Sow to the Spirit, Look to the Son

Salvation Effectually Procured

Lifeway entitled this lesson, “Salvation Offered.” That is one element of this narrative but not the main burden of John’s, or Jesus’, emphasis. It is rather an explanation, in the beginning of how God will make the new covenant successful. As we have seen since the opening chapter, the movement is from the identification of the people of God through ethnic, fleshly, external categories and the inception of the New Covenant people through the work of Christ and the operations of the Spirit.

Nicodemus and the New Birth

Not physical sight, but spiritual sight needed

Nicodemus’s conclusions not entirely wrong, but short enough to make an eternal difference:  “We know you are a teacher come from God, For …” As 2:23 has let us know, many were believing in Jesus on the basis of the signs, but Jesus knew that their belief, with few exceptions, was mere external assent to his claim to be from God. The effects of sin on the heart kept them from seeing their true spiritual need.

The new birth introduces into one’s perception the true realities of the Kingdom of God – “Unless one is born again, He cannot see the kingdom of God.”  What does “see” mean? Seeing means an inner spiritual perception of the reality of the righteousness of the Kingdom of God. If one does not see the beauty of holiness that constitutes the Kingdom of God, he can never want entrance into it for the sake of the glory of God.

Not Physical birth [as a racial child of Abraham] but spiritual birth needed

This corresponds to John’s statement in 1:13, “Who were born not of bloods.” Water = purifying effect of the Word in conjunction with the completed work of Christ;  Notice the prominence of water in the gospel and its relation to fulfillment of the ceremonial rites of purification and true inner knowledge of God: cf. 1:32, 33 the prophetic emblematic nature of baptism; 2:6, 7 water used to indicate the superior astringent effect of Jesus ministry; 3:25, 26 the discussion about Jesus’ baptism evoked over the relation of purification to the practice of baptism; 4:10, 13, 14, 23, 24 living water that eternally satisfies comes through the union of Spirit and Truth that Jesus alone can give; John 5:1-9 The healing waters of the pool only mediated the direct saving power of Christ; John 7:37-39  The pouring of the water ceremony on the last day of the feast probably was the occasion of this invitation – again the purifying life-giving effects of the Spirit are symbolized by water and directly connected to Christ’s work.

 Spirit – See 2 Thess 2:13 – The effecting of God’s elective purpose from the standpoint of its termination on us comes through the sanctifying work of the Spirit. The Spirit, according to the eternal purpose, marks off and separates the elect from the rest of mankind and grants them the disposition in accordance with which they will believe the truth. 1 Peter 1:23 – So Peter affirms that we are born by “incorruptible seed” through the living and abiding word of God.” That refers to the work of the Spirit of God through the Scripture in bringing the sinner to faith in Christ.

“That which is born of the flesh is flesh.” – Natural birth as a son of fallen Adam produces only a life characteristic of fallen humanity. In our natural condition we live according to the “passions of our flesh” both in body and mind and are, consequently, “by nature” children of wrath.  Only a Spiritual birth establishes spiritual light and life. [Ephesians 2:1-4]  The flesh flows out in one’s life in actions and thoughts characteristic of the flesh and left to itself “cannot” submit to God’s Law and, therefore, cannot embrace and love the gospel.. Only by the Spirit is one rescued from this deep trench of destruction. [Romans 8:5-8]

Sovereign Operations of the Spirit [8]

Upon whom the effectual working of the Spirit will take place can not be predicted. There is no prior qualification for this, but only the sovereign purpose of God. “The wind . . . so is it with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” This does not mean that the Spirit in his will performs acts in an autonomous way, but he acts in concert with the sovereign purpose conceived in the eternal covenant, and, in the same way as Father and Son, exhibits, as a person of the triune God, utter sovereignty in the giving of eternal life (See John 5:21, 6:63-65)

Observable effects infallibly are manifest – “You hear its sound.” The secret operations of the Spirit have observable consequences in the lives who receive such life from the Spirit. In this passage one of the clear manifestations is believing in the Son of God.

