Something You Must Do

Biblical Truth: Everyone must be born again in order to go to heaven, and no one can be born again without believing in Jesus.

New Birth is Necessary: John 3:1-3.

[1]  Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews; [2]  this man came to Jesus by night and said to Him, "Rabbi, we know that You have come from God as a teacher; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him." [3]  Jesus answered and said to him, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God."  [NASU]


John pursues his aim of showing that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God chiefly in two ways: he narrates some of the signs Jesus did, and he records some of the discourses Jesus delivered. Sometimes the sign and the discourse are intimately connected, sometimes not. The first discourse is a private talk to a single listener. Nicodemus, a member of the ruling class. The conversation brings out the means of attaining eternal life, and, in typical Johannine fashion, this leads on to reflections of the Evangelist and to further incidents. Nicodemus is a typical representative of Pharisaic Judaism. As such Nicodemus would have stressed the careful observance of the Law and the traditions of the elders. For the loyal Pharisee this was the way of salvation. John uses this conversation to show that all such views are wide of the mark. Not a devout regard for the Law, not even a revised presentation of Judaism is required, but a radical rebirth. The demand is repeated three times (3,5,7). Nicodemus and all his tribe of law-doers are left with not the slightest doubt but that what is asked of a man is not more law, but the power of God within him to remake him completely.

[1]  The Pharisees had no vested interest in the temple (which was rather the prerogative of the Sadducees). A Pharisee would, accordingly, not have been unduly perturbed by the action of Jesus in cleansing the temple courts. A ruler of the Jews means that he was a member of the Sanhedrin. The use of the expression “Jews” is doubtless intended to convey to us that Nicodemus stands as the representative of the old religion.

[2]  He came at night which could indicate his fear of being seen talking with Jesus. Or it could be that Jesus was too busy with the crowds in the day and the night was the only time Nicodemus could have a long private discussion with Jesus. We must notice that he sees Jesus as a teacher only, and that he has as yet no perception of the real nature of Him whom he sought out. He has come as one teacher to another to discuss matters of mutual interest. The continuous tenses he uses perhaps are meant to indicate that Jesus habitually did the signs of which he speaks. Nicodemus has a true perception that such signs point to God.

[3]  Jesus declines to carry on with courteous exchanges that get nowhere. He plunges immediately into the very heart of the subject. Clearly Nicodemus is seeking instruction in the way to life. In one sentence Jesus sweeps away all that Nicodemus stood for, and demands that he be re-made by the power of God. The word rendered again might equally be translated by “from above”. Entry into the kingdom is not by way of human striving but by that re-birth which only God can effect. Kingdom is to be understood in a dynamic sense. It is reign rather than realm. It is God’s rule in action. This is the only time John mentions kingdom of God. This phrase occurs dozens of times in the Synoptic Gospels, but only here in John. It is one of Jesus’ main themes. It sometimes means God’s eternal kingship over the universe. At other times, Jesus says that the Kingdom is already present in the person of Jesus, the King. At still other times, He speaks of the Kingdom as not yet present, a spiritual or even physical reality that is yet to come. The already-but-not-yet and the spiritual-yet-very real aspects of the Kingdom make it a rich and complex term.

New Birth is a Work of the Spirit: John 3:4-8.

[4]  Nicodemus said to Him, "How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born, can he?" [5]  Jesus answered, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.  [6]  That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.  [7]  Do not be amazed that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’  [8]  The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit." [NASU]

[4]  Jesus’ statement in verse 3 evokes a double misunderstanding on the part of Nicodemus in verse 4. Nicodemus is thinking on a purely physical plane; hence his first question. But he further misses the point by making man the active agent; hence his second question. Jesus answers these objections in reverse order.

[5-6]  Once again Jesus prefaces his remarks with the solemn and emphatic truly, truly. Jesus explains being born anew as being born of water and the Spirit. Jesus is undoubtedly referring to the regenerating activity of the Holy Spirit of God. The water probably refers to natural birth while the Spirit refers to the miracle which takes place when the divine activity remakes a man. In verse 3 Jesus has spoken of seeing the kingdom of God, whereas here he speaks of entering it. There is probably no great difference of meaning. In both places Jesus is stressing the truth that spiritual regeneration is indispensable if we would be God’s. Jesus makes it clear that no man can ever fit himself for the kingdom. Rather he must be completely renewed, born anew, by the power of the Spirit. These solemn words for ever exclude the possibility of salvation by human merit. There is no evolution from flesh to Spirit. Since the kingdom is spiritual, a spiritual birth is required for entrance.

