In this study, we are going to look at John chapter three, the interview of Nicodemus with Jesus. I was recently talking with a friend, and she asked, “What are you going to teach on Bob?” I replied, “I am going to teach on being born again from a Jewish perspective.” At that her eyes went blank, and she said, “Isn’t that an oxymoron, being born again from a Jewish perspective?” I stated, “No, the whole concept of being born again was part and parcel of the Jewish community in the first century.”
This concept did not originate in 1976 or so, with Charles Colson’s book “Born Again.” Around the year 1976 I read the book “Born Again.” That was a few years after Charles Colson had gone to jail, and being born again became a popular topic. You had born again potatoes, born again washing machines, born again cars. Everything was born again. Everyone thought it was a brand new term, but this term has been around for over two thousand years. Like I said, it was part and parcel of the Jewish community in the first century.
So, that is what I am going to demonstrate at this time. After reading this article, ask your Jewish friend if he knows what the Jewish term being born again means. See what happens; see if it starts a conversation. If he is the average Jewish person here in Southern California, who is secular, and atheistic, and unreligious, he will just shrug his shoulders and you will know more about the Jewish community than he does. But if he is religious, if he is orthodox, he may very well know what you are talking about, and you may be able to discuss it with him.
Let us go ahead and take a look at being born again from a Jewish perspective. Before I get into John 3:1 itself, I want to point out that this section of the book of John is the first of seven discourses. John likes to work around the number seven. He records seven discourses that Jesus utters during His ministry. John is a unique book because it is supplementary to the other three gospels. John shares with us what Jesus said. The other three gospels share with us what Jesus did. He fills in a lot of the information the other gospel writers did not include through these seven long discourses. So this is number one. This section is often called the discourse on the new birth.
The background to this interview with Nicodemus actually starts a couple of verses earlier in John chapter two. So, I want to back up to John 2:23, and let us read verses 23 to 25 of the previous chapter.
Now when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover, during the feast, many believed in His name, observing His signs which He was doing. But Jesus, on His part, was not entrusting Himself to them, for He knew all men, and because He did not need anyone to testify concerning man, for He Himself knew what was in man.
John is trying to very clearly tell us that Jesus is more than a man. Jesus is God in the flesh, and the Messiah. How is he doing that? He is telling us that by using repetition. Repeating is a Jewish form of emphasis. He is telling us that Jesus could read minds. Now, who is the only individual who can read a person’s mind? God, Himself, is the only One who can do it. God is the only one who knows what is in a man.
The Rabbi’s came to that realization through their studies in the Scriptures as well. An example would be Psalm 139. I am going to share with you just four verses out of 24 verses from this Psalm that make this characteristic of God very clear. Look at what the first four verses say,
- Psalm 139:1-4
For the choir director. A Psalm of David. O Lord, You have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; You understand my thought from afar. You scrutinize my path and my lying down, And are intimately acquainted with all my ways. Even before there is a word on my tongue, Behold, O Lord, You know it all.
Can we hide anything from God? If you are trying to, give it up. But, isn’t it amazing that even though He knows what goes on inside our heads, He still treats us as a loving heavenly Father, and He is still working in our lives. He still loves us, cares for us, etc. Yet He knows everything that goes on inside.
That is the point that John is trying to make here; that Jesus is not just a man, He is the God-Man. Not only that, He is the Messiah. We know that because He knows what is in a man. Only God knows what is in a man. Only God can read your mind.
Anytime you see in the Gospels statements like, “Jesus, knowing what was in their hearts said …,” He is reading their minds. They are not talking among themselves, they are thinking in their hearts, and He is reading their minds. On more than one occasion He says, “Why are you thinking in your hearts?” Every time you see that, it is a claim to Messiahship and deity in the Jewish mind. This is just one of numerous scriptures that substantiate the fact that God reads your mind; that God knows exactly what is going on, everything, every minute of the day. He knows when I am going to stand up and sit down. He knows the next word coming out of my mouth.
Here we directly encounter the paradox of God’s omniscience versus man’s free will. The Bible teaches both. God knows everything, and at the same time men have free will. For example, He knows everything that is going to come out of our mouths, but, we make the responsible decision to utter the words. God knows all, but man makes responsible decisions. The Bible teaches both sides of the coin, and we need to equally teach both concepts strongly. We must not teach evasively or emphasize one side over the other. Both are true.
Our ancient rabbis agree with this understanding as stated is Mishnah Aboth 3:16 (The Mishnah, Herbert Danby, Oxford University Press. See also Davka Corporation, Judaic Classics, Mishna Avoth 3:15):
All is foreseen, but freedom of choice is given…
Now, let us not miss the connection between chapter 2 verses 24 and 25 and chapter 3 verse 1. We will start on chapter 2 verse 24 and we will read through to chapter 3 verse 1.
