I am captivated by the conversation between Jesus and a rabbi named Nicodemus. It is located in John, chapter 3. In this text, we find one of the greatest affirmations of the Christian faith. John 3:16 says, "For God so loved the world …." In this text, Jesus draws together the central ideas and themes of John's Gospel. He talks about the kingdom of God, the Cross, the Holy Spirit, flesh, spirit, light, darkness, and two great Christological titles—Son of Man and Son of God.
But this text also explains what is currently happening in our church and this city.
Jesus probably had the Book of Ezekiel in mind when he was talking with Nicodemus. When you read the Gospels, you need to realize that Jesus was usually working with a text from the Old Testament. Listen to John 3:1-21:
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 again 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 again.' The wind 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."
Nicodemus said to him, "How can these things be?" Jesus answered him, "Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
"For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God."
Here, Jesus is talking about the wonder of a new birth. He talks about the necessity of this birth, but he focuses more on the wonder of it. He's speaking about the birthing of a new humanity, the fulfillment of a promise that is found throughout the Old Testament. We must realize it is a reality that does not have to be understood in order to be experienced. It is a reality that does not need to be articulated in order to be lived. That is why children can experience what Jesus is talking about. We can experience it even when we lose our memories and are unable to think clearly. Jesus is speaking about a work from outside of us. He's speaking about a work that is done by another. In his conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus is not telling Nicodemus that he must do something. Jesus is explaining what is happening to Nicodemus—something which he could not and did not manufacture.
So why does Nicodemus come to Jesus? That he even bothers to do so is a surprise. Nicodemus, John explains, is a ruler of the Jews. He's a member of the Jerusalem council. He is the teacher, Jesus would later say. You could say he was the leading theologian of the day.
John says that he comes to Jesus by night. Why by night? Partly because Nicodemus is embarrassed. He is the leading theologian of the day, yet he goes to talk to this itinerant preacher from Galilee, who probably had a lower quality education. This is a little embarrassing. He also is going at night because he is a little frightened. Jesus has been saying and doing things that upset the religious establishment. He goes at night because night affords a great opportunity for leisurely conversation, at least for the men of the first century.
The hunger for the new birth
But why does he come? Why does he seek Jesus? There are five reasons. The first reason Nicodemus comes to Jesus is he was restless. He is unsatisfied with religion. He wants more.
The second reason: He witnessed what Jesus was saying and doing. Before John tells the story of their conversation, he says that Jesus was performing signs, deeds that pointed to a greater reality. John refers to two signs in chapter 2. The first was when Jesus turned water into wine at a wedding feast in Cana. He takes water and makes it into wine, not water and grapes into wine, just the water into wine. And Nicodemus has heard about this. And he's heard about the fact that Jesus has cleansed the Jerusalem temple. Nicodemus knows the promise of the Old Testament—the living God would one day come to the temple himself. And now, Jesus is in the temple and refers to "My Father's house" as he reveals great things about himself. So Nicodemus has heard and seen these signs.
The third reason: Nicodemus has heard Jesus' explanation for his deeds and his words. He has heard Jesus preach. Jesus said, "The time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God has come near." This phrase, kingdom of God, is too dynamic to be left as a noun. We need to find a new way to say kingdom of God, because kingdom of God is the way of saying God is King. And the great expectation of the Old Testament is that one day God would come and act as King. To be sure, God is King at all times, but there is a way in which God would particularly come to earth and act as King. And Jesus says that time has come; God is acting as King in me and because of me. Nicodemus has heard this explanation.
The fourth reason: Nicodemus is attracted to Jesus. Jesus is inherently magnetic. When Nicodemus discovers more about Jesus, he discovers why Jesus is so attractive.
The final reason: Something has been happening in Nicodemus's life, and he wants to know what it is. In the conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus helps him understand what's happening. Jesus does not help Nicodemus do anything. He doesn't tell Nicodemus to do something. Rather, he tells Nicodemus what is happening to him.
God's role in the new birth
Nicodemus says to him, "Rabbi." That is a compliment for a rabbi to pass this comment on to an itinerant preacher. "Rabbi, we know ….," he begins. Who's we? He is probably referring to the Jerusalem council, all the other rabbis. They've witnessed the works of Jesus, and they've been talking about them.
And Nicodemus says, "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." Nicodemus is speaking the truth. Jesus has come from God, and God is with Jesus. But there's more truth. Nicodemus will later discover that Jesus has not only come from God; he's come out of God. And he will discover not only that God is with Jesus, but that Jesus is God with us. So Jesus responds, "Truly, truly," which literally means amen, amen. Amen means you can put your weight on this. You can trust this. "Amen, amen. Unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God." He cannot see God acting as King. The word for born again is anothen, which basically means born from above. James 3:7 speaks of "wisdom that is from above." Born from above. And Jesus lays out a number of parallel statements here—born again from above, born of water and the Spirit, born of the Spirit, born again from above, and born of the Spirit. Born of anothen. To be born from above is to be born of the Spirit.
