John 3:1–8 (ESV): Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. 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.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” 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?” 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. 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ 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.”
The subject that we are going to be working through is a great mystery. It is rooted and grounded in the supernatural. No one less than John Calvin let it be known that this subject is one around which it is impossible to wrap our minds. No one less than Jesus stated that this subject is a mystery in terms of how it works. We learn this mysterious truth through Jesus’ interaction with a Jewish religious leader named Nicodemus.
Nicodemus recognized that Jesus was a teacher sent and empowered by God. He recognized that God must be with him and enabling him to preach and minister in such power. After acknowledging this Jesus immediately confronted him with some real and heavy theology. Jesus introduced his teaching by the words, “Truly, truly,” or “Verily, verily.” This is a way of putting his statement in a neon sign meant to draw attention and focus. Jesus was letting it be known that what he was about to say was of utmost importance. In a sense Jesus was letting this astute leader know that acknowledging truth was not enough in terms of the Kingdom of God. One can be impressed with Jesus and with what he can do. However, this does not mean that he/she is a follower of Jesus. Jesus is not the least bit interested in fans.
Jesus lays out for Nicodemus how one truly becomes a disciple and follower of Jesus, namely, “…unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Hearing about the Kingdom of God is not enough. Being impressed by the power of the presence of the Kingdom of God is not enough. Even being amazed by the Kingdom of God is not enough. No, one must be able to see the Kingdom of God in order to be in the Kingdom of God. How does this happen? This happens through being born again, or through being born from above. This happens through a powerful work of the Holy Spirit.
One cannot obtain this powerful gift through mere human birth. This status and reality cannot be bequeathed through natural generation or inheritance. It cannot be obtained by “osmosis” through others. It cannot be obtained through the means of the flesh, which refers to genetics and through sheer human effort. Striving to be a good person cannot make you born again. Performing the most sacrificial religious acts imaginable cannot cause someone to be born again by the Spirit of God. This is why it is actually superfluous to ask, “What must I DO to receive eternal life?” The Apostle Paul would say that we must put no confidence in the flesh, that is, no confidence in human will power or effort. Apparently, being good in human terms is just not good enough.
Nicodemus’ response is one that I understand. He was thinking in terms of human birth. He was an old man and he was confused. He thought, “How can I enter again into my mother’s womb?” So, he was thinking naturally about a matter that is supernatural in nature. It is beyond nature and human comprehension. Jesus further illustrates this dynamic by telling Nicodemus that one must be born of water AND the Spirit in order to enter the Kingdom of God. Even the sacrament of baptism, by itself, is insufficient means for entering the Kingdom of God. The sign is valuable, indeed. It is of great importance both as a pictorial representation and as a seal. But the sign should be accompanied by the thing signified: the cleansing work of the Holy Spirit.
As stated earlier, mere human generation cannot cause one to be born again and gain entrance into the Kingdom of God. Jesus further amplifies this truth by stating “that which is born of the flesh is flesh….” This means that sinful human flesh can only produce more sinful human flesh. However, that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.
So, there it is. Simple! Well, not exactly. Jesus lets us know that what he just taught is indeed a mystery. It is like trying to harness the wind. While we can hear the sound of the wind, we do not know where it came from nor where it is going. We cannot control the wind. It moves and goes where it wants, or where it is ultimately being directed by God.
We cannot control the work of the Spirit. We cannot direct the work of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit is sovereign and truly does what He pleases.
Jesus knew that Nicodemus needed to know this. He needed to know that all the biblical studies in the world could not save him and gain him entrance into God’s Kingdom. He needed to know that he could not gain entrance into the Kingdom through the means of his earthly heritage. Nicodemus needed to know that he could not gain entrance through striving to be righteous and ritualistically holy. Nicodemus needed to know that he could not DO anything to gain entrance into the Kingdom of God. Also, as a religious teacher and leader, Nicodemus should have already been well-versed in this teaching since it was taught in the Torah. However, he needed to know that something must happen TO him.
Of course, this opens the door for us to have many questions. We must also admit that it hits us right where we live in terms of our own pride and trusting in ourselves to make us right with God.
Our default setting is to trust in ourselves and live according to the thought that God owes us righteousness and heaven. Yet, Scripture teaches us that God is a debtor to no one. Our natural bent is to seek to live independently of God. This is the big lie, the pitcher of kool-aid from which we have all drunk. Though we are dependent upon God for life, breath, and for all things, we actually think at times that we don’t need God and that we actually deserve the blessings in our lives because of our faithfulness and goodness.
So, who is the liar? Are our thoughts the lie or is Jesus the liar? Jesus said that we can’t enter the Kingdom of God unless a significant work of the Spirit is done in us. We naturally say, “Just show me the steps, show me the rules, and I can do it.”
I pray you will be greatly encouraged and emboldened to walk in newness of life and find yourselves enjoying God more and loving Jesus more deeply.