The God Who is There: Part 8 – The God Who Grants New Birth

John 3:1-15

Listen or read the following transcript from The Gospel Coalition as D. A. Carson speaks on the topic of Biblical theology from John 3:1-15.

Hello. My name is Don Carson. The title of this talk, The God Who Grants New Birth, finds its genesis in a conversation the Lord Jesus had with a first-century Jewish scholar and legislator named Nicodemus. The point of the exchange, as we’ll see, is what Jesus promises is not more moral code for we will break it, not improved liturgy for our minds will continue to wander, not mere threats for threats by themselves do not capture rebellious hearts and minds, not mere forgiveness for we may stubbornly persist in doing things that require forgiveness.

No. What Jesus promises is life-transforming power, a new origin, a new beginning, what he himself calls a new birth. If you are entirely satisfied with your life, if you live with such massive self-confidence that you feel you need neither God nor other people, none of this will make much sense.

In fact, you may find what Jesus says insulting. In that case, you will probably walk away, and I must tell you that you are in terrible danger, but if you are beginning to see you need power from God himself to change direction and start over with new vitality provided by God’s own Spirit, then please pay special attention to the biblical material unpacked in the next few minutes.

It’s a great pleasure to be back with you. We’re at the halfway point in this series. We have discovered from the opening chapters of Genesis, the Bible’s storyline has set up a massive tension cosmic in scope but descending all the way down to the level of the individual. The tension is grounded in the fact God made everything good.

God himself, the Creator, is different from the creation, but all he made was initially God-centered and good, but the very nature of evil is tied to rebellion against this God (we tried to see how this is depicted in Genesis 3) and with this desire to challenge God, to become God ourselves, to usurp to ourselves the prerogatives that belong only to the Creator, come all of the social evils, the horizontal evils, we know.

With everybody wanting to be at the center of the universe, there can only be strife. I know full well nobody goes around saying, “I am at the center of the universe.” I know that. Yet, if I were to hold up your high school or college graduation class photo and say, “Here’s your graduation class photo,” whose face do you look for first?

Or suppose you have a really good knock-down-drag-them-out argument, one of the one-in-ten-year types, and you go away from it seething (you remember all the things you could have said, all the things you should have said, all the things you would have said if you only thought of them fast enough) and you replay the whole thing in your mind, who wins?

I’ve lost many arguments in my time. I’ve never lost a rerun. Because all of these things are small indexes of how we want to prevail, we want to control, we want to be at the center and, “Even God, if he, she, or it exists jolly well better serve me or I’ll find another one, thank you.” So you have the beginning of all idolatry, but if our lives have come from God and now we rebel against him, what do we have but death?

Yet, the God of the Bible, instead of wiping out rebels, in his sovereign mercy operates in a variety of ways. Yes, there is judgment, but he does some spectacular things. He calls out one man, Abraham and his family flawed through and through, to begin the process of starting a new humanity in a covenant, an agreement with him, that anticipates what God is going to do ultimately to save men and women drawn from every tongue and tribe and nation around the world.

In due course, he shows what good Law should be, how there needs to be sacrifice for sin. If the entailment of rebellion and sin, of being cut off from the Creator, is death, then does not God’s justice require some kind of debt even while this God forgives the sinner? So we witness the beginning of the sacrificial system as it was set up under the old covenant with God eventually promising in due course a Redeemer, someone from the Davidic line, the line of kings set up about 1000 BC under King David.

Yet, as the promises unfold in the Old Testament, this ultimate Davidite, this ultimate Davidic king, is more than just one more person with David’s genes, for we are given glimpses that we recite with pleasure at Christmas: “For unto us a child is born. Unto us a son is given. He shall reign on the throne of his father, David. Of the increase of his kingdom there will be no end, and he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”

With an array of biblical texts promising a Davidic king who is, nevertheless, identified with God himself, so we glance at some of the Old Testament promises that look forward to the time when, in the last passage we looked at last week, the Word, God’s own self-expression who is himself God in the complexity of one God, nevertheless, Father and Son, the Son becoming a human being living for a while among us.

He became flesh, to use the Bible’s language, and in becoming flesh, he ultimately became the One who is the perfect locus of grace and truth, we saw. No one has seen God at any time, but we have seen Jesus. Do you want to know what God looks like? Well, not physically, and yet, if you want to know what he’s like, if you want to know what his characteristics are, what his attributes are, how he behaves, how he thinks, how he interacts with people, look at Jesus.

