Notes on John 3:1-10

John 3:1‑10  •  13 min. read  •  grade level: 8
The worthlessness of believing on Christ because of evidence we have seen. But in the crowd of such there might be souls who had the sense of wants awakened which led them to Jesus personally. And in Him was life: not merely all things brought into being through Him, and signs wrought and things done by Jesus, which, if written one by one in books, would be beyond the world's power to contain, but, beyond all, life in the Son for the believer. And such is the fact which is here recorded in detail.
“But there was a man of the Pharisees, his name Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. He came to him by night, and said to him, Rabbi, we know that thou art come a teacher from God, for none can do these signs which thou doest, unless God be with him: Jesus answered and said to him, Verily, verily, I say to thee, except one be born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (Vers. 1-3.) It was a chief man from among the most orthodox in the chosen people; sufficiently in earnest to seek Jesus for truth and still valuing the world enough to fear its condemnation and scorn. He came by night to Jesus; yet did he take the ground of a persuasion he shared in common with his fellows because of the signs wrought by the Lord. He knew not that a deeper work was going on within, which drew him, not them, to Jesus. He, the teacher of Israel, recognized in Jesus One come a teacher from God, and God with Him: for any others born of woman a signal honor, for Jesus the proof that His true glory was unknown. As yet then Nicodemus was astray as to himself, as to the Jews, and as to Jesus. In short the true God was unknown.
The Lord accordingly stops him at once with the declaration that man, any one, needs to be born from the outset and origin. Not teaching but a new nature, a new source of being spiritually, is wanted in order to see the kingdom of God. No inference, however logical, is faith. It is not even a conviction of conscience. It may be a conclusion fairly drawn from sound premisses, from sensible facts of the weightiest kind before the mind; but neither God is known nor itself yet judged. The new character of life which suits the kingdom of God does not yet exist for the soul. In such a state teaching would but aggravate the danger or expose to fresh evil. The word of God had never penetrated the heart of Nicodemus. He knew not himself utterly defiled, spiritually dead in sins. What he wanted was to be quickened, not to have fresh aliment for the exercise of his mind. And Jesus, instead of commenting on his words, answered his true need, which he too would have sought himself, had he but known it.
If Nicodemus then took for granted his own capacity as he then stood to profit by the truth and serve God and inherit His kingdom, the Lord with incomparable solemnity assures him, that the new birth is indispensable to seeing the kingdom. For God is not teaching or improving human nature. He had already tried it patiently; and the trial would ere long be absolutely complete.
The kingdom of God is in question and not anything in fallen man. It was not yet established or displayed in power over the earth, as it will be at the appearing of Jesus. It was not yet preached to the Gentiles as it was after the cross. But it was come for faith in the person of Christ, the pledge that it will be set up by and by in all its extent, its “earthly” and its “heavenly things.” The kingdom of God was among them in Christ, who demonstrated its power, the enemies themselves seen or unseen being judges. Why then did not Nicodemus see it? From no defect in the object of faith or in His testimony, by general conviction and confession from no lack of signs attesting the presence and power of God. Alas! the defect is in man, and to man it is incurable; for who can change his nature? In fact, if it were possible, it could avail nothing. “Except one be born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” God only can give a new nature, and a nature suited to His kingdom. Without this none can as much as see it.
“Nicodemus saith unto him, How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into the womb of his mother and be born?” (Ver. 4.) We learn hence that the intimation was not birth from above, but again; else the difficulty expressed in reply could have had no place. The truth is, however, that even if the fabled conversion of all old man into youth again could be true, yea, if the strange case suggested by the astonished Pharisee could have been turned by miracle into fact, (as Jonah came forth alive from the great fish that swallowed him,) it would fail to meet the requirements of the kingdom of God, as we shall see expressly in the further explanation of our Lord. For it would be human nature still, let it be renewed in its youth or repeated in its birth ever so far or so often. A clean thing cannot come out of an unclean; and such is man’s nature since the fall. Nor is aught God's way of renewal, but by giving a nature wholly new from its source; for the believer is born of God, not of corruptible seed but of incorruptible by the living and abiding word of God.
“Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say to thee, except one be born of water and of Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” (Ver. 5, 6.) Words of incalculable moment to man, of deep blessing where grace gives him ear to hear, and heart to receive and keep. Yet I scarce know a scripture more widely perverted than this has been to baptism, nor one where tradition is more dangerously false, though quod semper, quodubique, quod ah omnibus be as true of this as of any interpretation of scripture that could be named. A double result would follow that not a soul could enter the kingdom of God save such as are baptized; and, secondly, as the context would prove, that, the new nature being identified with eternal life, none of the baptized could perish: a statement which all but the most grossly ignorant and prejudiced must confess to be in both its parts opposed to other and clear scriptures, and to notorious fact.
Christian baptism (and this is what it is traditionally conceived to mean, not that of John or of the disciples) was not instituted, nor did the facts exist which it symbolizes, till the Lord died and rose. How then could Nicodemus by any possibility anticipate them or understand what the Lord gives as the clearing up of his difficulty as to being born anew? Yet the Lord reproaches him as the teacher of Israel with his slowness of intelligence. That is, he should (even as teaching Jews) have known these things, which he could not know if the Lord alluded to an as yet undivulged Christian institution.
