By John MacArthur
The will of God for the church in the world is to proclaim the gospel. That is our calling. Churches have been distracted, to put it mildly, in this current climate, get into all kind of things that are not the gospel even though they want to label them as the gospel. The gospel is the gospel. And this is a time for us to understand it explicitly and clearly.
Last week we looked at the conversion of Matthew, tax collector, and we heard the words of Jesus, “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” And that is the remarkable reality of the gospel, that God saves sinners; that when we were enemies, He set to save us; that those people who are self-righteous and religious are by their own self-righteousness cut off from the hope of salvation. We saw last week that it was the religious Pharisees who thought they knew God and were the representatives of God who were most strongly denounced by Jesus and who were sons of hell, and making their disciples more sons of hell. Satan’s strategy is in religion. False religion is the satanic strategy across the world. Any deviation from the true and pure gospel is a damning lie, but it gives the illusion of knowing God.
You remember in the text that we looked at in Luke chapter 5, it ended by recalling the fact that there was an illustration of those who are religious being content with the old wine and not wanting to change to anything new. That was true of the Pharisees. It was so true of the Pharisees, so true. There were six thousand Pharisees or so at the time of our Lord in the land of Israel. There is only one conversion of a Pharisee in all four Gospels, one. They loved the old wine. They loved their religion. Jesus came to those who were irreligious, who were confronted with only their sin. The gospel always goes to those who are not holding onto any false religion.
Only one Pharisee in the four Gospels comes to salvation. I want to tell you his story. Open your Bible to John 3, John 3. His name will be familiar to you. His name is Nicodemus. That’s a good name. It means victory of the common people: Nicodemus. And I want to read beginning in chapter 3 in verse 1.
“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.’ Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.’” Now let’s stop right there.
We have a responsibility as a church in doing the will of God to proclaim the gospel, and the gospel is here articulated by Jesus as sinners needing to be born again. Proclaiming the new birth, proclaiming being born again is the priority, the most critical responsibility the church has. “Born again” is a very familiar term. Books have been titled Born Again. There are a lot of books on how to be born again. I went through some of them just this week. Five Steps to Being Born Again comes to mind, How to Pray to be Born Again. One book entitled How to be Born Again. All of those are familiar to us because the notion of being born again is so commonly expressed. It’s part of evangelical pop culture. But almost no one seems to understand what our Lord is saying.
It’s a simple idea, being born again. In fact, down in verse 12 of chapter 3, Jesus calls it an earthly thing. In other words, an earthly illustration. Here’s the truth: this is so simple that you should never be confused by what it means to be born again. Here is an earthly illustration. “And if you don’t understand this earthly illustration,” – verse 12 says – “how are you going to understand it’s heavenly meaning?”
Like any parable or any illustration our Lord used, He picked something very common and simple. If you can’t get the illustration that in order to enter the kingdom you must be born again, you’ll never understand the heavenly reality of the new birth. And you must understand the heavenly reality of the new birth because it is a foundational truth of salvation. You must be born again.
Nicodemus says in verse 4, “How?” And we’ll look at it more closely in a moment. “How?” If there were an evangelist there he might say, “Pray this prayer.” Might say, “Take these steps.” But that would miss the entire point. And actually, Nicodemus was getting the point. And here is the point: you must be born again. Perhaps, more accurately it’s translated: “You must be born from above,” – anōthen – “you must be born from above.” Anōthen, two other times later in the gospel of John, is translated “from above.” “You must be born from above.”
Let me tell you how simple the analogy is. What role did you play in your birth, your physical birth? That’s an absurdity. You played no role in your physical birth. What contribution did you make to your physical birth? You made no contribution to your physical birth. And that is exactly the idea in our Lord using this analogy. To assume that you have anything to do with your physical birth is an insane idea. To assume that you have anything to do with your spiritual birth is equally insane. It’s absurd. That’s why our Lord chose this analogy, because it’s so clear. It’s not really possible if you give it any thought to miss the point.
To be born again, or born from above, is a work in which you play no role. Your birth happened to you, you had no part in it. And the same is true of new birth. The message of our Lord here is that it’s a work of God and it’s totally a work of God, which immediately obliterates all works righteousness – all religion, all ceremony, all ritual, all sacraments, as having any contribution to make to new life. It is what theologians call monergistic. It isn’t something you and God do together, it is God alone. You’re not going to enter the kingdom of God because you try harder to be a better person, or more religious, or more moral, or moral philanthropic, or more virtuous. That is exactly the point the Lord is making. And – mark it – He is making it to a man who was just introduced to us as a ruler of the Jews, and – down in verse 10 – a man who was called the teacher of Israel.
