Undoubtedly you have seen those popular yellow and black paperback books on every topic you can imagine from anthropology to Zoroastrianism. Nothing seems to be out of bounds. You name it there’s a yellow and black book for it. I’m referring, of course, to all those “For Dummies” books that introduce you to whatever thing it is that interests you. A kind of entry-level “101” course for all things imaginable. In order to buy the book, you have to buy into the notion that you are a “dummy,” at least as far as the topic is concerned, and that the “For Dummies” book has something to teach you.
Now I know that parents are trying hard to teach their children not to call each other names, like “dummy,” so I’ll try not to overuse it. But when it comes to theology, the words about God, we have to admit at the outset that we are natural-born “dummies.” Apart from what God has to teach us in His Word, and He has a lot to teach us, what we can know about God by our own reason and senses doesn’t amount to a hill of beans much less a “for dummies” book. We can look around the created order and figure out a) that it must have had a Designer, b) that this Designer must be very big, smart, and powerful, and c) that this Designer must be eternal since He was around before anything else was, including clocks and calendars. And that’s really about it.
That wasn’t always the case, but that’s how it is now. Adam and Eve had perfect knowledge of God, but they traded that away in favor of their own sensibilities. Seeking to become wise, they became “dummies” if you will, when they decided that being like God was a better idea than being the image of God. And so Adam plunged all of humanity into a perpetual state of theological “dummyhood,” from which we cannot extricate ourselves no matter how many books we read or classes we take.
Nicodemus was no “dummy” when it came to religion. He was an educated Pharisee, schooled in the Torah, a teacher of Israel, a respected member of the Sanhedrin, the religious ruling council. He came to Jesus at night for a little rabbi to rabbi meeting. Why at night? We’re not told. Perhaps it was not to draw attention. Perhaps it was a matter of convenience. In John, things tend to mean more than one thing, and time is usually significant. “Night” in John is the time of ignorance, darkness, unbelief. Night is the time “no man can work” (Jn 9:4). John quotes Jesus as saying, “If anyone walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him” (Jn 11:10). Judas betrayed Jesus at night (Jn 13:30). Jesus is the Light of the world and this world’s Day; He is the Light no darkness can overcome, the Light that gives life to all men.
Night is the darkness of the soul, the darkness of knowing many things but knowing nothing about God. Atheism. Paganism. Idolatry. Nicodemus may have been a good man, a just man, a fair man, a reasonable man, but walking in the night rather than the day, he was in the dark about Jesus. For Nicodemus, Jesus was a teacher come from God, a miracle man whose signs proved that God was with Him. That was close to the truth, but still only a shot in the dark. Jesus is more than a rabbi, He is the object of what the rabbis taught, He the Torah in the flesh.
Darkness is filled with creative potential in the hands of God. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. And the earth was without form and void (tohu-we-bohu, chaotic) and darkness covered the face of the deep. Into this dark, watery, chaos God spoke the ordering Word, “Be light.” And light there is in the darkness. God fills darkness with light by His Word. It’s not a bad thing to be in the dark, to be a “dummy.” Dummies are teachable, darkness is light-able. It’s those who think they know everything who are in big trouble.
Jesus would have Nicodemus come out of the darkness into the light, and so He hits him with a sidewise statement full of possibility: “Truly, truly (Amen, amen), I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Straight out of left field, it has nothing to do with what Nicodemus said, but everything do to with Nicodemus. To see the kingdom of God requires another birth; your first birth won’t work. That was a birth into the darkness of death, thanks to Adam. You must be born again. The word “again” also means “from above,” so perhaps the best way of quoting Jesus is to say, “You must be born again from above.” Two things in one breath. A second birth, and unlike your first birth from below, this own is from above.
What does this mean? John has already told us in the opening chapter of his gospel, which serves as a guide to his gospel. “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God; who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:12-13). To be born again from above is to believe (trust) in the Name of Jesus, and this is to be born not of blood (that is, in a natural way conceived by human parents), nor of the will of the flesh (this is not man’s choice), but to be born “of God.”
