3 Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
This was undoubtedly not the reply that Nicodemus had been expecting, but it is the one our Lord gave to Him, so we would do well to examine this reply of our Lord, for although it was directed to Nicodemus, it is a general statement – it remains true for all who would see the kingdom of God.
The word “see” is speaking of an action that depends on another action – for one to see the kingdom of God, they must be born again. “Born” speaks of that action of being brought forth in birth, and it is a passive action, as in she gave birth to a child. The child being born is not bringing itself into the world – it is the mother who brings the child forth from her womb; even so, we must be brought forth from that spiritual death that is true of all men by the Spirit of God – He does the bringing forth, or giving birth – and as when a child senses the first of the outside world, so those God gives the new birth to, by His Spirit, can see the kingdom of God at that time – Calvin has it that the words see and enter are synonymous – that is, they equal the same thing, the same result. One who is born again has entered into the kingdom of God, and so they can see it; one who sees the kingdom of God has been born again, and so they have entered into it.
This is not of ourselves – in fact, this is the very passage most often associated with the theological phrase, monergism, the Scriptural doctrine that God the Holy Spirit acts alone – mono = one – to regenerate the fallen human nature – ism = work, deed – into a nature that is after our Lord’s.
We have mentioned this as “born again” or “born from above.” This is because the word used can be translated both ways, and whether or not our Lord spoke to Nicodemus in the Hebrew language, this is the language He willed to write His New Testament in, so our understanding might be of Him, not speculation as to what language our Lord spoke at the time to Nicodemus. That regardless of what language our Lord spoke to Nicodemus in, the leader of the Jews did not understand Him, is evidenced by Nicodemus’ reply:
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?”
Thus, this leading teacher of the Jews, one who is the teacher of Israel, proves himself to not be of that very state the Lord is speaking to him about – if he had been, he would have understood, for it is pictured in the Old Testament Scriptures which he was familiar with, yet he did not understand the reference (Ezekiel 36:25-27).
Our Lord thought nothing of the honor of men (Matthew 22:16), and even His enemies came to know this – He thought of the Father’s will being done, that His praise and glory be manifest – that was the reason He came; that will be the reason He comes again – all else is secondary in the Son’s doing the Father’s will, for the glory of God is God’s highest priority; still, in this manifestation of His glory, He brings about the salvation of those He has chosen for such, to the praise of His glorious grace, or to the praise of the glory of His grace.
That God’s glory is comprised of more than His grace to the undeserving sinners who hate Him, are His enemies, as all mankind is, we have found in various parts of our studies, and will continue too (Exodus 34:6-7) – the God who has willed us to serve Him by making us His is not any one of those attributes we have studied about in our studies, but the sum, the culmination of all of them, and for His glory to be fully expressed to mankind, He has designed His plan for those creatures He created to show forth all of His glory, which He has done throughout the history He created – to us who are His, it seems amazing that this is not understood, when the various terrible judgments of His wrath are shown throughout the Scriptures, and having been carried out, provide a positive proof for those judgments yet to come; we must remember, however, that even in the professing church, there are many who do not believe the Scriptures, or believe them according to various traditions of men, who also do not understand that to be His child, through the adoption that is in Christ Jesus, is not only having been given the right to believe, but to suffer, for His sake (Philippians 1:29-30); thus, the gracious regeneration of a dead in sin nature is but one aspect of our God’s manifesting His glory, and we must keep that always in mind.
The redeemed mind will understand that there is no exercise of that creature to bring about their regeneration, even if it is an understanding fraught with error through the traditions of men – there is nothing in this passage that speaks of anything the creature does, and this is the seminal, or determining, text, when speaking of this experience and doctrine.
So, Nicodemus did not understand this simple phrase, nor will any who have not partaken of this work of God’s grace – He asked what is a very natural question, and emphasized it with the experience of entering again into one’s mother’s womb – as ridiculous as this sounds, recall how ridiculous our gospel sounds to those who are perishing – Nicodemus was grasping to bring into understanding that which cannot be understood by the natural man, and this is a proof of the natural man not understanding the things of the Spirit of God, and shows that these things are foolishness to such a natural, or carnal, understanding (1 Corinthians 2:14).
Do you think Nicodemus was surprised, and somewhat taken aback, by our Lord’s non-response to His greeting of Him as Master (for so the term Rabbi must be understood – a title only given to those with expertise in the Law of God, and so a term of respect – a master of the teaching and writings of God – given by men to men)? I surely do.
We should back up, here, and establish the meaning of the words “kingdom of God.”
Many think this refers to that kingdom for which we pray to come (Matthew 6:10), and this is a right, and proper way of looking at the kingdom of God, but it is an incomplete one, for while He was on this earth in His first advent, our Lord said, “…then the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Luke 11:20). His meaning is unmistakable in this statement, since the word “has come” is a past tense – the kingdom of God was there among them, in His Person, in His Son, incarnate. When Jesus came into the world, He brought that which was not of the world with Him, and the apostle Paul defines that such is still in place among those who have experienced the new birth: “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14:17). So, what we learn from these two passages, and from other of that which we have studied, is that the kingdom of God consists of His presence yet being in this world through the body of Christ, the church, which is made up of all truly regenerated believers, and shows not only in the members, each and every one of them, but the way these members act towards one another, which of itself, is a testimony to the world that they are disciples of Christ – it shows in that which is of the light, which brings out the fact of that which is of the darkness, and if we do not live in such a manner – in such a way – that distinguishes us from the darkness we are to bring the character of our Lord of Glory and Light into and upon, then it is very doubtful our confession of faith in the Lord of all creation is, in fact, true, for He cannot live within us, in fellowship with our new nature, unless that which is of Him shows (Ephesians 5:6-21; 1 John 1:5-7).
