Jesus said to Nicodemus, “Are you the teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things” (John 3:11). One thing Nicodemus didn’t understand was that one has to be born again of the Spirit (vs. 3, 5). So then, did Jesus rebuke him because he didn’t know these things? It is not likely. According to Jesus, “the teacher of Israel” should have understood them (v. 10). Then, they should have been in the Old Testament; however, we don’t see the ideas of spiritual rebirth in the OT. Some might have had a similar idea in the OT, like David. Even though some may find the concept of spiritual rebirth between the lines of the OT, I can’t see so direct an expression of the idea that Jesus might rebuke Nicodemus for being ignorant of it. So then, would Jesus have scolded Nicodemus sharply for something the OT doesn’t express obviously? No way! There must be an evident reason why Jesus rebuked Nicodemus, the teacher of Israel. That is what Jesus was trying to teach Nicodemus, and so the book of John does the readers.
We must examine the context to determine why Jesus rebuked Nicodemus for his ignorance. First of all, let’s look at the immediate context. What did Jesus say after the question to Nicodemus, “Don’t you understand these things?” Jesus said he didn’t receive Jesus’ testimony (John 3:11) and would not have believed heavenly things (v. 12). It is evident that Jesus was rebuking Nicodemus’s rejection, doubt, or disbelief. What does the previous section say regarding what we have found? The Nathanael narrative is about disbelief (1:50). The first sign that Jesus performed at the Cana wedding is for the disciples’ belief (2:11). After Jesus’ cleansing of the temple, John connects Jesus’ remark with the disciples’ faith (v. 22). All the context is clearly about belief in Jesus.
Then, what is it that Nicodemus didn’t believe? We can find the answer now from what he asked Jesus, saying, “How can these things be” (John 3:9). It is obvious that Jesus began rebuking him by answering this question (v. 10). “How can these things be?” is not a question of a person who believes in the Almighty God. It is not a legitimate question but merely an expression of disbelief in God. Can a man understand how one is born again of the Spirit? It is not a thing for a man to try to understand how it works but to believe.
What Nicodemus failed was to believe Jesus’ words. So, what Jesus rebuked him about was his disbelief. Nicodemus failed to believe that all things are possible with God. God can make a man be born again of the Spirit. God moves the Spirit, which man can never be able to know. As the teacher of Israel, Nicodemus should have believed that all the things that Jesus said were true and possible with God. He should not have attempted to understand how those things could be. That was why Jesus even revealed to Nicodemus that He descended from heaven (John 3:13). If his acknowledgment was genuine that Jesus was a teacher from God and God was with Him (v. 2), he must have accepted all the words Jesus said to him by faith. Jesus rebuked him not for anything Nicodemus could not know but for his disbelief in God.
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