Nicodemus and the New Birth
There was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews: The same came to Jesus by night, and said unto him, Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him. Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. Nicodemus saith unto him, How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter the second time into his mother's womb, and be born? Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again. The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit. - John 3:1-8
Spiritual regeneration is a grand subject and most certainly requires our careful attention and close study. Seeing it is essential to salvation, what a grave thing it would be to remain in ignorance concerning it, as multitudes of professing Christians do, perishing for lack of knowledge (Hos. 4:6). Let us take heed to the counsel of God. Nicodemus sought so diligently to hear the Lord’s heart concerning this subject that he sought Him out by night, under intense threat of persecution from his fellow Jews, and under the potential hardship of being expelled from the company of his people and thrust down from the throne of authority that he sat on as a “ruler of the Jews”. Himself risking so much just to hear this discourse from the Lord Jesus, it is a small thing that we take a little bit of time, under no such threats, to discuss this discourse and fearfully apply it to our own lives.
We can learn a great deal by observing the character of Nicodemus, whom our Lord was addressing in these precious scriptures. His religion as a ruler of the Jews was no doubt nearly unsurpassed by most of his peers, and his hunger for truth now puts him at a privileged place, sitting at the feet of the Ruler of the rulers, the Rabbi of rabbis, a place where none else of his Jewish brethren would dare to go; at the feet of Jesus of Nazareth, a teacher sent from God, a miracle worker and prophet, and most of all, God Himself in the flesh, who explains the new birth with the most supreme seat of heaven’s full authority.
Let’s observe some crucial insights from this solemn, grave, and history-making discourse in light of Nicodemus, the person to whom Jesus was speaking, and then conclude with some important practical applications.
I. TO WHOM JESUS WAS NOT SPEAKING
The Lord was not speaking to a stiff-necked Christ-rejecter. He was not speaking to a hard-hearted rebel that was embittered against God and rejected the counsel of the Lord. He was not speaking to a person who wanted nothing to do with God or the things of God, nor was He speaking to a person that absolutely rejected everything He had to say. He was not speaking to an atheist that loved his sin and wanted to stay in it, making up any cold excuse to justify his own sinful actions, even if it means denying the existence of a God who would hold him accountable for his actions. The Lord hardly wasted His most valuable time during His short ministry on earth casting His precious pearls before such swine so long as they refused to be humbled and continued to remain in such a proud and rebellious state. A person thus described is standing in direct contrast to the nature of Nicodemus, who Christ was addressing, as entirely opposite of everything that Nicodemus himself stood for.
The Lord was not speaking to a blatant sinner. We can obviously conclude that Nicodemus was not living in open sin by the description given of him. Jesus was not speaking to a man that was living in blatant transgression, wickedness or rebellion against God. He was not speaking to a drunkard, or murderer, or thief, or adulterer, or whoremonger, or a liar, classes of people that the Scripture clearly says will not inherit the Kingdom of God. Most notably, He was not speaking to somebody who was living in willful sin, so far as we can tell. It is highly unlikely that Nicodemus, a man of great devotion to the laws of God and of great diligence to understand the truth would allow intentional sin to separate him from God. Considering this, we naturally observe that gaining eternal life is not simply just a matter of freeing one’s self from all forms of known and willful sin, or else if it were, there would be no need for Nicodemus to be yet excluded from the Kingdom of God until he is born again. If having no known, willful sin were the prerequisite for entrance into the Kingdom, indeed, Nicodemus would already be in. We conclude that just because a man if free from all known sin, does not mean any more that he is born of the Spirit than it does that a blamelessly righteous moralist who rejects Christ is born of the Spirit. Surely, a state of soul that is free from all known willful forms of sin can and must be a fruit, that is, a by-product of true spiritual regeneration from above, but such must never be taken as the proof of regeneration.
