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"You Must Be Born Again"

(John 3)

This article consists of an analysis of Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus, recorded in John 3.  As the conversation is lengthy, and I desired to include the entire context in this one article, it too is rather long.

Born Again (John 3:1-5)

Jesus, in John 3, had a conversation with a ruler of the Jews named Nicodemus. While it is obvious by Nicodemus’ words he was impressed with Jesus, it must be noted that he was ignorant of who Jesus truly was, and was a bit cautious in his approach.

Nicodemus referred to the Lord as a “rabbi” (teacher), and acknowledged that the miracles Jesus performed marked Him as a man from God. However, the fact that John revealed the ruler’s approach to be “by night” indicates that Nicodemus may have desired not to be seen talking with such a controversial man.

It is interesting that Jesus did not wait to learn from Nicodemus the reason for his visit. While we do not know for certain what Nicodemus wanted to ask, Jesus clearly revealed what Nicodemus needed to know!

Jesus’ words dealt with the kingdom of God. It was a subject of interest to the Jews, and certainly to a Pharisee, a ruler of the Jews. As one commentator put it:

It is likely that the (unstated) query of Nicodemus had to do with the coming kingdom, something like this: “What would a man of my station have to do to have a part in the kingdom which you are teaching people about.” Evidently Nicodemus thought that because he was a Jew, and more than a Jew, a Pharisee of high public office, there was little left for him to do to associate himself with the coming kingdom.

Dan King, Truth Commentary on John, pg. 56

But Jesus’ words indicated a different reality. One that reveals that there are no distinctions of rank in the kingdom of God; and that the kingdom of God was to be spiritual rather than physical.

Jesus said, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God(vs. 3). In order for one to have a part in the Messianic kingdom, no matter who he is, he would have to be “born again.” This new birth has reference to a new relationship with God through faith in Christ.

Nicodemus missed the point completely, which is understandable. While his mind turned to the obvious absurdity of a physical birth, Jesus’ reference was to a spiritual new birth. Jesus said further, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God(vs. 5).

We, as Nicodemus, need to know what is meant by the statement, “unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” Fortunately the meaning is clear, when the entirety of scripture is consulted.

For example, an examination of the first two chapters of Acts reveals that the kingdom (if understood as the subjects of Christ’s rule), and the church are one and the same. We are told that those who received the words of the gospel “were baptized; and that day about three thousand souls were added to them” (Acts 2:41). Water baptism is “for the remission of sins” (vs. 38); to put one “into Christ” (Galatians 3:27); to “wash away sins” (Acts 22:16); and to “save us” (1 Peter 3:21). Such passages reveal clearly that the phrase “born of water” refers to water baptism. One who is baptized “into Christ” is added to the church, or gains entrance to the kingdom of God.

Paul draws the same basic picture in Romans 6, where he writes, “Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life” (vs. 3-4).

The more difficult words of the passage are “and the Spirit”, indicating that one must be born of the Spirit to enter the kingdom of heaven. While John’s baptism was also a baptism in water, an added dimension is revealed here in the work of the Holy Spirit as it pertains to the new birth. As R.C.H. Lenski put it in his commentary, “the former being the divinely chosen earthly medium (necessary on that account), the latter being the regenerating agent who uses that medium.” (The Interpretation of St. John’s Gospel, 237).

It is amazing that while few would ever deny one must be born of the Spirit in order to see the kingdom, the majority of religious people today deny the necessity of being “born of water.” Denying the necessity of baptism is denying the teaching of the Lord himself. The doctrine of salvation by faith alone necessitates one ignore these plain words of Jesus Christ. “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

The Wind Blows Where It Wishes (John 3:6-8)

The text of John 3 contains a verse that is commonly misunderstood by religious people. It is the eighth verse, which reads, “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit.” As David Lipscomb wrote, “These verses have been ever of great difficulty because men try to get out of them what is not in them.” (G.A. Commentary, John, pg. 46).

A proper understanding of the passage is not difficult so long as the context is observed and respected. The important thing to remember is that Jesus has described the new birth (a spiritual birth), and that Nicodemus was confused by the description because he was thinking of the physical birth (cf. vs. 4).

After affirming the new birth to be something other than a physical birth, “unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God (vs. 3), Jesus continues his explanation of his assertion in verses 6-8. So, the context has Jesus correcting Nicodemus’ mistaken understanding of his teaching. When the verses are understood to be a contrast between physical birth and the new birth, most difficulties in the text are resolved.

In verse 6 the contrast is revealed in plain terms. “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” Though the text is plain, there are some who seek to read into it things that are not there. One example of this is Albert Barnes, who seeks to infer depraved character in the term flesh, and purity and goodness in the term spirit. His words are telling, “The word flesh here is used as meaning corrupt, defiled, sinful.” (Barnes on the N.T., pg. 203). This is typical of those who seek to defend the theology of Calvin. Anytime the word flesh is used, an attempt is made to define it as the corrupt nature of man. As Barnes states, “And as the parents are wholly corrupt by nature, so their children will be the same” (ibid.).

