John 3:1-17.
Jesus, The One Way to New Birth

      American Journal of Biblical Theology, www.biblicaltheology.com
Copyright © 2013, John W. (Jack) Carter     Scripture quotes from KJV


Since the dawn of man, he has sought God.  Every civilization, modern or ancient, has shown strong evidence of this search.  The reason for this is simple:  man was created in God's image, with an eternal spirit that has the capacity to have a relationship with God.  “There is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of every person, and it can never be filled by any created thing. It can only be filled by God, made known through Jesus Christ.”[1]  All people have a need that only God can fill.  Consequently, man has always been obsessed with filling that need, and has sought to do so through limitless methods.  One common method has been to recognize that God is good, and to try to be good enough to be acceptable to God.  This method of works-based theology, one that tells man how he can get to God, is the predominant non-Christian doctrine.  However, man is sinful[2] and will never match the perfection of God, and will never by his own works be worthy to have a relationship with God. 

God's plan was that, because man cannot reach Him through religion, He would reach down to man and provide a way to establish a relationship with mankind through the vehicle of faith.  Because of this, many have argued that Christianity is not a religion, but rather, it is a faith.  Unlike a religion that contains a system of rites, rules and regulations, faith contains only a single tenet of belief:  salvation is obtained through faith: a responsive belief in God's identity, purpose, and plan.  It is through belief in who Jesus is, and accepting Him for who He is that salvation is obtained.[3]  This act of belief transforms an individual by filling that "God shaped hole" with the love, peace, and joy that come from the knowledge of salvation and the experience of God's working in one's life as the Holy Spirit of God fills that space.  This radical change is often referred to by Christians as being "born again," since in many ways the act is much like a birth as one enters a new life in a new family.  Jesus and the scripture authors often referred to the results of a profession of faith in Jesus as being "born again."[4] 

Because of this, there is no group of Christians who are born again, and another group who are not.  All true Christians are born again.  Those who call themselves Christians who have not yet experienced this rebirth because they have not yet accepted Jesus Christ as LORD and Savior are not yet part of the family of faith.  These may refer to themselves as Christians, but their lack of true, saving faith leaves them still in need of salvation.  It is important that all know that the rebirth experience is the only way to salvation.  This is the message of John, Chapter 3, as Jesus taught this simple but profound principle to an inquisitive Pharisee named Nicodemus. 

John 3:1.  There was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews:

We do not know a great deal about Nicodemus, but his presence is central to John's gospel as he appears at three very significant events: Jesus proclamation of the new birth, the defense of Jesus before the Sanhedrin, and at the crucifixion.[5]  He is not mentioned at all in the synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke.  John’s presentation of Nicodemus is indicative of his intent to promote an understanding of  Christian theology rather than simply Christian history.

We know that Nicodemus was a Pharisee, dedicated to the protection of the oral law, and well-trained in the written law and prophets.  It was his zealous Jewish sect that was Jesus' most contentious human enemy.   As a "ruler, an archon, of the Jews, Nicodemus was further set apart as a member of the Sanhedrin, the ruling council of the Jews that was formed of 70 Pharisees, Sadducees, and the High Priest.  Members of the Sanhedrin were also sometimes referred to as "Chief Priests".[6]  Nicodemus was also well known as a teacher of the law, and most likely one of high regard.  Jesus referred to him as "The Teacher in Israel."  We also know that Nicodemus was a man of great wealth, indicated by the expense that he incurred when preparing the body of Jesus for burial.[7]

As the story of Nicodemus unfolds, we are never clearly shown that Nicodemus became a believer in Jesus.  However, his loyalty to and defense of Jesus grew as Jesus' ministry continued.  We observe what we know about Nicodemus and find a little bit of ourselves as his skepticism turned to questions and answered questions turned to loyalty, but did they result in faith?

John 3:2.  The same came to Jesus by night, and said unto him, Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him. 

