of the group of “unbelievers” that Nicodemus is representing.
Most readers agree that Nicodemus is “a believer” later in John’s gospel (see John 7:50 & 19:39). Could it be that the text is suggesting, even here in John 3, Nicodemus was a “believing representative” of a larger “unbelieving group”?
If that’s the way we are supposed to understand this passage… could that begin to change your understanding of Jesus’ ministry… and in turn your ministry?