Thus, the kingdom of God is indeed among the world, and is seen in such local fellowships of churches which are made up of His saints, and should, indeed, be carried along with each member into their daily living.
Next, we take up our Lord’s reply to Nicodemus’ question regarding the nature of the new birth.
5 Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.
Many have supposed that “water” here refers to the obedient ordinance of baptism in water as a testimony to the truth of the confession of Jesus Christ as one’s Lord, having repented of their sins, is what is pictured – to this, we reply, such cannot be the case, for Jesus is speaking of a literal new birth, of which any element of it is done by the Holy Spirit alone. This is not to say that, if we have made the proper confession of our Lord as we should, baptism in water is not to be observed; indeed, it is commanded, and a part of the great commission (Matthew 28:19-20). However, that cannot be what is intended by our Lord here, for that would constitute a work on our part that is to proclaim the fact that Salvation is of the Lord, and of Him alone (Psalms 18:2; 27:1; 68:20; Isaiah 25:9; 62:11; Jeremiah 3:23), and that such salvation, according to our God’s election, begins in time and space for us when we are regenerated – that is to say, born again by the work of the Holy Spirit alone, without any aid upon our part, as we have already discussed from Ephesians, 2 Timothy and Titus.
The most crucial thing has just been discussed – that salvation is of the Lord – so we need to break down the parts of that which we are considering that has to do with that salvation.
If it were needful for Jesus our Lord to remind a person that natural birth preceded spiritual birth, it is likely He would have done so – the phrase, born of the water, however, though it has been held by some to mean exactly that, is out of place in a context of salvation, for when a person is born into this world, though a woman’s water break, from what, then, are they saved?
They are born a sinner – the election of God may be upon them, but until the time when He moves, of His Spirit, to make that election real by the work of the regeneration of the dead-in-sin human spirit, it is hardly salvific that such natural birth is being mentioned by our Lord as a necessary component to the work of the Holy Spirit here.
Most good commentators see the type mentioned in the Mosaic Law – the water of purification (Numbers 8:7-26), and along with the plain indication that regeneration is of the Spirit of God, by divine counsel within the triune God Himself, we see this type mentioned exactly this way of the New Covenant, which is spoken of by God in the Old Testament prophets in this manner:
Ezekiel 36:25-26: I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. 26 And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.
That this is the water Jesus is speaking of – the water of purification, not as the Jewish rites in the previous chapter, but as consecration of those who would be His own, is echoed in a Scripture we have already looked at often in the New Testament, which, along with those we considered, makes the meaning of this water our Lord speaks of in this verse unmistakable:
Titus 3:4-5: But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, 5 he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, 6 whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, in which we see the entirety of the triune God involved in this work, though the Spirit carries out the will of the Father and the Son in performing, as the third Person of the triune God, the work of regeneration, and that it is said that He was poured out on us richly is showing the means, that is, God the Spirit Himself, as the One who cleanses us and regenerates us, making us fit for use as God’s people.
Though it may be said (and has been) that all of salvation occurs in an instant, as to our present experience of eternal life – that is, a new life imparted in a dead spirit being made alive – there are divisions in this work of God, as to our experience of it. That one who is regenerated does begin to live the sanctified life to which they are prepared by each aspect of the death and resurrection of our Lord being applied to us, this is the beginning: the new birth, by which one sees and enters the kingdom of heaven. Seeing and entering the kingdom are synonymous – that is, they are the same, for to see the kingdom is to enter into it, to have passed from death to life. A further note on Titus 3:4-5: the word and is the beginning of a construction, in the original language, which connects the washing of regeneration with the renewal of the Holy Spirit – it is a logical connective; that is, it makes the entire phrase in reference to the work of the Holy Spirit, so to read it any other way would be against the sense of the language. This would also be true to the English in a good translation.
So, this is the meaning of born of water, and this meaning cannot be separated from and the Spirit, for both are part and parcel of His work of causing us to be born again. There is the separation of being cleansed by the Spirit as the means of cleansing to be vessels fit for the use of the Lord, with the regeneration of the spirit He brings about also to enable and empower us to exercise repentance of sin, faith, and so be saved – this is a partial description of what takes place in salvation – but to actually say that the cleansing and the rebirth are not of the Spirit is to deny the entire intent and meaning of this passage we are studying and meditating upon.
As with all things of the pattern set in the Old Testament, we know, from the further revelation of God in His New Testament, that they are often representative of heavenly things (Exodus 25:40; Hebrews 8:5). All the various types of the holiness of the temple and its sacrifices may be attributed to our Lord, while very often, the purity of those serving, and the various cleansing rituals, represent the preparation of the people of God – in this, we receive the benefit of that which our Lord accomplished, but we must be prepared to receive that benefit by being vessels made fit for God’s use – this is what happens when we are regenerated, and continues to happen as we are having the truth of His Scriptures applied to us by the Holy Spirit who was given to us, even as He prepared us to do such; thus, our Lord here expresses that preparation, which we see to be solely of God, and that of the third Person of the triune God.
The fullness of this work of God is stated firmly in the book of Hebrews 10:16-22, which references Jeremiah 31:33–34, and we would do well to notice the following passages in Hebrews 10, for they are of the sort that speaks to our mortification of these bodies, our meeting together in the Lord’s name on His Day, and our perseverance in the ways and Word of our Lord, to the edification of the body, and the proclaiming of the glory of the Lord.