We see that Nicodemus came to Jesus by night.  Much has been written about the timing of his visit.  Did Nicodemus come by night for fear of being seen?  As a member of the Sanhedrin he was well-aware of that council's firmly established position against this itinerant teacher-prophet.  Perhaps he perceived that general knowledge of his visit to this despised prophet would compromise his position of influence with the council and his respect as a teacher of the law.   Perhaps he came by night so as to have some quiet, and uninterrupted time with Jesus, away from the noisy crowds.  Some have argued because of the word used for "night" that, like all who come to Jesus, he came from the darkness that permeates the soul of the lost.  Jesus would later use this same metaphor of darkness as he taught Nicodemus.

What attracted Nicodemus to Jesus?  According to his testimony, Nicodemus had heard that Jesus was a teacher come from God, that is, a prophet.  He had also heard of the miracles that Jesus had performed.  As a teacher of the Law, Nicodemus was in a position to recognize a prophet, and specifically to recognize the Messiah.  He knew the prophesies as well as any man, and any possibility that Jesus is a true prophet after 400 years without one, would be enough to motivate him to visit.  We will also find from the following verses that Nicodemus had an ulterior motive.  Perhaps he felt that there was something lacking in the Law.  Even though he was learned in the law, was extremely skilled in teaching it, and probably quite adept at keeping it, Nicodemus would have felt like all who are lost, that the "God-shaped hole" in his heart went unfilled.  He knew, as righteous as he might be under the Law, he was still not perfect, and unable, like everyone, to keep every tenet of that Law, making him a law-breaker and unrighteous. This inability to find righteousness under the Law defined the culture of hypocrisy that so permeated the Sanhedrin who defined themselves as righteous under the Law. The law could never fill that hole in his heart, as he had been promised by his peers. 

The first step to salvation is to come to Jesus.  People may come to Him for a variety of reasons, and any reason that would bring someone into His presence is certainly a valid one.  For the ancients, Jesus' position as a prophet opened doors for people to seek Him out and give Him their attention.  Jesus was known as a healer of the sick and infirmed, and for this many people sought Him.  Jesus was, and is, dedicated to meeting the most important needs in a person's life, and when people realize this, they will come with little hesitation.  What can Jesus do for people today that will draw them to Him?  Nothing has changed since the nighttime visitation of Nicodemus.  Though Jesus, salvation can be found. 

John 3:3.   Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. 

John does not record any of the previous conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus.  However, it is apparent from the grammar of this verse that Jesus is answering a question or a series of questions posed by Nicodemus, either verbally, or present in his spirit.  The question asked by Nicodemus is not important.  It is certainly clear from Jesus' statement that He knew Nicodemus' true need.  One does not need a degree in theology to come to Jesus.  As we can infer from this scenario, one does not even have to know the questions to ask.  Jesus simply has the answer, and that answer can be couched in a simple, yet profound metaphor of rebirth. 

Nicodemus dedicated his life to the Jewish Law so that through it he would come to see the kingdom of God.  This was what he had been taught from his childhood, and it was a principle that he taught to others.  He believed that righteousness could only be obtained through a zealous adherence the Mosaic Law and the Temple rules that surrounded it.  Through the years preceding the first century, the Jewish leadership “developed 613 laws—365 negative and 248 positive—to live by. They were to memorize 365 don’ts and 248 dos to guide their lives.”[8]  However, Nicodemus also understood that no person was able to keep every part of the law, so each was faced with a dilemma with no deterministic solution.  So, Jesus' statement directly addresses Nicodemus' concerns when He said, unless you become born again, you cannot “enter the kingdom of God.” 