So in his gospel he says to one of his own followers, “Have I been with you such a long time, Phillip, and yet you have not known me? He who has seen me has seen the Father.” Here is a God who has disclosed himself. He’s the God who is there, but he has disclosed himself, and he’s named not only with the names he takes on himself in the Old Testament and he’s named not only with his attributes as they’re described in story and action and word and proverb and the like, he’s finally named as the God-man, this Jesus, Yahweh saves, the One who comes to save his people from their sins.

But precisely how does this help? So he has come. God is named. The God who is there has disclosed himself. Granted the tension that sweeps right through the whole Bible, what we need is, first of all, ourselves to be reconciled to God. We need that. Secondly, we must not only be reconciled to him, but we must be morally transformed or else we just keep on rebelling and doing it again and again and again and again.

Thirdly, all the affects of sin must somehow be reversed and overcome. Otherwise, death just keeps going on. It is still a decaying universe. There is still pain and sorrow and death, but the Bible, with increasing clarity, begins to lay out hope of a transformed universe with no more death or decay.

In other words, the Bible’s prospect is not just that we make a decision for Jesus and live happy lives. The Bible’s vision is that we really are reconciled to this God who is there and that he begins his work of transformation within us and that he holds out before us the prospect of a universal transformation at the end aptly summarized under an expression that starts showing up hundreds of years before the coming of Jesus. It crops up from time to time until it triumphs in the last two chapters of the Bible: a new heaven and a new earth.

That’s where we’re going in this second set of seven talks. We got as far as what Christians call the incarnation, the in-fleshing (that’s what it means), the becoming a human being, the in-fleshing, the incarnation of God among us. Jesus addresses all three of these massive needs, and the rest of this series is designed to show you how he does this. One crucial part of this is the new birth.

Tonight in the first session, we’re looking at the God who grants new birth. There are several passages in the New Testament that talk about this, but first of all, I’m going to focus on John, chapter 3. If you are looking at a Bible, this is in the last third called the New Testament writings, the parts that start in Greek and have come down to us beginning with four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), all of which tell us something about Jesus’ coming, life, death, and resurrection. The fourth of those is John’s gospel, and in the third chapter, I will read the first 15 verses. John 3:1–15:

“Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus, who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, ‘Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.’ Jesus replied, ‘Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born again.’ ‘How can anyone be born when they are old?’ Nicodemus asked. ‘Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!’

Jesus answered, ‘Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, “You must be born again.” The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.’ ‘How can this be?’ Nicodemus asked.

‘You are Israel’s teacher,’ said Jesus, ‘and do you not understand these things? Very truly I tell you, Very truly I tell youwe speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.’ ”

New birth language. I’m old enough to remember when people drove Datsun automobiles. They were produced by the Nissan Motor Company, but the base model was the Datsun. Somewhere along the line, they decided they would change the Datsun to the Nissan, and all over America there were slogans about the “born-again Datsun.” What does born again mean? A name change?

Or sometimes a Democrat becomes a Republican or a liberal becomes a conservative or vice versa and we’ll start hearing in one of the media something about this born-again Republican or whatever. There’s a pollster by the name of Barna who is constantly polling people to find out what they think about this or that or the other, and not too long ago he polled a whole lot of born-again people, but if you’re going to do that you have to define what born again means, don’t you?

He defined born again as someone with a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important to them today. Then what he discovered rather sadly was that the morals and mores of such so-called born again people are not really that much different from those of the whole generation and culture in which we live.

Is that what Jesus has in mind? Is what Jesus has in mind someone who has made some kind of religious commitment to Jesus and is still more or less happy with it regardless of whether or not it has made any difference in their life? Indeed, to talk about it as a commitment is looking at it from our side, but the whole nature of birth seems to look at things from the other side.

In other words, the child does not sort of make a commitment to come out of his mother’s womb. I think it’s the mother, as far as I know, who is doing the work and pushing the little tyke out! In other words, the source comes from the parents. It’s not begun from some commitment. Why does Jesus even use this sort of language?

As far as we know, born-again language was not used, so far as our sources go, in the ancient world until Jesus invented the term, so it is important to try to find out what he meant by it if we’re going to embrace some kind of born-againism or born-again theology. I’m going to proceed in three quite uneven points.