The Lord was not speaking merely to a moral man. Jesus was not speaking to a man that lived simply as a respectable member of society and who observed the political correctness of society’s standards. He was not speaking to a “good” man who believes in God, works hard, supports his family, helps others out of respect, and lives a peaceful life with his neighbors around him. Jesus was not speaking to a man that could only look at the lives of the majority population around him and say, “I’m not as bad as most people”. Though these things may seem very acceptable, they don’t even come close to comparing to the level of respectable morality that Nicodemus was sure to exercise, and thereby we observe, these things are so much the farther from justifying one’s soul before God that we can safely conclude there would be just as much hope for the devil to enter the Kingdom of God as such a person thus described, apart from the new birth. If it was necessary for the devout Nicodemus himself to be “born again” before entering the Kingdom of God, who was exercising such a degree of political correctness and high standards of societal respectability and flawless morality that makes even the most respectable member of modern society look like a devil, then surely by loyalty to the truth of God’s word we must hold ourselves to no lower standard.
The Lord was not speaking to just any devoted Jew. He was not speaking to a man who simply professed faith in the true God, was faithful in regularly attending synagogue, or to a person who merely made it a practice and habit to study the Scriptures casually in his free time. Jesus was not speaking to just any devout Jew who regularly made his temple sacrifices, observed the holy feast days of Israel, diligently kept the Sabbath, and trained his children and family in the ways of the Lord, as was the practice of many common Jews. We can be sure that the morality and devoutness of Nicodemus, being a master of Israel, far exceeded all of these things. So then, if it was necessary for him to be born again before having eternal life, how much more necessary would a personal new birth and radical transformation of heart and life be necessary for such a one thus described?
We therefore remark: Nicodemus was, in terms of religious devotion, high above the wickedness of atheists and Christ-rejecters. His morality was infinitely higher than the multitudes of professing Christians who retain known, intentional, presumptuous sin in their lives. His life was morally spotless and immaculate in terms of human standards and would shun as wickedness the average morality of today’s nominal Christian. His devotion to the laws of Israel far surpassed the average Jew and would make the devotion of the average Christian look like heathenism in comparison. Seeing these things, we conclude; intellectual assent and acknowledgeable belief in the true God, walking in a state of having no known sin separating one’s self from God, living a flawlessly moral and respectably religious lifestyle, and showing extreme devotion to religious duties are not sufficient enough to constitute admittance into the everlasting life of the Kingdom of God. All of these things combined could be observed with a heart of all the best intentions, yet one could still miss Heaven just as much as the most heinous rebel and sinner would miss Heaven. The scripture stands firm, “You must be born again”.
II. TO WHOM JESUS WAS SPEAKING
Jesus was speaking to Nicodemus, a Pharisee, not only a Jew –but a ruler of the Jews, and a master of Israel. We observe some important facts by his coming to and conversing with the Lord:
Nicodemus was a Pharisee, which shows us a great deal about his religious devotion. Seeing that Nicodemus was not as wicked as a great majority of the Pharisees in Jesus’ time were, it is highly likely that his devotion to his duties as a Pharisee were in a great degree much higher in quality, if not in quantity. Jesus did not rail on Nicodemus as a whitewashed tomb, or a hypocrite, or a religious viper, and Nicodemus didn’t reject Jesus, as did many of the other Pharisees, showing us that his heart and intentions were much more pure than a great many of his peers.
The Pharisees were a group of religious Jews who have their origins several hundred years before the Lord ever walked along the shores of Galilee. They were founded as a group to protect the Law of the Lord, to prevent the laws of God and of Israel from being lost or twisted, and to teach the people of Israel to obey God, in hopes to prevent the judgment of God from coming down again upon the nation of Israel like happened during the Babylonian captivity.