Now Nicodemus is really in the dark. He’s confused. “What are you talking about, Jesus? How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter his mother’s womb a second time and be born?” Jesus pushes him further. “Truly, truly, (amen, amen), unless one is born of water and Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. To be born again from above is to be born of “water and Spirit.” In Genesis 1, the Spirit hovered over the dark, chaotic waters of the Deep anticipating the creative Word to be spoken. Water and Spirit always seem to go together in the Bible. In the beginning, the Spirit hovers over the water like a brooding hen. At the end in the Revelation, the Spirit flows as a river of the water of life proceeding from the Throne (the Father) and the Lamb (the Son).
So what do you hear when you hear “water and Spirit”? Of course, you immediately think “Holy Baptism,” and right you are. You’re no dummy. But then, you are baptized and have the Spirit; you’ve been enlightened by the Word and walk in the Light. Baptism is the “washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.” This is how God rebirths us “again, from above.” You are born once from below as a child of Adam, saddled with his sin, enmeshed in his death. You are born a second time, from above, a child of God, clothed with Jesus’ righteousness, embraced in His life-giving death on the cross.
Flesh and spirit work like sinner and saint or old man and new man in John. Flesh gives birth to flesh. A sinner gives birth to a sinner. Sin is inherited. But the Spirit gives birth to spirit – a new you, free from sin. You without the baggage of Adam. A new person in Christ. This is what Nicodemus must become. He may be old and wise but he must become a newborn baby to see the kingdom of God and enter it. He may know every verse of the Torah by heart, but he still needs to be born again from above. He may be circumcised as a son of the covenant, a true Israelite, but now he must be baptized, born of water and Spirit. What makes the decisive difference is Jesus, the Torah in the flesh.
Jesus gives Nicodemus a bit of OT for Dummies. “You’re a teacher of Israel and you don’t get it,” Jesus says. Remember when God told Moses to make a bronze serpent and raise it in a pole and lift it up so that all the snake-bitten Israelites could look on it and live? Well, that’s a picture of me in action on the cross as the Son of Man. I’m going to be lifted up in my death like that serpent on a stick, so that everyone who trusts in me would have eternal life.
Nicodemus needs to see things in the light of Jesus and recognize that Jesus not simply a miracle working rabbi but the Son of Man, the Messiah, come to be lifted up for the life of the world. He is God’s love incarnate, the unique expression of God’s love for the world. God loved the world in this manner, that He gave His only begotten Son so that whoever believes in Him, whoever is born again from above by water and Spirit, would not perish but have (now and always) eternal life. This is why the Father sent His Son. This is why Jesus was born, suffered, died and rose again – not to condemn the world but to save the world through Him and through His death.
Did you hear that? Leave here with that ringing in your ears. Jesus did not come to condemn the world, to improve the world, to fix the world, to rehabilitate the world, or to make the world a nicer place to live. He came to save the world through faith in Him. He came to bring a new birth to the world, a birth from above, a birth of water and Spirit. He did it by dying on a cross, by having the Spirit depart from Him and the water mixed with blood flow from His wounded side. The Jesus we present to the world is not Jesus the Condemner or even Jesus the Judge but Jesus the Savior, the Redeemer, the Son of Man lifted up on the cross to save all bar none.
The next time Nicodemus comes to Jesus, that we know of, it is again in darkness, but this time Nicodemus is in the light. He, along with Joseph of Arimathea, receive the body of Jesus from the cross, and Nicodemus brings a hundred pounds of burial spices to wrap the body. Though there is darkness and death all around him, Nicodemus is in the unquenchable, unending light of Christ who conquers the darkness of night and brings the light of Day to all who trust HIm. Seeing Jesus dead on the cross, Nicodemus sees Jesus for who He is and why He came. He sees Jesus as that serpent lifted up for the life of Israel, the Son of Man lifted up for the world and for him.
You are baptized into Christ. Believing in His Name, you are born again from above. This is not your doing any more than your first birth was your doing. No one asked if you wished to be born the first time, and no one asked you the second time. This is who you are: a child of God, an heir of life, called out of darkness into light, called out of the night into the day. As a child of God look to Jesus – on the cross, in your Baptism, in the Supper of His Body and Blood. He comes not to condemn you, but to save you from sin, death, devil, the condemnation of the law. The Law condemns you but Jesus has saved you. Cling to Him. Hear His Word to you and take it to your heart. His words are spirit and they are life. Your life. By them you are a new creation in Christ, born again from above to see the kingdom of God and to enter it. Forever.
In the name of Jesus,