This is a simple earthly analogy as to the foundation of salvation. It is solely a work of God, solely a work of God. This stops a legalist dead in his tracks. All his life the legalist – in this case the Pharisee, and in specific, Nicodemus – was achieving heaven, or trying to by his self-righteousness. Here our Lord says, “It is all for nothing: meaningless. Your morality, your supposed virtue: useless.” This is a dramatic, dramatic moment in the Word of God, crucial revelation that is introduced to us in the story of Nicodemus.
Now I want to take you through this story, and it’s important that you get this because this is how you need to explain to people the gospel, okay. I’m trying to teach this to you so you can teach it to others, so we can do what God has called us to do in the world. And I’ll say this: I’ve been here, as you know, fifty-one years and I’ve never seen a better time in all fifty-one years for us to be the church and proclaim the gospel. Incredible. And so you need to know what the gospel is that you’re going to proclaim.
This is more than a story. It is a story. It is an incredible story about the only Pharisee who is recorded to have come to Christ in all the four Gospels. It makes crystal clear that salvation is not for those who are good. It’s not for those who try harder. It’s not for those who live better. It’s not for those who are more moral or more religious, or forsake certain vices or pray certain prayers. You can’t pray yourself into birth. You have no more role in your spiritual birth than you had in your physical birth. You are in the same situation: you play no part, it’s all a work of God. This is a crushing reality to legalists for sure.
Now let’s set up a little bit. Go back to chapter 2, verse 23. “Now when He was in Jerusalem at the Passover, during the feast, many believed in His name, observing His signs which He was doing. But Jesus, on His part, was not entrusting Himself to them, for He knew all men, and because He did not need anyone to testify concerning man, for He Himself knew what was in man.”
Just a small note here, by the way. Jesus is God, so He’s omniscient. Nobody has to tell Him what people are thinking because He reads their minds. This is omniscience. And He knew that these people who were believing in His name because they saw the signs, the miracles, were not expressing a saving faith. They had faith in Him, but He had no faith in their faith. He knew their hearts; He knew it was superficial.
If you go a little further into the gospel of John, chapter 6, you get a picture of this same kind of faith, this false faith, verse 14: “People saw the sign which He had performed,” – that’s the feeding of the thousands – “and they said, ‘This is truly the Prophet who is to come into the world.’ – Prophet promised back in Genesis – ‘This is the Prophet.’” So they believed at least that He was the Prophet.
And verse 15: “Jesus, perceiving that they were intending to come and take Him by force to make Him a king, withdrew again to the mountain by Himself alone.” So there were those who thought He was the Prophet, perhaps the messianic Prophet, that thought He was the messianic King, and they wanted to thrust Him into His reign. They surrounded Jesus, they followed Him; and if you go toward the end of that same sixth chapter, and you look at verse 63, “It is the Spirit who gives life.” Again, this is again the work of God to give spiritual life, birth.
“It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life. But there are some of you who do not believe. You believe, but you don’t believe savingly. For Jesus knew from the beginning who they were who didn’t believe, and who it was who would betray Him.” He had some nonbelieving believers following Him. They were believing that He was perhaps the Messiah, perhaps the Prophet; and Jesus says this in verse 65, shocking: “For this reason I have said to you, that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted him from the Father.” Wow. Your own sense about Jesus is not enough to save you. “No one comes to Me with saving faith unless it’s been granted to him by the Father.” That’s an echo of chapter 6, verse 44: “No one comes unto Me except the Father draws him.”
Verse 66: “As a result of this many of His disciples withdrew and were not walking with Him anymore.” The false disciples left. “So Jesus said to the twelve, ‘You do not want to go away also, do you?’ Simon Peter answered Him, ‘Lord,’ – there’s the word, “Lord,” not just Prophet, and not just Messiah: “Lord” – ‘to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have believed and have come to know that You are the Holy One of God.’” They knew that He was God, the Holy One of God, and that He had the words of eternal life. They were the ones that stayed, the rest left.
