Being Born Again
Sunday School Lesson for September 22, 2002
Background Passage: John 3:1-36
The Necessity of the new Birth (3:1-3)
John tells us that, following the incident of the cleansing of the temple in Jerusalem, a Pharisee named “Nicodemus” approached Jesus. This man, whose Greek name means “victory over the people,” was also a “member of the Jewish ruling council.” That is, he was a member of the Sanhedrin, a council of seventy men who exercised authority over the Jewish people. As one of the approximately 7000 Pharisees as well, Nicodemus was both a very educated and deeply religious man who gave very careful attention to the laws and traditions of Israel. Later he will be referred to as “Israel’s teacher” (v. 10).
Having come to Christ “at night,” the traditional time the Pharisees studied and debated the Scriptures, Nicodemus respectfully addressed Jesus by the title “Rabbi.” He also acknowledged his awareness of the special authority and power with which Jesus conducted His ministry—“we know you are a teacher who has come from God.” Apparently, Nicodemus had witnessed the “miraculous signs” mentioned in 2:23 and this led him to more closely investigate the identity and ministry of Christ. He correctly determined that such miraculous events would not be possible “if God were not with him.”
Following Nicodemus’ address, Jesus rather abruptly confronted him with a truly staggering claim about the “kingdom of God”—a basic concept Nicodemus would have been quite familiar with. For him, the kingdom of Yahweh would have involved participation in God’s rule at the end of the age as well as the experience of the final resurrection. Yet, Jesus solemnly declares—“I tell you the truth”—that Nicodemus, and those like him (“no one”), cannot “see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.” To “see” God’s kingdom meant to both witness and have a share in it at the end of the age. D. A. Carson elaborates:
Predominant religious thought in Jesus’ day affirmed that all Jews would be admitted to that kingdom apart from those guilty of deliberate apostasy or extraordinary wickedness. But here was Jesus telling Nicodemus, a respected and conscientious member not only of Israel but of the Sanhedrin, that he cannot enter the kingdom unless he is born again (italics his) .
To enter the kingdom of God, as far as the Gospel of John goes, is to be granted the gift of eternal life (cf. v. 16). This, however, necessitates that one first be “born again.” This birth, a radical spiritual transformation of such magnitude that it is analogous to physical birth, is one literally “from above,” or thoroughly supernatural in character. It is synonymous with the phrase “born of God” used earlier in 1:13. Like physical birth, it is brought about by forces outside of and beyond the power and will of the man. It is not something achieved, merited, or accomplished by human activity or determination. It is completely gratuitous in nature—the product of the grace and power of God alone.
The Nature of the New Birth (3:4-8)
That Nicodemus had begun to recognize and understand the weight of Christ’s words is reflected in his question in response—“How can a man be born when he is old?” This question, and the reference to entering “a second time into his mother’s womb,” may be intended as metaphorical reply to a metaphorical challenge [Carson, 190]. That is, Nicodemus may be saying that a man of his age is not likely to start life all over again. When a man reaches a certain level of maturity and is set in his ways “he cannot be expected to change his nature and start all over” [Bruce, 83].
To clear up any degree of confusion about the matter, Jesus repeats His statement with even greater emphasis:
"Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. 26 "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. 27 "And I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances.”
To be “born of water and Spirit,” as far as Christ is concerned, signals the act of God whereby the soul of a sinner is cleansed from all sin and impurity and brought to new life by the powerful and mysterious operation of the Holy Spirit. Perhaps the grand Old Testament illustration of this very principle is also found in Ezekiel’s prophecy. Note the vision of the dry bones coming to life in Ezekiel 37:1-14. In this light, only one birth is in view—that which is of “water and Spirit.” In other words, Christ is not saying that one must first be born of water, and then born of the Spirit, as if two separate births are meant. This same principle is expressed in Titus 3:3-5—
For we also once were foolish ourselves, disobedient, deceived, enslaved to various lusts and pleasures, spending our life in malice and envy, hateful, hating one another. 4 But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared, 5 He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit,
In view of this evidence, Carson’s conclusion that this phrase “signals a new begetting, a new birth that cleanses and renews, the eschatological cleansing and renewal promised in the Old Testament” seems to be on target .
