The New Birth

John 3

Alan Lewis
Elon, North Carolina
April 2021

If you were able to meet Jesus and could ask Him anything, what would it be?  What would you talk about?  The Gospel of John gives us two examples of unbelievers who got a one-on-one conversation with Jesus.  These conversations are back to back.  One is in John 3 and one is in John 4

These conversations were with very different people.  One was with a man and one was with a woman. One was with a Jew and one was with a half-Jew (a Samaritan).  One was with someone who was moral.  One was with someone who was immoral.

One was with someone who had a bad reputation (someone who slept around).  One was with someone who had a good reputation (a respected rabbi in the community).  One of these conversations resulted in immediate salvation.  One did not.

Today, we are going to look at a named Nicodemus and his conversation with Jesus.  This is the most famous conversation in the Bible.  Jesus has a conversation with one of the most famous men of his day.  He has a conversation with one of the great minds of his day.

This is a very important chapter.  It raises a lot of questions.  Who exactly is Nicodemus?  Why does He come to talk to Jesus?  What does Jesus say to Him?  How did He witness to him?  How does this conversation apply to us?  We are going to see five truths about the new birth from this section.

John 3 describes one of the greatest miracles of the Bible, the miracle of the new birth.  At the new birth, God takes dead people and makes them alive.  We were all “dead in trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1).

We walked.  We ate.  We spoke.  We worked but we were dead.  We were physically alive but spiritually dead.  At salvation, dead souls come alive. They are resurrected.  Spiritual life is imparted.  A new birth takes place.  This is appropriate topic for Easter Sunday.

The man who interviews Jesus in this chapter is named Nicodemus.  He is only mentioned in the Gospel of John.  That is the only time he is mentioned in the NT.

If you read the Gospel of Matthew, you won’t see Nicodemus.  If you read the Gospel of Mark or the Gospel of Luke, you will not read a word about Nicodemus.  He is only in John.  John mentions him three times in the book. Nicodemus is in three different chapters of John (John 3; John 7; John 19).

The Prominence of Nicodemus

Who was the man who came to visit Jesus that dark night in Jerusalem?  He wasn’t just anybody.  He was famous.  He was a VIP.  He was a member of the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem (John 3:1).  It was the highest  court in the land.  It was like being a Justice on the United States Supreme Court.

Jesus stood before the Sanhedrin before his crucifixion.  Nicodemus sat on this court.  It was a very prestigious position.  It was an elite group. There were only seventy people in the country who were on this court.  He was highly respected.  He was a celebrated rabbi.

He was also a distinguished teacher.   He was not just a teacher of Israel.  Jesus called him “THE teacher of Israel” (John 3:10). In Greek, there is the definite article with the word “teacher” (ό διδασκαλος τοϋ Ίσραήλ).  He was the master teacher of the land.  He was THE preeminent teacher of the day.  He was theologian Nicodemus.

Nicodemus was a scholar of the Torah.  He knew the Bible.  He was the teacher of Israel.  He was the expert and yet, in John 3, this expert goes out of his way to visit a country preacher from Galilee.  He went to learn from an uneducated carpenter.

Jesus does not go to Nicodemus.  Nicodemus went to Jesus and had a conversation with Him.  He did not have an appointment.  He just showed up.

He came to see Jesus by night (John 3:1).  Someone called him the first “Nick at Night.” Many have criticized Nicodemus for this.  They say he came out of FEAR.  He didn’t come during the day because he did not want anyone to see him.

He was been concerned about how that would have looked or what other members of the Sanhedrin would have thought of him.  He was embarrassed to be seen with Jesus during the day.  There might be some truth to that criticism. Many people did not actively support Jesus out of fear (John 7:13).

If you were a follower of Jesus, you could be cast out of the synagogue (John 12:42).  You can criticize Nicodemus for coming to Jesus at night but at least he came.

The Positives of Nicodemus

John 3:19-20 says, “Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20 Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed” (NIV).

Most people do not come to the light but Nicodemus does come to the light on a dark night.  He comes to talk to the light of the world.  God worked in his heart and drew him to Jesus.

Nicodemus was not antagonistic to Jesus.  He was not hostile to Him, like the other Jews of his day.  He did not show up to trip Jesus up like some of the Pharisees or trick him but to learn from him.