Note that Jesus did not tell Nicodemus that the event of rebirth was a way to find righteousness, as if there were others.  Jesus makes it clear that rebirth is required for salvation.  Our pagan, secular, and humanistic world considers such a theology to be exclusive and intolerant.  Christians are despised for their insistence that the kingdom of God cannot be found separate from the person of Jesus Christ.  However, this is an inviolable tenet of the Christian faith.  Jesus Himself stated this requirement for salvation in a clear manner.  Nicodemus could serve to represent all of those today who despise Christians for this "exclusive" view, since his world view allowed for a salvation only by works of the Mosaic and Temple Laws.  Others have been taught alternative “paths to heaven” in the same manner that Nicodemus was.  It is not Christian tradition or law that declares the necessity of new birth, it is the clear demand of Jesus, the Christ, the Messiah and it is entirely consistent with God’s promise to mankind to bring to Himself those who would place their faith in Him.  Salvation is found only through new birth, and that new birth is only found through faith in Jesus Christ, recognizing who Jesus is:  the incarnation of YAHWEH, the Messiah, the Creator, LORD, and Judge of all.   Just as Jesus shared this good news with the lost of His day, Christians must continue to share this good news with those who reject Jesus still today.

So, what does it mean to be "born again"?  This metaphor certainly obtained Nicodemus' focused attention. 

John 3:4.  Nicodemus saith unto him, How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb, and be born?

We can see that Nicodemus was more of an engineer than a philosopher.  Failing to perceive Jesus’ statement as a metaphor, he was clearly envisioning the literal, natural birth process.  How can a mature man re-enter the womb?  His inability to understand Jesus’ was simply a product of his firmly-held world view.  Human nature and the world culture that submits to it is self-centered, or homocentric.  The power for positive  accomplishment and change is believed to come only from within a person, taking place only by one's own personal resources.  Some, particularly those leaning toward New Age philosophies, take that concept so far as to equate the inner-man with God Himself (“may the Force be with you”[9]).  Unfortunately, the truth is that the inner man is no closer to God than "dead man's bones." [10]  It is man's focus on himself that often keeps him from sensing and understanding the truth.  Like Nicodemus, a self-centered world view can blind one to the truth of God's Word.  Paradigms are those sets of rules that define a person's view on matters.  "Paradigm Paralysis" can refer to the condition of blindness that comes with a refusal to think "outside the box" of one's narrow and uncompromising viewpoint.  Sometimes referred to as a “confirmation bias,” it is a tendency, that virtually all people experience, to prejudicially favor that which conforms to their own set of presupposed beliefs.  Paradigm paralysis occurs when, because of this bias, they are either unable or refuse to accept that which is contrary to their biases.   It is necessary that the Holy Spirit break us of this paradigm paralysis before we can be saved.  Nicodemus' world-view needed to change. 

John 3:5-7.  Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.  6That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.  7Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again. 

Jesus is beginning to show Nicodemus, and us, the change in understanding that must come before salvation.  God has created us in His image.  As a property of this creation, we are made physical creatures, subject to the physical properties of this universe.  As such, all people have experienced a physical birth, having breached the womb of a mother and entered a new world of light, sound, time, and experience.  This Jesus refers to as being "born of water."  When born of water, our eyes are opened for the first time, and as we mature we become to perceive, understand, and interact with this physical universe.

Some have taken this verse out of context to defend the necessity of the submission to the act of baptism for salvation, since baptism involves water.  However, baptism by itself is powerless, as John the Baptist made clear in his defense to the Pharisees when his ministry was challenged.  Baptism is a testimony, but if one would add this act to the requirements for salvation, then they have added works to the faith-based gift of grace that God has given us.  Since this verse is not exploring the ordinance of baptism, we will not pursue this argument further here.

Nicodemus had no problem with the concept that one had to be born into this world.  Where his world-view blinded him was in this second characteristic of man that God describes as the property of his own image:  man is also spirit.  Just as man is physical, due to any number of reasons, death can occur in the womb, and that individual never experiences daylight.  Likewise, man is spiritual, and due to the rejection of God in the womb of this lifetime, spiritual death can occur and that person never experiences the light of God.  Just as a person has to be conceived in the womb to enter into this world, a person has to be born of the Spirit to enter into the Kingdom of God.   

Those who are born of the flesh understand and interact with things of the flesh.  Those who are born of the Spirit understand and interact with things of the Spirit.[11]  It is in the rebirth that God's purpose is understood.

