You Must Be Born Again
Topic: Gospels Passage: John 3:1–3:21
“YOU MUST BE BORN AGAIN”
1 Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. 2 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.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” 4 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?” 5 Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 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.”
9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? 11 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. 12 If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”
16 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 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. 18 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. 19 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. 20 For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. 21 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.”
Generally speaking, an “interview” refers to “a private meeting between two people where questions are asked and answered.” At times they are structured and formal—such as a job interview or when a news reporter interviews a politician or celebrity. At other times, they are more relaxed and spontaneous. Whatever the circumstance, the purpose of an interview is to gather information.
In one way or another, the information gathered during an interview inevitably tends to “go public.” Especially is that true in our day of social media platforms when news travels at breakneck speed. As we have seen in recent days, that can be both a good thing and a bad thing. If the words that are passed along are positive and edifying, many can profit; but if those words are negative and destructive, many can be harmed. Consider how often public figures are called upon to retract a statement they have made in an interview that has been misunderstood or taken out of context and “gone viral.”
We are repeatedly warned to be careful what we “tweet” or post on our Facebook pages because it is being permanently stored. The same goes for Google’s recording of the Internet sites we visit. Even though the “shelf life” of many of our online exploits may be short, it is frightening to realize that something we said or wrote years ago can be resurrected and used against us at any time.
That isn’t an entirely new phenomena, however. You recall that last week we read of how Jesus’ began His public ministry by chasing the buyers and sellers out of the Temple at the time of the Jewish Passover. When asked to display a “sign” that would confirm His authority for doing such a thing, He responded by saying, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” And even though He was referring to “the temple of his body” (John 2:18-21), that very quote would be used against Him three years later and lead to His being publicly arrested, tried, and crucified.
The 3rd chapter of John’s Gospel opens with an interview taking place. Nicodemus, a Pharisee and a member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish religious council, appears to have been the designated appointee sent by his colleagues to gather information about this Man who had created the recent disturbance in the Temple. We are told that “he came to Jesus by night,” when the streets of Jerusalem would have been less filled with people. Perhaps he approached Jesus with a certain degree of “chutzpah,” but never could he have imagined the exchange of words about to take place.
Let’s listen in on...
The conversation with Nicodemus (3:1-10).
By all accounts, this was a man of no little respect. He, along with others, may have been among those who “believed in (Jesus’) name when they saw the signs that he was doing” (John 2:23). That seems to have been the first issue he raised with Jesus. He addressed Him respectfully, calling Him “Rabbi,” a term reserved for the most renowned teachers. His use of “we” is a tip-off that he had not come to Jesus on his own. Jesus had obviously been the subject of discussion between Nicodemus and his colleagues since the Temple cleansing, and perhaps they had even heard rumors that this same man had turned water into wine a short time earlier. By all indicators, Jesus would have appeared to Nicodemus to have had the endorsement of God.
John is probably abbreviating the account, so we have no idea whether Nicodemus’ initial statement contained more than what we find here. What we do have is Jesus’ response in verse 3...and it was not what the interviewer had expected: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” “I tell you the truth,” Jesus asserts, “man is utterly incapable of seeing God’s Kingdom reign apart from experiencing a new birth.”
The biblical term “born again” is the root and core of the theological doctrine known as “regeneration.” The word “again” (“ανωθεν”) can also be translated “from above,” as it is in other places (cf. James 3:15, et al). It is not improbable to think that our Lord had both meanings in mind, because to be “born again” means to be born “from above”...or “from God.”
Nicodemus is stunned by Jesus’ statement. Stuck on the word “born,” he asks, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” The question itself not only revealed Nicodemus’ misunderstanding of Jesus’ meaning but expressed the incredulousness of such a notion. “Born again”...really?
This time Jesus responded with a more lengthy reply, one that amplifies what he had just said. Beginning with verse 5 we read, “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.”
The phrase, being “born of water and the Spirit” would probably have struck a more familiar chord with Nicodemus than it immediately does with us. The learned Pharisee would have known that during the days of the Babylonian captivity, the Lord’s prophet Ezekiel was given hopeful words to share with His people who had been removed so far away from their native land. I read from Ezekiel 36:25 through 27, where the Lord offered this encouraging promise (listen for the words, “water” and “spirit”):
I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.
