From the House of The Nazarene. This will be a very in-depth deep dive study of the Book of John.
We want to keep in mind that there’s a direct link with the end of chapter 2 and recalling that the text itself never had the original verse and chapter divisions. The last phrase in John 2 said, “Because He did not need anyone to testify concerning man, for He Himself knew what was in man.” It’s interesting because the word Anthropos is used right there. He knew what was in Anthropos, (Anthropos is Greek for human. It is part of an expression that is translated as Son of man in the New Testament.)
Now there was an Anthropos of the Pharisees. He’s inviting us to see what it means for Jesus to know what was in man. You see it’s a case in point. The Greek causes us to see- here’s a perfect illustration of a man who might come for various reasons but it turns out that he’s going to get insights he could never have known. Nicodemus came to Jesus for various reasons at night. I think in part because he didn’t want to be publicly associated with this very controversial figure. He certainly didn’t want to be associated as one of His disciples though there’s more to it than that because of John’s nuances- light and darkness- the idea of night and not really being able to comprehend the light and the light overcomes the darkness but that there is a spiritual warfare in these regards as well.
A friend and I were talking after I taught last time how in John 2 the water becomes wine, then we move from that to wine symbolizing blood. The blood really leads to and is the basis for eternal life and this eternal life is really a river of living water. You have this imagery- one thing pointing beyond itself and that there’s a connection. All these terms link and connect together.
The rest of this gospel will illustrate the truth of John 2:25. This is very, very clear in the dialogue with Nicodemus and also it goes on to be clear in the dialogue with the woman at the well in John 4. He knows in a way that she finds startling. How could He know me through and through? This is an interesting point because there’s nothing in us that can really be hidden from the present gaze of the living God. I want to stress something, I’ve mentioned this so many times before, the One who knows you best is also the One who loves you the most. That’s an important thing to keep in mind. He knows us through and through but at the same time He wants to embrace us and draw us to Himself. He goes to great pain- infinite pain on the cross- in order to make it possible for us to in fact become His friends. Remember in John 15 we’re going to see that text where Jesus says, “No longer do I call you slaves, for the slave does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I have heard from My Father I have made known to you.” There’s this idea of intimacy. We’re given this invitation to intimacy. He knows us through and through.
Now Nicodemus initially was attracted to Jesus because of the various signs that He did in chapter 2:23-25. It mentions that there were people who were in Jerusalem at the Passover during the Feast and many believed in His name. They observed His signs, which He was doing. John doesn’t detail those signs but evidently there were enough signs where Nicodemus says in verses 1 and 2, “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 have come from God as a teacher; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.” So it’s an allusion back to the fact that he’s seen remarkable things that cannot be fully understood- this concept of signs.
Right away we’re going to hear Jesus tell him that he must be born again. Immediately there’s going to be a misunderstanding. That’s a motif in John- for example, we hear about a misunderstanding concerning the temple in chapter 2. They take it literally and Jesus is speaking about the temple of His body. There’s also confusion in this chapter as well. In John 3 we’re going to have the confusion about birth and about the fact that Jesus is speaking about spiritual birth. Nicodemus is taking it on a literal level and of course, it wouldn’t make any sense to go back into your mother’s womb and be born a second time. It’s a grotesque image.
Again it will happen in chapter 4 with water. Jesus will be speaking about this living water that He’s offering and she’s going to be thinking that He’s offering her water that she can actually bring up and drink. So we have another confusion.
It’s happening again with food because the disciples think He’s speaking of literal food when He says, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” (John 4:32) He’s actually speaking about the food, which is to do the will of the Father. We see it also about food in John 6 when they confuse what He’s saying- again He’s speaking on a spiritual level and they’re taking Him on a literal level. In John 6 He says, “I am the bread of life.” They take it literally. He’s speaking in a spiritual way. This is not an accident.
About His departure- where’s He going to go? Does He know some place where He can hide and we’re not going to find Him? Jesus was referring in John 7 and 8 about His departure to the Father. They’re taking it as if He’s going to hide literally.
It happens concerning His identity- they are confused and they stumble in John 7, 8, and 10 about who He really is. He’s claiming to be something more than they may fully grasp. They are saying who are you to make yourself out as if you know God in some special way? He’s actually claiming that the one who has seen me has seen the Father- to hear Me is to hear Him- to believe in Me is to believe in Him- to obey Me is to obey Him- to reject Me is to reject Him- an integral connect.