Jesus tells Nicodemus to "marvel not" at His statement.  We should not be greatly surprised by the truth of Jesus' statement, though we usually are.  Jesus’ statement should not be in violation of our presupposed beliefs, but it usually is.  The wonder of that truth comes from an ignorance that is based upon any view of this world that rejects the promptings of the Holy Spirit.  It is very easy for us to ignore what the Holy Spirit is saying to every person:  "listen to me, follow me."  The paradigm paralysis we suffer deafens our ears to the Holy Spirit's call.  However, if we could shed the barriers that we have built between ourselves and God, turn to him, and in doing so submit completely to Him instead of demanding our own self-centered and prideful position, we would begin to hear from God.  When we are willing to take this step, we are in a position to be blessed. 

The "You" in this passage is plural.  This passage refers, not only to Nicodemus, but to all people who have turned to the LORD in faith, promising blessing to all who fully trust in Him.  The kingdom of God cannot be attained by any person without the experience of Spiritual birth that Jesus refers to.  This demand of God is not exclusive, nor is it intolerant.  It is a gift that is offered to all people without regard to their physical or social state. 

John 3:8.  The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit. 

Jesus compares being born in the Spirit with the blowing of the wind.  The words for Spirit and Wind are similar in both Hebrew and Greek.   One can perceive the work of the wind without being able to see its source.  Likewise, one is able to perceive the work of the Holy Spirit without being able to see the source of that work.  The wind, that is invisible to the eye, has the power to create great change that is visible to all, whether it be physical damage caused by high-speed winds, or the pressure one feels when facing such winds.  Likewise, the power of the Holy Spirit is invisible to the senses, but has the power to create great change that is visible to all.  By the power of the Holy Spirit, all that we experience and observe in this universe was created.  By the power of the Holy Spirit lives are radically changed, and people are empowered to overcome all manner of evil influences and impulses in their lives.  Changes come to one who has been born again by the power of the Holy Spirit in a manner similar to the changes that come to that which is physical by the power of a mighty wind.

John 3:9-10.  Nicodemus answered and said unto him, How can these things be? 10Jesus answered and said unto him, Art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not these things? 

A great and horrific paradox is revealed by the rejection of Jesus as the Messiah by the Jews, a group of whom Nicodemus is fully representative.  As people of all nations around the world have come to faith in Jesus, it is still the nation of the Jews who have the most difficulty recognizing Jesus as the Messiah.  If there is any group of people who should be able to correctly understand the Old Testament prophesies and recognize the Messiah for who He is, it is the Jews.  For those Jews who do turn to faith in Christ, a special blessing is received, as upon the receipt of the Holy Spirit, all of the scripture that they have studied explodes with meaning when its fulfillment is realized in the person and purpose of Jesus, Christ.  The Gentiles have no common ground with Jesus from which to respond to Him in faith other than their most basic need for salvation.  The Jews were given the gift of God's revelation of Himself to Abraham and his descendents,[12] and yet it is those very people who most vehemently rejected Jesus.  As the "Children of God," Israel became self-centered and arrogant, declaring that they were the special people of God, to the exclusion of the rest of the world.  However, God's purpose for Israel was that they would be a nation of priests who would show the world the way to God.[13]  It was also God's purpose that through them all the nations would be blessed.  It was God who fulfilled that part of His plan through the sending of his Son, Jesus Christ, the Messiah, the descendant of David, the descendant of Abraham.   

John 3:11-12.  Verily, verily, I say unto thee, We speak that we do know, and testify that we have seen; and ye receive not our witness.  12If I have told you earthly things, and ye believe not, how shall ye believe, if I tell you of heavenly things? 

