Nicodemus: A Case Study

Being by birth a Jew and as such being entitled to all the privileges of a son of Abraham, it must have perplexed Nicodemus to be told that he must be born again to see the kingdom of God. This was a total setting aside of all his privileges and distinctions. A Pharisee, a ruler, a master, was not one whit nearer to this heavenly kingdom than the most disreputable.

If he could carry all his advantages and distinctions with him, to have them placed to his credit in this new kingdom, it would be something. This would secure for him a position far above that of a harlot or a publican. But to be told that he must be born again left him nothing to glory in. This was deeply humbling to a learned, religious, influential man.

But it was puzzling as well as humbling. "Nicodemus said unto Him, How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter the second time into his mother's womb and be born?" Surely not. There would be no more gained by a second natural birth than by a first. If a natural man could enter ten thousand times into his mother's womb and be born, he would still be nothing but a natural man; for "that which is born of the flesh is flesh." Do what you will with flesh, you cannot alter or improve it.

Nothing can change flesh into spirit. You may exalt it to the rank of a Pharisee, a ruler of the Jews, a master of Israel, but it will be flesh nonetheless.

Flesh, in itself, is withered grass; and its most pious endeavors--works of righteousness--have been pronounced by the inspired Word to be "as filthy rags" (Isa. 64:6).

Let us see how our blessed Lord replies to the "How?" of Nicodemus. Jesus answered, "Except a man be born of water and of the 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. Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again. The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit" (Jn. 3:5-8).

Here we are distinctly taught that regeneration is produced by "water and the Spirit." A man must be born of water and of the Spirit before he can see the kingdom of God or enter into its profound and heavenly mysteries. The keenest mortal vision cannot "see" the kingdom of God, nor the most gigantic intellect "enter" into its deep secrets. "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).

Born Of Water

Many are at a loss to know what is meant by being "born of water." Certainly, the expression has been made the ground of much controversy. It is only by comparing scripture with scripture that we can ascertain the real sense of any particular passage. It is a special mercy for the uneducated Christian that he need not travel outside the covers of that volume to interpret any passage.

What, then, is the meaning of being born of water? In the opening of John's Gospel, we read, "He came unto His own, and His own received Him not. But as many as received Him, to them gave He power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on His name: which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God" (1:11-13).

From this passage we learn that everyone who believes on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ is born again--born of God. This is the plain sense of the passage. All who, by the power of God the Holy Spirit, believe on God the Son, are born of God the Father. The source of the testimony is divine; the object of the testimony is divine; the power of receiving the testimony is divine; the entire work of regeneration is divine. Instead of inquiring, How can I be born again? I have simply to cast myself, by faith, on Jesus. Thus, I am born again. All who put their trust in Christ have this new life.

Again, "Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that heareth My word, and believeth on Him that sent Me, hath everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation; but is passed from death unto life" (Jn. 5:24). "Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that believeth on Me hath everlasting life" (Jn. 6:47). "But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through His name" (Jn. 20:31).

All these passages go to prove that the only way we can get this new and everlasting life is by simply receiving the record concerning Christ. All who believe that record have this eternal life. Notice, it is not those who merely say they believe, but those who actually do believe. There is life-giving power in the Christ whom the Word reveals, and in the Word which reveals Him. "Verily, verily, I say unto you, The hour is coming, and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God; and they that hear shall live."

Lest ignorance should marvel, or skepticism sneer, at the idea of dead souls hearing, it is added, "Marvel not at this: for the hour is coming, in the which all that are in the graves shall hear His voice, and shall come forth; they that have done good unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of judgment" (Jn. 5:25, 28, 29). The Lord Christ can make dead souls, as well as dead bodies, hear His quickening voice. It is by His mighty voice that life can be communicated to either body or soul.

If the infidel or the skeptic reasons and objects, it is simply because he makes his own vain mind the standard of what ought to be, and thus entirely shuts out God. This is the climax of folly.

Begotten By The Word Of Truth

But what has all this to do with the meaning of the word "water" in John 3:5? It shows that the new birth is produced by the voice of Christ, which is really the Word of God. We read in the first chapter of James, "...of His own will begat He us with the word of truth" (1:18). So also in 1 Peter, "Being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God, which liveth and abideth forever" (1:23) In both passages, the Word is expressly set forth as the means by which the new birth is produced. James declares that we are begotten "by the word of truth"; and Peter declares that we are "born again by the word of God." If, then, our Lord speaks of being "born of water," it is obvious that He represents the Word under the significant figure of "water"-- a figure which a master of Israel might have understood, had he only studied Ezekiel 36:25-27.

There is a beautiful passage in the Epistle to the Ephesians in which the Word is presented under the figure of water. "Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the Church, and gave Himself for it; that He might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word" (5:25-26). So also in the Epistle to Titus: "Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost; which He shed on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Saviour; that being justified by His grace, we should be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life" (3:5-7).

