But God has hidden the message of salvation in plain sight, one that is foolish to the natural ear Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1. The question: How to be born again? Let’s take a close look at the context of John 3:16
That’s your solution to Heaven. It’s designed to sound foolish. Nicodemus is stumbling in the very same way that men stumble today. He is overlooking what had been provided while seeking something greater. To the question, how can these things happen? How can you be born again? Jesus gives him the answer anyway. And what follows in chapter 3 at this point includes what is easily the best-known verse of the New Testament, John 3:16. As eloquent as it is at expressing the essence of the Gospel, I want to ask you to consider the whole of Jesus’ answer and avoid focusing on that one verse just because I think it is so familiar it tends to dull our thinking or our attention to some of what is being said around it. It certainly does not diminish its value. I am saying it is part of a larger narrative. This is to the question of how to be born again. Let’s look at the whole of His answer:
John 3:13-21 (NKJV)
13 No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of Man who is in heaven. 14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so, must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. 16 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. 17 For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.
18 “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. 19 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. 20 For everyone practicing evil hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. 21 But he who does the truth comes to the light, that his deeds may be clearly seen, that they have been done in God.”
In answer to Nicodemus’ questions, what Jesus does is give a two-part answer. The two parts together explain how you reach Heaven and both of these parts of the process are the product of God’s work. Let’s look at that in detail. The first step He says in verse 13 is the step of Son of Man descending from Heaven. Christ’s descent from Heaven and His death on the cross is, according to Jesus is a fulfillment of what Moses demonstrated in Numbers 21. That’s the chapter in which you see the serpent (snake), the bronze serpent cast and stood on the end of a pole and lifted up for the people of Israel to see. The image of a serpent is a reminder that all sin traces back to the serpent in the Garden. When Israel was in the desert in chapter 21 of Numbers they have been routinely demonstrating unbelief in God’s word. At a point in time because of their unbelief there comes this time in Numbers 21 when God brings judgment upon them for their unbelief. And He does it in a very unique way. He brings a bunch of serpents into the camp. These serpents have the power to kill people through their bite. And people are dying all around. At that point, there is pandemonium and panic and people are not sure what is going to come next and how are they going to avoid it. God makes a measure of mercy available to the people of Israel. He tells Moses, I want you to take this bronze serpent and put it up on this pole, hold it up high, walk around the camp of Israel and anyone who would look up at it, doing so in faith, in other words, in the expectation that God will reward their confidence in Him will be granted escape from the death of these serpents. Those Israelite who have sinned in unbelief and is unwilling to look upon the serpent are going to die from the snake. If you did as God instructed, those who looked did not die and those who failed to look did die.
Now Jesus is explaining that moment in Numbers 21 was a carefully constructed picture by God of Jesus Christ dying on the cross for the sins of men. Now a lot of people get bothered by the concept a serpent was the image used in this case. But it’s very purposeful. First of all, the metal bronze, in Scripture always represents judgment. You often see Jesus with feet of bronze when you see Him depicted that way. That’s the idea His feet is trampling out judgment. The serpent represents the power of the enemy. It does represent Satan but it represents him in the sense Satan is the cause of death to men. It’s the sin Satan instigated from his temptations in the Garden. And the raising up of the serpent of bronze symbolizes Christ taking the judgment for men, the judgment required by what the serpent did in the Garden and what men did in response to it. In other words, Jesus is taking our place. Standing in our place, being raised up that wooden pole as on a cross. And taking our judgment. This is the first step Jesus says of being born again and entering the Kingdom. Unless and until the Lord descended and took this penalty upon Himself, there was no solution possible for salvation. There was nothing you and I could do to enter into Heaven unless and until this act happened. He’s already referring to His death on the cross, three years before it’s going to happen. There’s just no doubt His purpose for coming was to eventually arrive at the cross. So that’s the first step. John 3:16
The second step, a person must believe in Jesus’ death on that pole. Faith in this sacrifice is a requirement for salvation, knowing who to look upon. Just as people in Israel had to look upon the pole with the serpent, so much we look upon Jesus’ death on the cross with confidence that it satisfies the wrath of God. Jesus says whosoever believes in the Messiah will have eternal life. Belief means the belief His death saves you from judgment. Just as the people in the desert had to look upon the serpent and express with that look their belief in God’s promise to spare them. We look upon the cross in that same sense. I am confident when I die I will not see judgment for my sin because I believe that moment on the cross 2,000 years ago satisfied the wrath of God concerning my sin. And if I am wrong and I am not. But if it were I was wrong, I have no plan “B.” I have no backup. I am not saying it is Jesus plus some other things I do just in case Jesus can’t come through for me. Because then there is no faith at all with that statement is there? There is no confidence at all. And that need for confidence is at the heart of the Gospel.
