John 3:1-21- You Must be Born Again

Explanation- The Pharisees arose during the intertestamental period (about 400 BC-25 AD[1], also known as the 400 years of silence between Malachi and Matthew). They were one of the religious parties that existed during Jesus’ day and can be categorized by their legalistic nature and strict adherence to ritualism. They believed that by keeping both the written (what we know as the Old Testament) and oral laws they would be justified before God. The oral laws were those that they believed to be passed down at Mr. Sinai to Moses by Jewish tradition but were not necessarily found in the Old Testament writings. The Pharisees were constant opponents of Christ during His earthly ministry and eventually played a major role in His crucifixion. Nicodemus was of the religious order.

Nicodemus came to Jesus by night. Many believe that this may have been out of fear of what others in the sect may have thought. At any rate, Nicodemus did come, and he came seeking answers. One thing I find interesting as we open the dialogue is Nicodemus’ mention that, ‘We know that you are a teacher come from God…’ (v. 2 italics mine). The plurality of ‘we’ begs the question of exactly who he was speaking of. Could it be that others of the Pharisaic order held Jesus in some high regard as well? Or, as Ryle holds, was this cloak of plurality meant to be intentionally vague in order to shy away from individual regard of Christ and His work? It is much easier to stand with a crowd than it is to stand alone. It is an interesting concept to ponder, although we have no context to draw an absolute conclusion.

One thing I have always appreciated about this interaction is Christ’s unwillingness to give response to the apparent flattery that Nicodemus brings. Christ responds to Nicodemus’ opening statements in a way which seems to hold no relevance to the flow of the conversation. This seems to be Christ’s unique way of cutting to the heart of the issue. Rather than allowing Nicodemus to direct the flow of the conversation He cuts right to the chase, so to say. He tells Nicodemus the most important thing that he needs to know, ‘unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God’. Nicodemus’ response to this statement displays his ignorance of spiritual realities. Unlike the parables of Christ to the masses which were more cryptic, Jesus spoke plainly to Nicodemus and yet he did not understand. He goes on to explain this concept of being ‘born again’ and there is still a lack of comprehension. This prompts Jesus into one of the most famous speeches in all of the Gospels. He begins by critiquing Nicodemus’ lack of spiritual insight as one of Israel’s religious leaders. He was to be a guide to the lost sheep of Israel, yet he did not possess even the beginning of God’s wisdom. Despite this, Jesus in His great love and patience, strives with Nicodemus to express these spiritual realities to him in a way that he might comprehend. We must remember at this point that wisdom (concerning spiritual realities) is a gift from God. It must be granted to the hearer in order that they might understand. Nicodemus had not yet been given this gift, although I believe it is safe to say that he eventually comes to possess it.

Jesus lays out to Nicodemus the truth of who He really is. In verses 14 and 15 he identifies Himself as the Messiah and hints at His own crucifixion. An interesting note at this point is the reference He draws from Numbers 21. In this account, after a venomous snake outbreak in the camp of Israel, Moses is instructed to craft a bronze serpent and all who would look upon it would be healed. Christ uses this example from Israel’s history to typologically point to Himself. He was to be like this brass serpent lifted up before men, and all who would look upon Him with the eyes of faith will be healed. In the theme of typology this bronze serpent was a *type* of Christ.[2] Namely, it finds ultimate fulfillment in the death of Christ on the cross.

I feel as though I would not be doing my due diligence if I did not at least briefly comment of this last section. While John 3:16 may be one of the most famous verses in the whole of Scripture, I do not believe that it is often understood within its’ proper context. John 3:16 displays God’s love for the world. It lets us in on the fullness of redemptive history in that we are confronted with this compassionate God who loves and saves to the uttermost. He has chosen to reveal Himself through the person and work of Jesus Christ, in whom if the world believes in Him, they shall inherit eternal life? But just who is the ‘whoever’ of this passage? Many believe that this statement puts the final nail in the coffin of limited atonement. But does it really? Just who is Christ speaking of in this passage? Without mining too deep, I would argue that the word ‘world’ in this context is not a universal inclusion of every human being that has ever lived, but instead is referencing that Christ came for those of kindred, tribe, tongue, and nation. God’s plan of redemption did not only include those of the fold of Israel, but also those of Gentile descent as well. There are both Jews and Gentiles who will taste eternal life, and there are both Jews and Gentiles who shall suffer condemnation. But make no mistake, no one enters into judgement by mistake, nor shall anyone enter into glory on purpose (or by works). I has always and will always be by the sovereign grace of God alone that saves (or condemns) men.

Application- This meeting with Nicodemus sheds a light on the absolute necessity of each Christian maintaining an intimate walk with our Lord. All spiritual wisdom comes from above and is given by God. I would argue that there are many men who inhabit pulpits who, like Nicodemus, sit in seats of spiritual authority and yet lack the wisdom and intimate walk with the Lord that is required to shepherd the people of God. Even on a lesser scale, God calls all of His people to be holy as He is holy. We do not have the liberty to be lackadaisical with our time. Let us not, like Nicodemus, come to Christ in the cloak of night to avoid what others may think; but let us proclaim Him from the rooftops! Let us draw near to Him with a pure heart of total belief and trust so that we may come to know Him more and more each day. Sure there will be times of doubt, grief, mourning, and even fear and distrust; but what measures the flow of a Christian’s life is his continual traveling in a fixed direction. And at the end of the day, let us remember that this work is not our own. Christ’s very Spirit thrives within our bosoms and it is He who is continually leading us home!

[1] Scholars vary on this end date. It is safe to say the “silent years” ended somewhere between 25 and 30 AD with the coming of John the Baptist.

[2] I do not mean that this inanimate object was like Christ in deity, power, or glory, but it was an object through which God chose to use to foreshadow a work that Christ would accomplish in the future.