Once again, Jesus reinforces His point concerning the sovereign, supernatural nature of the spiritual birth, or what may also be understood as the gift of regeneration. Salvation and the working of the Holy Spirit may be compared to the “wind” which “blows wherever it pleases.” That is, regeneration is neither influenced nor produced by something men do for themselves. It is a mighty, unseen work of God in the human heart that results in discernable changes—“you hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going.” Thus, all people who are “born of the Spirit” experience a similar divine transformation that has its origin in the mercies of God (cf. 1: 13). Hendriksen comments that these words of Jesus would serve as a profound lesson for a man
who had been brought up in the belief that a person could and should save himself by perfect obedience to the law of Moses and to a host of man-made thoroughly analyzable, human regulations (italics his) .
The Basis of the New Birth (3:14-17)
In response to Nicodemus’ question, “How can this be?” (v. 9), Jesus takes him back to an event recorded in the book of Numbers (21:5-9) where the people of Israel were inflicted by a plague of fiery, poisonous serpents. In order to accomplish their healing and deliverance, Moses held aloft a bronze serpent and all who looked upon it were saved from certain death. In the same way, Jesus claims that “the Son of Man must be lifted up” in order that men may behold Him and “believe” in Him for “eternal life.”
This statement has direct reference to Christ being “lifted up” on the cross and exalted at the right hand of God following His resurrection. The cross, then, became “the ladder of his ascent to the Father’s presence (cf. John 1:51)” [Bruce, 88]. This interpretation is in keeping with John’s usage of the phrase “lifted up” in other sections of the Gospel where the cross is clearly in mind (see 8:28; 12:32, 34). Thus, all those who look upon the crucified, resurrected, and exalted Savior in faith (“believes”) will experience “eternal life.” This life is defined as the life of “the age to come, resurrection life which believers in Christ enjoy in advance because of their union with the one who has already risen from the dead” [Bruce, 89].
Now Nicodemus is confronted with a truly incredible fact, one that deeply challenged his long-held convictions regarding the scope of God’s love and saving purposes. To Nicodemus’ great surprise, Jesus declares, “God so loved the world.” This statement, perhaps the very theme and core of the Fourth Gospel, reveals that the mission of Christ to live, die, and rise again is both motivated by and grounded in the infinite love of God for unworthy sinners. Amazingly, God loves “the world”—that is, humanity in its rebellion against His holy character and Word. The “world” is the conglomeration of wicked men and women who have disregarded their Creator’s commands. It is fallen desperately short of the glory of God and, as a tragic consequence, deserves nothing but eternal damnation. Yet, God loves this world, even in its persistent rebellion and sin (cf. Rom. 5:8). He has made the world of sinners (not just the Jewish nation, as Nicodemus would have assumed) the object of His saving purposes. Thus, Christ the Savior was sent “so that all, without distinction or exception, who repose their faith on him might be rescued from destruction and blessed with the life that is life indeed” [Bruce, 90]. Furthermore, the wonderful promise associated with this declaration of God’s love is that “whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” The result of salvation is freedom from eternal death under the holy wrath of God.
Once again the purpose for the mission and ministry of Christ is clearly set forth. Christ was not sent by God in order to “condemn” or judge the world, for it was already in a state of condemnation before Him. Rather, God sent “his Son into the world” in order to “save the world through him.” Thus, the “one and only Son” (v. 9) is God’s singular provision for the sins of man. It is only through believing in His name that salvation may be found. As Bruce reminds us, if He came “so that those who believe in him should not perish, how can those who reject his gift of life do other than perish? .
One: The level ground at the cross— On earth, men are stratified. They locate themselves in various classes, segments, and categories. Yet, before the Holy God of the Scriptures, all men are in the same category. All men “must be born again.”
Two: Death to do-it-yourself salvation—The message of Jesus in this passage eliminates any hope that there might exist a plan or scheme of self-salvation. Clearly, the words of Christ announce our utter helplessness and moral inability before God. Salvation, then, is not the rescue of a drowning man, but the mercy-inspired resurrection of one who has already been declared dead.
Three: Good news for sinners—It is not a lovely, morally pure world to which the Father sent the Son, but one deeply stained with guilt and sin. This world, with all of its depravity and corruption, is the object of the Father’s saving purposes and infinite love.
Four: The mission of the church—As did our Lord, we too must go into this world announcing the claims of the Gospel. We must boldly call all men to repentance and faith in Christ. The promise we must cling to is that “whoever” trusts in Him, from whatever race, tribe or class, will be eternally saved.