The New Birth And God’s Salvation (John 3)
Not long after the beginning of his ministry Jesus is approached by a man named Nicodemus, who was a very important man. He was a Pharisee and a member of the governing Jewish council (the Sanhedrin). Possibly this is why he came ‘at night’ (v.2). He probably does not want to jeopardise his position. He is prepared to give Jesus a hearing, but does not wish to commit himself.
He is one of those who demonstrate that not all the Pharisees opposed Jesus, and that when ‘the Pharisees’ are spoken of in derogatory terms, not all are included. The Pharisees were a small minority (probably around 6000 to 7000 in all) who had kept themselves ‘pure’ during the persecutions of 2nd century BC and had kept faithful to the Law and the Prophets. In order to do this they had built up a system of over six hundred extra laws which explained in detail the meaning of God’s laws in the Torah (‘the Instruction’ - the first five books of the Bible). Among other things they required constant washings to preserve purity. But because of this many of them had begun to look down on the common people and to have a high opinion of their own goodness. They had become self-righteous and self-opinionated, and as men will some had begun to turn the law to their own purposes. These were the ones Jesus describes as ‘hypocrites’.
But this Pharisee acknowledges that Jesus is a teacher ‘come from God’ and that ‘God is with Him’ because of the signs he has done. However, the good opinion of his compatriots is more important to him than support of Jesus. He is one of those who have ‘believed’ but to whom Jesus is not willing to trust Himself (2.23-25). To put it in the best light, he wants to make sure before he commits himself. Later he will help in the decent burial of the body of Jesus (John 19.39).
v.3 Jesus cuts short his preamble and comes straight to the point, (although of course John may well have abbreviated the discussion). “Unless a man is born from above (Gk.anothen) he cannot experience the Kingship of God.” An understanding of God’s spiritual reign over men requires spiritual understanding. The implication appears to be that he sees Nicodemus as lacking that spiritual understanding.
(The phrase ‘the kingdom (basileia) of God’ needs to be understood. In Jesus’ day a kingdom was not a piece of land with boundaries, but a sphere over which a king ruled, a place where he exercised his kingship. Where there were people who came under his rule there was his kingdom, even though the boundaries kept changing. So God’s kingdom is composed of those who admit and acknowledge His rule).
v.4 Nicodemus speaks as though he confuses this with natural birth. ‘How can an old man enter his mother’s womb a second time?’, he asks, but he is probably simply seeking more information. He does not understand what Jesus means, and makes it sound a little ridiculous.
v.5 Jesus replies that He is speaking about a birth “of water and Spirit” without which entry under the reign of God is impossible. The connection of water with Spirit clearly looks back to John’s baptism, but it is not of baptism that He is really thinking. That is but the symbol. The need is for a work of the Spirit as symbolised by John’s baptism, the Spirit being poured out ‘from above’ like rain on the dry ground.
Like most Jews Nicodemus was looking forward to the coming of “the Rule of God”, which the Jews saw as a time when God’s king would rule over the world and bring a time of plenty and prosperity, especially for the Jews. Jesus stresses that coming under God’s rule requires a work of the Spirit. Human birth will only bring human understanding, a spiritual relationship with God requires spiritual birth (John 3.8).
But what does Jesus means by being “born of water” and being “born from above” (or born anew)? . The phrases link back to the preaching of John the Baptiser. John spoke of fruits meet for repentance, of ripened grain that would be harvested, of trees that produced good fruit, and of one who would ‘drench (baptizo) with the Holy Spirit’.. These were all the pictures of when the land came alive again after the dry season, when it was ‘born again’
There is good Old Testament precedent. In Psalm 72 the psalmist is praying for the king of Israel. He prays that he will be just and wise,and he clearly has especially in mind the future king, for he speaks of his world wide dominion and the fact that all nations would call him blessed (vv.8 and 17). This king will be “like rain that falls on the mown grass, like showers that water the earth”, for in his days righteousness will flourish, and peace will abound.
The thought is taken further in Isaiah 45.8 where righteousness (i.e. vindication, being ‘put in the right’) ‘rains down’ like showers, and deliverance and righteousness ‘sprout forth’ from the earth, and in Isaiah 32.15 where a period of desolation is followed by ‘the Spirit’ being ‘poured upon us from above’ resulting in fruitfulness and deliverance. In Isaiah 44.1-5 and 55.10-13 the promises are more personalised. “I will pour water on him who is thirsty, and streams upon the dry ground. I will pour my Spirit upon your children and my blessing upon your offspring.” (Isaiah 44-1-4). The people will flourish like grass at the coming of the rainy season, like willows planted where there is abundant water, and the result will be a full-hearted dedication to the Lord (v5).
This vivid picture speaks most forcefully to those who live in hot countries like Israel. There they are used to the long hot summer when everything dries up, the grass withers, the ground is barren and fruitless, the bushes die. But then the rain comes, and everything changes. The ground is covered with luxurious vegetation, the bushes spring to life and the trees grow and flourish. It is an apt picture of spiritual renewal. They are born again, born from above!
