Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus is relevant for us today. The term born again has been pirated, emptied of its meaning, dragged through the gutter, and given back to us minus its power. Today when a person says he is born again we cannot be sure what he or she means. The mere use of the words tell us almost nothing. The truth, however, is when one is really born again, there is a radical repentance, a radical work of the Spirit in the life, and a radical change so that the whole being is brought into a new life. The results are discernible – they can be seen.
Nicodemus’ final question to Jesus about being born again is: “How can this be?” (verse 9). We ask with him what force lies behind being born again. What does it mean in our lives? As our Lord began to answer Nicodemus, he skillfully led up to the main thrust. Notice verse 10, where Jesus gently chides Nicodemus: “You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things?” In other words, “You have all of this learning and yet you do not understand?”
What Jesus says here to Nicodemus is more sharply focused than we sometimes imagine. The Judaism that Nicodemus and Jesus both knew had a good deal to do with being born into the right family. What mattered was being a child of Abraham. Of course, other things mattered too, but this was basic. Now, Jesus is saying, God is starting a new family in which this ordinary birth isn’t enough. You need to be born all over again, born “from above” (or “a second time”).
The new birth Jesus is talking about is the same thing that has been spoken of in 1:33. “Water and spirit” here must mean the double baptism: baptism in water, which brings people into the kingdom movement begun by John the Baptist and continued by Jesus’ disciples (3:22; 4:1-2), and baptism in the spirit, the new life, bubbling up from within, that Jesus offers.
The two were closely joined. Nobody in the early church supposed that spirit-baptism mattered so much that you could do without water-baptism. From time to time the problem arose of people assuming that as long as you had water-baptism you didn’t need to worry about the new spiritual life (e.g. I Corinthians 10:1-13). But the point in this passage is that the double-sided new birth, which brings you into the visible community of Jesus’ followers (water-baptism) and gives you the new life spirit welling up like a spring of water inside you was also required for membership in God’s kingdom. Indeed, (as Jesus says in verse 3) without it you can’t even see God’s kingdom.
The point of this (as 1:12-13) is that God’s kingdom is now thrown open to anyone and everyone. The spirit is on the move, like a fresh spring breeze (verse 8, the word for “wind,” in both Hebrew and Greek, is the same word as “spirit”), and no human family, tribe, organization or system can keep up with it.
Verses 14-15 is a great illustration of the cross. It looks back to the incident described in Numbers 21:5-8. During their wandering in the wilderness, the Israelites grumbled against Moses, and were punished by poisonous snakes invading the camp, killing many of them. God gave Moses the remedy: he was to make a serpent out of bronze, put it on a pole and hold it up for people to look at. Anyone who looked at the serpent on the pole would live. The serpent entwined around the pole, a symbol which appears in other cultures too, remains to this day as a sign of healing, used by various medical organizations. Our Lord left no doubt about the application “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up.” The son of man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. Humankind as a whole has been smitten with a deadly disease. The only cure is to look at the son of man dying on the cross, and find life through believing in him.
What Jesus by this referral to Moses is saying right up to the time of the crucifixion, is that the evil which was and is the world, deep-rooted within us all, was somehow allowed to take out its full force on Jesus. When we look at him hanging on the cross (“lifted up”), what we are looking at is the result of the evil in which we are all stuck. And we are seeing what God has done about it.
On the cross we are seeing what God’s love looks like. When Jesus died on the cross that was the full and dramatic display of God’s own love. The cross is at the heart of John’s amazing new picture of who God is. He is now to be known as the God who is both father and son, and the son is revealed, “lifted up,” when he dies under the weight of the world’s evil. The cross is the ultimate ladder set up between heaven and earth.
Because evil lurks deep within each of us, for healing to take place we must be involved in the process. This doesn’t mean that we just have to try harder to be good. All we can do, just as it was all the Israelites could do, is to look and trust: to look at Jesus, to see in him the full display of God’s saving love, and to trust in him.
The great illustration was followed by the greatest explanation. Martin Luther called John 3:16 “the gospel in miniature.”
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
D. L. Moody said this verse brought him to an understanding of the love of God. As Moody tells it early in his ministry he had gone to England. While there, he met a young minister by the name of Henry Morehouse, and in their conversation Morehouse said to Moody, “I am thinking of going to America.” Moody responded, “Well, if you should ever get to Chicago, come down to my church and I will give you a chance to preach.” Now Moody really did not mean that. He realized after he said it that he hoped this man did not come to America because he had never heard him preach.
Sometime later Moody received a telegram that read, “Just arrived in New York. Will be in Chicago on Sunday, Morehouse.” Moody did not know what to do. He had promised the man his pulpit, but he had never heard him preach! So after discussing the matter with his best counselor, his wife, and with the church leaders, he decided to allow him to preach one time. Then if he did okay, he could preach again. Moody had to go out of town, and Morehouse came.
After the week was over, Moody returned and asked his wife, “How did the young preacher do?” His wife responded, “He is a better preacher than you are. He is telling sinners that God loves them. You must go hear him and Moody said, “What!” He is telling sinners that God loves them? That’s not true!” She said, “Well he has been preaching on John 3:16 all week long.” Moody made haste to get down to the church that night. Morehouse stood in the pulpit and began by saying, “I have been hunting for a text all week, and I have not been able to find a better one than John 3:16, so I will just talk about it once more.” Later Moody testified that on that night he saw the greatness of the love of God as he had never seen it before.
John 3:16 shows us that the greatness of God’s love, that it is a vast, unbounded, bottomless sea! That is the heart of the gospel! It is not simply “God is love,” but “God so loved the world that he gave.” This is what lies at the root of the new birth. “Nicodemus do you want to understand how this can be? It is through the overflowing, unbounded love of God; the new world is possible because of the great, boundless love of God.”