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It is written:
John 3:1-8-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, “Most assuredly, 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, “Most assuredly, 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.”
The Bible teaches that not only does the Holy Spirit bring forth physical life, but He also brings forth spiritual life. The conversation that Jesus has here with Nicodemus teaches us a great deal about these things.
First , the Bible is clear that mankind needs a “new” birth. This is not a birth of physical nature (such as demonstrated by Nicodemus pointing out that a man cannot be born when he is old, and cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb).
No, Jesus is speaking of humanity’s need for a spiritual rebirth.
Mankind is not born sinful, despite what many religions teach. Indeed, we are assured time after time in God’s Word that children are sinless, innocent, and the very image of purity for us to learn from and emulate.
Ezekiel 18:20-The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not bear the guilt of the father, nor the father bear the guilt of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.
Ezekiel 28:15-You were perfect in your ways from the day you were created, Till iniquity was found in you.
Matthew 18:2-3-Then Jesus called a little child to Him, set him in the midst of them, 3 and said, “Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.
Matthew 18:14-Even so it is not the will of your Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.
Matthew 19:14-But Jesus said, “Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of heaven.”
Commenting on the fact that there is no hint of inherited sin in the Old Testament Scriptures, Reese tells us:
“In Special Study #3, it has been shown that no doctrine of a hereditary sinful nature is found in Judaism until late in the 1st century AD. It was not something taught in the Old Testament Scriptures, but was likely something imported into Judaism from Greek philosophy, which posited that while spirit is good, matter (including a man’s body) is evil. It would be an almost expected step for any Hellenistically-influenced Jew to try to find the doctrine taught in Scripture.2. It is almost universally admitted that just as there was no doctrine of inborn evil in Judaism until late, so there was no doctrine of inborn evil in the early church- neither during the apostolic times nor the sub-apostolic. For example, a Roman Catholic authority admits, “… it is true that Paul does not explicitly say all that will be said by the Council of Trent.”3 The same source further admits that the Catholic Church’s definition of doctrine on this point is only hinted at in the Bible, and asserts that the Church was perfectly within her rights to proceed beyond the clear statements statements of Scripture as the present-day doctrine was formulated.4 A Protestant authority words it this way, “The church doctrine [of sin] is a continuation of the development of the Biblical doctrine [of sin] only to a very limited extent.”5 Another writes… when we pass on to consider the writings of the Fathers of the early church, we find that they did not directly adopt St. Paul’s teaching as the basis of their doctrine, nor borrow that presented in Jewish literature. They started afresh to elaborate a doctrine of original sin.6. It seems that it was not until the church’s controversy with Gnosticism that one begins to read in early Christian writers a real emphasis on the original state of man and on the consequences of the Fall.7 Irenaeus (c. 130-c.202), who wrote Against Heresies and The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, did not appeal to Romans 5 as proof for his doctrine of sin (and it must be remembered that Romans has already been accepted as canonical and authoritative by Irenaeus’ time), but rather based it on his own “recapitulation” theory. According to this theory, Jesus’ life recapitulated the career of Adam, but in reverse, removing by His perfect obedience the curse Adam had brought on mankind. “On original sin as an inherent disease, or as the source of concupiscence, [Irenaeus] is quite silent.”8 In Apostolic Preaching occurs an idea of inherited sin, but it is inherited from Cain, and is true only of the descendants of Cain. “God’s curse on Cain is spoken of as handed down by natural heredity to his posterity.” (Gareth Reese, New Testament Epistles: Romans-A Critical And Exegetical Commentary, 459-460 (Nook Edition): Moberly, Missouri: Scripture Exposition Books LLC)
While a person is born sinless, there comes a moment when he chooses to sin, and thereby becomes separated from God and enslaved to sin. This creates a need for a new (spiritual) birth, for the sin pervades and corrupts every part of a person.
