By Mike Ratliff
Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (John 3:1-3 ESV)
I was living in Washington, D.C. when Jimmy Carter was elected President of the United States. This was in 1976. I remember the media making a big deal of the fact that Carter claimed to be a “Born Again Christian.” I remember a cartoon in Time Magazine later that year that portrayed a sidewalk scene in some large city with normal sized people staring at some adults who were only about 1/3 size. One woman said, “Oh look, born agains!”
Closely read the passage I placed at the top of this post. Notice that Jesus answered a question that Nicodemus did not ask. Who was Nicodemus? He was Pharisee with a Greek name. He name means “victor over the people.” Not only was he a Pharisee, he was also a member of the Sanhedren. This was a group of men made up of Pharisees, Scribes, and Sadducees. Those on the counsel were called ‘rulers of the Jews.’ Nicodemus as a powerful man yet he came to see Jesus by night. He probably did this because he feared the implications of being associated with such an controversial person as Jesus. He knew that Jesus was unpopular with most of his fellow Pharisees. Nicodemus opens the conversation by saying, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” Well, he was right, but he didn’t go far enough. I discern in this statement a desire to compliment Jesus so he could learn from him. He got much more than he bargained for.
Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (John 3:3 ESV)
Jesus begins his response to Nicodemus by repeating a word twice for emphasis. That word in Greek is “ἀμήν” or “amēn.” The King James translates this as, “Verily, verily.” The ESV translates these words together as “Truly, truly.” This word, “ἀμήν,” is of Hebrew origin. It means, “firm, trustworthy, or surely (as an adverb). A good way to understand why Jesus began his dialogue this way is to rephrase it like this, “I tell you the solemn truth, unless a person is born from above, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” The word pair “born again” actually means “born from above.” What is our Lord saying here? Nicodemus did not even ask about this, but our Lord read his heart and addressed exactly what this man’s problem was. To be born from above is to be spiritually transformed. This is regeneration produced by the Holy Spirit. This is the New Birth, which is an act of God wherein eternal life is imparted to the believer (2 Corinthians 5:17; Titus 3:5; 1 Peter 1:3; 1 John 2:29; 1 John 3:9; 1 John 4:7; 1 John 5:1,4,18).
What does it mean that this new birth is a requirement to be able to see the kingdom of God? Remember to whom our Lord is speaking. Nicodemus is a Pharisee. He eagerly awaited the resurrection and the coming of the messianic kingdom. He would have clearly understood Jesus’ meaning here. The Pharisees believed that their physical lineage and their keeping of religion externals qualified them for automatic entrance into this kingdom. Jesus tells him plainly that none of that matters at all. Only those whom God has transformed spiritually will see it and enter it. I believe we have a clear parallel here with those professing Christians whose religion is simply “Churchianity.”
Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:4-8 ESV)
Nicodemus became confused. He did not understand what Jesus meant. Again our Lord replies with “I tell you the solemn truth…” He then plainly tells him the truth, “, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” What does it mean to be born of water and the Spirit? Nicodemus would not have missed the truth about the water since he intimately familiar with the Mosaic Law. The reference to water is to spiritual cleansing or renewal (Numbers 19:17; Psalm 51:9,10; Isaiah 32:15; Isaiah 44:3-5; Isaiah 55:1-3; Jeremiah 2:13; Joel 2:28:,29). This cleansing our Lord is referring to is the spiritual purification of the soul done by the Holy Spirit through the Word of God at the moment of salvation (Ephesians 5:26; Titus 3:5). This is why the preaching of the Gospel must be done Biblically. It must not be tampered with, modernized, neutered, or modified in any way. If it is then what is being preached is not the gospel.
Our Lord then says, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” My brethren, this succinct description of the work of the Holy Spirit in salvation is amazing. It is imperative that we understand it. The work of the Holy Spirit in the heart of one who is being saved is not something we can control in any way. It would be as if we could observe and control the wind if we could control what the Holy Spirit does. However, just as we can see the affects of the wind, the work of the Holy Spirit produces clear, undeniable, unmistakable evidence that regeneration has taken place. This is so much more than some religious assent on one’s part that they believe. Our Lord is describing a work of God Himself that must take place before a believer can enter the Kingdom of God.
Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. (John 3:9-15 ESV)
Nicodemus is still nonplused. Our Lord then refers to him as “the teacher of Israel.” This man was obviously a renowned master-teacher who enjoyed a high standing among his brethren. However, he came to Jesus at night revealing a troubled heart. He was obviously drawn to our Lord.
No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day. (John 6:44 ESV)
However, Nicodemus’ confusion is a mark of spiritual bankruptcy. Of course, the whole nation of Israel at this time was in the same boat. Never forget, our Lord did not simply invent on the spot what He was teaching. It was all drawn from the Old Testament, which Nicodemus taught and believed. However, he did not recognize what our Lord was telling him. Do you see my brethren how spiritually blind the unregenerate are? The unregenerate are blind because they are in unbelief. Look at vv11-12, “Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?” This is a very succinct description of the nature of unbelief. Jesus spoke the truth to Nicodemus and the nation of Israel and bore witness to that truth, but those in unbelief did not receive His testimony. Those in unbelief cannot grasp spiritual truth.
Then our Lord tells Him spiritual truth, “No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” No matter who claims to have ascended into Heaven then returned with special revelation, DO NOT believe them. Our Lord tells us that only He has come to Earth from Heaven. Then He parallels His crucifixion with the serpent in the wilderness that was lifted up my Moses. This is referring to Numbers 21:5-9. Poisonous serpents were tormenting the Israelites in the wilderness because of their disobedience and unbelief. God instructed Moses to erect a bronze serpent on a pole in the midst of the camp. If a serpent bit anyone they had to look at the bronze serpent in order to live. All they had to do was look upon it in obedience. If they did not look upon it then they died. Jesus compares His coming crucifixion to that bronze serpent on a pole. The Israelites were healed physically when they looked unto the lifted up serpent. All who look to Christ, who was lifted up on the cross for the sins of the world, will live spiritually and have eternal life.
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.” (John 3:16-21 ESV)
Who does not perish because they have eternal life? It is all who believe in Christ. All who believe in Him are those regenerated by the Holy Spirit. He first drew them to Christ then regenerated them. From this new birth faith is born followed by repentance and belief (Ephesians 2:1-10). All who believe were chosen before the foundation of the world then drawn to Christ according to the will of the Father (Ephesians 1:4; John 6:44). However, all who do not believe are condemned already. Belief is the product of the work of the Holy Spirit. Without belief no one is saved. Therefore, it is the work of God in the heart that causes people to believe and be saved. What is our part? We are commanded to go into the entire world and make disciples (Matthew 28:19). We must preach the Gospel, the real Gospel as we are instructed in scripture. We preach the law and the gospel for without repentance there is no salvation (Luke 13:3,5; 2 Corinthians 7:10). We must offer the gospel freely to all counseling all who are drawn to the light to believe and repent as they plead with God for their souls. Then the evidence of their new birth reveals that they are born from above and have eternal life.
Soli Deo Gloria