STUDY 4: JOHN 3 - NICODEMUS

© Rosemary Bardsley 2009

John introduces Nicodemus as:

      • A Pharisee
      • A member of the Jewish ruling council [the Sanhedrin]
      • A person who acknowledged Jesus as ‘Rabbi’ [teacher]
      • A person who, on the basis of Jesus’ miraculous signs, knew [along with his associates] that Jesus, as a teacher, had come from God and that God was with him.

But Nicodemus’ statement ‘We know …’ did not satisfy Jesus. Although Nicodemus’ professed knowledge was not inaccurate, it was insufficient, inadequate. It was not the kind of knowledge that produces genuine faith, because faith, real biblical faith, is grounded in specific knowledge that can only be understood by those whom God has regenerated.

 

A. WHAT NICODEMUS DID NOT KNOW

Three times in the ensuing conversation Jesus introduced his statements with the solemn and emphatic phrase ‘Truly, truly, I say to you’ [amen, amen, lego soi], translated in the NIV as ‘I tell you the truth’]. Jesus turns the conversation in a way that highlights Nicodemus’ deep spiritual ignorance and deep spiritual poverty, pointing out that there were several significant things that Nicodemus simply does not know:

A.1 He does not know that he needs spiritual regeneration [3:3,5,6,7,8]

In Jesus’ statements [3 & 5] ‘unless he is born …’ comes first, attracting the focus and emphasis. Unless a person is born again [or, from above]’ … Even this Pharisee, this leader of the Jews, this person who sees the miracles and concludes that God must be with Jesus, stands in need of the life-giving, life-changing action of the Spirit of God.

He does not know that, left to himself, he is spiritually dead. He does not even realise that because he is spiritually dead he cannot see beyond the boundaries of ‘the flesh’. He does not understand that he actually has no life-giving connection with God. He does not comprehend the truth expressed by Paul in Ephesians 2:1,5 and Romans 5:17: that he and all the rest of us, are locked in this ‘death’, from which we have no hope of achieving our own release.

A.2 He does not understand the kingdom of God [3:3]

Jesus statement ‘no one can see the kingdom of God ’ is not simply about Nicodemus. It is about the sheer impossibility of anyone, left alone by God, seeing God’s kingdom. The Greek text has the words ‘ou dunatai’ – it is not possible. It is not within the power of the unregenerated person, to see the kingdom of God . He may physically hear words about God’s kingdom, but he cannot see their meaning. He cannot see the spiritual reality that is the kingdom.

This sheer impossibility of any person, left to themselves by God, understanding real spiritual truth, is taught in other Scripture texts:

How do these texts identify the impossibility of any human being, left alone by God, coming to an understanding of true spiritual truth?

Matthew 11:25-27

 

 

Matthew 16:17

 

 

1Cor 2:8-9

 

 

1Cor 2:14

 

 

A.3 He does not realise that he is operating/thinking on the basis of ‘flesh’ [3:4,6,9]

Nicodemus is earthbound. His thinking is the thinking of the ‘flesh’. He operates on the basis and in the realm of what he can see. His physically oriented reply in verse 4 and his acknowledged spiritual ignorance in verse 9 reveal the limits of his perspective. Although he does not identify with the evil actions of the world, yet he is locked into the flesh-based perspectives of the world.

Identify key words or phrases or concepts from these verses describe or refer to the mindset of the person who has not been ‘born again’.

John 3:10-11

 

Romans 1:21,22

 

1Cor 1:18 -23

 

1Cor 3:19 -20

 

Galatians 1:4

 

Galatians 4:3

 

Galatians 4:8-9

 

Gal 6:13-15

 

Ephesians 2:2

 

Ephes 4:17-18

 

Colossians 2:8

 

Colossians 2:20

 

A.4 He does not know how to enter the kingdom of God [3:5]

Just as it is impossible for anyone who is not born again to see the kingdom of God , so also it is impossible for a person who is not born again to enter the kingdom of God [3:5]. Jesus uses the same serious expression – amen, amen lego soi, and the same expression of impossibility – ou dunatai, as in verse 3. Nicodemus must be brought to understand that he, and all the rest of us, cannot enter God’s kingdom – that it is impossible for us to enter God’s kingdom - without this essential and indispensable action of God: that he must regenerate us.

From the perspective of Nicodemus, the Pharisee, the teacher of Israel , entry to the kingdom was not dependent on God’s action but on human action: on physical descent from Abraham and on keeping the Law, including the ritual law.

In verse 7 Jesus moves from the general statement ‘no one can …’ to the confrontational challenge: ‘You must be born again’ and the exclusive and unavoidable directive ‘You must be born again.’ It is the only way. Unless this happens you are outside of the kingdom of God . You must enter the kingdom by being born again.

How urgently Jesus is trying to impact Nicodemus with this critical necessity of being born again!

It is obvious that Nicodemus does not realise that this regenerating action of the Spirit of God is essential for a person to understand and to enter the kingdom of God . It is obvious that o nly this action of God can bring about the spiritual transformation that is essential for entry into the kingdom.

And here we must face the urgent question:

 

B. WHAT DOES THIS ACTUALLY MEAN: TO BE ‘BORN AGAIN’?

The Greek verbs translated ‘born’ [verse 8], ‘is born’ [verse 3,5], ‘be born’ [verses 4,7] and ‘gives birth’ [verse 6] all derive from gennao the normal word for being born. The word translated ‘again’ is anothen, which literally means ‘from above’ [ano = above].