Isaiah 55.10-13 takes it even further.”As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there, but water the earth, making it bring to birth (Heb. yalad in the hiphil,almost exclusively used of the birth of living creatures) and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth, it will not return to me empty. It will accomplish what I purpose and prosper in the thing for which I sent it”. Here we have the clear idea of new birth from above, and it is now connected with the going forth of the word of God. God speaks and the Spirit acts (compare Isaiah 34.16 where God’s word precedes the action of His Spirit).
Hosea 6.1-3 adds, ‘after two days he will revive us, on the third day he will raise us up, that we may live before him --- he will come to us as the showers, as the spring rains that water the earth’
A further passage in the Old Testament which illustrates the new birth by the Spirit is Ezekiel 36.25-27. Here God promises His people that “I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you will be clean”. The fact that the water is sprinkled indicates that it is seen as water purified by the ashes of sacrifice for those who have touched what is impure (Numbers 19.7-20). (There would seem to be no other reason for stressing that it is CLEAN water.)
The result of this sprinkling is that “a new heart I will give you and a new spirit I will put within you. I will take away the heart of stone from your flesh, and will give you a heart of flesh. And I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in my statutes, and you will keep my ordinances and carry them out”.
(While Ezekiel, thinking as a priest, has replaced the idea of rain with the priestly sprinkling of water purified with the ashes of a heifer he soon moves on to the idea of fruitfulness and plenty (vv.29-30)).
It would be difficult to conceive of a better picture of the new birth. So here the new birth is linked with purification through the shedding of sacrificial blood.
So when Jesus speaks of being born of water, born from above He has every reason to think that Nicodemus will understand him, and to chide him for failing to do so. No doubt there is in the back of His mind John’s baptism, but His vision is filled with that baptism’s significance as a picture of the life-giving rains pouring down, transforming the earth and producing a cleansing, regenerating work of God and ‘fruits meet for repentance’. The new work of the Spirit, begun in embryo by John the Baptiser and continuing with Jesus, is bringing new life into the hearts of those who ‘put their trust in him’ so that they ‘might not perish but have the life of the age to come’ (John 3.15) - and Nicodemus is in danger of missing out.
v.6 ‘That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit’. Here we can refer back to John 1.12-13 where John had distinguished natural birth from being ‘born of God’. Being born a Jew, or in Christendom, is not sufficient, new life received from the Spirit is what is required.This comparison of flesh and Spirit arises of course from Nicodemus’ earlier question. Having made clear that He is referring to the Spirit under the picture of life-giving water Jesus now connects it up with what Nicodemus has asked.
Perhaps at this stage Jesus can see that Nicodemus is still puzzled. ‘Do not marvel that I say to you, you must be born anew’, He says, ‘the wind (pneuma) blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it but cannot tell from where it is coming or where it is going. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit (Pneuma)’. In other words just as we cannot control the wind, or understand its comings and goings, so we cannot control the Spirit and His comings and goings. Religious hierarchies are in no position to dictate the work of the Spirit. Baptism may precede the coming of the Spirit to a man (Acts 8.14-16; 19.5-6), or it may follow it (Acts 10.47), but it does not control it. That is in the hands of the Spirit alone.
v.9 Nicodemus still does not understand. ‘How can these things be?’ What is clear to many a Christian child is a total mystery to the learned scholar.
v.10 Jesus now gives him a gentle rebuke. ‘Do you claim to be a teacher (literally ‘the master’ - therefore a particularly learned teacher) of Israel and yet do not understand this?’ Jesus considers that he should understand it because he should have seen it in action. These are earthly things witnessed on earth through the successes of John the Baptiser and the successes of His own ministry. ‘We (Jesus and His disciples) speak of what we know, and testify to what we have seen’ and then he adds, ‘but you (plural) do not receive our testimony’. Here Jesus links Nicodemus with his co-leaders. The authorities had come to observe and to criticise, but they were not spiritually perceptive enough to recognise what was happening, that the promises of the prophets about the Spirit being poured down were being fulfilled.
Now Jesus will tell them even more wonderful things, but he doubts if they will accept them. ‘If I have told you earthly things, and you believe not, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?
And what are these heavenly things? Firstly that Jesus has come from His glory in Heaven and has been made man, secondly that He is the Son of man who has access to Heaven and Heaven’s secrets, and thirdly that He alone is able to enter Heaven (compare John 6.62) as the glorious Son of Man to receive the kingdom and the power and the glory (Daniel 7.13), for ‘no one has ascended up into heaven except he who descended from heaven, even the Son of Man’. Jesus has already declared Himself to be the Son of Man (John 1.51) and now He links the title with the heavenly Son of Man (Daniel 7.13) as He does also in the other Gospels. He Himself is the One Who has come down from heaven, maintains contact with Heaven (compare John 1.51) and can therefore finally return to His heavenly home in triumph as the glorious Son of Man.
v.15 And fourthly, and here is a great spiritual mystery, ‘as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness (Numbers 21.9) so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life’.
