Lecture 29: Nicodemus and Rebirth
Login to download lecture and curriculum
Perhaps the most common term used about Christians is being “born again,” or “reborn.” This comes from the account of the Jewish leader Nicodemus. Jesus tells him that if he is to enter God’s kingdom, he cannot get there naturally, through what he can do. Only the supernatural work of God’s Spirit in making us new — so new that it is a rebirth — can accomplish our salvation. All this is explained by the most famous verse in the Bible, John 3:16.
I. Nicodemus the Pharisee
A. Necessity of Rebirth
B. Clarification of Rebirth
C. Flesh and Spirit
III. How is This Possible?
A. "Only Son"
C. "Believes In(to)"
D. "Eternal Life"
Course: 52 Major Stories of the Bible
Nicodemus the Pharisee
The story of Nicodemus is found in John 3:1-9. At the end of the passage, verse 9, Nicodemus asked Jesus a very important question and this passage reads, “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 are a teacher come from God for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with them.' Jesus answered, '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? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?' Jesus answered, 'Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and of the Spirit he cannot enter the Kingdom of God. That which is born of flesh is flesh and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, You must be born again.' The wind blows where it wishes and you hear its sound but you do not know where it comes from nor where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit,” And here is his question that Nicodemus asks, “How can these things be?” Thankfully there is the answer to that question a few verses after that in John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son that whoever believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life.” We are on number 29 of our 52 Major Events of the Bible, looking at the story in John 3 of Nicodemus and the whole teaching of being born again.
Let’s pray. Father, we sing “How my soul longs for you, longs to worship you forever,” and it does. You have created us and you have created us with an emptiness and a longing that only you can fill. Father, we confess that this world, and we ourselves, often try to fill that longing with many things like working hard to try and earn your favor. Father, those of us who have become your children have understood that the only thing that can fill that longing is the work of your Spirit as it regenerates and renews us so that there is a place for you. Father, we pray this morning that if there is anyone here who has that empty longing, that pit in their stomach, that is looking everywhere except to you to fill it, we pray that like Nicodemus they will understand your message of rebirth. In Jesus Name, Amen.
Well, at the end of Chapter 2 in the Gospel of John Jesus is down in Jerusalem. He has been going to the Passover and performing many miracles, or "signs," as John calls them. One of the people who saw these signs was a man named Nicodemus and we read about him in John chapter 3 starting at verse 1. “Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews and this man came to Jesus by night and said to him, 'Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God for no one can do these things that you do unless God is with them.'” Nicodemus was a Pharisee. He was one of the Jewish leaders and, in fact, in Chapter 7 we find that he was one of the 70 Jewish leaders who made up the Sanhedrin, the official body that ran the nation. He has seen Jesus’ signs. He understands that there is something special about Jesus, and so he comes to meet with him and to talk with him. When they start to talk, Jesus steps through, as it were, Nicodemus’s accurate and yet incomplete assessment of who Jesus is. Jesus understands that while Nicodemus has come with his flattery, he understands that there is a deeper question in Nicodemus’ heart. It is interesting that while Nicodemus never actually asks the question, in verse 3 Jesus answers it.
Necessity of Rebirth
Jesus answered him: “Truly I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the Kingdom of God.” As a Pharisee, Nicodemus would have believed that we live in this present age that is going to come to an end when the Messiah comes. The Messiah is going to come and through the power of God and is going to set up the Kingdom of God on earth. As a Pharisee, Nicodemus would have believed that you entered the Kingdom by being obedient to the Law, or at least to parts of the Law. In essence, in answering the unasked question, Jesus repeats the message of John’s Baptism, that you cannot move smoothly into God’s Kingdom. He repeats the message of John’s Baptism but uses a new image, the image of being born again. It is actually imagery that is built on something that was said earlier in John 1:10-13. John says, “Jesus was in the world and the world was made through him, and yet the world did not know him. He came to his own and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God. Children who were born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but born of God.” Being born again is being born of God, becoming a child of God. Rather than earning admission to God's Kingdom, which Nicodemus was trying to do, Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must start from scratch. A start that is so radical that it is a new birth. A start that is so radical that it is being born, but this second time, being born of God. Without this radically new beginning, Nicodemus will never see, he will never experience, he will never enter the Kingdom of God.