By New Testament times, Pharisees had many extremely high standards and were very devout. Being trained in the ways of the Lord from childhood, they had a great deal of knowledge in the ways of Israel and in the Holy Scriptures. All of the Pharisees had the Torah, which is the first five books of the Bible, Genesis through Deuteronomy, memorized, word-by-word. They also had a great portion of, if not all, of the Psalms memorized. They prayed with a fervency for two hours every single day in the Temple, many being so devout, that if the hour of prayer struck before they were able to make it to the Temple, they would drop everything they were doing and pray on the spot, even on the street corners in public. They not only observed the feast days of Israel, following every minute detail of God’s regulations (and many more they made up), but they also fasted, abstaining from food and water from sun-up to sun-down, for two days every single week. Some were so devout that they would not swallow their own spittle during a fast. The Pharisees were also extremely zealous in their missionary work, traveling land and sea to make just a single convert, and this in days when there were no automobiles, trains, or airplanes available for convenient travel. They also tithed generously of all their income. They even gave alms to the poor on a regular basis. They were enthusiastic about debating Scripture and teaching the word of God to others. On top of all this, their major doctrines were correct, as the Lord said, “The Pharisees sit in Moses seat, therefore do what they tell you” (Matthew 23:2-3).
According to the external “letter of the Law”, they were untouchable (that is, at least, to their own personal interpretation of it). These religious men were far more devout in their devotions than the average religious person today. Their religious works before God would in modern times make the average Christian look like little more than a heathen devoted to the cause of selfish indulgence, holding to religious devotion more akin to humanistic morality than the ways of the Holy One of Israel.
Nicodemus was a ruler of the Jews. This means he was a member of the Sanhedrin, the highest Jewish tribunal, the Supreme Court of Jerusalem. This governing body of Jews consisted of 71 members, 70 of which were the most respectable or privileged elders from among the choicest priestly families of the Pharisees. Some of the members were from the most learned of the Sadducees as well. The remaining one member was the ruling High Priest. Jewish tradition says that Moses instituted this overseeing body when he appointed the 70 elders in the wilderness to govern the affairs of Israel (Num. 11:16-24), and that Ezra the scribe reorganized it after the Exile in Babylon. Seeing this governing body of ruling Jews had such authority and claimed such solemn origins, it is significant to note that out the many multitudes of Jews, who were beyond number, multiplied as the sand by the sea or the stars of the sky, Nicodemus was one of the very few who had such an honor. As such, he was not only a Pharisee, but no doubt, would be looked upon by the many lesser Pharisees as a “guide to the blind, a light of them which are in darkness” (Rom. 2:19), a teacher of the people of Israel, and a theologian of theologians.
Nicodemus had a sure hunger for truth. Unlike most in the Christian world today, who seem to be “lovers of pleasure more than lovers of God”, and who “receive not the love of the truth, that they might be saved”, Nicodemus had a sincere hunger for truth. This is evidenced by the fact that he came to Jesus in an intense and hostile environment. At risk was his reputation as a respectful Jewish elder, his occupation as an overseer of Israel, and perhaps nearly everything dear to him as a Pharisee of Pharisees, seeing he would most assuredly be “put out of the synagogue” had his secret coming to Jesus by night been discovered. It speaks a great deal about a man to be willing to risk job, friends, religion, and more, all to be granted the privilege of personally conversing with a Man, Jesus of Nazareth, who is perceived to be teaching the ways of God in truth. To esteem the Word of God above all one possesses is a sure quality only of a man that has a definite hunger for truth.
Nicodemus acknowledged the Lord Jesus as a teacher that came from God. It is remarkable that Nicodemus acknowledged that Jesus teaches the ways of God, and has been sent by God, even designating Him with the respectful title, “Rabbi”. He acknowledged the Lord’s miracles and recognized His power and authority. Though we cannot safely assume He believed in Jesus as the promised Messiah and Savior of Israel at this time, we can most definitely assume that he at least had the option of such in mind, and believed in Jesus to some degree, even giving tremendous weight to His words and teachings, to the extent that he continues to listen as Jesus goes on immediately after this discourse to claim to be the Son of God, equal in Deity to the Father. To acknowledge Jesus as a teacher sent from God is to acknowledge that what He says is true and that He speaks with authority from God, and to acknowledge the validity of His miracles is to acknowledge even further that God Himself has set a seal of approval to His ministry.
