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Nicodemus and the New Birth

John 3 is one of the most significant chapters in the book. Of all the accounts of the life of Jesus, this interview with Nicodemus regarding a new birth is found only here. Nicodemus is identified as “a ruler of the Jews” (Jn. 3:1) and is one of the few of this elite class who was a believer in Jesus. The only other Jew who might have been a “ruler” too was Joseph of Arimathea. McGarvey identifies both these men as members of the Sanhedrin, and Joseph is called a prominent council member (Mk. 15:42-43). Besides these two, no other ruler of the Jews is recorded as having been openly a professor of faith in Jesus. However, many of the rulers did believe in His claims: “Nevertheless even of the rulers many believed on him, but because of the Pharisees they did not confess it …” (Jn. 12:42). And while it is true that both Nicodemus and Joseph were timid and fearful when associating with Jesus, their faith finally emboldened them to take a public stand for Him.

Nicodemus came to Jesus by night and confessed, “Rabbi, we know thou art a teacher come from God for no one can do these signs that thou doest except God be with him” (Jn. 3:2). Nicodemus had an honest, sincere heart. He saw that the miracles Jesus did were not possible unless God approved of Him. What questions Nicodemus may have wished to ask the Master is not known. Upon Nicodemus’ confession of faith that Jesus was a “God-sent man,” Jesus said, “Verily, verily I say unto thee, except one be born anew, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (Jn. 3:3).

Jesus’ mention of the “kingdom of God” was not strange to Nicodemus’ ears for there was a universal expectation that God’s kingdom was coming. But Nicodemus was dumbfounded when he learned that he or anyone else had to be born again to enter that kingdom. He asked, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” (Jn. 3:4). To this question Jesus responded, “Verily, verily I say unto thee, except one be born of the water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God” (Jn. 3:5). Jesus then added, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (Jn. 3:6).

Jesus made known to Nicodemus that it was not the flesh of which He spoke when He had said one must be “born anew.” Flesh and Spirit are two different things, and since Jesus’ kingdom “is not of this world” (Jn. 18:36), it is spiritual in nature and a spiritual birth is essential to be part of it.

To further explain His words, Jesus said, “Marvel not that I said unto you, ye must be born anew. The wind bloweth where it wills, and thou hearest the sound hereof and knowest not whether it cometh or goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit” (Jn. 3:7-8). Jesus does not liken the “new birth” to the wind as some perceive Him to have done. He is emphatic. Speaking of the wind which comes and goes as it wills, He concluded, “So is everyone that is born of the Spirit.” What is the Savior’s point about the wind when He likens it to someone who is born again? I believe what Jesus taught Nicodemus was that while one cannot see the wind (although he can see the effects of it), there is a real force called the wind. And likewise, while one cannot see his spirit (as he can see his physical body), there is a spirit in man just as certainly as there is a wind.

The new birth, according to Jesus, consists of two elements: water and spirit (Jn. 3:5). To be born of the spirit is to be begotten by the Spirit’s word. Peter wrote long ago, “Having been begotten again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God which liveth and abideth forever” (1 Pet. 1:24). Peter learned that the incorruptible seed is God’s word from the blessed Lord Himself. When Jesus had taught the first of His many parables, which was the parable of the sower, He began to explain it by saying, “Now the parable is this, the seed is the word of God” (Lk. 8:11). When many of His disciples misunderstood, finding His sayings “hard” and abandoning Him, Jesus turned to and asked the twelve, “Will ye go away, also?” to which question Peter replied, “Lord, to whom, shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life” (Jn. 6:67-68).

But being born of the word of God (the Spirit) is only half of the new birth. To be born anew one must also be born of the water. To be born of the water is to be baptized in water for the remission of sins (Acts 2:37-38). Jesus instructed His apostles, “Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved. He that beliveth not shall be damned” (Mk. 16:15-16). If Jesus had intended to teach that one must be baptized to be saved, what else would He have said than this to prove that?

Jim McDonald

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