Clarification of Rebirth
Well, Nicodemus does not get it. He does not understand it and Nicodemus said to him in verse 4, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Nicodemus does not understand the metaphor, nor does he understand the need for a radically new beginning. So Jesus clarifies the meaning of the metaphor in verse 5 and He emphasizes that this rebirth, this being born again, involves spiritual repentance and spiritual renewal. Verse 5: "Jesus answered 'Truly, truly I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the Kingdom of God.' ” Remember John’s prophecy, “I baptize with water but there is one who is coming after me who is greater than I and he will baptize you with his Holy Spirit and with fire.” Verse 5 is a reference back to John’s prophecy, that rebirth is first of all a matter of being born of water. That you must undergo the waters of repentance; you must repent. And then being born of the Spirit is being born of the Holy Spirit, which is a reference to Jesus’ baptism of regeneration and renewal. Jesus is saying to Nicodemus that in order to be part of the Kingdom of God you must first of all experience the cleansing power of God’s spirit in repentance, that when you agree with God that you are a sinner, when you agree that sin has separated you from God, then God does his work of cleansing you from your sin but along with the cleansing power we must also experience the renewing power of that same Spirit, the Baptism by Spirit and Fire which regenerates us and which gives us a new beginning. It allows us to start life over.
Flesh and Spirit
Jesus continues the discussion in verse 6 by emphasizing the difference between flesh and spirit. He says, “that which is born of the flesh is flesh and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” Flesh is that worldly existence into which we all came when we were born physically. Spirit is the realm of salvation. Spirit is the realm of Life and it is the realm that is only available to those who have been born again. By emphasizing the difference between these two realms, Jesus is telling Nicodemus us that we cannot grow, we cannot smoothly evolve from the realm of flesh into the realm of the Spirit. The only way to get from the realm of earthly existence, the flesh, into the realm of Spirit where there is Life, is through the work of God’s Spirit. We cannot do it to ourselves, only God’s Spirit can do it. This is why all works religions are wrong. It does not matter how many times you knock on doors. It does not matter how much money you give. It does not matter how many times you go to church. If these are all things that you are doing to try to do to earn favor with God so that you can wave your ticket in his face when we stand before the Judgment Seat and say, “I did this and I didn’t do that, and you owe me,” you will fail. It is simply not possible to move from the realm of flesh to the realm of the Spirit by our own efforts.You cannot walk smoothly, by your own effort, out of the world into which we were naturally born into the realm of Spirit where there is true Life and forgiveness and salvation. Jesus wants to drive this point home, and in verses 7 and 8 he says, “Do not marvel that I said to you, You must be born again. [Jesus is not backing down at all. The Greek is actually getting more and more specific. It is absolutely essential, that you must be born again.] Then he says, “The wind blows where it wishes and you hear its sound but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes and so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” I am one of those people who cannot stand puns. It is not because there is anything inherently wrong with them, I just cannot come up with them and therefore I think it is the lowest form of humor. The problem is that all the way through the Gospel of John Jesus is “punning” all over the place, and this is one of the greatest puns because the word for “wind” is also the word for “Spirit,” the word for “blows” is also the word for “breaths out” or “speaks” and the word for “sound” is also the word for “voice”. So Jesus is saying that “wind blows where it wishes and you hear its sound, the Spirit speaks where he wishes and you hear its voice, but you do not know where he comes from or where he goes. This is the way it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” In other words, rebirth is not a natural phenomenon. It is a mysterious work of God’s Spirit. We do not fully understand it, yet it is as real as the very wind we feel on our faces.