- John 2:24-3:1
But Jesus, on His part, was not entrusting Himself to them, for He knew all men, and because He did not need anyone to testify concerning man, for He Himself knew what was in man. Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews; …
The chapter break is bad here. It breaks up the flow of the thought. Jesus knew what was in every man, and, by the way, there was a man that He had an interview with. He is going to look into the soul of this particular man, and deal with what is going on in his heart. Nicodemus had an issue, I believe, that he was dealing with, and Jesus will speak directly to it.
Nicodemus had noticed, and was very impressed with, the miracles of verse 23. Jesus is at the Passover; He is doing signs. Nicodemus has seen them; he is awed. That is one of the reasons he comes to Jesus.
What do we know about this man Nicodemus? The name Nicodemus is a Hellenized version of the Hebrew name Nakdimon. It is very possible that this man is referred to in the Talmud. There is a Nicodemus who was a well known figure in Jerusalem in the first century. In fact, I would like to read from an article about Nicodemus. This comes from the Jewish Encyclopedia. It is online at jewishencyclopedia.com. It is a free Jewish Encyclopedia. This is not a Christian encyclopedia with a Christian bias to emphasize. With that in mind, notice what the article states.
Nicodemus – Prominent member of the Sanhedrin, and a man of wealth; lived in Jerusalem in the first century C.E.
The designation C.E. means Common Era. It is the Jewish designation for time period commonly known as A.D. A.D. stands for Anno Domini which is Latin for “in the Year of the Lord.” The article continues:
He is mentioned in John 3:3-21, 7:50, 19:39.
So this encyclopedia indicates that the New Testament Nicodemus is the same Nicodemus mentioned in the Talmud. The man we are talking about in the Gospel of John is a well known figure in the Jewish community of the first century. The next section of the article reads;
In the first of these passages he is represented as a “ruler of the Jews” who learned from Jesus what “rebirth by baptism” meant…
Nicodemus was a “ruler of the Jews” because he was a member of the Sanhedrin. Now, notice the Jewish error there. Most Jewish people think that salvation comes by baptism. You will see why in just a little bit. That error is perpetuated by the Roman Catholic Church, which also teaches that you get salvation by baptism. In Roman Catholic doctrine It does not matter if you want to be baptized or not. Infants can be baptized. In regard to Jewish people, just grab that Jewish person, get him wet, and you have saved him. So, you can see some misunderstandings in this article that we need to speak to. Let us continue;
(He) learned from Jesus what “rebirth by baptism” meant, as if that rabbinical term had been altogether unknown to him.
The encyclopedia is correct. The term “rebirth” is not unknown to Nicodemus. It is very much a part of the first century, and I will show you that soon. Moving on in the article;
The second passage records how he made his visit to Jesus by night, in order that he might not be known as one of the latter’s disciples.
This reference to a “second passage” is a mistake in the encyclopedia article. It is a misprint. It should read the “first passage.” It is the first passage that records how he made a visit to Jesus by night, in order that he might not be known as one of the latter’s disciples. Then the article overlooks the second passage, John 7:50, when Nicodemus defended Jesus in front of other Pharisees. The article continues with a reference to the third passage that mentions Nicodemus.
In the third passage he and Joseph of Arimathæa are described as having taken charge of the body of Jesus in order to give it decent burial. That the man brought into such prominence in the fourth Gospel must have been a well-known figure of Jewish society at the time is evident. In all probability he is identical with the Talmudical Nicodemus ben Gorion, a popular saint noted for his miraculous powers; and this would explain also the reference to “heavenly things” in Jesus’ arguments with him (John 3:12).
Nicodemus is a historically attested person. Nicodemus was also a Pharisee. This is important because the Pharisees held to a very pivotal point of doctrine. In the Mishnah, the oral traditions, Sanhedrin 10:1 and in the Talmud, Sanhedrin 90a, this is what we read:
All Israelites have a share in the world to come. For it is written, Thy people shall be all righteous, they shall inherit the land forever, the branch of my planting, the work of my hands, that I may be glorified.
The verse quoted above is Isaiah 60:21. After studying Isaiah 60:21, the rabbis came to the conclusion that to be born a Jew means you have automatic entrance into the Kingdom. If you start talking about Jesus to your Jewish friend and he gets a little convicted, and he goes to the rabbi, and asks about heaven and hell, the rabbi will probably tell him, “That is a gentile problem, all Jews go to heaven.”
What is kind of humorous about this is that after this statement the rabbis list all the exceptions. Here are the exceptions:
But the following have no portion therein: He who maintains that the resurrection is not a biblical doctrine.
How many Jewish people today believe in the resurrection? The answer is very few. In other words, most Jewish people today do not have a share in the world to come. The second exception reads;
The Torah is not divinely revealed.
