With Dale Ratzlaff
Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews; 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.” Jesus answered and said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” 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?” 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. “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. “Do not be amazed that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ “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.” Nicodemus said to Him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered and said to him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and do not understand these things? “Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know and testify of what we have seen, and you do not accept our testimony. “If I told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things? “No one has ascended into heaven, but He who descended from heaven: the Son of Man. “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life.
This is a very insightful encounter, even more so as we perceive its setting. Here we have Jesus interacting with a “ruler of the Jews”—a member of the Sanhedrin. Later Jesus will address Nicodemus as “The Teacher of Israel”. In the next chapter we will see Jesus visiting with the sinful woman of the hated Samaritans who was even an outcast from her own people. It is as if John is showing how wide the definition is for “whoever believes”!
Apparently Nicodemus had either seen some of the “signs” Jesus performed, or at least was knowledgeable about them. To gain first-hand information about this controversial newcomer, Nicodemus came to Jesus by night. We are not told why he came at night, but it is generally thought that he did so as he did not want to risk his reputation on a meeting of unknown consequences.
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.
Nicodemus comes to Jesus to have a teacher-to-teacher discussion. However, Jesus is not sidetracked by this friendly approach. Without wasting a moment of precious time, he says,
Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.
At first Jesus does not direct this statement to Nicodemus personally, rather he says, “unless one is born again…” The word “again” in Greek can accurately be translated either “again” or “above”. Nicodemus understands Jesus to be saying one must be born “again”.
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?”
Now Jesus moves from a general application of His words to speak directly to Nicodemus.
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.
Think for a moment of what was going on in the Nicodemus’ mind. Jesus is telling him that he cannot even see, no less enter, the kingdom of God unless he is born from above by the Spirit. His heritage as a Jew meant nothing. His membership in the Sanhedrin had no value here. His years of schooling to become “the” teacher in Israel gave him no advantage. He did not rebel at this direct statement, but was dumbfounded, “How can these things be”?
“Born of water” doubtless means the water that is present in a natural birth. It is not enough for salvation. Today, some are teaching that a person is “good” until they flagrantly violate the law. In essence, they say that one is born, “born again”. Jesus cuts this heresy off at its roots.
That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be amazed that I said to you, “You must be born again.” 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.
“Spirit” and “wind” are translated from the same Greek word. The context must determine the meaning. Jesus is saying the work of the Spirit is not something we can well define; rather, like the wind, the Spirit’s work is somewhat mysterious and sovereign. However, we can see the results of the wind as it blows in the trees. In the same way, we cannot explain the mystery of the Holy Spirit in the regenerated person, but we can see the results in the life. New birth, or being born from above, is a work of God. No personal accomplishments or disciplined moral activity will accomplish it. It is a supernatural work.
Jesus answered and said to him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and do not understand these things? “Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know and testify of what we have seen, and you do not accept our testimony. “If I told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things?
Jesus indicates that Nicodemus should understand the new birth by the Spirit. On several occasions the Old Testament prophets spoke of the regeneration of the human heart or spirit by the Holy Spirit.
Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances (Ez. 36:26-27).
Several other questions arise from this statement of Jesus to Nicodemus. Who are the “we” who know and testify? This could be a reference to Jesus and one or more of the disciples, perhaps John, who was with Jesus who had been regenerated by the Spirit. It is a characteristic of this Gospel that John leaves out his name as He wants all attention to go to Christ. A second possibility is that this is a reference to Jesus, His Father, and the Holy Spirit—the Trinity. A third possibility is that it stands for all of prophets of Scripture, including that of John the Baptist. I lean toward the understanding that the disciple of John was present and he was a witness to this conversation.
In the phrase, “You do not receive our testimony”, the “you” is plural, indicating that Jesus has reference not only to Nicodemus, but also to the Jews as a whole, especially the Jewish rulers. “Not receive” is in the present, continual tense indicating that the rejection of Christ’s testimony was not an occasional thing, but was the habitual habit of the Jewish leaders. This pattern of continual rejection is seen in all the Gospels.
The “earthly things” doubtless refers to the wind illustrating the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit. If we don’t understand the wind, then how can we understand the Spirit?
No one has ascended into heaven, but He who descended from heaven: the Son of Man.
Jesus here reveals to Nicodemus, who He is. He is the “Son of Man” referenced in Daniel 7. He is the pre-existent one from heaven; therefore, He knows “heavenly things”. He knows how one can be born again “from above”.
As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life.
Here we get to the heart of the gospel. Here is where we find our part in the new birth. Nicodemus was familiar with the story.
The people spoke against God and Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this miserable food.” The LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. So the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, because we have spoken against the LORD and you; intercede with the LORD, that He may remove the serpents from us.” And Moses interceded for the people. Then the LORD said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a standard; and it shall come about, that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, he will live.” And Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on the standard; and it came about, that if a serpent bit any man, when he looked to the bronze serpent, he lived (Num. 21:5-9).
This illustration brings several important insights to light. First, rebellion against God often brings discipline. If we are living outside of God’s will, we should expect God to discipline us as a loving father would his wayward child. Second, there is the supernatural work of the “uplifted serpent”. As one must be born from above, so the Son of man must be lifted up. The power of the gospel resides in the cross of Christ, the sacrifice for sin.
He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. (2 Cor. 5:21).
Third, this gospel must be proclaimed. Unless the people of Israel were told to look at the uplifted serpent, they would not have experienced its saving power. Thus, the gospel of Christ must be proclaimed. Fourth, there must be a response to the hearing of the gospel of Christ.
And it came about, that if a serpent bit any man, when he looked to the bronze serpent, he lived.
In the Greek version of this Old Testament passage, “looked” is in the aorist tense indicating an instantaneous action. The healing took place in a moment of time. Jesus made it crystal clear what this passage means.
Even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life.
The new birth is a supernatural event that has nothing to do with our work, and it is open to “whoever believes”. The result is instant: eternal life that continues.
This incident teaches us a number of things about the new birth.
- Spiritual heritage, position, education, or a disciplined life will not result in the new birth.
- The new birth is for those who recognize their own sin and helplessness.
- The means for the new birth is centered in the sacrifice of Christ on the cross.
- The work of Christ must be proclaimed so that the sinner will look to the cross.
- There must be a personal response. We are to look away from the wound of sin and look to Christ, believing in the supernatural healing power of the gospel.
- There is no limit of God’s invitation of grace: “whoever believes will in Him have eternal life”.
Father, I recognize that in myself I am a sinner in need of your grace. I have heard the good news of what you did on the cross, dying for my sin and accounting me righteous. I accept your offer of grace and eternal life. Thank you, thank you for your matchless gift. May I proclaim your goodness and grace to others.
In Jesus name.