He came by night; he was a seeker of Truth. Had he wanted to mock, he would have challenged the Teacher in the presence of his fellow religious leaders. Had he wanted to trap Him, to catch Him in a game of words that might lead to His demise, he could have questioned this Man in front of all the people. Had he wanted anything other than Truth, he would have come by day.
But he came under the cloak of darkness. He found the Teacher in the safety of night, and his heart's intentions were made known: "Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him" (John 3:1-2). It was not even by a question that he started his inquiry, but by a flattering statement of belief. He believed this man Jesus had God's blessing, and he recognized that the Jewish God was with Him.
By day, he could not speak so freely. By day, he was a Pharisee and a member of the Jewish ruling council, and the party line for these religious leaders was that this man Jesus was a heretic. The threat of Jesus' claims to the Jewish leaders was great, and they could not let Him continue stirring up the people. They did not accept His teachings, and they were threatened by His miraculous works. Nicodemus was no fool. The rippling of curiosity and belief in his heart could not be publicly discussed yet. He came on a mission to find Truth, and he came by night.
Jesus understood this man's mission, and He also recognized his misplaced belief, for Jesus was not simply a religious teacher as Nicodemus was. Jesus was not simply one Rabbi talking to another. Jesus was God's Son, God's Word become flesh, and this was the Truth Nicodemus did not yet understand.
"Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God" (vs. 3). Jesus did not entertain the flattering words Nicodemus had spoken. Instead, He cut to the heart of the issue. In a claim that sounded preposterous, the Messiah told Nicodemus the answer to his unspoken question: he must be born again.
"How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born?" Nicodemus asked (vs. 4). He sought to clarify Christ's statement. Surely he could not be expected to believe the absurdity of such an assertion, that a man must be born again!
But Jesus insisted: "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God" (vs.5) His call was clear, a rebirth was truly what He meant, only He was speaking of a spiritual rebirth and not a physical one.
"How can these things be?" Nicodemus wondered aloud to the Savior, not because he wanted to argue but because he wanted to understand (vs.5). He, a teacher of the law, a Pharisee, a leading religious leader in his day, could not make sense of these words Jesus had spoken.
Jesus answered Nicodemus, "Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen...If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?" And then, finally, He gets at the crux of the issue of salvation, what Nicodemus so deeply wants to understand:
"No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life."
Could we not all quote that last verse in our sleep? It very well may be the most oft used verse when presenting the Gospel to others. "For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life." Well, maybe your version said "believeth" instead of believe and that He was also God's "begotten" Son, but you get the point.
Stepping back into the story, though, we find that Jesus wasn't reciting from memory a verse He had learned as a child in Bible drill. He was imparting the Truth of salvation, the mystery of the Gospel, to a man who desperately wanted to understand. This man, Nicodemus, had built his entire life around being religious. He was completely invested in his efforts to be found righteous before God. And he was now realizing he might have been wrong all along.
"...that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life."
What was Christ getting at when He said these things to Nicodemus? Was He calling Nicodemus to a mere mental exercise of belief, that of concluding in his mind something to be true? Or perhaps His call was to something more, something so much greater...