In fact, such an explanation of the text is neither necessary, nor natural. All our Lord is doing is indicating the difference between fleshly birth and spiritual birth. In doing so, he clearly reveals to Nicodemus that in saying a man must be born again, he is not referring to him entering “a second time into his mother’s womb” (vs. 4); but to the birth of a spiritual man, by or through the work of the Holy Spirit. It is not an inferred argument regarding corruption or purity; it is a plain argument regarding the physical body of man contrasted with his spirit.

This truth is born out by the next sentence uttered by our Lord. “Do not marvel that I said to you, You must be born again” (vs. 7). If you understand the new birth to be a spiritual one, the ridiculous image of a man entering again his mother’s womb is removed.

Verse eight continues the explanation by the use of an illustration. As the spirit of man is ephemeral, so is the wind. The two are contrasted to again emphasize the difference between the new birth, and physical birth.

Unfortunately, Charismatics have gotten hold of this passage, and confused many. They seek to read some teaching of significance regarding the Holy Spirit in Jesus’ words about the wind. They teach that the Holy Spirit is like the wind, that “blows where it wishes.” From this they infer things such as the miraculous indwelling of the Holy Spirit, and His subjective guidance of the Christian.

In fact, a careful reading of the passage shows that the wind is equated with the one who is born of the spirit, not of the Holy Spirit Himself. Again, when the context is considered, the meaning is clear and simple.

Jesus’ explanation to Nicodemus showed him that the spiritual birth was not visible like the physical birth of man. Just as the wind cannot be seen, though we see its effects, the new birth is not seen. It perhaps is not straining the comparison too much to note that we can see the effects of the new birth, as we can with the wind, but the verse is most certainly not talking about the Holy Spirit.

So, while we do not physically see the actual new birth, every child of God evidences the new birth in the life he lives. As Paul wrote, “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men, teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age” (Titus 2:11-12). When men see our good works, they see evidence of the new birth, and by such “glorify [our] Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).

Answering Nicodemus (John 3:9-15)

Jesus’ explanation of the new birth should have been sufficient for Nicodemus, but it was not. In verse 9, Nicodemus, reacting to Jesus’ declaration, “You must be born again”, answered by asking, “How can these things be?”

It may be helpful to consider Nicodemus’ reluctance to accept Jesus’ teaching in light of his standing as a ruler of the Jews. In chapter 7, John revealed Nicodemus to be one of the Sanhedrin, as he intervened on Jesus’ behalf before that august body. So, Nicodemus was a “ruler of the Jews” (verse 1), who accepted Jesus as a “rabbi” (verse 2), a teacher of the law of Moses. As he was a Pharisee and ruler, it made no sense to him for Jesus to say he had to be born again to enter the kingdom.

What Jesus taught had a surface similarity to the rituals required of Jewish proselytes. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia documents the requirements of a proselyte. He was first questioned, and if his answers indicated a sufficient faith and knowledge of Judaism, he was circumcised. After his circumcision he was immersed (baptized) as a cleansing, and after this immersion he was considered to be a “new man” and was given a new name. (Volume IV, page 2469).

It may be that Jesus’ requirements were hard for Nicodemus to accept because they showed him that he, as a Jewish leader, would have to become as a proselyte. If so, his reasoning was hardly unique. Most Jews had such a misunderstanding of the nature of the Messiah’s kingdom.

Regardless, his words elicited a rebuke from Jesus. “Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not know these things?” (vs. 10). Jesus again and again had to deal with the ignorance of the Jews as He presented Himself as their Messiah. In fact, such prejudice remained well into the time of the kingdom. The writer of Hebrews had to deal with it as well, and admonished the Jewish Christians to whom he wrote. He found his explanation of Jesus as our High Priest “hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing.” (Hebrews 5:11). Their dullness was the result of apathy, and their desire to return to the Law of Moses.

Jesus’ teaching was based in His experience as God’s Son. “We speak what We know and testify what We have seen” (vs. 11). This testimony was often misunderstood and rejected by the Jews, and especially the Jewish leaders. Why? Despite their knowledge of the law, they allowed their presuppositions and prejudices to cloud their thinking. “How will you believe if I tell you heavenly things?” (vs. 12).

Future actions by Nicodemus indicate that Jesus’ words had at least some effect. As previously indicated, he intervened on the Lord’s behalf before the Sanhedrin (7:50-52). John later records that at the death of Jesus, Nicodemus supplied 100 pounds of myrrh and aloes which were used in the preparation of His body (19:39-42).

In verses 13-15 of the text, Jesus makes two assertions regarding Himself. Verse 13 reads, “No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven, that it, the Son of Man who is in heaven.” The text is fairly difficult to fathom, due to our limited understanding of Jesus’ incarnation on earth. In fact, though the earliest manuscripts contain the final clause of the sentence, “the Son of Man who is in heaven”, some later manuscripts omit the clause. One theory that explains this omission is that scribes could not understand how the Son of Man could be on earth and in heaven at the same time, hence they concluded the final words did not belong in the narrative.

