Images of the Savior (7 - His Discourse with Nicodemus)
When Nicodemus sought out Jesus by night, he found him to be more than just a worker of miraculous signs, as he appeared to all the people. He was indeed a worker of signs; but also much more than that, as Nicodemus was about to see. If he were merely what the people thought him to be, he would not have been in any sense unique. He was, by open confession, a worker of miraculous signs â€“ but what of it? The history of Israel is replete with sign-workers: many were the prophets of old who had confirmed their message by miraculous acts which signified the truths they were teaching. But here is the difference: in each case, the signs they performed pointed to something outside themselves, to some other means of grace by which God would redeem the nation, to some other person who would accomplish so great a salvation. Jesus' miracle-working was unique in that all of his signs, not to mention all the miraculous signs given by the prophets before him, pointed to himself alone. Jesus was not just the greatest worker of signs: he was in himself the true essence of the blessed promises those miracles conveyed. He was not just the great Prophet (Deuteronomy 18:15); he was also the great Fulfillment of all the prophecies (John 5:39-40). He possessed in himself every gift to which the miraculous signs testified in symbol only; and, although the outward sign was given to all, those bountiful gifts themselves were reserved strictly for those whom the Spirit should choose to regenerate. This precious glimpse of Christ as the true substance of every miraculous sign, for all those who should be born of the Spirit, is the image granted to Nicodemus, who saw his glory so many years ago. God grant that we may encounter the same image as we look at the account today!
As we consider this gospel account, we must first ask ourselves what prompted Nicodemus to come to Christ by night. The testimony from his own lips should set the issue beyond all doubt: he had come because he recognized by the signs which Christ had performed that he must have been sent from God. The essence of what our Savior had been sent to proclaim was as yet hidden from his eyes; but at least he recognized that, whatever the answer to the perplexities of life should be, this Jesus was the One from whom he could hope to find out. His was the same sort of faith, as he crept to Jesus under cover of darkness, that later prompted the father of the afflicted child to cry out, "Lord I believe! Help my unbelief!" (Mark 9:24). How comforting it is that the merest glimmer of faith, being the work of the Spirit alone, will never be quenched by Jesus, but gently fanned and fed until it burst forth into a mighty flame of unconquerable hope (cf. Isaiah 42:3)! And this indeed we find as we turn to the story at hand â€“ but first, let us consider what signs in particular must have prompted Nicodemus to come.
Some of the miracles to which Nicodemus must have been referring are no doubt indicated to us in the previous chapter of John's gospel. We find there that Christ had given a positive sign of our future joy and fellowship with him when he turned the old waters of ritual purification into the new wine of consummated wedding bliss. Negatively, we see Christ engaged in a sign of coming judgment when he purified the temple, in fulfillment of Psalm 69:9 â€“ "The zeal of your house has eaten me up." Furthermore, he referred those who remained unconvinced by these signs to the one great sign of the resurrection of his body, when he vowed to raise up the temple three days after they had destroyed it; that is, he promised to restore in three days the place where God dwells among men, a reality ultimately fulfilled in his taking upon himself a human body, and hence, ultimately restored at the event of the resurrection of his body. Although these are not the only signs which Nicodemus may have witnessed or heard the report of (as suggested by John 2:23), they are no doubt representative of the many miracles Christ had performed with a view to signifying a positive message of coming blessing or else a negative warning of impending judgment.
These signs, so mightily wrought by our Savior, ought to have proved sufficient to have turned all of Judah after him. In reality, we see that their effect was in most cases precisely the opposite. Although many professed to believe in Christ on the basis of his wondrous signs, yet they were ignorant of the true message those miracles conveyed â€“ a message at which they would ultimately stumble. Therefore, Jesus did not entrust to them himself (the Reality signified), when he entrusted to them the outward signs. From the beginning, he knew those whom the Father had given to him (John 2:23-25; John 17:6-12), and that they alone would be granted the gift of the Holy Spirit, who would give them eyes to look beyond the sign and see the essential message thereby conveyed â€“ the message of Jesus lifted up on a cross for the sins of his people, and raised three days later in victory over death and sin.