Isaiah 1:4-6-Alas, sinful nation, A people laden with iniquity, A brood of evildoers, Children who are corrupters! They have forsaken the LORD, They have provoked to anger The Holy One of Israel, They have turned away backward. 5 Why should you be stricken again? You will revolt more and more. The whole head is sick, And the whole heart faints. 6 From the sole of the foot even to the head, There is no soundness in it, But wounds and bruises and putrefying sores; They have not been closed or bound up, Or soothed with ointment.
Isaiah 59:1-2-Behold, the LORD’s hand is not shortened, That it cannot save; Nor His ear heavy, That it cannot hear. 2 But your iniquities have separated you from your God; And your sins have hidden His face from you, So that He will not hear.
The Lord Jesus, therefore, teaches us that we need to be born again. Of course, this new birth had been prophesied about in the Old Testament Scriptures on numerous occasions.
Jeremiah 32:37-44-Behold, I will gather them out of all countries where I have driven them in My anger, in My fury, and in great wrath; I will bring them back to this place, and I will cause them to dwell safely. 38 They shall be My people, and I will be their God; 39 then I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear Me forever, for the good of them and their children after them. 40 And I will make an everlasting covenant with them, that I will not turn away from doing them good; but I will put My fear in their hearts so that they will not depart from Me. 41 Yes, I will rejoice over them to do them good, and I will assuredly plant them in this land, with all My heart and with all My soul.’ 42 “For thus says the LORD: ‘Just as I have brought all this great calamity on this people, so I will bring on them all the good that I have promised them. 43 And fields will be bought in this land of which you say, “It is desolate, without man or beast; it has been given into the hand of the Chaldeans.” 44 Men will buy fields for money, sign deeds and seal them, and take witnesses, in the land of Benjamin, in the places around Jerusalem, in the cities of Judah, in the cities of the mountains, in the cities of the lowland, and in the cities of the South; for I will cause their captives to return,’ says the LORD.”
Ezekiel 11:19-20-Then I will give them one heart, and I will put a new spirit within them, and take the stony heart out of their flesh, and give them a heart of flesh, 20 that they may walk in My statutes and keep My judgments and do them; and they shall be My people, and I will be their God.
Ezekiel 36:26-I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.
Second, this new birth is the work of the Holy Spirit. Jesus makes that clear here in this passage, and throughout the Gospel of John.
John 16:7-11-Nevertheless I tell you the truth. It is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you; but if I depart, I will send Him to you. 8 And when He has come, He will convict the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment: 9 of sin, because they do not believe in Me; 10 of righteousness, because I go to My Father and you see Me no more; 11 of judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged.
We are told throughout the rest of the New Testament that the Holy Spirit brings forth new life through the Word of God.
John 6:63-It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing. The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life.
Acts 2:41-Then those who gladly received his word were baptized; and that day about three thousand souls were added to them.
1 Corinthians 4:15-For though you might have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet you do not have many fathers; for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel.
James 1:18-Of His own will He brought us forth by the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of His creatures.
James 1:21-Therefore lay aside all filthiness and overflow of wickedness, and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.
1 Peter 1:22-25-Since you have purified your souls in obeying the truth through the Spirit in sincere love of the brethren, love one another fervently with a pure heart, 23 having been born again, not of corruptible seed but incorruptible, through the word of God which lives and abides forever, 24 because “ALL FLESH IS AS GRASS, AND ALL THE GLORY OF MAN AS THE FLOWER OF THE GRASS. THE GRASS WITHERS, AND ITS FLOWER FALLS AWAY, 25 BUT THE WORD OF THE LORD ENDURES FOREVER.” Now this is the word which by the gospel was preached to you.
This last passage is especially intriguing.
