Jean’s Gospel: God’s Birthing Suite
“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 3:1-3)
Unlike most of Jesus’ followers, Nicodemus was an esteemed public figure, highly educated, and a devout Jew. Although he did not recognize Jesus as the Messiah, Nicodemus was convinced that Jesus was “a teacher come from God” and “God is with him.” Nicodemus honored Jesus. Therefore, Jesus’ abrupt and unfriendly rebuff of Nicodemus probably caught him off guard.
“Jesus answered him, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.’ ” (John 3:3)
Jesus applied the Law bluntly to humble Nicodemus so that he might recognize his illness and seek salvation in a Savior. Nicodemus desired to learn something from Jesus, but he thought it was something he could add to his considerable learning and piety. Jesus, by contrast, impressed on Nicodemus that what he needed was not advanced theology or more holiness, but to become an entirely different person. Otherwise, he “cannot see [i.e., understand or enter] the kingdom of God.”
“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?’ ” (John 3:4)
Nicodemus had the external marks of righteousness and holiness. He obeyed outwardly God’s commandments, tithed, prayed, gave alms, etc. But these were works of the Law. These marks could not heal Nicodemus from the poison of his sin coursing through his old nature. None of the things Nicodemus had accomplished – his religious education, his seat in the Sanhedrin, his piety – could reckon him righteous before God. All of his accomplishments only aggravated his spiritual blindness and lostness.
Nicodemus did not understand that it is impossible for a man born of the flesh, in his old nature, to enter the kingdom of God. A new nature is required; one that is righteous in the sight of God. Therefore, Nicodemus would have to repent of his own righteousness; it would not help him. He must be born again, by the will of God (John 1:13).
“Jesus answered, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.’ ” (John 3:5)
This new birth will be entirely God’s work, administered by the Holy Spirit in baptism, as Ezekiel prophesied: “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses…. I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you.” (Ezek 36:25-26a) Baptism, as Paul wrote, is: “the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit.” (Tit 3:5). It is a washing away of our sins (Acts 22:16). Peter described baptism as a washing that now saves us (1 Pet 3:21). The font is God’s birthing suite for His new children.
There are three elements required for a baptism: God’s Word, water and the Holy Spirit. When Jesus speaks of “water and the Spirit,” He is speaking not of two baptisms (one by water and the other by the Spirit), but of one baptism of water and the Spirit. Moreover, Jesus does not leave out His Word, because the Spirit works through the Word: “he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak” (John 16:13). Similarly, when Paul speaks of baptism as a “washing of water with the word” (Eph 5:26), he does not leave out the Spirit, because the Word sends the Spirit.
The third element is water. By itself, water has no spiritual properties. But when, by His command and promise, Christ’s Word, is added to the water, it becomes what the Prophet Ezekiel termed “clean water” (Ezek 36:25), through which the Holy Spirit births a new child of God.
“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.’ 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.” (John 3:6-8)
Jesus used a parable to describe the new birth. One knows the wind is present when he hears its sound and feels it blow. In an analogous fashion, one knows the Holy Spirit is present in baptism when he hears the Word and feels the water.
“Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’ Jesus answered him, ‘Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?’ ” (John 3:9-10)
The gift of new birth was promised in Israel’s Scriptures. Jesus chided Nicodemus, as a teacher, for not knowing his own Scriptures. David understood: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” (Ps 51:10) Ezekiel also: “And I will give them one heart, and a new spirit I will put within them. I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh” (Ezek 11:19).
“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. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” (John 3:11-15)
Jesus then proclaimed His Gospel to Nicodemus that the new birth and entrance into the kingdom of God will come by God’s grace through faith in Him alone. The bronze serpent that Moses affixed to a pole in wilderness, which cured the Israelites physically from the bite of venomous snakes, prefigured the cure from the poison of sin that Jesus procured for the world on the cross.