So the Son of Man, who is a citizen of heaven, has come down from heaven (v13) so that He might be “lifted up”, so that those who believe in him might have ‘eternal life’, the life of the age to come, the life of the Spirit.
And what does it mean for Him to be lifted up? The phrase occurs again in the teaching of Jesus in John 8.28 and 12.32. There it clearly signifies the death that He will die, and indeed John confirms this when he writes, ‘this he said to show by what death he was to die (12.39). This is Heaven’s mystery, that through His death life will come to the world.
The word ‘eternal’ (literally “of the ages”) in Jewish thinking focussed more on the future coming age than on the Greek conception of eternity, although that coming age was of course seen as everlasting, and that age would be supremely the age of the Spirit. The idea behind the ‘life of the age to come’ was mainly of the quality of that life.
(We notice here how well this teaching agrees with the other Gospels. There too Jesus speaks of Himself as the Son of Man, stresses that He must suffer, and that finally he will receive His glory and come in that glory from Heaven to judge the world (e.g. Mark 8.31; 14.62; Matthew 25.31). John adds the idea of His position as judge in 5.27.)
v.16 The message is now expanded. The reason that Jesus has come is because “God loved the world so much that He gave His only Son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life”. This is the amazing new revelation that surpasses all that has gone before. That God was such that He had not only seen man’s need but had met it in the only way possible at greatest cost to Himself. There was no other way by which salvation and deliverance could come to mankind, only by God’s giving of His only Son to die on the cross, ‘wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities --- the Lord laid upon him the iniquity of us all (Isaiah 53.5-6). This is the full meaning of the title ‘the Lamb of God’ (John 1.29, 36).
Here Jesus’ distinctiveness is again drawn out. His only Son, ‘The only Son from the Father’ (1.14, 18), Who was in the bosom of the Father (in closest personal relationship) and Who made the Father known and revealed His glory (1.18), is the One Who will be offered up for sin.
v.17 ‘For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through him.’ Other (mythical) gods came to the world to condemn it, never to save it, but God’s purpose in sending His son was to save. He wanted to give men eternal life. He wanted to save them from ‘perishing’. (The word rendered ‘perish’ means to destroy completely. When Plato wrote his book on immortality he contrasts ‘immortality’ with ‘being completely destroyed’, and this was the word he constantly used for the latter. As Paul says, God alone has immortality (1 Timothy 6.16)).
Thus God’s purpose towards the world is one of love. But this must not lead us into presumption. If we reject that offer of love and refuse to come to His light so that our sins might be revealed, because we love our sins too much, then we face the awful alternative of condemnation.
‘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 Son of God’. God does not condemn men, they condemn themselves. When they see God’s supreme Word, Jesus, revealing His glory and the glory of God, their very refusal to acknowledge Him condemns them. They are showing what they really are. For had their hearts been open and true they would immediately have believed in Him and received Him gladly. And their sin is made worse in that they are rejecting ‘the only Son of God’. This is then emphasised in another way.
v.19 ‘And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, but men loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil’. Jesus has come as ‘the light’ into the world (John 8.12), and by His life and teaching offers life and reveals the light of truth, but men turn from Him because they love their sins and His light condemns them. They do not want to give up their lives which ‘come short of the glory of God’ (Romans 3.23), the glory revealed by Jesus, and so they reject Jesus and even say evil things against Him (and thus are in danger of the unforgiveable sin, rejection of the clear testimony of the Spirit (Mark 3.22 with 28, 29)). If we refuse to open our lives to the light of Jesus we have no one to blame but ourselves when we are finally condemned.
v.20 ‘For everyone who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed’. While we are behaving like ‘nice Christians’ and doing good, men will praise us and say nice things about us, but let us once speak and behave in such a way that it condemns their selfish and evil living, and they will immediately change and begin to show their anger and condemn us. So it was even more supremely with Jesus. While he preached in parables which could be generalised He was popular. But once His preaching began to reach the heart many left Him (John 6.66), and when he exposed the hypocrisy of much Jewish teaching He was condemned out of hand. But by their desertion, and by their condemnation, these people revealed that they were evil.They did not want to face up to the truth or let the truth come out, and so they hid from the light. They ceased listening to Him because it was too disturbing.
v.21 ‘But he who does what is true comes to the light, that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been wrought in God’. Those who do what is right have no fear of the truth about their lives coming out. They gladly come to Jesus and listen eagerly to His words and to the word of God and let Him examine them, for they know His words will help them get rid of sin and that when He examines them He will help them rid themselves of what is spoiling their lives. They want their lives to be open to examination and be put under the spotlight of God so that what they really are can be seen, that they are true children of God.
‘That it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been wrought in God’. As Jesus said elsewhere, ‘let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in Heaven’. (Matthew 5.16).