Here in John 3, Jesus is using Old Testament Scripture to define “the new birth.” To be “born of water and the Spirit” is what it means to be “born again.” I am well aware—as you too may be—of the various interpretations surrounding this phrase. Some people believe that it refers to two separate kinds of birth...first, to one’s “natural, physical birth,” and then to “the spiritual birth” that occurs when a person trusts Christ. Others think that the mention of “water” somehow refers to baptism, implying that a person cannot be truly saved apart from being baptized.
But the clearest and most natural explanation is to see the expression, “born of water and the Spirit” as parallel in construction and referring to what Jesus calls being “born again.” What does it mean to be “born again”? It means to be “born of (the same) water and the Spirit” that Ezekiel wrote about. In other words, “the new birth” is a sovereign, saving work of God on behalf His people.
As Jesus continues, he further explains that like begets like: “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” In other words, “the new birth” is not something that takes place according to “the will of the flesh.” John had earlier told us that same thing in chapter 1, verse 13. There he emphatically stated that “the new birth” is “of God.” “It is a “spiritual birth” that one receives “from above”...from the Lord Himself. “Therefore, Nicodemus, do not marvel...(that) you must be born again.”
That little word “must” (“δει”) cannot be overlooked. It implies an absolute necessity. No one is able to “see,” much less “enter the kingdom of God” apart from being “born again.” And when the miracle of “the new birth” occurs within the life of an individual, it is something that takes place according to God’s sovereign discretion. Just as “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 is the movement of the Holy Spirit who imparts “the new birth” to a person. In many ways, it is a mystery to us...but it is, in fact, a sovereignly-directed act according to the providence of Almighty God.
“Born again”...“born of water and the Spirit”...“born of the Spirit”...these are all parallel phrases that refer to the supernatural act of God granted to believing sinners at God’s good pleasure. According to Jesus’ logic—and who dares to question Him—you cannot choose to be “born again” anymore than you can choose to be born!
Not yet persuaded, Nicodemus presses a bit further in verse 9: “How can these things be?” he asks. And here Jesus makes the matter intensely personal...just as He does with each of us when we are brought face to face with issues related to our own salvation. And in each instance, Jesus specifically makes visible the heretofore undetectable barriers that keep us from Him. To Nicodemus He offered this challenge: “Are you the teacher in Israel (and the definite article suggests that he was the most prominent teacher) and yet you do not understand these things?”
Back in verse 2, Nicodemus “knew” (“οιδα”) some things about Jesus, but here in verse 10, Jesus reveals that Nicodemus didn’t “know” (“γινωσκω”) as much as he thought he knew or needed to know. He “knew” some facts, but he lacked the understanding of those facts.
A lot of us are more like Nicodemus than we care to admit. We may not be Pharisees or even very “religious,” but we think we know a lot more about our relationship with God than is actually true. We come to Him on our terms and our presuppositions, thinking that in the end the Lord will reward us for our sincerity and “honest effort.” Nicodemus probably thought Jesus would admire him and acknowledge his intellect and lofty position. But instead, Jesus exposed his shortcomings. That is what serious conversations with Jesus will do. How You permitted Him to reveal where You have fallen short of His glory and in securing a relationship with Him?
Perhaps it’s time to have a serious discussion with Him about what’s going on in your life. If so, then I encourage you to do that before it’s too late, and the “conference room” has been closed and locked. When and if you decide to have that discussion, be prepared to listen more than speak in your own defense. Nicodemus had approached Jesus, perhaps wearing his scholarly robes and flaunting his position, and he asked the questions he had been sent to ask. But now in verses 11 through 15, he assumes the role of a student as he listens to...
The contention of Jesus (3:11-15).
In response to Nicodemus asking “How can these things be?” Jesus gives His third “Truly, truly” statement of the conversation. Whenever John introduces a statement of Jesus with that preface—as he does frequently—it serves as an alert to pay careful attention to what the Lord has to say. Here Jesus gives an extended response: “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.”
Jesus expresses astonishment that Nicodemus has been unable to comprehend the teaching of “the new birth” from the Old Testament Scriptures. You recall that when Nicodemus first spoke to Jesus in verse 2, he had said, “We know,” implying that he had been sent as the representative, appointed by a group of scholarly others. Now look at verse 11 where Jesus responds, “We speak” and “We know.” Jesus too has been sent as the appointed Representative of an entity known as “the Holy Trinity.”
“You may ‘know’ certain things, Nicodemus, but I have been sent as the representative of that eternal triune Godhead, in which all the treasures of knowledge and truth are sourced and stored. Who else but Me has sat in the eternal councils of God and is able to speak of ‘heavenly things?’ Who else is able to be an accurate witness of My true identity except the Father who sent Me and the Holy Spirit who empowers Me? So, Nicodemus, let me give you another Old Testament picture to mediate upon. Do you remember how ‘Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness?’ In the same way, ‘so must the Son of Man be lifted up that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.’”