The Israelites were without any cure from the deadly venom of the snakes, which God sent as punishment for their murmuring against Him. But on account of the people’s repentance and the intercession of Moses, God had mercy on the people. According to God’s command and promise, Moses made a bronze snake, which was neither alive nor venomous. By itself, the bronze had no curative properties. But wrapped inside God’s Word, “everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live” (Num 21:8), the bronze serpent became a salutary symbol.
Similarly, all humanity has been bitten by the poison of sin for which we possess no remedy. Therefore, God’s Son, came to us incarnate of our flesh, but without the poison of sin. Notwithstanding His innocence, Jesus gave up His life for our sins on the cross to destroy the power of sin. “By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh” (Rom 8:3b). His death is salutary for everyone who believes in Him.
God offers us the forgiveness of our sin, not by seeing with the physical eye, as the Israelites looked at the bronze serpent, but by hearing with faith (Gal 3:2). We do not receive our adoption as children of God by looking at a bronze object, but by feeling clean water applied to our skin while hearing the names of the Triune God given to us at the font, by the command and with the promise of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
In the very same passage would you also argue that Jesus is speaking of ONE birth, of flesh AND spirit?
#1 is in response to: “He is speaking not of two baptisms (one by water and the other by the Spirit), but of one baptism of water and the Spirit.”
I’m not sure I am tracking your question. Jesus is speaking here of a second birth as a child of God (the first being as a child of Adam). Therefore, this second birth (i.e., “from above,” “of God,” “again”) is affected by water and the Spirit. The Spirit not only regenerates the Christian, but also dwells in the Christian and intercedes for the Christian.
Does that answer your question?
No. You said that this quote: ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.’
Was speaking of baptism, not 2, but 1 of water AND spirit.
Yet Jesus’ quote was in response to a question about birth from a man who had already been born. Jesus was speaking of two births. One of flesh and one of spirit. It seems you miss that if you force the verse to be speaking about baptism.
(1) “is born” is somehow speaking of two births is forcing the verse to speak of 2 births; and
(2) “water” is somehow speaking of natural birth is forcing the verse not to speak of baptism.
“born again” forces the passage to speak about two births.
“’born again’ forces the passage to speak about two births.”
Well, then what the heck does you #5 mean?
And why the heck did you squeeze baptism in there?
The term “born again” clearly speaks of a 2nd birth.
However, when Jesus says: “unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God”, He is speaking of “how” the 2nd birth is accomplished by God.
To force “born of water” to be referring to the 1st birth renders the phrase essentially meaningless because Jesus is speaking to a living person who was already born of Adam. Why communicate a condition to someone who obviously has fulfilled it? Everyone who reads John 3 has already been born of Adam. Such a reading robs the phrase of any meaning. Jesus, however, is speaking about “how” God accomplishes the second birth.
But then read the next versus, Jesus interprets himself.
He speaks of two birth.
In vs 5 – water and spirit.
In vs 6 – flesh and spirit.
Do you argue that verse 6 is speaking of one birth? That of flesh and spirit? Of course not, he is contrasting the two, as he is in verse 5.
Ugh my typos are killing me. Sorry.
No problem on the typos; I’m sure I make plenty of them myself.
Here is that next verse you mentioned:
“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.’”
Notice 2 things:
(1) Jesus did not say “That which is born of water is flesh,…” If He was interpreting himself from the prior verse, one would think He would have linked water to flesh.
(2) What He is further interpreting is His original assertion: “You must be born again.”
Seems obvious, but Ok. Thanks for the interaction.
Just a thought, but within the context of the first three chapters of John, I think there are two things going on here –
1) Christ is placing his ability to give the gift of the Holy Spirit (second birth) as John the Baptist predicted in chapter 1, in contrast to John’s mere baptizing with water, as we note in the second narrative of chapter 3.
2) John the Apostle, is using the narrative to allude to late first century Christian baptismal practices in which the gift of the Holy Sprit was given.
