Monday, August 26, 2019


Nicodemus was a Pharisee, some of the most “religious” people of the first century. Not only that, but he was also a member of the Sanhedrin—the Jewish ruling council (John 3:1). Highly respected among his peers and the people alike, Nicodemus was nevertheless a troubled man. Some of the teachings of Jesus were in direct conflict to the teachings of the Pharisees, yet Nicodemus could not deny that Jesus taught with authority.

“Rabbi,” Nicodemus said to Jesus when he came to see him one night, “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” (John 3:2).

The greeting that Nicodemus gave was a recognition of respect. It was a type of greeting that Nicodemus himself was accustomed to hearing from others about him, and the type of flattering remark that sometimes may have caused him to puff up a little with pride.

But there was no prideful display on the part of Jesus. On another occasion, when a ruler called Jesus “Good Teacher,” the repose of Jesus was, “Why do you call me ‘good?’ No one is good but God alone” (Luke 18:18-19).

Jesus instead forwent all the niceties of exchanging compliments and got right to the issue at hand. “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again” (John 3:3 NIV).

I wonder if Nicodemus was set back by the fact that Jesus immediately spoke to the question that Nicodemus had come to ask. He had meant to enter into that part of the discussion gently. But even if he was surprised by the forthrightness of Jesus, the Pharisee recovered quickly and engaged himself in the conversation. 

“Again” or “Above”

The word again in the statement “born again” that Jesus used is a bit of an interesting word in the Greek language.[1] The word that he used for again, in the phrase “born again” that we have in our Bibles, is not the common word that was used for again.

The word that Jesus used is not the same word that we read a bit earlier in the book where it says, “Again, the next day John [the Baptist] was standing with two of his disciples” (1:35). Nor is it the word that is used just after the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus where we read, “[Jesus] left Judea and departed again into Galilee” (4:3).

In fact, in case you are interested, the word used in Greek for the normal usage of again, as in “say that again,” is palin and is used much in the New Testament—well over a hundred times. But here, when Jesus is speaking with Nicodemus about being born again, the word is anōthen. This word is not used that often in the Bible, only a dozen times. Only twice is it translated again, and both of those times are here in John chapter three in this conversation.
From Vanuatu
(Some years ago)

 The word anōthen is a bit more ambiguous of a word, but its most literal translation for is above, or from a higher place, so that Jesus was telling Nicodemus that no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born from above.

It is the word that John the Baptist used when referring to Jesus, saying that Jesus is "the One who comes from above" (John 3:31)

It is also true that the word can also be taken to mean “from the beginning,” which is in the sense of being “born again,” just as we commonly hear this quoted. I suppose that the reason the translators commonly translate this word again, is from the response of Nicodemus. He asked Jesus, “How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born, can he?”

From this, we can see that Nicodemus was thinking of being born a second time, or being born again. But whether he thought that Jesus was actually referring to a second physical birth, as seems to be implied by the second part of his two-part question, we cannot really know.

But even if we cannot read the mind of Nicodemus, it would be surprising to me if Nicodemus actually was following this line of thought, which would be closely akin to reincarnation. This teaching is completely foreign to Scriptural teaching and entirely absent to Jewish thought. Nicodemus was surely much more learned than this and certainly have held more closely to the Scriptures.

Nevertheless, it is also true that Nicodemus did not know what Jesus was talking about. Jesus further explains to him, “I tell you the truth; no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is 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” (John 3:5-8 NIV).

All of this was just too incredible for Nicodemus. “How can these things be?” he asked.

Actually, we cannot blame the Pharisee too much for his incredulity. Even today, there are different opinions about just what Jesus meant by some of his words.

“No one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit,” Jesus said.

Most Christians understand what he means by being born of the Spirit. There seems to be little disagreement about that. We see this in the Scripture with the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. But what did Jesus mean when he spoke of being born of water? 

Born of Water

Whenever there are these types of questions about what is meant by some words in the Bible, I first consider how the person or persons who were actually hearing these words spoken would understand them. In this case, when Nicodemus heard Jesus talk about being born of water, what would he have thought?

Of course, it is impossible for us to know for certain what went through the mind of Nicodemus. He may have thought Jesus was referring to his first physical birth as he talked about entering a second time into his mother’s womb, but I tend to think that he saw the reference to water in relation to the ministry of John the Baptist.

John the Baptist was a very well-known figure of the day and he had had several conversations with the Pharisees. John had come preaching repentance from sin. As a demonstration of this repentance, he would baptize the people in water. John’s baptism, among other possible meanings, was an indication that the old self was washed away. The person that emerged from the water was not the same one that went into the water. When he emerged, he was a new person. He was a repentant person, dedicated to live in a new manner. In some ways, this was also a new birth, for the person who entered the water was not the same person in regards to his purpose in living.

I think that when Nicodemus heard Jesus talking about being born of water, he was thinking of this—a repentant life. This is a good and necessary part of a new life and was the main message of John the Baptist’s.

“Repent,” John would preach, “for the kingdom of God is at hand.”