Nicodemus was fascinated by Jesus.  He was interested in spiritual truth.  He was curious.  He was respectful.  He was sincere.  He was teachable.  He was humble.

He was older than Jesus.[1]  He had the greater reputation.  He was the teacher of Israel.  He didn’t wait for Jesus to come to him to learn.  He went to Jesus.

Nicodemus had an open mind.  Most Pharisees did not come to see Jesus.  They hated him.  They wanted to kill Him.

He thought for himself.  He did not just follow what the other Pharisees or the other members of the Sanhedrin thought.  He did his own investigation.

He interviewed Jesus himself and asked him questions.  He examined the evidence for Jesus and the evidence led him to faith.

The Problem of Nicodemus

Nicodemus had many strengths, but he had one problem in John 3.  He was unsaved.  He was not a believer.  Because he is not a believer, he does not have the Holy Spirit and because he does not have the Holy Spirit inside him, he has absolutely no idea what Jesus is talking about.  Jesus says one thing and Nicodemus thinks he is talking about something else.

Nicodemus was an unbeliever.  Jesus even calls him an unbeliever (John 3:12).  He tells him that he must be born again (John 3:3), which tells you that he was not born again.  When Nicodemus sees Jesus, what does he call him?  He calls him “Rabbi Jesus.”

He came to Jesus at night and said, “RABBI, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. (John 3:1 NIV).

On the surface, that sounds generous.  Jesus had no rabbinic training.  He had no seminary training.  He had not studied under any of the great rabbis of the day.  Many were amazed at how Jesus knew so much without having gone to any rabbinic school (John 7:15).  Nicodemus gives him credit and called him “Rabbi.”  It was like an honorary doctorate.

It sounds like a compliment but actually it is an insult.  That would be like calling him “Pastor Jesus.”  Jesus was not just some spiritual leader or the founder of a world religion.

He was not just a teacher.  He was not just a professor.  He was not just a rabbi.  He is Lord.  He is the Messiah.  He is God.  He is not just a teacher who came from God.  He is God who came to teach. He did not just come to teach.  He came to save.

Nicodemus Meets Jesus

Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. 2 He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.” (John 3:1-3 NIV)

Why did Nicodemus come to see Jesus?  What motivated him to come?  Let’s look at the context.

An uneducated country preacher comes to Jerusalem and begins attracting great crowds.  He begins teaching, preaching, healing people, casting our demons and performing incredible miracles that have never been seen before, like turning water into wine.  Jesus was instantly famous.  People began talking about him.  He was the talk of the town.

Nicodemus did not know Jesus.  He had never met him.  He was not one of his followers.  He had heard that he was a great teacher.  No man ever spoke like him (John 7:46) but what really impressed him was the miracles.  Teachers were a dime a dozen in Israel but Jesus was different.

He not only had knowledge; He had power.  He had supernatural power.  God was with Him.  He could do incredible miracles.  His miracles were undeniable, and they were stupendous.

We KNOW that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him. (John 3:1-3 NIV).

We don’t know what miracles they were.  The only one that is mentioned before this is Jesus turning water into wine but apparently, there were many more.  He not only performed miracles in Cana.  He performed some miracles in Jerusalem.

Is it wrong to believe because of the miracles?  No. The purpose of the miracles in the book of John is to produce faith.  Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. 31 But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. (John 20:30-31 NIV)

That is the purpose of the book.  On the other hand, not everyone who believes just because of miracles is necessarily saved.  Not everyone who believed because they saw some miracles actually had true faith.

People can believe for all kinds of reasons.  Not everyone has real heart-saving faith.  Some believe in Jesus like they believe that George Washington was the first President.  That is not genuine faith.  Not everyone who claims to be a Christian is a Christian.

Jesus knows the difference between true and false faith.  He knows the difference between people who are the true believers and false believers.  The Lord knows who are His (II Timothy 2:19). The Good Shepherd knows who His sheep are (John 10:14).  He also knows what is inside the human heart.

Now while he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Festival, many people saw the signs he was performing and believed in his name. 24 But Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all people. 25 He did not need any testimony about mankind, for he knew what was in each person (John 2:23-25 NIV).

Rabbit Trails to Avoid in Evangelism

How did Jesus respond to Nicodemus?  When a famous person comes to him, notice what Jesus does not do.  There are three things He does not do and three lessons for us to avoid.