1. What Jesus actually said about being born again

The account here is the first ten verses. We’re introduced to this chap named Nicodemus. We’re told he is a Pharisee. That meant he was from a conservative branch of first-century Judaism known and largely respected in the community for discipline and good deeds and a certain kind of orthodoxy sometimes given to an excess of rules.

On top of this (that was his religious affiliation) he was a member of the Jewish ruling council. Almost certainly that’s referring to the Sanhedrin, the top council of 70 or 72 people who ruled the country under the Roman governor. This meant he was part of a certain party but belonging to the political elite, and because this political elite was also a religious elite (that is, the rulers were people committed to Judaism in some sense though from different backgrounds) this put him at the top of a lot of heaps in the country.

Down in verse 10 we’re told he’s the teacher of Israel. That is, there’s an article with the word. This should probably be rendered the teacher of Israel. He’s the Grand Mufti. He’s the Regius Professor of Divinity. He’s learned, he’s theologically up there, he’s politically connected, and later on it appears he probably is connected also with some wealth.

He comes to Jesus. He comes at night. Why? There have been lots of suggestions advanced. People have said he didn’t want to show up in the day. He was a bit embarrassed. Jesus was a kind of itinerant preacher from the boonies. He was from up in Galilee with a funny accent and all of that. Whereas here was Nicodemus himself, the Regius Professor of Divinity. Why would he approach an itinerant preacher and get some theological advice? He was embarrassed.

I don’t believe it for a moment. Nicodemus shows up several times in this book and every time he doesn’t really care what people think. He has one independent spirit about him. He’ll take on anybody if he thinks he has a point. To understand what John means by faithfully recording it was night you have to see how John himself in his book uses light and darkness, night and day, and things like that. One reason why it’s mentioned it was night is because it was night. That was the time. It was night. It’s just an historical fact.

Why does he even bother mentioning it? Almost certainly, because John likes to play with these sorts of things. Later on, when Jesus is betrayed, Jesus dismisses Judas, the man who will ultimately betray him, and as the man goes out, John comments, “… and it was night.” No doubt that was the time, all right, but John is making a deeper comment as he recounts the thing. He is saying, “He went out into the horrible darkness of lostness without light and hope anymore.”

If that’s what’s going on (that’s the way John does use this sort of language) then the text is saying when Nicodemus came to Jesus, no doubt it was nighttime, he came with a certain kind of lostness. He didn’t even know how to approach properly. He was a bit baffled. He didn’t quite know what he was doing, and that becomes pretty obvious as you read on.

He comes with a certain kind of respect. It’s quite remarkable for the Regius Professor of Divinity to approach an itinerant preacher and begin, “Rabbi …” The man is remarkable. Then he says, “We know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”

We could start by asking why he starts with this we. There is no indication he has brought his students with him. “My class and I together, we have come to this conclusion.” There’s no hint anybody else is there. A royal we? That really makes it pompous. An editorial we? What’s going on?

Later on, you’ll see Jesus carefully draws attention to this we language. It’s almost impossible to avoid the conclusion that, for all the formal respect Nicodemus displays toward Jesus, there is a little element of pomposity. “Rabbi, we have been examining you, and we have observed you are not the run-of-the-mill sort of religious teacher. There are all kinds of quacks out there who claim to do miracles and they’re all fraudulent, but we look at the kind of thing you do and we cannot deny this is miraculous. The only explanation is that it is from God, so we have come to the conclusion, we have, that you are a teacher sent from God.”

That’s what it sounds like. In one sense, it’s commendable. At least the chap is looking honestly at the phenomena. He’s not simply dismissing Jesus as some sort of nut case, one more religious quack. The ancient world had its share; we have our share today, too. The kinds of things Jesus did were a cut above, and Nicodemus wasn’t going to deny the evidence.

Yet, this editorial we, this “We theologians, perhaps have been examining these things,” does sound a wee bit pompous. Verse 3 finds Jesus saying, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born again.” Now you ask yourself, “How is that in any sense a response to what Nicodemus said?” Nicodemus says, “We know you are a teacher sent from God because no one could do these miraculous signs unless God were with him.”

“I tell you the truth, unless you are born again you cannot see the kingdom of God.” What’s the connection? People have suggested sort of a presupposed ellipsis as if Nicodemus is really saying something like, “We know you’re a teacher sent from God because nobody could do what you’re doing unless God were with him, so tell us, are you the one who is going to bring in the coming kingdom? Are you the one who is going to make David’s kingdom finally dawn?”

