Elon, North Carolina
This chapter deals with the new birth. “There is no more important doctrine in the Bible than of the New Birth.” It is a fascinating passage. It is one of the most famous passages in the Bible. It is a favorite text for evangelists. We talk a lot today about being born again but often what we mean is not what the Bible means. When the world says someone is born again, they mean someone has become a right-wing religious nut job. They mean that the person in question “got religion”. As we will see, born again, has nothing to do with getting religion. Jesus spoke of being born again to a man who already had religion.
We want to look today at what the Bible actually says about being born again. Did you know that Jesus was the first one in history to use the phrase “born again”? Today, it is a common phrase but people in the ancient world did not talk about being born again. Billy Graham was not the one who coined the term. Jesus did.
It is interesting where this phrase “born again occurs in the Bible. You do not see it in any of the great sermons preached by Jesus. It comes out of a private conversation between two men. John 3 actually records two conversations. There is a conversation at the beginning of the chapter and a conversation at the end of the chapter. The conversation at the beginning of the chapter is between Jesus and Nicodemus.
The conversation at the end of the chapter is between John the Baptist and his disciples. I want to spend a little time looking at the first conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus. I want to look at four things this morning. I want to look at who this man Nicodemus is, why he came to Jesus, what Jesus said to him and what lessons we can learn about the new birth from this chapter.
Who was Nicodemus?
Most of the people that Jesus came in contact with were ordinary people. They are kind of like the people who attend Lamb’s Chapel. We don’t have too many members of Congress in our church. Nicodemus definitely was not ordinary. He was distinguished. What do we know about him from the text? John tells us three things about him.
1. He was a Pharisee (3:1).
That was his religious affiliation. That was like his denomination. Christians have Baptists, Methodists and Pentecostals. In Jesus’ day, there were four different types of Jews, four different denominations. Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes and Zealots. Pharisees were known for being very religious. They were very strict. They were zealous about the Law and following it. Paul was a Pharisee before he became a Christian. Today, they have a very negative connotation. It’s a bad thing. In the first century, they were very popular, especially with the middle class. Historically, they are important, because they are the only one of the four Jewish groups which survived to this day. The other three died out.
2. He was a member of the Sanhedrin (3:1).
That was his political affiliation. He was not just a Pharisee, he was a ruler of the Jews. He was a member of the Sanhedrin, which was the top court for Jews in the first century. It was the highest Jewish court in Jerusalem. It was like being a Justice on the Supreme Court. Jesus stood before this court before his crucifixion. Nicodemus sat on this court. It was a very prestigious position. You had to be very well-respected to be a member of the Sanhedrin. They did not just put anyone on this court. You have to be famous to sit on the Supreme Court. He is not too famous today but he was very famous in his day.
3. He was a great teacher (3:10).
That was his academic credential. Jesus said he was Israel’s teacher (3:10). Many Bible have a bad translation in verse ten. The Revised Standard Version reads, “Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand this?” The New Living Translation is very similar. The problem is that Jesus did not just call him “a teacher of Israel.” He called him “THE teacher of Israel” (NKJV, ASV). In Greek, there is the definite article with the word “teacher” (ό διδασκαλος τοϋ Ίσραήλ). He was the top one. He must have been very well-educated. He was brilliant. He was an intellectual. He did not just have a Ph.D in OT. He was the Distinguished Professor of Divinity at Harvard. He was a renown first century Jewish scholar.
He is only mentioned in the Gospel of John. 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. In fact, he is mentioned three times in the Gospel of John and each time it mentions him as the one who came to Jesus by night (3:2; 7:50 [MT]; 19:39). One preacher called Nicodemus “Nic at Night”. Why do you think he came by night? Why didn’t he come during the day? Why is it mentioned three times?
The standard explanation is that he went by night because he was afraid of what others would think. We do not know that for sure but we do know that the Pharisees did not like Jesus. The Sanhedrin did not like Jesus. Some were afraid to mention anything good about Jesus because of what the Jewish leaders thought (7:10-13). Why is that? They were worried about being kicked out of the synagogue. John 12:42-43 says, “Yet at the same time many even among the leaders believed in him. But because of the Pharisees they would not openly acknowledge their faith for fear they would be put out of the synagogue; for they loved human praise more than praise from God”.