1) Avoid small talk

Jesus does not talk about the weather or sports.  They don’t talk about sports.  Jesus got right to the point. He did not waste time on talking about things that do not matter.

2) Avoid flattery

If a famous person complimented us, we would be flattered.  We would be honored to have the top bible scholar of the day endorse our ministry.

Jesus does not say, “Thanks. I appreciate your kind words. They really mean a lot to me, coming from the top teacher in Israel.  I have heard a lot of things about you as well and the good work you do in Jerusalem.”

3) Avoid debate

Jesus didn’t challenge Nicodemus to a debate on spiritual things.  When people come to us and try to debate us, we are wasting our time.  That is not the way people get saved.

We can’t argue people into the kingdom.  We are “called to win souls, not arguments.”[2] Nicodemus and Jesus have a dialogue.  Nicodemus has some questions, but it is not a debate.

Five Truths on the New Birth

1) Salvation involves new birth

Here we learn that the phrase “born again” comes right out of the Bible.  It is a biblical term.  It is in two books of the Bible (John, I Peter).  Jesus coined the term.  Billy Graham was not the first preacher to talk about people being “born again.”  Baptists did not come up with the term.  Jesus was the first one in history to talk about people being born again.

Jesus compared salvation to a birth. He used the metaphor of birth.  He said, “You must be BORN AGAIN.” To enter the kingdom, you need more than teaching and you need more than a new religion, you need a new birth.  It is a radical metaphor.  To get saved, you cannot just reform on the outside.

It does not involve reformation but complete and total transformation.  There has to be a radical change on the inside by the Holy Spirit called the new birth.  As one preacher put it, reformation puts a new suit on the man.  Regeneration puts a new man in the suit.

Salvation does not come by following a set of rules or keeping some commandments.  We don’t need to be patched up or repaired.  We need to be completely reborn.  We were spiritually dead.  We needed new life.  We did not need a new religion.  We needed a new life.  We need to become new creatures in Christ.

Of course, to tell people that they need to be born again is offensive.  The Christian message is offensive.  The Bible speaks about “the offense of the cross” (Galatians 5:11).  Many would say, “Why do I need to be born again?  I think I am fine the way I am.  I am basically a good person.  I haven’t killed anyone.”  That brings us to our second point.

2) The new birth is needed for every person

Jesus did not say, “You should be born again.” He did not say, “It would be a good idea for you to be born again.”  He said, “You MUST be born again.”  It is not optional.  It is essential.  There are NO exceptions.  If you are not born again, you CANNOT see the kingdom of God.  It is impossible.

We know that murderers need to be born again.  Prostitutes need to be born again.  Child molesters need to be born again.  Porn stars need to be born again.  People who mock God and deny His existence (atheists) need to be born again.  Muslims and Hindus need to be born again.

The shocking thing is that Jesus said to fellow Jew Nicodemus, “YOU must be born again.”  He was the poster boy of someone who you would think did not need to be born again.  He was better than most people.  He was not a serial killer.  He was not an ax murderer.  He was not a dope dealer.  If Nicodemus needed to be saved, everyone needs to be saved.

He was moral.  He was not immoral.  He was a Pharisee.  The Pharisees lived outwardly moral lives.  Jesus said they were.  He said that they cleaned the outside of the cup.

You can be moral and lost. Many people are very moral but very much unsaved.  Are we born again or do we just live outwardly moral lives?

Nicodemus was also religious.  He was very religious.  You can be religious and lost.  You can pray five times a day, like the Muslims do, and be lost.  You can be religious and lost.

In fact, Nicodemus was not just religious; he was a religious leader. He was a “ruler of the Jews” (John 3:1).  You can be a pastor and be lost. You can be an elder and be lost.  You can be a deacon and be lost.

Nicodemus was a teacher of religion (the teacher of Israel) and yet he was not saved.  You can be a Sunday School teacher and be lost.  You can be a seminary professor and be lost.  You can be the top bible scholar in the land and be lost.  What have we learned from Nicodemus?

Just became you are famous, you are not exempt from the new birth. Just because you are prominent, you are not exempt.  Just because you are wealthy, you are not exempt.  Just because you are respectable in society, you are not exempt.