III. THE RIGHTEOUSNESS OF NICODEMUS WAS NOT SUFFICIENT
Despite all these remarkable religious exploits and highest standards of devoutness and morality, Jesus told Nicodemus, “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Certainly, this devout Pharisee didn’t impress Jesus one bit. The righteousness of Nicodemus was insufficient to merit entrance into God’s Kingdom. Jesus told him clearly that if he remained in his current state, without being born again, he would never see the Kingdom of God, and he would not enter into eternal life. What a solemn thought!
In fact, Jesus made it clear that if anyone is to enter God’s Kingdom, they must have a righteousness which is greater than, and far surpasses, the righteousness of Nicodemus: “For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Mat. 5:20). Does your righteousness exceed the righteousness of this devout Pharisee? Dear soul, this is a question upon which your eternity hangs in the balance. The eternal destiny of your soul rests upon the fact that you must have a righteousness which is greater than Nicodemus’, and if you don’t, then by the Word of God you will perish!
What is this great righteousness that God requires of us? In context, this bold and blunt statement of Jesus was spoken during His delivery of the Sermon on the Mount (see Matthew 5-7). In this sermon, Jesus says it’s not enough just to refrain from actually committing the act of adultery, but if a man even looks at a woman with lust then he has already committed adultery in his heart. Jesus also says it’s not enough just to refrain from actually murdering people, but that if you are angry without a just cause you are already in danger of judgment. He says many such things, expounding upon the spiritual nature of the moral Law of God, showing us that with man these things are impossible. Certainly no normal man in his own power can prevent his heart from lusting or getting angry! That’s like trying to change the nature of a pig so that it no longer desires to wallow in the mud. You can clean it up, wash it nice and pretty, spray it with perfume, and train it to do tricks, but as soon as it’s outside on a hot day, and sees it’s fellow pigs wallowing in the mud, it’ll be rolling along with them before you have a chance to say, “Oh prodigal, come back!” You can clean yourself up on the outside, but unregenerate man has no power in himself to change the nature of his own heart. “With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible” (Mat. 19:26).
The Pharisees, though they were religious giants, masters of morality, the most devout of all the Jews, were unable to produce for themselves this true inward righteousness of the heart. The nature of fallen man is wicked and deceitful, totally depraved and unable to please God, and the best of his good deeds are as filthy rags before God. Their righteousness was a result of a dedicated mind and will to do well without the Holy Spirit. Their righteousness could be duplicated by the natural effort of man, and he doesn’t need to be a child of God to do it, it can be done with the same human energy with which one had previously served the Devil. The righteousness that God demands obviously cannot be produced by self-effort, by striving in the flesh to obey God, or by “cleaning up the outside of the cup”.
IV. THE RIGHTEOUSNESS WHICH GOD REQUIRES
The fact is, it is utterly impossible for us to have a righteousness which is greater than the righteousness of the Pharisees and which is acceptable to God, unless God Himself supplies us with this righteousness. Thereby, we observe, the righteousness that God requires is a righteousness that is entirely supernatural in origin, which only He provides, and that it is entirely out of the hands of men’s best good works. It cannot be provided by unregenerate man himself, but must come from above. –And if any man fails to receive this righteousness from God, he will by no means enter into eternal life.
According to the Scriptures, there is only one way to the Kingdom of God, “repent and believe the gospel” (Mar. 1:15). This involves a turning from sin, an utter renunciation of self and a wholehearted surrender to Christ alone, believing in Him on the basis of His finished work to supply this righteousness that God requires, by faith apart from works. The new birth, then, being born again, is the means by which this righteousness of Christ is appropriated to us from above. This righteousness becomes appropriated when the Holy Spirit takes residence in the heart of the believing penitent. The repentant sinner believes in Christ with a living faith and immediately receives the Spirit of God, that blessed Spirit of adoption, and he cries out, “Abba, Father”, being adopted into the family of God and brought into fellowship with Him. It is a work of the Spirit of God, not of the effort of man. “So then it is not of him that wills, nor of him that runs, but of God that shows mercy” (Rom. 9:6).
