Monday, July 04, 2005

Jesus said: You Must Be Born Again

I had previously participated in an inductive Bible study on the book of John. Here, I would like to share my notes, comments and commentary from the portion of the study that was about Nicodemus' encounter with Jesus.

John 2:23 states that when Jesus was at the Passover, He did many miracles ("signs") that evoked a kind of superficial faith in His
wonder-working power. However, Jesus did not "trust himself" to
these types of believers, for He knew what was in people and He knew that this kind of belief was not true faith.

Certainly, at the time Nicodemus came to Jesus, he did not have full
faith but simply an inquiring faith. He was one of those who believed
that Jesus was "a" teacher sent from God because "no one could
perform the miraculous signs...if God were not with him." Nicodemus was probably an elderly man (implied in John 3:4). He belonged to the strictest, most religiously informed sect of the Pharisees (John 3:1).
He was also a member of the Sanhedrin and accounted a ruler among the Jews. Nicodemus was also a wealthy man (John 19:39). Nicodemus came at night. Obviously this has some special significance or John would not have mentioned it. In view of the whole trend of the conversation, we are made aware that Nicodemus was a non-committed person in relation to acceptance of Jesus as Messiah at this time. He was not against Jesus as yet, but neither was he convinced that Jesus was
the Messiah. Nor was Nicodemus willing to compromise his position
with the national religious council of the Jews - the Sanhedrin - the majority of whom rejected Jesus. Therefore, he came to Jesus privately, unseen by others, at night. Another reason might be that Nicodemus wanted a long, undisturbed session with Jesus.

Although Nicodemus possessed much of the honor and wealth this
world can offer, undoubtedly having lived a good, morally upright life, he was unsatisfied as he sensed a deep lack in his life. Living in a kind of spiritual darkness, he came in the dark for Jesus to give him light. It was indeed a miracle of grace that Nicodemus, who belonged to a group so strongly prejudiced against Jesus, should come at all (2:18,20). A greater miracle of grace lies in the fact that ultimately this conversation resulted in the conversion of Nicodemus
and an increasingly bold confession of his faith in Jesus as the Son of God.

Nicodemus Asked Three Questions - John 3:2b-15

Nicodemus' first words seem to be more a statement than a question; however, the question is there. His underlying question concerns
the identity of Jesus. Although Jesus did not have the formal education required for the position of a Jewish rabbi, Nicodemus courteously gave Him that title, for he was sincere in believing Jesus to be a teacher come from God, but only because he saw the miracles as signs of God's power given to Jesus. Nicodemus had certainly heard about the deputation sent to John the Baptist (1:19). His whole attitude seems to imply questions such as these: "You are a teacher sent from God, but are you really 'THE Prophet,' THE Messiah of Old Testament prophesy?"

"Since I am willing to recognize you as a teacher sent from God, what further information do you have to give me concerning your claims
and the kingdom of God?"

Jesus' answer.

Jesus did not answer the words of Nicodemus but his thoughts. (Compare Matthew 9:3-4 and John 1:47-51.) Nicodemus thought
Jesus would simply lead him further along the good way that he was treading. However, the Lord's reply showed Nicodemus that he was
not even on the way. Jesus was not so much going to add to what Nicodemus already had, as to create within Nicodemus the spiritual l
ife that he did not have at that time. How startled Nicodemus
must have been to be told flatly that all his knowledge, his moral rectitude, and his social position were inadequate! In his present condition Nicodemus could not even "see the kingdom of God," nor understand what is meant by the kingdom of God, let alone enter it. It never occurred to
Nicodemus that as a Jew, particularly as a rabbi, he was not already
in the kingdom of God.

Paul explains it in this way, "The man without the Spirit does
not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are...spiritually discerned" (1 Corinthians 2:14).

Jesus said to Nicodemus, "I tell you the truth, no one can see
the kingdom of God unless he is born again" (John 3:3). Whenever the words "I tell you the truth" are used, they always indicate some misunderstanding to be overcome on the part of the hearer, as well as the introduction of a new thought that carries the teaching forward to the next step. Jesus spoke of being born again.
The Greek word 'anothen', translated "again," has three different meanings: (1) It means from the beginning, completely; (2) It means for the second time; (3) It means from above or from God. Although no English word can give all three meanings, all three
of them were meant by Jesus when He said this. To be "Born again" is to have such a complete change that it is like a new birth. To be "born again" is not a human achievement; it is to be born from God above, by His power alone. (Compare 1:13.)

The second question and Jesus' reply - John 3:4-8

"How can a man be born when he is old?" Nicodemus' second question should not be taken as though he understood it in a crude, literal, physical sense. It is as though Nicodemus said, "Can a leopard change its spots unless it is reborn another animal? How can I, an old man, change the habits of a lifetime? There is nothing I desire more than to change, but it would be as impossible as entering again my mother's womb. How can this be? I, at my time of life, cannot experience such a change." This is somewhat like the person today who, when confronted with the Lord's call to the new birth, says, "How can I be different? This would only be possible
if I could be born again. I cannot start again; I am myself. I cannot commit myself to God, for I would never be able to keep it up."