Here Jesus reveals his grave disappointment with Israel for rejecting the message of God's grace.  Jesus refers to the knowledge that was given to them, enabling the to recognize and respond to the truth of God’s plan, yet, preferring to submit themselves to their own desires, they wholly rejected it.  Further, Jesus refers to that which is not academic:  the testimony of God's continual work in their daily lives wherein the truth of God is openly revealed, yet they reject that evidence also.  Paralyzed by their pride and their insistence on the maintenance of their established world-view, many people refuse to hear the truth of God’s plan for them with little regard to the voracity and validity of their worldly presuppositions.  The truth of the Gospel is not a plan of man (earthly things), so it is inconsistent with what man expects the truth to be.  Man wants a simple answer to the question, "What can I do to inherit eternal life," as many did when they came to Jesus.[14]  Each of the world religions answers that question with a prescription of works that, may seem to give us a feeling of piousness, but no matter what rites and rules we follow, we are still imperfect: our sin remains and serves to separate us from an eternal relationship with God.  Because of our imperfect nature, there is nothing that we can do to receive eternal life, for the appropriate question is not “what can we do?”, but "what has God done?"  The power to fill the “God-shaped hole” is not found in any earthly things, but only in the power of God Himself as He works in us through the wind and work of the Holy Spirit.  It is He who has the power to save, not us; and it is to Him only that we can turn. 

John 3:13.  And no man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven. 

Nicodemus had referred to Jesus as a prophet and a worker of miracles.  Nicodemus' world view was still earth-centered, and he does not understand the unity of the man Jesus, the LORD, YAHWEH, and God.  Here Jesus reveals to Nicodemus that the true nature of the Messiah to whom he is talking is far more than what Nicodemus is even imagining.  Jesus often referred to himself as the "Son of Man," and in this instance He states that the Son of Man came down from Heaven and that without Him, no one can "ascend" to it.  Because He came down from eternity, Jesus has the authority to speak of it.  No man has ever done this before because Jesus is the One Messiah, the One who was the agent of creation, the One who spoke to Moses through the burning bush, the One who spoke to the people at the tabernacle, the One Shekinah Glory who returned as a baby, born in Bethlehem.  Jesus is declaring to Nicodemus that He is that one who came down from heaven, and by virtue of His heavenly nature, is the only One who can also ascend and descend at will.

John 3:14-15.  And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: 15That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life. 

Jesus employs an illustration from a historical Hebraic event that Nicodemus would clearly know.  When the children of Israel were engaged in their 40 years of wilderness wandering, they experienced a plague of snake bites that was allowed to be brought upon them by God because of their sin.  God commanded Moses to erect a pole, and place on it a bronze serpent so that anyone who would look upon it would be healed.[15] The significance of this event is described here by Jesus.  Just as the serpent was lifted up on a pole to heal people of the consequences of their sin, Jesus must also be lifted up on a pole for the same purpose: to once and for all heal people of the consequence of their sin if they will simply look upon Him for that healing.  Jesus would be lifted up for that purpose:  that whoever would believe in Him (not "believe about" him) would not be lost, but would have eternal life.  Those who would look to Jesus for their remedy from their sin would find themselves saved from an eternity of separation from God; given an eternity with Him.  Jesus is referring to His own crucifixion, His submission to the penalty of sin that all people deserve, and as the "Lamb of God," His would serve as the one final and perfect sacrifice for that sin. 

John 3:16.  For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. 

This verse is, without doubt, the most quoted verse in all of scripture, whether Old Testament or New.  We now have an opportunity to look at this verse from within the context it was written.  These were words of Jesus to Nicodemus as He was teaching Nicodemus about God's plan for man's salvation from the penalty for sin: eternal separation from God.  In one short sentence, the plan for God's salvation of a lost, sin-immersed world is revealed.  We can understand that the motivation for God's act of grace is His love for His creation.  God was willing to send the Messiah, the Christ, the Deliverer to man through the form of a human child who would be able to provide mankind first-hand knowledge of the Kingdom of God, and God's plan to gather the faithful into it.  Furthermore, all of the Old Testament prophesies and sacrificial laws would serve to illuminate the act of vicarious sacrifice that would take place on the cross when Jesus would take upon himself, like the Lamb of Atonement, the sins of the world.  Like the sacrificial lamb, His blood would be shed for the remission of sins for all those who would place their trust in Him.