Finally, there’s confusion even about death in John 11 concerning the issue of Lazarus. They think Jesus is saying that he’s merely fallen asleep- if he’s asleep then someone will wake him up. He says our friend Lazarus has died- again this imagery. Why so many confusions?
I think part of the reason that John illustrates these, is that the natural mind does not accept and appreciate and grasp the things of the Spirit of God because they are spiritually received and appraised. It’s the I Corinthian 1 imagery. There is something that must be revealed to you concerning these signs; the divine signs are ambiguous without God’s aid. A person can see the sign but unless God interprets it to you and opens up your mind and your heart, you won’t be able to really grasp it.
That’s what is going to be a part of the issue in this text. Jesus is going to be talking about the need, not only for a person to be born from above but also for a person to confess the truth that He is in fact who He claims to be. The discourse we’ll find here beginning in verse 16 and moving on to verse 21 invites us to make a choice as to what do we do with this Man? Frankly, the final question for all of us will always have to be the question, “Who do you say I am?” You cannot ignore it in the end.
You can either call Him the One who was deceived about what He was saying or that He was, in fact, deceiving others or you can say that what He said was true. The old liar, lunatic or Lord trilemma has been developed. The concept that either Jesus was right or He was wrong. If He was wrong and He knew it that would mean He was quite a deceiver and liar. If He was wrong and He didn’t know it, He was a lunatic. When you think about the things He claimed about Himself which are so extreme, in fact, it could be utterly unique, He’d have to be a complete madman. The third option is that He wasn’t wrong, He was right. In which case He is who He claims to be, the Lord of all.
A fourth option that people have opted for and more popularly these days is that it was a legend. That He really didn’t say those things. More and more competent New Testament scholarship is dismissing that alternative and really a simple look at the gospels as primary historical narratives even apart from buying into their interpretation would cause us to see that there is great warrant both in the gospel narratives and also extra-biblical resources that tell us about Him. There’s no warrant for saying He was some kind of a legend. The dates of these writings including the epistles are just too near to the fact for them to have been legendary.
I want to argue that Jesus, at the end of the day, cannot be ignored.
Now this Nicodemus in verse 2 was genuinely impressed by what Jesus said and did. Again John is using the particularly Johannine word for Jesus’ supernatural works- not dunamis for works of power- but semeion which is the idea of a sign. Unlike those Pharisees that would attribute Jesus’ extraordinary power to Satanic influence, Nicodemus is recognizing Jesus as One who has done what? “You’ve come from God as a teacher.”(Part of verse 2)
Now he being a Rabbi would be a very curious teacher because as you know, a Rabbi would be very interested in carrying on oral authoritative traditions. A Rabbi would interpret the text as a teacher and that is why they had this oral tradition that was later written down in the form of what would later be called the Talmud. The Mishna, which was the commentaries and the commentary on the commentary, was the Gamara. He’s thinking of Him as a great Rabbi, some teacher, who has insights and he wants to know more about Him.
In John 3:3, “Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” He just completely diverted Nicodemus’ track because Nicodemus is not expecting that. He may have wanted to ask Jesus a question similar to that perhaps of the rich young ruler about qualifications. What do You say we need to do to enter eternal life? Or maybe he was like the scribe who was trying to figure out what the supreme commandment of the law was because Jews were debating these issues. I don’t know exactly what question Nicodemus had in mind but I promise he didn’t get his question out. The whole subject changed. Maybe he supposed that Jesus could’ve been or was even possibly the inaugurator of the kingdom of God. I don’t doubt that he was expecting that was going to be coming and maybe that he’d have it right because of his loyalty to Pharisaic traditions. But as soon as he paid his compliments to this unprofessed Rabbi, Jesus just completely cuts out all from under his feet- all ground for self-satisfaction. The fact that he keeps Torah, the fact that he keeps temple worship, the fact that he’s involved as the teacher of Israel, none of that really matters too much compared to what Jesus is saying.
