Born to raise the sons of earth, / born to give them second birth.
—Charles Wesley, “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” (1739)
There Was a Man . . .
Nicodemus was a Pharisee. In his day and within his culture, that was reckoned a good and respectable thing. It meant that he took the Torah seriously, that he knew it well, and that he understood thoroughly the oral traditions that fenced, amplified, and qualified its precepts. Nicodemus was a doctor of theology, an expert in the law, and well-respected in Jewish society. In fact, he held a seat on the Sanhedrin, the Jewish high court and senate. When Nicodemus spoke… people listened.
But of late Nicodemus had been listening. There was a new Rabbi in Jerusalem. He didn’t belong to the established schools. He didn’t teach like other teachers. He spoke with authority—with clarity that cut and with subtlety that mystified. And this Man did miracles. Undeniable miracles.
Nicodemus had discussed this new teacher with his fellow scholars. “A teacher sent from God” was their conclusion. But oddly enough, none of the scholars were in a hurry to track this Man down and question Him. Certainly, no one proposed a one-on-one meeting with this Man with the hope of gaining new theological insight. But that is exactly the course that Nicodemus adopted.
Now Nicodemus was bringing two very serious misconceptions to this discussion. First, as a good Pharisee, Nicodemus believed that salvation and a place in the Kingdom of God hung on genetics, race and bloodline. “We have Abraham as our father,” the Pharisees—indeed, the Jews generally—were fond of saying (Matt. 3:9; cf. John 8:33, 39). Nicodemus believed that his natural birth, his descent from Abraham, entitled him to some sort of place in God’s kingdom.
Second, Nicodemus, like most of the Jewish people of his time, believed that Israel was the special and nearly exclusive object of God’s love and grace. That God loved Israel was a given; that God might in some sense love the Gentile world wasn’t really on the Pharisees’ radar.
Nicodemus came to Jesus by night. We don’t know why he chose the night hours. Perhaps he was worried about his reputation. Perhaps night was the only time he could find Jesus alone. During the day the crowds surrounded Him.
When he met Jesus, Nicodemus said what his colleagues had admitted privately: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that you do unless God is with him” (John 3:2). Nicodemus was offering a compliment and an honest evaluation. He assumed that Jesus would know him for who he was and that this opening would lead to a fruitful discussion of “heavenly things.” In fact, Jesus knew him infinitely well and knew that he wasn’t at all ready for a discussion of such transcendent realities. Nicodemus needed to hear about some pressing “earthly things” first.
Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say unto you, unless a man is born again, he cannot see the Kingdom of God” (v. 3). The word “truly” is amen in the original. Jesus was telling Nicodemus something terribly serious and profound. He was talking about the necessary condition for seeing God’s Kingdom in this world. In other words, He was challenging the first of Nicodemus’s assumptions. Natural birth couldn’t qualify one for the Kingdom of God. The nature we inherit from Adam is fallen and alienated from the life that is in God. “That which is born of the flesh is flesh” and can’t rise to the level or nature of the Spiritual. We must be born again.
The New Birth
Nicodemus wanted to know more about this second birth. “How can a man be born when he is old? He can’t enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born, can he?” (That’s the sense of the Greek.) He knew what Jesus didn’t mean. He was clueless about His real meaning.
Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a man is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (v. 5). Jesus was drawing on the whole of Old Testament revelation. Water cleanses. And over and over in the Old Testament, it marked the boundary between an old life and a new. Nicodemus should have recalled the Levitical purifications—sprinkling for the dead and for leprosy—and Israel’s baptism in the Red Sea and later in Jordan. The Spirit of God was the source of life and breath. In fact, in Hebrew as in Greek, the word for spirit could also mean breath or wind. God breathed into Adam, and he became a living soul (Gen. 2:7). Ezekiel prophesied to the winds, and the winds came and animated a lifeless army (Ezek. 37).
In other words, Jesus was telling Nicodemus that this new birth was a matter of spiritual cleansing, cleansing from sin and death; that it would be the beginning of a new life in God’s Kingdom, under His rule; and that it was the work of the Spirit of God and as such amounted to a new creation or spiritual resurrection. For these reasons, the new birth wasn’t something Nicodemus could bring about in himself. Adamic nature can only produce Adamic nature. “That which is born of the flesh is flesh” (v. 6). Sin can only beget sin.
The Sovereign Spirit
But the Holy Spirit creates that which is truly Spiritual. He grants new birth; He brings to life the Spiritual man. The Spiritual man is still a child of Adam, still human, but he is attuned to God’s Word. He is directed and empowered by it. He is in principle free from sin and self and walks in fellowship with God. But such a renewed and renovated man is the creation of the sovereign Spirit of God, who moves when, how, and as He pleases. No man can force the Spirit’s hand in this matter; no man can appropriate the Spirit by intellect, magic, or force of will (John 1:12-13). Like the wind, the Spirit comes and goes unseen and uncontrolled. Only the effects of His work reveal His activity (John 3:8).
This was too much for Nicodemus. “How can these things be?” he asked. His mastery of the oral traditions hadn’t prepared him for such a radical understanding of God’s grace and power—or of his own desperate need for Spiritual transformation. What Jesus was saying lay far outside his presuppositions and worldview, even though Nicodemus thought his beliefs were grounded in Scripture.
As it turned out, Jesus had a great deal more to say to Nicodemus. Nicodemus had wanted to discuss heavenly things, but his Spiritual ignorance had left him abashed at the earthly reality and necessity of the new birth. Jesus would nonetheless continue to discuss the earthly things of His kingdom and culminate that discussion with one of the most amazing summaries of God’s work on earth and in man’s history. But we will come to that in the next article.
How to Be Born Again
Twenty-five years ago Billy Graham wrote a little book entitled, How to Be Born Again (1989). He presents regeneration as the result of human action. Clearly, Dr. Graham missed Jesus’ point. We don’t orchestrate our second birth any more than we orchestrated our first. Spiritual regeneration is the sovereign work of our saving God. That work, however, does demand and produce a response.
Scripture calls us to repent of our sins and trust in Jesus Christ. Those who have been born of God’s Spirit will do just that. Those who have merely been moved by emotion and sentiment will hold on to their sins and will continue to trust in themselves, though they may say many nice things about Jesus and His Spirit. But the Spirit, like the wind, is seen in the effect. Spiritual regeneration is always a matter of ethical transformation. Anything less is counterfeit.