Was Nicodemus a believer yet? Was he saved? No. Jesus told him that he needed to be born again. Jesus also called him an unbeliever (3:12). He wasn’t saved. Notice what he calls Jesus. He called Him “rabbi” which simply means teacher. He does NOT call him “Lord”. That is what the disciples called Jesus (e.g., 6:66-69; 9:35-38; 11:1-3, 17-22).
He does NOT call him “the Son of God”. The Jews hated that title of Jesus and still do today. “The Jewish leaders insisted, “We have a law, and according to that law he must die, because he claimed to be the Son of God” (19:7). Nicodemus does not here call him The Son of God. He does NOT call even him “The Messiah”, like Andrew said when he told his brother Simon, “We have found the Messiah, that is the Christ” (1:41). Nicodemus completely misunderstood who Jesus was. He thought he was just a great teacher. He was the Messiah. He was the Son of God. Nicodemus was not a believer yet.
Did he ever become a true believer? Maybe. John mentions Nicodemus three times. First, he comes to Jesus by night and meets him in secret (John 3). Second, he speaks out on his behalf in front of the Sanhedrin (John 7). Third, he gives lavish amounts of spices for his burial (John 19). As Herbert Lockyer outlines it, Nicodemus comes to Christ. He speaks for Christ . He honors Christ. He came to get the body of Jesus and spent a lot of money on spices in order to give Jesus a kingly burial. The apostles did not even do that. Apparently, Nicodemus was also wealthy but his actions speak much louder than words.
Strengths of Nicodemus
Nicodemus had some flaws. He was not even saved at this point but there are several reasons why I like him.
1) He was teachable.
Some people are very teachable and some are not. Most people in Nicodemus’ position would not do what he did. If Nicodemus were arrogant, he would have expected Jesus to come to him to receive teaching and instruction about spiritual things. Nicodemus was the one who had the reputation as being Israel’s great teacher. He was the one who was highly educated. He could have waited for Jesus to come to him with questions, so he could benefit from all of his knowledge. Instead, he goes to learn from an uneducated carpenter. He goes to learn all he can from this country preacher from Galilee. John MacArthur entitles this section “Jesus Teaches the Teacher”.
2) He was open-minded.
Nicodemus 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 and made up his own mind. He made an appointment with Jesus and went out to see him personally. He could have sent others to question him but he went himself to talk to Jesus himself. He interviewed him, and asked him questions.
Some people say that they reject our interpretation of the Word because they have been studying the Bible much longer than we have and they may have but that is not roof that what they say is true. Nicodemus was an older man. Jesus was a young man and yet Nicodemus comes by night to learn the truth from Jesus.
Why did he come to see Jesus?
There are two reasons that Nicodemus came to see Jesus in this chapter.
1. Jesus had a reputation for being an incredible teacher.
People began talking about him. They had never heard anyone ever teach like him. What is even more amazing is that he had never been to seminary. He never studied at any rabbinical school (7:15). Nicodemus was a famous teacher and he wanted to talk to him.
2. Jesus performed some miracles.
John 2:23 says, “Now while he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Festival, many people saw the signs he was performing and believed in his name.” What miracles did he perform? We have no idea. John doesn’t tell us. The only miracle John had mentioned before this was Jesus turning water into wine, the favorite miracle of the Baptists.
Jesus did not just turn water into wine. He turned it into really good tasting wine and a lot of it. He did not turn it into some cheap wine but the best wine (John 2:10) and Jesus did not just turn one glass of water into this really good wine. He made an enormous quantity of wine. He turned six huge stone water pots of water into wine. These six water pots contained one hundred and fifty gallons of water. One hundred and fifty gallons would be five bath tubs full of water (since an average bath tub will hold approximately thirty gallons of water) or about seven hundred and thirty bottles of wine.
That was the only miracle that John records before this but there were other ones that He did which John did not record and those miracles were equally stupendous, clearly miraculous and undeniable. This all took place beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus was instantly famous. He was the talk of the town. People wanted him to see him so they could be healed. Nicodemus just wanted to talk to him. Fortunately, Jesus happened to be in town for the Passover. He was in Jerusalem.