Nicodemus does not understand that Jesus speaks not of a second beginning so much as a different beginning, a birth by the Holy Spirit. Jesus explains this in His second reply.

Jesus' answer - First part: New birth involves "water" and
"the Spirit" - John 3:5.

The words "born of water and the Spirit" are often misunderstood.
Below are various interpretations:

"Water" refers to physical birth.

If water referred to physical birth, Jesus would be saying that in order
for a person to be saved, that person must be born physically and then spiritually. It seems unlikely that Jesus would emphasize such an
obvious statement with the words "I tell you the truth."

"Water" refers to water baptism.

Water baptism is the outward action symbolizing what has already
taken place inwardly. The mere "baptism of water," which is in itself material and outward, cannot be equated in importance with the quickening work of the Holy Spirit which is essentially an inward operation that only God can give.

The Bible does not teach that a person is saved by some external rite or ceremony. In fact, there are passages that teach just the opposite. (See 1 Samuel 16:7; Romans 2:28-29; Galatians 2:15-16; 5:1-6.)

Baptism is the outward sign of the inward reality, but is not the means by which that inward reality occurs.

"Water" refers to the Word of God.

To Nicodemus, water symbolized cleansing (Psalm 51:2,7; Ezekiel
36:25; Zechariah 13:1). Nicodemus would conclude he was already in
the kingdom of God, seeing that he had been circumcised as a baby on the eighth day and incorporated thereby into Israel - the people of God. Also, as a rabbi, he would conclude that he did not need to acknowledge the presence of sin and the desire to change his way of life (Luke 7:30). Therefore, Jesus by His words bluntly pointed Nicodemus
to his need to turn from sin and to be quickened by the Spirit before he (or you and I) could enter God's kingdom.

"Water" is used metaphorically for the Word of God in many other
places in Scripture.

Ephesians 5:26 speaks of Christ making the church "holy, cleansing
her by the washing with water through the word."

Psalm 119:9 says a young man may keep his way pure by living
according to the word of God.

Jesus tells the disciples in John 15:3 that they are clean because of the word He spoke to them.

Also, 1 Peter 1;23 says, "For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God."

Thus, a man is born of water and the Spirit, when God, the Father of
His spiritual children, gives new birth through the means of the preaching of His Word (spoken to Nicodemus by Jesus and written for
us in the Bible) and the mysterious working of His Holy Spirit. (See also Romans 10:14-15; 1 Corinthians 1:21; and Titus 3:5.)

Second part: New birth is not of the "flesh" - John 3:6.

"Flesh gives birth to flesh."

The word "flesh" here does not mean physical flesh only. In this passage the word "flesh" indicates fallen human nature as
a whole, including "fallen" emotions, thoughts, and will that are permeated with sin just as an originally healthy body
can become permeated with disease even before that
disease is noticeable or acknowledged by the patient.

Third part: New birth is of the Holy Spirit - John 3:6-7.

"The Spirit gives birth to spirit" indicates the new
humanity, a new person (Ephesians 4:24; Colossians 3:10).

When we receive Christ through the person of the Holy spirit into the innermost part of our being, He makes us alive (Ephesians 2:1-5). There are created within us new emotions, a new attitude of mind and new power of will, a new person, in fact, which the Bible calls "the new self." Bible truths previously misunderstood (as
in this case of Nicodemus) suddenly become clear, and we are made aware that from henceforth we belong to God! He is for us, and we are committed to live joyfully with Him and for Him. We see the kingdom
of God, and we are made aware that we have been transplanted into
that kingdom by birth from above through the Spirit (Colossians 1:13). To be born from above is to be born of the Holy Spirit and to be born again. This new creation actually takes place when the Holy Spirit (who might previously be said to be with a person, influencing him from the outside) now actually enters and permanently indwells that person's being.

Fourth part: New birth is a supernatural mystery - John 3:8.

"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."

New birth is a fact to be experienced by the soul as literally as one experiences physically the presence of wind blowing outside of one's physical body. Although the experience of the new birth is often described by one who has received the Holy Spirit into one's heart, its source and fulfillment can never be fully explained. It is a divine fact
but also a divine mystery, even as the source and ultimate destination
of wind is also a scientific physical mystery. There is an interesting play on the words "wind" and "spirit" in this verse. The Greek word
'pneuma' has two meanings. It is the word for spirit; it is also occasionally used in the sense of wind.

The third question and Jesus' reply - John 3:9-15 "How can this be?"