In which case, Jesus says, “No, the crucial question is not whether I am going to make the kingdom dawn but whether you’re qualified to get in it.” That’s an awful lot of stuff to leave out, isn’t it, between verse 2 and verse 3 to make sense of the flow of the passage? It’s an awful lot of stuff to leave out.

I think the connection is far simpler. You may recall in one of the earlier sessions I mentioned the notion of kingdom can be quite varied. It has to do with God’s dynamic reign with his power, and sometimes it’s his sweeping sovereignty and sometimes it’s the exercise of his reign over the Israelites of the old covenant and so forth.

There was an anticipation that eventually great David’s greater son would come and introduce the kingdom, all right. Now, what does Nicodemus see? He sees Jesus doing miraculous signs, signs that cannot be explained as the tricks of some quack. He sees this as God’s reign, God’s power, in some sense, and he says, “We have come to the conclusion that God is with you.” In that sense, this is God’s reign operating in some sense.

He’s claiming something, and Jesus says, “My dear Nicodemus, let me tell you the truth. You don’t see a blessed thing. You can’t see the kingdom unless you’re born again. You might see the miraculous signs, but you really don’t discern. You don’t see the kingdom at all!” In other words, what Jesus is doing is actually, gently but firmly, knocking down Nicodemus’ pretensions.

To see this kingdom, the kingdom Jesus is introducing, “You have to be born again,” he says, and Nicodemus replies with a bit of a sneer in verse 4. “How can anyone be born when they are old? Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born.” Some have tried to argue Nicodemus here shows himself to be the thick Professor of Divinity, but does he really think Jesus is seriously suggesting you have to crawl back into your mummy’s tummy physically and start all over again?

To set this thing up this way means he can’t see a metaphor, he’s just slow, he’s literalistic, he’s (not to put too fine a word on it) dumb, but I don’t think that makes any sense either. Nicodemus was not a stupid man. You don’t get to be the teacher of Israel without being able to discern the odd metaphor that comes your way.

I think he is replying to Jesus in Jesus’ own terms. That is to say, you can promise a lot of things: you can promise turning over a new leaf, your life takes on a new direction, fulfillment finally in marriage, you get wealthy if you follow me. You can promise all kinds of things, but what Jesus is promising somehow in this metaphoric new birth is a new beginning.

Nicodemus hears that because he has ears for a metaphor (he’s not stupid), and he says in effect, “Jesus, you’re promising too much. A new beginning? How could you possibly start over? Time doesn’t run backwards despite our theoretical physicists. You can’t crawl back into your mother’s womb and have another go at it. You’re promising too much. How can any man be born again?”

And in point of fact, isn’t that the sentiment of many writers and poets over the years? The English nineteenth century poet Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote, “And, ah, for a man to arise in me, that the man I am may cease to be.” Poet John Clare wrote, “If life had a second edition, how I would correct the proofs.” But life doesn’t have a second edition. How can you start over by being born again?

In this light, Jesus is clearly saying, in effect, “What we need is new men and women not new institutions. What we need are new lives not new laws. What we need are new creatures not new creeds. What we need is new people not mere displays of power. From your vantage point, Nicodemus, you really don’t see very much. You see the display of power, but you don’t see the kingdom in any saving, transforming sense. You don’t really understand what’s going on at all.”

“Jesus, you are encouraging the impossible! There is no new beginning. There is no new birth. Messianic figure you may be, but you’re now promising too much.” But Jesus won’t back down, so he says in verse 5, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit.” What does he mean by that?

I have to tell you, over the generations people have understood this expression, born of water and the spirit, in a number of ways. Some people think it means natural birth plus some kind of spiritual birth. Born of water maybe is the breaking of the water when you’re born before you actually begin to push out (it’s natural) versus born of the Spirit, something from God or supernatural.

There are two births. You have to be born of the water and of the Spirit. I don’t think that’s what it means partly because I have not been able to find anywhere in the ancient world that people spoke of natural birth as being born of water. That just wasn’t an expression anybody used. Moreover, if you compare verse 3 very carefully with verse 5, you’ll discover something about this.

Verse 3: “Very truly I tell you …” Verse 5: “Very truly I tell you …” The two sentences are parallel. Verse 3: “… no one can see the kingdom of God …” Verse 5: “… no one can enter the kingdom of God. It’s souped up a bit more from see to enter, but you’re still in the same sort of suite.