In our “Essence Statement” we say that “we are a people pursuing God in Spirit and truth.” We are people who have come to some understanding of the working of God’s Spirit in our life, that he has changed us, he has made us new, he has given us rebirth, and it is by the power of that very Spirit that we live out our lives as children of God. Well, Nicodemus gets through this part of the discussion and he still does not get it. In verse 9 he kind of throws up his hands and says, “How can these things be?” I just do not get it, Jesus.
How is This Possible?
Jesus goes into a discussion which leads eventually to verse 16 where Jesus tells Nicodemus (and us) how all of this is possible.“For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life.” Not only the most famous verse in the Bible, but probably the most famous sentence in all of history. God made the world. He loved the world. He gave his son for the world. And his son will in turn die for the world, for the sins of the world, so that those who have placed their trust in Jesus will be able to live with God. And be able to live with Him forever.
God so loved the world that he gave his only son. God’s love lead him to treat us, not as we deserve, but because he is a God of grace who treats us with unmerited favor, God gave his only son. Jesus has no heavenly brothers. The Mormons are wrong. Jesus has no peers. The world religions are wrong. Jesus, and Jesus alone, is the only son of God. He is the unique son of God and therefore he, and he alone, opens up the pathway with access to the Father and access to forgiveness of sins, and access to that relationship with God that we so deeply yearn for. Jesus says, “I am the way, I am the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me!” Jesus is God’s only son. The only means to forgiveness and salvation and he was given, not because we deserve it but because God is the God of Grace.
For God so loved the world that he gave his only son that whoever believes in him. It was because God loved the world that he offers salvation to all. The offer of rebirth is not limited to one group of people. It is not for the rich only. It is not only for the white, for the intelligent, for the beautiful people. It is for all people and it must be offered to all people. That is why the cross is sufficient to cover all our sins. There is no one outside the scope of Christ’s forgiveness. There is no one outside the scope of God’s salvation. When he extends the offer and says “whoever,” then we can know that the death on the cross was sufficient to pay the price of the sins for all who will believe in him. The offer of rebirth is to be given to all, yet it is only for those who believe in Jesus who are given the right to become the Children of God.
This phrase “believe in” is an interesting phrase in John. It is a term that is quite difficult to define with any kind of clarity and precision because it is a mystical term, and those terms defy exact definition. What does it mean to say “whoever believes in Jesus”? It certainly includes belief. It certainly believes intellectual assent. It includes believing the facts. Jesus is the Christ. He died on the cross for my sins. Believing in Jesus certainly involves just believing the facts, but that is not saving faith, is it? Because even the demons believe, and they shudder (James 2:19). There is no question when you read the Gospels. The demons know exactly who Jesus is. They never call him a prophet or a good person. They call him the Holy one of God! They know who he is. Believing in Jesus certainly includes that, but it has to be more than that, or less we are no better than the demons. Believing in Jesus includes the idea of “coming to faith.” When we believe in Him, it means that there was a time when we initially submitted ourselves to God’s rule, that we entered the Kingdom, that we raised our hand at Camp, that we said the sinner’s prayer. That certainly is part of it because you cannot be in the Kingdom without getting into the Kingdom. You cannot be a disciple without becoming a disciple. So certainly believing in Jesus involves that initial giving of yourself to Him. But “believe in” means more than that. “Believe in” is a rather poor translation. There is no other way to do it, really. It is a pretty poor translation of a phrase that actually is “believe into,” so that whoever believes into Him. Jesus is breaking Greek grammar very, very badly. This is horrible grammar in Greek. In fact, in all the Greek literature of all time, we cannot find any example of someone making this mistake. It is not a common grammatical error; it is a horrible Greek error and that is the point. We do this sometimes when we speak, don’t we? Sometimes we alter the order of words in a sentence, sometimes we break grammar because we want to make a point. That is exactly what Jesus is doing. It is whoever believes into Jesus. Biblical belief is no longer believing in ourselves, but Biblical belief is transferring our trust out of ourselves and transferring it into the person of Jesus Christ. One writer says “faith, or belief, is an activity which takes us right outside ourselves and makes us one with Christ.” Believing ''into'' Him. Elsewhere, John calls it “receiving Jesus," or he calls it “abiding in Jesus.” These are all the same things. At the end of the Gospel, in John Chapter 20, John is laying out the purpose for which he has written the Book and there are two verbal tenses that are used to teach this precise point. John writes, in Chapter 20 starting at verse 30, “Now Jesus did many other signs in he presence of the disciples which are not written in this book, but these are written so that you may believe [and the tense of that verb indicates the fact that there is a point in time in which they have come to believe, they have come to agree on certain things. They have agreed that Jesus is the Christ. They have agreed that Jesus is the Son of God.] and that by believing [and the Greek is explicit. This is day in and day out. This is life. This is following. This is being a disciple] you may have life in his name.” Biblical belief is no longer believing in ourselves, but transferring our trust out of ourselves into Jesus Christ.