So what you see – back to chapter 2, verse 23 – is superficial faith; and it was all around Jesus. Eventually they would drift away. And that’s an illustration of that that we see in chapter 6 – disciples that walked no more with Him.
So at the end of chapter 2, there are these people who believe something about Jesus, maybe that He is potentially the Messiah, the Prophet; but they don’t believe savingly in Him as Lord and the Holy One of God. One of them is introduced to us in chapter 3, the man named Nicodemus. “There was a man of the Pharisees,” – he’s one of the group who believed, but not savingly. He believed something about Jesus, and he’s going to tell us what he believed.
“He came to Jesus and he said this,” – in verse 2 – ‘We know You have come from God as a teacher,’ – so he believed Jesus was a teacher. Why? – ‘because no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.’” He didn’t necessarily believe that He was the Messiah. He certainly didn’t affirm that He is God the Son. He simply says, “You must have come from God as a teacher because of the signs that You do.” So he gives us an illustration of what it meant to believe in chapter 2: to believe that He was from God, a prophet, a preacher, a teacher. Because of the signs that He was doing, God must have been with Him.
Now backing up to verse 1 for a moment, “There was a man of the Pharisees.” Pharisees – that’s a term that means separated. They were the legalists. They were the heart of apostate corrupt Judaism. To show you how corrupt they were all you have to do is go back to chapter 2, verse 13: “The Passover of the Jews is near. Jesus went to Jerusalem. He went to the temple. He goes into the temple and He’s right at the heart of Jewish religion. And, of course, the Pharisees were the leaders of Jewish religion. Even though it was the Sadducees that operated the temple, the Pharisees were the popular theologians of Judaism.
“He goes into the temple and He finds people selling oxen, sheep, doves, money changers seated at their tables. And He made a scourge of cords, drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and the oxen; and poured out the coins of the money changers, overturned their tables; and to those who were selling the doves He said, ‘Take these things away; stop making My Father’s house a place of business.’ His disciples remembered that it was written, ‘Zeal for Your house will consume Me.’” Jesus went in and wiped out their corrupt operations. Pharisees were a part of that; they were corrupt. In fact, we are told they were lovers of money, they were lovers of money.
In Matthew chapter 23, we learn more about them – and I commented on this last time. I just want to refer to the opening of that chapter, a description of the Pharisees. Our Lord says this: “They tell you, do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds; for they say things and do not do them. They tie up heavy burdens and lay them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are unwilling to move them with so much as a finger. They do all their deeds to be noticed by men; for they broaden their phylacteries” – little boxes that made them look holy – “and they lengthen the tassels of their garments. They love the place of honor at banquets and chief seats in the synagogues, and respectful greetings in the market places, and being called Rabbi by men.” Then He goes, starting in chapter 23, verse 13, “Woe, woe, woe,” and pronounces curses on the Pharisees; and they were at the top of the theological pyramid. And He pronounces blistering curses on them all the way through chapter 23.
Nicodemus was one of them. It was pretty remarkable that he at least got to the point where he believed Jesus had come from God, because the rest of the Pharisees conclude that He came from hell, and that He did what He did by the power of Satan. Nicodemus is a ruler of the Jews. What does that mean? He was a member of the Sanhedrin; that’s the Supreme Court of Israel – seventy members, plus the high priest, so they had an odd vote if they needed it. They were the Supreme Court of Israel. They were wealthy, rich, scholars, elite from prominent families, ex-high priests who made up the Jewish court. Nicodemus was one of them. So he was at the top of the theological pyramid as a Pharisee, and he was at the top of the structure of Judaistic authority by being a member of the Supreme Court. There just is not much hope that a man so situated in life, so happy with the old wine, is going to show any interest in Jesus; and that is why this story is so unique.
We’re not surprised then in verse 2 when it says, “This man came to Jesus by night,” are we? A lot at stake if he comes in the daytime. “He said to Him, ‘Rabbi,’ – this is good, by the way; “Rabbi” recognized Him as a teacher – ‘we know You’ve come from God as a teacher because of the signs that You do.’” He came. He was curious. He was interested. “Rabbi” was very respectful.
The signs, he recognizes that they have to be done by God, there’s no other explanation for them. God has to be with Him. He agreed with many others that there were no possible human explanations for the miracles Jesus did. He is not alone because he says, “We know that You have come from God,” because he’s a part of the group from chapter 2 that believed at some point to some degree.
