The Witness of the New Birth

Commentary on John’s Gospel

John's Good News

Larger Context: Jesus’ Self-Disclosure in Word and Deed (1:19-10:42)

This Study: The Witness of the New Birth (3:1-21)

Being “born again” is a term recognized by many in our culture today. However, I fear it is greatly misused and misunderstood. In this chapter we will see Jesus’ teaching of the necessity of being born of the Spirit.

V. 1-2 “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.’

Here we have a man as mentioned in chapter 2:23-25. He is a man who believed in Jesus’ name when he saw the signs Jesus did. Yet, Jesus did not commit Himself to him, for He knew his heart. Now Nicodemus by all standards was no doubt a good man. As a Pharisee, he would have been scrupulous about following the law. Also, no one attained to the position of a ruler of the Jews (i.e. in the Sanhedron) without a tremendous knowledge of the Old Testament Scriptures; even memorizing much of its contents.

John selects this episode with Nicodemus and the next with the sinful adulteress woman at the well, as representative of people from one end of the spectrum to the other. All are sinners before a holy God. It matters not where you fit on the scale, when weighed by the holy God of righteousness, you are found wanting. You must be born again!

John uses language in the most symbol-laden ways as we have already discovered. I believe that his use of the term “night” is no different. In fact, if you read through the book, you will find that John continually contrasts “light” and “darkness”, and “day” and “night” (i.e. see John 11:9-10). In the 13th chapter of this gospel, John describes Judas going out to betray the Lord “and it was night.” That’s not just a chronological marker, for we know it was night. Judas went out into the blackness of rebellious, dark, sinful night. (See also 1 Thess. 5:4- 5). In like manner, Nicodemus comes in the darkness picturing the need of man (as per John 3:19-21). The point: Despite Nicodemus’ status, knowledge, and power, he is spiritually blind and ignorant. He comes, not just in absence of sunlight, but in absence of spiritual light. Nicodemus knew not that he was wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked. He needs to be born again. He needs to be born of the Spirit that he might see.

V. 3 “Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.’

Nicodemus recognizes Jesus as someone special – a teacher or prophet from God. However, though he sees the powerful displays and miracles, he does not see their significance. He does not see the kingdom of God. He needs to be born from above that He might have spiritual eyes to see the reality of the kingdom of God. Jesus is telling Nicodemus, “It is not learning from a “teacher” that you need, it is, first and foremost, new life. God is spirit. Natural man cannot comprehend the spiritual realm. Messiah’s kingdom was not a temporal one but a spiritual one needing a spiritual birth. (See also John 1:12-13). The kingdom, which to the world (and even sometimes to us) may appear small and weak and despised, and not much of a kingdom; yet it is great and glorious and will be unveiled as such in that day of the unveiling of the sons of God – when even creation itself is delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. We are saved in this hope and thus, we eagerly wait for it with perseverance.

V. 4 “Nicodemus said to Him, ‘How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?’

Nicodemus shows the blindness of his heart to spiritual reality. The truth is, even if you could go back into your mother’s womb and be born again physically, it wouldn’t matter. “That which is born of flesh is flesh.” (v. 6) If I was born of my mother a hundred times, I would still not be fit for the kingdom of God. I’d still be born in my self-centered and sinful flesh. I’d still have my corrupt nature inherited from my parents and thus, alienated from God. A thistle will not bring forth grapes. It is not two physical births we need. We need to be “born of water and the Spirit.

V. 5 “Jesus answered, ‘Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.

What is this saying, “born of water and the Spirit” ? Some think it is baptism, but Christian baptism hadn’t even been established yet, and John’s baptism wasn’t enough according to Acts 19. Some say it is natural birth (i.e. physical birth and spiritual birth), saying that it refers to the amniotic fluid. However, no Jewish or Greek literature that I am aware of ever speaks of natural birth as a birth of water.

I think that we can find the answer in the pages of Scripture itself. First, notice the parallel between verses 3 and 5.

Verse 3 “Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.’

Verse 5 “Jesus answered, ‘Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.’

Looking at the two verses, we see that being born of water and the Spirit is parallel to being born again. Therefore, it would be one birth of water and Spirit, not two births. The Greek grammar supports this as there is one preposition governing both of the nouns. If it was two births, the Greek would normally read, “born of water and born of the Spirit” or “born of water and of the Spirit.”