Now, at that point, we’ve reached John 3:15 where He has now given us the two parts to what is required. Jesus, now having summarized the two parts up to that point, He is then going to amplify each of those parts in more detail in verses 16-18. So we’re saying the same things again, now Jesus is just explaining it in more detail. In verse 16, Jesus says the plan of salvation began with the love of God. The word for love here is agape, which means self-sacrificial love. It’s not romantic love, it’s not eros. It’s talking about giving your life for another. Remember Jesus said there is no greater evidence of love than that a person lay His life down for a friend. That is the definition of godly love. Self-sacrificial. What God did voluntarily in the Person of Christ was to demonstrate His love by laying down His own life for those He saved. Don’t forget, Jesus didn’t participate in this plan against His will. The Son and the Father determined together to accomplish this plan from the foundations of the Earth.
Ephesians 1:3-6 (NKJV)
Redemption in Christ
3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, 4 just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love, 5 having predestined us to adoption as sons by Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will, 6 to the praise of the glory of His grace, by which He made us accepted in the Beloved.
Since Jesus was the creator which we learned in chapter 1 of John’s Gospel. Then we are saying Jesus created the world knowing He would have to die to save it. He went through the plan of creation fully understanding where it was leading. God’s love for the world drove the plan of salvation. Now let’s talk about the word ‘world’ for a moment “World” often gets misunderstood here. It is the word kosmos in the Greek which refers to the creation, to the universe, to all that was made. It is not a specific reference to the population on earth, to people. Although, of course, it includes humanity. But it is a broader term than that. The full sense is God so loved His creation He was willing to send His Son to die to redeem it from sin. Not just the people who were being redeemed by Christ’s death. It is also the physical creation. Paul says this in Colossians chapter 1:
Colossians 1:19-20 (NKJV)
Reconciled in Christ
19 For it pleased the Father that in Him all the fullness should dwell, 20 and by Him to reconcile all things to Himself, by Him, whether things on earth or things in heaven, having made peace through the blood of His cross.
Everything that needs redeeming was done through Christ, not just the humanity that fell. For also the earth is under the same curse. His payment on the cross was to redeem the Creation from Satan, from sin, and from the curse. It’s important to understand John is not saying that God so loved mankind that He sent His Son to die for mankind. That would imply all mankind was covered by the death of Christ. Then it would make God unjust if He should send any of them to hell. He could not punish them twice, once with Christ and once on their own. That cannot be the meaning. Self-evidently, not all mankind is being saved, so, therefore, not all mankind has been redeemed, which is by the definition of John 3:16, the evidence of God’s love. That fact alone means we cannot interpret the word “world” to mean all people. We must understand it according to its literal meaning, which is as a reference to Creation generally.
But then for that sacrifice of love to be effective, you have to place your faith in Christ as Savior. At the moment of belief in the Messiah, that sacrifice becomes effective in that person’s life. They believe they receive eternal life. That’s the second part to Nicodemus’ question. What must happen for a man to be born again? Well, the Redeemer must be lifted up on a cross to take the penalty for our sins. And a person must believe in that sacrifice so they can be covered by that provision.