As a teacher, Nicodemus should have known and should declare it

Necessity of a work of the Spirit for true life [ Jer. 31:31-34; Ezekiel 36:22-28; 37:1-14; Jer. 9:25, 26] Nicodemus, as a teacher of Israel should have known of the coming new covenant, in which the righteous requirements of the law would be planted in the heart by the Spirit of God. The spiritual corollary to circumcision was the removal of hardness of heart, so that the proper perception of the Law would drive a person to seek both its righteousness and relief from its curse in the work of the Messiah.

Jer. 9:12 – The wise man should understand the revelation of God and declare it. He should know why punishment comes upon the people and that their hearts are hard and in need of spiritual renewal. Mal 2:7-9  The teacher of Israel should be able to guard knowledge and give instruction in spiritual truth.

Jesus and Knowledge from Above

Source of Jesus’ knowledge [11-13] – Here Jesus claims that his knowledge of these things is first hand. He has seen them for himself. This claim should intrigue Nicodemus, for how could Jesus have been privy to the nature of the Spirit’s work from first hand experience? He knows this, not because he has experienced as if he stood in need of a new birth, but because it is an integral part of the eternal covenant of redemption just as much as is his own descent to earth for the purpose of dying. This shows Jesus’ knowledge of his own pre-existence and the mysterious complexity of his dual natures and simple personhood. Important for this concept is Jesus’ reference to himself as Son of Man descending from heaven. In reality, he had not descended from heaven as Son of Man but had been conceived in the womb of Mary as Son of Man; he only descended from heaven as Son of God when the “Power of the Most High” overshadowed Mary. The significance of Jesus’ reference to the Son of Man descending is that he is affirming the unity of his person at the point of the incarnation. That person who descended as Son of God now embraces a full human nature and truly is “Son of Man.” The person, therefore, that descended, from the standpoint of Jesus conversation with Nicodemus, is Son of Man.

The comparison between “earthly things” and “heavenly things” seems to be related to Nicodemus’s question, “How can these things be?” that is, how can such a new birth come about? If Nicodemus, however, did not grasp the concept of the necessity of a new birth from those things that had been revealed and thus available to him as a teacher of Israel, how would he understand if Jesus opened to him in any measure at all elements of the secret counsel and power of God contained in the process of the new birth.

Purpose of the Son’s Coming [14, 15] – As the Spirit came to give the new birth, so the Son of Man came to be lifted up, like the serpent in the wilderness (Numbers 21) so that those that would look to him might have eternal life. The serpent was lifted up in light of the danger of physical death and a look on him would restore health. The Son of man comes in light of the threat of eternal death and a look at Him in faith grants the gift of eternal life.

Provision of the Father [16, 17] (thus completing Jesus’ Trinitarian discussion concerning the saving purpose and act of God) – There are several implications to these verses.

1. Jesus has spoken of the work of the Spirit and the work of the Son in the covenant of redemption, and now he mentions one aspect of the work of the Father. This consists of his giving the Son for the purpose of salvation. Given that the Son of God is indeed “beloved,” that he is the express image of God and that the relationship between Father and Son in the godhead is one of infinite, undiminished love (John 17:24, 26), the gift of the Son is indeed an “unspeakable gift.” 

2. It is according to this measure that we contemplate the depth of God’s love for the world. God loved the world “in such a manner” that he gave. Nothing less in sacrifice than one of his own nature and one that he values as Himself could possibly provide a sufficient recompense for the assault upon God’s character that is implied through human sin.

3.  Due to the character of the sacrifice, as a sufficient manifestation of honor to the Father and as fully satisfying the divine requirement for wrath upon sinners (Hebrews 9:14, 15), salvation will come to “all those who believe into him.” Apart from this action and provision on the part of God with the full involvement of all three persons of the Trinity none could have any hope of rescue from the wages of sin.