The must in "you must be born again" is not anything Nicodemus can do. It's something that has to happen to Nicodemus from outside himself. It's something that happens by another working in his life. So when Jesus says to Nicodemus, "A person cannot see the kingdom of God unless he's born from above," Jesus is telling Nicodemus that he is seeing the kingdom because he's being born from above. Jesus is not exhorting Nicodemus. He's explaining to Nicodemus what has happened. Nicodemus is recognizing in the deeds of Jesus the activity of God the King because he is being birthed. A person cannot enter the kingdom of God unless one is born of water and the Spirit. Jesus is saying to Nicodemus that he is experiencing this kingdom because he's being birthed. He's being born again from above by the Spirit. He's experiencing the kingdom of God because something is happening to him.
There's nothing Nicodemus can do to be born from above. John 3:6 says, "That which is born of the flesh is flesh, that which is born of the Spirit is spirit." Jesus isn't using flesh to refer to anything negative or evil. It refers to our humanity. Flesh begets flesh. Flesh makes fleshly things, and some of those fleshly things are good, as we can see all around us. But it's only flesh. It perishes. Flesh cannot bring about this new birth. The new birth must be done by the work of the Spirit. The Spirit begets spiritual things. The Spirit begets the things of the kingdom of God. And Jesus is telling Nicodemus, the seeker, what is happening to him. He comes at night, but he's coming out of the darkness. In coming to the Light at night, he's coming out of the darkness into the day. It's as if Jesus were saying, "Nicodemus, you are seeing the things of the kingdom of God because you're being born from above. You are entering into the things of God because you're being born by the Spirit from above."
The must is God's doing. God must birth us into the kingdom from above by water and by the Spirit. And that's why Nicodemus does not argue with Jesus. He's lived too long. He's seen too much. He knows this has to happen. He knows about injustice, corruption, fear, and violence. He knows all of that. He knows something must happen. So he doesn't ask why. He asks how, twice.
Jesus says to him, "You are the teacher of Israel and you do not understand this?" When I hear Jesus say that to Nicodemus I want to say to Jesus, "How can he understand this? This is a mystery." "The wind blows where it will," says Jesus. The word wind is the word pneuma. It's the same word for spirit. "The Spirit moves where he will." The Holy Spirit moves in sovereign freedom. You are the teacher of Israel. You should understand this. Jesus is aware of what's in Nicodemus's mind as a good Bible scholar and theologian. Jesus is appealing to two texts in the Old Testament that Nicodemus most likely knows. The first is Genesis 2:7: "Then the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living thing." Even the first birth, and our births, involves the breath of God. No one is birthed on their own. None of us made ourselves birthed. It was an act of God.
But the text Jesus especially has in mind is Ezekiel 36 and 37. In chapter 36, God speaks of one day coming and manifesting his great holiness among his people. He says, "I will come and I will cleanse you with water." "I will wash your filthiness from you." "I will give you a new heart." "I will give you a new spirit." "I will put my Spirit within you."
And then in chapter 37 we read about the vision of the dry bones. God takes Ezekiel out into this valley. It's full of dry bones, dead bones, decaying bones, and God asks the prophet, "Can these bones live?" Ezekiel responds, "Only you know that." And so God orders Ezekiel to prophesy over the bones—to speak the performative word over the bones. And so he does: "Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord." And when he speaks, the bones start coming together. There are sinews on them, and flesh starts coming together. It looks like they are going to take life. But there's not any breath in them, so God tells the prophet to prophesy to the breath. And so Ezekiel says, "Come from the four corners of the earth, O breath, and breathe on these things that they may live." And when he does these humanoids are filled with life and they stand up. And the text says these bones formed an exceedingly great army. And then God says that in the day to come, he will breathe his Spirit upon his people, and they will come alive.
And that is what is happening to Nicodemus. He's being birthed from above by the Spirit into this great new humanity. And that is what is happening here, and that is what is happening all over our city. It's very exciting to live in Vancouver right now, to witness what is happening. People are being born from above, born by the breath of the Spirit.
Our role in new birth
Do we have any role in this birthing? No and yes. In one, sense you don't have a role. We can't make it happen for ourselves or for anybody else. The wind blows where he will. But in another sense, we do have a role in this. There's no exhortation in John 3. We aren't told to do anything, but there is one hint: we must look to Jesus. We must look at the uplifted Jesus and respond to his pull on our lives.
So Jesus calls Nicodemus to another Old Testament text. John 3:14-15 says, "As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so much the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes may in him have eternal life." Jesus is referring to an event that's recorded in Numbers 20. The people of God are in the wilderness. They disobey, and fiery serpents come into their midst. They beg Moses to pray to God for help. God tells Moses to take a bronze serpent and put it up on a pole. Whoever looks up at the serpent will live. So Jesus is essentially saying to Nicodemus, "Whoever looks at the uplifted Christ, whoever looks to me on the Cross, who's giving his life for the world, will be in the process of being born anew from above."
Actually it's more mysterious than that. You wouldn't even look at Jesus. You wouldn't even look at him uplifted on the Cross unless you were being born again from above.
