We left off in the last lesson in the middle of Jesus’ discussion with Nicodemus about who will see the kingdom of God. Jesus has told Nicodemus that all of his righteous works and all of the works of the Law which separated him as a Jew from the Gentiles are not enough to enter the kingdom. Instead, a radical new birth must occur to see the kingdom. Nicodemus cannot understand how this can be. How can he, as an adult and full of sin, experience a new birth? How can a person start all over and go back to the beginning? It is impossible. Jesus agrees with the impossible nature of the flesh accomplishing this new birth. What is born is flesh is fleshly, but what is born of Spirit is spiritual. But the new birth has been part of God’s plan as evidenced by the allusion to the prophecy of Ezekiel. Ezekiel spoke of the people being made clean by being sprinkled clean with water, and receiving a new heart and new spirit. Life is being given to the people through the Spirit.
Life Through The Spirit (3:7-8)
This teaching is not for Nicodemus alone, but for all the Jews. In verse 7 when Jesus says to Nicodemus, “You must be born again,” the “You” is plural. Jesus is saying that Nicodemus should not be surprised that he is telling the nation that they all must experience the new birth.
The eighth verse of John 3 continues this imagery from Ezekiel. After giving this prophecy about new birth, Ezekiel is given a vision of life and restoration for the people in Ezekiel 37. Turn your Bibles to Ezekiel 37. Now there is an interesting nuance in the wording that occurs both in the Hebrew and the Greek languages, which God plays upon in both places. In Ezekiel 37 the question is asked, “Can these bones live?” (37:3). Ezekiel is looking at the spiritually dead nation, lost in their sins. Notice verse 5 as God speaks over these dead, dry bones: “I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live!” The word translated “breath” is the Hebrew word ruach which can be translated “breath, wind, spirit.” In fact, notice verse 14, “And I will put my Spirit (ruach) within you, and you shall live.” It is the same Hebrew word.
Have you ever thought about why the Holy Spirit is called the Holy Spirit? Why not another name? Why Spirit? I believe the answer is because of the meaning of the Hebrew word. We can see it right here in Ezekiel 37. God is going to put his breath in these dead bones and what will happen? The bones will come to life. The breath of life, the Spirit of life, will enter these bones and they will live. This is the idea in Genesis 1:2 when we see the Spirit moving over the face of the waters. The creation is dark and void and dead. But the breath of God, life, the Spirit of God is moving over creation. Life is about to begin. Life is coming to deadness. When the Spirit comes, life comes! The wind of God is moving, bringing life (cf. Genesis 1:2 NRSV). So the word play is here in Ezekiel 37. I will put my Spirit in these bones. I will put my breath in these bones. The result: LIFE! Notice the word play in Ezekiel 37:9. “Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain that they may live.” Winds and breath are the same Hebrew word. God has the power to give life.
The same word play is in John 3:8. Wind, breath, and Spirit are the same Greek word pneuma. I believe the word play in John 3:8 is intended to draw this connection back to Ezekiel 37 where the same word play occur, and most scholars see the same connection. Ezekiel 36 connects to the water and Spirit and Ezekiel 37 connects to the wind and the Spirit. Now, do not miss what Jesus is saying. This verse is frequently misread. Most read this to say, “So it is with the Spirit.” But that is not what it says. “So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” The new birth happens in an amazing way for people. The new birth is through the power of God. Jesus is not saying that the Spirit works randomly among people so who can know what the Spirit is doing. This is a ridiculous thought for the working of God. Rather, the message continues to emphasize God’s power in bringing people into the kingdom. When God asked Ezekiel if the dead bones could live, the answer would be “no” if it was up to human power. We cannot make dead bones live. We are spiritually dead. Israel could not bring itself back to life. But God was going to bring life back to his people for the glory of his name (cf. Ezekiel 37:3; 36:22-23). The idea fits the introduction to this gospel.
But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. (John 1:12–13 ESV) One is a child of God not through our own effort, our own desire, or our own merits. The right to become children of God has come through the power of God, not our power. This is what Jesus is saying to Nicodemus. It is not by your visible work that this salvation comes, but the invisible work of God. Who those are who have been born of the Spirit is incomprehensible to the world, and especially to the Jews. What can be seen is the changed life, the outcome of being born of the Spirit, just as we can see and hear the results of the wind blowing. Nicodemus will be greatly surprised at who is born again and who is not. As Jesus would teach on many occasions, the first would be last and the last would be first. That is, the Gentiles would be more likely to see the kingdom than the Jews. The Gentiles would bear fruit for the Lord and reflect lives completely transformed from the new birth. Many of the Jews would not, which would have been incomprehensible to the Jews at that time.