4. The present condition of all humankind is one of perishing. Jesus’ incarnation and death did not create the condition for perishing. He did not come into the world to condemn the world, but that through him the world could be granted right standing with God, saved from the wrath to come. Entrance into the saving work of Christ is by faith, or belief. That particular qualifying condition is set in absolute contradiction to works of righteousness that we do (Titus 3:5). It consists of a submission to Christ’s death and righteousness as the only means by which God may be justified in receiving sinners. A reception of that saving work of Christ means that such a believer “is not condemned.”

Foundation of judgment [18b-21]

1. Though not believing in Jesus the Christ leaves one in a state of condemnation (18), it does not create that state. The one that hears the gospel and rejects it will have aggravation added to his condemnation because increase of opportunity brings added responsibility; rejection of the gospel under such a circumstance manifests deeper hostility to the glory and goodness of God.

2. verse 19 – the rejection of the gospel shows that men love darkness rather than light. Their evil deeds combined with their pride make for a recipe of destruction and an irrational resistance to the only saving message they will ever hear. Their love for darkness brings about condemnation and presses their minds away from the message of  salvation. Fruitless trees dug up by the roots, doubly condemned.

3. The message of Christ being lifted up is the message of light. It both promises life and points out the present state of death. It implies the justness of our condemnation. One unwilling to admit that his deeds as well as the state of his heart deserve condemnation will never receive such a message of salvation. He hates such an imputation on his character and the worthiness of his self-conceived virtue. Thus he hates the light and will not come to the light. This state of affairs makes it impossible for any sinner to be saved when left to the propensities of his own will and spiritual perceptions. What hope is there? Jesus already has discussed that in beginning this narrative with an affirmation of the necessity of the new birth if one is to see the kingdom of God.

4. Verse 21, therefore, shows that those believing this message, seeing its truthfulness and embracing it wholeheartedly, do come to the light. They come to that clear condemnation of themselves left to their own demerits, and to the reality that Christ alone can save. Thus one will see in those that are truly converted that that coming to the light has been “carried out (wrought) in God.” John is referring back to the new birth of which God is the author in the Holy Spirit. He also refers to the giving of the Son by the Father and of the Son’s willingly coming for the purpose of performing such an act of sacrifice. When Paul stated in 1 Corinthians 1 30, “He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom and our righteousness and sanctification and redemption” he shows how the believer’s doing the truth is wrought in God.

The Baptizer’s Full Joy and purposeful Deference to Jesus 22-30

Jesus engages in the distinguishing practice of John’s ministry

Jesus’s following outstripping that of John – verses 25, 26

John’s honest and humble recognition of his inferior place – verse 27-30

His ministry a call from heaven – John does not act jealous because he knows that what he has been doing is purely a gift from heaven and is not the stuff of competition.

His call as strictly preparatory – He was designated by God as a forerunner, and that ask would have a quick termination.

Friend of the bridegroom – He is not in competition with the one that has come claim his bride, but is a friend of the bridegroom and rejoices when the day of betrothment comes to culmination.

John’s joy at the increase of Jesus – He knows that he has accomplished his task. Rather than stirring jealously and with resentment, the report of Jesus preaching and baptizing stirs him to joy. “This joy of mine is now complete.”

John’s Summary

Jesus is above all because He is from heaven 31

Jesus speaks truth for he is from above 32-34

The glory of God, the redemptive purpose of God, and one’s eternal relation with God all are in the hands of Jesus [35, 36]


Consider the relation between Spirit and truth and determine to live and teach according to truth.

Know that mere external assertions do not necessarily indicate spiritual birth

Human contrivances cannot force a spiritual birth

Belief is the initial evidence and the foundational grace of a work of the Spirit

Note the trinitarian synthesis in the salvation of sinners

The conjoining of the work of the Spirit, the Father, and the Son conforms to a pre-mundane, eternal, covenantal disposition in the triune God.

This work is not merely the rendering of salvation possible, but is the operation of the triune God in which he effects salvation for the elect. He has arranged for and operated effectually both for the objective removal of guilt and imputation of righteousness as well as the subjective change that removes corruption of heart and alienation of affections from God.

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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