Verse 3: “… without being born again.” Verse 5: “… without being born of water and the Spirit.” In other words, born again is parallel to born of water and the Spirit. Born of water and the Spirit isn’t signaling two births: first birth one (born of water) then birth two (the born again part). No, the whole expression born of water and the Spirit is parallel to born again.

So what does John mean by that? What does Jesus mean by that? There’s one other small hint we can pick up before we conclude what it means. Down in verses 9 and 10, when Jesus has given his answer, Nicodemus still doesn’t quite understand and he says, “How can these things be?” and Jesus replies, “You’re Israel’s teacher? You’re the teacher of Israel? Probably a title, the Grand Mufti, the Regius Professor of Divinity, and you don’t understand these things?”

What things should Nicodemus …? Because he was the Grand Mufti, the theological senior professor in the land, what things should he have understood? What he should have understood, of course, was anything that comes from what we call the Old Testament, the first two-thirds of the Bible we scanned last week. The question becomes where does that Bible talk about new birth?

The short answer is it doesn’t, but interestingly enough, in quite a few places it does talk about water and Spirit. In other words, when Jesus says, “The birth I’m talking about is of water and Spirit,” he expects Nicodemus to pick up that sort of language because, after all, he’s the sort of chap who has actually memorized the whole Old Testament. He knows the text that well, so he picks up. He should pick up what Jesus means when he talks about water and Spirit.

There are a number of passages, but perhaps one of the most striking is found in an Old Testament prophet by the name of Ezekiel writing about the sixth century. In chapter 36 of Ezekiel, God promises a time when he will make a new covenant with his people. You will recall last week we noticed how God writes his own agreements, his own covenants.

He has one, for example, with Abraham, and then when the Law is given with Moses, that’s a kind of covenant as well, an agreement. Then when he begins to use David as the founding of the whole dynastic order, it’s a Davidic covenant, an agreement God has arranged. Now Ezekiel is promising a new covenant, and he says in this new covenant, “I will sprinkle your hearts with clean water,” indicating cleaning somebody up morally, “and I will pour out my Spirit upon you,” indicating life and power from God himself.

Whatever else this birth is, it’s the promise of a prophet from six centuries earlier bound up with a dawning of a new covenant, a new agreement from God, that would be characterized by moral transformation (the water sprinkling the heart) and by the power and life of God to transform and renew. That’s what Jesus means by the new birth.

Then he is quick to explain a little further. He says in verse 6, “Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ ” What he means by this is pigs give birth to pigs, cockroaches generate cockroaches, bats generate bats, kind produces kind, and flesh produces flesh, so how on earth do you take human beings, rebels, lost, and actually connect them with the life of God? You’re not going to produce that by natural selection. You’re not going to have moral revolution by merely trying harder.

What you really must have is what Ezekiel said, some act of God that does clean you up and actually suffuses you with power from God himself from his Spirit so we are changed, transformed. You must have that or you cannot possibly be connected with the life of God. That’s what he wants. “Flesh gives birth to flesh. Don’t be surprised I demand something that is birthed from Spirit.”

Then he gives another analogy. The analogy depends in part on the fact the word we translate Spirit can also mean wind depending on the context, so in the original there’s a bit of a pun. “The wind [Spirit] blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit [wind].”

It may be they’re standing on a street corner in Jerusalem and a sycamore branch is swaying in the evening breeze or a tumbleweed dances down the street, a little dust eddy maybe, and Jesus looks around and says, “Do you see the effect of the wind? Do you really know where it comes from?”

I mean, even then they knew something of meteorology but not all that much. A good deal less than we know today. Nobody was sitting around thinking, “There is a high in the Arabian Desert. Is this cyclonic or anti-cyclonic? Where is the line between the depression and the high pressure?” Nobody is thinking in those terms, but that doesn’t mean you deny the existence and power of wind.

You see the effects. You might not be able to explain all of the dynamics and all of the physical forces that brought it to pass, but you can’t deny the effects. Then Jesus says, “So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Listen, friends. I may not be able to explain all the mechanics of new birth.

From the Bible.… We can look at a text like this and a batch of others, another passage here and there that talks about the new birth, and from it we can infer quite a few things about how this works, but at the end of the day, we don’t have a full analysis of how God works powerfully within us to transform us, but where there is genuine new birth you always see the results. You can’t deny them.

That’s why Barna’s interpretation is so abysmally off base. Somebody has made a commitment to Jesus. La-de-da. It doesn’t necessarily mean anything. Where there is new birth, where it has genuinely come from God, it will transform you. You will see change in the life. That doesn’t mean people have suddenly reached perfection.

