By Wayne Davies
When reading the Bible, it’s important to realize that the chapter and verse designations were not part of the original manuscripts. When John wrote his gospel, he did not include the verse numbers, nor did he come to a point and say, “Well, this looks like a good place to pause, shift gears, and start a new chapter”.
With that in mind, the end of John 2 and the beginning of John 3 is a great example of how a chapter division can sometimes prevent us from seeing the logical flow in the telling of John’s story about Jesus. John 2:23-25 tells us that when Jesus was in Jerusalem for the Passover Feast, “many people saw the miraculous signs he was doing and believed in his name. But Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all men. He did not need man’s testimony about man, for he knew what was in a man.”
Now we come to chapter 3 and we meet a man named Nicodemus. And as you read this encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus, keep in mind that John has just told us something significant about Jesus in 2:23-25 – he knows everything about everyone. Because Jesus is God, he knows what Nicodemus is thinking, and he knows his heart. We are now going to see Jesus’ omniscience in action.
Nicodemus’ Superficial Faith (John 3:1-2)
Nicodemus is an example of the type of people in Israel who saw Jesus perform amazing miracles and teach God’s Word with extraordinary insight, and yet have only a superficial, non-saving faith in him. He addresses Jesus as “Rabbi”, a term of great respect, and says, “We know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him.”
Nicodemus was one of the key religious leaders of Israel. He was a Pharisee and a member of the Jewish ruling council, a group of 70 men known as the Sanhedrin. (These are the same men who later sentence Jesus to death for blasphemy.) Even Jesus refers to Nicodemus as “the teacher of Israel” (v.10 ESV). And he has come to talk with Jesus. He wants a face-to-face with this man who has caused such a stir.
Jesus’ Radical Statement: You Must Be Born Again (John 3:3-12)
Instead of commending Nicodemus, Jesus says something that literally blows his mind – “I tell you the truth, unless a man is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
Nicodemus is shocked. His response is basically, “How can this be!”
Perhaps you have heard the phrase “born again”. Jesus mentions it four times in the conversation, so it must be important (see verses 3, 5, 7 and 8).
Let’s take a closer look.
What Does It Mean?
The phrase “born again” can also be translated “born from above”. Jesus is saying that to enter the kingdom of God, a person must be born from above. He is telling us what must happen to us if we are to go to heaven when we die. We must experience a second birth, a spiritual birth that comes from above, i.e. from the God who lives in heaven.
Who Does It?
But how can a person do that? We had nothing to do with our physical birth, so how can we make this second, spiritual birth happen? (This is the essence of Nicodemus’ questions in verses 4 and 10 – “How can a man be born when he is old? How can this be?”)
Answer: we don’t make the second birth happen, any more than we made our first birth happen. Being born again is not something we do; it is something God does. He makes it happen. It is his doing, not ours.
Why Do We Need It?
Nicodemus, like most first century religious Jews, was trying to work his way to heaven. He was trying to earn his ticket into God’s kingdom by keeping the Law of Moses and compiling an impressive list of good works. Jesus is saying that this approach will not get a person into heaven. We cannot do anything that will merit God’s favor and forgiveness. And the Old Testament, which Nicodemus would have studied and known like the back of his hand, contains many verses that teach this truth. Isaiah 64:6 says: “All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags.”
That is quite a statement, isn’t it? (See Romans 3:10-18, where Paul quotes several Old Testament passages that teach the sinfulness of humanity and our complete inability to impress God with our actions or our attitudes.)
Because of our sin, the Bible makes it very clear that we are “dead”. You may be full of life physically, but according to God’s Word, you are spiritually “dead in your transgressions and sins” (Ephesians 2:1).
How Does It Happen?
We have a huge problem. We are dead. How can a dead person enter the kingdom of God? He can’t. A dead person can’t do anything. He’s dead! Only God can bring us to life. You didn’t cause your physical birth, and neither can you cause your spiritual birth. God, the author of life, must breathe the breath of life into your lifeless soul and bring you out of the tomb you’ve been trapped in.
If you are not sure whether you are “born again”, maybe you’re thinking to yourself, “OK, I understand what you’re saying. I’m dead and need to be brought to life. Well, how is that going to happen? If God has to do it, when is he going to do it?”
Let me answer your questions.
Rest assured, God does bring dead people to life. He’s been doing it for centuries, and he continues to do it every day. The Apostle Paul wrote to the Christians in Ephesus and told them “because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions” (Ephesians 2:4-5).
The Apostle Peter also wrote these wonderful words: “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In His great mercy he has given us new birth… into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or face – kept in heaven for you” (1 Peter 1:3-4).
God wants to make you alive. God wants to give you this new birth. And the Bible tells us how He does it. Listen to what James wrote: “He chose to give us birth through the Word of truth” (James 1:18).
Are you wondering whether you’ve been born again? Do you doubt that you will see and enter the kingdom of God? Then please continue to spend time reading and studying “the Word of truth”, the Bible. God’s Word is the means by which he gives life to the spiritually dead. And this book, the Gospel of John, is a great place to start. I urge you to keep reading this portion of Scripture, chapter by chapter, verse by verse. Immerse yourself in God’s truth and he will make his life available to you. His love and mercy are great, and he wants to reveal himself and his kingdom to you.
You can also pray, asking God to grant you the gift of the new birth. Jesus said, “Ask and it will be given to you. If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:9, 13)
For additional follow-up questions suitable for individual study and/or small group discussion, visit: http://godwrotethebook.com/category/gospel-of-john-bible-study/