(It may be helpful if you will read the entire chapter of John 3 before reading this article.)
Who, what, where and why?
In writing this article I am trying to answer the four questions of who, what, where and why as I lay out a simple message about understanding the new birth Jesus talks about in John chapter 3. Asking these four questions always helps the reader to keep things in context. Most everyone I know can quote John 3:16. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life.” This is a very powerful verse all by itself but taken in context can mean even more to us as we understand what it is all about. It is about the ‘new birth’ and salvation of individuals.
John 3:1-2 “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.”
Here we begin finding the ‘who’s’ of the story. There is Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews and Jesus. Nicodemus is very curious about Jesus but not enough to put his reputation at risk, so we find him approaching Jesus in the stealth of darkness, shrouding himself in it, hoping to stay hidden from anyone who might frown on their meeting. Nicodemus was not only hiding in physical darkness but was somewhat bound by a different kind of darkness. He believed that Jesus truly was a teacher come from God who worked miracles, but his understanding beyond that was darkened about Who Jesus really was.
(Jesus talks about a darkness that holds men in bondage, a spiritual darkness in John 3:19-20 “And this is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For everyone practicing evil hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed.” Here we see more of the who’s that are connected to this story, the people caught in spiritual darkness. These are the people Jesus came to rescue.
Thankfully for us, Nicodemus had the courage to poke his head through the darkness a little bit. Through his inquiry about Jesus we find answers to questions we all have. The story continues in John 3:3-9. “Jesus answered and said to him, most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. 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, “Most assuredly, 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.’ Nicodemus answered and said to Him, How can these things be? Jesus answered and said to him, “Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not know these things?”
- You must be born again.
- If you are not born again you cannot even ‘see’ the kingdom of God.
- Only those born of water and the Spirit can enter the kingdom of God.
- Jesus was adamant. “You must be born again.”
The ‘what’s’ help us to understand the ‘why’s’ about being born again.
- You won’t be able to see the kingdom God
- You won’t be able to enter the kingdom of God
Jesus said Nicodemus should have known these things. Thankfully Nicodemus kept the conversation going by asking the ‘how’ questions to Jesus. Verse 4 “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Verse 9 “How can these things be?” In Jesus answer He reveals another hidden ‘Who’ in verse 8, the ‘Holy Spirit’. “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.” We learn…
- The new birth is a result of the Holy Spirit’s work inside a person.
- It is also a result of believing in the great sacrifice Jesus would make for the sins (sinners) of the world as we will see here shortly.
More of the supernatural element of man’s salvation comes to light as Jesus refers to His connection to the Triune Godhead in verses 11-13. Jesus said to Nicodemus, John 3:11 “Most assuredly, I say to you, We speak what We know and testify what We have seen, and you do not receive Our witness.”
Now at the time, the ones who were rejecting Jesus, the works He did and his claims His works were from the Father and the Holy Spirit, were the leaders of Israel. Nicodemus was representing them all as you can see in verse 2, “Rabbi, we know that You are a teacher come from God.”
Jesus goes on… John 3:12-13 “If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of Man who is in heaven”. This must have been a jaw dropping moment for Nicodemus realizing that the only way Jesus could ‘be present’ in heaven at the same time He was ‘present on the earth’ was if He really was God.
Now this understanding of God was not a strange concept for the Jews. Nicodemus was very familiar with passages of scripture like Genesis 1:26. “Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”
Deuteronomy 6:4“Hear, O Israel the Lord our God, the Lord is one!” (The word one in Hebrew means unique unity.)
He also knew Jeremiah 24:23-24 which says “Am I a God near at hand, says the Lord, and not a God afar off? Can anyone hide himself in secret places, so I shall not see him? says the Lord, do I not fill heaven and earth? says the Lord.” Did Nicodemus realize he was in a sense face to face with all three persons of the Holy Trinity as he met their with Jesus?
Hey Nick! I’m more than a teacher.
This brings us to the place where we must believe that Jesus is more than a teacher, like Nicodemus thought. He is God in the flesh, Who came to be the ultimate and final sacrifice for the sins of mankind, with the intention of delivering whoever would believe in Him from spiritual darkness and separation from God.
Jesus went on to say… “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. 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. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved. He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.” John 3:14-17.
