Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. 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." Jesus answered him, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God." 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?" Jesus answered, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, 'You must be born anew.' The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes; so it is with every one who is born of the Spirit." Nicodemus said to him, "How can this be?" Jesus answered him, "Are you a teacher of Israel and yet do not understand this?" (John 3:1–10)
Can the Ethiopian change his skin
or the leopard his spots?
Then also you can do good
who are accustomed to do evil. (Jeremiah 13:23)
God's Stunning Demand for the Humanly Impossible
Can a man in love with his money enter into the kingdom of God? "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle" (Matthew 19:24).
Can the natural man welcome the things of the Spirit of God? "They are foolishness to him and he is not able to comprehend them, because they are spiritually assessed" (1 Corinthians 2:14).
Can the human mind, as it comes into being and grows by merely natural processes, please God? "The mindset of the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God's law, indeed it cannot, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God" (Romans 8:7–8).
Can a man enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born when he is old? Do you feel the shock of what Jesus was requiring of Nicodemus when he said, "You must be born again" (John 3:7)? It is impossible for a man to cause himself to be born again. We can't change the color of our skin. A leopard can't change his spots. A camel can't go through the eye of a needle. A natural man can't welcome spiritual things. The mindset of fallen humanity can't please God. And old men can't be born.
To which we quickly answer (because we know the Bible), but God can change the color of our skin and the spots of a leopard. God can make a camel fit through a needle's eye. God can turn natural people into spiritual people who love the things of the Spirit. And God can cause people to be born again by the Holy Spirit. Yes. But perhaps we say it too quickly. Perhaps we ought to sit stunned for seven days with torn clothes and dust on our head in utter silence like Job and his three friends. Stunned that no one will enter the kingdom of God unless he is born twice, not just once—born by a power not his own that blows like wind according to its own will. Stunned that we are like shipwrecked sailors stranded on a raft with a makeshift sail made out of a shirt, utterly and absolutely lost—unless (we know not how!) the wind blows. We need to stop, and let ourselves feel the plight that Jesus said Nicodemus was in. He said Nicodemus was in a room where all the door handles were too high for him to reach. And then he said, "Come out. You must come out if you want to enter into the kingdom of God."
Jesus' Surprising Declaration to Nicodemus
Has it ever struck you as strange that before Nicodemus can even ask a question or state his reason for coming, Jesus declares the necessity of being born again. The context is important here. Notice in John 2:23 that "Jesus was at the Passover in Jerusalem and many believed in his name when they saw the signs which he did." Then notice in 3:2 what Nicodemus says when he comes to Jesus, "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." In other words, Nicodemus is among the number in 2:23 who are impressed enough with his miracles to believe that he is somehow from God. This is very encouraging.
But then John 2:24–25 sets the stage for Jesus' less than enthusiastic response to Nicodemus' affirmation of faith. "But Jesus did not entrust himself to them [those who "believed" in him as a sign-worker], because he knew all men and needed no one to bear witness of man; for he himself knew what was in man." What does this mean? What did Jesus know about these so-called believers? What did he see in them that caused him to hold back and not give himself fully to them?
The answer is given in the next verses as one of these "believers" comes to Jesus by night, Nicodemus. What did Jesus know about the Nicodemus-types who only believed in Jesus as a wonder-worker? He knew that they were not born again. So the reason Jesus doesn't even need to wait for Nicodemus to ask a question is, as 2:25 says, "he knew what was in man." So what we learn in John 3:3–10 is Jesus' view of man's condition, Jesus' view of "what is in man," and the remedy for that condition. It is not flattering to hear, but it is utterly essential. Let's talk briefly about these two things: man's condition and God's remedy, as Jesus sees them.
Verse 6 is the main statement about the human condition: "That which is born of the flesh is flesh and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit." I would paraphrase it like this: when you are conceived and born by human parents, you share in a human nature; and when you are conceived and born by the divine Spirit, you share in his divine nature. Your first birth makes you alive to human life. Your second birth makes you alive to spiritual life. Our first birth knits out hearts affectionately to our earthly father. Our second birth knits our hearts affectionately to our heavenly Father. Our first birth gives us an appetite for warm milk and a cool reputation and hot sex. Our second birth gives us an appetite for God. Our first birth imparts a natural impulse to save our lives. Our second birth imparts a supernatural impulse to lose our lives for Christ's sake.