The signs of new birth
So what are the signs of this happening? The Sermon on the Mount, the Book of Ephesians, and the Book of James describe what happens when the Spirit comes and births this new humanity. But in John 3 we have some other hints. The Spirit is always moving us out of darkness into light. He's always bringing the light of Jesus into our darkness and exposing the ways of darkness. That's why as this takes place we find old patterns of behavior odious. That's why we want to change. That's why we have a desire to discover a new way of life. The Spirit is creating in us a greater disgust for the sexualization of commercialism in our day. Doesn't that disgust you? That's why there's a growing disgust with violence in films and sports. We want to move out of that darkness into the freedom and wholeness and joy of the light. The Spirit is reproducing the life of Jesus within us. This is what Paul is referring to in Galatians 5 when he talks about the fruits of the Spirit: Love, joy, peace, and so forth. Those are the qualities that marked Jesus's earthly ministry. They are the qualities that marked the way Jesus related to people. They are the marks of his character. The Spirit wants to reproduce the character of Jesus within us. After all, he is the one great human, and he wants to work that new humanity within us.
The Spirit is also working his creativity in us. This is what I think the rest of the New Testament means by the gifts of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit is giving us the ability to do the works of Jesus—gifts of speaking, gifts of teaching, gifts of administration and mercy, gifts of healing, and so on. The Spirit is doing that with our vocation. I suggest that you read Exodus chapter 31, and then chapters 34-37. You will read about a man named Bezalel who was given the job of building the tabernacle. It's a marvelous text to read because it's all under the sign of the Holy Spirit. The text says the Spirit came upon him and gave him these gifts of craftsmanship.
The Spirit is also imparting to us his own passions—so that we can become whole, so that people will find God's peace and shalom. "Flesh begets flesh; spirit begets spirit." And the Spirit begins to animate and enliven us by his presence and power.
The Spirit's greatest passion is that we know, love, follow, and trust Jesus. That's the most important thing you need to know about this mysterious Spirit. He is preoccupied with Jesus, and he wants to work that preoccupation into us. Jesus is, after all, the new human.
As I was working on this text this past week, I thought about an event that happened early in my ministry. The first time I became a senior minister, I was twenty-seven years old, in West Los Angeles. I inherited quite a situation. There were seven people on the nominating committee, two of whom could say they were Christians. The elder board, made up of 12 people, didn't know what they believed. Two thought they believed in Jesus. Obviously, this was a problematic situation, but it was also a wonderful opportunity. So one Sunday I was waxing away on Colossians 1:15-20, a great hymn. Paul is celebrating the fact that Jesus Christ is the visible expression of the invisible God, and that all things have been made by Jesus Christ, for Jesus Christ. Everything is held together in Christ. They're all reconciled to God through Christ. This text presents a wonderful picture of who Jesus Christ is. At the time when I was preaching on this text, there was a commercial that said, "When you've said Budweiser, you've said it all." And so I thought it would be cool to capture that from the culture. So the title of my sermon was "When You've Said Jesus, You've Said It All." He is the perfect image of the invisible God. He is the one who made us all for himself, who holds us all together, and reconciles us. When you've said Jesus you've said it all.
Afterwards, one of the leaders came to me, pointed her finger at me, and said, "You're a heretic. You can't say that about Jesus." I said, "I didn't. Paul did. I'm repeating his words." And she was terribly angry with me. So I said, "Why don't you come and see me." So she made an appointment and came to see me. She sat in my office, and we had quite the conversation. And I finally said, "Why don't you go home and read the Gospel of John and pray this prayer: Jesus, if you are who this text says you are, then make yourself real." She said, "That's kind of crazy." I said, "Well, can you just do it, and then we'll see where we can go from there?" She said, "Okay, I'll do it." So two weeks later she came to my office, and I could see there was something different about her. She told me, "I don't know what this born again stuff is all about, but I think it happened to me." I had not used the term born again. In the 60s, 70s, and 80s, you didn't use the term born again. It was loaded with all kinds of things you avoided, unless you were a Charles Colson fan. And so I hadn't used that kind of language. And I said, "Why?" She said, "You're right about Jesus, and I love him." Within a month her husband came to the same realization. Within a month after that, their good friends came to that realization. Within a month after that, two other couples came to the same realization, and it spread like wildfire through the church that did not know Jesus. It was wonderful.
We know this happened to Nicodemus because of what happens in the rest of the Gospel of John. In chapter 7 we're told that Nicodemus stands up for Jesus when some of the authorities wanted to arrest him. This was a risky move. And then on Good Friday Nicodemus helps Joseph of Arimathea take Jesus' body off the cross. The leading theologian of the day risks everything in order to take the body of Jesus off the Cross. Why? Because he's been born from above by the Spirit. And when you're born from above by the Spirit, Jesus is the only thing that matters.
Darrell Johnson has been preaching Jesus Christ and his gospel for over 50 years. He has served a number of Presbyterian congregations in California, Union Church of Manila in the Philippines, and the historic First Baptist Church in the heart of Vancouver, Canada. He has taught preaching for Fuller Theological Seminary, Carey Theological College in Vancouver, and Regent College in Vancouver.