As you go elsewhere in the New Testament you will see the different writers struggling with the same idea, and they tend to use different metaphors to do so. Paul, for example, calls it “being in Christ,” and again it is a mystical concept that in some way we are joined, we are with Christ, we are with him in his death and we are with him in his resurrection. In Colossians 3:3 Paul talks about the fact that our “life is hidden with Christ.” In Galatians 2:20 Paul says, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is not longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.” These are all different ways of saying what John is saying when he says “whoever believes into Him.” We have moved our trust out of ourselves and we have thrown ourselves into the merciful arms of God and there we lie, fully trusting him for everything including forgiveness, salvation and for life itself. This is what it means to believe into Jesus. This is what is so wrong with what I am going to start calling “Event Christianity.” I need a label and this is the best one. This is what is so wrong with “Event Christianity”, or what other people call “Easy Believism”: The idea that the only thing that matters is that one time event of saying “I believe” and then thinking that there is nothing else to being a follower of Jesus Christ. True biblical, saving faith moves us out of ourselves and into the person of Jesus Christ, mystically joined with him and we become his child and we live as his child, his follower, his disciple. To believe into Jesus is to abide in him, to live in him, to be joined to him, to no longer trust in ourselves for forgiveness, salvation and life but to take everything we are and transfer it into him and to place all our trust into him. For God so loved the world that he gave his only son so that whomever believes into him will not perish but will have eternal life.
The phase translated “eternal life” is another one of those annoying phrases in Greek that simply has no parallel in English. It is difficult because we tend to think of the word “eternal” in the sense of time, that it is going to go on forever and ever. We go to Heaven and it is never going to end. “When we have been there 10,000 years, bright shining as the sun, we will have no less days to sing God’s praise than when we first begun.”We tend to think of Heaven as something that just keeps going and going. While that is certainly part of it, the phase translated “eternal life” is more literally and awkwardly translated “life of the age.” It means that we will not perish but we will experience the “life of the age.” Now, what does that mean? The Bible thinks in terms of two ages, two epochs, and that we live in this current age and there is going to be an end to this time. When God’s Messiah comes back the final time, then we are ushered into another age, the final age, sometimes called the Messianic Age. It is technically called the Eschatological Age. Although it will last forever, the emphasis is on the fact that it is a different kind of age. The emphasis is on quality and not quantity. So the life that you and I experience here and now and the life that we are going to experience after we die is not just an eternal life, but it is a radically different kind of life. In 17:3, when Jesus is praying to God his Father, He tells us what the essence of eternal life is, the essence of the “age to come.” Jesus prays, “And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God and [understood] they know Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” The essence of eternal life is relationship. The essence of the life of the age is to know God, to know his son Jesus Christ, and to live within that context and all the wonders and the blessings that come with it. John is telling us that we can enjoy, we can possess, the quality of life of the age to come right now, that when we enter the Kingdom of God, when we have eternal life, then we have that relationship and know God.