How he started the interview was interesting. John 3:2 reads that Nicodemus “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.’” He is very respectful. He says three things about him. He calls him a teacher. He calls him a miracle-worker and says that he was sent by God.
If you notice, Nicodemus was very respectful. He thought very highly of Jesus. He called Jesus “rabbi” (even though Jesus had no formal rabbinic training). He did not deny that Jesus had performed incredible miracles. He healed the sick. He raised the dead. He turned water into wine and walked on water. They were undeniable and he did not attribute them to Satan. He attributed them to God.
Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” That seems a little strange. It has nothing to do with what Nicodemus said. Jesus did not talk about himself. Instead, he talks about Nicodemus. He gets right to the point. Jesus says, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again” (3:3).
Nicodemus talks about what Jesus CAN do (“no one can do the signs you are doing unless God were with him”). Jesus talks about what Nicodemus CANNOT do (“Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again”). We would have responded very differently to Nicodemus than Jesus did.
- We would be intimidated by someone as famous as Nicodemus coming to talk to us. Jesus was not.
- We would be flattered to have someone come and say something like that to us. It makes us feel good about ourselves. We tend to be impressed with flattery. We like it when people say good things about us. Flattery did not impress Jesus.
- We would be honored to have the top bible scholar of our day endorse our ministry. Nicodemus complimented Jesus but Jesus didn’t thank him for his kind words. He did not say, “I appreciate your kind words. That means a lot to me. I have heard a lot of things about you are well.” In fact, given who Jesus was, this was more of an insult than a compliment.
Nicodemus just called Jesus “a great teacher”. That is generally how Jews today regard him as a moral teacher and nothing more. In the same way, Muslims today regard him as a prophet sent by God and nothing more. Jesus was more than a teacher. He was more than a prophet. He was more than a miracle-worker. Jesus didn’t come just to teach. He did that but He didn’t come to teach. He came to save. What do we learn about the new birth here?
Jesus compared salvation to a birth. He used the metaphor of birth. 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 your life on the outside. There has to be a radical change on the inside by the Holy Spirit called the new birth. It is not new religion but a new life. It is not the turning over of a new leaf, but the receiving of a new life.
How is Salvation like Birth?
Characteristics of the New Birth
1. It is shocking.
Nicodemus was shocked by what Jesus said. Jesus is telling the leading candidate for heaven that he is not going. D. L. Moody said, “Who was Nicodemus? Was he a drunkard, a gambler, or a thief? No! Nicodemus was one of the very best men in Jerusalem… he was an orthodox man. Nicodemus was one of the very soundest men. And yet what did Christ say to him? ‘Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.’” Nicodemus represents your average religious person. If anyone was a candidate for the kingdom, it would be this man.
It is possible to be a Sunday School teacher and be lost. It is possible to be a pastor of a church and be lost. It is possible to be a seminary professor and be lost. It is possible to be a bible scholar and be lost. He was the top biblical scholar of his day and yet Jesus said to him, “YOU must be born again” (3:7). You know know the Bible and not know God.
“The evangelist D. L. Moody, who had a very effective ministry both in Britain and in the United States, on one occasion, addressed a group of church workers. After the meeting he was confronted by an angry woman who said, “Mr. Moody, do you mean to tell me that I, an educated woman, taught from childhood in good ways and all my life interested in the church and doing good, must enter heaven the same way as the worst criminal of our day?” “No, madam,” said Moody. ‘I don’t. God does. He says everyone who would enter heaven, no matter how good they think they are, or how well educated, or zealous in good works, must be born again’”.
2. It is spiritual.
Nicodemus completely misunderstood what Jesus was talking about. Nicodemus does not argue with Jesus and say, “No you don’t have to be born again”. He just does not understand how it is possible. We should not make fun of Nicodemus too much. The Twelve Apostles misunderstood Jesus all the time. Nicodemus thought Jesus was talking about physical birth. It is not a physical birth. It is a spiritual birth.
This birth is spiritual, not physical. It is of the Spirit. This birth has nothing to do with genetics or heredity or nationality or skin color. It is a spiritual birth. We see this in John 3:6. Flesh gives birth to flesh. Pigs give birth to pigs. Dogs give birth to dogs. Cats give birth to cats. People give birth to people. “The Spirit gives birth to spirit.”