Revelation and not discovery is the basis for saving faith. As Jesus will later make clear with His disciples, “You did not choose me, but I chose you” (John 15:16). Faith to understand the Gospel and to believe in Christ are gifts granted at God’s good pleasure. Gratitude, reception, and submission are the only appropriate responses one can make. That is because it is “the Son of Man” who has been “lifted up,” and He has made “eternal life” available to “whoever believes in him.”
The account of Moses “(lifting) up the (bronze) serpent in the wilderness” comes from Numbers 24(:4-9) and serves as a prototype for the application of the benefits of the death of Christ to believing sinners. Consider the parallels of that account with Nicodemus’ need for salvation, remembering that his need was the same as all of ours.
- Like us, the ancient Israelites were guilty of disobedience and possessed a critical spirit and lack of gratitude.
- Like us, they were under the condemnation of God and were being punished for their sin.
- Like us, the object elevated before them was the emblem of their judgment.
- Like us, they were unable to rescue themselves.
- Like our sin, the poison of the serpents was deadly, and they had no antidote for it.
- Like us, they were urged to look to what was “lifted up” in order to receive life.
As was the serpent, Jesus insisted that He too would be “lifted up.” That term (“‘υψοω”) carries a double-meaning: “to be elevated” and “to be exalted.” Both meanings are equally appropriate here. Centuries earlier, Isaiah (52:13) wrote of the coming Messiah that He would “be high and lifted up and shall be exalted.” Jesus’ being elevated from the earth and humiliated while hanging upon a cross would the means by which He would provide deliverance for needy sinners and be exalted forever as “King of kings and Lord of lords” (cf. Revelation 19:16).
Once again, the word “must” (“δει”) is critical. There could be no salvation, no deliverance from sin, no “new birth,” no ‘eternal life” apart from Jesus’ willingness to die in fulfillment of the Scriptures. To Him, therefore, belongs all the glory, honor, and praise...all of it! Just in case you are wondering, “eternal life” means more than a life of “endless duration.” The emphasis is on the “quality” of that life as well as its “quantity.” In the later words of Jesus, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). “Eternal life” begins at the moment that faith is placed in the Sin-bearer and continues without ever being terminated. What an amazing thought!
While many scholars debate the point, the conversation with Nicodemus and the contention of Jesus appear to conclude at the end of verse 15. There are both structural and grammatical reasons for supposing this to be the case. Beginning with verse 16, what we now appear to have is...
The commentary by John (3:16-21).
The word “For” (“γαρ”) introduces an explanation of what Jesus had told Nicodemus in verse 15. “The Son of Man (must) be lifted up” in a similar way to the manner in which and the purpose for which “Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness,” because “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
John 3:16 has been called “the most beloved verse in all of Scripture” and “the Gospel in miniature.” Many of us first became aware of the “Good News” of salvation by hearing or reading this verse. As we consider it carefully and meditatively, we are able to determine the Author, the motive, the means, the parameters, and the purpose of God’s amazing sacrificial gift. Praise the Lord! Jesus Christ has been given by God for all who will “believe in Him.” But what does it mean to “believe in” (“πιστευω ειs”) Jesus? It certainly means more than a passive, intellectual reception of the facts related to his death. It refers to placing one’s personal trust and commitment in Jesus Christ as the Deliverer from the penalty of sin and yielding to Him as the Master of our life. Anything less than that falls short of the biblical teaching on salvation.
As Jesus explains, beginning in verses 17 and 18, the fallen world of which we are a part exists under the condemnation of God. John says that “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world.” That is because the world is “condemned already.” It has been that way since man’s descent into sin as recorded in Genesis 3. Perfect fellowship with God was fatally severed when our first parents chose the “forbidden fruit” over the “fruit of righteousness.” Man became lost and hopelessly separated from His Maker. The mission of Jesus was to reverse the curse under which we all live on behalf of those who would“(believe) in him.” Those who trust in Him are no longer under God’s condemnation, but those who do not yield remain in their fallen and lost state.
Don Carson explains it this way:
The Son of Man came into an already lost and condemned world. He did not come into a neutral world... in order to save some and condemn others; he came into a lost world in order to save some That not all the world will be saved is made perfectly clear...Already in need of a Saviour before God’s Son comes on his saving mission, this person compounds his or her guilt by not believing in the name of that Son.