But there is still something lacking in this in order to follow God. John the Baptist himself recognized this and told it to the people he baptized.

He preached repentance to those who came to him, and kindness to their fellow man. But significantly, he then said, “I baptize you with water, but One is coming who is mightier than I…He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Luke 3:16 NAS).

John knew from the very beginning that his message was incomplete. He said of himself, “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, make straight the way of the Lord” (John 1:23) 

Baptized with the Holy Spirit

John’s message was one of repentance. It was in that message that he was to prepare the way for the coming of Jesus. He knew that an unrepentant heart will never accept the teachings of Jesus. It is only those who see that their former manner of living would eventually lead to self-destruction, and who then yearn to change who would accept the life in Christ.

John told the people, “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

Again, I find myself wondering if the people to whom John spoke understood what he meant when he said, “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire?” What does that mean?

Baptizing with the Holy Spirit is what Jesus is talking about with Nicodemus when he speaks of being born from above. When we are baptized by the Holy Spirit, God comes to dwell within us so that we become his children.

I think of it in this way: Today, with our knowledge of DNA, we can somewhat understand how our own DNA, the code that makes us who we are, is derived both from our father and our mother. We have received chromosomes from both, so that we have traits of both. There are physical traits, certainly, but there are many other traits as well. So many, in fact, that we cannot even say. In more ways than we know, we are all children of our parents

When Jesus talked about being “born from above,” he was explaining what it takes to become a child of God. Even though the human race originally began by being made in the image of God, when we rebelled against the Lordship of God—that part of us that enables us to relate to God, died. We lost the presence of God in our lives.

That is why a new birth is needed, a birth from above. When John spoke of being baptized by the Holy Spirit, this is what he was talking about. With the baptism of the Spirit, the presence of the Holy Spirit actually comes to dwell within us, so that our connection to God is reestablished. Speaking in purely a spiritual sense and not a physical sense, it is as if our spiritual DNA has been altered so that we are not only children of the earth, but also children of heaven. God really has become our Father.

That is why Jesus also said to Nicodemus, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, but that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:6 NAS).

This is what Jesus was explaining to Nicodemus. Being born of water is important. Submitting to the baptism of John by repentance from our sin is important and necessary. However, we cannot become children of God merely by our own resolve. This is not something we can do by our own strength. We cannot do it simply by “changing our ways.” We require something from without ourselves. We require a new birth, a birth from above, “being born of the Spirit,” as Jesus put it.

That is why the Apostle Paul would later say, “If anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him” (Romans 8:9). 

Baptized with Fire

But now we go back to the message of John the Baptist. The Messiah, he said, would baptize the people “with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”

Being baptized with fire does not sound pleasant at all. In fact, John did mean it as a warning. He also said, “The axe is already laid at the root of the tree; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Luke 3:9 NAS).

That is how we generally view fire. It is something that consumes and destroys. John seemed to be telling the people the choice that they had. He told them that when Jesus would come, they must either confront their sinful selves, repent and receive the Holy Spirit, or they would be punished by fire.

Perhaps the first thing that we think of in this is that John was making an allusion to hell, for that is how hell is often described to us. And I think that this truly is part of John’s warning, for that is also the teaching of Jesus. In our present lives, we are able to exist without making a strong commitment to the Lord. We can put on a face, we can act a certain way in public, and we get along.

But that will change. God, in his grace and with much patience, has given us this time to get our lives in touch with him, but we should not expect that this arrangement is permanent. The Bible speaks in numerous places about a day of reckoning, and we would be fools to ignore this truth. 

The Purification Brought about by Fire

But fire has another quality as well. When John spoke of being baptized with the Holy Spirit and with fire, we went on to speak of Jesus. John said this, “His winnowing fork is already in His hand to thoroughly clear His threshing floor, and to gather the wheat into His barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (Luke 3:17 NAS).

To be fair, John probably meant this primarily as a reinforcement of his previous warning of condemnation, but I would like to bring up another aspect of the nature of fire. It is not only something that destroys, but it also purifies.

If we look at the threshing floor in John’s little analogy as a picture of mankind, when God gathers the “wheat” into his barn and then burn up the “chaff,” we see the same reference to heaven and to hell. And so it is. The first is gathered in, and the second is burned.

If we take this all a step further, in a way this is also a purification as much as it is punishment for the rebellious. At the end of the age, God intends to purify all humankind. He will rid us of all of the evil that we see today.

But before we get too smug in our position, we should also see this as applying to our own lives. Again referring to the Apostle Paul, he later tells us that also we, as believers in Christ, have our own lives upon which we must build. In order to have a life with meaning, that life must begin with Jesus Christ. The foundation is Jesus Christ.

Even if we begin with that foundation, it is still up to us how we continue with the building. If we use materials that will endure, they will last. But if we use substandard materials, they will perish. Paul puts it like this: 

Now if any man builds upon the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each man’s work will become evident; for the day will show it, because it is to be revealed with fire; and the fire itself will test the quality of each man’s work. 

