Editors’ note: The following is an excerpt from a new curriculum from John Piper and Brian J. Tabb based on Piper’s book What Jesus Demands from the World. The curriculum is co-published by TGC and LifeWay.
John’s Gospel introduces us to a man named Nicodemus. Nicodemus was a Pharisee—an expert in the Scriptures—and a ruler of the Jews. He was also a respectable and important religious leader (see John 3:1). Nicodemus saw Jesus perform signs in Jerusalem. He may have been present when Jesus drove the merchants and animals from the temple with a whip (see John 2:14–15). And so he came to Jesus by night and said, “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” (John 3:2). Jesus’s teaching about new birth and the kingdom of God explodes Nicodemus’s human categories and exposes that this esteemed scholar is in the dark concerning the true ways of God. Nicodemus asks, “How can these things be?” Jesus challenges him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?” (John 3:9–10)
Nicodemus claims that he can see and understand something of who Jesus is from these miracles. However, Jesus insists, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). The Jewish scholar doesn’t get it: “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” (John 3:4) A person may be born into a religious family, may receive biblical education, may be a law-abiding, moral person, and may even hold a religious job, and yet may be spiritually dead and ignorant of the true reality of God’s saving rule. Nicodemus was.
The dead can’t see. That is, they can’t see God’s kingdom as supremely desirable. It looks foolish or mythical or boring. So they “cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5) Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3).
Books, media reports, and sermons commonly refer to “born again Christians,” but what does that phrase mean? In his best-selling autobiography Born Again, Charles Colson describes his powerful conversion while in prison for the Watergate scandal. The Barna research group uses the label “born again” for people who say they have made ‘a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today’ and who also indicated they believe that when they die they will go to Heaven because they had confessed their sins and had accepted Jesus Christ as their savior. The evangelist Billy Graham says, “Have you been born again?” Call it conversion, call it commitment, call it repentance, call it being saved, but has it happened to you? Does Christ live in your heart? Do you know it? Many people have thought a long time about religion and Christianity and yet have never made a commitment. Are you committed to Jesus Christ?”