So here, first of all, is objective, plural, first-person, eyewitness testimony to the authenticity of the miracles of Jesus as proof of His divine mission. And Nicodemus recognizes that, and he is polite, and he is respectful; and I imagine there’s a certain amount of excitement in his heart as well. He’s a professional religionist. He’s a money-loving theologian. He’s a justice in the Supreme Court of Israel. He is at the top of everything. And by the way, some of the theology of the Pharisees was accurate: they believed in divine decree, they believed in moral accountability, they believed in immortality, they believed in bodily resurrection, they believed in angels, they actually believed in punishment and rewards in the future. But they thought that they attained to the kingdom of God by law-keeping ritual observance. And since they never saw a change in their hearts, they pretended to be holy. This is Nicodemus.
And he did take the road less traveled – only six thousand of them. And he lived the most restricted life. I mean, it was a horribly restricted life. For example, you didn’t want to look in anything that reflected your face on the Sabbath because you might see a gray hair and pull it out on the Sabbath, and you’d violate the Sabbath. You could swallow vinegar on the Sabbath for a sore throat, but you couldn’t gargle it.
But this man’s heart is full of fear. Externally, he looks like he’s got it all nailed down. This is the sinner’s worry. This is where religious people are at the top of the pile. They have all this on the outside, but they know the rottenness of their hearts, and they have no confidence that they are in the kingdom of God.
We go from the sinner’s worry to the Savior word in verse 3: “Jesus answered.” “What do you mean, He answered? He didn’t even ask a question. What do you mean, ‘Jesus answered’?” “He answered and said to him, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again’ – or born from above – ‘he cannot see the kingdom of God.’” What is He answering? He’s answering the question that is in the mind of Nicodemus.
Go back to chapter 2, verses 24, 25. He knew people’s thoughts: omniscience. And He knew Nicodemus that with all his religion and all his ritual and all of his external righteous acts, he was not related to God, he was not in the kingdom, and he was right.
God is King. Psalm 93:1 says, “The Lord reigns.” He reigns over the universe, the universal King. He reigns over the realm of salvation. He reigns over the millennial kingdom to come in the future. He will reign eternally.
What Nicodemus wanted in his heart was to be in the kingdom, which is to be accepted by God, to have the hope of eternal life. He wanted to be in the realm of the redeemed, those who are saved from judgment, those whose sins are covered and forgiven. He wanted to be in relationship with God forever and bound for heaven. That was the question in his heart. That’s a question very like the rich young ruler in Matthew 19 who said, “What do I do to have eternal life?” That is not asked by Nicodemus, but that is on his mind. He had a high place in Judaism. Abraham was his father. But he knew God was not His Father, and he had no place in the kingdom.
Jesus’ answer is stunning, verse 3: “Truly, truly.” That appears 25 times in the gospel of John: “Truly, truly.” It’s emphatic. It’s strong. It means, “This is new, this is new. Listen, this is new.” Ancient Jewish religion said that all Jews would be in the kingdom unless guilty of apostacy or blasphemy. That’s recorded in the Mishnah. So by being Jewish you were already in the kingdom. That’s what they taught.
But Jesus says, “I have something other than that to say; this is new. Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born from above he cannot see the kingdom of God.” To see means to participate. That is to say religion is totally ineffective. Judaism is ineffective even at its highest level. And Jesus’ words shatter once and for all every supposed hope in religion. All of religion combined at its highest level is a zero for God. All of it is useless. To be in the kingdom you have to be born from above. And by the time you get to verse 8 in this text, our Lord will have said that five times: “Born from above, born from above, born from above,” five times.
And by the way, John picked up on that so that in his first epistle, 1 John, he talks about being born from above six times. And what our Lord is saying to Nicodemus is, “There’s nothing to add to your life to kind of top it off and get you into the kingdom,” which Nicodemus might have assumed. “Look, I’m as high up as I can go. What’s the next step?” and our Lord says, “There is no next step. Your religion is meaningless. You might as well be an atheist, you might as well worship a rock, you are so alienated from God. All your works are dead works. They give no life. You have no spiritual life. You have no relationship to God. In order to have that relationship you have to be born from above. Something has to happen to you that is a work of heaven.”