[7-8]  In verses 7 and 8, Jesus answers Nicodemus’ first objection. He does so by the double use of the Greek word “pneuma”. If Nicodemus accepts the sound and effect of the pneuma = wind without knowing the details of its movement and origins, why should he question the movement and origins of the pneuma = spirit in the generation of new life? The point is that the wind can be neither controlled nor understood by human beings. So it is with the Spirit. But, just as is true of the wind, where the Spirit works, the effects are undeniable and unmistakable. The person who is born of the Spirit can be neither controlled nor understood by persons of but one birth. As the water and spirit birth is grounded in Ezekiel 36:25-27, so there may be an allusion here to Ezekiel 37. Nicodemus has found Jesus’ teaching hard to understand, but Jesus turns that incredulity into a fundamentally Christological question. Nicodemus had approached Jesus with a certain amount of respect, but he had not even begun to appreciate who Jesus really was. At bottom, Nicodemus’ failure was not a failure of intellect but a failure to believe Jesus’ witness. The failure to believe was more reprehensible than the failure to understand, since it betrayed a fundamentally inadequate appreciation of who Jesus is.

New Birth Involves Believing in Jesus: John 3:13-15.

[13]  "No one has ascended into heaven, but He who descended from heaven: the Son of Man. [14] As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; [15] so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life.”  [NASU]

Throughout the Gospel John insists on Jesus’ heavenly origin. This is one way in which he brings out his point that Jesus is the Christ. Here the heavenly origin marks Jesus off from all the rest of mankind. This section concludes with an impressive statement of the purpose of the death of Jesus. It is part of John’s aim to show that Jesus showed forth His glory not in spite of His earthly humiliations, but precisely by means of those humiliations. Supremely is this the case with the cross. To the outward eye this was the uttermost in degradation, the death of a felon. To the eye of faith it was the supreme glory. The man who has faith has (the present tense points to a present possession) eternal life in Christ. This associates the life very closely with Christ. Eternal life means the life proper to the age to come. It is an eschatological conception. The important thing about eternal life is not its quantity but its quality. It is not an endless duration of being in time, but being of which time is not a measure. Eternal life is life in Christ, that life which removes a man from the merely earthly. It is the gift of God, and not the achievement of man.

Son of Man: This was Jesus’ favorite way of referring to Himself. The term probably came from Daniel 7:13-14, where it refers to a heavenly person. Also, God called Ezekiel “son of man” and commanded him to bear the sin of Israel and Judah in a symbolic affliction (4:1-5:17). “Son of Man” was a good choice for Jesus because it did not have the distorted political implication of “Messiah.”  Lifted up: Another double meaning. The Greek means equally to exalt or to physically lift. Eternal: John prefers the term “eternal life” to “the Kingdom of God” – the two are equivalent in Jesus’ teaching, but John emphasizes how Jesus’ kingship was misunderstood. Eternal means basically “pertaining to an age”. The Jews divided time into this age and the age to come, and eternal referred to life in the one to come. Since life in the age to come will never end, eternal came to mean “everlasting”. But John’s emphasis is on the quality (measureless, abundant, characteristic of God’s Kingdom) of life.

God Wants You to Experience New Birth: John 3:16-18.