The reasoning of Hooker1 (Works, ii. 262, &a. Keble's ed. 5) as of others before and since is beside the mark, and simply proves inattention to scripture, and superficial acquaintance with the truth. It is not true that “born of water and Spirit” if literally construed means baptism. Never is that rite set out as figuring life, but death, as in Rom. 6, Col. 2, and 1 Peter 3 “Know ye not that so many of us as were baptized unto Jesus Christ were baptized unto his death? “It is never the sign of quickening, but rather of identifying those quickened with the death of Christ, that they in virtue of Him might take the place of men dead to sin but alive to God, and so reckon themselves by grace, for under this we are, not under law. Such is the apostolic doctrine. The words of our Lord do not and cannot teach otherwise, as they must if John 3:55Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. (John 3:5) be applied to baptism. Take water here as figurative of the word which the Spirit uses to quicken, and all 13 clear, consistent and true. “Were it said in the scripture that we are born of the Spirit by means of water we should have some approach to what the Fathers drew from it, and what is necessary to bear the construction put on it in the Anglican and other formularies that apply it to baptism. Their dealing with it seems to me really “licentious,” “deluding” and “dangerous,” at issue with what our Lord says even in verse 5, still more with His omission of “water” in verse 6, most of all if it be possible with the place of baptism everywhere else given in scripture. Baptism may be the formal expression of washing away sins, never of communicating life, which is unequivocally false teaching.
For Christ came by water and blood; He purifies and expiates. (1 John 5) He is the truth, which the word of God applies in the power of the Spirit, judging the old nature and introducing the new. It is the same person, but a life is communicated which one had not before, not of Adam, but of Christ the Second man. He is begotten of God, made a partaker of the divine nature through the greatest and precious promises, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust. Such is it to be born of water and of Spirit, an incomparably deeper thing than any form of truth however to be prized in its place and for the object the Lord who instituted it had in view. Baptism was formal admission; it was the confession of Christ on the ground of His death and resurrection, not of quickening which was true of all saints before Christ when there was no Christian baptism. If baptism were really the sign and means of quickening, consistency would deny life to the Old Testament saints, or they ought to have been so baptized which they were not. But this is clearly false ground. There is no reason to infer that the twelve were baptized with Christian baptism; they baptized others, but, it would seem, were not themselves; were they not then born again?
Hence too it is important to observe that he who is thus born again is said to be born of the Spirit, omitting water, in verse 6. “That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” The word (or water emblematically) can do nothing toward quickening without the Spirit, who is the efficient agent in communicating the life of Christ. Water cleanses but of itself it is not capable of quickening; it is death to the flesh. There had been only flesh before; now as believing in Christ the man is born of God (1 John 5); and each nature retains its own characteristic. As flesh never becomes spirit, so spirit never degenerates into flesh. The natures abide distinct; and the practical business of the believer is to hold himself for dead to the one that he may live in the other by the faith of the Son of God who loved him and gave Himself for him.
Nor was Nicodemus to wonder that he and other Jews (not pagans merely to which they would have assented at once) needed to be born afresh. “Wonder not that I said to thee, Ye must be born anew.” (Ver. 7.) But if sovereign grace met that need, could it, would it, stop there? Certainly not. It would breathe the blessing as widely as the ravages of sin according to the choice of God. “The wind bloweth where it will, and thou hearest its voice, and knowest not whence it cometh, and where it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit,” (Ver. 8.) Thus “every one” leaves room for any fallen man, a Gentile no less than a Jew. Whatever might be their distinction after the flesh, the Spirit thus freely flowing can bless those who are most distant, while the nearest is nothing without Him.
It has been already remarked moreover, that in all this was no such special privilege as should have been beyond the ken of an intelligent Jew. Hence when “Nicodemus answered and said to him, How can these things be?” “Jesus answered and said to him, Art thou the teacher of Israel and knowest not these things be?” (Vers. 9,10.) Had he never read the promise to Israel in one prophet? “I will pour water on him that is thirsty, and floods upon the dry ground; I will pour my Spirit upon thy seed, and my blessing upon thine offspring.” Had he forgotten the words of another prophet? “Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean; from all your filthiness and from all your idols will I cleanse you. A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you; and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments, and do them. And ye shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers; and ye shall be my people, and I will be your God.” (Isa. 44 and Ezek. 36)
There can be no mistake that Israel will require the new birth in order to receive and enjoy aright even the earthly blessings of God's kingdom by and by, and that God will of His grace impart it to them for this end. Nicodemus then need not be surprised at the universal need of the new birth, even for the Jew, proclaimed by the Lord; but as the blessing is not of flesh but of Spirit, grace will not restrain it from any on grounds that give weight to man. The Gentile will not be left out of such rich mercy, indispensable to the kingdom of God, which is of grace, not of law or flesh, as the Jew was apt to assume. “Ho, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters, and he that hath no money: come ye, buy and eat; yea, come, buy wine and milk without money, and without price.” Is not this grace and so expressed as to open the door to any of the nations? to sense of need, resourceless need, wherever found? Yet who did, who could, draw it out from the prophets and give the principle its absolute shape, as here to Nicodemus, but the One who spoke? Others inspired of the Spirit were soon to follow; and of them all none more distinctly than the apostle Paul.