John 3 - The New Birth
A. Nicodemus and the new birth.
1. (1-3) Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night.
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 him." Jesus answered and said to him, "Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God."
a. Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews: Nicodemus was one of those impressed by Jesus' signs (John 2:23), and a member of the ruling Sanhedrin. He was religious (of the Pharisees), educated (Nicodemus is a Greek name), and influential (a ruler). Nicodemus comes to Jesus as a representative of all men (John 2:23-25), and he represents what is high and best in men.
b. This man came to Jesus by night: Why did Nicodemus come by night? Perhaps he was timid, or perhaps he wanted an uninterrupted interview with Jesus.
c. No one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him: Is this statement of Nicodemus true? Can someone not from God do miraculous signs? The answer is "Yes," according to 2 Thessalonians 2:9 and Revelation 13:13-14.
d. Unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God: Jesus' reply to Nicodemus shatters the Jewish assumption that their racial identity - their old birth - assured them a place in God's Kingdom. Jesus makes it plain that a man's first birth does not assure him of the kingdom - only being born again gives this assurance.
i. It was taught widely among the Jews at that time that since they descended from Abraham, they were automatically assured of heaven. In fact, some Rabbis taught that Abraham stood watch at the gate of hell, just to make sure that none of his descendants accidentally wandered in there.
ii. Most Jews of that time looked for the Messiah to bring in a new world, in which the Jews would be pre-eminent. But Jesus came to bring new life, in which He would be preeminent.
e. Born again: The ancient Greek word translated again (anothen) can be also translated "from above." This is the sense in which John used this word in John 3:31 and in John 19:11 and 19:23. Either way, the meaning is essentially the same. To be born from above is to be born again.
2. (4) Nicodemus answers: How can this be?
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?"
a. How can a man be born when he is old? Nicodemus' reply may not be out of ignorance, but from thinking that Jesus means "turning over a new leaf." His question may be "How can you teach an old dog new tricks?" One way or another, Nicodemus clearly does not understand Jesus or the truth about the new birth.
b. In His description of new birth, Jesus recalls a familiar theme from Old Testament promises of the New Covenant (Deuteronomy 30:1-6, Jeremiah 23:1-8, Jeremiah 31:31-34, Jeremiah 32:37-41, Ezekiel 11:16-20, Ezekiel 36:16-28, Ezekiel 37:11-14, 37:21-28). These passages essentially make three promises in the New Covenant:
- The regathering of Israel.
- The cleansing and spiritual transformation of God's people.
- The reign of the Messiah over Israel and the whole world.
c. In Jesus' day, the common teaching among the Jewish people was that the first two aspects of the New Covenant had been fulfilled. They saw Israel regathered - at least in part - after the Babylonian exile. They saw strong spiritual movements like the Pharisees, which they believed fulfilled the promise of spiritual transformation. All they waited for was the reign of the Messiah.
i. That's why Jesus' statement about the new birth was so strange to Nicodemus. He thought that the Jewish people already had it; they certainly weren't looking for it. They only looked for a triumphant Messiah.
3. (5-8) Jesus explains the new birth.
Jesus answered, "Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the 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 the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit."
a. Most assuredly . . . you must be born again: Jesus is emphatic in saying that man does not need reformation, but a radical conversion by the Spirit of God. We must be born of water and the Spirit.
b. What does it mean to be born of water? We know from John 3:10 that whatever being born of water is, it should have been familiar to Nicodemus from the Old Testament.
i. Some have thought born of water means to be baptized. Water here may represent baptism, but there is no real Old Testament foundation for this.
ii. Some have thought that born of water refers to our physical birth, since we come forth from a sack of water. This approach is more attractive, but doesn't it simply state the obvious? However, it does make a good parallel with the idea of that which is born of the flesh in John 3:6.
iii. Some have thought that born of water means to be born again by the Word of God. In other passages of Scripture, water represents the Word, as we are washed by the water of the word (Ephesians 5:26).
iv. Some have thought that born of water means to be regenerated by the Holy Spirit, the living water of John 7:38-39.
v. Some have thought that born of water means to receive the water of cleansing prophesied in Ezekiel 36:25-28 as part of the New Covenant. This is the approach has the most weight (though it is a tough call), because of its firm connections to Old Testament prophecy - which Jesus says Nicodemus should have know to understand these things.
c. That which is born of the flesh is flesh: Without the new birth of the Spirit, all works of righteousness are tainted by the flesh. Yet, everything that a Spirit-led man does can be pleasing to God.
d. Do not marvel that I said to you, "You must be born again": Again, Nicodemus did marvel at this statement, because he - like most all Jews of his time - believed they already had the inner transformation promised in the New Covenant. Jesus wants him to take hold of the fact that he does not have it, and must be born again.
i. We should not forget whom Jesus said this to. Nicodemus was a religious leader and a Pharisee. By all outward appearance, he was already transformed unto God. If Nicodemus must be born again, what about you and I?
e. The wind blows where it wishes: Jesus' idea to Nicodemus is "You don't understand everything about the wind, but you see its effects. That is just how it is with the birth of the Spirit." Jesus wanted Nicodemus to know that he didn't have to understand everything about the new birth before he experienced it.