From all these quotations, we learn that the Word of God is the grand instrument which the Holy Ghost uses in calling dead souls to life. This is confirmed by our Lord's conversation with Nicodemus. Instead of replying to the repeated inquiry, "How can these things be?" He sets this master of Israel down to learn the simple lesson taught by the brazen serpent. The bitten Israelite of old was to be healed by simply looking at the serpent of brass on the pole. The dead sinner now is to get life by simply looking at Jesus on the cross, and Jesus on the throne. The Israelite was not told to look at his wound, though it was the sense of his wound that made him look. The dead sinner is not told to look at his sins, though it is the sense of his sins that will make him look. One look at the bronze serpent healed the Israelite; one look at Jesus quickens the dead sinner. "Look and live."

Man's Reason vs. God's Word

It was not the way he looked, but the object he looked at, that healed the Israelite. So it is not the way he looks, but the Object he looks at, that saves the sinner. "Look unto Me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth."

Such was the precious lesson which Nicodemus was led to learn--such the reply to his "How." If a man begins to reason about the new birth, he will be confounded; but if he believes in Jesus, he is born again. Man's reason can never understand the new birth; but the Word of God produces it. Many are astray on this. They are occupied with the process of regeneration, instead of the Word which regenerates. They are looking at self, instead of at Christ. As there is connection between the object at which we look and the effect of looking at it, we can easily see what must be the effect of looking in on one's self. What would an Israelite have gained by looking at his wound? Nothing. What did he gain by looking at the serpent? Health. What does a sinner gain by looking at himself? Nothing. What does he gain by looking at Jesus? Everlasting life.

The Results Of Regeneration

Who can estimate aright the glorious results of being a child of God? Who can unfold those affections which belong to that high and hallowed relationship in which the soul is placed by being born again? Who can fully explain that precious fellowship which the child of God is privileged to enjoy with his heavenly Father? "Behold, what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called the sons of God: therefore the world knoweth us not, because it knew Him not. Beloved, now are we the sons of God; and it does not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when He shall appear, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. And every man that hath this hope in him purifieth himself, even as He is pure" (1 Jn. 3:1-3). "For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are the sons of God. For ye received not the spirit of bondage again to fear; but ye received the spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father. The Spirit Himself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God: and if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ…" (Rom. 8:14-17 rv).

It is most important to understand the distinction between life and peace. Life is the result of being linked with Christ's person; peace is the result of His work. "He that hath the Son hath life" (1 Jn. 5:12). But "being justified by faith, we have peace" (Rom. 5:1). "Having made peace through the blood of His cross" (Col. 1:20). The very moment a man receives into his heart the simple truth of the gospel, he becomes a child of God. The truth which he receives is the "incorruptible seed" of "the divine nature" (1 Pet. 1:23, 2 Pet. 1:4).

Many are not aware of all that is involved in simply receiving the truth of the gospel. As in nature, the child of a nobleman may not know the varied results of the relationship, so is it in grace. I may be ignorant of both the relationship and its results; but I am in it, notwithstanding. And being in it, I have the affections which belong to it, and I ought to cultivate them and allow them to entwine themselves artlessly around their proper Object—the One who has begotten me by the Word of truth (Jas. 1:18). It is my privilege to enjoy the full flow of paternal affection emanating from the bosom of God, and to reciprocate that affection, through the power of the indwelling Spirit. "Now are we the sons of God." He has made us such. He has attached this rare and marvelous privilege to the simple belief of the truth (Jn. 1:12).

We do not reach this position "by works of righteousness which we have done," or could we; but simply "according to His mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost; which He shed on us abundantly, through Jesus Christ our Saviour. That, being justified by His grace, we should be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life" (Titus 3:5-7). We are "called sons," and "made heirs" and all this simply by the belief of the truth of the gospel.

Take the case of the vilest sinner who receives into his heart the pure gospel of God. Let him heartily believe "that Christ died for our sins, according to the Scriptures; and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day, according to the Scriptures." He then and there becomes a child of God, a thoroughly saved, perfectly justified, and divinely accepted person. In receiving into his heart the simple record concerning Christ, he has received new life. Christ is the truth and the life. When we receive the truth, we receive Christ; and when we receive Christ, we receive life. "He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life" (Jn. 3:36). When does he get this life? The moment he believes: "believing, ye might have life through His name" (Jn. 20:31). The truth concerning Christ is the seed of eternal life; when that truth is believed, life is communicated.

Observe, this is what the Word of God declares. It is a matter of divine testimony, not merely a human feeling. We do not get life by feeling something in ourselves, but by believing something about Christ; and that something we have on the authority of God’s eternal Word. Many are looking in for evidences of the new life, instead of looking out at the Object who imparts the life. It is quite true that "he that believeth on the Son of God hath the witness in himself" (1 Jn. 5:10), but remember, it is "the witness" of a life which is received by "believing on the Son of God," not by looking in upon one's self. The more undividedly I am occupied with Christ, the more distinct and satisfactory will be the witness in myself. If I make the witness my object, I shall be plunged in doubt and uncertainty; but if I make Christ my object, I have the witness in all its divine integrity and power.

There is special need of clearness on this point, because of the strong tendency of our hearts to make something within the ground of our peace and contentment, instead of building exclusively on Christ. As soon as we take the eye off Him, we become unhinged and unhappy; but the more simply we cling to Christ, the more peaceful and happy we shall be.