Let’s look at John 3:1-8 and the conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus.
1 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.”
When people come to Jesus because of his signs, his miracles, Jesus always gets to the heart of the matter — the heart.
We saw it last week when we found Nicodemus’ statement in verse 2, “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.”
Moved be Jesus’ miracles there were some who were interested in Jesus at the end of chapter 2. But Jesus knew they didn’t truly believe in him with their hearts. Now we see Nicodemus coming to Jesus to inquire of him and he too has been observing Jesus’ signs, his miracles.
And Jesus knows just what Nicodemus needs. It’s not that he needs to know more about Jesus’ signs. What he needs is to know about his own lost condition — that he needs a new heart — he needs to be born again.
So Jesus gets to the heart of the issue and it’s that Nicodemus, and every other human being for that matter, needs to realize that they are dead in their sins and they cannot see the kingdom of God, they cannot enter the kingdom of God, without being born again. They must be regenerated.
Nicodemus needed to know this and so do we, that no one can see the kingdom of God, no one can be a part of God’s kingdom, no one can have eternal life and forgiveness of sins unless they are born again, because all mankind are dead in their trespasses and sins, says Ephesians 2:1.
That passage doesn’t stand alone. Later in verse 5 we hear this,
5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—
John 5:21 puts it like this:
21 For as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whom he will.
And Colossians 2:13 also makes it clear that without Christ we are dead in our trespasses, our sins. That’s the most desperate need of all mankind. Before we meet Christ we need to know the solution to spiritual death and the eternal separation from God that’s the result of that deadness in sin. And Jesus tells Nicodemus to see the kingdom, which is to be saved from his sin, he must be born again.
Now just think with me for a moment about how this must have turned Nicodemus’ world upside-down. We noted it at length last Sunday evening that Jesus never made it easy for people to believe in him — he never sidestepped the truth or watered down the Gospel for someone who was finding it hard to believe.
John MacArthur notes that,
No matter how religiously active someone might be, no one can enter the kingdom without experiencing the personal regeneration of the new birth (cf. Matt. 19:28).
The implications of Jesus’ words for Nicodemus were staggering. All of his life he had diligently observed the law (cf. Mark 10:20) and the rituals of Judaism (cf. Gal. 1:14). He had joined the ultrareligious Pharisees, and even become a member of the Sanhedrin. Now Jesus called him to forsake all of that and start over; to abandon the entire system of works righteousness in which he had placed his hope; to realize that human effort was powerless to save. Describing the consternation Nicodemus must have felt, R. C. H. Lenski writes:
Jesus’ word regarding the new birth shatters once for all every supposed excellence of man’s attainment, all merit of human deeds, all prerogatives of natural birth or station. Spiritual birth is something one undergoes, not something he produces. As our efforts had nothing to do with our natural conception and birth, so in an analogous way but on a far higher plane, regeneration is not a work of ours. What a blow for Nicodemus! His being a Jew gave him no part in the kingdom; his being a Pharisee, esteemed holier than other people, availed him nothing; his membership in the Sanhedrin and his fame as one of its scribes went for nought. This Rabbi from Galilee calmly tells him that he is not yet in the kingdom! All on which he had built his hopes throughout a long arduous life here sank into ruin and became a little worthless heap of ashes. (The Interpretation of St. John’s Gospel [Reprint; Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1998], 234–35) (The MacArthur New Testament Commentary, Electronic Edition)
So here comes Nicodemus, not really knowing what he needed. But Jesus knows. He tells him that he cannot see the kingdom of God unless he’s been born again. Nothing he can do, no great religious accomplishment, and it certainly wasn’t a matter of being more religious than he already was. Jesus tells him that he has to start over — you must be born again. And, to say the least, that puzzles Nicodemus. How can one be born again?
MacArthur goes on to say,
Far from minimizing the demands of the gospel, Jesus confronted Nicodemus with the most difficult challenge He could make. No wonder Christ would later say to His disciples, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!” (Mark 10:24). By calling him to be born again, Jesus challenged this most religious Jew to admit his spiritual bankruptcy and abandon everything he was trusting in for salvation.
