After it was dark one evening, a Pharisee named Nicodemus came to Jesus. He was a ruler and a teacher of the Jews, and his coming by night to speak to Jesus reveals a bit of the sincerity of his heart behind his coming. For while the rest of the Pharisees were notorious for conspiring together and then questioning Jesus during the day so as to attempt to trap him in blasphemy, Nicodemus came at night to Christ so that he would not to be seen by the other Pharisees and associated with their trickery.
Upon coming to Jesus, Nicodemus 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” (Jn. 3:2). Nicodemus’s confession to Christ is an astounding one, and it places him in direct opposition to his Pharisee brothers. Yet, despite the greatness of Nicodemus’s confession, Christ does not respond to his confession with a “Thank you,” or a “You are right,” or even the response he gave to Peter upon his confession, “Blessed are you!” Christ does none of these things but seems to ignore the Nicodemus’s statement altogether.
Instead of responding directly to Nicodemus’s bold confession, Jesus says to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again [or from above] he cannot see the kingdom of God” (v. 3:3). Now, where in the world did that response come from? It seems that Nicodemus said one thing to Christ, and Christ simply decided to ignore Nicodemus’s statement and simply chose to say what was on his mind.
In spite of this appearance on the surface, it would likely be a bit of a misunderstanding to say that Christ’s response had nothing to do with Nicodemus’s declaration. What we are seeing here, I believe, is the Rabbi, whom Nicodemus declared was from God, teaching the Pharisee something that he had somehow missed in his studies of the Scriptures. For Christ, after teaching Nicodemus these truths, says to him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? (v. 3:10). Jesus scolds Nicodemus for his lack of understanding in his position as a Pharisee, a teacher of Israel, for apparently this what Christ is teaching to Nicodemus is something that he should have already known.
This teaching, this fundamental doctrine that Nicodemus should have known is that a man must be born again or born from above to see the Kingdom of God. In other words, for a man to be saved and to inherent eternal life, he must be born a second time in a supernatural and heavenly way. We know this because the word translated “again” is ambiguous in that it does mean “again” but it also carries with it the connotation of being “from above.” Therefore, salvation is contingent upon this “second birth from above,” and not to be born again means that one has not received God’s salvation.
Nicodemus, understanding the gravity of this teaching, naturally asks how this second birth comes about. He asks, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” (v. 3:4). Nicodemus’s response to the claim of Christ is about as natural a response as they come. When Christ declares, “You must be born again to be saved,” Nicodemus asks what he must do. “How can I cause myself to be born again?” he asks. “Must I find my mother and be born from her again?”
This, of course, is a ludicrous response, for what man can be born of his mother twice especially when he is a grown man? However, what is more ludicrous than the image of a grown man being born again by his mother is the question, “What must I do to cause myself to be born?” This question is thus because of the image of birth, for no one has ever caused himself to be born of his mother, but it was an act that happened totally irrespective of the man’s work or will. For, how many of us determined that we would come into existence? How many of us commanded our parents to perform the duty of marriage so as to cause ourselves to be conceived? How many gave direction to God to knit us in our mother’s wombs? The answer to these questions is an obvious, “None of us,” for we had no part in our birth. The passive tense of the construction is evidence enough, for we do not bear ourselves, but we are born.
In spite of the image of birth, our answer to the question is typically as absurd as Nicodemus’s, for, instead of conceding that our births had happened apart from us, we criticize Nicodemus for his ridiculous response and say, “Of course you cannot crawl back into your mother’s womb and be born again. To be born again you must accept Jesus as your personal Savior and let him into your heart.” We, misunderstanding the image birth just as badly as Nicodemus did, still attempt to make our being born again something that we cause by performing some act. It would be as ridiculous as saying that before we were born physically we accepted our mother as our personal mother and were thereby conceived and born by her.
But how does Jesus respond to Nicodemus’s question? He responds, saying:
Do not marvel that I said to you, “You must be born again.” The wind [or Spirit] 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” (v. 3:8).
In other words, Christ responds to Nicodemus concerning the image of second birth just as the image demands, namely by saying that just as no man was born of his mother by his own will, so no man is born of the Spirit by his own will. The Spirit blows where he wishes and wills, and he, like the wind, cannot be captured or directed, and so everyone who is born again is born apart from man’s will or work and by the will of the Spirit alone (cf. Rm. 9:16).