How many Jewish people believe that today? Not very many believe that the Bible is divinely revealed. Ninety percent do not. Ninety percent of the Jewish community does not have a share in the world to come according to this statement. The exceptions continue;
This is an epicurean, one who indulges in luxury and sensuality. Rabbi Akiva, a rabbi who lived around 135 AD, added another exception:
One who reads uncanonical books.
The mention of uncanonical books is probably a reference to the New Testament. Rabbi Akiva also added:
Also one who whispers a charm over a wound and says, “I will bring none of these diseases upon thee, which I brought against the Egyptians for I am the Lord that healeth thee.”
So, a Jewish faith healer will go to hell, according to the rabbis. Abba Shaul, another rabbi adds:
Also one who pronounces the divine name as it is spelt.
The divine name is spelled, in Hebrew, yud, hey, vav, hey. The name is pronounced Yahweh. Jews are forbidden by the rabbis to pronounce the name Yahweh. And then the final statement:
Three kings and four commoners have no portion in the world to come. The three kings are Jeroboam, Ahab and Manasseh. The four commoners: Balaam, Doeg, Ahitophel and Gehazi.
So that is one part of the important Pharisaic doctrine, “All Israelites have a share in the world to come.” We also read a similar statement in one of the rabbinical commentaries, Genesis Rabbah, the Great Commentary on Genesis. Rabbah means to be lifted up. Genesis Rabbah states:
Abraham sits on the gates of Gehenna, to save any Israelite assigned thereto. (Genesis Rabbah 48:8)
Gehenna is another word for Hell. So what do the rabbis mean by this? What they are saying is that Abraham is sitting at the door to Hell. Should God make a mistake and send an Israelite to Hell by accident, not to vorry, Abraham will reach out and grab him, at the last minute, and save him from Hell. Abraham is our insurance policy.
To summarize all this, to be born a Jew is to automatically inherit eternal life. That is rabbinic theology. That is what Nicodemus believed and taught in the first century. Let us go on to verse 2.
- John 3:2
this man came to Jesus by night and said to Him, “Rabbi, we know that You have come from God as a teacher; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.”
Nicodemus came by night. It is an important point to note, because John introduces a subtheme into his gospel here called “the conflict between light and darkness.” We will see that conflict in just a little bit.
When Nicodemus comes to Him, he opens the conversation and Jesus immediately speaks to his needs. What I see in this is that Nicodemus is preoccupied with the Kingdom of God, but I also see that he is struggling with the rabbinic theology that I just shared with you. He is not so sure that he qualifies to enter into the Kingdom of God just because he is born a Jew. He has taught these doctrines all his life, but he is still not 100% sure of them.
Jesus speaks to his need here, in verses 3 and 4:
- John 3:3-4
Jesus answered and said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to Him, “How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born, can he?”
Nicodemus’ response has often been misunderstood. Most commentators think Nicodemus is totally confused, he did not know what Jesus was talking about, and is just searching around for some kind of an answer. But I think the stress should be put on Nicodemus’ statement, “How can a man be born when he is old?” I believe that is the emphasis in Nicodemus’ mind. He knows what being born again means. He just does not know it can happen at his age. We will see in a few minutes that he was probably in his 50’s. Now, let us take a look at this concept of being born again.
At this point I want to introduce a chart entitled “You must be born again.” We are going to work through the Jewish view of being born again based on this chart. Pharisaic Judaism taught that there are eight ways to be born again and they all stress the physical element. Nicodemus qualified for six. Let us take a look at them. (The explanation of the chart follows.)
|“YOU MUST BE BORN AGAIN” – John 3:7|
|Type of Birth||Age||Nicodemus Qualified||Comment||Realm||Reference|
|Born of Water||Birth||Yes||Rabbinic idiom for physical birth||Physical||Nicodemus, A Rabbi’s Quest, Ariel Ministries, Manuscript #16, pg. 2|
|BORN AGAIN||Jewish Encyclopedia: Vol. 3, pg. 220|
|Proselyte Conversion||Various||No||Nicodemus was already Jewish||Physical||Encyclopedia Judaica: Vol. 13, Col. 1184. Jewish Encyclopedia: Vol. 10, pg. 223. Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah: Vol. 1, pg. 384|
|Crowned King||Various||No||No evidence that Nicodemus was a member of the House of David||Physical||Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah: Vol. 1, pg. 384. Yalkut on 1 Sam. 13|
|Tevillah (Baptism)||Various||Yes||As a Pharisee Nicodemus immersed frequently||Physical||Jewish Encyclopedia.com: Ablution, Baptism|
|Repentance||Various||Yes||Nicodemus expressed repentance at least once a year at Yom Kippur||Physical||Jewish Encyclopedia.com: Birth, New|
|Bar Mitzvah||13||Yes||Adult Responsibility||Physical||Nicodemus, A Rabbi’s Quest, Ariel Ministries, Manuscript #16, pg. 2|
|Marriage||16-20||Yes||Requirement for being a member of the Sanhedrin||Physical||Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Vol. 1, pg. 384|
|Rabbinic Ordination||Around 30||Yes||“Rav” (taught the masses)||Physical||Peninim on the Torah, pg. 233|
|Head of a Rabbinic Academy (Yeshiva)||Around 50||Yes||“HaRav” (taught Rabbinic candidates or other Rabbis||Physical||Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Vol. 1, pg. 384|
|Born of the Spirit||Various||Yes||Salvation||Spiritual||John 3:7|
The first type of birth, “to be born of water” happens when you are physically born. Of course Nicodemus qualified for this type of birth because being born of water is a rabbinic idiom for physical birth. It is a reference to the amniotic fluid.
