During the course of our Lord’s ministry on earth, he came into contact with many fascinating characters. Nicodemus was one of the most interesting among them.
He is identified as a Pharisee, a ruler of the Jews. We know quite a bit about the Pharisees from the Bible record, as well as from historical studies. They were the most popular and influential of all the Jewish sects living in Israel during the time of Jesus.
They were well versed in the law of Moses, as well as the teachings of various rabbinical schools which flourished at that time. They were very zealous for the Jewish traditions and prided themselves on their faithfulness to all the demands of the law.
Nicodemus was a member of this sect, which means that he had risen high in status in the Jewish nation. Furthermore, he was a ‘ruler’ – a leader among his people. He was a well-informed, well-trained, highly esteemed Pharisee.
Finally, Jesus calls him ‘the teacher of Israel’. He was a (perhaps, the) leading religious authority, a person to whom everyone looked up.
We are not told why he came to Jesus that night in Jerusalem. We know that Jesus had just begun his ministry there. He had performed miracles and many had believed in him.
Also, he had reacted with anger when he saw merchants turning the temple into a place for buying and selling. He drove the moneychangers out and rebuked them for desecrating the temple of God.
Nicodemus was probably a witness to this event, or had heard about it. Perhaps it was out of curiosity that he came to the young rabbi, to engage him in religious conversation. He began with a compliment: ‘Rabbi’, he said: ‘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’.
This was a polite enough statement, but he had scarcely opened his mouth before the Lord interrupted. A person must be born again, he declared, to participate in the kingdom of God.
Thus Jesus introduces the vastly important subject of the new birth.
Wise and learned as he was, Nicodemus was puzzled by Jesus’ words: ‘unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God’. This was language he did not understand. Born again? he wondered. What kind of talk is this?
As far as Nicodemus was concerned, Jesus of Nazareth was talking nonsense. ‘How is it possible for a person to enter his mother’s womb and be born again?’ he asks.
Jesus clarifies the mystery. ‘That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit’, he rejoins.
In these words our Saviour says enough about the marvellous event of the new birth (or ‘regeneration’) to provide an important clue. The new or second birth is obviously not about being recreated physically; it is a spiritualtransformation.
To be born again is to be ‘born of the Spirit’. The Spirit referred to here is God’s Holy Spirit, the third person in the Holy Trinity.
Let us reflect a little about what is implied by the idea of spiritual rebirth. We would certainly have to say that ‘new birth’ implies change. In fact, it is such a change that it marks the beginning of a new life.
The life in question is ‘new life in Christ’. Regeneration produces a new understanding, a new way of thinking and acting toward God. It means receiving a new nature and entering into a new relationship with God as our heavenly Father.
While there are obviously many differences between physical birth and spiritual birth, there are some analogies too. This, of course, is why Jesus used the expression in the first place.
When a baby is born into the world (Jesus speaks of this as being ‘born of the flesh’), he or she enters a physical world. It is a world of physical and emotional experiences, such as hunger, satisfaction, joy and sorrow. It is also a world of human relationships, since the baby normally enters a family, with parents and perhaps siblings.
Similarly, when a person is reborn, he or she also enters into a world of new relationships and experiences, but ones that relate to the spiritual world.
The reborn person knows that Christ is his Saviour, that God is his Father and that other Christians are brothers and sisters. He will have precious associations with God, through the Scriptures and through prayer, and with other believers in the fellowship of the church.
Most importantly, however, the reborn person has a new nature. Our Lord speaks of being born of the Spirit. When we are born physically, we derive from our biological parents certain physical and psychological traits. Because of the genes we inherit, we have a certain type of personality.
Just so, when we are born of God’s Spirit, we receive a new nature which is created in us supernaturally. Our personality acquires a spiritual dimension it did not have before.
Our mind is enlightened by the Holy Spirit so that we can discern spiritual truth. Our heart is changed so that we now love God, his word, his people, and his ordinances.
Paul puts it this way in 2 Corinthians 5:17: ‘if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new’.
Not only is the mind enlightened, and the heart renewed, but the will is bent toward God. When God, in sovereign power, changes the heart of a sinner, that person chooses God as his portion for ever.
He willingly and cheerfully repents of sin, and receives Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord. He forsakes the world and clings to Christ alone as the only hope for his soul.
The new birth is not just giving up a few bad habits and obnoxious sins. It is much more than reformation. It is a transformation of the inner self, resulting in a modification of character and conduct.
The new birth produces a permanent and fundamental change in a person’s nature. It turns that person from a life of selfish, idolatrous and indulgent interests to the service of God.
To be sure, there is still within the heart of the believer something of the old nature, with its lusts and passions, to be dealt with. But something brand new has been added: the life of God within.
The agency of the Spirit
Next we need to consider who is the authorof the new birth. It is important that we understand the source of this wonderful change.
Listen again to words of God’s Son: ‘Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God … That which is born of the Spirit is spirit’ (John 3:5-6).
These expressions leave absolutely no doubt as to the source of this great and wonderful change; it is the work of the Holy Spirit, who is God himself.
It is important that we properly understand the agency of the Spirit of God in the new birth, because people in every culture and every generation have been confused about this.
Let me speak plainly here. I do not want to be misunderstood. Man in his lost and fallen condition cannot and will not produce this wonderful, supernatural, inward change called the new birth.
No amount of religious observance or ‘experiences’ can bring it about. No amount of contrition, reformation, devotion, determination, meditation, sacrifice, or good works, can produce the new birth.
Man simply does not have the power to produce it. He is ‘dead in trespasses and sins’ (Ephesians 2:1) and can neither desire nor bring about the new birth. The new birth is a miracle that comes from above.