Summary: Christ explains the way into his kingdom to Nicodemus.
In the days of the New Testament there were three levels of teacher in the Jewish community, the ḥâḵâm, the sôpçr and the ḥazzân. These levels were obtained not on the basis of academics but on the basis of morality in the person’s life. Nicodemus is thought to be of the highest order because of his title ruler of the Jews. Therefore he must have been a very moral man.
He comes to Jesus by night. Many commentators believe this was because he feared his fellow Jews and did not want to be seen communicating with Christ. This may be true but there were witnesses present, one being John the writer of this account. We also know from other scripture that Nicodemus had no trouble standing up for Christ in John 7:4 and he stepped forward to claim the body of Christ when all of the disciples had fled the scene. I would be more inclined to believe Nicodemus came at night in order to have a personal private audience with Christ, something that would have been nearly impossible to accomplish during the day when Christ was ministering to the following throngs.
What was his reason for coming? Scripture does not tell us. When George C. Stebbins penned the words to “Ye Must Be Born Again” he made beautiful poetry but unfortunately it is inaccurate from a scriptural standpoint. Nicodemus never asks Christ the “way of salvation and light” nor does scripture say or even imply that was his intent for coming. In fact we can gather, from the dialogue which follows, that Nicodemus thought he knew the way of salvation and light and was well secured in it.
He begins with a statement. “Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God:” By making this statement Nicodemus shows that he believes he and the other Jewish rulers have a place of authority in the kingdom of God. “We know” implies that the Jewish rulers are in position to determine what is and is not of God. He also states that the proof of Christ’s being from God is seen on the physical level, “no one can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him.”
Christ corrects him on both points first He says. “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Being a member of God’s kingdom is not a result of physical birth which Nicodemus mistakenly believed, it is a result of “re-birth”. The Word of God often causes us to reevaluate misconceptions that we have accepted as truth for our entire lives. Such was the case for Nicodemus. Since a child he had been taught that the being born a Jew gave him the special birthright of being a member of God’s chosen people. Suddenly he is confronted by the Word of God and told that his physical birth into the nation of Israel is not enough. Another birth is required.
His reaction was the same as many who are told the truth after a lifetime of believing a lie, incredulous disbelief and a somewhat sarcastic reply. “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb, and be born?”