The Means of the New Birth (3:9-15)
Nicodemus is still blown away by this teaching, and we should not be surprised by this. The Jews were engrained with the idea that their works were the means of their salvation. Particularly, because they were born into Israel as children of Abraham, been circumcised, kept the laws pertaining to clean and unclean foods, and separated themselves from defilements they believed their were in God’s kingdom. This is why Jesus repeated through the gospels is teaching the Jews that they were not in the kingdom, but were attempting to seize the kingdom for themselves apart from God (cf. Matthew 11:11-12; 23:13; Luke 19). Here is Nicodemus, who like Paul, had achieved every accolade in Judaism that one could obtain. New birth has challenged this Jewish thinking. How can it be that we come to the kingdom through the power of God, not through your own power? How can these things be?
Jesus is surprised that Nicodemus does not understand this because Nicodemus is a teacher of Israel. How can you not know these things if you are a teacher of the Law? This is a clue to us that Jesus is not teaching something new, radical, or different in terms of the scriptures. It is radical and different to first century Jewish thinking, but Jesus is teaching something that is in the scriptures that the Jews had overlooked. This is the problem, Jesus says. You (Jews) have not been listening to what I have been teaching (3:11). We are speaking about what we know from the scriptures and you are not listening to our testimony. Throughout the years the “people” had rejected God’s instruction as ministered through the prophets and the Scriptures. And things were no different now. God’s servants had been trying to teach the people the way of the Lord and the means into the kingdom and now God’s Son was trying to teach the same thing. But the people continue to reject their testimony.
Jesus now applies this to the whole of the nation, perhaps particularly to the Jewish leaders. Notice in verse 12 that the “you” is plural. Once again Jesus is broadening his teaching to apply to all the Jews. Since Jesus is referring to all the Jews and how they cannot comprehend the earthly things, the “earthly things” is not a reference to his previous analogy of being born again. Jesus is referring to the whole of his teachings. Particularly, return to John 2:23 and John 3:1. People are “believing” because of the signs Jesus is performing. But the belief is incomplete because it is not causing a spiritual reformation and total life transformation. Here’s Jesus’ point: if I am performing miracles and all of you Jews are not believing with the faith that leads to life transformation, then can’t expect all of you to come to me when I teach spiritual truths? Their unbelief is perpetuating their spiritual ignorance. If you won’t believe from the miracles and signs, then you will not believe based on his teachings.
Now verse 13 is a statement that seems to be somewhat out of place. The simple point would seem to be that Jesus knows spiritual things because he descended from heaven. No one else knows spiritual things because no one has ascended to heaven. But this thinking does not really fit our context. First, what does Jesus knowing spiritual things have to do with Moses in the wilderness and the Son of Man being lifted up on the cross? Second, it does not fit to say that only Jesus knows the spiritual things because he came from heaven. Jesus has just been teaching Nicodemus for the need to experience the new birth, to experience spiritual renewal. Jesus just criticized Nicodemus and the Jews for not knowing heavenly things (3:12)! Further, Jesus has not ascended into heaven yet. What would Jesus’ future ascension have to do with what he is teaching Nicodemus? Why would Jesus say that Nicodemus needs a new birth but Jesus is going to ascend to heaven? Nicodemus already admitted that he believed that Jesus had come from God because of the signs he was doing (3:2). I want us to consider that just like the teaching of water and the Spirit, so also this ascending and descending comes from the Old Testament. Therefore we need to examine what this meant in its Old Testament context.
Deuteronomy 27-30 is the section of scripture we need to examine to understand what Jesus is teaching. You will notice that it the section of the blessings and curses for Israel. Chapter 27 begins describing the curses for disobeying the covenant of God. Chapter 28 describes the blessings of obedience and then at verse 15 describes more curses for disobedience. In chapters 29-30 Moses predicts that they are going to disobey.
But to this day the LORD has not given you a heart to understand or eyes to see or ears to hear. (Deuteronomy 29:4 ESV)
And when all these things come upon you, the blessing and the curse, which I have set before you, and you call them to mind among all the nations where the LORD your God has driven you, and return to the LORD your God, you and your children, and obey his voice in all that I command you today, with all your heart and with all your soul, then the LORD your God will restore your fortunes and have mercy on you, and he will gather you again from all the peoples where the LORD your God has scattered you. (Deuteronomy 30:1–3 ESV)
Moses that they do not have a heart of understanding. Moses further declares that “all these things” would come upon them, including the curses. Israel will be taken off of their land and go into exile for their disobedience. Then Moses says that one day they would return and they will obey with all their heart and soul and they will be gathered from their exile. Listen to what God is going to do to the people in the future:
And the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live. (Deuteronomy 30:6 ESV) Here is the new heart, new spirit, new life, new creation, and complete transformation that we have been reading about Jesus teaching Nicodemus. The apostle Paul used the same language in Romans 2:28-29. Those who are the true Israel are not those who have been physically circumcised but those who have been circumcised in the heart. Nicodemus is not true Israel and will not see the kingdom because he has not been circumcised in the heart. He has not experienced the new birth.
