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John 3,1-17 The Birth from Above

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John 3

3:1 There was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus,

a ruler of the Jews.

2 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.”

3 Jesus answered and said to him,

“Surely, I say to you,

unless one is born again,

he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

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?”

5 Jesus answered, “Surely, I say to you,

unless one is born of water and the Spirit,

he cannot enter the kingdom of God.

 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh,

and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.

7 Do not marvel that I said to you,

‘You must be born again.’

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.”

9 Nicodemus answered and said to Him,

“How can these things be?”

10 Jesus answered and said to him,

“Are you the teacher of Israel,

and do not know these things?

11 Most assuredly, I say to you,

We speak what We know and testify what We have seen,

and you do not receive Our witness.

12 If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe,

how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things?

13 No one has ascended to heaven

but He who came down from heaven,

that is, the Son of Man who is in heaven.

14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness,

even so must the Son of Man be lifted up,

15 that whoever believes in Him should not perish

but have eternal life.

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.

17 For God did not send His Son into the world

to condemn the world,

but that the world through Him might be saved.

18 “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.

19 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.

20 For everyone practicing evil hates the light

and does not come to the light,

lest his deeds should be exposed.

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.”

—John 3:1–21

How fascinating that a member of the “Who’s Who of Jerusalem”

should seek out Jesus, a traveling preacher.

Could He have anything in common with Nicodemus,

a man with perfect credentials?

John describes Nicodemus as “a man of the Pharisees,”

 which meant he was one of the separated ones,

an elite lay theologian dedicated to studying

and living out every jot and tittle of the law

and “a ruler of the Jews,”

meaning he was a member of the Sanhedrin,

that exclusive council which controlled

the religious life of Israel.

Nicodemus had come because of all that had been going on.

He said, “No one can do these things that You do

unless God is with him.”

The dramatic cleansing of the temple

and the works that followed had created quite a stir.

Surely these happenings had become common gossip

on the streets of Jerusalem.

There is a humility in the way he comes.

He addresses Jesus as “Rabbi,”

a title of respect he would use only

because he believed he could learn something

from this new teacher.

He came “by night.”

Was he ashamed or fearful to be seen with Jesus by day?

Or were there too many people clamoring for Jesus’ attention

by day?

Perhaps if there were to be any chance for an honest,

uninterrupted conversation

it would have to be at night.

But the night is also a time of darkness.

And is this not where Nicodemus was living?

In darkness?

Even though he affirms that God must be with Jesus,

he is ignorant?

Nicodemus says, “we know.”

He seems to be speaking for more than himself.

Nicodemus may have come to voice some of the questions

being raised by a group within the Sanhedrin.

By what authority was Jesus doing these things?

What was His purpose?

Did He have some new truth to reveal?

Nicodemus is speaking for men

Who truly wanted to know what Jesus was all about.


Earthly Birth and New Birth (vv. 3–7).

Jesus responds to Nicodemus’s friendly statement

by coming directly to the heart of the matter.

He does not waste time on peripheral issues.

His statement, “Surely,” calls for careful, singleminded attention.

Nicodemus’s destiny will hang on how he hears and answers

what Jesus will now say.

“I say to you, unless one is born again,

he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

Jesus uses a basic earthly category—human birth—

to illuminate a profound spiritual reality.

“Born again”!

The phrase is arresting and fresh, alive with meaning.

Another chance, starting over, new life!

Is it possible?

That is exactly what Jesus is saying.

In our age, which has vulgarized so many great realities,

we have tossed these words around

as if they were simply another cool “in” phrase

to be used when we talk about other people.

“Oh darling,

You say he is a born again Christian?

How delightful!”

Even in church circles, sad to say,

the words have become worn out…

they are almost part of our professional jargon,

stripped of their original radical meaning.

But this was not the case with Nicodemus.

He comes up short.

He is baffled and confused.

This is not what he expected.

“How can a man be born when he is old?

Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb

and be born?”

How else can he respond?

In spite of all his religious knowledge

and living by the levitical code,

he is locked in flesh.

He can only understand from an earthly perspective.

His response makes earthly sense.

How can anyone who is physically mature

start over again within his mother’s womb?

Surely one cannot undo forty or fifty years of physical growth.

And if this is true physically,

then how much more difficult it is to start over in the moral

and spiritual realm.

Is not each one of us the sum total of all his experiences,

good and bad, at any stage of life?

Surely we cannot wipe that all out and say

that now we will start over.

Have all these years of study and zealous obedience to the law

been in vain for Nicodemus?

But this new birth is not an intensified continuation of old ways,

a deepened interpretation of the law,

or a more urgent effort to obey the levitical code.

No, this is a “new beginning,”

a starting over again.

This is new life given by God Himself,

a breaking in of His grace,

a supernatural act bringing forth a new creation.

Just as a human birth is a mystery,

but a very specific reality,

so there is a deeper mystery

and reality about spiritual birth.

Physical life is born through the intimacy of human love

shared by male and female

in which there is the union of egg and sperm.

But there is also a spiritual act of divine grace

in which God gives Himself to a particular person,

who, in receiving Him, is born anew.

It is in the union of the divine and the human,

the supernatural and the natural, the heavenly and the earthly, that new life comes.

This newborn person now understands a new order of being,

the kingdom of God.