Just because you are highly intelligent and educated, you are not exempt.  Just because you are moral, you are not exempt.  Because you are religious, you are not exempt. Just because you do all kinds of things in the church, you are not exempt. Are we truly born again?

3) The new birth is a supernatural process

Salvation is not a physical process.  It is not a natural process, like physical birth.  It is completely different.  That which is born of flesh is flesh and that which is born of Spirit is spirit. It requires a miracle. You have to be born of the Spirit.  You have to be born again or born from above.[3]

It is a work of God, not a work of man.  I cannot make anyone be born again.  Only God can do that.  We can talk to people and try to reason with them but only God can make them born again.

4) The new birth takes place through faith

Jesus says not only do you have to be born again; He tells you how to be born again.  The new birth is conditional.  There is something that a person has to do to get saved.  Three times in this chapter, we are told that life comes by believing (John 3:15, 16, 36).

Believing in Jesus for salvation does not just result in life; it results in eternal life.  In fact, we are told that it comes to ANYONE who believes (“whosoever”).

Some read John 3 and see the sacraments.  John 3:5 says that you have to be “born of water and the Spirit.”  You have to be baptized to be saved.  That is how the Roman Catholic Church reads it.  That is how the Church of Christ reads it.  Are they right?  No. It is easy to refute.

John talks about eternal life all through the book of John.  Not one time does he connect eternal life to baptism, not once.  He does connect eternal life and receiving eternal life to believing.

Whoever BELIEVES in him should not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16 ESV)

Whoever BELIEVES in him is not condemned (John 3:18 ESV)

Whoever BELIEVES in the Son has eternal life (John 3:36 ESV)

Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and BELIEVES him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment but has passed from death to life. (John 5:24 ESV)

Everyone who looks on the Son and BELIEVES in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. (John 6:40 ESV)

Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. 31 But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that BY BELIEVING you may have life in his name. (John 20:30-31 NIV)

John uses the term “believe” about a hundred times in the book.  It is a key term.  He does not use the noun “faith” (like Paul does) but he uses the verb “believe.”

John does mention baptism.  The verb form is used six times (John 1:26, 33; 3:22, 23; 4:2; 10:40) but nowhere does it say that eternal life comes by baptism.  Nowhere does it say if you are baptized, you will not perish. [4]

5) The new birth results in a changed life

If you experience the new birth, your life will be changed.  If you are born again, there will be clear signs of it. “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit” (John 3:8 NIV).

There are clear signs of wind.  You can feel it.  You can see the effects of it.  There are clear signs of the new birth as well.  The new birth causes a total transformation.

II Corinthians 5:17 says, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new. (NKJV).   When we become a Christian, Paul says that we become “a new creation”. It’s almost as if we become a different person. The old person that we were before we became a Christian is gone.

Salvation involves a radical change in a person.  You go from being spiritually dead to being spiritually alive.  You go from being a child of the Devil to being a child of God.  If you are really saved, your life will change dramatically.  If there is no change, there is no life.  You are just the same as you were before.

[1] That is implied by John 3:4.

[2] https://www.missionwaychurch.org/blog/called-to-win-souls-not-arguments

[3] The word “born again” (άνωθεν) can mean “born from above” or “born again” in Greek.  Nicodemus took it to mean “born again” and misunderstood what Jesus was saying.  Jesus probably meant “born from above.”  That is how the word is used the other two times in John (John 3:31; 19:11).  On the other hand, the traditional translation  is not wrong.  To be born from above, you have to be born again.

[4] Jesus uses two figures  – water (3:5) and wind (3:8).  Water is a symbol of cleansing (Ezekiel 36:25; Isaiah 44:3). It is a universal cleansing agent. Any time we wash something, we use water. Wind is a symbol of life-giving power (37:1-2, 4-11).

Water is also a symbol of the Holy Spirit. Isaiah 44:3 and Ezekiel 36:25-27 use water the the Spirit in a parallel structure. Water is symbolic of the Holy Spirit even in John (7:38-39). Water has a metaphorical use in John.

While it is most of the time used in a literal sense, water is used metaphorically seven times in the Gospel of John (4:10, 11, 14 (three times), 15; 7:38). John the Baptist connected the Holy Spirit symbolically to fire (Matthew 3:11). Jesus connected the Holy Spirit symbolically to water (John 3:5).

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