So what does it take to be born again? We pick up in verse 5 with Jesus’ answer.
5 …“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.
Unless one is born of water and the Spirit. Jesus is giving Nicodemus more detail about what it means to be born again. What does Jesus mean?
There have been several ideas given for what it means to be born of water.
Some have said this is talking about our first birth, your natural birth. They would say Jesus’ statement is symbolizing two births here, the water being your first birth, and the Spirit being the spiritual re-birth. But that’s not likely since Jesus’ statement here in verse 5 is a parallel to the statement in verse 3, unless one is born again. So there’s really only one birth here, not two.
Some say being born of water is about Christian baptism. But that can’t be it since Christian baptism didn’t yet exist. And similarly some say Jesus is talking about John’s baptism here, which also isn’t likely since Nicodemus would have understood what John the Baptist’s baptism was.
I think it’s interesting that Jesus expected Nicodemus to understand this. Later in verse 10 Jesus remarks, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?”
Unless one is born of water and the Spirit. What could this be? It will help us to understand that this isn’t two things, it’s really only one — one statement, intended to shed further light on what it means to be born again.
I think Jesus had in mind a passage from the Old Testament — one Nicodemus would have been familiar with. I think he’s pointing back to Ezekiel 36:24-27. Listen to this passage, because I think we find being born again, regeneration, is being spoken of here in this Old Testament text.
24 I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. 25 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. 26 And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put 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 be careful to obey my rules.
Here’s Nicodemus, this man who knew the Old Testament Scriptures and I think Jesus is pointing him back to them to help him understand just how it can be that one is born again.
And what this passage in Ezekiel is pointing to and what Jesus is saying in fact is that no one enters the kingdom of God without having his soul washed clean, cleansed through God’s Word and by God’s Spirit.
In another New Testament passage, Ephesians 5:26, speaking of believers as a part of Christ’s church, says that they have been cleansed by the washing of water with the word. That points to this need for the cleansing work of the Word in our lives. That’s what Nicodemus needed. He needed his soul washed clean.
And Jesus is making it very clear to this Pharisee, this man of knowledge and religion that it’s not by his own works or wisdom that he’s saved, it’s only by the work of the spirit of God. Titus 3:5 makes this clear saying,
5 he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit,
This is just what Jesus is pointing Nicodemus to as he continues in verses 6.
6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.
Listen Nicodemus, you may be a man of great learning, but your learning has not cleansed you because it has not brought you to the point where you see yourself as a sinner in need of regeneration. Jesus is making it very clear here that no amount of effort, or learning, or good works saves you. Spiritual regeneration is completely a work of God.
And maybe you can see the stunned look on the face of Nicodemus as Jesus says in verse 7 and 8,
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.”
You want an illustration of how the Spirit works? You want to understand more clearly that you don’t control the Spirit, that God moves as he wishes in the heart of man? The illustration doesn’t get much clearer than the one Jesus gives Nicodemus.
You try grasping the wind Nicodemus. You try making the wind go where you want. You can’t see the wind or control the wind. The Spirit of God is like that.
Nicodemus needed to know and believe this and so do you, that the Spirit’s work in saving you is all his own. Titus 3:5-6 makes that truth wonderfully clear.
5 he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, 6 whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior,
How the Spirit of God does this is a mystery to us. But just like the effects of the unseen wind after a storm are clearly seen, so the effects of the Spirit of God are clearly seen in the lives of those who are born again, born of the Spirit.
If you’ve been born of the Spirit then you have great reason for gratitude. Gratitude toward God that he gives to you. And out of gratitude for his grace shown to you in your salvation you will happily yield to his Word. That’s one of the effects of being born of the spirit.
But like Nicodemus, you may need to be born again. If so then your first step of obedience should be repentance of sin and belief in Jesus Christ for salvation.
As Mark 1 says of Jesus’ ministry, that he, 14 …came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, 15 and saying,“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”