Teaching series from John

The New Birth

John 3:1-21

Teaching t05617


Read 2:23-25. John now shows how Jesus met one such man (Nicodemus) and led him to true faith. Read vs 1,2. Nicodemus' identity affects our understanding of this passage.

He was a "Pharisee" (vs 1): a member of the strictest sect of Judaism. The Pharisees were a closed fraternity of less than 6000 Jewish men who were committed to a high level of religious discipline. They tried to follow the 600+ Old Testament laws with thousands of applications (now codified in the Talmud >> EXAMPLES). Nicodemus was a rigorous religious practitioner--more than any of us (PARALLEL).

He was a "ruler of the Jews" (vs 1): a member of the Sanhedrin. The Sanhedrin was the supreme court of Israel with real political power under Rome. 70 wealthy and socially prominent men made up this elite group. Nicodemus was one of the movers and shakers of Jewish society.

He was also "the teacher of Israel" (vs 10): a biblical and theological scholar in a society which was deeply immersed in biblical knowledge. This is important, because Jesus frequently alludes to Old Testament passages as he talks with Nicodemus.

Nicodemus is a great man! No one today could claim to be more religious than Nicodemus. Yet, for all of his religious discipline and social influence and theological knowledge, he evidently senses something is missing. So, coming by night so as not to risk his reputation, he requests a conversation with this controversial young rabbi who has aroused the ire of the religious establishment by cleansing the temple.

We don't know where Nicodemus would have taken the conversation because Jesus cuts him off before he starts. He tells this man, who exemplifies the cream of the old order, that he needs more than some theological fine-tuning--he needs a whole new birth. Their dialogue answers three questions about this new birth . . .

What is it?

Jesus tells us three things about this new birth. The first is in vs 3-6.

Read vs 3. As a devout Jew, Nicodemus had longed for the coming of God's kingdom. Because of his Jewish heritage and religious devotion, he undoubtedly felt that he was qualified to enter God's kingdom when it came. But Jesus shatters his confidence by declaring that it was only for those who were born again.

Read vs 4. Nicodemus interprets Jesus literalistically. But Jesus clarifies himself by saying that the new birth is not a second physical birth, but a spiritual birth (read vs 5,6). Being born physically ("born of water" as amniotic fluid) only makes us alive to this physical realm. But if we want to be alive to God and experience his loving leadership in our lives, this requires a spiritual birth. No ancestry, no amount of religious devotion can cause this. It takes God's Spirit to conceive his life in us so that we come into direct contact with him.

So the first thing we learn about the new birth is that it is the means by which God's Spirit makes us alive to his loving leadership.

At this point, Nicodemus' jaw was evidently hanging open (read vs 7): "Right, an invisible birth." That's why Jesus said vs 8 (read). To ancient man, the wind was a mysterious reality. They could not see it, they had no idea what caused it--but they knew by the pressure on their faces and the sound of the leaves it rustled that it was real.

Some things go beyond our ability to fully comprehend or explain, but that doesn't mean they are irrational or unreal (COPIER). In the same way, the new birth is a mysterious event which nonetheless produces undeniable results. I may not be able to explain fully to you how God enables us to be born spiritually, but you can see the effects of it in the lives of those who have received it--and if you receive it you will experience those same effects.

In vs 9, Nicodemus expresses amazement that such a profound spiritual change could take place. Jesus is equally amazed that Nicodemus could be the preeminent Old Testament scholar of Israel and not know about it, because it was a fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy (vs 10-12; "we" refers to Jesus and Old Testament prophets). Here, Jesus is undoubtedly referring to Ezek. 36:25-27. This was a prophecy of what God would make available when his Messiah came, and it explains three effects of the new birth.

He will cleanse us from the guilt of our sins (vs 25).

He will replace our hearts/spirits which are dead and insensitive to God with hearts/spirits that are alive and sensitive to him (vs 26).

He will actually put his Spirit within us, thus imparting a new desire and ability to follow his will for our lives (vs 37).

Most people are open to this . . . the question is . . .

How do we get it?

From Nicodemus, we can infer two ways we don't get it:

Not by good works or religious discipline. If you could earn the new birth this way, Nicodemus would have already had it. As amazing as it may seem, there is no biblical correlation between your good works and receiving the new birth. Some of the people who committed the most terrible sins received the new birth, but some of the people who are most religious didn't receive it.