3. It is supernatural.
It requires a birth of the Holy Spirit (3:8). Eastern philosophy teaches that the solution to our problems is within. You need to spend hours meditating to find happiness. Jesus says that this birth comes from ABOVE (3:3) and not from within. The word “born again” (άνωθεν) can mean born from above or born again in Greek (cf. 3:4, 31) but it can only mean “born from above” in Aramaic. That would have been the language they were speaking. It requires a complete miracle. People cannot produce it. I cannot make anyone be born again. It is God’s work, not mans. To be in the kingdom, you have to be born of God, not born of man or woman (cf. 1:12-13).
4. It is necessary.
It is one of the two musts of the chapter. Jesus said, “You MUST be born again” (3:7). He also said, “The Son of Man MUST be lifted up” (3:14). The only way that the new birth is possible is because Jesus was lifted up on the cross. His death made the new birth possible. Jesus said that you have to be born again to see the kingdom (3:3). He said that you have to be born again to enter the kingdom (3:5). He did not say, “It would be a good idea to be born again”. It is a necessity if you are to enter into the kingdom. What is the kingdom?
If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you TO ENTER LIFE maimed than with two hands TO GO INTO HELL, where the fire never goes out.And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out. It is better for you TO ENTER THE KINGDOM OF GOD with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell (Mark 9:43-47)
There the opposite of hell is the kingdom of God. You either enter into the kingdom or you enter hell. Here the kingdom of God means heaven.
As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do TO INHERIT ETERNAL LIFE?” “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. 19 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’
“Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.” Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth. Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich TO ENTER THE KINGDOM OF GOD!” The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, “Who then can be SAVED?” (Mark 10:17-23, 26)
Here, entering the kingdom is parallel to having eternal life and getting treasure in heaven. It is the same thing as being saved. Here is a lesson on how to study the Bible. Use the context to determine what words mean. To enter the kingdom in John 3 means to have eternal life (3:16), to be saved (3:17). Negatively, it means not to perish (3:16) and not to be condemned (3:18). The only way to be saved is to be born again. It is the only way to get to heaven. It is necessary.
It is necessary, not only for drug addicts, murderers, prostitutes and porn stars to enter the kingdom. It is necessary for outwardly moral and religious people to enter the kingdom. It is not only necessary for atheists and Muslims to be born again in order to enter the kingdom, it is necessary for Jews to be born again to see the kingdom.
Nicodemus was a Jew. He thought he would be in the kingdom because he was Jewish. We have Abraham as our father. He was part of the chosen people that God made a covenant with. It is necessary for EVERYONE to enter the kingdom. Many assume that good people go to heaven. Here Jesus says even if you are good, if you are not born again, you will not go to heaven. Hell will be populated with many moral and respectable people. The real question is, Are you born again?
5. It is mysterious.
Jesus said, “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” (3:8). Salvation is mysterious. It cannot be explained on a human level. It often does not make sense on a human level. You are exactly the same on the outside but completely different on the inside.
6. It is biblical.
This is a teaching that is clearly taught in Scripture. John 3 mentions being born again five times in ten verses. The concept is biblical. The expressions “born again”, “born of the Spirit”, or “born of God” are used about 15 times in the New Testament. Jesus mentions being born again (John 3:3, 5, 7, 8) John talks about being born of God (John 1:12-13; I John 2:29; 3:9; 4:7; 5:1, 4, 18). Peter talks about being born again (I Peter 1:23) Paul mentions being born of the Spirit (Galatians 4:29). It is in the NT. It is in the OT.
Nicodemus should have known about the new birth. Jesus said, “You are Israel’s teacher and do you not understand these things?” (3:10). It was a little bit of a rebuke to this old man. He was very intelligent. He was highly educated. Nicodemus was the top biblical scholar of the day but despite his learning, he did not know anything about the new birth and that is basic. It would be like a famous baseball coach that doesn’t know anything about hitting or pitching. Where does the OT talk about being born again? It doesn’t but it does talk about getting a new heart. Ezekiel talks about that twice (Ezekiel 18:30-32; 36:24-29).