This term ‘from above’ identifies the distinction between normal physical birth and the birth necessary to see and enter the kingdom of God . From the context in John 3 we find this spiritual birth expressed by the following phrases:

  • From above [anothen], commonly translated as ‘again’ but literally meaning ‘from above’ [verse 3,7]. This phrase points to God as the source and origin of this birth.

[The only other biblical reference to being ‘born again’ is found in 1Peter 1:23 : ‘For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God.’ Here a different word is used: anagennao [ana - again + gennao – to be born. While anothen – from above points to the source of this new birth, anagennao – born again points to the fact that this is a second birth, distinct from the first physical birth. This entire verse clearly teaches the spiritual and divine source of this second birth.]

  • Of water and the Spirit [verse 5]. This inclusion of ‘of water’ in this phrase has generated much controversy.

Leon Morris [pp215-218] mentions three divergent interpretations:

[1] That ‘water’ is a reference to ‘purification’ from sin [ceremonial cleansing], and therefore by inference to the baptism of John the Baptist, which was essentially a baptism of repentance. Jesus’ statement would mean that entry to the kingdom depended on repentance from sin [submission to John’s baptism] and acceptance of the message of Jesus Christ [a message of new life imparted by the Spirit].

[2] That ‘water’ refers to physical procreation, because Rabbinic literature quite often refers to male semen as ‘water’, ‘rain’, ‘dew’ and similar terms. On a simple level this interpretation understands ‘water’ to refer to normal physical birth, which is common to everyone, and ‘Spirit’ to refer to the spiritual birth which is essential for life in the kingdom. On a deeper level, some who understand ‘water’ to thus refer to physical birth see it not as a reference to a person’s actual physical birth but as a symbol for ‘spiritual seed’, so that to be ‘born of water and the Spirit’ is a double-barrelled reference [one symbolic and one literal] to the vital role of the Holy Spirit in bringing a person to spiritual life in the kingdom. [Leon Morris prefers this interpretation.]

[3] That ‘water’ refers to the rite of Christian baptism. This opinion is difficult to support on two grounds: firstly, that the rite of Christian baptism was not in place at the time of Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus; secondly, that such an interpretation makes salvation dependent on the individual’s participation in this rite, while the whole point of Jesus’ teaching focuses on the unseen, incomprehensible activity of the Holy Spirit.

The water and the Spirit are also referred to in Titus 3:5: ‘he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done,’ [that is not by flesh] ‘but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and the renewal by the Holy Spirit’ [that is, by the Holy Spirit bringing us to new spiritual birth.] We must be careful here to note that this ‘rebirth’ is not brought about by ‘the washing’ but rather that the ‘rebirth’ actually is ‘the washing’. Paul is not here recommending any form of ritual washing as the instrument of regeneration, but teaching that this new spiritual birth brings into effect the cleansing that was symbolically anticipated in the ritual washings. To teach that the new birth results from ‘washing’ is to put its cause back onto the flesh – a cause from which Jesus is deliberately removing it. Paul also in this verse, deliberately removes the rebirth from anything that we have done. The symbolic ritual washings stand for Paul in stark contrast to the generously ‘poured out’ Holy Spirit [verses 5,6] by whom this new birth, this ‘washing’, has been accomplished.

We need to remember here also, that John has already made a deliberate distinction between being baptised in water, and being baptised with the Holy Spirit [John 1:31 ,33].

      • Spirit gives birth to spirit [verse 6]. Jesus puts this fact in clear contrast with ‘Flesh gives birth to flesh’. The only reality that flesh can produce is flesh. The spiritual ‘ kingdom of God ’ can only be entered by that which is ‘spirit’ [1Corinthians 15:50 ], which can only be generated by the Holy Spirit.
      • Of the Spirit [verse 8]. Jesus here comes right to the point and identifies the Holy Spirit as the One who brings about this spiritual ‘birth’ of which he has been speaking. From this we conclude that God’s kingdom can only be seen and can only be entered by a person whom God has brought from a state of spiritual death into a state of spiritual life.

From this point on in John’s Gospel Jesus makes no further mention of being born again, or being born of the Spirit, nor does he mention the kingdom [except in his defense in 18:36], but he does mention repeatedly the fact that he came so that we might have ‘life’ or ‘eternal life’. This reference to people obtaining life or eternal life commences in John 3 and continues powerfully right through to the end of Christ’s ministry. We can reasonably assume that when Jesus refers to ‘eternal life’ and ‘life’ he is talking about the same reality that here in John 3:3-8 he refers to as ‘the kingdom of God’, and that when he identities believing in him as the essential criterion for gaining ‘life’, this ‘believing’ refers, from a different perspective, to the same transformation as being ‘born of the Spirit’.

The transformation that is called being born again actually is itself entry into and possession of the kingdom. To be born of the Spirit is to be given eternal life; to possess eternal life is to enter the kingdom. See 2 Corinthians 5:17, where this ultimate change has taken place: the old dynamic of the flesh [see verse 16 in the Greek text] has gone; the new dimension of the Spirit has begun. It is a whole new world. A whole new reality. It is life in ‘the kingdom of God ’.

While we do not find in the New Testament any other references than those noted above to being born again, or being born of the Spirit, we do find significant references to being ‘born of God’. Interestingly, they are all in John’s writings.

What do these texts teach about the agent of spiritual birth?

John 1:13

 

1John 2:29

 

1John 3:9

 

1John 4:7

 

1John 5:1

 

1John 5:4

 

1John 5:18