Now we come to the point of contact between John 3:13 and Deuteronomy 30.
“For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. (Deuteronomy 30:11 ESV)
Notice that Moses said that it is not too hard for them to keep this command. Wait a minute! Moses just told the people that they could not obey. They do not have a heart that understands. They are spiritually blind and are going to disobey and they are going to be sent into exile. What is going to change this time around? Why can Moses say that it is not too hard for them to obey? Look at verses 12-14 of Deuteronomy 30.
It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?” But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it. (Deuteronomy 30:12–14 ESV)
They would not need to go into heaven to find help so as to keep the covenant, obey God’s commands, and have the relationship restored. What would happen is the Son of Man would descend from heaven to give the help needed. The Son of Man has come to make the new birth possible. Listen to Jesus’ words again in this context.
No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. (John 3:13 ESV)
New birth is possible through Jesus, who has come to give help to the world. The people could not obey because they had hearts of stone. Through the gracious, loving act of Jesus now covenant relationship is possible because in Jesus we find healing for our sins. Notice that this is exactly what Jesus says next.
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 3:14–15 ESV)
The parallel symbolism is great. First, the “sign” or pole on which Moses placed the bronze serpent in Numbers 21:8-9 served as a symbol of life to the dying, snake-bitten Israelites. By God’s provision, new life was gracious granted. Every person should have died in the desert because of their complaining and rebellion to God. Now God has granted gracious provision so that there should be new spiritual life, a new birth, that is, eternal life to us, the rebellious sinners. Second, Moses lifted the bronze serpent on the pole so that all who were afflicted with the venom could look to the pole could find life. In the same way, the Son of Man must be lifted up on the cross so that all who will look to him will find life from the poison of sin that is within them. Nicodemus is being challenged to turn to Jesus for the new birth just as the people of Israel had to turn to the bronze serpent for new life.
Let’s summarize these last two lessons to grasp the conversation and teaching of Jesus. Nicodemus has belief but it is an insufficient belief (3:2). Unless he experiences a new birth he will not see the kingdom of God (3:3). Nicodemus is stunned that he will not see the kingdom. The Jews believed because they were the children of Abraham that they were in the kingdom. If they are not in the kingdom, then how can anyone experience the new birth? It is not possible (3:4). Jesus uses Ezekiel 36-37 to prove the necessity for the new birth, describing the new birth as being born of water and the Spirit. A new spiritual birth is required and that new birth must come from God. What is born of flesh is flesh (3:6). All that we can do is beget more sin. We are dead in our sins and our actions cannot bring us to life. God must bring about a spiritual birth so that we can see the kingdom. Therefore, don’t be surprised that a new spiritual birth is necessary (3:7). Anyone who understands sin and the law understands the need for life because we are dead in sins. God was going to put life into the nation again (3:8; cf. Ezekiel 37). The Spirit represents the bringing of life to our dead bodies. We do not see the Spirit, but we see the result: people born of the Spirit. We see life transformation. We see new birth of people who desire to obey God and keep his commands. Nicodemus wants to know how this can be possible (3:9). Jesus is surprised that Nicodemus does not understand this because this is what the prophets and Moses foretold would occur (3:10). Jesus sets out to prove that Nicodemus should know these things. Jesus and the apostles are teaching the scriptures (3:11). But, just like their ancestors, they are rejecting the teachings of God and not listening to the scriptures. If they will not have a life changing belief based upon the miracles of Jesus, then they will not listen and understand Jesus’ teachings (3:12). Their unbelief is causing them to not see who Jesus is, what he is doing, or what he is teaching. Returning to answering Nicodemus’ question, “How can these things be?” Jesus declares that the new birth is possible through the Son of Man coming to the earth (3:13). Keeping the law and finding justification in our own actions is not possible. We cannot see the kingdom of God no matter what we do because we all have sinned. But God has intervened and sent his Son so that we now have access to the new life. Just as God intervened on Israel’s behalf to give physical life when the people rebelled and were bitten by serpents in the wilderness, so now God has intervened on behalf of the world to give spiritual life to the people because we all have rebelled and are destined to death (3:14). We are dead in our sins but through Jesus we have eternal life (3:15). New birth and radical transformation are possible through Jesus who heals us of our sins when we look to him by faith, desiring to follow him and passionately pursue a relationship with him. Now we can keep the law because forgiveness is available through the blood of Jesus when we fall short.