Then the rabbis went on to say that there is another type of birth and that is to be “born again.” They taught that there are eight ways you could be “born again.” The first of those types of rebirth we encounter is proselyte conversion. When a gentile chose to become Jewish, converted to Judaism, he was said to be “born again.” He moved into a whole new realm of life. He moved out of being gentile and into being Jewish. He took on new responsibilities. He did not have responsibilities to the Mosaic Law before; now he is committed to the Mosaic Law and the traditions of first century Judaism. Of course, this can happen at various ages. Did Nicodemus experience this? No, he did not have to; he was already Jewish.
The next way to be “born again” is to be crowned king. When a Jewish man became king, he is said to be “born again.” He started a whole new life. Before, he was just a citizen of the nation, now he is the leader! Now he needs got to lead the country. That means he has to take on tremendous responsibilities, and a brand new life. This happened at various ages. There is no particular age that a man can be crowned king. Did Nicodemus experience this? No, there is no evidence that Nicodemus was a member of the house of David. There is no evidence that he was in a line for David’s throne, so he did not experience this at all.
At this juncture we come to the ways in which Nicodemus was “born again.” The next way you could be “born again” is t’vilah, which is Hebrew for Baptism. Jewish people are very concerned about ritual cleanliness, so there are many immersions in Rabbinic Judaism. You immersed yourself and when you came out of the water and you were ritually clean. Of course, that happened all the time. Was Nicodemus qualified? Did he experience this type of being “born again?” Yes indeed. Nicodemus, as a Pharisee, immersed frequently, constantly. Let me share with you a little comment from Encyclopedia Judaica on ablution or baptism. Here is what the author said:
Total immersion is required for most cases of ritual impurity…
We are not talking about dirt on your hands or anything like that. We are not talking about germs. We are talking about ritual cleanliness. The article from Encyclopedia Judaica continues:
Total immersion is required for most cases of ritual impurity decreed in the Torah. Immersions were required especially of the priests, since they had to be in a state of purity in order to participate in the temple service or eat of the holy things. Other individuals had to be ritually pure even to enter the temple. However, it became customary among the Pharisees to maintain a state of purity at all times. In fact, a fact which their Hebrew name, the Perushim, (separated ones) may have developed.
Nicodemus was a Pharisee. So, Nicodemus had a fetish about ritual cleanliness. He was constantly going through this. Being immersed, full immersion, and then coming out ritually clean. He went through this all the time, he was “born again” repeatedly.
The next way you can be “born again” is repentance. Repentance means to turn around, to change your mind from walking in unrighteousness to walking in righteousness. That is being “born again.” It is a new way of life. You were going one way, now you are going another way. This can happen at any age. Was Nicodemus qualified for this? Had he experienced repentance? You better believe it. He probably repented all the time. At a bare minimum we know he would express repentance on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, and the most holy day of the Jewish year. He repented at least once a year.
The next way you could be “born again” is when you are bar-mitzvahed. When a Jewish boy reaches the age of 13, he is “born again” because he becomes a man. He is no longer a child; he starts a brand new life. He is now responsible for his own sin. He is “born again” into a brand new life.
The next way you become born again occurred when you were married. Now you have a wife to support; a wife to take care of, and a home. It is brand new start. It is a brand new life. You are “born again.” Marriage happened between the ages of 16 and 20 in the first century. Nicodemus was married because that was a requirement for being a member of the Sanhedrin. The Talmud Kethuboth 65A and 66B mentions that he had a daughter and a son.
The next way you could be “born again” is rabbinic ordination. When you were ordained as a rabbi, you now taught the masses. You taught people the Torah. You taught them the traditions; how to live. You took on brand new responsibilities, a brand new life. This happened around age 30. We know Nicodemus was a rabbi, he was teaching the masses.
