(1) Nicodemus must have been wealthy. When Jesus died, Nicodemus brought for his body ‘a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds’ (John 19:39)—and only a wealthy man could have brought that.
(2) Nicodemus was a Pharisee. In many ways, the Pharisees were the best people in the whole country. There were never more than 6,000 of them; they were what was known as a chaburah, or brotherhood. They entered into this brotherhood by taking a pledge in front of three witnesses that they would spend all their lives observing every detail of the scribal law.
The kind of thing they did was this. To tie a knot on the Sabbath was to work; but a knot had to be deﬁned. ‘The following are the knots the making of which renders a man guilty; the knot of camel drivers and that of sailors; and as one is guilty by reason of tying them, so also of untying them.’ On the other hand, knots which could be tied or untied with one hand were quite legal. Further, ‘a woman may tie up a slit in her shift and the strings of her cap and those of her girdle, the straps of shoes or sandals, of skins of wine and oil’. Now see what happened. Suppose a man wished to let down a bucket into a well to draw water on the Sabbath day. He could not tie a rope to it, for a knot on a rope was illegal on the Sabbath; but he could tie it to a woman’s girdle and let it down, for a knot in a girdle was quite legal. That was the kind of thing which to the scribes and Pharisees was a matter of life and death; that was religion; that to them was pleasing and serving God.
Take the case of making a journey on the Sabbath. Exodus 16:29 says: ‘Each of you stay where you are; do not leave your place on the seventh day.’ A Sabbath day’s journey was therefore limited to 2,000 cubits, that is, 1,000 yards. But, if a rope was tied across the end of a street, the whole street became one house and a man could go 1,000 yards beyond the end of the street. Or, if a man deposited enough food for one meal on Friday evening at any given place, that place technically became his house and he could go 1,000 yards beyond it on the Sabbath day. The rules and regulations and the evasions piled up by the hundred and the thousand.
Take the case of carrying a burden. Jeremiah 17:21–4 said: ‘For the sake of your lives, take care that you do not bear a burden on the sabbath day.’ So a burden had to be deﬁned. It was deﬁned as ‘food equal in weight to a dried ﬁg, enough wine for mixing in a goblet, milk enough for one swallow, honey enough to put upon a wound, oil enough to anoint a small member, water enough to moisten an eye-salve’, and so on and on. It had then to be settled whether or not on the Sabbath a woman could wear a brooch, a man could wear an artiﬁcial leg or dentures; or would it be carrying a burden to do so? Could a chair or even a child be lifted? And so on and on the discussions and the regulations went.
It was the scribes who worked out these regulations; it was the Pharisees who dedicated their lives to keeping them.
You Must be Born Again
Predominant religious thought in Jesus’ day affirmed that all Jews would be admitted to that kingdom apart from those guilty of deliberate apostasy or extraordinary wickedness (e.g. Mishnah Sanhedrin 10:1). But here was Jesus telling Nicodemus, a respected and conscientious member not only of Israel but of the Sanhedrin, that he cannot enter the kingdom unless he is born again.
How Can This Be?
Doubtless he himself had for years taught others the conditions of entrance to the kingdom of God, conditions cast in terms of obedience to God’s commands, devotion to God, happy submission to his will; but here he is facing a condition he has never heard expressed, the absolute requirement of birth from above.
Believe in Christ
The belief is certainly belief in Jesus Christ, including confidence in the truthfulness of his teaching (cf. v. 12). Nicodemus began by saying he recognized that Jesus was a teacher ‘come from God’ (v. 2), but at this point he neither understands him (v. 10) nor believes him (v. 12). But many, probably including Nicodemus, will believe him once he has been ‘lifted up’, the very purpose of which is that those who believe in him might have eternal life, and have it in him.
Here then is the frankest answer to Nicodemus’ question. ‘How can this happen?’ (v. 9). The kingdom of God is seen or entered, new birth is experienced, and eternal life begins, through the saving cross-work of Christ, received by faith.
Love the World
The world is so wicked that John elsewhere forbids Christians to love it or anything in it (1 Jn. 2:15–17). There is no contradiction between this prohibition and the fact that God does love it. Christians are not to love the world with the selfish love of participation; God loves the world with the self-less, costly love of redemption.