In John 3, Jesus tells a man that in order to enter the Kingdom of God you must be born again (or from above). In a few verses later, he tells the same man that you must be born of “water and spirit.” We are going to look at how these two concepts are the same thing. More specifically, we are going to show how being born again (or born from above) is the same thing as being born of the Spirit. (We may even look at how being born of the Spirit is the same thing as inheriting eternal life. Or we may look at that next week).
Context: In John’s account of the life of Jesus, Jesus has just been to the temple. He had just drove all of the money changers out of the temple courts because they were distracting the people from the true purpose of visiting the temple and that was worship and sacrifice to God. In 2:23, John tells us that Jesus had performed many miraculous signs and the people were beginning to “believe” in him. But Jesus knew that their faith in him was shallow. They only believed in Jesus because he was a miracle worker, not because he had come to usher in a new age of relating to God.
One man, however, wants a closer look and goes to meet Jesus and perhaps discuss the meaning of signs that Jesus was performing. His name is Nicodemus.
Verse one tells us that he was a Pharisee (explain). Not only was Nicodemus a Pharisee, but he was also a member of the Sanhedrin, which was sort of like the Supreme Court of the Jewish people in the days of Jesus.
For the most part, the Pharisees had a very adversarial relationship with Jesus. But this Nicodemus didn’t come to battle Jesus, he came to learn.
He calls Jesus, “Rabbi”. Rabbi was a term of respect given to the great teachers of Israel. Nicodemus even admits that because of the signs that Jesus was performing, that he has obviously come from God. Nicodemus is an interesting character. I think his interest in Jesus was legitimate because we seen him elsewhere in John’s gospel. In John 7, the religious leaders were wishing to have Jesus arrested. In verse 51, we see Nicodemus ask,
“Does our law condemn a man without first hearing him to find out what he has been doing?”
He is immediately shouted down because Jesus doesn’t fit their mold of what the Messiah should be like. We later see Nicodemus in the story after Jesus’ crucifixion. He goes with a man by the name of Joseph of Arimathea to take the crucified body of Jesus and give it a proper burial. We get a sense that this Nicodemus was a man who is seriously intrigued by Jesus initially, is bothered by the opposition of the religious leaders and eventually risks his reputation amongst the religious leaders and his community by taking care of this condemned criminal.
Jesus’ reply is interesting. He does thank him or ask him questions as to how he figured out that Jesus had come from God. He doesn’t even want to know what N. means by it. Jesus begins the discussion by getting right to the point.
V. 3 – Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.
How did Nicodemus think that he was going to see the Kingdom of God? The Pharisees believed that their zeal for the rules and laws of the Hebrew Bible would prompt God to act and usher in his Kingdom on earth. He would conquer the enemies of Israel and set up his throne in Jerusalem. Seeing the kingdom of God would mean participating in the final age, when God completes all things. This language of being reborn referred to those Gentiles who converted to Judaism. It was said of them that a convert “is like a new-born child.” Now that did not apply to Nicodemus. He was in. He was a member of God’s chosen race. Not only that, he and the other Pharisees believed that they were really pleasing God because of their zeal for his Law. (That is the problem; they had a zeal for following the rules, but not a zeal for loving God).
Jesus takes part of this understanding of entering the Kingdom of God as to participating in the resurrection life. (The Pharisees believed that God would raise the righteous dead people when he set up his kingdom).
Jesus affirms that part of Nicodemus’ understanding of the Kingdom of God is correct (when God renews all things, see Matt. 19.28), but Jesus is letting us know that we can enter into that experience, at least partially, here and now.
Now the word Jesus uses here in John for “again” can also be translated “above”, or unless they are born from above.
Nicodemus isn’t catching these subtleties. He doesn’t think he needs to be born from above, and he doesn’t need to convert, so he thinks Jesus is maybe playing word games.
Verse 4 – How can someone be born when they are old? Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!
Jesus, making sure that he is understood here, rephrases things.
Verse 5 – Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit.
What Jesus is saying here is that there is no difference between being born from above (or again) and being born of water and the Spirit. This should have been a little more familiar to Nicodemus. This language recalls
Ezekiel 36.25-27: (When God sets to make all things right, he says,) “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.”
There are many views on what it means to born of water and the Spirit, but in light of what we’ve seen and what John’s gospel has contained so far, I believe Jesus is saying that being born of water is baptism as a symbol of your repentance. John the Baptist’s baptism was a baptism of repentance.
Mark 1:4 – John the Baptist appeared…preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. This was a symbolic act, signifying that the people were ready to give up their agenda for God’s. But it was only a symbol. The Baptist says, “I baptize you (only) with water, but he (the one coming after the Baptist) will baptize you with the Holy Spirit. John’s baptism and his preaching were to call people to get ready for the appearance of the King, of God himself.
Mark says that John the Baptist’s ministry was to be the messenger who would “Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.” Mark was quoting OT prophecy that was expecting the appearance of the Father himself. John’s baptism was basically for the people to get into a mind of repentance, ready to give up their way of doing things and to prepare for the appearance of the Kingdom, because the King was coming.
