June 9, 2013
It would be a tragedy to spend your life studying the Bible and yet end up perishing on judgment day. What a waste to be a Bible scholar and yet miss the central message of the Bible! James Boice (Does Inerrancy Matter? [International Council on Biblical Inerrancy], p. 9) told of a gathering of ministers where an evangelical pastor argued a point based on the Bible’s teaching. He referred to Jesus’ words and to His promise to return.
When he had finished, a professor from a leading Protestant seminary stood up to counter what the pastor had said. He said, “You cannot appeal to the teaching of Jesus Christ, because we do not know what Jesus really taught. The Gospels are contradictory at this point. Each of them has been written to correct the others. So far as Christ’s return is concerned, we have simply got to get it into our heads that Jesus is never coming back and that all things are going to continue on as they have from the beginning.”
Dr. Boice added that it would be nice to think that such views are held only by a few liberals. But he cited a survey of over 7,400 clergymen in five major denominations. One question was, “Do you believe the Bible to be the inspired Word of God?” This was not asking whether they believed the Bible to be without any error, but rather only if they believed the Bible to be inspired by God in some undefined sense. But in spite of the level at which the question was asked, 82% of the Methodists, 89% of the Episcopalians, 81% of the United Presbyterians, 57% of the Lutherans, and 57% of the Baptists answered, “No”! Dr. Boice wrote that booklet in 1979. I would guess that things have not improved much, if at all, in the three postmodern decades since then.
In our text, Jesus is talking with a leading religious teacher in Israel (Jesus calls him “the teacher of Israel in 3:10) who does not understand the basics of spiritual truth. Nicodemus had devoted his life to the study of the Scriptures, and yet he did not understand Jesus’ words (3:3), “Unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” To gain entrance to God’s eternal kingdom Nicodemus was counting on the fact that he had been born as a Jew and that he was not just an average Jew, but a Pharisee. But Jesus yanked the rug out from under his feet and said, in effect: “Your natural birth, your religious devotion, and your religious studies mean absolutely nothing. You must be born again!”
The main reason you need the new birth is so that you can see and enter God’s eternal kingdom and avoid His judgment (3:3, 5). Without the new birth you’re spiritually dead and cut off from God. If you die without the new birth, you will perish (3:16, 36). But the verses that we are considering today also teach that …
You need the new birth so that you can understand and respond to spiritual truth.
Nicodemus had studied the Old Testament and yet he didn’t get what Jesus was saying because he was not born again. Most scholars agree that by the time of Jesus’ crucifixion, Nicodemus had come to faith, as evidenced in his courage in helping with the burial of Jesus (19:38-42). But at this point, he had not been born again and so he was spiritually confused, in spite of his years of religious studies and devotion.
Perhaps the apostle Paul (a former Pharisee) had talked with Nicodemus or knew about this story when he wrote (1 Cor. 2:14), “But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised.” We can learn four things:
John 3:6: “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” Jesus draws a sharp line between physical birth and spiritual birth. By “flesh,” He is referring to human nature or the natural man. As we saw in Romans 5:12-19, because of Adam’s sin, we’re all born in sin, separated from God, and unable to submit to God (Rom. 8:6-8). Cute as they are, little babies are not born spiritually neutral, much less with an inclination toward God. We’re all born alienated from God and so we need God’s Spirit to impart spiritual life to us so that we can become God’s children. As John 1:12-13 says, “But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.”
So there is this divide between what is born of the flesh and what is born of the Spirit. As Jesus says (John 6:63), “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life.”
“O Lord,” muttered Alexander Pope one day, “make me a better man!” His spiritually-enlightened servant replied, “It would be easier to make you a new man!” (In A Frank Boreham Treasury, compiled by Peter Gunther [Moody Press], p. 67.) God must intervene to give new life. Otherwise, all you have is the flesh trying to improve itself. But the flesh can never give itself new life that comes only from God. Thus,
John 3:7: “Do not be amazed that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’” “Must” is a strong word of necessity. It’s not an option. Genuine Christianity is, as Puritan Henry Scougal titled his book, nothing less than The Life of God in the Soul of Man [Sprinkle Publications]. Scougal wrote that book in 1677 when he was 27; he died of tuberculosis when he was 28.
In the early 1700’s, a 21-year-old Oxford student realized that his debauched, wicked life needed to be reformed. He resolved to change. He denied himself every luxury; he wore ragged clothes; he ate no foods except those that were repugnant to him; he fasted twice a week; he gave his money to the poor; and he spent whole nights in prayer, lying prostrate on the cold stones or the wet grass. But he felt like he was putting a coat of paint on rotten wood. His outward deeds only hid his inward corruption.