Then In verses 17-18, Jesus comments on each of these steps in more detail. Look at what He says in verse 17. He’s commenting on the first step that God had to send His Son. He says the Son’s arrival on earth was not to bring judgment against sin but rather He came expressly for the purpose to die for the sins of the world. And through that death, the world would be saved through Him. Jesus words remind us, God could have had a different plan in response to the sin of mankind. Instead of sending Jesus to die for our sins, the Father could have sent Him to judge us from the first day. So it is an option. He didn’t do that. That’s mercy. Sin demands judgment, and His judgment would have been a justified and warranted response from the day sin entered the world. But He has been longsuffering and patient not wishing those He has sworn to save to perish. He brings that process to its conclusion in its proper timing. Instead, the Father sends Jesus on a mission to take the penalty on our behalf. It was a mission of mercy and grace.
But let’s not be ignorant. I know you already know this, but the Bible does record a second coming. In that second coming, Jesus comes under a different mission. That mission is one of judgment. The mercy mission having been accomplished, now all that remains is for the second mission, the second coming to be one of judgment. That’s depicted in Revelation 19 and 20. Verse 17 tells us why the Father undertook this mission of sending the Son to come. It was to bring salvation. Now, look at His Commentary in verse 18 which is the commentary on the second part. The second part is on believing and accepting the provision of the Gospel. Jesus says those who believe are not judged. He is confirming first, there is a judgment. The fact that Jesus didn’t come to judge in His first coming doesn’t mean there won’t be one. There is a judgment. When you place your trust in Christ, you essentially change your future. You will not be subject to that coming judgment for sin, because your judgment fell upon Christ. Even though that judgment day lies in the future, for you, the believer, it has effectively been canceled.
Then Jesus says that for the one who has not believed, his judgment has already happened because he’s rejected the only solution. What Jesus is saying, there is no second option. He is saying once you reject the Son of God, you assure yourself a seat at that coming judgment moment. And when it comes, that judgment will be certain and it will be final. So in that sense, He is saying, you, the unbeliever, have been judged already. You have rejected the only option I have for you. And in so doing you’ve set yourself on a course where one day without any doubt at all you are going to find yourself at the judgment moment and it won’t be good for you.
But then Jesus goes further to explain how the judgment came to men. In verse 19, Jesus says when the Light came into the world, (the light refers to Christ, we know that from chapter 1) it revealed who was judged and who was not. Those who loved the darkness rather than loving Christ, are the ones who are judged already. They rejected the Light, Jesus says because they loved evil and didn’t want their evil deeds exposed by the Light of the truth. This is a common experience of unbelievers prior to coming to faith. Before they know the Lord in faith and truth, they live in immorality and in sin to some level, for that’s all they know. The prospect of approaching the God Who judges you while holding on to all that sin has no appeal to the unbeliever because they know instinctively, that in coming into the light, it exposes their sin, their evil deeds. Jesus says at the beginning of verse 20, everyone who does evil hates the Light, that is Christ.
The point is the heart knows instinctively, unconsciously as sin takes place, as we live in sin, we’re susceptible to judgment somewhere in our life. Whether to a parent or to God ultimately, it is there. It may be something we repress and we choose not to listen to. But Jesus is saying the instinctive nature of sin in our flesh is such that we are offered the chance to come close into the Light, to come to God, our nature is to say no to that because the Light will expose our deeds. Why do you think Adam and woman hid in the Garden when they heard the Lord approaching? Why did the Lord make noise? So they would know He is coming. So they would hide because exposure to Him, under those circumstances, is instant judgment. He was giving them the mercy with a chance to hide. This raises a really troubling question. What causes any man or woman who is in unbelief, which is where we all start, to ever make a trip into the Light? Paul says Romans 3:10 –
Romans 3:10-12 (NKJV)
10 As it is written:
“There is none righteous, no, not one;
11 There is none who understands;
There is none who seeks after God.
12 They have all turned aside;
They have together become unprofitable;
There is none who does good, no, not one.”
If we all have evil in our hearts to start with. We all are without righteousness Paul says.