One more way in which you could be “born again” was when you become the head of a rabbinic academy, a rabbinic seminary, a yeshiva. Now your life changes again because you are not responsible to teach the masses, you are now responsible to teach rabbis and rabbinic candidates. This is a whole new responsibility, a whole new life. You are “born again.” We know that Nicodemus was the head of a yeshiva because when you became the head of a yeshiva you receive the title HaRav. If you are just a rabbi, you receive the title Rav, but, when you became the head of a yeshiva, you receive the title HaRav. We will see Jesus use this title HaRav in relation to Nicodemus is just a minute.
So, Nicodemus has gone through the experience of being “born again” every way he knows how. He has been “born again” left, right, up, down and sideways. He may be 50 years old by now. That is why he says to Jesus, “How can a man be born when he is old?” “Jesus, I have gone through all this stuff, I would have to start all over in my mother’s womb. That is the only way left.” What he does not understand is what Jesus is driving at. Jesus is going to tell him that he has got to be born of the Spirit. He has to be born again in the spiritual realm. He has to start a brand new life with God. That can happen at any age. Will Nicodemus be qualified for this? Yes. He will not experience being “born again” of the Spirit in this chapter, but by the end of the gospels, he is “born again,” he is a believer. Jesus is talking about spiritual salvation here. He is no longer talking about the physical realm. We will see that when we get to verse 7. At this point, Nicodemus has used up every way he knows to be “born again.” Let us move on to verses 5 and 6.
There are some parallels in verses 5 and 6, which I need to point out. Parallelism is another Jewish way of emphasizing ideas. Now let us take a look at John chapter 3 verse 5:
- John 3:5
Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.”
The two contrasting elements Jesus talks about are the water and the Spirit. He goes on to emphasize this in verse 6.
- John 3:6
That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.
Do you see the contrast there? Being born of water, being born physically, is being born of the flesh; but being born of the Spirit is in contrast to that. There is a fleshly physical birth and a spiritual rebirth. So He is emphasizing the distinction between the two.
Now, do not make a mistake here, Jesus is not talking about baptism when He is talking about being born of water. Jesus is talking about physical birth when He uses that terminology. Remember, the phrase to be “born of water” is a Jewish idiom referring to the gush of amniotic fluid that accompanies physical birth.
Let us go on to verse 7.
- John 3:7
Do not be amazed that I said to you, “You must be born again.”
Let me paraphrase what Jesus states at this point. He is saying, “The only way to enter the Kingdom, Nicodemus, is to be born of the Spirit, nothing else is going to do.”
Nicodemus was struggling with this whole idea. He had taught all of his life that he is automatically qualified to enter the Kingdom just by virtue of being Jewish. Jesus is now saying, “Being born Jewish is inadequate Nicodemus. Physical birth is inadequate Nicodemus.”
Why is that? Simply because the type of body we inhabit right now is not fit for the Kingdom of God. That is what Paul said in I Corinthians 15:50. He picks up this idea and he says
- 1 Corinthians 15:50
Now I say this, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.
Are physical bodies eternal? No. We are all going to die. Our bodies were born with sin natures. Sin crippled bodies are perishable. Being born Jewish is not going to help you overcome that problem. Jesus continues:
- John 3:8
The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.
Basically, Jesus says here that the “new birth” is under divine control not under man’s control. Physical birth is under man’s control but not the “new birth.” The new birth, He says, can be experienced by mankind but it can never be understood by man and can never be controlled by man. It is like the wind. Think of hurricanes during the hurricane season. We look at the news and what do they do during the weather report? They show computer plots of where they think the hurricane is going to go. The only problem is that the computer models go all over the place! The weathermen have no idea where the hurricane is going. If we could control it what would we do? We turn it off! But we cannot turn a hurricane off and so we hide from it. We are totally helpless in the face of enormous wind and rain. That is the way it is with being “born again.” It is controlled by God. We cannot understand it, but we can experience it.
Let us move on to verses 9 through 12.
- John 3:9-12
Nicodemus said to Him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered and said to him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and do not understand these things? Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know and testify of what we have seen, and you do not accept our testimony. If I told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things?”
Jesus held Nicodemus responsible to know what He is talking about based on his knowledge of the Old Testament. Believe me, Nicodemus knew his Old Testament. He probably had the Torah memorized. In addition, he had the Mishnah, the traditions, memorized as well and that is a lot bigger than the Old Testament.
Jesus calls him “the teacher of Israel.” That means Nicodemus was the head of a yeshiva! He was a teacher of teachers. He was responsible to know what Jesus is talking about. For example, the rabbis taught in the Talmud, Berachoth 34B:
R. Hiyya b. Abba also said in the name of R. Johanan: All the prophets prophesied only for the days of the Messiah
In other words, the Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament, prepared the Jewish community for the coming of the Messiah and for all that He would say and do. All the concepts of the New Testament have their roots in the Old. You really need to know the Old Testament before you can truly understand the New Testament.