Four Things Jesus Believes About the Unregenerate
Let's ponder for a few moments Jesus' view of people who have not been born again (the unregenerate), people who have not been born of the Spirit but only by their parents. Four things:
1. They Are Flesh
First, they are flesh. Verse 6: "That which is born of the flesh is flesh." This means that people by nature are merely human and utterly devoid of the Holy Spirit. Jude 19 says, "It is these who set up divisions, natural people devoid of the Spirit." Flesh in John 3:6 refers to human nature out of touch with God. In Romans 7:18 Paul describes the moral condition of such human nature like this: "I know that no good thing dwells within me, that is, in my flesh." The flesh is human nature cut off from the Spirit of God. When human nature, with all its drives and desires and longings and needs, is cut off from the all-satisfying God, the result is "no good thing": utter moral corruption, total depravity. Galatians 5:19–21, "Now the works of the flesh are plain: immorality, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, factiousness, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and the like."
Jesus had an extraordinarily low view of human nature as it exists in the world apart from new birth. Note well! He speaks in general terms, not just about some bad group. "That which is born of the flesh is flesh." All people everywhere are cut off from God; in them is no good thing; the byways of their hearts are like a great subterranean sewer system dumping sewage into the Mississippi River. "What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart and this defiles a man. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander" (Matthew 15:18–19).
Apart from being born again by the Holy Spirit, human nature, no matter where you find it, is totally depraved; there is no moral good in it. It may have the capacity to compose symphonies or to maneuver in space with computerized jet-packs, but these achievements are of no moral value in God's sight. Wherever man does not humbly rely on God for power, the product of his brain is an idol (Romans 14:23). Believing what Jesus believes about the human heart, we ought to be astonished that Minneapolis is anything more than a giant waste disposal site for the toxic emissions of human nature. It is God's sovereign grace ("common grace" as the theologians say) that keeps the lid on the volcano of evil in people who are not born again. So the first thing Jesus says about the human condition apart from new birth by the Spirit is that all people are simply flesh, devoid of the Holy Spirit, totally depraved.
2. They Are Dead
The second thing he says is that all men are dead. Our first birth gives life to our flesh—we breathe, we desire, we think. But when Jesus adds, "That which is born of the Spirit is spirit," he implies that until then we are spiritually dead. A birth brings forth life. Prior to our new birth we are spiritually lifeless.
The Bible teaches that things were not always like this. When God created man, he created more than mere flesh, and he created more than walking dead men. Genesis 2:7 says, "The Lord God formed man out of the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and man became a living being." Then God put man in the garden with every good thing for his enjoyment and warned him that self-reliant rebellion would bring death: "In the day that you eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall die."
But man did eat, and his rebellion and death have been the mark of his posterity to this day (Romans 5:12, 17). Before the Fall, man enjoyed the indwelling presence of God's Spirit giving him spiritual life and unity with God. But after man's rebellion, the Spirit withdrew from man and left him in a spiritually dead condition, cut off from God, with a heart of stone toward God. Ever since that day God's work has been the redemption of a new humanity. And in John 3 Jesus teaches us that God is gathering a new humanity by bringing people back from spiritual death. The kingdom of God is the reign of God over the new people of God who have been born of the Spirit into newness of life: "Unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God."
3. They Will Not Enter the Kingdom of God
That is the third thing Jesus says about the condition of people who are not born again: since they are mere flesh, devoid of the Spirit, and since they are dead in sin like a stone toward God, therefore they will not enter the kingdom of God. This means that they will not inherit eternal life (3:16) and that the wrath of God rests upon them (3:36; cf. Ephesians 2:3). These must have been terrifying words to Nicodemus. Picture the scene. Nicodemus has watched Jesus in Jerusalem. He has seen a man of incomparable power work miracles and a man of incomparable love help the needy. He is drawn to this man and seeks him out at night and says: "Teacher, I am persuaded that you are from God." And before Nicodemus can take another breath, Jesus says with very unsentimental compassion: "Nicodemus, people who aren't born again go to hell."
4. Their Religious Efforts Are Works of Flesh
The fact that Jesus says all this to Nicodemus the Pharisee reveals the fourth thing about Jesus' view of man apart from the Spirit. There is a world of difference between religion and new life in the Holy Spirit. You can see Jesus shaking his head in verse 10: "Are you a teacher in Israel and yet you do not understand this?" Yes, it is possible to be an usher, a trustee, a deacon, a Sunday School teacher, a seminary professor, and a pastor and not be born again. Religious crowds in Jerusalem believed on Jesus as a sign-worker, but he would not give himself to them because he knew that beneath the religious veneer there was no new birth, no spiritual life. They had not been born of the Spirit. They were only flesh. And all their religion was the work of the flesh.
In summary, Jesus looks out over fallen humanity and knows "what is in them." They are people,
- who are merely flesh, in whom dwells no moral good,
- who are dead in sin, destitute of spiritual life with no receptivity to God,
- who are therefore excluded from God's kingdom and eternal life, and
- who often deceive themselves that all is well by being religious people and working in the church.