What does born of water and the Spirit mean? Verse 10, tells us that one who knows the Old Testament Scriptures should know the answer. “Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and do not know these things?” (John 3:10) So, the answer is not found in medical books that teach about amniotic fluid, but in the Old Testament Scriptures. Nicodemus should have understood on the basis of Scripture, for he was an “expert” in the Scripture.

Ezekiel 36-37 is one of the many New Covenant passages. In chapter 36 we told of the New Covenant and then chapter 37 follows with the valley of dry bones vision, which illustrates the New Covenant and new life give to those who were now dead. This is the illustration of being born again.

In Ezek. 36:24, we read God’s promise of the New Covenant, “For I will take you from among the nations, gather you out of all countries, and bring you into your own land. ” God did that in the resettling and rebuilding of Jerusalem (See Ezra and Nehemiah)

Verse 25-27 continues, “Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of 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 keep My judgments to do them.

In the New Covenant, there would be a cleansing with pure water and a transformation (new hearts). There is a pouring out of water to cleanse and a pouring out of the Spirit. This is the new birth. This is being born again – born from above.

V. 6-7 ” That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, “You must be born again.”

Galatians chapter 4 provides us with the perfect example of the difference between being born of flesh (Ishmael) and being born of the Spirit (Isaac). There is great mystery in both births. The sperm is implanted into the ovum and it begets physical life. Physical birth gives us all the attributes of physical life. In spiritual birth, the Word of God (seed or sperm of God) is implanted in the ovum of the heart and the Spirit begets life.

Nicodemus, as one who knew the Old Testament Scriptures should not be surprised ( i.e. “Do not marvel“) at this truth. However, the problem of Nicodemus is that he read the Scriptures through a literal and fleshly grid.

You must be born again.” Jesus says, “You must.” This is an absolute need. It is not a way, it is the way.

V. 8 “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit.’

Although you don’t see the wind or know its origin, you do see its effects. In like manner, we might not be able to explain and analyze all the issues of the new birth, but you can’t deny its effects! One cannot be born again and still live like the devil. Yes, people do backslide and there are different rates of growth, but ultimately Jesus says, “By their fruits you shall know them.” The new birth is a clean-up job with power to change. True conversion changes people.

James Montgomery Boice, in his commentary on the Gospel of John, gives the following story from the life of Harry A. Ironside.

“One Sunday as he was walking through the city he came upon a group of Salvation Army workers holding a meeting on the corner of Market and Grant Avenues. There were probably sixty of them. When they recognized Dr. Ironside they immediately asked him if he would not like to give his testimony. He did, giving a word about how God had saved him through faith in the bodily death and literal resurrection of Jesus.

As he was speaking Dr. Ironside noticed that on the edge of the crowd there was a well-dressed man who had taken a card from his pocket and had written something on it. As Ironside finished his talk this man came forward, lifted his hat, and very politely handed him the card. On one side was his name, which Ironside immediately recognized. The man was one of the early socialists who had made a name for himself lecturing, not only for socialism, but also against Christianity. As Ironside turned the card over, he read, ‘Sir, I challenge you to debate with me the question, “Agnosticism versus Christianity” in the Academy of Science Hall next Sunday afternoon at four o’clock. I will pay all expenses.’

Ironside reread the card aloud and then replied somewhat like this. ‘I am very much interested in this challenge. Frankly, I am already scheduled for another meeting next Lord’s Day afternoon at three o’clock, but I think it will be possible for me to get through with that in time to reach the Academy of Science Hall by four, or if necessary I could arrange to have another speaker substitute for me at the meeting already advertised. Therefore I will be glad to agree to this debate on the following conditions; namely, that in order to prove that Mr — has something worth fighting for and worth debating about, he will promise to bring with him to the hall next Sunday two people, whose qualifications I will give in a moment, as proof that agnosticism is of real value in changing human lives and building true character.