He has been given new eyes and a new heart

to apprehend what it means to be a member of a new family,

a child of God living in joyful obedience to the Father’s will. Nicodemus had never grasped that reality,

even though he carefully studied the meaning

of the law of Moses with the other Pharisees.

The reign of God,

His gracious rule over all life,

can never be outwardly known,

for an order that is essentially spiritual

cannot be understood with natural powers.

Roger Fredrickson tells this Story

in The Preacher’s Commentary on John:

Well over a hundred Southeast Asians

have come to be a part of our church family,

and what joy they have brought into our congregational life.

One in particular is Mr. Nou,

a gifted man with many leadership qualities.

What a beautiful experience it was a few weeks ago

to hear him share the meaning

of the new life God had given him.

In his “old life” he had frequently beaten his wife and children,

often neglecting them

while he was “partying with other women” as he put it.

His weekends were often drunken orgies.

Coming to the United States as a refugee from Laos

did not change his situation.

In fact, it worsened it!

He finally gave in to one of his persistent friends

who almost angered him by constantly urging him

to come with him to church.

At first, it was all a joke for Mr. Nou.

But then, in God’s mysterious way,

he met the One to whom Nicodemus came at night.

It was a radical, life-changing encounter,

and Mr. Nou was “born again.”

He emptied the whiskey bottles in his home

and began to treat his wife and children

with new love and respect.

Then he discovered new friends among the believers

and began to eagerly study the Scriptures at 5:00 each morning.

What a joy to hear him speak about all the spiritual truths

he has already discovered in the Word of God.

His wife said,

“I don’t have a different husband. I have a new one.”

As he shared that day with our congregation,

there was a radiant joy about him.

No wonder Mr. Nou has become a contagious evangelist

among his own people,

going to their homes,

sharing the good news of what has happened to him,

and inviting them to church.

When I spoke to him commending him for this

he seemed surprised.

“Isn’t that what all of us are supposed to be doing?

How could anyone hold back such a good thing?”

The new birth is not some experience

added to our old way of thinking or acting.

We have had far too much of this in our churches—

people living the old life, ignorant like Nicodemus.

They may go through the motions of religion,

but there is no reality in it.

We have asked people to repeat the “right words,”

and we have been running in circles,

doing things, taking on more projects,

and desperately trying to behave “right.”

But at the center of existence, in their deepest selves,

people have been untouched and unchanged.

Then we have covered up the old,

unconverted self with churchly language.

We say, “Of course, he was baptized.”

“Yes, she’s been a member here for over twenty years.”

“You know what a great job she’s done in that committee.”

“They are about the best givers we have.”

And all the time,

many of these people are empty and needy,

spiritually bankrupt.

Nicodemus can only ask,

“How can a man be born when he is old?”

And again Jesus responds, “Surely.”

The new birth is by water,

Just as John’s baptism with water is a sign of cleansing from sin.

Unless he dares to let go of his morality and learning

and submit in humility and helplessness to repent before God,

he cannot be born from above.

Neither can we.

But there is more than water.

The new birth is also by “the Spirit.”

The Hebrew word for the Spirit is ruach,

translated “the intimate breath of God,”

and the Greek is pneuma, “the wind of His Spirit.”

The One by whose creative breath

every person becomes a living soul

also shares His life-changing Spirit

with all who will receive.

Here is the power from above that liberates

and makes all things new.

In verse 7, Jesus confronts Nicodemus directly and personally:

“You must be born again.”

Not someone else, but you, Nicodemus,

who are so dedicated to learn and obey the law.

The birth from above is not a general spiritual doctrine

to be endlessly discussed,

but a specific imperative that addresses

this particular man in the depth of his being.

So it is with us!

The claim of Jesus comes to each of us this way—

personally and directly—

to the very center of our existence.


A Mystery: As Wind Blows (v. 8).

Birth from above cannot be manipulated or programmed.

It is a gift given in God’s own way and time,

an act of sovereign grace.

It is a birth as mysterious as the wind,

which comes and goes as it wills.

Unseen, yet real!

Again, Jesus has used a common,

earthy reality to illuminate spiritual truth.

He has spoken of birth, then water, and now wind.

This breath of God brings life,

according to His gracious purpose.

There is a mystery about God’s working

which we can only anticipate and prepare for.

He is the One who moves when He wills!


“How can these things be?” (vv. 9–13).

There must have been a long, wondering pause

before Nicodemus asked Jesus the question in verse 9.

A conversation of this depth cannot be hurried.

Once again, Nicodemus can only ask “How?”

Even though he is a “teacher of Israel,”

but he’s speaking of them as a stranger,

an outsider, alien to all the inner meaning.

There is a note of sadness in Jesus’ response in verse 10.

How can Nicodemus be a teacher of Israel

and yet not know these things?

Nicodemus’s being a religious leader

is like the blind leading the blind.

What Jesus has shared with him is not sophisticated doctrine. These are the ABCs,

and if Nicodemus cannot grasp these truths

taught through simple, earthly symbols,

there is no way he can ever understand

and accept the deeper realities. [1]


[1]Fredrikson, Roger L., and Lloyd J. Ogilvie. Vol. 27, The Preacher's Commentary Series, Volume 27 : John. Formerly The Communicator's Commentary. The Preacher's Commentary series, Page 77. Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson Inc, 1985.

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