“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.”” (John 3:1–8, ESV)
Jesus did not entrust Himself to those who believed in the works He was doing because He knew their hearts. This is what we read in the previous three verses. Here is an example on one of those individuals. Nicodemus, who we read was a ruler among the Jews, came to Jesus quietly by night to talk with Him. From his words we know that he believed Jesus to be someone special, that Jesus was a teacher sent by God. This was proven by the signs that Jesus had been showing them (miraculous things). Anyone who could do these things must be sent by God, because apart from God moving these things would not be possible. To Nicodemus the signs validated the messenger and endorsed the message, and he wanted to find out more.
We don’t know if Nicodemus said anything else along with this, but we do know that Jesus responded to Nicodemus’ statement with an answer that neither confirmed nor denied what Nicodemus had said. Rather, Jesus spoke to the need of Nicodemus’ heart—that he needed to be born again in order to see the kingdom of God. As a Jew, Nicodemus had been looking forward to the coming Messiah who would usher in this new millennial kingdom, but the condition that Jesus put on Nicodemus entering that kingdom threw him for a loop. There is no way that he could reenter his mother’s womb. What was Jesus talking about with this new concept of being “born again?”
Jesus did not miss a step, having baited Nicodemus curiosity, and He began to explain to Nicodemus the difference between being born of the flesh and being “born again” of the Spirit. Reinforcing this rebirth as a condition of entering the kingdom of God, Jesus said, ““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.” “Born again” literally means “born from above.” Jesus was not telling Nicodemus that he had to be born of flesh like he was years before, but that he had to experience a new and different kind of birth, one that did not come from fleshly relations between his mother and father, but from God above and the working of His Spirit. As humans we are given life in our bodies, but this life is subject to the certainty of death. As those saved by the Spirit of God, we are given a new life that never dies and which will endure forever.
Being born of water and Spirit is not a reference to the two different forms of birth (flesh and Spirit), but a statement of the cleansing necessary for individuals to be given new life in the Spirit. Jews knew about cleansing. This was something established by God before sacrifices could be offered. It was required of them by God before the priest could enter the Most Holy Place. It was required in their traditions before someone could enter the temple after having been with someone who is unclean or who may have touched that which was unclean. Ceremonial cleansing was a regular part of the devout Jew’s life. But Jesus was telling Nicodemus that his real need was not this form of cleansing, but a cleansing that was full, permanent, and complete.
The writer of Hebrews tells us in terms that the Jews would understand, “Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins. Thus it was necessary for the copies of the heavenly things to be purified with these rites, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these. For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the holy places every year with blood not his own, for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.” (Hebrews 9:22–28, ESV)
Jesus was the One who had come to cleanse. He was going to do it fully and permanently. Inseparable from this cleansing Jesus was also going to give new life to all who believe. “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit,” (1 Peter 3:18, ESV)
There was more said that night which we will continue to look at in later posts, but these words which were true for Nicodemus as true for all mankind—“You must be born again!”