In chapter 2 John makes the observation that the Lord Jesus knew what was in the hearts of men. There follows a series of conversations, in which this is shown to be the case. Here in Chapter 3 with Nicodemus, and again in Chapter 4, with the woman at the well. In each case, Jesus shows He knows the heart. No one can hide anything from Him.
But his faith was very ill-formed and inadequate. He was impressed by the signs & miracles – He made deductions. But it was a superficial faith which drew him to seek Jesus. This is evident by the fact that he came “at night”. This perhaps highlights the spiritual darkness he was in. He was careful to avoid being seen with Jesus.
Being a rabbi himself, Nicodemus addressed Jesus as a fellow rabbi. He begins with the words “We know …!” He doesn’t say “I know”. Perhaps he was nervous and unsure of himself. This may have been his way of being diplomatic. “We know you are a Teacher from God.” He is very guarded. He did not ask a direct question, but undoubtedly, he is fishing for more information. Like all the Pharisees, his real question was “Are You the One?” – “Who are You really?” Are you the Messiah?”
Nicodemus thinks he’s in control. He thinks he is doing Jesus a favour by coming to see Him at all. The Lord’s immediate approach to the situation is to point out to Nicodemus, “it’s not information you need, it is revelation about yourself. That is the thing you need most of all.” Therefore the Lord’s opening words to him are, “I tell you the truth, no-one can see or understand the kingdom of God, unless he is born again.”
It was the common belief among Jews that they would all be born again when their Messiah came and they all entered into His glorious reign at the end of history. They would be born again into eternal life. Nicodemus would have taught this to others. All Jews would enter the kingdom of God at the end of the age. But here is Jesus telling Nicodemus that unless he is born again now, he will not even begin to understand anything about the kingdom of God.
So he asks, “how can it be possible…! The Lord has simply enlarged on the meaning of the OT Scriptures. Especially Ezekiel 36:25-27 which speaks of God’s promise to pour out His Spirit on His people, and to give them a new heart & spirit.
The Lord has explained in the simplest possible terms, that there are 2 births. The natural birth and the spiritual birth. He concludes by emphasizing that all this is God’s doing. It is a great mystery. It cannot be explained in worldly terms. Listen to His words in V.7-8. However, they who have the greatest trouble with this teaching are religious people, and Nicodemus was religious.
“You are a professor of religion, an authority on Holy Scripture, and don’t understand this? In effect, the Lord says, ‘this is what the Bible has always taught! Ezekiel 36 is only one among many texts.’ Then the Lord gives one of the most wonderful gospel messages anyone could ever hear, which includes John 3:16.
You notice in v.12, the Lord knew what was in Nicodemus’ heart. He knew he did not believe. And He knows our hearts. He knows what secrets we are keeping. But there is good news in this story with Nicodemus. This was not the end of the story, as far as he is concerned. Nicodemus became a believer as is indicated at the end of John’s gospel. But here, in this passage, he got more than he bargained for.
The new birth was certainly not what Nicodemus thought they would be talking about that night. He came to speak to Jesus about Jesus and instead, it became a conversation about himself. He was lectured as if he were a school-boy. But he deserved it.
Already been mentioned in 1:12, – called becoming “children of God”, and in 1:13, called “being born of God”. There is nothing more essential. And those who have not experienced it, do not understand it. “The natural man receives not the things of the Spirit of God. They are foolishness to him!” Even those who are born again, don’t fully understand this teaching or the experience.
Nicodemus wasn’t expecting to hear about it – he wasn’t interested in it. But it was his vital need. Nor was anyone thinking about it, or interested in it before the Reformation in 1500’s. But they needed it. Or, two hundred years later, in England before the Great Awakening, in 1735. But it was the great need of people then, as it was in Nicodemus’ day and it is the great need for everyone today.
The Jewish theologians all thought of salvation in terms of doing what was required. Nicodemus was a teacher of the law. He had spent his life teaching others what the law required. If you were to have a part in the kingdom of God you must be a good Jew. – And to be a good Jew, you must keep the laws.
Your souls are too precious, not to press this home to you. Here is Jesus saying to a man, highly skilled in religion – “You must be born again.” And it is not in your power to effect it. We must go to God, and only He can bring it to pass.
Surrounded with swearing & drunks. He got a good education. He resolved to change to change his ways. The harder he tried, the more he failed. And he worked very hard to change. He had a lot of things to undo in his habits. Most people would never dream of going to the extent he did. He doubled all his efforts to be religious. But then someone gave him a book. “The Life of God, in the soul of man.”
John the Baptist was born again in his mother’s womb. The Philippian jailer came to Christ in an earthquake – Lydia experienced the still small voice within her heart. Others through reading a book, as Whitefield. For others the Lord’s work in them could be a process – as with my father, it took many years, then the light dawned. But, what the Lord said to Nicodemus is true for everyone: “no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.”
To make any man or woman, boy or girl, a saint, a true believer in Jesus Christ, it takes a mysterious, powerful, supernatural operation of the Holy Spirit within, illuminating the mind, cleansing the heart, redirecting the fallen will.
No matter how sincere a person is, they cannot effect these changes by himself or herself, nor, in honesty, would they want to. As Paul would say later, talking about the same thing, “the mind of the flesh is hostile to God, it will not submit itself to God’s law, nor can it do so.” So God himself, by his powerful wind, must change the mind.
You must be born again. Think about it. It represents a rejection of all that we are in our natural state. What you are now will not do, you must be born again.
And yet, this is wholly outside our own control. The Spirit must work. It must be done, but only God can do – we cannot do it. We must come to the surrender of our entire inner life to God – thoughts, attitudes, feelings – a complete surrender. Religious duties and acts are not enough. God requires a new heart, a new life.
Most Jews in Jesus’ day would have nothing to do with this doctrine. It offended them. The Greeks thought it was foolish – the Jews were offended. But the Spirit gave Nicodemus that new beginning, that new birth, and, as a result, he came to believe in Jesus Christ.
Those of you who know that you have been born again by the Spirit of God, have reason to be thrilled. Here you are – you find yourself a believer. You are trusting in Christ to save your soul. And nothing but the power of God could bring that about. You would never have believed and all your life you would have loved darkness rather than light unless the Spirit had come to you and made you a new creation in Jesus Christ.
This is the message for everyone. You need to be born again. You need your heart to be other than it is. You need to escape the bondage of your present life. You know full well that such deliverance lies beyond your power. Perhaps you’ve tried to change, but you know, deep down, it hasn’t worked. God alone must do it for you.
No amount of religion, or good intentions will get you into the Kingdom of God. Unless you are born again, you will never see the kingdom of God.