- John 3:13
No one has ascended into heaven, but He who descended from heaven: the Son of Man.
Now Jesus goes on and explains His deity and His origin in heaven, and therefore His authority as the Messiah. He calls Himself the Son of Man. This term the Son of Man is a technical term for the Messiah, it comes straight from Daniel 7:13-14.
- Daniel 7:13-14
I kept looking in the night visions, And behold, with the clouds of heaven One like a Son of Man was coming, And He came up to the Ancient of Days And was presented before Him. And to Him was given dominion, Glory and a kingdom, That all the peoples, nations and men of every language Might serve Him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion Which will not pass away; And His kingdom is one Which will not be destroyed.
Daniel states that he saw a Man. He looks human but He was not. The reference to the clouds of heaven is a reference to the Shekinah glory of God, the glory of God that is always seen when He visibly manifests Himself. So here, this individual is associated with the very glory of God.
The name the Ancient of Days is a reference to God the Father, manifesting Himself visibly as a King. God can manifest Himself visibly when He chooses to do so. When He does, that revelation is called the Shekinah glory. So here we have one divine individual, approaching another divine individual.
The reference closes with the revelation of Jesus receiving the Messianic Kingdom. So this man-like person is also God. He is worshipped; He is divine.
The rabbis picked up on the term “Son of Man” and concluded that it was a title for the Messiah. For example, in the Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 98a, we eavesdrop in on a Messianic discussion. This is what we hear:
Rabbi Alexandri said, “Rav Joseph ben Levi pointed out a contradiction. It is written, ‘in its time (will the Messiah come), whilst it is also written, ‘the Lord will hasten it.'”
The rabbi sees a contradiction here. Why does one verse say that the Messiah will come in His own time yet the other verse says that God is going to hasten the coming of the Messiah? Here is their answer.
If they are worthy, I will hasten it.
On one side of the coin, God will bring the Messiah quickly if Israel is deserving. However:
If not, He will come at the due time.
On the other side of the coin, if Israel is not deserving, the Messiah’s coming will not be hastened. The Messianic discussion continues.
Rabbi Alexandri said, “Rav Joseph opposed two verses, it is written, ‘and behold, One like the Son of Man came with the clouds of Heaven,’ whilst (elsewhere) it is written,(‘behold Thy King cometh unto thee …) lowly and riding upon an ass!'”
You see the contradiction? On one side you see this glorious God-Man, associated with Shekinah glory, reigning; and, on the other side, we see this humble, suffering Messiah, coming in a lowly fashion. The rabbis could never put that diverse data together into a coherent understanding of the Messiah.
To this day, the rabbinic understanding of the Messiah is the Two Messiah Theory. It goes something like this: the first Messiah will come, the suffering Messiah, ironically named Messiah ben Joseph. He will come and suffer and die. After that, the second Messiah will come, the glorious Messiah, Messiah ben David, Messiah the son of David. He will reign and set up the Messianic Kingdom.
So, here is their explanation of the contradiction. If Israel is meritorious, Messiah will come with the clouds of heaven, in other words, in glory. If not, lowly and riding on an ass. Interestingly enough, that little interpretation describes the first and second coming of the Messiah. During the first coming, Jesus came lowly, riding upon a donkey and Israel rejected Him. We were not worthy. We were not meritorious. Jesus then suffered for the sins of mankind.
However, at the Second Coming, all Israel will be saved. Every living Jewish man, woman and child will make a faith commitment to Jesus the Messiah. We will call out to Him to return. He will return, and He will return in glory. We will be meritorious at that time. We will be saved by grace and credited with the Messiah’s righteousness. We will be born again! Little did they know, the rabbis interpreted the things pretty accurately. The only point they misunderstand is the fact that the Bible speaks of one Messiah coming twice.
Here, the term Son of Man is a reference to the Messiah. The rabbis agree with that statement. In the ArtScroll Tanach Commentary on Daniel, Rashi, the great Jewish commentator says, “this is King Messiah, the Son of Man.” The Soncino Books of the Bible states that rabbinical exegesis applied the title to the Messiah. In the Midrash on Psalms, the commentary of the Psalms, we read this;
Rabbi Berechiah said in the name of Rabbi Samuel, one verse reads of the King Messiah, that One, like the Son of Man … came to the Ancient of Days, and they brought him near before Him.
The Midrash is quoting Daniel 7:13 and says that it refers to King Messiah. When Jesus calls himself the Son of Man, He is making a direct Messianic claim. In no uncertain terms, He is saying, “I am the Messiah, I am the Divine Son of Man.” By the way, do not let anybody tell you that Jesus never claimed to be God. As you can see here, Jesus is claiming to be God over and over again from a Jewish frame of reference.