Notice what Keener tells us:
“Peter’s particular term for rebirth (anagennaō) 210 is distinctive to him in the NT (1 Pet. 1: 3, 23), but functions synonymously with analogous early Christian expressions, such as “born from God” (John 1: 13; 1 John 3: 9; 4: 7; 5: 1, 4, 18), “born from above” (John 3: 3, 7), and “born from the Spirit” (John 3: 5–6, 8; Gal. 4: 29). 211 This rebirth explains the purification and sibling love in 1: 22: those also spiritually born from the same Father are spiritual siblings. It apparently also explains why and/ or how one can love deeply (1: 22): it flows from the new character one receives in being born from God’s seed, the gospel. 212 Hence it might mean, “You can love this way because you have been born from God” (cf. 1 John 4: 7). The OT occasionally broaches the image of spiritual transformation by the Spirit (1 Sam. 10: 6), especially as a promise for the era of restoration (Ezek. 18: 30–31; 36: 25–27), although not with this wording. It may reflect imagery regarding how God became Israel’s “father,” evident especially in passages such as Deut. 32: 18: “the rock that bore you . . . the God who birthed you.” 213 But whereas Israel constituted God’s children corporately, the early Christian image suggests a further ontological dimension. Many people believed that character was inborn and immutable, 214 but Christians demurred. 215 For further comment on rebirth, see comment on 1 Pet. 1: 3. In 1: 23, Peter adds another element in his depiction of rebirth, that of the seed (cf. 1 John 3: 9). 216 A man’s sperm was considered human “seed.” Ancient thinkers often commented also on what they envisioned as divine seed. 217 For example, the supreme God created the universe by his seed. 218 More relevant is the ancient image of God’s seed in people, as in many of the following examples (though early Christians would have differed from gentile philosophers’ idea of innate divinity in people). ■ Seneca the Younger: Divine seeds are dispersed in mortals’ bodies; if cultivated well, “they spring up in the likeness of their source and of a parity with those from which they came.” 219 ■ Musonius Rufus: A seed of virtue lies in all people. 220 ■ Epictetus: From God have come “the seeds of being . . . to all things that are begotten and that grow upon earth, and chiefly to rational beings, seeing that by nature it is theirs alone to have communion in the society of God, being intertwined with him through the reason.” 221 ■ Maximus of Tyre: “Souls all conceive because that is their nature, . . . and give birth through reason. . . . it is impossible for anything to grow except from a seed, or to grow into anything other than what the nature of the seed determines.” These seeds are immortal. 222 ■ Philo: “Their bodies have been moulded from human seeds, but their souls are sprung from divine seeds, and therefore their stock is akin to God.” 223 ■ 4 Ezra: “This is my law, which I sow among you to bear fruit and bring you glory for ever. . . . Those who received it perished, because they failed to keep safe the good seed that had been sown in them.” 224 Everything that springs from a seed shares its nature (cf. Gen. 1: 11–12, 21, 24–25; John 3: 6), so that, as one Stoic thinker suggests, “good does not spring from evil, any more than figs grow from olive-trees. Things which grow correspond to their seed.” 225 Since seed bears fruit according to its character, those born of divine seed reflect the character of divine love (thus the relation between 1 Pet. 1: 22 and 1: 23). In 1 Pet. 1: 23, the most explicit characteristic of the seed is that it is imperishable, thus suggesting in general terms that those born from it have eternal life (cf. 1: 4). 226 This seed is not mortal, as from humans. 227 As Peter has noted, even precious metals, which melt at a high temperature, are ultimately perishable (1: 7, 18). 228 Rather, the seed is imperishable, from the immortal God. 229 The seed here is God’s word (cf. Luke 8: 11), in this case specifically the gospel message that converted and began transforming them (1 Pet. 1: 25). 230 Peter’s message is about Jesus, through knowledge of whom they are being conformed to God’s holy image. 231”. (Craig S. Keener, 1 Peter: A Commentary, 115-117 (Kindle Edition): Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic)
The Holy Spirit brings forth this new life through the Gospel in the Word of God. He literally “begets” or “fathers” those who are “born again” or who are “born from above.” The Word of God is instrumental in bringing forth spiritual life.
Third, the Spirit gives spiritual life through the Word, and through the water. Please notice that there is a begetting, and a birthing. The begetting takes place when the Word of God is introduced to a person. That Word begins the begetting process and grows in a person, leading to faith and trust in the Lord Jesus Christ. Finally, this then leads to the birthing that takes place in the waters of baptism.
How do we know that the phrase “born of water” here has reference to baptism?