Now the New Testament picks up on this reality of the new birth. Second Corinthians 5:17, “If any man be in Christ, he’s a new” – what? – “creature, new creation.” First Peter chapter 1, verse 3, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His great mercy has caused us to be born from above to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” Later in that chapter, verse 23, “You have been born again, born from above, not of seed which is perishable but imperishable, that is, through the living and enduring word of God.” New birth. Titus 3 says the same thing.
But look for a moment at James 1. James chapter 1 and verses 17 and 18 – we’ll hurry through this: “Every good thing given and every perfect gift” – and that would include obviously a place in the kingdom, salvation – “is from above. Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights,” – and ancient Jewish title for God who was the Creator of light – “with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow. In the exercise of His will He brought us forth by the word of truth.” Did you get that? That is unmistakably clear.
“Every good thing given,” and salvation and life, being born from above is one of those good things. It is a perfect gift. It comes from above. It comes down from the One who created light. And in the exercise of His will, He brought us forth, He gave us life. The New Testament Epistles recognize this. Ephesians 2, “You were dead in sins, but in Christ you have been made alive.”
So this is something that you don’t contribute to. This is stunning. This is stunning. And Nicodemus understands, verse 4. He knows Jesus is talking in earthly illustration to make a spiritual point. “So Nicodemus said to Him, ‘How can a man be born when he’s old? He can’t enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born, can he?’” And he’s being purposely kind of silly. He’s saying, “Well, this is ridiculous. You’re saying you must be born again. Nobody does that. Nobody can be born again.”
He understands the figurative language so commonly used by rabbis and teachers, he picks up on the analogy, and his point is unmistakably clear. Jesus is saying, “It’s impossible.” That’s what Jesus is saying. “You want to be in the kingdom? It’s impossible. No contribution you have made or will make puts you in the kingdom. You have to be born from above. It has to come down from heaven. This is what is so new: truly, truly. This is really new. In your legalistic system you have never heard of such a thing. How can that happen? It’s impossible. It’s impossible.”
He doesn’t say to Him, “Well, you’re a good man, you’re a very religious man. Just kind of do this, say this little prayer.” No. “You’re at zero. You’re at zero. Oh, you’re high up in the religious stratosphere, but with God you’re at zero, and you need to be born from above, and that is a work of God.” So, Nicodemus says, “How is that supposed to happen? That’s impossible. I can’t do anything to contribute to my birth.”
Verse 5, “Jesus answered, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you,’ – He says it again because this is new – ‘unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter the kingdom of God.’”
“Unless one is born of the water and Spirit; what is that?” I’ve heard all kinds of answers to that question. Water is human birth because a woman’s water breaks, and so that’s referring to human birth. Well, that’s kind of an American English colloquialism that wasn’t in existence in Hebrew. So it’s not talking about, “Unless you’re born physically and spiritually.” That would be a ridiculous statement because he was already born physically.
Some people say, “No, the water is baptism, and baptism is essential for salvation.” Nicodemus wouldn’t know anything about water breaking; that was not a colloquial expression in his language. And he wouldn’t know anything about Christian baptism either, because it hadn’t been implemented yet. When Jesus says to Nicodemus, “Unless you’re born of water and the Spirit you can’t enter the kingdom of heaven,” Nicodemus should have known what He was talking about. He should have known.
But go down to verse 10: “Jesus says to him, ‘Are you the teacher in Israel and do not understand these things? Is it possible that you are the teacher in Israel and you don’t understand these things? You’re supposed to be the Old Testament expert, and you don’t know that salvation is not a matter of something you do, but it’s a matter of what God does in giving you life? Do you remember Ezekiel 11 where God says in verse 18, ‘When they come there, they will remove all its detestable things and all its abominations from it. And then I will give them one heart, and put a new spirit within them. And I will take the heart of stone out of their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, that they may walk in My statues and keep My ordinances and do them. Then they will be My people, and I shall be their God’?” In other words, “They will become My people, I will become their God, when I wash them from detestable things and put a new spirit in them.”
In Ezekiel 36 – this is just an incredibly important portion of Scripture – verse 25. This is speaking about the new covenant, verse 25. Listen to Ezekiel 36. This is God promising salvation to Israel and to all who believe: “Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances.”
Do you notice there in verse 25, “I will, I will.” In verse 26, “I will, I will.” In verse 27, “I will.” And finally, “you will.” “I will wash you,” – that’s the water. “I will put My Spirit within you,” – that’s the water and the Spirit.