‘First, he must promise to bring with him one man who was for years what we commonly call a “down-and- outer.” I am not particular as to the exact nature of the sins that had wrecked his life and made him an outcast from society – whether a drunkard, or a criminal of some kind, or a victim of his sensual appetite – but a man who for years was under the power of evil habits from which he could not deliver himself, but who on some occasion entered one of Mr. —‘s meetings and heard his glorification of agnosticism and his denunciations of the Bible and Christianity, and whose heart and mind as he listened to such an address were so deeply stirred that he went away from that meeting saying, “Henceforth, I too am an agnostic!” and as a result of imbibing that particular philosophy found that a new power had come into his life. The sins that he once loved, he now hates, and righteousness and goodness are now the ideals of his life. He is entirely a new man, a credit to himself and an asset to society – all because he is an agnostic.

‘Secondly, I would like to thank Mr. — to promise to bring with him one woman – and I think he may have more difficulty in finding the woman than the man – who was once a poor, wrecked, characterless outcast, the slave of evil passions, and the victim of man’s corrupt living, perhaps one who had lived for years in some evil resort, utterly lost, ruined and wretched because of her life of sin. But this woman also entered a hall where Mr. — was loudly proclaiming his agnosticism and ridiculing the message of the Holy Scriptures. As she listened, hope was born in her heart, and she said, “This is just what I need to deliver me from the slavery of sin!” She followed the teaching and became an intelligent agnostic or infidel. As a result her whole being revolted against the degradation of the life she had been living. She fled from the den of iniquity where she had been held captive so long; and today, rehabilitated, she has won her way back to an honored position in society and is living a clean, virtuous, happy life – all because she is an agnostic.

‘Now,’ he said addressing the gentleman who had presented him with his card and the challenge, ‘if you will promise to bring these two people with you as examples of what agnosticism can do, I will promise to meet you at the Hall at the hour appointed next Sunday, and I will bring with me at the very least 100 men and woman who for years lived in just such sinful degradation as I have tried to depict, but who have been gloriously saved through believing the gospel which you ridicule. I will have these men and women with me on the platform as witnesses to the miraculous saving power of Jesus Christ and as present-day proof of the truth of the Bible.’

Dr. Ironside then turned to the Salvation Army captain, a girl, and said, ‘Captain, have you any who could go with me to such a meeting?’

She exclaimed with enthusiasm, ‘We can give you forty at least from just this one corps, and we will give you a brass band to lead the procession!’

‘Fine. Now, Mr. —, I will have no difficulty in picking up sixty others from the various missions, gospel halls, and evangelical churches of the city; and if you will promise faithfully to bring two such exhibits as I have described, I will come marching in at the head of such a procession, with the band playing “Onward, Christian Soldiers,” and I will be ready for the debate.’

Apparently the man who had made the challenge must have had some sense of humor, for he smiled wryly and waved his hand in a deprecating kind of way as if to say, ‘Nothing doing!’ and then edged out of the crowd while the bystanders clapped for Dr. Ironside and the others. ”

V. 9-11 “Nicodemus answered and said to Him, ‘How can these things be?’ Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and do not know these things? Most assuredly, I say to you, We speak what We know and testify what We have seen, and you do not receive Our witness.

Jesus uses the term ‘We.’ Perhaps the witness of the Triune God, or the witness of John the Baptist and Himself (John 1:6-8), or as Nicodemus uses ‘we’ in verse 2 (i.e. “we” those of his nation v.s. “we” – Jesus and those of His nation).

V. 12-13 “If I told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of Man who is in heaven.

If Nicodemus can’t grasp the things that are to happen on earth under the New Covenant right now, how will he grasp the heavenly realities? How will he grasp the kingdom of heaven, if he can’t even grasp the condition for entering it?

Jesus has come from heaven, so He knows what He is talking about. Notice, one of the deep heavenly realities of this One who was with God and was God. Jesus is talking with him and yet “is in heaven.” Jesus is saying, “I am He who fills heaven and earth. I am so much more than simply a teacher sent from God.”

V. 14 -15 ” And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.

Jesus turns to the very Moses the Pharisees revere, for he has pictured and foretold of Christ and His work of salvation. Read Numbers 21:4-9 to read the whole context of this event. In that day, the Israelites rebelled, rejecting God’s provision. The fiery serpent bite is certainly a reminder of the serpent in the garden (Rev. 12:9). The only cure for those dying Israelites was to look to the bronze serpent on the pole. They had no hand in it, nothing to pay for it, nothing to do, no distance to walk, no effort to put forth – no matter how near death they were, if they looked, they were cured. Nicodemus and the Israelites of his day, were also under the judgment of God, and only through God’s provision can they be saved.