There is only One Messiah, and there was only One Sacrifice that serves to provide a way of salvation for all people.  It is because of this that Jesus is the one Way, the one Truth, and the one Life.[16]  No other event in all of human history provided for people what God provided for them when Jesus died on the cross.  Unlike any other man that ever died, Jesus was resurrected three days after his death, never to die again.  His appearance to his faithful followers solidified their understanding of what had taken place, and empowered them to serve as bold witnesses to His ministry, His purpose, His death, and His resurrection to the end of their days. 

John 3:17.  For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved. 

Most people are far less familiar with this verse than the previous one.  However, the two are a single sentence.  God's purpose for Jesus' coming is herein clearly revealed.  Jesus' purpose was not to come and condemn all sinners, but rather to serve them in a manner by which they can be saved.  Sometimes the church gets this mission backwards.  Often the people of the church, much like ancient Israel, exercise their supposed purpose by condemning sinners and avoiding contact with them, as if they are not sinning themselves by so doing.  Much of the world is lost because the church fails to fulfill Jesus' commission that the church would serve as a conduit through which people would be saved.  The church needs to appropriate for the lost the same love that Jesus has for them, so that it will understand and zealously fulfill its purpose as Jesus' commission intended:  rather than condemn the world, bring them to Jesus so that they can be saved.  Rather than beat them down with a Bible, lead them to Jesus, lifted on the Cross of Calvary.

There is a tremendous penalty for the failure to experience spiritual rebirth.  What is that penalty?  To end one's days on this earth without ever turning to Jesus is to enter eternity as separated from God in death as in life.  However, in this life even the lost have experienced the power of God through the blessings He continually provides to all people.[17]  An eternity separated from God will have a distinct difference even from a life that is, by personal choice, separated from Him.  Imagine a place where God no longer interacts, a place where satan has complete power.  There is no God to turn to, only the presence of the darkness of evil, an evil that saturates all that is there, and does so for eternity.

As people made in God's image, we have been created as physical flesh, but also given an eternal spirit.  It is the nature of the flesh that turns us away from God who is calling all people to fellowship with Him.  If we live and die by that fleshly and rebellious nature, we will be forever lost.  God sent Jesus into this world so that we can turn from our self-centered and sinful nature and turn to God in faith so that through Jesus we can find the righteousness that we can find no other way: not our own righteousness, but the presence of His righteousness within us.  A new birth in Jesus will not remove the sin from our lives, but by removing sin’s condemnation, it will usher into our lives the influence of the Holy Spirit who can work in our lives to take away our desire to sin, and by so doing replace it with the peace and joy of fellowship with Him. 

The world is much like Nicodemus: searching for the peace and joy that comes from no earthly source.  It will only be when Jesus is lifted up before the lost world that people can come to know of him.  Rather than condemn the lost, all of the faithful can love those who have not yet met Jesus, minister to them, and seek to bring them to Jesus.  Such an act is not exclusive, nor is it intolerant.  It is the Way. 

 

[1] Blaise Pascal (1670), Pensees, published eight years after his death.

[2] Romans 3:23, 6:23.

[3] Romans 10:9-10.

[4] 1 Peter 1:23, e.g.

[5] These events are recorded in John 3:1-15, 7:50-52, 19:39-42, respectively.

[6] John 7:32.

[7] John 19:38-40.

[8] Strem, Dave.

[9] A cult-status line from the Star Wars movie series, the line is first stated in Episode I: The Phantom Menace by Qui-Gon Jinn to Anakin Skywalker,

[10] Matthew 23:27.

[11] Romans 8:5; 1 Corinthians 2:14, e.g.

[12] Note that the descendents of Abraham also include the nations of Ishmael and the disenfranchised of Israel who today form the bulk of the Arabic nations, and form the core of Muslim tradition.

[13] Exodus 19:6.

[14] Matthew 19:16, e.g.

[15] Numbers 21:6-9.

[16] John 14:6.

[17] Matthew 5:45.