4. (9-13) Jesus responds to the question "how can these things be?"
Nicodemus answered and said to Him, "How can these things be?" Jesus answered and said to him, "Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not know these things? Most assuredly, I say to you, We speak what We know and testify what We have seen, and you do not receive Our witness. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of Man who is in heaven."
a. How can these things be? Nicodemus is confused. He is so set in his thinking that the new birth has already happened to him and all of faithful Israel, that he has a hard time thinking out of that "box." Jesus needs to keep explaining.
b. Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not know these things? Jesus chides Nicodemus for not being aware of the need and the promise of the new birth, because these are plainly laid out in the Old Testament. Nicodemus knew these passages well, but believed that they had been fulfilled in regard to the new birth. But he should have known better!
c. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things? A simple look at earthly things - like the illustrations Jesus used, and even a look at his own life - should have made Jesus' point plain to Nicodemus. If he can't see that he needs this spiritual transformation, what more can Jesus tell him?
d. No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven: Jesus "makes it clear that He can speak authoritatively about things in heaven, though no one else can." (Morris)
5. (14-15) Jesus and the brazen serpent.
"And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life."
a. As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness: How can the serpent of Numbers 21:4-9 be a picture of the holy Jesus?
i. Serpents are often used as pictures of evil in the Bible (Genesis 3:1-5 and Revelation 12:9). However, Moses' serpent in Numbers 21 was made of bronze, and bronze is a metal associated with judgment in the Bible, because bronze must be made by passing through the "fires" of judgment.
ii. So, a bronze serpent does speak of sin, but of sin judged. In the same way Jesus, who knew no sin became sin for us on the cross, and our sin was judged in Him. A bronze serpent is a picture of sin judged and dealt with.
iii. We would have wanted to diminish our sense of sin, and put the image of a man up on the pole. Our image of man might represent "both good and bad" in man. But a serpent is more apparently sinful, and shows us our true nature and true need of salvation.
iv. In addition, if the serpent lay horizontally on the vertical pole, it is easy to see how this also was a visual representation of the cross. However, many traditions show the serpent being wrapped around the pole, and this is the source for the ancient figure of healing and medicine - a serpent, wrapped around a pole.
v. In the Numbers 21:4-9 account, the people were saved not by doing anything, but by simply looking to the bronze serpent. They had to trust that something as seemingly foolish as looking at such a thing would be sufficient to save them, and surely, some perished because they thought it too foolish to do such a thing.
vi. As it says in Isaiah 45:22: Look to Me, and be saved, all you ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other. We might be willing to do a hundred things to earn our salvation, but God commands us to only trust in Him - to look to Him.
b. Remember that even though Jesus bore our sins, He never became a sinner. Even His becoming sin for us was a holy, righteous, act of love. Jesus remained the Holy One throughout the entire ordeal of the cross.
c. Lifted up is a term later used to describe both Jesus' crucifixion (John 12:32) and His ascension (Acts 2:33). Both meanings are in view, His suffering and exaltation. Jesus was lifted up in both ways.
d. Should not perish but have eternal life: The idea behind eternal life means much more than a long or never ending life. Eternal life does not mean that we live the life of fallen humanity, we just live it forever. Instead, eternal life also has the idea of a certain quality of life, of God's kind of life. It is the kind of life enjoyed in eternity.
6. (16-21) God's gift of salvation and sin's condemnation.
"For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved. He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. And this is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For everyone practicing evil hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But he who does the truth comes to the light, that his deeds may be clearly seen, that they have been done in God."
a. For God so loved the world: John 3:16 has long been celebrated as a powerful, succinct, declaration of the gospel. Of the 31,373 verses in the Bible, it may be the most popular single verse used in evangelism.
i. We learn the object of God's love: For God so loved the world. God did not wait for the world to turn to Him before He loved the world. He loved and gave His only begotten Son to the world when it was still the world!
ii. We learn the expression and the gift of God's love: He gave His only begotten Son. God's love didn't just feel for the plight of a fallen world. God did something about it, and He gave the most precious thing to give: His only begotten Son.
iii. We learn the recipient of God's love: Whoever believes in Him. God loves the world, but the world does not receive or benefit from that love until it believes in Jesus, the gift that the Father gave. Believes in means much more than intellectual awareness or agreement. It means to trust in, to rely on, and to cling to.
iv. We learn the intention of God's love: Should not perish. God's love actually saves man from eternal destruction. God looks at fallen humanity, does not want it to perish, and so in His love He extends the gift of salvation in Jesus Christ.
v. We learn the duration of God's love: Everlasting life. The love we receive among people may fade or turn, but God's love will never change. He will never stop loving His people, even unto the furthest distance of eternity.
b. The Seven Wonders of John 3:16.
