Read: John 3:1-17
Just like currency, language can suffer from inflation, but it’s no exaggeration to say that John 3 is the most important chapter in the Bible.
Here’s the story of one of the most important encounters with Jesus in the entire New Testament. It comes from the third chapter of the gospel of John.
Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him.” In reply Jesus declared, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.” “How can a man be born when he is old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born!” Jesus answered, “. . . You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. . . . So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” “How can this be?” Nicodemus asked. “You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? . . . Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. (John 3:1-17, NIV)
Just like currency, language can suffer from inflation as a result of chronic exaggeration. When we aren’t content to use simple, accurate words to describe something we have to reach for superlatives. So a meal can’t just be “good” or an experience “enjoyable” or a performance “entertaining.” They have to be “fabulous” or “terrific” or “fantastic.” As a result, words can lose their impact, and when something happens that really is fantastic, we scarcely know how to convey it. But I think that the encounter between Jesus and the Jewish elder Nicodemus can be described, without any exaggeration, as the most significant in the Bible. It includes both the most important personal requirement in the Bible (v. 3) and the most important statement of truth in the Bible (v. 16).
A Stealth Visit
Jesus spoke these words to Nicodemus, a Jerusalem V.I.P. We’re told three personal details about him that, taken together, underscore his prominence. First, Nicodemus was a Pharisee, which means he was part of the strict conservative movement within the Jewish people. Second, he was a member of the Sanhedrin or ruling body of elders; thus he was part of the religious and political elite in Jerusalem. Third, he was himself a rabbi, or a theologian in our terms; Jesus calls him “a teacher of Israel.” So Nicodemus was clearly a man of distinction and importance.
This man wanted to talk to Jesus, so he came to visit Jesus one night. A nocturnal meeting gives the impression of stealth and secrecy. Was Nicodemus afraid, given his position, of being seen talking to the radical young rabbi from Galilee? But though timid, this man was apparently a sincere seeker after truth, and so he came to try to learn more about who Jesus really was. Moreover, John the gospel writer is always sensitive to the symbolism of light and darkness, and the fact that Nicodemus approached Jesus by night enables John to show him coming out of the darkness into the light of Jesus’ presence.
Nicodemus was initially attracted to Jesus by the miraculous signs that attested to Jesus’ divine origin (v.2). Genuinely impressed by the miracles Jesus has been performing, Nicodemus opens the conversation politely. “Rabbi, we know you are a teacher sent by God.” Now, I don’t know who Nicodemus is speaking for here besides himself, but that was definitely not the view of most of the Pharisees. They did not think Jesus was a teacher from God. If anything, the typical Pharisee thought just the opposite that Jesus had come from the devil! Nicodemus is different. He’s attracted to Jesus, and wants to know more about him. So he begins their talk respectfully, no doubt with the intention of engaging in an interesting theological discussion rabbi to rabbi, so to speak. But Jesus stops Nicodemus rather abruptly. “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again” (v. 3). That brings us face to face with the most crucial demand any human being faces.
“You Must Be Born Again”
That Jesus intended his startling words to Nicodemus to be taken personally is clear from the way he repeats them later as a straight command: “You must be born again.” That imperative describes the necessary requirement for salvation. The only way to eternal life (to “see the kingdom of God,” in Jesus’ terms) is through the new birth; according to no less an authority than Jesus Christ, you and I must be born again. It is possible to reach heaven without many things. You can get there without rank or social distinction, without fame, without education, without money (in fact, wealth is one of the biggest obstacles to entering God’s kingdom). But no one will ever be saved without having this happen. The redeemed in heaven will differ in many respects. They will come from different cultures, races, and social classes, they will speak different languages, have lived in different historical eras. Heaven’s citizens will not look alike or sound alike, they will have different lives, personalities and abilities. In that population brilliant scholars will stand beside illiterate beggars, and saints and mystics will mingle with murderers and thieves. But they will all have this in common: everyone there will have experienced the new birth. The company of heaven will consist exclusively of the “born-again.”
