On Monday afternoon our family ventured down to Rapid City to stay at the Fairfield Inn and play in the WaTiki Waterpark, courtesy of some very generous clients. (This also doubled as our family celebration of our 13th anniversary.) Since I’m a habitually early riser I spent about an hour drinking coffee in the lobby’s breakfast area and reading and pondering over John 3 while waiting for Amy and the girls to join me. What follows are some of my observations and reflections on Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus…
If Jesus had been just another human being Nicodemus’ opening remark would have been a nice compliment. But Jesus is more than just a human being. He is also completely God. The God-man. I wonder if Jesus answered him immediately or let him squirm for a few minutes.
Jesus doesn’t even attempt to respond to the attempted compliment. Instead he does a complete redirect of the conversation by making an incredible declaration, “Unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” And Nicodemus was floored. I would have liked to have seen his face as he tried to come up with something to say at that point.
Nicodemus manages two questions at this point. “How can a man be born when he is old?” and, “Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus then answers his questions in a reverse order. Maybe I’m slow, but it took me a lot of pondering over the years to figure that one out, along with some help at one point from Don Carson’s commentary on John.
So, first answer/second question. For some reason, Nicodemus thinks that Jesus is talking about a physical birth. Jesus makes it clear that he is talking about a spiritual birth. “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” Water? I’ve heard some people say that this refers to physical birth, which would mean that Jesus is saying that we have to be born physically first before we can be born spiritually. However, consider the words of Paul in Titus 3:4-7,
But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.
Without getting too, um, deep (pun clearly intended), I’ll just state that I don’t think Jesus is referring to a physical birth when he says “water, ” but rather he’s talking about the spiritual action of regeneration (being made alive) which is performed by the Holy Spirit on or to individual people.
Jesus then makes it pretty clear in verse 6 that there is a big difference between physical birth and spiritual birth. So when Nicodemus is trying to comprehend what Jesus is talking about in terms of physical birth, Jesus clarifies for him that he is talking about spiritual birth.
Second answer/first question. I find verse 7 to be very interesting. Jesus says, “Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again,'” referring back to verse 3. But Jesus didn’t say that in verse 3. Not in those exact words anyway. What he did say was, “unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Hmm. I think what Jesus is doing is clarifying how vitally important being born again is. Someone could say, “Well, if I don’t see the kingdom of God it’s not really a big deal, so I won’t be worried about being born again.” But Jesus restates himself by saying, “You must be born again.” And if Jesus says, “You must…” you know it’s vitally important. Why is it important? Because “see[ing] the kingdom of God” is the equivalent in John’s gospel of having eternal life. And without eternal life (in the kingom of God) the only other option is eternal death, which is another way of saying eternity in hell. And there are few things more important than knowing this.
Back to Jesus’ answer to the first question, “How can a man be born when he is old?” Jesus makes an observation about the wind and says that it blows where it wants to blow, and we can hear it, but we don’t know where it came from or where it is going. It’s out of our control and almost beyond our comprehension. “So it is,” he says, “with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” To put it bluntly, the new birth is completely out of our hands and out of our control. It is from the Holy Spirit and performed by the Holy Spirit, whenever and on whomever he determines.
Nicodemus is amazed. “How can these things be?” he asks. Jesus then essentially tells him that as a teacher of the Scriptures in the nation of Israel Nicodemus should know this already. This could fill another blog post at least, so I’m going to move on to a reflection of verses 1-8, but you could check out Ezekiel 36:22-38 (especially verses 22-27) in the meantime.
Somewhere in the past century or so it occured to someone that if we must be born again then this is something we need to make happen by our own will power, by a decision that we make. After all, what’s the point of Jesus saying, “You must be born again” if it wasn’t up to us? But that line of thinking completely misses Jesus’ explanation in verses 5-8, which was that being born of the Spirit (being born again) happens by the will of the Holy Spirit, not by our own will.
Jesus’ explanation should be enough to explain this, but the rest of the Bible makes it clear that God saves people…people don’t save themselves. This is one of the major themes of the Bible, that God saves people (sinners who don’t deserve to be saved, by the way), and he does it for their good and for his glory. How he does that is through the gospel (good news) of Jesus Christ, the proclaiming of the truth that Jesus died on a cross as our substitute, so we wouldn’t have to face the wrath of God, though that is what we deserve. And that he rose again from the dead and lives forever, so that we can too. And when hell-bound haters-of-God (that’s us) hear that truth about Jesus Christ and the cross, the Holy Spirit does something in their hearts (regeneration=born again) and they respond with belief and faith, and the darkness is gone, and light, God’s light, floods their hearts, minds, and souls.
After darkness, light. And I for one am grateful that this is true.