We’ll wrestle with a lot more of Christian failure in due course, but there is a change of direction. There is a change of origin. There is a cleaning up in the life. There is a transformation. There is the beginning of life from God himself that shapes our existence in a new direction. “So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit, and my dear Nicodemus, you cannot see the kingdom, the real power of God, and you cannot enter this kingdom unless you’re born again. That is what you must have. You must be born again.”

In other words, this text is dead set against those who think Christianity is a matter of ritual or religious practice or mysticism. The Bible keeps saying these kinds of things. The same writer, John who is recording all of this, also writes a letter farther on in the New Testament toward the end. It’s a little one we call 1 John. There are three: 1 John, 2 John, and 3 John.

In the first of his three recorded letters he keeps saying things like, “Unless you obey Jesus’ word, you really have no part in him. You’re not a Christian. Unless you love the brothers and sisters, you just aren’t a Christian. Unless you believe the truth about who Jesus is, you just aren’t a Christian because when this new birth comes it does transform you. It’s not merely a public stance; it’s a power.”

In the eighteenth century, there was a very famous preacher (probably the most famous preacher in the Western world at the time) named George Whitefield. He was a Brit, but he crossed the Atlantic 13 times, each time by sail six weeks to three months, so he was as famous a preacher in the 13 colonies as he was on the English side. He preached to vast crowds without a PA system. He must have had spectacular lungs and vocal chords. He could preach to tens of thousands by preaching in a valley with a sounding box behind him downwind. Spectacular.

Again and again and again, he preached from this text, “You must be born again,” until finally somebody got really ticked with him and cornered him one day and said, “Mr. Whitefield, why is it you keep preaching again and again and again, ‘You must be born again; you must be born again’?”

“Because, sir,” Whitefield replied, “you must be born again, because unless you are born again you will not enter into this saving, transforming kingdom of God, this dawning kingdom of David’s son. Here is the culmination of the Old Testament story all coming to a focus in Jesus, and you don’t participate in it because you haven’t been born again.” This is what Jesus says about the new birth.

2. Why Jesus could speak about being born again

What gave him the authority to speak like that? Verses 11 to 13: “Very truly I tell you, Very truly I tell youwe speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things?”

This is a strange passage to begin with. Have you noticed how he begins with the first person plural? “We speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen …” Then in the next verse, he switches to the first person singular. “I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things?”

Why does Jesus begin with the first person plural? I suspect it’s because he’s answering Nicodemus in his own terms. Nicodemus has said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher sent from God, we do.” Jesus now smiles at the end of this discourse and says, “Nicodemus, we know one or two things, too, we do, because, quite frankly, no one has been to heaven to describe what goes on in the throne room of God. No one has been there to come back and tell us, but that’s where I come from.”

Make no mistake, the reason why Jesus can speak so bluntly about the new birth is grounded in a revelatory claim. That is, a claim that what he’s teaching is revelation from God himself. This is not one more theologian amongst theologians who like to squabble and write books. This is the claim of someone, in fact, who claims to have come from there, which is, of course, exactly what we saw in the last session.

That is to say, God’s own self-expression, his Word, “one with God,” truly God, with God and yet God in this complexity of one God who has become a human being.… He has come from there, so he speaks with the authority of revelation. He says, in effect, “Nicodemus, if I were to try to depict the throne room of God to you in all of its spiritual glory, you wouldn’t have a clue. You’re having a hard job believing anything I say when I’m describing things that take place on earth. That’s where the new birth takes place. It takes place on earth.”

That’s what Jesus means by earthly things. “If you don’t believe me when I talk about earthly things, things that take place down here like the new birth, how on earth are you going to possibly believe if I start describing to you the glories of the transcendent God?” At the end of the day, to understand Christianity sooner or later you have to come to grips with Christianity’s revelation claims.

What do you do with Jesus who claims to come from God to be one with God to give you information about things that you cannot otherwise have information about? No one has made a trip there, taken notes, come back, and filed a report. This is either true or it is the most unmitigated garbage, blasphemous silliness, but there is no way you can walk away from this thinking, “Well, Jesus is a nice, moralizing teacher.” In other words, why Jesus could speak about this being born again is bound up in his identity.