Again John is looking at the various institutions of Judaism, the temple, the rabbinic system, and their devotion to Torah, the sacrificial system, the priesthood and in each of these he’s showing that He Himself is the fulfillment that brings a higher understanding. John is developing this one level at a time. We see here that no one, regardless of race or piety, can experience the reign of God apart from the experience of this new birth. If you want to be concerned about the kingdom, neither racial privilege nor religious observance will eliminate the sin, which is in every child of Adam.
This is the first of four illustrations of salvation. The first one is that of birth. In John 3 we see this image of being born and it says, “Unless one is born again.” That word anothen can be used not only for again but also means from above. I think he’s using it in two ways as so often occurs. He’s got to be born from above as well as being born a second time. We see a picture here of Jesus’ claim that a person must receive a new form of life. We’ve often said that biological life is something all of us receive at birth but nobody has spiritual life. That is a gift of God and it requires the new birth. We weren’t born with spiritual life, what the bible calls Zoe, we were born with bios- biological life.
By the way, I’d like to point out that when Jesus says truly, truly the word is amen, amen. That is how we would translate verily or truly to amen. Unlike the synoptic gospels where Jesus would say, truly I say to you, John has Him saying it twice. I think it’s adding solemnity and underlining the truth of that which follows.
In other words, it means believe Me when I say this. I want you to listen very carefully to what I’m about to tell you here. I assure you that to be born again you’ve got to be willing to receive the gift that God offers. You’ve got to abandon every attempt to become righteous by the things that we typically do to try to earn favor with God, which is what religion seems to be all about. You need to instead be willing to receive a free gift of grace. John Calvin said that this claim, that we must be born again, reveals that there is nothing in us that is not defective. In effect he’s saying you don’t need a makeover, you need a completely new birth. You’ve got to start all over again. It requires a totally new kind of life than the one you have now. This is a complete reorientation. It’s really something you can liken to physical birth because it’s an emergence from darkness into light. The point here is that being born from above is a whole new radical experience.
Naturally, what does Nicodemus say when he hears this startling claim? John 3:4, “Nicodemus said to Him, ‘How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born, can he?” So for all his theological learning, Nicodemus lacks spiritual insight. He sees Jesus’ words in a very literal and therefore absurd way. He’s got to learn that God’s creative power isn’t just limited to the material and the physical but rather it extends to the spiritual as well. It’s not to say that one is less important than the other but the scriptures affirm the goodness of the created order.
That is to say, there’s another level that it’s true in nature as it’s true in the scriptures. You cannot understand the lower levels without grasping the higher. We can understand from the top down but bottom up will never work. For example, the mindset that we are the product of impersonal processes and that eventually leads to rationality- a bottom-up explanation that doesn’t work because there’s a higher category that’s not even implicit. Frankly, if you look at the organism as a whole, the atomic material, the DNA, is totally indifferent to life itself. DNA is not life. It’s not alive by itself. The chemistry is indifferent to life. There’s something bigger than the chemistry that cannot be accounted for on the basis of the biochemical material. The upper can explain the lower but the lower can never account for the higher.
So it is also in the spiritual realm. If we try to project nature on to God as Freud and others would do, they’ll try to tell you, aww, he’s just a God projection, some father figure. What you’re trying to do again if you’re trying to explain the higher in terms of the lower. You’ll always reduce it down to a two-dimensional flat interpretation. It’s what C.S. Lewis called, “nothing buttery.” By nothing buttery, he meant that’s nothing but this and this is nothing but that. Frankly, there’s something bigger. We must come to see that the higher level will always help us to grasp the lower, a total reorientation.
John 3:5, “Jesus answered, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of the water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” He’s not dealing really so much with baptism. In fact, water baptism in the New Testament is connected with death, not birth. Something we need to keep in mind in association with baptism is that we were baptized into His death- there’s an image of dying. In fact, baptism is a marvelous image because what happens when a person is dunked in that way is that they kind of die to the old and then they are raised to newness of life. I don’t think that’s what is being concerned here.
We have two parents for a physical birth so also in effect, there are two for spiritual birth. They are the Spirit of God and the Word of God. 1 Peter 1:23, “For you have been born again not of seed which is perishable but imperishable, that is, through the living and enduring word of God.” James 1:18, “In the exercise of His will He brought us forth by the word of truth, so that we would be a kind of first fruits among His creatures.” We have the Spirit and the Word birthing components that bring us into the kingdom.