This understanding is what Nicodemus so desperately lacked. He knew that Christ must have been sent from God; but he was not yet able to see any of the Kingdom realities to which Christ's signs gave witness. Therefore, in Christ's first response to Nicodemus, he cuts immediately to the heart of the matter, and explains to this famous teacher the reason for his ignorance of the basic message of the scriptures with which he was so familiar: he did not understand because the truths of the Kingdom could not be perceived apart from a new birth.
Even at this point, Nicodemus displayed an utter ignorance of the truth that Christ was teaching, now in plain words and no longer by miraculous signs. Jesus therefore takes great pains to make the matter even more clear, further instructing him that this new birth is a spiritual life given by the Spirit alone â€“ a life without which it is impossible to see spiritual realities. The eye of the flesh can observe fleshly things; but for the observance of spiritual truths, it is necessary that the Spirit of Truth should generate spiritual life â€“ as indeed he does, in whatever way he pleases, and in the hearts of whomever he has chosen, working as the wind upon the face of the earth: mysterious, yet undeniable.
Nicodemus' second response, "How can these things be?", should not be understood as a rejection or disbelief of Christ's teaching, but rather as the astonished cry of bewilderment and joy that so often accompanies the first breaths of spiritual life. At these powerful words of Christ, Nicodemus begins to display definite evidence that the Spirit is breathing into him the breath of true life. This was indeed his new birth, the beginning of a spiritual life that would later prove itself in acts of true devotion at the death of our Lord (John 19:39). As was the case with him, so may we who belong to Christ today recall the blessed moments when the teachings of Christ took on a new and glorious light as the Spirit began to open our hearts to see the truths of Jesus. These truths our Savior again lays out in brief for Nicodemus' benefit (as well as the benefit of us who should believe in Jesus after him); namely, that he himself must fulfill the sign of Moses, and be lifted up for the sins of the people; that, because of this ultimate fulfillment, all who believe in him will be eternally saved; that, when confronted by this truth, men will naturally reject it, hating the Light which makes manifest that all of their deeds are evil; and finally, that God's grace does not stop at this point of offering that which rebellious man will never accept â€“ on the contrary, as the Spirit pleases, he gives to men new hearts, which will believe this message of Christ, and thereby be saved from the coming wrath. Those whom the Spirit moves upon will come to the Light; and in so doing, they will make evident that God has accomplished a mighty work in them (cf., for example, John 3:21).
Let us take heart at the story of Nicodemus! As we have therein observed, our Savior is always most willing to take upon himself the task of patiently instructing any sinner, however weak, who has but turned to him in faith. How grateful we should be that Christ is so accommodating to our vast ignorance! When once he has accepted us as his own, there is no weakness too great that he will not patiently bear with it, and gently guide us into the light of his truth.
We may further learn that it is only by the words and teachings of Christ, which perfectly reveal the great redemptive truths about Christ (his suffering in our place to bring to us eternal joy and fellowship with himself, etc.), that the Spirit breathes into the hearts of the elect a new life that rejoices in the Kingdom of heaven and the great accomplishment of Jesus. Just as Christ would later declare of the Spirit, "when the Comforter is come, whom I will send unto you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth, which proceeds from the Father, he shall testify of me" (John 15:26). Even at this time, the Spirit was pleased to testify to man's heart of the truths of Jesus, and to give him a new life that would embrace the redemptive realities of his kingdom: how much greater cause do we have to rejoice in Christ, into whose hearts the Spirit has now been sent to take up his permanent abode!
Finally, we may comfort ourselves in beholding the glorious image of Christ as the fulfillment of every miraculous sign ever given among men. In Christ alone is our true bread and wine, our healing and resurrection and sight, our freedom from sickness and pain and demons and oppression, our well of thirst-quenching water, our everything good that comes down from the Father of all mercies and comforts. If we have Christ, we have all these things and more. We have heaven itself, and all the blessings heaven could ever hold forth. Let us continue to look to the Son of Man, lifted up as the serpent in the wilderness, so that all who believe in him may obtain the eternal life of dwelling in his presence! Let us look to Christ, who brings to us every great sign of eternal salvation, and fulfills in himself all those signs he has brought.