These, I don’t think are contradictory, but merely the use of the single narrative to point out the difference between John the Baptist and Jesus, as well as providing theological meaning to what would have been familiar to John’s contemporary readers.
I think we can all agree with Duane’s 2nd point @14. Baptism delivers the Holy Spirit and I will add that there is no salvation without first having the Holy Spirit delivered to a person. Hence “Baptism Saves.”
What was Jesus’ last command? For us to go out and through baptism deliver the Holy Spirit to others, giving them the new birth and making them disciples.
This is pretty cool stuff. 🙂
Isn’t the Holy Spirit given at one’s Chrismation? Which happens directly after baptism? When one is anointed with oil and the priest says “Receive the Holy Spirit?”
“Chrismation (sometimes called confirmation) is the holy mystery by which a baptized person is granted the gift of the Holy Spirit through anointing with oil. As baptism is a personal participation in the death and Resurrection of Christ, so chrismation is a personal participation in the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.”
You are quite right. In the Roman and Anglican rites, immediately after baptism one is anointed with oil and the priest says, “Receive the Holy Spirit”. In the ancient church, it was part of one rite. Through the high middle ages and into the Reformation, the rite was split into two distinct actions, leading some bodies to identify it with a later Confirmation. Most liturgical scholars, however, place it in the context of the baptismal rite.
Jean, you mentioned 3 elements: There are three elements required for a baptism: God’s Word, water and the Holy Spirit. Would you consider a fourth element to be faith? Without faith isn’t baptism invalid?
well, at least all agree that we must be ‘born again’…
an interesting aside are the baptisms that preceded Jesus’ ministry, those of his cousin John… worth considering the why of those baptisms… to which Jesus himself submitted “to fulfill all righteousness” … there is the opening of heaven and God’s visible interaction and message
some equate the Holy Spirit’s descending upon Jesus at that time with the “New Birth” …
i don’t, it makes far more sense to see our second birth as a literal new creation within our being, a spirit. After which we are body (dying flesh) eternal soul and spirit … this does not preclude the Holy Spirit’s special work at water baptism IMHO
with the spirit warring with the flesh, we are somewhat sanctified schizophrenics 🙂
Great question. “Faith” is a disposition of the heart which trusts in Christ. So, it is worked in us.
It is written that “faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” It also says that “no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit.”
So, whether an adult who already has the Holy Spirit is baptized or an infant who does not yet have the Holy Spirit, baptism conveys the Holy Spirit through the Word which is added to the water, and the Holy Spirit either creates or strengthens faith.
Baptism is totally consistent with sola fide in that we are justified by grace through faith alone in Christ alone. Baptism also is consistent with the doctrine of Divine monergism.
There is the faith of the individual being baptized and the faith of those that are preforming the ceremony. For an infant, the faith may not be there before the baptism but there is faith of the parents, the pastor performing the ceremony and the congregation witnessing it. If none of these folks had faith and were just going thru the motions, are you saying God would still use this sacrament to create faith where it didn’t exist before? I know this is an extreme hypothetical but no matter how you slice this, it does appear that faith is absolutely needed albeit still a gift just as is the water and the Word are as well.
God makes the promise, so we trust that God is faithful to His Word and will accomplish what He promises. Our faith should always be in God’s Word.
All the promises made in baptism come from God and are given directly to the baptized. Whether the pastor or parents are going through the motions or not is irrelevant, because they do not mediate God’s promises.
I agree with your conclusion that faith is absolutely needed. It is needed at all times throughout our life, not just at some entry point. And as you said it is a gift, given by the Holy Spirit in and through God’s Word and Gospel.
Therefore, in the great commission, Jesus does not command the disciples to make disciples by baptism alone, but by baptizing and “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” Because of this last part, Lutherans do not typically baptize a person who (1) does not want to be baptized, or (2) is a baby of parents who are not willing to raise their baby in the faith.