Continuing our study on the manner of salvation, let’s look at the conversation that now emerges between Christ and Nicodemus, the Pharisee.
John 3:2-3 (NKJV)
2 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.”
3 Jesus answered and said to him, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
He comes to Jesus, we’re told, by night, and that tells us all by itself he was probably hoping for a private moment, something that is out of the sight of some of his contemporaries, the watchful eyes of his fellow Pharisees. It suggests something about his heart. His desire for secrecy may be the first indication that he is not your normal, ordinary Pharisee. His perspective might be going somewhere different than the average Pharisee. His interest in Jesus is very personal and presumably, it’s very sincere. The name Nicodemus literally means “victory over people” or “victory for the people,” you could say. I think it is ironic, in fact, it’s prophetically ironic when you consider Jesus delivers the victory for the common man over the tyranny of men like the Pharisees.
There is also something else about this I find really interesting. When John says he comes in darkness it reminds us of John’s metaphor for spiritual blindness. This is a man coming in darkness to speak to Christ. As he speaks, Nicodemus gives Jesus what sounds like respect and consideration even. He calls Him rabbi and confesses “we know You have come from God” because of your signs and so on. Being called a teacher is a respectful term, as is being called a rabbi is respectful, but it falls short of acknowledging Him as Messiah. Though he is being respectful and he has a sincere interest, he hasn’t reached the point where he knows Who Christ is. At least not yet.
Notice he says “we.” That use of the word “we,” it probably means all the Pharisees, perhaps even all the Sanhedrin. It would appear some religious leaders like Nicodemus have concluded that Jesus is doing all these miracles, by the power of God. Because he has said we’ve come to understand them. The irony is though the religious leaders could see the power of God at work in Jesus, they rejected Him and His claims. This is one of the central themes in John’s Gospel: trying to explain the response of the unbeliever to the Gospel. The acceptance of the Gospel is a matter of supernatural faith. It is not dependent on miracles and signs. Hearts in darkness will reject the Light of the Gospel even when it’s accompanied by evidence of God.
In response to Nicodemus’ polite opening statement, notice what Jesus does. He abruptly jumps into the heart of the matter, He jumps into a conversation on how you enter the Kingdom. That is not something Nicodemus has raised yet. But it appears very much so that is what he will be interested in as the conversation goes further. Which tells us Christ knew why he came. Here’s a man (a Pharisee) who has positioned himself to the people as the one who knows how you enter heaven, how you enter the kingdom. Yet, he has come in secrecy to ask Jesus that very same question. And Christ knew it. Before he even asks the question Jesus gives the answer. Jesus says to this man, the true way a person enters the Kingdom of God, or we could say become saved, is to be born again. The term born again long ago became part of the Christian lexicon. Most of us if not all of us have heard of it at some point in time. We may not fully understand it. But most true believers know and understand it.
Born again, it describes the moment when we receive a new living spirit, at the moment of faith in Christ made possible by the work of the Holy Spirit. You might assume that this phrase would be completely unknown to a Jew living in that day, to a man like Nicodemus. Therefore, Jesus’ choice of words would have been completely confusing to him as it might be for many people, the first time they heard it.. And to an extent that’s true, that will be evidenced by what he says next in his response. Before we look at that, it’s not the case this Pharisee would have never heard the phrase “born again.” In fact, the Pharisees had contrived this elaborate theology of their own built on that term. They had an understanding in a very twisted sense of what being born again meant. So it was not an unfamiliar term to him. Look at his response. manner of salvation
John 3:4-8 (NKJV)
4 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?”
5 Jesus answered, “Most assuredly, I say to you unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 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.”
So Nicodemus’ first question gives us some of this insight. He asks how can someone be born when he is old? Born again in other words. He doesn’t ask the question of how can someone be born again. That is really the question you ask if you’ve never heard the term before. He’s a little more specific, he wants to know how is it you can be born again now that I’ve grown old? Now that I have reached this point in my life? That reflects the Pharisaical teaching on being born again. Pharisees taught there were six ways that a Jew was to be born again in the course of their normal life.
Much like the Catholic teaching on sacraments, the Pharisees had taught there were these six moments or toll gates, points in time where you are supposed to get through as a Jew that was important moments of spiritual transformation during your life. Not all men could experience all six moments, but progressing through them was a journey of spiritual advancement. It was to your advantage for the kingdom that you would make your way through all these toll gates. For example, when a Jewish boy has his bar mitzvah, or gets married, or becomes a rabbi he is said to be born again. Each of these instances that term is used in Pharisaical theology. The idea is that life has begun new again. They were in a new place, starting off in a new journey distinct from what had come before it. Like sacraments sometimes are perceived in the Catholic religion, a chance for the work of that person, some accomplishment they have come to, will move them further on the journey closer to God.