Then a college friend, Charles Wesley, gave that struggling young man, George Whitefield, a copy of Scougal’s book. Whitefield read Scougal’s book with amazement and delight. It told him that true Christianity is the union of the soul with God. It is Christ formed in us. Whitefield said (In A Frank Boreham Treasury, p. 66),
When I read this, a ray of divine light instantaneously darted in upon my soul; and, from that moment, but not till then, did I know that I must become a new creature. After having undergone innumerable buffetings by day and night, God was pleased at length to remove my heavy load and to enable me, by a living faith, to lay hold on His dear Son. And oh! with what joy—joy unspeakable and full of glory—was I filled when the weight of sin left me and an abiding sense of the pardoning love of God broke in upon my disconsolate soul!
Whitefield’s favorite Scripture became John 3:3 (KJV), “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” He went on to preach more than 18,000 sermons, often on that text, sometimes to outdoor crowds of over 20,000 people (with no microphone!). He made many trips to America and was used greatly in the First Great Awakening. In one of his final sermons, he said (ibid., p. 70), “I am now fifty-five years of age and I tell you that I am more than ever convinced that the truth of the new birth is a revelation from God Himself, and that without it you can never be saved by Jesus Christ.”
A friend asked him one day, “Why do you so often preach on Ye must be born again?”
“Because,” replied Whitefield solemnly, looking full into the face of the questioner, “because ye must be born again!”
How can a person know if he or she has been born again?
John 3:8: “The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
Jesus and Nicodemus may have been sitting on the rooftop to catch the cool evening breezes. Perhaps as they felt the wind blow gently, Jesus said, “Did you feel that, Nicodemus? You can’t see the wind, you can’t control it, and you can’t understand it. It goes where it pleases. But you can observe its effects. See the curtains moving and the leaves rustling? So it is with the Holy Spirit. You can’t control Him, because He works according to His sovereign will. You can’t understand Him. But you can see His effects when He brings the new birth to a soul. The changes aren’t external, like wearing certain garments or phylacteries. Rather, it’s an internal change brought about by new life within. Where the Spirit works, the effects are plain to see.”
What are the effects of the new birth? John wrote his first epistle to show the early church some genuine marks of salvation, so that they could be on guard against many false teachers. Here’s what he says:
1 John: 2:29: “If you know that He is righteous, you know that everyone also who practices righteousness is born of Him.”
1 John 3:9: “No one who is born of God practices sin, because His seed abides in him; and he cannot sin, because he is born of God.”
1 John 3:14: “We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love abides in death.”
1 John 4:7: “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.”
1 John 5:1: “Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, and whoever loves the Father loves the child born of Him.”
1 John 5:4: “For whatever is born of God overcomes the world; and this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith.”
1 John 5:18: “We know that no one who is born of God sins; but He who was born of God keeps him, and the evil one does not touch him.”
John is not referring to a sinless life, but to a life that sins less. In other words, all whom the Spirit saves, He sanctifies. It takes a lifetime, but they progressively grow in holiness, without which no one will see the Lord (Heb. 12:14). Those born of the Spirit develop the fruit of the Spirit as they learn to walk in the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal. 5:22-23).
J. C. Ryle, a 19th century Anglican Bishop, observed the thousands of nominal cultural “Christians” in his day. He asked (A New Birth [Old Paths Gospel Press], p. 88),
What do they like best, when they have a choice? What do they enjoy most, when they can have their own way? Observe the manner in which they spend their Sundays. Mark how little delight they seem to feel in the Bible and prayer. Take notice of the low and earthly notions of pleasure and happiness, which everywhere prevail ….
Then he asks his readers to ponder this question: “What would these people do in heaven?” In other words, if you don’t delight yourself in God now, you would not know what to do with yourself in heaven!
Jesus has shown Nicodemus that there is a fundamental divide between the physical and the spiritual. Thus it is absolutely essential that you experience the new birth. Though you may not understand exactly how it happens, when it happens you can see the effects of the new life in the one who has been born again.
Jesus makes two main points here:
John 3:9-10: “Nicodemus said to Him, ‘How can these things be?’ Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Are you the teacher of Israel and do not understand these things?’” Several commentators prefer the translation, “How can these things happen?” For years, Nicodemus had taught others that the way into God’s kingdom was to keep the commandments and the traditions of the elders. But now Jesus is telling him that this is the wrong approach. A person needs nothing less than new life imparted by the Spirit of God.
Jesus’ retort to Nicodemus makes it clear that he should have known these things from the Scriptures. As we saw last week when we considered Jesus’ meaning for “water” in 3:5, He was probably referring to Ezekiel 36:26-27: “Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances.” In Ezekiel 37, the prophet has the vision of the dry bones taking on flesh and coming to life when God’s Spirit breathes upon them. God says (37:14), “I will put My Spirit within you and you will come to life….”
Also, in Joel 2:28-29 (which Peter cited on the Day of Pentecost, Acts 2:17ff.), the Lord says, “It will come about after this that I will pour out My Spirit on all mankind; and your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions. Even on the male and female servants I will pour out My Spirit in those days.” The prophet Isaiah often prophesied of the time when God would pour out His Spirit (11:2; 32:15; 44:3 59:21).
