Nicodemus, the Pharisee and a ruler of the Jews, came to Jesus by night to inquire of Him about His ministry. He recognizes Jesus as a teacher from God because of the signs that He does.
The passage (John 3: 1-21) is wrought with irony. When Jesus says that a person must be born again (or from above) to enter the kingdom, Nicodemus shows His misunderstanding by asking how a person can enter again into his mother’s womb. Jesus responds by saying that a person must be born of water and the Spirit.
Later, Jesus tells the Samaritan woman that He gives living water that is symbolic of eternal life. To be born of water and the Spirit is to receive eternal life, the theme of the Gospel of John. Out of the heart of a believer comes living water that represents the Spirit. A person will receive the Spirit after Jesus is glorified. His glorification begins on the cross and continues with His resurrection and return to the Father. The narrator says that when the soldiers pierced Jesus, water and blood came out of His side. The water may represent the Spirit. When the resurrected Jesus appeared to the disciples, He breathed on them the Holy Spirit (John 20: 19ff) The time of the giving of and receiving the Spirit that John the Baptist had predicted has come. John was told: “He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.” (John 1: 33b ESV)
Jesus criticizes Nicodemus for not believing that He is the source of eternal life. Jesus says to him, “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.” (John 3: 13-15 ESV) Before Jesus makes this statement, he tells Nicodemus that if he cannot believe earthly things, how can he believe heavenly things? What follows is probably the most well-known verse of the Bible, at least by Christians, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3: 16 ESV)
In the middle of this text, Nicodemus drops out of the picture as Jesus continues to explain eternal life. But, Nicodemus reappears once in John 7 and near the end of the Gospel. Joseph of Arimathea, described as a disciple of Jesus asks for and receives Jesus’ corpse. He and Nicodemus who brings myrrh and aloes prepare Jesus body for burial and bury Him in a new rock tomb. Perhaps, Nicodemus is now also a believer. Earlier in John 7, Nicodemus defends before other religious leaders the idea of giving Jesus a hearing and learning about Him before condeming Him. By the end of the Gospel we can imagine Nicodemus became a believer in Jesus as the Son of Man, Lamb of God, Word, and Son of God that gives eternal life.
The apologist should never forget that he/she is presenting Jesus as the Son of Man and Son of God who grants eternal life to the world. As the Gospel of John makes clear, people who hear the message will divide into those who believe and those who do not believe. “Jesus says, “And he has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man. Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.” (John 5: 27-29 ESV)
How do we witness to the faith while defending it? We announce in the course of a discussion with non-believers what Jesus’ claim on us is, that we believe in HIm for eternal life. We may not directly call for conversion among the attendees, but we explain why the faith is compelling to us so that in a more indirect manner we are calling others to join us in confessing Jesus as the Light of the world, the truth, and the way to eternal life.
Michael G. Tavella
February 10, 2020