The sin in both cases is the same – rebellion against God; unbelief; distrust; making God out to be a liar. The punishment is death and certain agonizing burning death in the fire that is never quenched. Moses became the mediator and intercessor for those Jews in the wilderness. We have a greater Mediator. We have One to intercede and He does not just make an image, He Himself is lifted up. Our Deliverer, as the bronze serpent, takes the image or likeness of the destroyer. Through one man sin entered the world. Jesus came in the likeness of sinful flesh. On the cross, we see our condemnation and our pardon – our sickness and our cure. If Christ be not lifted up on Calvary and subsequently to heaven as Lord, we would have no salvation – no hope – no life. Israel’s physicians could do nothing for those bitten. The look at the serpent on the pole did it all. Jesus calls to sinners, ‘Look unto Me!’ (the look of faith ? v. 15-16). There is no other remedy for the human condition. Turning over a new leaf, promising to stop the murmuring, won’t get rid of the poison of sin in you.

If you ran a business and a customer with a huge unpaid debt tells you that he is reforming and that he is only going to pay by cash from now on, you would still expect him to pay back his old debt.

The term “lifted up” is introduced here but will be referred to again in passages such as John 8:28 and 12:32-33. Jesus is God’s provision and people look to Him and they get new life! Though the piece of brass was totally unworthy of worship (see 2 Kings 18:4), the Son who was lifted up, first on the cross to die and then on high as Lord, is worthy to be worshipped! Relics are useless.

Jesus came to die. He MUST be lifted up or there is no hope, no salvation for sinners. No one would ever enter the kingdom and have life. Through Christ alone can God’s demands of holiness and righteousness be met. Jesus is a man who eats with sinners. Aren’t you glad that is true?

Read Acts 3:14-15, 24-26. To you this Word of salvation – this word of blessing – is preached. Look unto Christ. Come unto Him in repentance and faith and He will bless you and heal you from all your iniquities. If you perish, it will not be because God did not provide a Savior. It will not be because there is no help or no hope. It will be because of your heart rebellion and refusal to believe (see 3:18). If you remain in your condemned state, after hearing John’s gospel, you will perish, like a man with cancer refusing to take a known and proven cure. It will not be the refusal to take the cure that killed him. It was the cancer. However, his foolishness and rebellion is made evident by his refusal of the cure.

Are you so proud that you’d rather perish for all eternity in the torments of hell-fire, than to humbly acknowledge your stupidity and in repentance look unto Jesus, the Blesser of all who humble themselves under His mighty hand? Jesus’ coming into the world did not condemn you, but if you reject the gospel, having heard, you have no excuse for your ignorance. You are doubly condemned. Oh, sick and guilty and dying sinner, I implore you to repent that you might be reconciled unto God.

Eternal life is received through faith in Christ. Eternal life is equated with the new birth. The new birth begets eternal life. Though this is like telling a blind man to look, or a lame man to walk, this is exactly what Christ does.

V. 16 “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.

Here we have the reason for this gift of salvation. It is simply astonishing that God loves us. Our generation seems to have no problem with the love of God, but does with the wrath of God. The Scripture is the opposite. There we easily see why God’s wrath would be directed towards us – but His love? Now that is amazing!

The measure of God’s love to us is Jesus. God so loved that He gave His only begotten Son. God the Father so loved us. God is full of love. God is love. It is not hard to love someone who is lovely. It is also quite possible to love someone who is unlovely. Some do that occasionally. But to love someone who is rebellious, proud, arrogant, corrupt, ruthlessly independent, and who will crucify your only son – that is the kind of love we see God demonstrate to the world.

The question to ask is not, “Did Jesus die for me?” It is “why won’t you believe when the Scripture is so clear?” (v. 15-16) Why will you not believe when it is commanded of you? If you hear this gospel and perish, it will be because you, in hardness of heart, refused to believe in Christ.

