"Faith Without Works"
as Taught by Jesus
THE STORY OF NICODEMUS IS interesting for several reasons. His story is recorded in John 3:1-21. He was a Pharisee, a "ruler of the Jews" (verse 1) who came to Jesus by night. Most likely he did not want it to be known that he was visiting Jesus, nor did he want it known what he thought about Jesus.
I think this is perhaps one of the most interesting things about Nicodemus: he came to Jesus and said, "Rabbi, we know that Thou are a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that Thou doest, except God be with him" (John 3:2). Remember he is a Pharisee, a member of the party of Jews who are repeatedly spoken against in scripture for opposing Christ! Here was a man with an honest enough heart to recognize that Jesus must be from God. He does not dispute the miracles (and neither did most of the Pharisees since they could not be denied), but he instead pointed to them as EVIDENCE of Jesus being from God. He also admits in this simple statement that Jesus is a teacher from God. By calling him Rabbi, Nicodemus indicates that he was the pupil presenting himself before Jesus in order to be taught. Such an unusual attitude from the normal Pharisaical attitude presented in scripture.
Jesus recognized the honest heart in Nicodemus and heard him presenting himself as a student. Therefore, in verse 3, Jesus begins teaching Nicodemus without any kind of preliminary discussion. Jesus gets to the heart of the matter instantly by saying, "Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God." This was an arresting statement, placing a requirement upon those who wanted to see the kingdom of God. "Except" (in the King James) means - if and only if. It is a stringent requirement placed on the believer. If we are not born again as taught by Jesus, we will not see the Kingdom. Most Bible students understand from this statement and the discussion that follows that Jesus is talking about the "New Birth" which leads to the "New Man" and the "New Life" that a Christian is to lead. It must be a discussion about baptism. Jesus teaches the Pharisee with an honest heart that he must be baptized to see the Kingdom of God.
Nicodemus struggled with this strange concept. At first (in verse 4) he questioned Jesus about how a man could be physically born again from his mother's womb. Jesus cleared his thinking by identifying the birth as being "of water and of the Spirit" (verse 5). Jesus proceeded to tell Nicodemus about being born of the Spirit, and explain a little of what He taught. In verse 9, Nicodemus again questions in confusion, "How can these things be"? It is the reply of Jesus we need to hear!
This entire discussion by Jesus is prefaced by a simple phrase which to our ears would have been pregnant with implication to Nicodemus. In verse 3, Jesus begins by saying "I say unto you". Nicodemus had already told Jesus he knew He was from God and called Him Rabbi. Jesus places an emphasis on WHO is doing the teaching. We must not run past this statement because He comes back to this very argument in reply to the question in verse 9, "How can these things be". Jesus seemingly chastises Nicodemus in verse 10 saying, "Art thou a master of Israel and knowest not these things?" A very similar condemnation as presented in many New Testament passages about how the Jews should have recognized Christ and accepted His teaching because of their knowledge of the Old Law and the prophecies concerning Christ.
Now, AGAIN, Jesus says in verse 11 "I say unto you" (emphasizing His authority to teach) "We speak that we do not know, and testify that we have seen; and ye receive not our witness. If I have told you earthly things, and ye believe not, how shall ye believe if I tell you of heavenly things". Where at the outset Nicodemus seems to be presenting himself as a student and somewhat of a believer of Jesus' authority to teach as coming from God, Jesus directly tells him 'you don't believe Me'! Jesus goes on in the following verses to describe how no man has gone to heaven and come back to earth to reveal God's will, but that the Son of God came to earth to reveal His will. Then, in a marvelous explanation of His mission on earth and of the meaning of His death, Jesus says, "Whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but have everlasting life . . . for God sent not His Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through Him might be saved. He that believeth on Him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God" (John 3:15-18).
What is Jesus truly teaching this Pharisee? Several things, obviously, including how it is a man is saved. The end of the discourse is full of discussion about belief, but we cannot forget that Jesus began this discussion with "Except a man be born again, he cannot see the Kingdom of God". Being born again is just as essential as belief! Certainly that was one of the things He was teaching Nicodemus. Perhaps more importantly, Jesus was trying to teach Nicodemus that he must act on his faith. He had some belief in Jesus as coming from God, and he placed importance on what Jesus said (hence the meeting at night). But it appears that Nicodemus was unwilling or unprepared to openly confess Jesus and accept the disfavor of the other Pharisees. He did not believe the "earthly things" Jesus taught as requirements for seeing the Kingdom (the New Birth), and he certainly did not understand the concept of being "born of the Spirit." Verse 20 and 21 can be seen as the thrust of Jesus' point: those that "doeth evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved" (such as Nicodemus being reproved by the other Pharisees) and he that "doeth truth cometh to the light" so that his deeds "may be manifest, that they are wrought in God" (such as what Nicodemus needed to do).
Every indication from John 3 seems to point to the conclusion that Nicodemus was not born again after being taught by Christ. We do not know more, but this interesting story conveys MUCH truth for us today that we must understand and be able to teach. Namely that belief is necessary for salvation, and belief alone is not enough - we must be those who "do truth". We must also move past the initial conditions we have obeyed in order to enter the Kingdom and move forward to doing the things of God called for in scripture of the mature Christian. We have faith, enough to enter the Kingdom, but are we doing truth? If not, we also will not see the Kingdom of God!