The first clue is the fact that “water” in context refers to baptism (John 3:23).
Then there is the fact that the language that Jesus uses here of new birth was commonly used among the Jewish people to reference proselyte baptism (i.e., that baptism in water by which a Gentile converted to Judaism-see the account of Naaman in 2 Kings 5 for further details of this). In fact, the wording that Jesus uses here was very directly related to proselyte baptism!
“Gentiles were never allowed entrance to the mikveh except during the process of conversion. This was an exclusively Jewish ordinance. It is often assumed that when a person wanted to become a proselyte, a convert to Judaism, that he would be circumcised and viewed as a convert from that point on. Such is not the case. To become “children of the covenant,” “perfect Israelites,” and Israelite in every respect, both as regarded duties and privileges, three things were required for the admission of such proselytes: Circumcision (Milah) Baptism (Tebhilah) in a Mikveh Sacrifice (Qorban); in the case of women, baptism and sacrifice109…“As he stepped out of these waters he was considered as “born anew”–in the language of the rabbis, as if he were “a little child just born” (Yeb. 22a; 48b; 97b), as “a child of one day” (Mass. Ger. C. ii).” (Dr. Barry Fike, Mikveh: Jewish Ritual Immersion and Christian Baptism, 64-65 (Kindle Edition): Tustin, CA: Trilogy Christian Publishers)
Jesus used language in describing the new birth that was directly borrowed from Jewish proselyte baptism, showing that the water of the new birth had reference to the waters of baptism.
On a side note, we should also remember that proselyte baptism was compared with becoming like a new-born child.
What did that mean?
“Forgiveness of sins is stated with reference to becoming a proselyte—y. Bikkurim 3.3; R. Judah concluded that since the proselyte became as a newborn child, his previous sins were cancelled—Gerim 2.5.” (Everett Ferguson, Baptism in the Early Church: History, Theology, and Liturgy in the First Five Centuries, 21476 (Kindle Edition): Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company)
Please observe that proselyte baptism connected becoming sinless and pure with being as a newborn child. In other words, God’s people understood that children are sinless. The Jewish nation understood (and, by extension, Jesus also clearly understood, since He used this same terminology to describe the new birth) that children are pure and free of sin, without guilt. This, of course, is another indicator that children are not born “stained with original sin” passed on from Adam (as so many in our day and age teach).
Fourth, we should also keep in mind that this was one new birth, composed of two “elements” if you will (water and Spirit). Jesus here is not discussing Holy Spirit baptism.
Some believe that when we are baptized in water, we are also baptized in the Holy Spirit. Yet this cannot be true, for several reasons; the first being that, in the New Testament, water baptism and Spirit baptism were always shown to be separate events (cf. Acts 10:44-48). Also, the only examples we have of direct Holy Spirit baptism are in Acts 2:1-5 (with the Apostles), and Acts 10:44-46 (with the household of Cornelius). The only other such instances were in those situations where a person had hands laid on him by an Apostle of Christ (Acts 6:1-7; 8:14-19; 19:1-6; Romans 1:11; 2 Timothy 1:6). Since there are no Apostles of Christ today (Acts 1:21-22; 1 Corinthians 15:1-8), Spirit baptism was temporary. This phenomena had to do with the revealing and confirming of God’s Word (John 14:26; 16:13), was only for a very people (i.e.,the Apostles and those upon whom they laid hands, and the household of Cornelius). In contrast, the “new birth” of water and the Spirit is for salvation and forgiveness of sins (John 3:1-5).
Fifth, please notice that the spiritual life which the Holy Spirit brings forth in a person through God’s Word is not always externally detectable in a moment of time. Like the wind is invisible, we don’t see the Spirit since He is also invisible. However, we are able to see the fruits of the Spirit, just like we can see the effects of the wind. A humble person whose heart is pricked by the Gospel will recognize his need for salvation (Acts 2:41-47). The Spirit is working in ways that go beyond our full comprehension.
The Holy Spirit brings spiritual life.
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, be with you all. Amen.