V. 17-20 “For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved. He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. And this is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For everyone practicing evil hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed

Jesus came to save men who were already condemned. This is the state of both a Nicodemus and the woman at the well (ch. 4). The woman is saved through the same gospel. The great middle wall of partition has been torn down. Believe in Christ, the only hope of religious and moral teachers, and harlots and adulterers. (See Eph. 2:12-22)

Men behave just like a bug who has been exposed from a lifted rock. The bug scurries back to the darkness. It doesn’t like the fearsome exposure of the light. They don’t want to go there – to the reality as shown by the light.

To believe not is blasphemy. Why will you resist? Your unbelief is declaring God to be a liar. Don’t blame God. He has opened a door of mercy wide before you in Jesus Christ. And don’t confess your unbelief as if you are somehow honoring God by being “honest.” Your unbelief exposes your proud hatred of God and your mockery of the blood of Christ and your disdain for the grace of God. You are one who spits in the face of God and then brags about it. And the only reason you are not saved is that you will not come to Christ. Oh, worm of the dust, can you overcome your Maker? Let us reason together. Though your sins be red as scarlet, yet they can be made as white as snow. Come to Christ. Every moment of unbelief is defiance to His face. You can strive with me and win, but it is not to me you must answer.

Oh worm, there is a hell – a place where the worm does not die. Sinners in hell are not the fools they were on earth. In hell, they do not laugh at everlasting burnings as they did on earth. They have sobered up immensely in the torment of the pit. Do you so despise yourself that you would turn away from the open door of heaven and eternal bliss for an eternity in the everlasting fire? Sober up now and then you can rejoice now and forever in the fullness of joy in fellowship with the Best of beings! If you are impressed at all, this moment, do not suppress the truth. It may be your last warning. What a sorrowful thing to perish with the gospel message in your ears.

To defy God is like the story of a man coming across a small bird, a sparrow, lying on his back on the road. There he was, this scrawny little thing with two thin legs pointed skyward. At first the traveler thought it was dead. When he saw, however, that the bird was still alive, he went over to him and asked, “Are you all right?”

“Yes,” the sparrow answered.

“Then what are you doing on your back with your legs pointed upward at the sky?”

“Haven’t you heard? The heaven is going to fall.”

“If it does, surely you don’t think you’re going to hold it up with those two scrawny legs?”

The bird looked at him with a solemn face for a moment and then retorted, “One does the best one can.”

There are many such sparrows in the form of men, who think they can hold off the wrath of divine judgment. Oh sinner, why do you resist?

He who believes in Him is not condemned” (v. 18).

NOT CONDEMNED! Think of it! What does that mean? He is pardoned, acquitted, justified, cleared from all guilt, delivered from the curse, no longer counted as a sinner, but reckoned perfectly righteous in the sight of God.

Therefore let it be known to you, brethren, that through this Man is preached to you the forgiveness of sins; and by Him everyone who believes is justified from all things from which you could not be justified by the law of Moses.” (Acts 13:38-39)

Apart from Christ, we are condemned with no chance of forgiveness, and only a breath away from hell. If you die in your sins, don’t blame Adam. You have the words of life in your ears right now. Believe in Christ and you will be saved.

There is now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus.” (Rom. 8:1)

Everyone – even a moral man like Nicodemus – needs the salvation found only in Christ. Is he willing to be exposed – to have his heart examined by the Holy One? That light will expose why he does not come to the light – that which he does not want to give up or have discovered and reproved. How those who refuse to come to the light will one day disdain that which kept them from Christ for all of eternity!

V. 21 ” But he who does the truth comes to the light, that his deeds

may be clearly seen, that they have been done in God.’
For any good we ever do, God gets the glory. It is His doing. Any bad – 
well, that’s us. That’s the way it is (1 Cor. 4:7, 1:30-31).


About Murray McLellan
Murray is the lead church planter and Bible teacher at Grace Fellowship Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada. He and his wife Cheryl have labored in the Gospel for many years despite the many discouragements along the way. Our brother is associated with “InDepth Studies”, the Acts 29 network of church planters, and more recently the uniquely Canadian C2C church planting network. In new covenant circles Murray is a long time contributor to new covenant thought and discussion.