[16]  For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. [17]  For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. [18]  He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.  [NASU]

[16]  Reformed theology has historically been the branch of evangelicalism most strongly committed to the sovereignty of God. At the same time, the mainstream of Reformed theologians have always affirmed the love of God for all sinners. John Calvin wrote regarding John 3.16, “Two points are distinctly stated to us: namely, that faith in Christ brings life to all, and that Christ brought life, because the Father loves the human race, and wishes that they should not perish. John employs the universal term, whosoever, both to invite all indiscriminately to partake of life, and to cut off every excuse from unbelievers. Such is also the import of the term world, which he formerly used; for though nothing will be found in the world that is worthy of the favor of God, yet he shows himself to be reconciled to the whole world, when he invites all without exception to the faith of Christ, which is nothing else than an entrance into life. Let us remember, on the other hand, that while life is promised universally to all who believe in Christ, still faith is not common to all, but the elect alone are they whose eyes God opens, that they may seek him by faith.” Calvin points out that both the gospel invitation and the world that God loves are by no means limited to the elect alone. But he also recognizes that God’s electing, saving love is uniquely bestowed on His chosen ones. World in this context seems clearly to speak of humanity in general. If we try to make the term mean either every individual or the elect alone, the passage simply makes no sense.

The mission of the Son and its consequences is the theme of this paragraph, but John begins by insisting that the Son’s mission was itself the consequence of God’s love. The Greek construction emphasizes the intensity of the love, and insists that the envisaged consequence really did ensue; the words His only begotten Son stress the greatness of the gift. The Father gave His best, His unique and beloved Son. But what is the cause of this love for the world. The world, fallen and rebellious human beings in general, does not and cannot love God [3.19; 5.42; 8.42]. John develops a theology of the love relations between the Father and the Son, and makes it clear that, as applied to human beings, the love of God is not the consequence of their loveliness but of the sublime truth that God is love [1 John 4.16]. Here John shows that God’s love is not restricted by race, the Jews, but extends to the whole world. God pronounces terrifying condemnation on the grounds of the world’s sin, while still loving the world so much that the gift He gave to the world, the gift of His Son, remains the world’s only hope. This dual stance of God is a commonplace of biblical theology. Because 3:16 is sandwiched between 14-15 and 17, the fact that God gave his one and only Son is tied both to the Son’s incarnation [17] and to His death [14-15]. That is the immediate result of the love of God for the world: the mission of the Son. His ultimate purpose is the salvation of those in the world who believe in Him.

[17]  John aims to make a simple point, a clarification of the purpose of that mission, already articulated in verse 16. God’s purpose in sending His Son into the world was not to condemn the world, but to save the world through Him. The Son of Man did not come into a neutral world; He came into an already lost and condemned world. That not all of the world will be saved is made perfectly clear by 18-21; but God’s purpose in the mission of Jesus was to bring salvation to it. Indeed to make good sense of this passage, we must interpret the expression world in 16 and 17 as broadly as we understand the same word in 19. Clearly the word world has a universal and corporate aspect that envelops more than just the elect alone. God’s love is for the world in general, the human race, all humanity.

[18]  No longer does John speak of the world holistically. Instead he distinguishes between the one who believes and is therefore not condemned and the one who does not believe. The potential for condemnation is bound up with the mission of the Son to bring salvation since those who do not believe stands condemned. Note the switch to the perfect tense in has been judged and has not believed. The individual has passed into a continuing state of condemnation because he refused to enter a continuing state of belief. The man who does not believe (persistence in unbelief is meant) does not have to wait until Judgment Day. He is condemned already. 

Questions for Discussion:

1.      As the conversation moves along, what contrast do you see between the thinking of Jesus and that of Nicodemus? In emphasizing His point, what words and phrases does Jesus repeat? What facts about the new birth does He state? How does he point out that the new birth is essential in entering God’s kingdom?

2.      In verses 14-15, Jesus explains the means by which a person can experience the new birth. Read the historical illustration he uses from Numbers 21:4-9. Compare the situation of those people with the situation of Nicodemus and his contemporaries. Compare: a) their attitude, b) their need, c) God’s provision, and d) the response necessary for new life.  What did the ancient Israelites really say to God when they looked at the serpent? Did the Israelites need to be able to figure out how the remedy worked in order to get new life? How does this apply to Nicodemus; and to us.

3.      Meditate this week on what 3:16-17 tells you about the Father. Let this truth really sink in as you pray about it. What difference does (or should) it make to your attitudes and priorities?            


The Gospel According to John, D. A. Carson, Eerdmans.

The Love of God, John MacArthur, Jr., Word Publishing.

The Gospel According to John, Leon Morris, Eerdmans.

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