The gospel announces good news. Yet, for those not yet in Christ it also contains bad news. Jesus is the only road to God (John 14:6; Acts 4:12). Until they become a new creation in Christ, they do not have hope.
We expect Jesus’ message to confront pagans. However, what happens when people who worship the one true God discover they are not yet in the path leading to life? How might they react?
Take Nicodemus for example. He was a ruler of the Jews, a pharisee, as well as a teacher of Israel (John 3:1,10; 7:50). He would certainly have viewed himself as part of God’s people anticipating the coming kingdom.
This educated leader seemed bewildered when Jesus taught that unless someone is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God (John 3:4,9). Was Nicodemus genuinely confused or was there something more?
Jesus’ use of a birth metaphor to indicate a spiritual new beginning was not new. Contemporary rabbis are reported to have taught, “If anyone becomes a proselyte, he is like a child new born” (Yebam. 62a). Even Jesus seems to call Nicodemus’ bluff, “Aren’t you the teacher of Israel and don’t you understand these things?” (John 3:10).
Maybe Nicodemus was confused. Or perhaps he was baulking at Jesus’ teaching because Jesus had not limited the need for a new birth to the Gentiles. After all, the Jews were already recipients of God’s covenant. Nicodemus would have understood that faithful Jews could look forward to the kingdom.
From the Jewish perspective, Gentiles were the ones needing a spiritual beginning. As far as the rabbis were concerned, it was only after a Gentile completed the process of becoming a Jew with a full body immersion that he would become a child new born.
Yet, Jesus’ language revealed all people need to be born again – including Nicodemus! “Unless a person is born of water and spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. … Do not be amazed that I said to you, ‘You must be born again’” (John 3:5,7).
Did Nicodemus feign ignorance with his questions because he did not like what Jesus had said? Jesus’ retort in John 3:10 seems to hint at this.
If so, Nicodemus would represent one type of response to Jesus’ message. He would illustrate how spiritually confident people might baulk when confronted.
Fortunately, we also have examples of much more favorable responses. Even though Cornelius and the disciples in Ephesus were already engaged in serving God, when they learned of their need to be baptized in the name of Jesus they readily complied (Acts 10:2,48; 19:1,4,5).
How people respond to their need to obey Jesus’ message does not alter what is true. It does reveal what dwells within their hearts at that moment.