Dr. & Mrs. Gary A. Schwarz
Gary and Cheryl are founders of Principles for Life Ministries. They have been happily married for 44 years, working side-by-side as pastor and wife in several Bible-believing churches and also as missionary teachers in Romania and Central America. They have two beautiful Christian daughters, Heidi and Rebecca, who are both married to good Christian men, Ben and Aaron. Ben and Heidi lead a full-time ministry called Chasing Ebenezer. Aaron is an IT specialist. He and Rebecca have a 6-year old son named Malcolm and a 3-year old daughter named Moriah. (3 John 4) We all live in the Portland, Oregon area.
Principles for Life Ministries
2288 SE Hale Drive
Gresham. Oregon 97080
- The Spirit’s Conversion
The first clue Jesus gives him is in verse 5: “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into 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 be amazed that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’”
Spirit, of course, refers to the Holy Spirit. But what does it mean to “born of water”? Some say it refers to baptism. But how can that be true? Baptism does not save us. Baptism is a testimony that we’ve already been born from above. Others say it refers to the waters of birth. But that can’t be right either. First century Jews weren’t yet aware of the role amniotic fluid plays in the birth of a child. Nor did Nicodemus need to be told that he had to be born the first time before he could be born a second time.
So what was Jesus referring to? Remember Nicodemus was an Old Testament scholar whose mind would have immediately tracked with Jesus, taking him to passages like Ezekiel 36 where God promised His people, “I will…sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleanness…and I will give you a new heart and…put my Spirit within you and make you walk in My statutes and be careful to obey My rules.”
Jesus was referring to the New Covenant that was about to come true in His blood, a promise Nicodemus had known since boyhood. But like all the religious leaders of Israel, he was an apostate Jew who, because he hadn’t experienced the miracle of new life, gave up on God’s promise. And once you do that, what do you do next?
You reject what the Bible says about sin. After all, we are all “good kids” with good hearts, aren’t we? The answer is no! The truth is there’s not one good person among us. But once you admit that, that we all deserve eternal punishment in hell, how do you cope with the fear of judgment to come? The answer is: You ask God for the gift of faith to trust in His promise of new life and forgiveness!
The second clue is in verse 8 where Jesus adds, “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.”
Have you ever done that? Stood outside surrounded by the beauty of God’s creation and heard His wind roaring through the trees? I did that the other night. I was watering the flowers when I suddenly heard and then felt a cool breeze blowing past me. I thought, “What a perfect way to describe the power and refreshment of the Holy Spirit!” I didn’t know where it came from or where it was going. Nor could I control it! Ever tried to get the wind to blow when you want to fly a kite? But I could feel the results of it!
And you can also see the results when the Holy Spirit touches someone’s life because what happens? Just as the dead man heard Jesus say, “Lazarus, come forth!” you come alive in your spirit.
I shall never forget how it happened to me. I was sitting in a college classroom thinking about things I had read in the Bible, when I suddenly sensed a voice saying to me – not audibly, but just as real – “Gary, believe!” And for the first time in my life, I did. I believe in the Lordship of Jesus, His death for my sins on the cross, and His mighty resurrection from the dead. And in that very moment, my spirit, which was dead, suddenly came to life, and I’ve been following Christ ever since.
But what about Nicodemus? Was he ever born from above? John doesn’t say. Nicodemus fades from the scene midway through this chapter, and we don’t hear from him again until chapter 7 where his colleagues on the Council decide that Jesus has to go. But he takes issue with them on a point of Law. John 7:50, “Nicodemus, who had gone to Him before and was one of them, said to them, ‘Does our law judge a man without first giving him a hearing and learning what He does?’” So he hasn’t taken a public stand for Him yet, but I’m feeling better about him. Aren’t you?
The last we read of him is John 19:38 following the crucifixion. He and a rich friend named Joseph of Arimathea summon up the courage to ask Pilate for the body of Jesus, so they can prepare it for burial and lay it in a new tomb that belongs to Joseph. Now I’m starting to love this guy due to his loyalty and love for Jesus! But that’s all the Bible says about him.
Thankfully, church tradition fills in the rest of the details. It reports, for example, that Nicodemus was the only person who stood up for Jesus at His trial, that he was baptized after the Resurrection by Peter and John, and that his preaching of Christ was so powerful that the Sanhedrin he served removed him from his position as teacher, confiscated his property, banished him from Israel, and subjected his wife and children to abject poverty.
His daughter was so poor it was said she had to dig through the dung piles to find a few pieces of grain to eat. A rabbi saw her doing so and took pity on her. “Who are you?” he asked. “I am the daughter of Nicodemus.” “Whatever happened to him?” he asked. “He became a follower of Jesus and was banished from Israel.” So the rabbi refused to help her.
