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"Verily, verily" (3)

P Coulson, Forres

JOHN 3.1-12

This well-known passage in John’s Gospel contains a cluster of three statements by the Lord Jesus, each of which begins with, "Verily, verily". Viewed from a personal, historic angle the dilemma faced by a devout, religious ruler of the Jews is very evident as he speaks privately to the unschooled Teacher from Nazareth. Looked at again, this time from a national, dispensational viewpoint, there is a picture of the rebirth of the nation of Israel in a day to come. Just as Nathanael represented Israel in the nation’s future acknowledgment of Jesus as Messiah, so Nicodemus depicts the future experience of the nation as, in the night of tribulation, a struggle heralds the rebirth of Israel as a people for God.

From the personal viewpoint it seems ironic that Nicodemus, a respected member of the Sanhedrin, "a master of Israel" (Jn 3.10), and at the top end of the nation’s social scale should arrange a midnight meeting with the Lord when, in the next chapter, we read of an outcast woman of highly questionable moral standing, a Samaritan despised by Israel, being blessed with a rendezvous arranged by the Lord at midday. There was more "light" about the Samaritan woman than with Nicodemus, it seems, for she was the one who went away from her encounter with the Saviour saying, "Is not this the Christ?" (4.29). Whatever the motive of Nicodemus, his desire to know more of the Nazarene seemed sincere. On the one hand he was well aware of the lowly, untutored origins of the man he had come to meet, but, on the other, he had to confess that Jesus was "a teacher come from God". The miracles wrought by the Lord (literally, "signs") would have been impossible "except God be with him". Whatever response Nicodemus expected, the one he received set his trained mind reeling. "Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God".

New birth – its origin

Nicodemus did not know that the man with whom he was speaking was one who "needed not that any should testify of man: for he knew what was in man" (2.25). His thoughts and motives were absolutely transparent to the Lord, as was his concept of the coming Kingdom. If theological debate was his intention, he must surely have been surprised when the Lord’s opening words told him that without being born again he could not perceive the Kingdom of God. The Lord was not going to debate divine purpose with a man who, however well-versed in the Scriptures, was spiritually blind. Rather, He simply stated a truth and awaited the Pharisee’s response. Herein lies a good lesson for us. Often we may be approached by unsaved friends or colleagues who want to debate things that we believe. We should ever keep in mind that "the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned" (1 Cor 2.14). Wisdom is needed to know how to handle such questions but we should remember that sincerity on the part of the enquirer does not enable spiritual perception. The truth of God’s Word needs to be stated, not reasoned, for "faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God" (Rom 10.17).

The expression "born again" is one that has fallen into common parlance and it is generally used with a somewhat mocking tone by the ungodly. The Lord told Nicodemus that he must be "born from above", thus laying emphasis upon the origin of new birth. The word translated "again" in John 3. 3 & 7 is the Greek word anothen which also appears in v.31: "He that cometh from above is above all". It is the word used of the veil being rent "from the top" (Mt 27.51; Mk 15.38) and of the Lord’s coat being "woven from the top throughout" (Jn 19.23). Thus Nicodemus was instructed that the Kingdom of God was not going to be realised through fleshly religious observance, however devout, but by means of a birth from above, divine in origin. The blindness of the ruler was demonstrated by his incredulous reply in v.4. Patiently and kindly the Saviour spoke again.

New birth – its operation

"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" (3.5). Having explained the divine origin of new birth, the Lord now explains to Nicodemus the divine operation by which it takes place. Much debate has centred on the phrase "born of water and of the Spirit", and the false doctrine of baptismal regeneration emerged from a misunderstanding of this and other similar expressions. Reference to the Greek text will show that the second time the little word "of" occurs in the phrase it is a translator’s addition. Also, "born of water and the Spirit" is not descriptive of two separate elements, but one. The conjunction "and" is the translation of the Greek word kai which may, perfectly legitimately, be translated "even", according to context. We thus have the phrase "born of water, even the Spirit". Nicodemus was no stranger to the idea of people being brought into the Kingdom (as he saw it) by water. Any Gentile who adopted the Jewish faith and was thus brought into the Kingdom (again, as he saw it) sealed that transaction by water, that is, by baptism. The ministry of John the Baptist was seen as an extension of that concept, whereby those who recognised the unfitness of the nation to receive their heralded King demonstrated their personal repentance and readiness for the Kingdom by being baptised. Of course, John also preached that though he baptised with water, the One who had given him that ministry was the same "which baptizeth with the Holy Ghost" (Jn 1.31-33). Nicodemus had to learn that the water by which entrance into the Kingdom was obtained was not the physical water of baptism, but the Holy Spirit. The new birth whose origin was "from above" would be effected through the operation of the Holy Spirit who brings life of a spiritual, not fleshly, character.

New birth – its outcome

It must have been some shock to Nicodemus to be told that he, with all his Pharisaical pedigree, was outside the Kingdom. He needed new life from the Holy Spirit if he was ever to perceive or enter the Kingdom in which he believed that he had a place by natural birthright. Small wonder he exclaimed, "How can these things be?" (3.9). Yet, had he understood the Scriptures as "a master in Israel" should have done, he would have recognised the allusion to Ezekiel’s prophecy: "And I will give them one heart, and I will put a new spirit within you; and I will take the stony heart out of their flesh, and will give them an heart of flesh…they shall be my people, and I will be their God" (Ezek 11.19-20). Interestingly, this section of Ezekiel comes immediately after the exercise of righteous judgment in relation to the holiness of God’s house, and the link with John 2.13-17 should not be missed. The Ezekiel passage will be fulfilled when Israel is restored at the end of the tribulation period. After a long struggle through the night Israel will be brought to the birth. Doesn’t the puzzled cry of Nicodemus echo the words of Isaiah? "Who hath heard such a thing? who hath seen such things? Shall the earth be made to bring forth in one day? or shall a nation be born at once? for as soon as Zion travailed, she brought forth her children. Shall I bring to the birth, and not cause to bring forth? saith the Lord: shall I cause to bring forth, and shut the womb? saith thy God. Rejoice ye with Jerusalem, and be glad with her, all ye that love her: rejoice for joy with her, all ye that mourn for her" (Is 66.8-10).

New birth – its obedience

The Lord’s third "Verily, verily" statement in vv.11 and 12 shows the necessity of obedience for new birth. He speaks of "I" and "we" and "ye". The "we" are those who are associated with Christ by new birth and who have knowledge of divine things. The "ye" are those who "receive not our witness". The Lord told Nicodemus that the reason for his incapacity to see or enter the Kingdom was "ye receive not our witness". Without the obedience of faith to the divine claims presented in the gospel, there can be neither apprehension (v.3) nor appropriation (v.5) of the Kingdom of God. Association with Christ and assurance of divine purpose can only come by "receiving our witness". The struggle of Nicodemus continued (7.50-51), but it ultimately bore fruit and he took the crucified Christ to his embrace (19.39-42). Such will be the nation’s experience in days to come.

To be continued.

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