Nicodemus’s response to Christ’s claim is telling, because as a Pharisee he had been living his whole life willing and working his way to God. You can almost hear the devastation in his voice when he cries out, “How can these things be?” (v. 3:9). And yet Christ responds, asking, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?” (v. 3:10). Christ is declaring to Nicodemus that these claims he is making are not new claims, but they are found clearly in the Law and Prophets. Christ is rebuking Nicodemus for his ignorance, for he, being a teacher of God’s people, should know these things well, for they are fundamental doctrines to the faith. Indeed, we find these declarations numerous times in different renditions of the New Covenant where God, by his will and work, causes his people to come into his Kingdom. As indeed he writes in Ezekiel:
“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. And I will put my Spirit within you, and [I will] cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules” (Ez. 36:26, 27; cf. Jer. 31:31-34).
These writings of the prophet declare that this being born again, this New Covenant that God will establish with his people, is unlike the Old Covenant in that God alone does the work and he alone receives the honor and the glory for it. Indeed, we find this fulfilled by Christ’s work where he, taking the cup of wine, says, “This cup that is poured out for you is the New Covenant in my blood” (Lk. 22:20).
Christ makes this point clear later in the discourse with Nicodemus, saying, “No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man” (v. 3:13). The apostle Paul explains this same Scripture in this way:
For Moses writes about the righteousness that is based on the law, that the person who does the commandments shall live by them. But the righteousness based on faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’” (that is, to bring Christ down) or “‘Who will descend into the abyss?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim) (Rm. 10:5-8).
In other words, Paul is saying that righteousness and eternal life comes one of two ways: it either, one, comes from living according to the Law (which is impossible), or, two, it comes from faith in Christ alone. And lest we be confused into thinking that the apostle is declaring that we merit our righteousness by some faith that is our own, the apostle writes a few verses later, “So faith comes from hearing, but hearing by the word of Christ” (v. 10:17). To clarify the apostle’s meaning, he is saying that our faith comes from hearing the Gospel proclaimed (v. 10:15), but our ability to hear the Gospel and believe comes from the spoken and creative Word of Christ. Just as God caused us to see the glory of the Gospel by creatively declaring, “Let light shine out of darkness” (2Cor. 4:6), so too does our hearing the Gospel unto faith comes from God alone (cf. Jn. 12:36-43).
Christ makes this very point later in John’s Gospel, saying to the Jews:
I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name bear witness about me, but you do not believe because you are not part of my flock. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one” (vv. 10:25-30).
In other words, Christ is declaring that belief in him comes from being a part of his flock. If one is not of his flock, they will not believe, because they do not hear his voice. And this flock is ordained by God and is accomplished, if you will, by the free will of the Spirit of God. For Christ testifies earlier, “I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice” (v. 10:16).
So to summarize the teaching of Christ to Nicodemus concerning being born again, the reality is that our second birth by the Spirit of God is, like our physical births, not caused by the work or the will of man, but it is caused by the will and ordinance of God alone. In this way, the apostle Paul is validated in his claim that “[God] has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills” (Rm. 9:18). Therefore, the Gospel is not a matter of selling a religion to men so as to create converts, but it is the matter of sowing the seeds of Christ and allowing God to cause the growth (cf. 1Cor. 3:6). For this reason, when the apostle Paul gives an analogy of evangelism, he does not give a picture of a salesman peddling a product, but he gives the picture of a victory parade. He writes:
But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere. For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things? For we are not, like so many, peddlers of God’s word, but as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Christ (2Cor. 2:14-17).
In other words, the apostle is saying that as a preacher of Christ, his primary concern is not preaching the Gospel for the sake of saving souls, but it is to spread the aroma of Christ around the world. If some hear and believe, the fragrance of Christ is spread; if some hear and reject Christ, the fragrance of Christ is spread. Either way, the name of Christ is proclaimed, and he is glorified.
The questions that remain for you to ask yourself is, “Do you respond like Nicodemus did to the Gospel and look at what work or act of will that you must do to be saved, or do look upon Christ alone as the Author of your faith? And when you evangelize, do you look at the Gospel as something to be distorted and sold to the unwitting, or do you proclaim it boldly with all its offenses trusting that God will call his sheep to himself?” These are not trivial questions, for how you answer these will determine how you think of the Gospel and will greatly influence your methods and preaching of the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.