This is not obscure in the Old Testament. Even the prophet Jeremiah a couple of places, but I’ll show you one in chapter 31; says essentially the same thing. Chapter 31, verse 31: “Behold, days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I’ll make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah,” – the new covenant, which was ratified, of course, by the death of Christ – “and not like the covenant I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, not the Mosaic covenant of law which they broke. But this is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel in the future. I will,” – here it is again – “I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it. I will be their God, and they shall be My people. I will. I will. I will. I will.”
Apostate Judaism had thought that religion was to be achieved on the outside, the exo part of human identity. And God had all along said that, “I am going to wash you from your sins and put My Spirit within you. You must be born of water,” – the water of cleaning, the washing of the word Paul calls it – “and the Spirit must be placed in you to renew your spirit. You should know that. You’re a teacher of Israel, you don’t even know the new covenant promises.”
Then a second line of reasoning, verse 6. Nicodemus should have known this: “That which is born of the flesh is flesh. You should know that Nicodemus. You should know that. You should know what Paul says in Romans 8:8. He says, ‘Those in the flesh cannot please God.’ You should know that.”
Why should Nicodemus know that? Well, he could go back to Genesis: “My Spirit will not always strive with man, because his flesh, he is flesh. Every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” “Go back to Genesis. If you’re flesh, then all there is in you is evil.”
And God says in verse 13 of Genesis 6, “The end of all flesh is before Me; for the earth is filled with violence.” He says in the previous verse, “All flesh has corrupted their way on the earth.” Job 15:14, “What is man, that he should be pure, or he who is born of a woman, that he should be righteous?” Psalm 51, “I was brought forth in iniquity, in sin my mother conceived me. I was sinful from the beginning.” Listen to Isaiah 64: “For all of us have become like one who is unclean, all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment; all of us wither like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. There is no one who calls on Your name.” Wow.
Nicodemus should have known that. He should have known that salvation was internal, not external, because of those new covenant passages. He should have known that man’s flesh can only produce flesh. He should have known that, “The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked; who can know it?” Jeremiah 17:9. He should have known Jeremiah 13:23, “Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots? Then neither can you who are evil do good.” Nicodemus had in the Old Testament a doctrine of human depravity that should have told him no man from his flesh could produce anything to honor God. Nicodemus should have known those passages about the new covenant, the washing, and the granting of a new spirit and the Holy Spirit.
“So, Nicodemus,” – look at verse 7 – “do not be amazed that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ You shouldn’t be shocked. It was all there. You’re supposed to be the teacher in Israel, you should have known this.” So we see Nicodemus worry. Then we hear the words of the Savior. And then finally we come to the work of the Spirit.
Verse 6: “That which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” Verse 8: “The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and from where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.” So now we know that this birth is not something that we partner with God in accomplishing. It’s something that comes down from heaven, God does it; and it is, in particular, a work of the Holy Spirit. And it is such a sovereign work, verse 8 says, that it’s like the wind.
Here’s another earthly illustration: “The wind blows where it wishes, you hear the sound of it, do not know where it comes from or where it is going.” In other words, “You can’t control the wind. The wind is from above. It is invisible, it is irresistible, it is uncontrollable, it is unpredictable, and so is the work of the Holy Spirit. And just as the wind is at the whim of God and irresistible, so the new birth is at the will of God and equally irresistible.”
What He’s saying here is not, “Pray this prayer, Nicodemus, and you can be born again.” He says, “Well, this is a work of the Spirit. This is all of God, and God does it when God wills.” In both Ezekiel and Jeremiah, it was, “I will, I will, I will, I will,” all the work of God.
Nicodemus said in verse 9, “How can these things be?” Wow, he’d just been taught – probably this is a cryptic representation of hours of conversation – he had been taught again from the Old Testament about flesh producing flesh. So he had gotten from the Lord’s lips Himself a doctrine of human depravity that made it clear to him that there was no possible way that flesh could please God. And then he had been told that all of his religion added up to zero, and he needed to be born from above; and that was not something he could do. This is the true condition of the sinner: totally depraved; unable, unwilling, and completely at the mercy of God.