Nicodemus hears Jesus telling him he still lacks a necessary step of rebirth before he can have the kingdom of heaven. But to a Pharisee, this statement makes no sense at all. Given their theology. Because if there was ever someone who could be said to have met all the born again requirements, it would have been a Pharisee. A Pharisee would have gone through all of the “rebirth” toll gates that he had to in order to be at this point in his life. But now Jesus is saying there’s one he’s missed. Nicodemus can’t believe what’s he’s hearing, so he responds in what I think is intentionally a bit of a mocking tone to Jesus. He says how is it possible for me to go back and get in my mother’s womb. It would seem to suggest he is implying, how can I start this whole life over again so I can get to a toll gate I missed. He has done everything he knows he is supposed to do. He can’t imagine there is any other rebirth possible except perhaps the literal form of being born again from your mother’s womb. And of course, we know that’s impossible. So there must be no other way. That’s the thought that Jesus seizes upon in His response. manner of salvation.
Jesus says one must be born both of water and the Spirit if they are to enter the Kingdom of God. I’ve heard some Christians really go off on the born of water piece and get in some crazy corners that have no sense at all. Because you have to understand a little bit of Jewish thinking to get this correct it seems. It is a Jewish expression. To be born of water is a euphemism for being born period. To be born of a woman. It refers to the amniotic fluid that comes out at birth. So it is just a way of them describing being born physically. manner of salvation
Jesus says, on the one hand, you have to be born physically but you also have to be born spiritually. Now that first part seems unnecessary for Him to mention, doesn’t it? Obviously, no one is going to enter Heaven unless they’ve first been born into existence. Why do I have to list that as a requirement? I think the reason is because He is responding to Nicodemus’ mocking when he said, how can anyone come out his mother’s womb a second time. Jesus seizes on that and says well you have to come out at least once, that’s true. But that’s not the end of it.
He says that physical (or fleshly) birth is one kind but there is a spiritual kind that must follow and both are necessary if you expect to enter the Kingdom. In the way Jesus phrases His response, you can clearly see that these two births do not happen at the same time. They are not the same moment. If every physical birth automatically included a spiritual birth, then there would be no reason to call them out separately. Jesus is emphasizing that the second kind of birth, one that comes after our physical birth, must happen and if it doesn’t happen you are excluded from the kingdom of God.
I love Jesus’ choice of using “birth” as a metaphor for this spiritual awakening or this coming to salvation because it teaches us about the manner of our salvation: being born again is similar to being born the first time, to being born physically. I want you to consider the process of physical birth for a moment to look at the parallels. For example, our physical birth is an event that happened to us because of a decision made by our parents – no one chooses to be born physically. When the time comes for our physical birth, we are oblivious to the whole event.- it just happens to us. We took our first breath and maybe we have our first cry. But those are responses to being born. Those are not the means of being born, they didn’t make us a baby. They are the consequence of being made a baby. And in the first weeks and months our early life as a new baby, we lacked the maturity to really appreciate what life is all about. But in time our awareness grows as we get older and as we mature we come to understand who our parents are and come to understand the significance of life. We become an adult. We gain maturity. That’s the model Jesus chose when He wanted to explain spiritual renewal: He chose the model of being born. And He calls it being born spiritually. Think of the parallels. The birth that brought us into spiritual new life came by the will and the power of the Father. When it happened we were oblivious. Even after our new birth, we lacked the maturity to understand it properly. But over time we gained in spiritual maturity as we are taught by God’s word until we developed some capacity to appreciate that new life.
It’s interesting how we can hear conversations around the prospect someone is an unbeliever because they have some very bad theology. They don’t understand the End Times very well or they don’t understand the Holy Spirit’s ministry very well. Or they may not understand salvation very well. So we begin to doubt whether they can be Christian or not. When you think like that you are actually running against the model Jesus presented on how you are born. You don’t know anything the day after you become a believer. You didn’t have to know anything to become one. It doesn’t become a requirement to maintain your Christiandom afterward. What you have in your head is a function of maturity and proper teaching. It’s not the manner of salvation, it’s the result of salvation. The manner as Jesus depicts it, is by an outside entity, God the Father by His Spirit bringing us into the body of Christ such that we are born again spiritually. That’s the point Jesus is making to Nicodemus.
“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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