Nicodemus knew very well about Jesus reference to Moses and the serpent. The story is found in Numbers 21:4-9. “Then they journeyed from Mount Hor by the Way of the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom and the soul of the people became very discouraged on the way. And the people spoke against God and against Moses, Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and our soul loathes this worthless bread. So the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and many of the people of Israel died. Therefore the people came to Moses, and said, we have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you, pray to the Lord that He take away the serpents from us. So Moses prayed for the people. Then the Lord said to Moses, make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole, and it shall be that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, shall live. So Moses made a bronze serpent, and put it on a pole; and so it was, if a serpent had bitten anyone, when he looked at the bronze serpent, he lived.”
The new birth is not something you can figure out with your head!
As Nicodemus pondered that familiar piece of history in his mind, his soul must have struggled like all men do, particularly those tied to a system of works like he was. It is so natural to think man must add something of his own to be saved. We think we should do something to make us worthy of salvation. But that’s not what happened to those bitten by the serpents in the wilderness and that is not what Jesus said to us either. He said “He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.” (Verse 17)
The work we do is the work of believing. That believing produces a new birth, a rebirth of our spirit, a miracle spawned by the Holy Spirit. It’s all the result of looking to Jesus, believing in Him and letting the Holy Spirit work in the hidden recess of our heart. Water baptism doesn’t produce it. Water baptism is an outward act of obedience because of an inward reality of change in us that only the Lord could have produced.
Born of water!
Now some would say that what Jesus said in John 3:5 “unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” refers to water baptism. But it doesn’t. It simply means that only humans can be saved, only human beings can be born again. Human beings are carried in a sack of water for 9 months in their mother’s womb. Only humans qualify for salvation. The fallen angels and demons don’t qualify and can’t be saved.
If Jesus meant baptism here He would have said “unless one is ‘baptized’ of water and the Spirit he cannot enter the kingdom of God”. He didn’t say that. He said “unless one is ‘born’ of water and the Spirit he cannot enter the kingdom of God” It’s simple. The word ‘baptize’ means to be immersed or dipped into something and the word ‘born’ means a procreated descendent. Nicodemus understood the concept of how it relates to the mother’s womb because he said in verse 4 “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Nicodemus never thought for a minute about water baptism here. It was all about a natural birth and another spiritual birth that can follow.
You must be born again!
Jesus words are just as vital to us today. John 3:6-7 “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.” When a person is born again something miraculous takes place on the inside, in the person’s spirit. The following New Testament passages describe it…
- 2 Corinthians 5:17 “…if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation, old things have passed away and behold all things have become new. Now all things are of God, Who has reconciled us to Himself through Jesus Christ and has given us the ministry of reconciliation.”
- Romans 5:1 “Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
- 1 Peter 1:23 “having been born again, not of corruptible seed but incorruptible, through the word of God which lives and abides forever.” Remember Jesus is the Word of God.
It’s God’s work!
All these verses speak of that supernatural change that happens to a sinner’s heart when they receive Jesus as their Lord. It’s a work God does in a person because they believe, not a work that they do for Him. Water baptism should follow the new birth and is a demonstration of one’s faith in Jesus Christ, His death, burial and resurrection. It is an action because of the new birth not the reason causing it.
Again water baptism is important. It demonstrates what we truly believe in our heart about what Jesus has done for us and Who He is to us.
- Romans 6:4“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.”
Today you will be with Me!
I want to close this article by looking at Acts 2:38 where we find the Apostle Peter saying “…repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” Many believe that this verse requires water baptism for salvation. If that is so how can we justify the thief who asked Jesus to have mercy upon him as they both hung on the cross?
Luke 23:39-43 “Then one of the criminals who were hanged blasphemed Him, saying, “If You are the Christ, save Yourself and us. But the other, answering, rebuked him, saying, “Do you not even fear God, seeing you are under the same condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we receive the due reward of our deeds; but this Man has done nothing wrong. Then he said to Jesus, “Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom. And Jesus said to him, “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.”
Here we have a man finding salvation at the very end of his life. How did he receive it? By believing and asking! Had water baptism been a qualifier for salvation he would not have been saved. He looked to Jesus, (just like the Israelites we read of earlier looked to the serpent on a pole that Moses had made) and were saved. (Now I’m sure if he would have had a chance to be baptized he would have, but he didn’t.)
Because of, not so that!
The final point is that Acts 2:38 could actually read this way, “…repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for (because of) the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” What a wonderful thing it is to be born again. To be born of the Spirit through the work Jesus did on the cross, His death, burial and resurrection! From it comes a supernatural impartation of life upon people who don’t deserve it all because “God so loved the world” and they believed it.