So Jesus says to him in verse 10, “You’re the teacher of Israel and don’t understand these things? You don’t have a doctrine of total depravity? You don’t understand the flesh? You don’t understand that God’s salvation’s not some external religious activity, but it’s a transformation that washes away your sin and gives you a new heart and plants the Spirit of God within you?”
This shouldn’t have been new. But the fact that Jesus says a couple of times, “Truly, truly,” meant that He was bringing it to Nicodemus as something he didn’t ever really know. What’s Nicodemus’ problem? Verse 11: “Truly, truly,” – again; here’s something new again – “I say to you, we speak of what we know and testify of what we’ve seen, and you do not accept our testimony. If I told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things?”
He says, “You’re not a believer. You’re not a believer, Nicodemus; that’s a problem. You’re not a believer. You don’t even understand these things. I’m trying to give you earthly illustrations, but you don’t move from the earthly illustration to the heavenly reality. The problem is you don’t believe My testimony.” Verse 11 indicates Nicodemus is not a true believer: “You do not accept our testimony.” Verse 12: “You do not believe. That’s your problem, you don’t believe.”
Verse 13: “No one has ascended into heaven, but He who descended from heaven: the Son of Man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so the Son of Man must be lifted up,” – and He’s talking about His cross – “so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life.” So there is a reality that applies to the sinner. And what is it that the sinner must do? What? Believe. Believe. Believe.
This is just shocking. This is a man who has worked his whole life to get into the kingdom – religiously, morally – and he is not in or close. And with all that achievement, Jesus says in verse 15, “Whoever believes in the Son of Man will have eternal life.” This is literally the worst possible news or the ultimate legalist: “You have wasted your life.” “All your righteousness is” – what? – “filthy rags.” Paul called it excrement. He was the only other Pharisee who gives his testimony in Scripture.
This is just crushing to people trying to earn their way to heaven. And worse, not only are they not in the kingdom, but God offers the kingdom to those who have done nothing to earn it. And we’re right back to where we were last week, right? “He came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” Whoever believes. Why? “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” Most familiar verse in the Bible. You knew we’d get there, right? Don’t look to Moses. Don’t look to Abraham. Don’t look to the temple. Don’t look to the law. Look to Jesus. Look to Jesus.
“For God did not send His Son” – verse 17 – “into the world to judge the world, but that the world through Him might be saved. He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.” Go to the end of the chapter, verse 36: “He who believes in the Son has eternal life; he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.” Verse 12: “Believe, believe.” Verse 15: “Believe.” Verse 16: “Believe.” Verse 17 indicates that salvation comes through Him to the one – verse 18 – who believes, who believes. You can’t earn your salvation.
So what about the rest of the story? We don’t see any comment now from Nicodemus. What happened? Well, let’s go to chapter 7; I’ll give you the rest of this story briefly.
So verse 40, conflict among people over Jesus. “Some of the people were saying, ‘He’s a prophet.’ Others, ‘This is the Christ.’ Others, ‘Surely the Christ is not going to come from Galilee.’” They were arguing over the identity of Jesus, that He wouldn’t come from Galilee.
“Has not the Scripture said that He comes from the descendants of David, and Bethlehem, the village where David was? So a division occurred in the crowd because of Him. Some of them wanted to seize Him,” – that is to arrest Him and take His life – “no one laid hands on Him. The officers then came to the chief priests and Pharisees, and said to them, ‘Why did you not bring Him? Why didn’t you just arrest Him?’ The officers said, ‘Never has a man spoken the way this man speaks.’ The Pharisees then answered them, ‘You have not also been led astray, have you?’” The police couldn’t even arrest Him they were so transfixed by what He said.
Verse 48: “No one of the rulers or Pharisees has believed in Him, has he?” What’s that saying? Well, if the Pharisees who are the most religious of all didn’t believe in Him,” – and none had at this point, including Nicodemus – “why should anybody believe in Him? They’re the experts.”
“But this crowd which doesn’t know the Law is accursed.” In other words, they looked down on the hoi polloi. Then we see this, verse 50: “Nicodemus (he who came to Him before, being one of them) said to them, ‘Our Law does not judge a man unless it first hears from him and knows what he’s doing, does it?’” A year before our Lord’s death now, so two years have passed, and Nicodemus has not been born from above. But now he’s defending Jesus against the Pharisees’ desire to take His life. He’s not yet a believer, but he’s not part of the Pharisees either.