So, being born of the water was the cleansing of John’s baptism, or in our case, it stands for our repentance, our giving up our way of doing things, turning from our sins, our possessions, our religion, turning away from all of the things that keep us from focusing on God. And that enables us to be born of the Spirit. (Or as John the Baptist phrases it, being baptized with the Holy Spirit).
Jesus is telling Nicodemus to accept the promises of God from the Hebrew Bible. The Kingdom that Nicodemus and all of the Pharisees were expecting was now here in the person of Jesus. And his participation can only take place by spiritual rebirth. Nicodemus would have to give up his agenda, his thinking of salvation, his thinking about how the Kingdom was to be entered. He would have to give up his understanding of who the King was. That would be repentance to Nicodemus (come back to for us).
Let’s skip down to verses 13-15. Jesus is going to give us more instructions about how to be born of the Spirit, how to enter the Kingdom of God and receive eternal life.
No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven – the Son of Man. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life.
What does Jesus mean by eternal life here? We, of course, think of eternal life with Jesus and God in heaven forever. And that is part of it. But what Jesus affirms is that we can enjoy this eternal life in advance because we have been united with the one who has already risen from the dead.
What in the world? What is this “snake lifted up in the wilderness”? While the people of Israel were leaving Egypt, they wandered in the desert of Sinai for years before God allowed them to enter the Promised Land. During this period, there were several rebellions and grumblings. In one of these episodes of unrest, God sent poisonous snakes into their camp to punish the complainers. The people replied with contrition and asked Moses for help. Moses interceded for them and God instructed Moses to make a snake out of bronze and place it on a pole high up in the camp. If anyone was bitten by a snake, they could then look up to the snake as a reminder of God’s mercy and they would be healed. Why would God craft such a seemingly crazy arrangement? It was one of those incidents in the OT that God used to point forward to what he would do through Jesus. It was the saving grace of God that healed the bitten Israelites when they believed his word and obeyed his command. Jesus himself would be lifted up. And this had a double meaning. He would be lifted up on the cross. But he would also be lifted up into heaven as a sign that he has completed his mission. He would from then on be at his right station, the right hand of God, the position of honor and authority. So, just as those people looked to the snake raised on the pole and would live, those who would look to the Son of Man (God’s royal representative on earth) and believed in him, believed in who he said he was, believed in his mission, those who turned from any other competing agendas or missions, turned from their sin or anything else that separated them from God, those who experienced being born of the Spirit, they would enter the Kingdom of God. They would gain eternal life.
So, what does this mean to me? How can I enter the Kingdom of God? How can I gain eternal life? You must be born of water and of the Spirit.
Being born of water refers to our repentance, which I talked about last week. It is very similar to the baptism that John the Baptist called people to, except for one thing, we now change our agendas to follow Jesus. But on this side of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, our water baptism takes place after our Spirit baptism. Christian baptism emphatically symbolizes the new beginning for everyone who has been baptized with the Spirit. We are baptized by the Spirit when we turn in faith to Jesus, we pledge our lives and allegiance to him. Our water baptism symbolizes our union with him. We share in his death and burial (going into the water) and we rise with him from the death (we come out of the water with the promise of a new way of life).
What does this look like for us?
Jesus tells us later in the Fourth Gospel:
John 14.15-17 – If you love me, keep my commands (repentance). Now, how do I, a mere fleshly human being, keep the commands of a holy God? Jesus tells us that he will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever – the Spirit of truth (or the Holy Spirit)… Jesus tells us that he lives with you and will be in you. In the next verse, Jesus says he will not leave us as orphans; he will come to us. He comes to us through the presence and the power of the Holy Spirit.
All throughout this gospel’s account of Jesus’ last night on earth, he tells his disciples (and all of the people who would follow them) that he would remain in us and that we would be in Him. He is in us because of the presence of the Holy Spirit and that presence unites us with Jesus and God the Father.
At the end of John’s gospel (20.22) Jesus symbolically breathes on his disciples and says “Receive the Holy Spirit.” I say this is symbolic because this happens in the book of Acts. In Acts 2 God poured out his Spirit on his disciples and that emboldened them to speak the truth about what they had experienced with Jesus. One of Jesus lead followers, Peter, tells the crowd that all of this was foretold in the OT:
2.17-18 - in the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people…even on my servants…I will pour out my Spirit in those days…
Peter tells the people that this has happened because God raised Jesus to life and they were all witnesses of it. 2.33 – exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear.
Peter goes on to tell them, that to receive forgiveness of their sins and to inherit eternal life and to enter the Kingdom of God, verse 38 – they must Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
So what does the Spirit do?
The Spirit Empowers Us
Acts 1:8 - But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
The Holy Spirit Teaches the Believer
1 John 2:27 - As for you, the anointing (the Holy Spirit) you received from him remains in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about all things and as that anointing is real, not counterfeit—just as it has taught you, remain in him.
The Spirit Sanctifies the Believer
Basically that means that the Holy Spirit is active in the continued transformation of the believer’s moral and spiritual character. The goal is conforming to the image of the Son.
Romans 8:8-11 - Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God. You, however, are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you…if Christ is in you…your spirit is alive because of righteousness. And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you.
The Spirit Bestows Special Gifts to Every Believer
1 Cor. 12:7 - Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.
The lists of gifts are found in Romans 12:6-8; 1 Cor. 12:4-11 and Eph. 4.11.