If any man’s work which he has built upon [the foundation] remains, he shall receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he shall suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet as through fire.” (1 Corinthians 3:14-15 NAS) 

Christian Lives Matter

What we do in our lives matters. Even though our eternal position with God can only come about by God’s grace, our actions still have consequences. None of us like the thought of seeing all of the things that we have worked for in our lives perish. When Paul speaks of the person being saved, “yet as through fire,” we think of people who have had their homes burned to the ground along with all of their belongings. They may be thankful to be alive, but how difficult to see such a loss of the things that they worked for. They were saved, but the fire has consumed all those things for which they have worked their entire lives.

However, think of fire also in terms of a purification. Wood is consumed. Hay and straw are burned up. But fire is used in the purification process of gold. Silver is refined. Precious stones are cleansed. When we think of fire testing our lives, it does not sound pleasant. But think of the joy of finally being rid of all of those things that plagued us in our lives.

Think of the destructive behaviors that we have allowed to be part of our lives and that have even controlled us. Think of the evil that we have allowed to dwell within us. These are things that we have often tried to rid ourselves of for our entire adult lives, and have not been able to. The passing through fire may be unpleasant, but think of the joy that will come out the other side of the fire. It will be with great relief to be finally shed of these burdens that have weighed on us our entire lives. 

Marvelous Words

These are all thoughts that Nicodemus would not have had in the moment of the conversation, but they are things that come to my mind in moments of reflection. They are all considerations in the baptism of John when he spoke of Jesus baptizing with fire. These thoughts may have also come later to Nicodemus.

Jesus said to him again, “Do not marvel that I said to you ‘You must be born again,’” or as we have seen, born from above.

Nevertheless, Nicodemus did marvel. He was astonished at the words of Jesus. Jesus recognized Nicodemus as a sincere seeker of the truth, but he did have a mild rebuke for Nicodemus.

“Are you the teacher of Israel,” Jesus asked him, “and do not understand these things? ... If I told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things?” (John 3:10, 12 NAS) 

The Bronze Serpent

Jesus tried to make things simpler for Nicodemus to understand. He told him an earthy story from the history of the Israelite people. Nicodemus would have been familiar with this part of their history, but it may be a little foreign to us. However, it is found in the book of Numbers. This incident took place during the exodus of the Israelites out from Egypt.

To summarize the story very quickly, it began when the Israelites began one of their many episodes of complaining and murmuring about what they were required to go through in the wilderness. To teach them a lesson, God sent poisonous serpents into their camp. Those people who were bitten, died.

The lesson from God had the desired effect, because the people realized that these vipers came as a result of their complaining attitude. They cried for Moses for help.

God told Moses to cast a form of a serpent from copper or bronze, and to mount it up on a pole. He then instructed Moses to tell the people that if they are bitten, they should go to where the bronze serpent was on a pole and simply look at it. For “everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, shall live,” God told him (Numbers 21:9).

I have always thought that this was an odd solution, and it even seems a little like a practice that might be followed among pagans. But there is an allegorical lesson in it. God gave this lesson so that hundreds of years later, he could use it to illustrate what Jesus did for us by becoming the sacrifice for our sin. In a symbolic sense, we have all been bitten by the poisonous viper of sin. It has condemned us all to die.

However, Jesus gave himself as a sacrifice. He became sin for us and was hung on the cross. The salvation from our condition of death is no less puzzling, yet no less marvelous than it was for those ancient Israelites looking at the bronze serpent.

If we look to Jesus and put our faith in what he did for us, we will not die. Indeed, we will know life to its fullness.

Jesus explained to Nicodemus, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up; that whoever believes may in Him have eternal life.” 

For God so Loved the World

All of this—this entire explanation was given to Nicodemus to help him to understand what Jesus meant by telling him that he must be born again. 

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. (John 3:16-17 ESV) 

Many often think that Jesus simply came to lay a guilt-trip on people—to show them just how bad they were. But that is completely misunderstanding the issue. Jesus came to explain to us our condition—we have been bitten by the viper of sin, and then to provide for us a salvation from what would otherwise be certain and eternal death.

This is what it means to be born again, to be born from above. This new birth from above is needed, because without it, everything about us will die. It is no different for you and me than it was for Nicodemus. To do nothing is to be condemned, but to look to Jesus and to put our trust in him is life.

The issue is not one of simply knowing all of the facts. It is one of repentance and belief. It is one of trust. We try to understand it intellectually as much as we can, as did Nicodemus, but then there comes the time when we make the choice to decide to put our trust in the message that we have from Jesus.

We must turn to Jesus, be healed from our viperous sin, and be born from above.

[1] Concerning the conversation between the two men, it may have been in Aramaic. That was the common language that Jesus spoke. However, Greek was also well known in the area, and Nicodemus, the learned man, may have begun in Greek so that the conversation continued in that way. But whatever was the case, when John wrote down the record of the conversation, he wrote in Greek. That is what has been passed down to us and then translated into English.

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