Verse 52, they mocked him: “They answered him, ‘You’re not also from Galilee, are you?’ – this is a joke – ‘Search, and see that no prophet arises out of Galilee.’” Mockery and sarcasm against the teacher, rich and powerful member of the Supreme Court. So two years have gone by and now he’s defending Jesus.
So how does this story end? Go to chapter 19, verse 38 – so wonderful. This is the burial of Jesus after His crucifixion. “After these things Joseph of Arimathea, being a disciple of Jesus, but a secret one for fear of the Jews, asked Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus; and Pilate granted permission. So he came and took away His body.” Joseph of Arimathea is a true believer in Jesus, secret that he kept because he was afraid for his life. Pilate gave him the body of Jesus.
Look at verse 39: “Nicodemus,” – oh – “who had first come to Him by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds weight. So they took the body of Jesus and bound it in linen wrappings with the spices, as is the burial custom of the Jews. Now in the place where He was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb in which no one had yet been laid. Therefore because of the Jewish day of preparation, since the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.”
Two men buried Him: Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus. Joseph of Arimathea of the rich, also a Sanhedrin member, but not a Pharisee. He had been born from above. And then Nicodemus showed up with seventy-five pounds of spices. That was a volume of spices fit for the noblest of people – powdered rosin with aloes and fragrance, sandalwood smell to cover the odor of corrupting flesh. He is now a new creation. He is bold. He’s not afraid anymore, and neither of Joseph of Arimathea. They’re not afraid. They go to Pilate, they want the body. They’re not afraid of Pilate, they’re not afraid of the Jews. Somewhere between John 7 and 19 heaven came down on Nicodemus.
What about the rest of the rest of this story? Well, tradition says Nicodemus gave a defense of Jesus at his trial before Pilate. Tradition says that Nicodemus was baptized by Peter and John. Tradition says that his confession of the Lord Jesus as Savior led him to be deprived of his role as a Pharisee. He was excommunicated, and he was dismissed and banished from Jerusalem by hostile Jews.
Tradition says that his family was reduced to utter poverty, so severe that there’s a charming story about his daughter. And his daughter, on behalf of the family, they were so poor, was reduced to the shame of digging in the dung piles to find grain to eat. The daughter of Nicodemus is approached by a rabbi who sees her looking for seeds in the dung pile and asks who she is, and she replied, “I am the daughter of Nicodemus,” to which the rabbi supposedly said, “What happened to your father?” and the girl says, “He followed Christ and was banished,” and the rabbi refused to helped.
Photios, centuries later, refers to an ancient document that records that Nicodemus was martyred for his devotion to Christ by being beaten to death by a mob. Now that’s tradition. I have good news for you: ask him when you get to heaven.
Heaven comes down, and God makes sinners new. It’s a divine miracle. We contribute nothing. All we can do is believe, right? Cry out to God, “Lord, give me faith, give me life.” There’s not a formula, a formula prayer you pray. Cry out to heaven, that God would grant you life and repentance and faith.
Father, we thank You for the time that we’ve been able to be together today. It is the most sacred of all times because we bow our knees to Your sovereignty, and You speak to us through Your Word. We thank You that You save sinners, not on the basis of anything that they have done, but when they have recognized they are utterly undone, when they come to the point of spiritual emptiness and bankruptcy and cry out with that publican, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”
May every heart, every soul, every mind recognize that we will live forever in the kingdom of light, the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of God, or the kingdom of darkness, kingdom of hell – pain unending – and that the kingdom is only available to those to whom You give life from above. All the sinner can do is pound his chest and say, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner. Grant me life. Grant me faith. Grant me repentance.”
We have the promise that whoever comes to You, You will never turn away. Those promptings to come to You are promptings that You initiate. So where those desires rise in the heart, it’s Your Spirit at work. Bring people into Your kingdom. Give them life from above. May they believe in Christ, the Holy One, the Son of God, Lord and Savior, crucified and risen from the grave; and in believing have eternal life. Help us to have opportunity to proclaim the glories of the new birth that You have taught us from Your Word.
I pray, Lord, that You will bless this precious congregation of people. Give them open doors to talk about what it means to be born from above. And may they be instruments that you can use as even the Lord spoke to Nicodemus. May they find people with whom they can share the gospel. And may You be gracious to open hearts. That’s our prayer, for Your glory alone. Amen.