2. The Savior’s Counsel
Nicodemus says to Jesus, “Rabbi” meaning “teacher.” That was a title with which he was familiar, for that was something he was called every day of his life. Of all the teachers in Israel, Nicodemus was the most respected. But now his soul is in trouble and he’s desperate for help! So he turns to a Teacher who surpasses him in every way saying, “Rabbi, we know that You’re a teacher from God, for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.”
How does Jesus answer? “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Sounds like a non sequitur, doesn’t it? In other words, how did what you said have anything to do with what I said? Ever had a conversation like that —maybe with your spouse? But that isn’t how Nicodemus takes it. He realizes that what Jesus has just done is read his mind. He knows his guilt and his fears, and He knows yours too!
Nicodemus has heard Jesus preach several times by now. So he knows how superficial his own righteousness is. That’s something every hypocrite knows in his heart. He knows he’s a hypocrite. And the Pharisees were hypocrites—every one of them! How can I say that? Because that’s what Jesus said 5 times in Matthew 23: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” Then He adds, “You travel over land and sea to make one convert, and when you finally win him, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves!”
Nicodemus was a Pharisee, a hypocrite, and a son of hell! And he knows it! So what does Jesus do? He ignores the flattery and goes straight to the heart of his problem. “Truly, truly, I say to you.” That means He’s about to correct a false teaching Nicodemus was guilty of. What false teaching was that? The false teaching of apostate Judaism that you can earn God’s favor by your good works and self-righteousness! Jesus corrects that saying to him not once, but 5 times in 8 verses, “You must be born again!”
Jimmy Carter made that a household term when he ran for president claiming to be a born again Christian. Since then it has been misapplied to everything from born-again athletic careers to second-hand books and used cars. So here’s a suggestion when talking to someone about your faith. Use the second, not the first meaning, of the word. What do I mean? The word anothen can be translated in one of two ways—“born again” or “born from above.” The second meaning is what Jesus was saying – without receiving new life from above, you’ll never see the Kingdom of God.
The analogy of birth is the best way to explain salvation to someone like Nicodemus who is self-righteous. Because just as an unborn baby is helpless to contribute anything to his own birth, in the same way you and I are helpless to contribute anything to our salvation. Religion is useless, no matter what group you belong to or how sincere you are, because everything you do is tainted by your sinful nature. Isaiah 64:6 says, “We are all like an unclean thing, and all our righteousness is like a filthy rag.” Consequently, what you need if we want to enter God’s Kingdom is the new life that only Jesus can give you.
Remember what John said in John 1:12? “But as many as received Him, to them He gave the power to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.”
So don’t waste your time looking for self-help books telling you how to be born again. Sometimes you’ll hear that. Here are four steps to being born again. But that contradicts the very thing Jesus is teaching here. His point is that there’s absolutely nothing you can do to save yourself, except to throw yourself on His mercy and ask Him to give you new life. Nicodemus gets that better than most Bible-believing Christians. He knows he’s helpless to save himself. But like most of us, he thinks, “If I could understand all of this just a little better, it’d be so much easier to believe.” You can see that in verse 9 where he wonders, “How can these things be?”
But that’s not how it works. Understanding doesn’t come before believing. On the contrary, there are many things about Jesus you will never understand until you believe in Him. So Jesus corrects him, “Are you the teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” (His lack of understanding was due to his lack of belief, not a lack of information! After all, this was the teacher of Israel who had the entire Old Testament hidden in his heart!)
Read on and you’ll see that yourself. Jesus continues, “Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. (Remember receiving is just another word for believing!) If I have told you earthly things, and you do not believe, (Unbelief was his problem!) how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?”
Nicodemus has a problem. He is an unbeliever – his mind is blinded by the devil, his will is enslaved to sin, and his affections have been corrupted by the world. So he’s going to need help if he’s to believe. That’s the point of verse 4. “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?”
Nicodemus isn’t dumb. Nor is he challenging Jesus at this point. Then why does he ask about entering his mother’s womb a second time to be born again? He’s asking Jesus for a clue which Jesus graciously proceeds to give him. We’ve seen the sinner’s crisis and the Savior’s counsel. Tomorrow we will look at the clue that Jesus gives him and discuss the final part of our study – the Spirit’s conversion.