Not by believing Jesus was a good teacher sent by God. Nicodemus believed this (vs 2: "Rabbi"), but he didn't have the new birth. This is because Jesus is far more than just a good teacher; he is the unique Son of man, God-incarnate (vs 13)--who did something unique to make the new birth possible . . .

Read vs 14,15. The answer to this question, Jesus tells Nicodemus, is foreshadowed by a strange event recorded in the Old Testament. This event was well-known by Nicodemus (but not by most of us!). Read Num. 21:4-9. First let's make sure we understand the elements of this event, then we can see what Jesus says it foreshadowed.

The elements of the event:

The venomous serpents are clearly the judgment of God on the Israelites for their rebellion against him. Their sins were resulting in their deaths.

God's solution was very strange. Moses, God's appointed spokesman who did not participate in their rebellion, had to nevertheless identify himself with their sin. He did this by making a bronze serpent and personally holding it in clear view of the people.

God healed the guilty people when they simply looked at the bronze serpent. They didn't have to crawl over to it (because they were unable), but they did have to show that they trusted God's promise by looking at this unlikely means of healing.

How does this explain how to receive the new birth?

The Israelites picture the human condition. We are all under God's judgment because of our rebellion against him. This is our central problem--not that we are already gods or one with God but ignorant of this (NEW AGE; PANTHEISM), not that we are basically good people who have been mistreated by others--but that we have sinned against a holy God and are therefore justly under his judgment.

Moses lifting up the brazen serpent is a picture of Jesus being lifted up on the cross. Just as Moses identified himself with the sins of the Israelites, Jesus identified himself with our sins on the cross and took God's judgment on himself for us ("ELOI;" 2 Cor. 5:21).

We are forgiven by God and receive the new birth when we put our personal trust in Jesus' death for our sins. We don't have to change first--we simply have to "look" to him in faith.

Read vs 16. Now this famous verse is perfectly understandable. If you want to receive the new birth, you must personalize this verse. God so loved you that he gave his only Son to pay for your sins. Even though he is not happy with what you have done, he loves you and has provided a way out. If you will put your personal trust in him to do this for you, he will spare you from his judgment and give you the new birth. ("Eternal life" is more than heaven. It is being indwelt by God's spiritual life, and it begins the moment you receive Christ.)

Notice how Jesus puts us on the spot in vs 18. Now that we know what he has done for us we are responsible to receive it through faith. There is no neutral ground for us now; we are either in or out. If we choose to believe in Jesus, we are not judged. But if we refuse to believe in Jesus, we remain under God's judgment because we have rejected his only provision for our rescue (IRS DEBT).

Why do people reject it?

Read vs 19-21. What an amazing statement! Jesus predicts that some will reject his incredibly generous offer. I sure have seen this myself: I've been the person who rejected it, and I have seen people reject it. Even when we clearly explain this gift Jesus offers, and distinguish it from misconceptions of Christianity (WORKS; BLIND FAITH), people will often still refuse it.

Why? Because they love the darkness and hate the light! How different this explanation is form the one that is normally given--that people want to find God but that he is not accessible. Jesus says it is the other way round: he is the light seeking us out, but some of us go skittering like cockroaches into the darkness as soon as the light goes on.

According to Jesus, the real barrier to receiving the new birth is not intellectual or evidential, but rather moral. The real problem is not insufficient evidence, but unwillingness to humble themselves to God. People turn down Jesus' offer of the new birth, not because they suspect it isn't true, but because they suspect it is true--and don't want anyone (including God) intruding into their lives.

Some people prefer the darkness of religious pride. Religious people often hate this message, because it means they must admit that all their good works aren't good enough. They have to come to God just like the person who has never worked at being religious.

Others prefer the darkness of self-rule. This is the way it was with me. I knew the first time I heard this message that it was true and that I need to receive Christ. But I rejected it because I had other things I wanted to do, and I sensed intuitively that receiving Christ would change the course of my life. Because I wanted to do my own thing, I used my mind to justify this by becoming an atheist. But two years later, when I was willing to admit to myself and to God that I was lost, he reminded me again of his offer. I told Jesus that if he came into my life and made his presence evident, I was ready to follow God's will for my life. That's when I received the new birth . . .

What about you? Are you willing to admit that you aren't good enough to work your way to God? Are you ready to admit that being your own ruler doesn't work? Why not call out to Jesus Christ and ask him to forgive you and indwell you and begin to direct your life?


What happened to Nicodemus? Evidently, he believed in Jesus-and slowly became a witness for him (Jn. 7:50-52; 19:38,39)