A young computer programmer (Thomas Anderson, aka Neo) comes to understand that the world as he knows it is not real, but a simulated one situated in 1999. He and millions of other human beings are being used as the power source (similar to batteries) for super intelligent machines in the year 2199. In case you didn’t already realize it, this is a synopsis of the movie The Matrix (1999). The matrix is the computer generated world the machines use to keep the humans under submission and blind to the ways things really are. In order for Neo to take his place in the fight against the machines, he must be reborn and freed from the computer induced dream state. We too need to be reborn, but how?
In this essay we arrive at John 3. Many of you reading this will be able to recall from memory John 3:16; however, you may not have probed the depths of Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus. While time does not permit us to delve too deeply, I hope to highlight some of the truths Jesus reveals about himself and the new birth.[i]
What Is the New Birth (John 3:1-10)?
Chapter three begins with a conversation between Jesus and “a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus,” who came to meet him “at night” (3:1-2). It would appear that John mentions that Nicodemus met Jesus “at night” not only because it was nighttime, but primarily because in John’s Gospel “night” and “darkness” refer to moral and spiritual blindness (cf. 9:4; 11:10; 13:30). In a word, Nicodemus is lost.
Nicodemus perceives something of the kingdom of God in the signs Jesus has done (3:2).[ii] Jesus’ reply tells a different story. Nicodemus can’t see the kingdom because he is not “born again” (3:3). Nicodemus may see the signs, but he cannot see the kingdom to which the signs point. Earlier in John, Jesus attends a wedding feast in Cana of Galilee. There he turned the water in six large stone pots into wine. The Bible tells us the waiters saw the sign of Jesus turning the water into wine; however, the disciples saw Jesus’ glory (cf. 2:6-11). Nicodemus can’t figure out how this metaphor exactly works out. How can a person get a clean slate, their sins removed, and cleansed from the inside out (3:4)? Jesus replies no one can enter the kingdom “unless they are born of water and the Spirit” (3:5). We can give Nicodemus a pass for not understanding what it meant to be “born again.” Jesus’ application of the phrase to an orthodox Jew would have been strange.
However, he should have picked up on what it meant to be “born of water and the Spirit;” after all, he was “Israel’s teacher” (3:10).[iii] Ezekiel 36:25-27 states, “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.” Ezekiel’s words looked forward to the new covenant, a covenant sealed with Jesus’ blood. So when Jesus describes the new birth with the metaphor of water and Spirit, he means that to enter the kingdom of God, it is necessary to be cleansed from one’s sins and to be empowered to live a new life, one in which one lives by the power of the Spirit. Sadly, Nicodemus still didn’t understand (3:9).
In the early part of the 18th century a revival took place in Great Britain and the American Colonies known as the Great Awakenings. God mightily used the Anglican preacher George Whitefield to preach message after message often in the open air to vast crowds. He repeatedly preached from John 3. One individual pressed him on this: “Mr. Whitefield, why is it that you keep preaching again and again, ‘You must be born again. You must be born again’?” “Because, sir,” Whitefield replied, “you must be born again.”[iv] Whitefield knew that people are walking dead. They are not alive to the things of God. Unless the Spirit enlivens them (this is often called regeneration), they will not be able to see the grievousness of their sin and the beauty of the only one who can take it away. Whitefield knew that for a person to enter the kingdom of God, then that person must be born again, for there is no other way.
The Reason Jesus Is Able to Speak Authoritatively About the New Birth (John 3:11-13)
Jesus can speak with such authority about the new birth because he is the “Son of Man” (3:13). John already declared that Jesus is the eternal one and only Son of God, who left the side of the heavenly Father and has come in the flesh (1:14, 18). Therefore, Jesus is the authority about heavenly and, for that matter, earthly matters (3:12-13). What he says is the way it is. However, if Jesus is not God’s one and only Son, then what he says isn’t worth listening to because he is a charlatan. But if he is who he says he is, then it is to our detriment if we refuse to listen (cf. 3:16-18).
The Price to Bring About the New Birth (John 3:14-15)
Next, Jesus refers to an event recorded in Numbers 21:4-9 from the Hebrew Bible and applies it to himself. Just as the bronze serpent was raised to restore the lives of those poison-infected Israelites, so Jesus would be raised up on a cross, not to restore lives, but to purchase eternal life for sinners in rebellion against God. The price for the new birth is the death of God’s beloved Son.[v]
Why God Sent Jesus to Bring About This New Birth (John 3:16-21)
God the Father sent Jesus to die for sinners because he “so loved the world” (3:16). This should astound us and leave us in wonder at who God is. In John’s Gospel the “world” is most often a reference to sinful humanity, those who are in rebellion against God and his Christ. God’s love is not so great because the world is so big, but because the world is so wicked. We all deserve death, yet the Father “so loved” us “that he gave his one and only Son” for us, to bear our sin and shame on a Roman torture device so that we might be made righteous and reconciled to God.
The purpose of God’s love gift is so that people may have “eternal life” and be spared from the coming wrath of God (3:16-18). Eternal life begins now and is fully realized in the future (cf. Rev 21–22). The God-ordained means by which we come to enjoy God forever is belief in Jesus as the bearer and payment for our sin (John 3:16-17). If God is so gracious and loves us this much, then why do people reject Jesus? It is because they love sin: “people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil” (3:19-20). How do we know if God has granted us eternal life? In part, those who practice the truth reveal to themselves and others that God is present in them and works through them. They are his (3:21).
Theological Reflection & Application
- No one, not a single person living has any hope of being reconciled to God unless they approach him through God’s Son. There is nothing we are or can ever be that merits God’s acceptance of us. There is nothing we have or can ever gain that makes God favorable to us. The only way we can ever be in fellowship with God the Father is by trusting his Son alone for the salvation of our souls.
- God is the author of our salvation. It is his work from first to last, from beginning to end. We kid ourselves if we think we have anything to do with it. God the Holy Spirit regenerates us (he makes what was dead alive) so that we may believe in Jesus (also a work of God according to the apostle Paul) when we hear the gospel. The Father sends the Son, and the Son purchases our salvation so that we may have eternal fellowship with the Triune God.
- Genuine conversion leads to genuine good deeds. Good deeds may be characterized as those which give glory to God and testify to his presence in our lives.
- There is a heaven to be gained and a hell to be shunned. Eternal life and eternal death are actual realities. Those who trust the Son get life and those who reject him receive death.
[i] This four-section outline is adapted from an outline by D. A. Carson, Research Professor of NT at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. I first heard him use it in a message entitled “The Night of Questions (John 3:1-21).” Later he adapted it for his book The God Who Is There, 121-149.
[ii] The phrase “kingdom of God” and “kingdom of heaven” refers to wherever God is ruling and reigning as king. Not everyone recognizes his rule. Those who do can be said to be in the kingdom.
[iii] This phrase means Nicodemus was a well know teacher, perhaps even famous. Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John, NICNT, Revised ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995).
[iv] Carson, The God Who Is There, 131.
[v] There are several similarities between Numbers 21 and John 3: (1) the Israelites think they can judge God – Nicodemus does as much (John 3:2); (2) the Israelites are blind to what God has done for them – Nicodemus fails to understand what God wants to do before his very eyes (3:10); (3) God sends judgment – whoever does not believe in Jesus stands condemned (3:36); (4) God takes the initiative to restore the Israelites’ lives – God takes the initiative to provide eternal life through Jesus; (5) the serpent is lifted up – Jesus will be lifted up on a cross.