There are several kinds of misunderstanding. There is the honest misunderstanding because of lack of information. There is another kind of misunderstanding that comes because a person has already shut his mind to a truth that he does not wish to see. Perhaps Nicodemus unconsciously was indulging in this second kind
of misunderstanding at this point in the conversation. As a Jewish
rabbi familiar with the Old Testament, Nicodemus could have thought
of the prophecies regarding the new birth and the gift of the Holy Spirit (for example, Ezekiel 36:26). However, suppose Nicodemus did not wish to confess his need. If he did not want to be reborn - to be changed - it was easy to say, "Well, I can't see it," or
"This new birth of the Spirit of which you speak, I still do not see how it can occur nor how it works." It was this attitude that brought forth Jesus' first gentle rebuke in the conversation.

Jesus' reply.

It is hard to know where this third reply of Jesus ended and where the writer of the Gospel possibly added his comment. In these notes, it will
be presumed that Jesus' reply ended at verse 15.

First part: Jesus reproached Nicodemus - John 3:10-11.

Jesus first reproached Nicodemus for his spiritual ignorance. He expressed amazement that Nicodemus, who professed to be a teacher
in Israel, was yet willfully blind to the fulfillment of prophecy, this light so plainly given to him. Mere untaught laymen- fishermen, like John, Andrew, and Peter - had early recognized in John the Baptist a man
sent from God (John 1). The first time they talked with Jesus Himself they immediately recognized Him as Messiah and openly confessed
Him (1:41,49). Yet here is a professed leader in Israel,
instructed in Old Testament prophecies, who is such a stranger to the inner working of the Holy Spirit, so spiritually ignorant, that he is unable to grasp the implication of even
the simplest earthly illustration and to respond to the very voice of God.

Jesus also reproached Nicodemus because he refused to receive
the witness of truth. When Jesus used the plural "we," He could
have meant not only Himself and His Father but also the witness of
John the Baptist and those who already had recognized in Jesus the
glory of God and had witnessed to what they knew certainly from God. Nicodemus' ignorance was culpable because he had heard
this witness but refused to receive it. Not only Nicodemus but member of the Sanhedrin, which he represents, are included in "you people."

Second part: Jesus asserted His divine authority - John

Having rebuked Nicodemus for his willful spiritual ignorance, Jesus now challenges Nicodemus and encourages him to receive
His witness by acknowledging His divine authority. Thus far, Nicodemus has only recognized Jesus as "a" teacher come from God. This is not enough. Jesus' teaching is authoritative because
He alone has come from heaven to declare heavenly things.
No man has ever ascended into heaven even as no man has ever seen God. (Compare John 1:18.) The only man who has been in
heaven and come down from heaven is Jesus, the Son of

(The words "who is in heaven" (KJV) are not included in many ancient manuscripts and may represent a later edition of comments regarding the present position of our ascended Lord.)

With these solemn words, Jesus prepared Nicodemus for the
tremendous revelation He was about to give him concerning the redemptive work of the Cross.

Third part: Jesus compared His death on the cross to the uplifted brass snake - John 3:14.

Having alerted Nicodemus to the divine importance of His teaching, Jesus then revealed how His death on the cross would
bring salvation and eternal life to all who believe. To help Nicodemus understand, Jesus referred to an Old Testament event with which Nicodemus was familiar, recorded in Numbers 21:6-9. At one
time in Israel's early history, the people rebelled against God to the extent that God allowed the entire nation to be smitten by a plague of poisonous snakes in the desert. The plague was so intense it seemed
that the entire nation would perish. In answer to their prayer for deliverance, God provided a means of healing that had a great symbolical significance, which Jesus used to speak of His cross. God commanded them to make a snake of brass (symbol of the sting of sin and death, as well as of their punishment) and to nail it high up on a pole. God then declared that everyone who gazed in faith upon that brass snake would be healed and live again. Jesus told Nicodemus that He, the Holy son of God, would be so
identified with our sin, death, and punishment, that He
would be lifted up like that snake. (Compare Isaiah 53:6, 2 Corinthians 5:21; and 1 Peter 2:24.) When the Israelites obeyed God's word in faith and looked at the snake, expecting to be healed, they did
not perish. So, when we look by faith at Jesus, God's Son, bearing both our sin and its punishment on the cross, we
"do not perish" in regard to eternal punishment (John 3:15). Not only this, the believer receives eternal life, henceforth living in the heavenly sphere of everlasting life by the energizing power of that new life. The words "so the Son of Man must be lifted up" may be said to have a twofold meaning. On the one hand, they refer to the Cross. On the other hand, they also refer to the ascension of Jesus, the Son of Man, into glory (Acts 2:33; 5:31; Philippians 2:9).

To receive eternal life is to see by faith Christ uplifted on the cross and dying for us but also raised and ascended into heaven for us where "all authority in heaven and on earth
has been given to" Him (Matthew 28:18). We believe Him to
be our Savior and our Lord, equal with God.

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