Rebirth from Above

Photo by Frank Alarcon on Unsplash

Gospel of John 3:1-12

1-2 One night Nicodemus, a leading Jew and a Pharisee, came to see Jesus. “Master,” he began, “we realise that you are a teacher who has come from God. Obviously no one could show the signs that you show unless God were with him.” Phillips

So far in GJohn, Jesus made wine out of water and trashed the Temple markets. It seems unlikely that such an important man would approach Jesus talking about his signs. We must not forget that it is about the theology, not the timeline with John. At some point during the three-year ministry, Nicodemus approached Jesus. ‘One night’’ does not give us much of a time frame.

It is important to us that Nicodemus is named. It is important that he comes by night. It is important that he is a Jewish leader and a Pharisee. It is important that he addresses Jesus as “Master.” And it is important that he recognizes the signs that Jesus might be the Messiah.

Nicodemus is likely named because he became an early follower of Jesus and John wanted to remind the church of that fact. That he approached Jesus as he did shows an open mind, but also caution.

There are three points about the night visit. It was hard to talk with Jesus alone during his busy days. But it was also possible for Nicodemus to speak with Jesus at night without anyone else knowing. His fellow Pharisees would not have been happy. GJohn brings in the light/dark theme once again. Nicodemus approaches Jesus in the dark while he is in the dark about who Jesus is. Yet, he is coming to the source of the light.

Pharisees were well educated and generally well off, if not wealthy. Nicodemus probably had an education equal to most rabbis, but he chose to call Jesus ‘master.’ I believe he called him ‘master,’ because he was starting to accept him as the Promised One. Of course, that may have meant he expected Jesus to sit on David’s throne, but so did the disciples. We should also remember that Nicodemus was a member of the Jerusalem Sanhedrin, making him equal to a US Senator.

Jesus replied, “I tell you the solemn truth, unless a person is born from above, he cannot see the kingdom of God. NET

The key Greek word above is anothen. It has three meanings in one; from the beginning, again, from above.

Translating Greek for ‘born from above’ as ‘born again’ places on it an evangelical slant. The literal Greek reads, Except one receive birth from above, not he is able to see the Kingdom of God. Perhaps we should translate that word as; start from the beginning to be reborn from above. That is a little cumbersome, so I like the NET translation choice.

The idea of rebirth is a critical NT concept, but it is also a very Jewish term. All proselytes to Judaism were born again through baptism. That rebirth made him a son of God, a member of the Kingdom of Heaven, and an inheritor of eternal life.

Once again, God is in control. The new birth is a gift from God, not dependent on our meager efforts. John himself can baptize me, but all is vain if God does not baptize me with spiritual birth.

The discourse with Nicodemus is the only time GJohn uses the phrase of Kingdom of God—here and in 3:5. It is a very OT phrase. Beginning in Genesis, God is King, and Adam and Eve are his subjects. That does not change as they leave the Garden. Eventually, the OT gives the Messiah the expectation of returning us to that Kingdom. While many in Jesus’ day believed it would be a political kingdom on earth, Jesus preached it as a return to the original Kingdom before sin.

“How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!” NIV

This response makes it seem that Nicodemus was ignorant of the Jewish ideas of rebirth, which is not likely. He was neither a fool nor ignorant. I think he may have been engaging in a type of debate common in the age. Jesus states the necessity of rebirth—Nicodemus poses the impossible response—Jesus responds in clarify terms. Two well-educated men were engaging in a lively discussion.

There may also be an element of wonder. Nicodemus says, ‘I’m old, can such a thing happen to me.’

Even more likely: Nicodemus has been listening to the Pharisees and Sadducees of the Sanhedrin. They would have argued long and hard over issues like this because the Sadducees did not believe in life after death and the Pharisees did. The Sadducees saw no way for any rebirth to take place.