So why do some choose the Light instead of preferring the darkness? That’s the question being raised by Jesus whose commentary is on this process. Remember I said that both parts of the plan of salvation are steps done by God? We know the first one is clearly by God. He came down in the form of man to take our sins. That much we know. The part in which we have accepted that sacrifice is also a work done by God. Now Jesus explains how God is responsible to do both the work on the cross but also for the work of belief in our hearts. In verse 21 Jesus says it is the one who practices truth who comes to the Light. What does He mean by that? Someone who practices the truth refers to someone whose heart has already been brought into agreement with the Gospel, with the truth. John commonly speaks of those who practice righteousness and those who practice unrighteousness (He does that a lot in his first letter, in 1 John). He uses those terms as synonyms for believers and unbelievers.
1 John 1:6 (NKJV)
6 If we say that we have fellowship with Him, and walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth.
1 John 2:29 New King James Version (NKJV)
29 If you know that He is righteous, you know that everyone who practices righteousness is born of Him.
1 John 3:7 New King James Version (NKJV)
7 Little children, let no one deceive you. He who practices righteousness is righteous, just as He is righteous.
1 John 3:10 (NKJV)
The Imperative of Love
10 In this the children of God and the children of the devil are manifest: Whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is he who does not love his brother.
You see how he is using these terms interchangeably. So the one who practices the truth is someone who is righteous by faith. The word practice there reflects the fact we are not saying you are perfect, we are saying it is the desire of your heart to please the Lord by living according to His commandments within the limits of what we can achieve in our flesh. That person, Jesus says, comes to the Light. Doesn’t that sound backward? Wouldn’t we expect Him to say the one who comes to the Light is the one who will practice the truth? He doesn’t say that. He says the one who practices the truth is the one who comes to the Light. It makes sense. If someone is going to walk in the Light, they have to already have nothing to fear from it. If they are going to come into the Light, the exposure that requires, they must not have any concern over the guilt of their sins. Their sins would have to already been forgiven or at least their sense of that jeopardy has been taken away so they have no reason not to. The Light is no longer a threat. And Jesus is reflecting that in the order of these statements.
Jesus established a conundrum in which He solved. He says those who are in the darkness always avoid the Light because of the exposure it creates. But then Jesus says the salvation God offers through spiritual rebirth requires you come into the Light.
Then He solves that in verse 21. People are being brought into the Light by the power of God. Notice Jesus says at the end of that verse, maybe the most important part. He says they are brought into the Light so that the deeds of this person can be seen to have been done by God.
So not only does God descend from Heaven to die in our place and take the penalty for our sin. He is also the one Who transforms us spiritually, by His Spirit. And through that transformation, we are then able to come into the Light. And that entire process is accomplished by God on our behalf. That is the true definition of grace. Now you can see why He used the metaphor of birth. No one chose to be born physically. And according to Scripture, you are not capable of choosing to be born spiritually. You arrive at your rebirth by the power of God. We grow in maturity to even understand what has happened to us. Those steps of growth and of response include confessions of faith that accompany the belief that has been given us in our heart. The baptism we take is a step of obedience to Christ. And on and on and on. That’s how Jesus ends His discussion with Nicodemus.
Summarizing this discussion, we learned about the manner of our salvation. It’s a process of spiritual rebirth, not one of human works. It’s accomplished in the heart by the invisible work of the Spirit. Bringing men into a walk of truth, so that they can come into the Light. And in the Light, they come to believe in the Messiah’s death on their behalf. Just as Moses prophesied. A provision that said God would provide someone Who would be lifted up. And our belief in that sacrifice would be the manner of our salvation. And this Pharisee believed in this provision on this day, having heard it explained. We don’t see the response but we see the evidence of it in later chapters.
Here’s a man who was teaching men the wrong way to enter the Kingdom. And on this day, he came to understand it for the first time truly, by the power of the Spirit.
“The author’s biblical interpretations and conclusions presented in this document rely on original teaching used by permission of Verse By Verse Ministry International (VBVMI). The author’s views may not represent the views of VBVMI, it’s Directors or staff. Original VBVMI teaching may be found at http://www.vbvmi.org.”
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