As for Nicodemus himself, he became one of the first martyrs of the church, beaten to death by a mob for preaching in the name of Jesus. This is the true story of Nic at night. He had everything and gave up everything to gain what the world cannot take away. So even though John doesn’t give us all the details, we have our answer: His sins were washed away and he was given new life from above. For so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.
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.
- The Sinner’s Crisis
“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.’” (John 3:1)
Did you know that no one ever doubted Jesus’ power to do miracles? His enemies didn’t. Instead, what was their explanation for Jesus being able to do miracles, so they wouldn’t have to bow to Him as Lord? They said His power to do miracles came from the devil. This made them guilty of blaspheming the Holy Spirit and committing the one sin that can never be forgiven – the sin of rejecting Jesus as Lord. In fact, it’s only now, 20 centuries later, that skeptics are so wise in their own eyes that they reject the testimony of eyewitnesses, saying to themselves, “Those ancient weren’t smart enough to know what I know today!”
So who was Nicodemus? He had a Greek name as many Jews did at that time. Nico means conquer and Demus means people. So put it together, and what do you get? Nicodemus, “victor over the people.” Don’t read too much into that. It was just a name. Nor should we read a lot into the fact that he came to Jesus at night. I’m not convinced, as some preachers suggest, that “night” is a metaphor for the darkness of his soul. I think he just hadn’t made up his mind about Jesus yet and was being careful because he knew the Pharisees were keeping a blacklist of those who followed Jesus. Instead, what we need to remember about him are these facts:
1) He was a Pharisee. The word means “a separated one.” These were the ultra-conservative, Bible believers of Israel who interpreted the Bible literally. They believed in angels, devils, miracles, the six days of creation, heaven, hell – all of which made Nicodemus anxious because he knew he wasn’t ready to stand before God in judgment. They were also conservative in lifestyle. You know the ultra-orthodox, Hasidic branch of Judaism today? These were its founders, and they were absolutely rabid about keeping the Law, priding themselves not only in the fact that they kept all 613 commandments of the Old Testament (Remember the rich young ruler? “All these things I have kept from my youth!”); but they had also come up with over a thousand laws (mitzvot) of their own, to make sure they never came close to crossing the line.
For example, one thing a Pharisee would never do, or let his wife do, was look in a mirror on the Sabbath. Why not? She might find a gray hair and be tempted to pluck it, which was considered working on the Sabbath! A Pharisee could eat an egg laid on the Sabbath, but only if he killed the hen that laid it as a penalty for her work on the Sabbath. That’s how ridiculous it got. And all for nothing! Because as holy as they thought they were (We’re good at fooling ourselves, aren’t we?), Jesus called them whitewashed tombs who looked beautiful on the outside, but on the inside were full of dead men’s bones and every kind of uncleanness.
By the way, based on everything that’s said about the Pharisees in the Gospels, you might think they were a large group. Not so! There were only 6,000 of them in all of Israel at the time. But then it doesn’t take a huge group to change the world for good or bad, does it? Just a highly dedicated group! That’s what they were! The Pharisees believed if they could somehow get the entire nation of Israel to keep the Law for just one day, God’s Kingdom would come to earth. “But now, with this carpenter from Galilee defying our laws and challenging our authority, the Kingdom will never come!”
No wonder that of all Jesus’ enemies, they were the most vicious. They hated Him so much that only one Pharisee in the Bible, other than Nicodemus, ever came to Him. Who was that? The Apostle Paul who would have never bowed to the Lordship of Jesus if he hadn’t been struck blind on the road to Damascus! Later, Paul wrote of his life as a Pharisee, “I was a Hebrew of Hebrews, as to the Law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless! But whatever things were gain to me…I now count as rubbish in order that I may gain Christ.” (Philippians 3:6)
2) He was a ruler of the Jews, meaning that he was a member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish High Council made up of its 70 most powerful leaders, including the high priest. It comprised what was in essence the Congress and Supreme Court of Israel. This means Nicodemus was a very powerful man. Church tradition says he was one of the three wealthiest men in Jerusalem at the time.
3) He was, according to verse 10, not just a teacher, but “the teacher of Israel.” Jesus uses the definite article to indicate that of all the rabbis in Israel at this time, Nicodemus was the best and brightest. He would have been like a walking Bible dictionary, able to quote the entire Old Testament by memory. That means when talking to him, all Jesus had to do was mention a topic and every verse on that subject would have come to his mind.
4) But above all, he was a lost and desperate soul. After all, what do you do when you’ve spent your whole life scaling the ladder of self-righteousness and reached the pinnacle of your religion only to learn that it’s gotten you nowhere and has all been in vain? The only thing left to do that point is to turn to Jesus! So that’s what he did. He came to Jesus lost, fearful, and wondering how to be saved. That’s the sinner’s crisis. Tomorrow we will continue with the Savior’s counsel for sinners like you and me.