Yeshua answered, “Yes, indeed, I tell you that unless a person is born from water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the Kingdom of God. What is born from the flesh is flesh, and what is born from the Spirit is spirit. Stop being amazed at my telling you that you must be born again from above! The wind blows where it wants to, and you hear its sound, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it’s going. That’s how it is with everyone who has been born from the Spirit.” CJB

Jesus modifies his first response by adding the baptism of the Holy Spirit. We cannot see the Spirit, but we can sometimes feel it. Mostly it is a presence, like air on a calm day.

The Holy Spirit is an ancient Jewish concept, but it is hard to define and describe. Even the greatest prophets had trouble recognizing the Spirit all the time.

Ezekiel gives us a good image of baptism in 36:25-27. And I will cast upon you clean water, and you shall be cleansed of all your defilements, and of all your foul things I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit will I put within you, and I will take away the heart of stone from your body and give you a heart of flesh. And My spirit I will put within you, and I will act so that you go by My statutes and keep My laws, and you shall do itAlter

To be ‘born from water’ is to be cleansed of sin. We do not seek baptism to wash away the external dirt; we seek the cleansing Ezekiel wrote about. Only the water from God can wash away our sins, and that spiritual cleansing comes with the Holy Spirit’s rebirth.

To be ‘born from water’ is a standard description of our first birth. We all spend nine months inside a sack of water without breathing. When the water sack breaks, the birth push begins. To be born of the Holy Spirit is a very different process.

It is not instant, at least not for most of us. C.S. Lewis described the lengthy rebirth he experienced. Having declared himself an atheist in his teens, he worked at it through his twenties. But one of his best friends was J.R.R. Tolkien, who spent years conversing with Lewis, filling him with arguments and ideas that seemed to support Christianity. Before Lewis was thirty, he announced he was a theist, believing in God. As he sat in a car with another friend on a long road trip, as he told it, “I started the trip a theist and ended it as a Christian.”

Another famous Christian was Saul of Tarsus, who had permission from Temple authorities to go to Damascus and attack Christians there. He was struck blind on the road with a flash of light that his companions did not see. He heard a voice that said, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” The voice said he was Jesus and that Saul would receive his orders later. His companions heard the voice but saw no one. Acts 9.

Saul regained his sight three days later. He lived with the very people he had pledged to exterminate. They spent several years getting him ready to become the mighty missionary named Paul who founded churches, including Ephesus, where Paul lived longer than any other. Our Gospel writer, John, lived the last years of his life there, possibly writing his Gospel there.

If you are not sure the Holy Spirit has baptized you, ask yourself, ‘what is my first concern when starting a new day?’ The Spirit baptism changes your priorities. Instead of just ‘me,’ we begin to think always of ‘I and Thou.’ The Thou is both other people and God—the Great Thou. The phrase was introduced in 1923 by Martin Buber.

Nicodemus replied, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you don’t understand these things? 11 I tell you the solemn truth, we speak about what we know and testify about what we have seen, but you people do not accept our testimony. 12 If I have told you people about earthly things and you don’t believe, how will you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? NET

“How can these things be?” Amazingly, some of us believe without many questions, and many of us have more questions than answers. But asking questions is not the same as unbelief. Nicodemus was seeking answers about God and Jesus and their relationship. Nothing wrong there.

Jesus criticized him for not understanding a critical point of Judean beliefs, the importance of being immersed by the Holy Spirit. Jesus would probably not have criticized many people for that, but a teacher of Israel and a Pharisee, how could you not know this?

In verse 11, Jesus speaks of ‘we.’ He may have used it as a royal we, or it may have included the disciples. I lean toward the royal usage. Jesus teaches those who follow him, teaching about God the Father and God’s love for us. Yet, “you people do not accept our testimony.” The truth is often hard to accept. It often disagrees with what others have taught us or what we have decided is true. We also hate to admit to being wrong.

We will finish this next week.

Be Righteous and do Good

Mike Lawrence

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