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 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.