Verses 23-25 of John 2 are the beginning of the scene with Nicodemus which follows in chapter 3. Notice that John once again notes the Passover, drawing the significance and symbolism of that feast into this discourse that Jesus will have with Nicodemus. John records that many believed in Jesus’ name when they saw the signs he was doing. However, Jesus did not entrust himself to people because he knew what was in them. The wording here is an intended wordplay. Most translations obscure the word play, but the word “believed” in verse 23 is the same Greek word translated “entrust” in verse 24. The HCSB gets close, “…many trusted in His name when they saw the signs He was doing. Jesus, however, would not entrust Himself to them…” Jesus did not believe those who believed in him. John reveals to us that this Jesus is God because he knows the heart of every person. People are believing because of the miracles they are seeing, but there is not a heart change in these people, and Jesus knows it. Belief is supposed to lead to a change of heart. Belief is supposed to lead to the people placing their firm trust in Jesus. But Jesus knows their hearts and knows this is not happening. This is a veiled reminder that though people in Jerusalem are believing, the Passover lamb will still be sacrificed, and these people are going to be the ones to reject him and hand him over to the Romans for death. It is useful to us to remember Jesus’ parable of the soils, where we see many ears receiving the word, but it seed of God’s word does not take root and grow in the heart. This insight of Jesus leads us to the encounter with Nicodemus.
The Necessity of the New Birth (3:1-3)
Nicodemus is a Pharisee and a ruler of the Jews. He is a member of the Sanhedrin, the government entity over the Jews that dealt particularly with religious matters. We should be careful as we read about Nicodemus and read his words that we do not place too much skepticism on him. The reason why is because we will read later in this gospel that Nicodemus becomes a believer in Jesus and prepares Jesus’ body for burial (John 19:39). Therefore I believe we should read this conversation with Nicodemus as one who is sincerely seeking to know who Jesus is rather than what we see in the other gospel stories where the Pharisees are trying to trap and discredit Jesus. Nicodemus at some point believes, whether it be at this point because of his conversation with Jesus or something later on. So I am going to give Nicodemus the benefit of the doubt as we proceed through our examination of this story.
Nicodemus proclaims belief. “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.” This is a great statement of belief. We know that you have come from God. Perhaps more accurately, Nicodemus believes that Jesus has come from God because no one can do the signs that he is doing and not be from God. But rather than Jesus accept this belief in him, Jesus challenges Nicodemus.
“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (John 3:3 ESV)
Nicodemus has some belief, but that belief is incomplete. What I want us to recognize is that what Jesus says to Nicodemus is a complete blindside. These are words that are incomprehensible to him. Jesus just told Nicodemus that he is not in the kingdom of God. Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews, a man of the Pharisees, an important religious teacher was just told that he was not going to see this kingdom or participate in it. How can it be that Nicodemus, with his belief in Jesus, with all of his works, all of his effort, and his lineage to Abraham not be in the kingdom of God? How can all these things not matter? Recall that the Jews believed that this was how they knew they were in the kingdom. They were children of Abraham by blood, circumcised according to the Law, separate from the Gentiles, and striving for obedience to the Law. How could Jesus say that such people were not in God’s kingdom?
To begin to understand the answer we need to consider what Jesus said. Jesus tells Nicodemus that there is a need to be “born again.” The word that Jesus uses has a double meaning. It means “born again” and “born from above.” The NRSV and NET translations even render this as “born from above” instead of “born again.” The phrase “born from above” may help our understanding since the phrase “born again” has been used fairly loosely and may have lost some of the meaning that this gospel intends. In John 3:31 and 19:11 the same Greek word is used and refers to something coming from heaven in those instances. But this does not settle the matter because Nicodemus understands Jesus to be speaking of as being “born again” or experiencing a new birth, and Jesus does not correct that. In fact, the apostles used this same language also.
Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart, since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God; (1 Peter 1:22–23 ESV)
What Peter said did not have a double meaning. The word means “born again” and cannot mean “born from above” because he used a different Greek word. So the idea of being “born again” is not foreign to the scriptures and should not be shied away from using so long as we have a proper understanding of the term (which we will grasp as we go through this lesson). The apostle Paul also used the same imagery in 2 Corinthians 5:17 and Galatians 6:15. Paul told the Corinthians that if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature and a new creation. When Paul wrote to the Galatians he told them that circumcision was not meaningful for belonging to Christ but being a new creation. Jesus is using the picture of a new birth, a birth that comes from above, as a spiritual renewal. Being born again means that you were first born physically and now you must be born spiritually. Thus, one is born from above (heavenly) in contrast to be born physically. Both terms are getting at the same idea: new birth and new creation.
The Explanation of the New Birth (3:4-8)
Listen to Nicodemus’ response: “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” (John 3:4 ESV)
There are three options for our consideration as to how to understand what Nicodemus asks. Some suggest that Nicodemus is being sarcastic. However, as we have already noted, Nicodemus becomes a believer. I think this rules out the idea that Nicodemus is rejecting Jesus’ teaching with a sarcastic response. The second option is that Nicodemus is dim-witted and does not understand the spiritual discussion Jesus is having. I think verse 1 tells us that this is not the case. Nicodemus is a Pharisee, and ruler of the Jews, and part of the Sanhedrin. He is a spiritual person. He is spiritually-minded. I do not believe that after hearing Jesus speak of the new birth legitimately believes that Jesus is suggesting for people to enter the kingdom of God requires a second physical birth. I know we can be dull and many of the Jews were dull in hearing. But I don’t think that is what Nicodemus is doing. Rather, I think Nicodemus grasps what Jesus is saying and is recognizing the impossible nature of Jesus’ teaching. In essence, Nicodemus is saying, “Isn’t it too late for such a change?” Nicodemus is declaring the impossible nature of Jesus’ teaching. You need to experience a whole new birth, become a whole new person, a new creation, being born from above to be in the kingdom of God. If this is true, then I need to start life all over again. How I am going to do this after my long life has already passed by? In the thinking of Nicodemus, if all that he has done for the Law of Moses is insufficient, what can he possibly do? How could he start all over and go back to the beginning? Should he climb into his mother’s womb and start over? The point is that what Jesus is saying sounds impossible. Jesus was making entrance into the kingdom of God contingent on something that could not be obtained by human effort.