When the Holy Ghost takes residence in the new believer, He brings about a supernatural inward cleansing and spiritual renewal worked within the heart. He washes away sin, cleanses the heart from filthiness, and writes the moral law of God on the heart, granting the believer a new heart that’s created in the image of Christ, a heart that hates sin and loves holiness. The new believer becomes a new creation, a new person, from the inside out. He receives peace with God through the Lord Jesus Christ. This is all apart from the self-effort of human will, apart from the works of man. The new birth is effected by God, despite the fact that one’s works deserve His wrath, He shows His mercy solely on the basis of grace. The grace of God brings about the new birth. It is the result of grace, and grace alone, grace that comes from God.
Nicodemus, it seems, had no concept of the grace of God. He had no concept of the new birth. He failed to understand that his desperately wicked heart that he received by inheritance from Adam needed to be regenerated and created anew into the image of God, and that God does this work on the basis of grace and not on the basis of good works. It wasn’t enough to fast, pray, memorize the scriptures, attend synagogue, be a pastor of pastors, give alms, go on missionary journeys, observe holy days, abstain from meats, live without willful sin, and seek truth. Though he did all this, it wasn’t sufficient. He needed to be born again, to start afresh, and be appropriated into a new life by the Holy Spirit. Though he was seeking truth, it didn’t amount to salvation of the soul, because he had not yet found the truth. A true Christian isn’t just seeking truth; he has found it and experienced the power of it working in his heart.
Dear soul, have you found it? Have you experienced the grace of Jesus Christ working in your heart by the power of God? When a man tastes of the grace of God he knows it’s the sweetest thing his soul has ever experienced. It is a mighty miracle for a soul that was blind to be able to see, to pass from darkness to light, from death to life, from the power of Satan to God. The sound of God’s amazing grace becomes so sweet to the ears of the justified, that his soul rises up in gratitude to worship his blessed Redeemer in spirit and truth. The dominion of the works of the flesh are put away and the fruit of the Spirit becomes the standard practice. The life is changed forever and the justified man is freed from the chains of the slavery of sin that held him in bondage to the devil. –And when all this happens, the newly regenerated believer knows it. He knows that he knows that His redeemer lives, that the grace of God has touched his wicked heart and cleansed him anew.
Jesus reproved Nicodemus, “Are you the master (teacher) of Israel and you don’t know these things?” Jesus, though He knows all things, expressed shock at the fact that Nicodemus knew nothing of the new birth. And sadly, the same is true today. We have many professing Christians who talk the talk but don’t walk the walk. They speak of the narrow road that leads to life but the fact yet remains that only few have truly found it. They teach others, yet themselves have never been born again. Many sit in leadership positions in the churches, many love to sit in the chief seats in the synagogues, many oversee the denominational headquarters of the world’s largest denominations, many author a great deal of books about the things of God, many make a fair show of the flesh with Christian music, and perform Christian dramas and plays, and a great many occupy the pews and seats of local churches around the world every Sunday morning, singing “Amazing Grace” without ever having tasted of the amazing grace of God in the new birth. Just as Jesus expressed shock at Nicodemus, it is a shock today to see that most of those who profess to belong to God have never been born again into His family, have never experienced the Holy Ghost working in their heart and making them new creatures, and know as little about the heart and soul, meat and substance of the Gospel as did Nicodemus when he said, “How can a man be born when he is old?”
Take heed, dear precious soul, that this is not you! Though your good works may far surpass those of Nicodemus, though you may be able to run in theological circles around the Pharisees of old, though you may go on missionary journeys that make theirs look like a walk around the block, though you may give alms enough to make theirs look like chump change, and a million times more, it profits you absolutely nothing unless you’ve been born again. Can you point to a definite point of time in your life in which you were made a new person, wherein you renounced all claim to self and wholly thrust yourself upon the mercy of God to save you, putting your whole heart and trust into Jesus Christ alone, and consequently experienced a change of heart that produced in you righteousness and true holiness by the Sprit of God? –Or do you keep up the form of godliness while denying its vital power? If you cannot point to such a definite experience, but continue to profess to be God’s own, doing your religious duty while seeking your own will in your heart, the saying may be truly fulfilled in you, “This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoreth me with their lips; but their heart is far from me” (Mat. 15:8).