3. How Jesus brings about this new birth

What Jesus says in verses 14 and 15 might have made more sense to Nicodemus than initially it makes to us because Nicodemus, for all his strengths and weaknesses, did know the Old Testament. Jesus eludes to an Old Testament passage that some of us here won’t know anything about.

He says, “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” Clearly, in this context this eternal life of which Jesus speaks must be the product of new birth. If you have new birth you have life, and this life is eternal life. It’s not like this mortal life. It is eternal life, which is the product of new birth.

Now do you get it? It’s just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, we’re told, so the Son of Man must be lifted up that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. The passage to which Jesus is referring which, of course, Nicodemus would have picked up like that because he knew his Old Testament is found in the fourth book of the Bible (It’s called the book of Numbers. Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers.) in the twenty-first chapter.

It’s a very short account. I’ll read it to you. “They …” That is, the Israelites who had now escaped from slavery in Egypt but had not reached their own land. “They traveled from Mount Hor along the route to the Red Sea, to go around Edom. But the people grew impatient on the way; they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!’

Then the Lord sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, ‘We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you. Pray that the Lord will take the snakes away from us.’ So Moses prayed for the people. The Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a snake and put it on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.’ So Moses made a bronze snake and put it on a pole. Then anyone who was bitten by a snake looked at the bronze snake, and they lived.”

That’s all it said. The whole account. Do you hear what’s going on there, though? The nature of the murmuring and grumbling, the whining and complaining, was bound up with a profound dissatisfaction of God. Once again, all the way back in Genesis 3, we find a repetition. That is to say, you make your own rules, you become your own god, you decide your own destiny, you don’t trust, you don’t delight in God or his sovereign care or ask him for things, you merely dictate to God, and if you can’t have your own way you whine and complain, and at the end of the day it’s death all over again, and they die.

If they are to come out of it, only God can provide the solution. It’s a plain, flat-out miraculous solution as the story unfolds. He tells Moses to cast a bronze snake and stick it up on a pole, and those who have the venom in them look at it and live. How bizarre! Nothing about, “Make sure you say enough ritual ‘Hail Marys.’ Make sure you do a lot of penance. Flagellate yourself with some whips to show you’re really sorry. Fast! Do a whole lot of good works.” None of that.

It’s as if God is saying, “Will you not learn? You people provide the sin; I provide life. You provide the sin and the death and the destruction (that’s where you go), and the only way out of it is not by digging it out yourself but by the provision I myself make. You look at my provision and you live.” That’s the whole account.

Now, a millennium and a half later Jesus comes along and says, “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert and people lived, so the Son of Man …” One of Jesus’ ways of referring to himself. “… will be lifted up …” He’s now referring to his crucifixion on another stick, as it were, on another pole, a cross-shaped pole. “… that those who believe in me will live.”

How could it be any other way? We’ve already seen the God of the Old Testament can’t be bartered with. You can’t offer him something and make a trade. It’s going to be out of his sovereign grace or it’s going to be out of nothing. We’ve already seen that, and it’s modeled for the Old Testament people of God and now it’s coming to a certain kind of fulfillment here.

Jesus on that cross by his death provided the means by which we have new birth. By his death, we have life. By his crucifixion on a pole, we begin eternal life. The new birth is grounded in Jesus’ death. That’s what Jesus is saying. “And you receive the benefit of this not by trying harder or being ultra-religious but by believing in me.”

Now Jesus has much more to explain about this. In particular, in the next verses he explains how all of this is grounded in the love of God. That is why in the next two sessions we will focus on, first, the God who is love, the God who loves, and then the God who dies and comes back to life. Thank you.


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The back-to-school season is stressful for moms and dads. New rhythms of school, sports, and other extracurricular activities can quickly fill up a family’s already busy calendar. Where do busy parents look for resources on discipling their family well? Aside from prioritizing church, what else can Christian parents do to instill healthy spiritual habits in their household?

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Get a FREE eBook to strengthen your family discipleship!

The back-to-school season is stressful for moms and dads. New rhythms of school, sports, and other extracurricular activities can quickly fill up a family’s already busy calendar. Where do busy parents look for resources on discipling their family well? Aside from prioritizing church, what else can Christian parents do to instill healthy spiritual habits in their household?

Matt Chandler and Adam Griffin cover these questions and more in Family Discipleship: Leading Your Home through Time, Moments, and Milestones. And we’re excited to offer this book to you for FREE as an eBook today.

Click on the link below to get instant access to your FREE Family Discipleship eBook now!

Get your free eBook »