So Nicodemus should not have been amazed at Jesus’ teaching. But the point is, apart from having God’s Spirit dwelling in you through the new birth, you can study the Bible for years in the original languages and still miss the main point of the Bible. As Jesus later rebuked the religious leaders (John 5:39-40): “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me; and you are unwilling to come to Me so that you may have life.” Jesus then makes a second point:
John 3:11-13: “Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know and testify of what we have seen, and you do not accept our testimony. If I told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven, but He who descended from heaven: the Son of Man.” For the third time, Jesus introduces his statement with, “Truly, truly.” He is emphasizing the fact that His testimony is absolutely reliable and true. If you reject what Jesus is saying about your need for the new birth, you’re arrogantly asserting that you know more about spiritual things than He does, even though He came down from heaven and knows what He’s talking about.
But that was precisely the problem with the Jewish leaders: Jesus’ testimony about God and the only way to have sins forgiven and get eternal life was an affront to their religious pride. They did not see themselves as sinners who needed a Savior (John 8:33, 41; 9:34). And so they rejected the true testimony of the only One who has come from heaven to earth to tell us how to be right with God.
There are a couple of difficulties to try to resolve in these verses. First, why does Jesus shift from the first person singular (“I say to you”) to the plural (“we speak of what we know…”)? Probably it was because in Jewish thought, true testimony is established by two or three witnesses. In John 5:31, Jesus tells the Jews, “If I alone testify about Myself, My testimony is not true.” He meant that it would not be admissible as legal evidence. But He goes on to say that the Father testifies of Him, John the Baptist had testified of Him, Jesus’ works testified of Him, and the Scriptures testified of Him. Here in John 3, Jesus may have been referring to the witness of John the Baptist or of the Father. But since He is rebuking Nicodemus for not knowing these things, I think that He is referring to the witness of the Old Testament prophets.
A second difficulty is, what does Jesus mean by “earthly things” and “heavenly things” (3:12)? I think that Calvin is on target when he says that Jesus is referring to His manner of teaching. He used two earthly illustrations, birth and the wind, to explain basic spiritual truth about receiving new life from God. If Nicodemus couldn’t understand these simple illustrations, how would he ever be able to understand if Jesus explained the Trinity or His incarnation or His substitutionary death for sinners?
A third difficulty is how do we read and understand verse 13: “No one has ascended into heaven, but He who descended from heaven: the Son of Man”? Some translations accept a textual variant that adds to “the Son of Man” the phrase, “who is in heaven.” Some scholars argue that it was in the original text because it is a difficult reading that no later scribe would have added. They contend that a later scribe may have dropped it to avoid the suggestion that Jesus was at that moment in heaven. But the majority of scholars think that a later scribe may have added it to reflect later Christological development (Bruce Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament [United Bible Societies], pp. 174-175). It seems unlikely to me that Jesus would have told Nicodemus that He was currently in heaven as He spoke to him on earth.
By His words in verse 13 Jesus is asserting that no one besides Him has ever ascended into heaven to be able to report heavenly truth on earth. He alone has come down from heaven. By the “Son of Man,” He is saying that He is the one Daniel prophesied of in Daniel 7:13-14, whom he saw in heaven with the Ancient of Days. Thus Jesus uniquely understands and can reveal heavenly mysteries. To reject Jesus’ witness is to reject God’s primary source for spiritual truth. We have that witness in the entire Bible, which tells us about Christ and points us to Him (Luke 24:27, 44).
The late Bible teacher, H. A. Ironside, told of visiting a godly Irishman, Andrew Fraser, who had come to California to recover from tuberculosis. The old man could barely speak because his lungs were almost gone. But he opened his worn Bible and, until his strength was gone, he simply, sweetly opened up truth after truth in a way that Ironside had never heard before. Before he knew it, Ironside had tears running down his cheeks. He asked Fraser, “Where did you get all these things? Could you tell me where I could find a book that would open them up to me? Did you learn these things in some seminary or college?”
Fraser answered, “My dear young man, I learned these things on my knees on the mud floor of a little sod cottage in the north of Ireland. There with my Bible open before me, I used to kneel for hours at a time, and ask the Spirit of God to reveal Christ to my soul and to open the Word to my heart. He taught me more on my knees on that mud floor than I ever could have learned in all the seminaries or colleges in the world.” (H. A. Ironside, In the Heavenlies [Loizeaux Brothers], pp. 86-87.)
That’s a major reason why you need the new birth. When God’s Spirit takes up residence in your heart, He will open up to you the sweet truths about Jesus as you read and study the Word in prayerful dependence on Him. As David said (Ps. 19:10), these truths are more desirable than gold and sweeter than honey to your soul.
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2013, All Rights Reserved.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation