3:1 Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews.
- Not only was he a religious leader, but he was on the Sanhedrin Council; the powerful ruling body of the Jews which made civil, legal, and religious decisions (carried out sentences as well – everything except the death penalty).
- When I think about a similar kind of historical politico/religious council as an example, I think of the Geneva Council during the time of Calvin, which acted as a sort of political-theocratic governing body.
3:2 This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.”
- There are many aspects to this verse that need to be noted. Firstly, we see that Nicodemus came to Christ at night…its said by many commentators that he was likely ashamed of being seen with Jesus. Surely we ought to ask ourselves the question: Are we ashamed of Christ? Do we come to Him by night because you are afraid to ask the questions you have to ask?
- The second thing is that Nicodemus says “we” here. By “we”, he probably means ‘we on the Council know that you have to be from God. We can tell that you must be from God…there’s a consensus building and we know that you must be from God.’
- Also, they assume that because He is doing these miracles through the power of God…though later some of them would say that Jesus was doing His miracles through some kind of satanic power (John 8).
3:3 Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
- When Jesus says that we must be born again, it means that the Spirit of God must bring us to Spiritual life. He must raise us from the dead (Eph. 2:1-10) and unite us to life in (and with) Christ. It is the Spirit who makes us alive, and it is life that comes from Christ/in Christ. So what the Spirit is effectively doing is uniting us to Christ.
- In order to really appreciate and/or understand what it means to be made spiritually “alive” to Christ, we must first understand the nature of being dead. Dead men cannot see the kingdom of God according to Jesus. Dead men cannot be made alive on their own either, as we will see in verse 5.
- John Piper says that we have a very difficult time understanding ourselves and the depth of our sin in this spiritual deadness. “No one knows the extent of his sinfulness. It is deeper than anyone can fathom…Our rebellion is so deep that we cannot detect or desire the glory of Christ in the gospel” says John Piper. “Therefore, if we are going to be born again, it will rely decisively and ultimately on God. His decision to make us alive will not be a response to what we as spiritual corpses do, but what we do will be a response to His making us alive.”
- Certainly its important to realize our former state, for as Piper says, “We will never experience the fullness of the greatness of God’s love for us if we don’t see His love in relation to our former deadness.”
As we examine this mighty truth about our former state, it would be wise to look at a few other verses that give more context to this:
- Colossians 2:13,14 says, “And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.”
- Ephesians 2:1-10 says, “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— 3 among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. 4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”
- Galatians 2:20 says, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
- Romans 6:2 says, “By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?”
3:4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?”
He didn’t understand what Jesus said because he was blind to the reality of the things Jesus was saying. Dead men can’t understand the gospel because it is foolishness to them (1 Cor. 1).
3:5 Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.
- The first thing I want to address here is the meaning of the “water” here. Calvin notes that “water” is really similar to the New Testament’s use of the word “wind”: “Accordingly, he employed the words Spirit and water to mean the same thing, and this ought not to be regarded as a harsh or forced interpretation; for it is a frequent and common way of speaking in Scripture, when the Spirit is mentioned, to add the word Water or Fire, expressing his power. We sometimes meet with the statement, that it is Christ who baptizeth with the Holy Ghost and with fire, (Matthew 3:11; Luke 3:16,) where fire means nothing different from the Spirit, but only shows what is his efficacy in us.”
- To further illustrate the point, the ESV Study Bible notes make the point that, “Wind and Spirit translate the same Greek and Hebrew words.” Indeed these are meant to convey the same concept. Calvin certainly agrees with this when he summarizes, “By water, therefore, is meant nothing more than the inward purification and invigoration which is produced by the Holy Spirit.”
- John Piper makes several good arguments as to why the word “water” here doesn’t refer to baptism, as some would suppose. He says that the words “spirit” and “water” refer to “a cleansing of the old and a creation of the new.” Piper argues that even though we are a new creation, we still have the old man, the flesh, and therefore need that cleansing, “If the old human being, John Piper, were completely obliterated, the whole concept of forgiveness and cleansing would be irrelevant. There would be nothing left over from the past to forgive or cleanse.” “My guilt must be washed away. Cleansing with water is a picture of that.”
3:6-7 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.  Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’
- Here our Lord enumerates on the contrast between that which is the flesh and that which is the Spirit, and what the differences are. When He says “flesh” it is to mean the same type of “flesh” that Paul mentioned in Romans 7 – this is the human personality, the human will and mind/heart.
- Just like a human being is in the flesh by God ordained means, so the Spirit creates in us a new creation, a spirit that was dead is now alive. And this transformation can only be done by the Lord God omnipotent. There is nothing in the creative process here that we contribute. We are given faith and place that faith upon the Lord Jesus Christ, and we are saved. The Spirit takes care of the rest!
3:8 The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
- It’s amazing to think that Jesus, who tells us here that no one knows where the wind comes from or where it goes, was the One who calmed the wind on the Sea of Galilee. And, of course, the Spirit is not going to do anything that isn’t in perfect harmony with Christ’s mind and the Father’s plan from all eternity.
3:9-10 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?”  Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?
- And here we find a stinging rebuke of Nicodemus. The Lord is telling him that these truths are things that he should have known from close study of the Old Testament. But Nicodemus was not a believer, nor did it seem he was much of a scholar (though that commentary might have been made about many of the ruling class of the Jews during Jesus’ day).
In summary, how do we teach this to our children?
When we are “born again” it is God’s supernatural work within us to save us from our sins. The Holy Spirit breathes brand new spiritual life into us and creates a “new creature” (2 Cor. 5:17) uniting us with Jesus Christ (this includes the promise of being forever in heaven with Him). Before being born again we are spiritually dead people (Eph. 2:1-10; Col. 3:17) who do not want God or the things of God (Rom. 3:11) and are actually enemies of God (Col. 1:21), slaves of sin (John 8:34, Rom. 6) and Jesus called us children of the Devil (John 8:44). But God has intervened on our behalf (Eph. 2:4-5) so that we might trust in Jesus. Our part in salvation is to place our faith/hope in Christ for this salvation. We have to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ (Acts 16:31) in order to be saved. But even this faith we place in Jesus is a gift from God (Ephesians 2:8) and happens the very moment that the Holy Spirit regenerates us (causes us to be born again).
Additional resources: ‘Finally Alive’ by John Piper