Let us go to verse 14.
- John 3:14
As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness …
Now Jesus gives this head of a yeshiva an Old Testament Bible lesson about the Messiah. The Bible lesson comes directly from Numbers 21:8-9. He expects Nicodemus to understand this lesson because Nicodemus is a Ph.D. when it comes to Bible knowledge.
In Numbers 21:8-9, the people were in the wilderness. They have sinned against God. Consequently, God sent poisonous snakes into their midst, to bite them as a form of punishment. People are dying and God tells Moses to take a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Whoever looks on that snake will be healed. This is the Messianic lesson out of the Torah and Nicodemus probably had that memorized, word for word. Jesus continues on in verse 14,
- John 3:14
… even so must the Son of Man be lifted up;
What happened physically to Israel in Moses’ day: we looked in faith to the uplifted serpent and we were healed physically. What happened physically to Israel will happen spiritually with the Messiah. When Jesus is lifted up on the cross, His pole, those who look to Him will be healed from spiritual death and be born again. That is the lesson Nicodemus should have understood as a Doctor of Divinity.
Now, as we come to verses 15-18, we come to the result of looking at the uplifted serpent.
- John 3:15-18
… so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.
At this point, Jesus applies the lesson of the uplifted serpent to every person’s individual responsibility before God in light of sin. The idea that each one of us is responsible before God for our sins is not a new concept. This idea is developed quite extensively by the prophet Ezekiel. The whole point of Ezekiel chapter 18, for example, is individual responsibility. We all stand the same before God. We cannot hide behind our parents. We cannot hide behind being the son of a pastor. We cannot hide behind being Jewish. We cannot hide behind anything. Everybody in this world is going to stand before God face to face. Jesus is telling Nicodemus, “You cannot hide behind being Jewish, Nicodemus. You are responsible for your own sin. The responsibility lies with every individual to make a decision either to believe in Jesus to be saved, or to reject Jesus and be judged.” We need to move on to verses 19-21.
- John 3:19-21
This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But he who practices the truth comes to the Light, so that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God.
Whenever you talk to your friends, whether Jewish or Gentile, I want you to avoid a very serious mistake. Often, we portray Jesus as a source of condemnation. How do we do that? We do that when we say “If you do not believe in Jesus, you are going to hell.” Sounds good, doesn’t it? But this statement just made Jesus appear to be the source of condemnation. The source of condemnation is not Jesus. What is the source? Sin! You need to tell your friends, “Because you are a sinner, you are bound for hell.” And then you need to tell them, “But there is a Savior out there. You see, Jesus is the source of salvation. Place your faith in Jesus as your substitutionary sacrifice, and you will be saved from God’s wrath against your sin.” Always present Jesus as a source of salvation. Make sure you word that correctly.
In verses 19-21, Jesus talks about two realms. Moving from one realm to the other is only possible through trusting Him. The first realm we encounter is the realm of condemnation. We need to examine the realm of condemnation in light of all that Jesus has said. First of all, those who are in the realm of condemnation are judged already. That is where we were born. We were born in sin. David said in Psalm 51, “in sin did my mother conceive me.” We are judged already. We are born in sin. We are living in darkness. And guess what? We love the darkness. We do not know it, but that is the way it is. We love the darkness and we do evil because we know of nothing different. That is where being born physically takes you. Being born a Jew does not take you out from the realm of condemnation.
But there is another realm to consider, the realm of salvation. What about the realm of salvation? When you move over to the realm of salvation, you move out of judgment. You are not judged. You are “born again.” You have entered the kingdom of light and not only that, you love the light and you do good.
Now, who is this guy that Jesus is talking to? Well, Jesus says in verses 19-21 that he who practices the truth comes to the light. We have to recognize that there are people who are seeking the truth. They practice the truth and when they do, they come to the light. Nicodemus was one of those people who were searching for the truth and he came to light. He did not come immediately, it took him a while but eventually he moved out of the realm of condemnation. He was “born again.” He moved into the kingdom of light. He loved the light and he did good.
By the way, people ask me, “What type of Jewish person is the easiest to reach for the Lord?” My answer has always been, “It does not matter whether they are Jewish or Gentile. It does not matter what branch of Judaism they are part of; Orthodox, ultra-Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, Atheist, Humanistic. What does matter is that they must be searching for the truth. They have to fall in this category. If they do, God will bring them to the truth.” So, the answer to the question, “What type of Jewish person is the easiest to reach for the Lord?” is this, “The easiest type of Jewish person to reach is one who is searching for the truth.”
Do you see the subtheme of light and darkness here? You have to move from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of light. Nicodemus came in the darkness and Jesus is shining His light upon him. Nicodemus is receiving that light, he is not hiding from it, and he is not running from it the way verse 19 states. He is coming to it.