Desperation and the Sovereign Work of the Spirit
Now what? Someone should ask, "Why do you say all this? What do you expect to accomplish by telling us such things? If I am just flesh, devoid of God's Spirit, with no moral good, if I am dead in sin and a stone toward God, if I am shut out of God's kingdom and my heart is so deceptive I use religion as a front for my deadness, what do you expect me to do? I'm so damned depraved I can't do anything good. What do you expect of me?"
For the person who asks that question there is great hope. Because the response I expect is desperation. I don't expect anybody to be born again who hears the gospel but never feels a sense of desperation. Why else would Jesus say to Nicodemus, "You must be born again by the Spirit," and then say in verse 8, "The Spirit—the wind—blows where it wills, you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes, so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit." The wind is free. It obeys its own secret laws not ours. When it blows, the sailors are glad. When it does not, they are desperate. Surely this verse is meant to show us that we are utterly at the mercy of the free and sovereign Spirit of God. He blows where he wills. What do I expect when I proclaim this truth? A sense of utter helplessness and desperation. Is it an accident that the last words we hear from Nicodemus are the bewildered, "How can this be?" (v. 9).
You see, the new birth is not your own doing. It is the sovereign, free, supernatural work of the Holy Spirit brooding as Creator over your soul, raising you from the dead, making you a new creature, with a heart that trusts and loves Jesus. You do not initiate your new birth any more than Lazarus initiated his resurrection. The resurrection of Lazarus to new life was owing to one thing: the word of Jesus Christ—"Come forth!"
Therefore Peter says to Christians (1 Peter 1:23–25): "You have been born again . . . through the living and abiding word of God . . . the gospel which was preached to you." Ever since Adam and Eve, God has been rescuing people from death. And the way he has always done it and continues to do it is by the power of his Spirit and the proclamation of his Word. If you are alive in Christ, you have been born anew by his Spirit through his Word. Paul says (1 Thessalonians 1:5), "Our gospel came to you not only in word but also in power and in the Holy Spirit." And again (in 1 Corinthians 2:4), "My words and my proclamation were not in persuasive words of wisdom but in the demonstration of the Spirit and power."
Sometimes, to my misery, the gospel misfires in the mouth of a weak and worldly preacher. But when the Holy Spirit is upon the message, there is an explosion of life. The Word and the Spirit quicken dead hearts and bring forth faith. The gospel is preached and God the Creator Spirit says, "Let there be life." And the eyes of the heart are opened and a child is born and the cries of desperation and bewilderment give way to cooing and sucking at the breast of the Spirit.
Three Applications for Today
I close with three brief applications to our life today.
1. We Should Examine Our Own Hearts and Lives
First, since religion is a common cover for not being born again (Matthew 7:21), each of us churchgoers should examine ourselves to see if we are truly born of God (2 Corinthians 13:5). The New Testament gives us many tests to apply to ourselves. Here are five:
- Romans 8:7–9, "The mind of the flesh does not submit to God's law . . . but you are not in the flesh, you are in the Spirit if the Spirit dwells in you." The test: do you have a submissive spirit to God's commands or are you rebellious?
- 1 Corinthians 12:3, "No one can say Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit." The test: Is Jesus really your Lord? Do you key off of him each day? Do you seek his will in all things and subordinate your will to his?
- Romans 8:15–16, "You did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear but you have received the Spirit of sonship. When we cry, 'Abba! Father!' it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are the children of God." The test: do you have a humble confidence before God that casts out fear and fills you with a childlike delight in knowing God as your loving Father? Do you cry out, "Abba! Father!"?
- 1 Corinthians 2:14, "The natural man does not welcome the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him." The test: Do the things of the Spirit attract you? Are you hungry for his truth and his fellowship and his power in your life? Or do they seem silly and unattractive compared to other things. (Cf. 1 Peter 2:2.)
- 1 John 4:7, "Beloved, let us love one another; for love is of God, and he who loves has been born of God." The test: Do you love people? Do you have good will toward them in your heart? Do you find fulfillment in working for the joy of their faith? (Cf. Galatians 5:22.)
2. We Should Humble Ourselves
After testing ourselves for the evidences of the Spirit's presence, the second application to make of Jesus' words is a deep humbling of ourselves. How lowly and meek and broken and contrite will be the joy of a believer who realizes how desperate and helpless he was and is apart from the life-giving work of God's Spirit! What a difference it will make in our fellowship if we approached every gathering with this thought: except for the mercy of God's Spirit, I am a dead man.
3. We Should Be Desperate for the Spirit
Finally, realize that when Jesus calls us at Bethlehem to join him in making disciples of all nations, he is calling us to raise the dead. But only the Holy Spirit can do that. Do you see what that means? It means that we will be weak and ineffective in our witness until the Holy Spirit comes upon us with power. And when he does, we will say with Paul, "My speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom but in the demonstration of the Spirit and of power."