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Jesus teaches Nicodemus about the new birth
John Chapter 3, verses 1-2
Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him.”
Jesus had frequent encounters with the Pharisees, the work-righteous and often hypocritical Jewish religious elite. Usually, as when they questioned John the Baptist in the wilderness (1:24), the Pharisees sought to discredit God’s messenger. But this time one of them came alone, secretly, at night. He was Nicodemus, also a leader of the Jews, a member of the ruling council (Sanhedrin). As a Pharisee and ruler, Nicodemus undoubtedly knew the Old Testament well.
Nicodemus came to Jesus in private. Perhaps he feared the reactions of the other Pharisees who saw Jesus as a threat to them. Nicodemus, unlike the others, came sincerely seeking the truth. Jesus’ teachings and signs had impressed him. He confessed that Jesus had come from God. He knew so because Jesus did miraculous signs no one could do without God. Still, Nicodemus didn’t know exactly what to make of this teacher from God, so he had come to confirm his feelings.
John Chapter 3, verse 3
In reply Jesus declared, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.”
When Jesus answered, it may have seemed he wasn’t being responsive. His opening expression assures us he was, however: “I tell you the truth” (literally, “truly, truly” or “amen, amen”). Jesus used the expression that stressed the solemn truth of his words. But then he cut quickly to the substance of his message for Nicodemus and told him what he needed to hear.
Jesus explained that no one is able to see the kingdom of God unless he is born again. The expression “born again” can also mean “born from above,” which fits the thought here. But Nicodemus understood it the first way.
John Chapter 3, verses 4-6
“How can a man be born when he is old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born!”
Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.
To Nicodemus, Jesus was talking in riddles. He could hardly mean that a person must undergo a second physical birth. Nicodemus seemed to have sensed a deeper meaning, but what was it?
Jesus again emphasized the solemn truth of his response: “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit.” The new birth, said Jesus, is from “water and Spirit,” not of the water and of the Spirit as two separate experiences. Water and Spirit work together in the new birth. Jesus was speaking of Baptism, through which the Spirit works saving faith.
Jesus’ words echoed the cry of John the Baptist: “Repent!” “Be baptized!” “The kingdom of heaven is near.” (See Matthew 3:1,2; Mark 1:4.) They revealed what had to happen for Nicodemus to find the answers he sought with his nighttime visit.
We need this heavenly rebirth to enter God’s kingdom, or even see it. As Jesus said another time, “The kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:21). God’s kingdom is God’s rule of grace in our hearts. Through Baptism the Holy Spirit connects us with God’s ruling love. He works a new birth, a birth that makes a person a child of God and a member of God’s kingdom. The apostle Paul said the same thing when he wrote, “He [God our Savior] saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5).
Two births—one is physical and one spiritual. One is flesh born of flesh, the other spirit born of Spirit.
All of us alike come into this world outside of God’s kingdom. Contrary to what some teach, infants begin their lives under sin’s condemnation. As Job once said of our physical birth: “Who can bring what is pure from the impure? No one!” (14:4). And Paul years later said, “I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature [flesh]” (Romans 7:18). We can only conclude with David, “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me” (Psalm 51:5).
Babies may look as pure as spring water, but the source is polluted. A thousand physical rebirths cannot change that. But there is a water that purifies, the water that brings with it God’s Spirit. As Ezekiel prophesied of the LORD: “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean. . . . I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you. . . . And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees” (36:25-27). The Spirit works the new birth through the water of Baptism.
John Chapter 3, verses 7-8
You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
Nicodemus asked, “How can this be?” and the question haunts the ages since. We human beings just don’t know what to do with God’s truth when we can’t understand it.
Jesus’ answer to Nicodemus also follows through the ages: “You should not be surprised.” We can understand the working of God’s Spirit as little as we can predict the wind blowing on us. We know when it blows, and it affects us. But we don’t see it. We can’t be certain when or from what angle it will come. So everyone born of the Spirit cannot fully understand how God in his wisdom sends the Spirit. They just know he does.
Jesus made one imperceptible change in his words here. When he said, “You must be born again,” he used the Greek plural “you.” Clearly he was not speaking only about Nicodemus. “You” in the plural fits all people.
John Chapter 3, verses 9-12
“How can this be?” Nicodemus asked.
“You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? I tell you the truth, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things?
Nicodemus remained incredulous. He needed to satisfy his human reason. He asked again, “How can this be?”
In his reply Jesus first rebuked Nicodemus, who, although he was a well-known spiritual teacher of Israel, didn’t know the basics of salvation for himself.
Once again Jesus stressed the solemn truth of his words. What he had just told Nicodemus had been told before. “We speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen.” The “we” likely means Jesus and John the Baptist; however, some think Jesus might be referring to the prophets or to his disciples or even to God the Father when he says “we” testify.
Jesus had just spoken to Nicodemus of the spiritual activity that takes place in this world, “earthly things.” The new birth happens in a person’s heart here on earth. Repentance, Baptism, and faith happen on earth. But Nicodemus still did not believe.