As I said, coming to Jesus is not something Nicodemus did right away. He has to digest this. He needs to reorient his thinking. All his life, he has been teaching the belief that “all Israel has a share in the world to come.” He might not be convinced of that doctrine, but that is what he has been teaching all his life.
He is very typical of most Jewish people. It is very rare for a Jewish person to accept the Gospel the first time he hears it. It usually takes some time of struggle. For Nicodemus, the struggle begins right here in chapter 3 and it is going to last 3 years. In John chapter 7, he has moved to the point where he defends Jesus against his fellow Pharisees. Then, 3 years after this chapter, in John 19, we are going to see him openly identify himself as a believer as he buries the body of Jesus. He was there at the cross.
Can you imagine what went through his mind as he takes Jesus’ body down from the cross? Can you imagine him thinking back 3 years when Jesus said the Son of Man is going to be lifted up? What happened in the book of Numbers, he sees portrayed right before his eyes.
I have a final question for you. What brought Nicodemus to the light? What brought him to the point where placing his faith in Jesus would bring him to the realm of salvation by being be born again? The answer is this. What brought him to the truth was the Mosaic Covenant. This is what he was committed to; this is what he was living under.
How did the Mosaic Covenant accomplish this task? Let me briefly discuss the purposes for the Mosaic Covenant. I think this discussion will answer that question. Here are the purposes of the Mosaic Covenant.
- To make a distinction — Deuteronomy 4:6-8, 7:6-11
- Reveal God’s standard of righteousness — Psalm 19:7-11, 40:8
- Provide practical day-to-day guidance — Psalm 119:105
- Reveal the necessity for substitutionary atonement — Heb. 9:22, Lev. 17:11
- Reveal what sin is — Romans 3:20, 7:7
- Cause men to sin more — Romans 5:20, 7:8-10; 1 Corinthians 15:56
- Drive men to despair — Romans 7:12-25
- Drive men to trust in God for salvation and not themselves — Romans 8:1-4; 1 Corinthians 15:57
The first purpose of the Mosaic Covenant is to make a distinction between Israel and the rest of the world. We were to be a distinct people. The Mosaic Law was also designed to teach us distinctions between the clean and the unclean. That is why Nicodemus went through baptism (t’vilah) over and over again. He was constantly faced with the fact that he is ritually unclean. Read the Torah; read the book of Deuteronomy. If you take it seriously, you will say, “I would be swimming in water 24-7. I will always be unclean!” That is the point; you are always ritually unclean. You would constantly be faced with the distinction between the clean and the unclean, and you would consistently find yourself on the unclean side of the coin.
Number two, the Mosaic Law revealed God’s righteousness. Righteousness means to live by a standard, so here is the standard. This is what you are to follow.
Number three, it provided day-to-day guidance for everyday affairs. Psalm 119:105 reads, “your word is a light onto my feet.” There are principles in the Mosaic Law which guide you on a day-to-day basis.
Number four, the Law revealed the necessity for substitutionary atonement. Why do you think the sacrificial system exists? Why, because without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness. There had to be an innocent victim to take the penalty of the sin. That is what the sacrificial system taught us; it prepared the way for Jesus, who is our substitutionary sacrifice.
Number five, the Mosaic Law revealed what sin is. We did not know what sin was until somebody told us, and the law did just that. Now we know what is right and wrong. However, do you know what that does? It causes men to sin more! God says, “thou shall not” what do we say? We say, “Oh yes we will!” God says, “you shall,” and we say, “Oh no, we will not.” This causes men to sin more. If you try to live by the Mosaic Law, you will find yourself sinning constantly.
Number six, this constant sinning would drive men to despair. Those men, who were looking for the truth and accepting it, would be driven to despair. “How can I have the right relationship with God when I am constantly unworthy and unclean? How can I do that?” That is where Nicodemus was. He had bought into the theology that all Israel had a share in the world to come, but he was not convinced of it. That is why he came to Jesus.
Number seven, despair would drive men to trust God for salvation, not themselves. This is what was drawing Nicodemus to Jesus the Messiah. This is what was driving him to the truth, the Mosaic Law. That is the purpose for it. It is not there to save us. It is there to be a schoolmaster, to teach us about the Messiah. It exists to drive us to place our faith in Him so that we can be spiritually born again.
So, there was something in his background, sent from God. There was revelation in his life that was leading him to the truth. He just had to affirm the truth when he was faced with it.
Dear reader, are you like Rabbi Nicodemus, a sincere, honest seeker after God and the truth? Are you willing to consider the New Testament and the Book of John and see what they have to say about Jesus? If you realize that you are not born again, please contact us at HaDavar Messianic Ministries and we will do all we can to assist you to find the truth about the Messiah. Jesus said in John 14:6,
I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.