The problem is, as usual, that men seek to limit God. We may not fully understand how Jesus could be both descended from heaven and in heaven at the same time, but the passage affirms that it is so. Regardless, the words clearly identify Him as God.

Another explanation, advocated by David Lipscomb, is that the last clause is an interpolation of John, as the gospel was written after Jesus’ ascension. William Barclay believed the entire verse to be John’s commentary rather than Jesus’ words. Both views are doubtful, as the text is represented as being the actual words Jesus spoke to Nicodemus.

In verses 14 and 15 Jesus refers to the narrative of Numbers 21, where Moses “lifted up” a brazen serpent in the wilderness so that those Israelites who had been bitten by serpents could be saved from death. The account, no doubt, was very familiar to Nicodemus.

Jesus predicts his death with the next words, “Even so must the Son of Man be lifted up” (verse 14). The phrase “lifted up” refers to his crucifixion, not his resurrection. Compare the phrase with John 12:32, “And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all peoples to Myself.” John explained Jesus’ words in the next verse, “This He said, signifying by what death He would die” (verse 33).

So, in these three verses, Jesus affirms Himself to be both God and Redeemer. Because of these assurances we can know, “that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” (verse 15).

(John 3:16-21)

The last portion of our Lord’s conversation with Nicodemus consists of a soliloquy where Jesus clearly distinguishes between those who will be saved, and those who will be condemned.

The text begins with the verse that is perhaps the best known in the Bible. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (3:16).  This verse has been referred to as the gospel in miniature.  It is a wonderful expression of both the extension of God’s grace, and the conditional nature of acceptance into Christ’s kingdom.  All of the verses that follow enlarge upon the basic premise of this one sentence.

For example, verse 17 affirms the purpose of Jesus’ coming.  The purpose of his first incarnation was not to condemn, but to save!  The world was already condemned.  The ubiquity of sin (cf. Romans 3:23) left mankind in a state which compelled Paul to quote the 14th Psalm, “As it is written:  ‘There is none righteous, no, not one; There is none who understands; There is none who seeks after God. They have all turned aside; They have together become unprofitable; There is none who does good, no, not one’” (Romans 3:10-12).

Into this decrepit state God inserted His only begotten Son for the express purpose of saving man from his sins.  Other places in scripture explain why it was necessary for Jesus to come, explain the consequence of sin, the value of Christ’s blood, and the way in which grace reconciles God to man.  Here is the simple affirmation, “He who believes in Him is not condemned” (verse 18).  It is sufficient here to know that God loves us, and that His Son’s incarnation makes reconciliation available to all who will believe.

Belief, however, is a condition of that reconciliation.  Verse 18 reveals that clearly, stating:  1) “He who believes in Him in not condemned”; and, 2) “he who does not believe is condemned already.” John’s reasoning is clear.  A refusal to believe in Jesus Christ condemns a man because Jesus Christ came from God the Father.  The Jews had been looking for a Messiah, and now He was in their midst.  He is “the only begotten Son of God.” Again, as in verse 13, Jesus affirms His deity.  This is something the Jews would well understand.  In fact, on another occasion (John 5:18), John records that the Jews tried to kill Jesus, “because he not only had broken the sabbath, but said also that God was his Father, making himself equal with God.”

There are two phrases that are used in this context to describe Jesus.  The “Son of Man” (verses 13, 14) and the “Son of God” (verses 16,17,18).  In these self-affirmations, Jesus clearly revealed His duality as He lived upon the earth.  The Father sent His Son to be God on earth (Matthew 1:23), God incarnate (John 1:14).  Though Jesus remained God while on earth, he also was fully human (Philippians 2:5-8).  Only Jesus could accurately refer to Himself as both the “Son of Man” and the “Son of God.” This is what makes Him unique, and qualifies Him both as sacrifice, High Priest and Mediator (Hebrews 8:1-6).  As Christians, we must confess Jesus both as God and as Man. “Whoever transgresses and does not abide in the doctrine of Christ does not have God…” (2 John 9).  Please note that in the specific context of 2 John we have the condemnation of those who “do not confess Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh.”

One thing to consider here.  In both verse 16 and 18 Jesus refers to Himself as the “only begotten.” Though the word begotten commonly refers to one who is born, this term should not be construed to indicate Jesus having a beginning.  John clearly affirms that Jesus is self-existent, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (1:1).  The term differentiates between Jesus and all of us who can call God our Father through adoption (cf. Romans 8:12-17).  Divinity is suggested by the word “begotten” — it is not by the word “adopted.”

Finally, Jesus introduces the concept of light and darkness to describe the difference between those who respond to God’s grace and those who do not.  Jesus is the light that “has come into the world” (verse 19).  Evil men who seek to hide their evil deeds hate that light, and do not “come to the light, lest [their] deeds should be exposed” (verse 20).  However, the one who is righteous in his deeds has nothing to fear from the light.  When exposed, his deeds are revealed to be “done in God” (verse 21).

Whether it is described as coming to the light or faith, a man must respond to God’s gift of grace.  God sent His Son to die for all men, but not all are saved.  It is required that we love the light.  We must believe in Jesus Christ.  As He said, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6).