How then could he possibly believe if Jesus were to tell him of spiritual activity that takes place in heaven, “heavenlythings”? Was Nicodemus ready to learn about God’s eternal plan for the world’s salvation and about Jesus, who was with God in the beginning?
In this way Jesus prepared Nicodemus to hear the even more wondrous “heavenly things.”
John Chapter 3, verse 13
No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man.
Jesus had the knowledge and authority to tell Nicodemus of heavenly things because he alone came from heaven. He was the Word, who was with God when the plan of salvation was determined. And he had become a perfect human being, the Son of Man, to execute the plan.
John Chapter 3, verses 14-15
Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.
Now came the teachings from heaven. Jesus directed Nicodemus to his well-studied Scriptures for understanding. He drew an analogy between the act of Moses lifting up the brass snake in the desert (Numbers 21:8,9) and his own saving work for the world. The snake was lifted up on a pole; Jesus was to be lifted up on a cross. Everyone who looked in faith at the snake was healed from the bite of deadly snakes. Everyone who would look in faith at Jesus would be saved from the bite of eternal death and have eternal life. This is the life that begins with the new birth by the Spirit.
The promise belongs to “everyone” who believes. It is universal. No one who believes is excluded. At the same time, the promise belongs to each one who believes. It is personal. God knows our names, and each of us has eternal life.
John Chapter 3, verse 16
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
By now the dialogue had stopped, and Jesus was using the moment to teach Nicodemus God’s eternal plan of salvation. In simple terms, which most Christians today know from memory, Jesus summed up the plan.
God loved the world he had created, even though the crown of that creation had gone bad and ruined it all. Our sins did not stop God from loving us. The sins of Adam and Eve and Cain and Lamech and Sarah and David and Judas and Paul and Luther and Hitler—God knew them all—did not turn off his love. He loved the world and excluded no one.
Such love we do not easily understand. But we need to know about it. Many Christians like to refer to it by its Greek name, agape (ah-GAH-pay). This kind of love is more than a feeling; it’s a resolve. It doesn’t dream passively; it acts purposefully. It doesn’t base its actions on how likable or worthy the object of love is; it acts in the interest of its object. God did not like sin; he hated it. But he loved the world, which was trapped in sin, and so had to deal with sin.
God’s love brought results. He offered the ultimate sacrifice for the world he loved. He gave his one and only Son. This giving, however, meant more than having him born of a virgin mother and hailed as Savior. God gave his Son as the necessary sacrifice for the world’s sins. God gave his one and only Son for the cross.
Then Jesus repeated what God’s gift meant: “Whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” Faith saves. But not just any faith—faith in the Son of God, who was given as our sacrifice.
Those who believe in him “shall not perish.” Although we see many believers die, that’s just a physical death that ends our years on earth. Believers live on forever with Jesus. We enjoy life with Jesus now already, but after death we will know life in full glory.
Let’s pause and reflect on what had just transpired. Jesus laid out God’s plan of salvation for Nicodemus. Nicodemus did not expect what he heard. No human being could have devised such a plan. No one would have imagined it. It could not work without God.
But here was God, revealed in his triune majesty. God the Father loved the undeserving world so much that he sent his Son to save it. God the Son, present here in the person of Jesus, came to fulfill the Father’s will and win eternal life for all people. God the Spirit comes to work the faith people need to receive the gift of eternal life. He brings about a new birth.
Believe and live.
John Chapter 3, verse 17-18
For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.
Jesus proceeded to elaborate on the wonderful message. God sent his Son into the world for one reason—to save it. Many Jews thought that the Messiah would condemn the heathen and save his chosen people, the Jews. They were wrong. He came to save all people of the world. The words are emphatic: “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world.” Jesus did not come to judge, but to save.
Whoever believes in the Son of God is not condemned. Sin loses all power to damn us. Still, some are condemned because they do not believe “in the name of God’s one and only Son.” Unbelief damns. The verdict is already in for unbelievers. God will simply confirm it publicly on judgment day.
While there is time on earth, however, the conditions can change. Jesus is talking about those who continue to believe or who continue in unbelief. Passing fancies of faith or fitful moments of unbelief do not lock in the results. Sometimes believers lose their faith, and sometimes unbelievers come to faith in Jesus. In those cases the judgment remains consistent; namely, those who then continue to believe in him are saved. They are kept safe and sound for eternity.
John Chapter 3, verse 19-21
This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God.”
People bring the verdict down on themselves by rejecting the light Jesus brought to this world (1:9). Some love the darkness and the evil deeds associated with darkness. The light exposes their wicked ways. It reveals sin for what it really is—disobedience and defiance of God. They hate the light.
The words “love” and “hate” tell us why unbelievers come under judgment. They love the darkness and hate the light. We see the results in evil deeds, often done openly and defended vigorously. Murders, abortions, anarchy, drunkenness, adultery, godlessness, and a host of other sins attract unbelievers more than Christ. In truth, they hate him because he opposes what they love.
Those who believe in Jesus live in the truth. The light shines on, in, and through them. Drawn to Jesus, they do works that manifest the presence of God in their lives.