The Almighty Authority
So loved the world
The Mightiest Motive
That He gave His only begotten Son
The Greatest Gift
The Widest Welcome
Believes in Him
The Easiest Escape
Should not perish
The Divine Deliverance
But have everlasting life
The Priceless Possession
c. What Jesus told Nicodemus in John 3:7 (You must be born again) refuted the popular Jewish idea of the way to salvation. Now Jesus refutes the popular Jewish idea of the scope of salvation is refuted: for God so loved the world.
i. The Jews of that day rarely thought that God loved the world. They thought that God only loved. The universal offer of salvation and life in Jesus was absolutely revolutionary.
d. This is the condemnation: Jesus came to bring salvation, but those who reject that salvation condemn themselves. We never need to leave the reason for anyone's condemnation at God's door. The responsibility is theirs alone.
e. Men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil: What keeps people from belief in Jesus and salvation? It is sin, or is it unbelief? Really it is both, because people will not believe because they love their sin.
i. This cuts right through many of the "intellectual" excuses or dishonest doubts some proclaim. Many opponents of Christianity have a vested interested in fighting against the truth of Jesus, because they love their sin and don't want to face it, or face a God who will judge their sin.
ii. When we think of the love of sin that sends people to hell, we often other think of notorious sin. But the simple demand to be lord of my own life is enough of a sin to deserve condemnation before God.
f. Everyone practicing evil hates the light: How do people hate the light of God's truth? Some express their hatred by actively fighting against it, and others express their hatred by ignoring God's truth - by saying to Jesus "You are not worth my time."
B. John the Baptist's final testimony about Jesus.
1. (22-30) John puts Jesus in the preeminent place.
After these things Jesus and His disciples came into the land of Judea, and there He remained with them and baptized. Now John also was baptizing in Aenon near Salim, because there was much water there. And they came and were baptized. For John had not yet been thrown into prison. Then there arose a dispute between some of John's disciples and the Jews about purification. And they came to John and said to him, "Rabbi, He who was with you beyond the Jordan, to whom you have testified; behold, He is baptizing, and all are coming to Him!" John answered and said, "A man can receive nothing unless it has been given to him from heaven. You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, 'I am not the Christ,' but, 'I have been sent before Him.' He who has the bride is the bridegroom; but the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly because of the bridegroom's voice. Therefore this joy of mine is fulfilled. He must increase, but I must decrease."
a. All are coming to Him! John's disciples seem alarmed, but it didn't bother John one bit. John would not allow envy or the fickle crowds make him forget his mission: to announce that the Messiah had come, and then to step back.
b. The friend of the bridegroom: John is the "best man" at the "wedding" between Jesus and Jesus' followers. In the Jewish wedding customs of that day, the friend of the bridegroom arranged many of the details of the wedding and brought the bride to the groom.
c. Therefore this joy of mine is fulfilled: John the Baptist lost his congregation - and he was happy about it! John was happy because he lost his congregation to Jesus.
d. He must increase, but I must decrease: This should be the motto of every Christian, especially leaders among God's people. Jesus should become greater and more visible, and the servant should become less and less visible.
2. (31-36) John's testimony about Jesus.
"He who comes from above is above all; he who is of the earth is earthly and speaks of the earth. He who comes from heaven is above all. And what He has seen and heard, that He testifies; and no one receives His testimony. He who has received His testimony has certified that God is true. For He whom God has sent speaks the words of God, for God does not give the Spirit by measure. The Father loves the Son, and has given all things into His hand. He who believes in the Son has everlasting life; and he who does not believe the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him."
a. He who comes from above: John wants everyone to know where Jesus came from. Jesus is different from everyone else because He came from heaven. Not only is Jesus different, but He who comes from heaven is above all - Jesus is greater than everyone else.
b. He whom God has sent speaks the words of God: Jesus is a uniquely reliable revelation, because He has the Holy Spirit without measure, in contrast to the previous prophets.
c. He who does not believe the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him: Because Jesus is the man from heaven, there is a heavy price to pay for rejecting Him. If you reject the Son, then you receive the wrath.
i. The wrath of God: "The word does not mean a sudden gust of passion or a burst of temper. Rather, it is the settled displeasure of God against sin. It is the divine allergy to moral evil, the reaction of righteousness to unrighteousness." (Tenney)
d. The wrath of God abides: It abides in this world, because there is there is no "statute of limitations" on sin. It abides into the next world, because those who reject Jesus cannot offer a perfect sacrifice acceptable to God. The wrath of God abides until it is satisfied by receiving the perfect payment Jesus made on the cross.
3. We might say that John 3 is a "must read" chapter of the Bible. There are three prominent "musts" in John 3.
- The Sinner's must: you must be born again (John 3:7).
- The Savior's must: so must the Son of Man be lifted up (John 3:14).
- The Sovereign's must: He must increase (John 3:30).
- The Servant's must: I must decrease (John 3:30).