You see, the verdict has been passed and mankind has been declared “guilty.” And what’s more, there is a Day of Judgment coming. But that day will merely confirm the judgment that has already been rendered. The condemnation of God is the logical consequence for man’s unbelief.
You and I live in what some have called “the age of entitlement.” We clamor for our so-called “rights” and we want what we think we deserve. We should instead all be grateful that we don’t immediately receive what we deserve. The truth is that God owes us nothing...nothing, except His wrath for having repeatedly violated His holy character. But in sovereign grace, “God gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” S. Louis Johnson, one of my favorite preachers of the past century, summarized John 3:16 in this way: “God loved...God gave...we believe...we have.” Exactly.
So, where do you stand in relation to Jesus? Have you truly “believed in the name of the only Son of God”? That name is Jesus Christ, and there is salvation in none other (cf. Acts 4:12). Is it Him and His finished work that you are leaning on, or are you still trusting in yourself or in something or someone else to be your “savior”?
Before you answer, we need to consider verses 19 through 21, where John concludes his commentary by adding, “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.”
These verses make it clear that not everyone will be saved. Those who respond to “the light” of salvation made clear through Jesus Christ are the ones—the only ones—to whom salvation is granted.
John introduced us to “the light” back in chapter 1 and verse 9, when he referred to Jesus as “The true light, which gives light to everyone.” But as we are told in verse 19, “people loved the darkness rather than the light.” Such ones make a deliberate choice to either neglect or reject “the light”—that is, Jesus—preferring other things and choosing other options. Those who discard Christ or think Him unworthy of their allegiance, in the end, are not passing judgment on Christ. They are passing judgment on themselves!
Everywhere in Scripture, “darkness” symbolizes sin and man’s fallen state. It is not coincidental that John begins this chapter by telling us that “Nicodemus...came to Jesus by night.” That setting symbolized his spiritual state at the time. Despite his “religious credentials” and influence, he was living in a “darkened” spiritual state.
Interestingly, we read of this man twice more in John’s Gospel. In John 7(:50-52) we find him actually interceding on behalf of Christ and facing the ridicule of his Sanhedrin colleagues who wanted to rid themselves of Jesus. And then in chapter 19(:39), we see him again near the tomb where the body of Jesus would lay, bringing gifts in order to anoint Him for his burial.
Something had happened in this man’s life, just as it happens in every life that has been transformed by “the new birth.” John explains that transformation in verse 21: “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.” In other words, Nicodemus had cast off all of his “religious” trappings and law-keeping righteousness, replacing them with the righteousness that is found in Jesus Christ. He had been rescued out of the “darkness” and cast into “the light.” Reflecting back on his first (and perhaps only) conversation with Jesus, he had been “born again.”
Trying to achieve salvation through “religion” is impossible, and it always leads to hypocrisy and despair. It is ultimately nothing more than faith in oneself, trusting in one’s ability to be good enough to impress God. Sooner or later, that person’s deeds will be shown to be “worthless,” which is what the word “wicked” (“φαυλοs”) in verse 20 actually means. Unfortunately, humanity is chronically “religious,” regardless of whether they use that term or not. We all “believe in” and “have faith in” something that we hope will get us to heaven.
Remember how “Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness”? Several centuries later and long after the affliction of the snakes had passed, the Israelites were still worshiping that hunk of bronze (cf. 2 Kings 18:4). They preserved it through wilderness wanderings, foreign invasion, famine, civil war, and the rise and fall of kings. For seven hundred years they had turned that symbol of their ancestors’ faithlessness into a superstitious “good luck charm.” They even burned incense to it, setting aside their confident trust in God for something they felt was “more tangible.”
That same lack of belief occurred in Jesus’ day, just as it has in the ages past, and it continues until today. We find it all around us as men and women cling tightly to their own moral merits or some other “religious superstition.” According to Jesus, such people have already judged themselves because they have “not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”
When Israel’s finest example of religious devotion visited Jesus, he was surprised to hear that his lofty status and impressive resumè failed to secure him a place in God’s Kingdom. Instead, Jesus told him that he “must be born again.” That simple statement challenged a misconception held by Nicodemus and all “religious” people.
Salvation cannot be earned; it can only be received as a free gift. It is granted “by grace through faith” (cf. Ephesians 2:8) to all those who believe.. So, to all of us this morning, I repeat the two-thousand year old words of Jesus: “truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” May the Lord be pleased to bring someone into His family today as a result of “the new birth.