Was Nicodemus born again when he met the Lord by night?
John 3: 7 reads “Do not wonder that I said to thee, it is needful that ye should be born anew”. The pronoun ye is plural and grammatically could include Nicodemus. However we must take account of both the immediate and the wider context. Let us take the wider context first.
Why is this incident recorded for us and why in John alone? John wrote his Gospel very late, when God’s judgement had fallen on Israel and it no longer existed as a nation. The Jews had not only crucified their Messiah but had also refused the following testimony of the Holy Spirit recorded in Acts. While the synoptic Gospels trace out that rejection, John begins with it, saying “He came to his own, and his own received him not” (John 1: 11). Accordingly, all that John omits and all that he records is in keeping with this. The other Gospels speak of the Kingdom over 100 times but in John it is only spoken of on two occasions (see John 3 and John 18). More than any other Gospel, John shows the awful state of Israel, detailing their utter hostility to Christ. Thus while the word Jews occurs 16 times in the synoptic Gospels (but never in a hostile setting), it occurs over 60 times in John where it is often used (see for example, John 5: 16, 18) for those who are openly hostile to the Lord. The feasts are no longer “feasts of Jehovah” (Lev. 23: 1) but when a feast is described it is somewhat disparagingly as a “feast of the Jews” (John 5: 1 etc.). Tellingly, John always describes the Lord’s miracles as signs. Thus according to John, all is over with Israel after the flesh. Has God completely finished then with that nation as many think? No. But the only way Israel will accept Christ is as a result of the work of God through new birth nationally. While this is true for all men individually, the incident with Nicodemus is recorded so that we may know the truth of Israel's need for new birth.
The last three verses of John 2 serve as the introduction and background of the Lord’s interview with Nicodemus. There we read, that on seeing the signs that the Lord wrought, “many believed on his name” (John 2: 23). Outwardly, all appeared favourable. Then we have the first “but”: “But Jesus himself did not trust himself to them … for himself knew what was in man” (vs 24, 25). Note the repeated word himself. Its inclusion shows that while others may have found such faith commendable, He did not. It was a worthless faith, founded on nothing more than natural sight, and had no real spiritual value. There was no accompanying work of God in the souls of these men. Against this background we have the second “but”: “But there was a man …” (John 3: 1). This marks a contrast between the “many” and “a man”. Nicodemus is clearly presented as distinctly different.
Now in reading the ensuing discussion, we must note not only what is said by the Lord but how it is expressed. Everything is said to Nicodemus but not everything is said of him. We must take note of the words “anyone” and “every one” as well as the pronouns “we”, “thee” and “ye” etc. Nicodemus came “by night” (v1)—in keeping with the spiritual darkness of his nation. He held a position of authority among the Jews (see v1) and accordingly his opening words are “Rabbi, we know…”. It is “we” not “I”. He takes the position of representing others, rather than expressing a personal view. Later the Lord will take him up on that position. Nicodemus had noted the unique character of the “signs” (v2), signs which were for Israel (see Ps. 74: 9; 1 Cor. 1: 22 etc.) in connection with the Kingdom on earth (proved by the Lord later stating that all that He had said were “earthly things” (John 3: 12). Accordingly, but in relation to the Kingdom, Israel’s ruler is presented with the need for new birth: “Except any one be born anew he cannot see the kingdom of God” (v3). This is put abstractly (“any one”), not personally (“thou”). In his response, Nicodemus also uses the abstract (“a man”—v4) in attempting to relate everything to nature. The Lord continues speaking abstractly using “any one” again in v5 and pressing the unchangeable distinction of flesh and spirit in v6. Nothing said by the Lord implied that Nicodemus personally had not been born anew. Hence the word ye in v7 can only refer to the nation of Israel that Nicodemus represented. This is confirmed when the Lord expresses surprise at His visitor’s ignorance exclaiming “Thou art the teacher of Israel and knowest not these things!” (v10, my emphasis). Israel’s teacher should have known Ezekiel 36 and 37—verses that graphically describe Israel’s new birth! While new birth is absolutely essential for all, its presentation in John 3 is in relation to Israel and the Kingdom on earth. Nicodemus was already born again when he came to the Lord for the Lord elsewhere testified that “No one can come to me except the Father who has sent me draw him” (John 6: 44).