Ezekiel would have also known from the OT the connection between water and spirit. It is used symbolically of the Holy Spirit in the OT. Isaiah 44:3 and Ezekiel 36:25-27 use water the the Spirit in a parellel 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).
Does John 3:5 refer to Baptism?
One of the most misunderstood passages in this section is John 3:5. It says,“Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit.” Many believe that this is a reference to Christian baptism. Despite what many biblical scholars say, that passage CANNOT refer to Christian baptism for several reasons:
The church did not exist yet. Christian baptism had not been instituted yet. That would be anachronistic. There was a clear difference between the baptism of John and Christian baptism (cf. Acts 19:1-7).
John mentions eternal life and receiving eternal life repeatedly (3:15, 16, 36; 4:14, 4:36; 5:24, 39; 6:27, 40, 54, 68; 10:28; 12:25, 50; 17:2, 3) and never once connects eternal life to baptism. It is always connected to faith or believing, even in John 3 (cf. 3:15, 16, 18, 36). I John 5:1 says, “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God”. Baptism does not fit the context of John. John 3:5 mentions water but it does not mention baptism.
Jesus assumes that this is something that Nicodemus should have known about as a teacher of Israel (3:10). The figures of both water and wind do come out of the OT in connection with new birth from the Holy Spirit. The whole passage is based on Ezekiel 36-37 which has nothing to do with Christian baptism.
Based on Ezekiel 36-37, Jesus says that people must be born of the Spirit and he uses two figures of that – water (3:5) and wind (3:8). These are figures that Nicodemus should have known about. 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).
The whole point is that the new birth is not physical. “Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit” (3:6). It is not a physical birth. It is a spiritual birth. Some have misunderstood John 3:5 and come up with the idea that you achieve this birth by physical means, namely by a ritual act called baptism. That completely misses the whole point of the passage.
7. It is demonstrated.
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” (3:8). 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, the new creation has come:[a] The old has gone, the new is here!” (NIV). 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. It doesn’t exist anymore. Paul says, “All things are new”. Salvation is not just a change in a person, it is a radical change (a child of the devil to a child of God, go from being spiritually dead to spiritually alive, from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light). 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.
8. It is restricted.
Not everyone is born again. Jesus said, “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who BELIEVES may have eternal life in him” (3:15). If you have new birth you have life and it is eternal life. The way you get eternal life is by believing. That is how you are born again. Only those who believe are born again.
Is being born again up to us? Extreme Calvinists argue that being born again is no more up to me than being born physically is up to me. I had nothing to do with it. That is true. God gets the credit for our salvation. That is also true but the new birth is conditional. There is something that a person has to do to get saved. What does it mean to believe? How do you know if you have believed? There are many kinds of false faiths
Types of False Faith
1. Intellectual Faith
Is believing in Christ the same thing as believing that George Washington was the first President? Saving faith is not just intellectual, academic or mental. The demons have that kind of faith. They believe that Jesus is the Son of God but they are still demons. Faith involves knowledge but it also involves trust. It is not belief ABOUT Christ but trust IN Christ that saves the soul.
Knowing who Jesus is saves no one. You have to first believe that you need to be saved and ask him to save you. You can be dying and have medicine that will save you. Knowing the medicine will treat your disease and how effective it is does you no good unless you take it. Knowing Jesus is the Son of God and the Savior of the world does you no good unless you personally ask him to save you from sin.
2. Temporary Faith
What about people who used to believe but no longer believe? Are they saved? John mentions people who believed in Jesus for a while. They were not saved (6:60, 66; 8:31-32, 59). The word “believe” in John 3:16 is in the present tense in Greek. That generally means a continual process, not just a one-time act of faith. True faith continues (cf. I Corinthians 15:1-2; Colossians 1:23; Hebrews 3:6; 12-14; I John 2:24).
9. It is available.
While the new birth is restricted to believers, it is available to anyone and everyone who believes (“whosoever believes”).
  Herman A. Hoyt, Expository Messages on the New Birth (BMH Books, 1961), 1.
Herbert Lockyer, All the Men of the Bible, 259.
 D. L. Moody, “Except a Man be Born Again” (http://valwrites.com/except-a-man-be-born-again-by-d-l-moody)