Look how Jesus ends this discussion in verse 36, this is his culmination of rebirth and entering the Kingdom of God, “whoever believes into the Son has eternal life.” It is something that we have right now, and it is the blessings of the age to come that has partially broken into this present age and so that we are currently with Christ and we are in Christ and we are enjoying many of the benefits of that age to come. John later calls it “abundant life,” “I came that they might have life and have it abundantly.” In John 6:35 Jesus says, “Whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” That is not all just temporal stuff. This is quality of life. This is the kind of life that belongs to the age to come, but for you and me who have believed into Jesus it, in part, is now our possession and we get to enjoy that kind of life. Sure, there are still hurts and pains. We still live in a sinful world, we still battle with the flesh, we battle with the sin, and yet, even in the midst of the hurts and pains, there is a joy that is deeper than circumstances, because the power of the age to come, through the work of Jesus Christ and God’s Spirit, has come in, has given us new life and we get to enjoying knowing God. Not only do we get it now, but we get even more of it after we die. We will see Him then, face to face, and we will know him in a way that we cannot possibly know him now. We will enjoy knowing God and knowing Jesus Christ in a way that we can only anticipate with joy here and now. The doors of the Kingdom of God stand open. God made you. He loves you. A relationship with Him, knowing Him, is the only answer there is to the deepest longing in your heart. That longing cannot be filled with money or prestige or power or advancement or starting on the high school basketball team or sex or drugs or any addiction. Because those are all things of the flesh and the flesh can never move by itself into the things of the Spirit and the only way that that deep longing is going to be satisfied is by allowing God’s Spirit to radically change you. It begins with an admission of sin. It begins with an admission that I have done wrong and I need to repent of what I have done wrong. I have to agree with God that I am separated from Him. I have to believe that Christ’s death on the cross is sufficient to pay for all my sins. It begins by believing into Jesus, of trusting him wholly for forgiveness and for life.
When God’s Spirit gives you new birth out of water and new birth out of the Spirit, he is making you into something that you have never been before because he is regenerating you and he is renewing you and you and I live out our lives as his children, as reborn children of God. And we can live a quality of life that is unlike anything that the world has to offer. And all the while we live, we live looking forward to someday when we will see our Lord, face to face, and we will be changed from one degree of glory into another until we look like him. That is the message of rebirth.
Let’s pray. Father, there are so many things that try to make us believe that we can move out of the realm of flesh and into the realm of the Spirit all by ourselves, of doing things to earn entrance into your Kingdom. But Father, we confess that that which is born of the flesh is flesh and it will be nothing but flesh and it will die flesh, and that the only avenue into the realm of the Spirit, the realms of forgiveness and salvation, the only way to satisfy the deepest longing in our heart, is to know you and the power of your resurrection. Father, we are thankful that in your grace and mercy you loved us. That while we were yet sinners you died for us, and that by believing in your name, into your name, we can experience a life of the Spirit that is not available to the flesh. Father, we thank you that you have done the work, because if you had not done it we could never get there. You call us to respond, and we pray this morning, Father, that we will respond. In Jesus' name, Amen.
One of the greatest privileges I have ever had is being born to Bob and Jean Mounce. I could not imagine any other parents. But that privilege is nothing compared to the privilege of being born by God’s Spirit into His family and being His child. I trust that no one here will leave here without knowing God as your Father.
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16).
- What are some practical illustrations of how people think they can move smoothly into God’s kingdom?
- Being “born again” is such a common metaphor that people often forget how powerful an image it is. What are some ways in which you can be reminded of its basic message — that life must start over?
- What are some examples of God’s cleansing power in conversion?
- What are some examples of God’s renewing power in conversion?
- How can we help people see that they can never move from flesh to spirit without God?
- How can we help people think of “believing in(to)” Christ not as an isolated event but more in terms of “abiding” in Christ?
- What characteristics of the “life of the age” do you most relish on earth? Which ones do you look forward to the most in heaven?