Think for a moment about the person to whom these words were addressed. This was not Zacchaeus the tax-collector, or the woman taken in adultery, or the thief on the cross; this was Nicodemus: solid citizen, religious leader, Israel’s teacher! “Nicodemus, you must be born again!” It’s not enough to be a decent, law-abiding person, or even a religious one. We are all lost sinners who can only be saved through a miracle of inward regeneration. A contemporary of John Wesley’s, annoyed at the great evangelist’s unwavering insistence upon conversion, asked him why he preached so often on the text “You must be born again.” “Because you must be born again,” was Wesley’s simple reply. So must we all, whether we were born into Christian homes and raised in the church, or whether we have never heard the name of Jesus in our lives.
The reason that the new birth is a universal necessity is that every human being is by nature spiritually dead, that is, dead with respect to God and the things of his Spirit. We are born in sin and at enmity with God, as the apostle Paul says in Romans; we are dead in trespasses and sins, as he writes to the Ephesians. This seems an overly harsh assessment of the human condition to many, perhaps most, people. Most people assume that nothing much more than a good try is needed in order to be saved if even that! But of course for them to be right, Jesus would have to be wrong.
The question then naturally arises, how does this new birth work? If I must be born again in order to be saved, how do I do that? Nicodemus himself asked Jesus about this, and his question needs an answer. Jesus offers one, but it is an answer that still may leave us as perplexed as Nicodemus was. Jesus explains that being born again requires the work of God’s Spirit. He speaks about the Holy Spirit’s role in the new birth. People must be born “from above,” says Jesus to Nicodemus, through the working of the Spirit within them. This power is mysterious and unexplainable, like the blowing of the wind which no one sees and no one can predict or control. But it is real and unmistakable. The Spirit of God himself works a great inward change in us, and as a result we are made alive spiritually and become responsive to him, we are filled with new faith and love for Christ, and we find ourselves brimming over with a new life that produces new habits, ambitions and pursuits. That is what it means to be born again, to be “born from above” by the power of God’s Spirit.
“God So Loved the World”
But now observe what comes next. You might think that, having just shown the absolute necessity of the new birth and having plainly stated that no one can possibly be saved without it, Jesus would go on to urge Nicodemus (and everybody else) to do everything they can to make sure they are born again. The logical application of this truth would be to make seeking the new birth our highest priority in life. But Jesus does not tell us to do this. The fact is, regeneration new birth through the work of the Holy Spirit is something we cannot bring about for ourselves. It is as utterly beyond our control as is the wind (v. 8). We can no more cause ourselves to be spiritually reborn than we can cause the wind to blow where we want it to. No wonder Nicodemus was mystified by Jesus’ words.
The Bible never commands us directly to be born again because that is something that lies outside our ability. What it does tell us to do in fact urges us to do is to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. Faith does not lie completely outside us; it is something we do. We are enabled to believe by the Spirit’s power, but nevertheless, we do the believing. That is why Jesus leads up to the subject of faith at the conclusion of his conversation with Nicodemus about.
“For God so loved the world he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” That’s John 3:16; the most familiar verse in the Bible. Perhaps too familiar; do you understand what it’s really saying? Well, it says that God loves the world, and that he gave his Son, and that those who believe in him will have eternal life. All of this is here. But what John 3:16 really does is answer a specific question, namely, how much God loves. Listen again, carefully: this is how much God loves the world (that is, the people of the world, including you and me!) He loves us so much that he gave his only Son for us. In a sense, you cannot measure the love of God. It is infinite, as high as the heavens are above the earth; it is eternal, from everlasting to everlasting. But in another sense you can measure God’s love by the same standard as anyone else’s: by how much it is willing to give. The more you are willing to give, the bigger the sacrifice you will make for your beloved, the greater your love. If you want to know how much God loves, look at what he gave.
If you know this truth about God, if you have grasped and understood it, can you do anything but believe it? Can any human be so indifferent as to realize in the depths of their heart that God has given his only Son for them, and still reject that gift of love? I don’t see how.
I certainly don’t understand everything about the mystery of the new birth. I’m not sure how it happens. But I am certain that one sign of its beginning is when you become conscious of God’s immense love for you, and can’t help but respond by loving and trusting him in return.