So Jesus gives a further explanation to help Nicodemus understand what this new birth looks like. Verse 5 is the statement: “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” Notice verse 8, “So is everyone who is born of the Spirit.” So Jesus is giving an explanation of the new birth. Jesus gives a very clear teaching that Nicodemus should have picked up on as a teacher of the Jews: “born of water and Spirit.” The new birth is possible by being born of water and the Spirit.
Notice that Jesus agrees with Nicodemus initial assessment of the impossibility of the new birth. What is born of the flesh is flesh. Flesh actions affect the flesh. The flesh speaks the problem of human weakness. Flesh is frail. Flesh lets us down. Paul used the same idea in his teachings. “For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin.” (Romans 7:14 ESV) A spiritual birth is needed. The flesh is simply a reminder of our shortcomings and weaknesses. Therefore, do not be amazed at the idea of the need for a new birth. Clearly, everyone in the flesh should understand the need for a new birth.
So what does it mean to be “born of water and the Spirit?” How is this an answer to Nicodemus’ confusion about how it is possible to experience a new birth? This language of water and Spirit are found in the Old Testament prophets as they looked toward the restoration of God’s people. Read Ezekiel 36:22-29 because this is our point of reference to this new birth.
Ezekiel describes the sins of the nation of Israel as the reason for their exile. But God is going to act, not for the sake of the people, but for the glory of his own name (36:22). Through their sins they had profaned the holy name of the Lord and this cannot be allowed to stand (36:23). God’s name must be holy through all the earth so that he receives the glory due him. God declares what he is going to do. He is going to cleanse them from all their uncleanness (36:25). Notice that a washing with water is going to occur. God will sprinkle clean water on them and wash them from their defilements. Further, they will be given a new heart and a new spirit. The heart of stone will be taken from them (36:26). Also, God will put his Spirit in them which will cause them to carefully obey God’s laws (36:27). Notice the connection between water and Spirit. The imagery of spiritual birth and revival is filled through this paragraph. The Jews knew this new birth language and were looking for this cleansing to occur. Listen to the Qumran community’s writing:
Unclean, unclean shall he be all the days that he rejects the laws of God, refusing to be disciplined in the Yahad of His society. For only through the spirit pervading God’s true society can there be atonement for a man’s ways, all of his iniquities; thus only can he gaze upon the light of life and so be joined to His truth by His holy spirit, purified from all iniquity. Through an upright and humble attitude his sin may be covered, and by humbling himself before all God’s laws his flesh can be made clean. Only thus can he really receive the purifying waters and be purged by the cleansing flow. Let him order his steps to walk faultless in all the ways of God, just as He commanded for the times appointed to him. Let him turn aside neither to the right nor the left, nor yet deviate in the smallest detail from all of His words. Then indeed will he be accepted by God, offering the sweet savor of atoning sacrifice, and then only shall he be a party to the Covenant of the Eternal Yahad. (1Qs 3:5–12)
Ezekiel was prophesying of a time when new life would be given to the people, where they would be washed clean and given a new heart and new spirit. The new birth is the transformation of a person so as to enter the new world and kingdom. A complete transformation is going to occur that is going to bring life to the dead, a new birth, that is, a new creation. A cleansing of the heart is going to come so that people will follow God wholly. It would be a time when hearts would no longer be of stone, but would be of flesh so that they could be pricked and would hunger to do God’s will.
We need to rest here for a moment before moving forward. I want us to see that it does not make any sense to understand the phrase “being born of water” to refer to baptism. Listen to what I mean. Nicodemus cannot understand how he is not entering the kingdom of God. Nicodemus is a ruler of the Jews and a Pharisee, yet these things do not mean that Nicodemus is in the kingdom. It does not make any sense for Jesus to be telling Nicodemus that what he is lacking is baptism. If you would just be baptized then you would be in the kingdom. It does not fit what Jesus is teaching, nor does this fit what Ezekiel prophesied. What Jesus is talking about is bigger than baptism. I hope we are not startled by this. But we saw the same thing in Revelation 7:14. Those who had “washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb” did not mean merely baptism, but stood for people who had given their lives wholly to Jesus and had died faithfully for him. The image included baptism but was not speaking exclusively of the baptism act. In the same way, baptism is included in the new birth, but Jesus is not saying to just get baptized. Rather, the picture is bigger than baptism. The new birth is the change of heart from stone to flesh, the removal of uncleanness, and the faithful desiring to obey all of his laws. This is what Ezekiel is picturing and this is what Jesus is saying is necessary to enter the kingdom of God. Therefore a different birth is needed. A spiritual birth is needed, because what is born of the Spirit is spirit.
We are right in the middle of this discussion but have to stop here for the sake of time. Next week we will continue to examine the new birth and the means by which one can participate in this birth. But for our conclusion now consider that Jesus teaches no one enter the kingdom of God without a complete transformation of heart and life. Jesus knows the heart and knows whose hearts have been transformed by the new birth and who merely believes in Jesus but has no heart transformation.