He doesn’t get an introduction like many people in today’s world. The only introduction we get to Nicodemus is that he is “a member of the Jewish ruling council.” The world Pharisee means “separate ones” and probably meant that Nicodemus was a “ruler of a synagogue” (From “Lexical Aids to the New Testament). Nicodemus was a man in power at the time of Jesus. At this point in time we don’t know Nicodemus’ motive for visiting Jesus.
We only know what Nicodemus refers to Jesus as: Rabbi. Nicodemus’ first words should give us a clue as to who Nicodemus thought Jesus was: teacher. First and foremost he uses the word “teacher” to describe Jesus. He then goes on to qualify this statement saying that he knows not only that Jesus is a teacher but a “teacher come from God.” He then qualifies this saying that “no one could perform the miraculous signs” Jesus was doing if “God were not with him.”
This may seem only preliminary flattery from a Jewish leader, but it is more than this and must be seen as such because Jesus will subtly use this later in the passage and again John will hint at it in chapter four. There are three logical progressions that Nicodemus goes through to get where he is at thus far:
(1) Jesus is a teacher (“rabbi”)
(2) Jesus is teacher sent from God
(3) We know that Jesus is from God because of his signs
We might come up with a fourth logical progression inferring from Nicodemus saying that:
(4) A great teacher from God must perform signs in order to be validated.
This, argued responsibly, would seem in line with Torah and with the Jewish Testament (i.e. “old testament”). If we understand Jesus as a “new Moses” then we can go back and compare the Exodus to this moment here. That is that the people were living in slavery in need of redemption. In order to show that Moses is from Yahweh he is given signs me must complete. Reading through them we find such things as Moses’ staff turning into a snake (Exodus 4) and the ten plagues (Exodus 7-11). All of these things deal with signs from God in order to validate Moses.
Thus the next thing that Jesus says seems strange. Jesus simply states that “no one can see the Kingdom of God unless he is born again.” It doesn’t seem to flow with Nicodemus’ thought. It’s not everyday that we walk up to meet someone and they give us an answer similar to the one that Jesus gave. Here there are two questions that jump up right away:
(1) What does it mean to “see” the Kingdom of God?
(2) What does it mean to be “born again?”
These questions, hopefully, will be answered clearly enough by Jesus himself in the verses to come. Nicodemus asks the question that we all have just asked, “How can a man be born when he is old?” He then goes on making a statement invalidating the question. “Surely” he says “He cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born!” Let us be clear from the outset, Nicodemus here is simply stating the obvious: It’s impossible to “born again.” Jesus sounds a bit “off his rocker” at the present moment, either completely crazy or talking in far fetched metaphors that Nicodemus does not yet grasp.
But there may also be more to Nicodemus’ answer that we cannot find at first glance. Barclay points out that a Jew would understand that “this as not an idea which was in the least strange to people who heard it in New Testament times. The Jew knew about rebirth. When a man from another faith became a Jew and had been accepted into Judaism by prayer and sacrifice and baptism, he was regarded as being reborn.” The Rabbi’s would often say, “A proselyte who embraces Judaism is like a new-born child.”
Jesus goes on again stating that he is telling “the truth.” Notice this time he switches the word “see” for “enter” the kingdom of heaven. He also qualifies being born again by saying we must be “born of water and spirit.” Just as “flesh gives birth to flesh” so “the spirit gives birth to spirit.” In other words, we are all born by “flesh.” Jesus is saying that we must also now have a “spirit birth” or a “second birth.”
Then he goes on to say that “you should not be surprised at my [Jesus’] saying you must be born again.” This is to say that Jesus thought his message was totally and fully expected. Jesus is saying that this second birth is the natural way of living for Israel. That is, that it is the most natural thing in the world to be born of this spirit. He goes on to qualify what it means to be born of the spirit by comparing it to the wind. Everyone born of the spirit is like this wind because we cannot “tell were it comes from or where it is going.”
This is an important message to Nicodemus and, consequently, an important part of the passage for us to understand. Jesus is saying that we can here the “sound” of the spirit, but we don’t know where it is coming from or where it is going. The spirit “blows wherever it pleases” and we don’t see it. In other words, Jesus is providing a direct answer indirectly to Nicodemus. He is telling Nicodemus that one cannot understand the way this rebirth works because it is the work of God. The spirit cannot be contained by an idea or a doctrine.