In John 3 Jesus has an interaction with a high ranking Jewish leader by the name of Nicodemus. Because of the controversy surrounding Jesus, Nicodemus came to Jesus at night to speak to him. Nicodemus begins by saying to Jesus, “We know that you are a teacher come from God; for no one can do the signs that you do unless God is with him.” In other words he is telling Jesus that He is obviously special because of His miraculous ability.
The response of Jesus is important to each one of us. He responded “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
The first thing that we learn from Jesus’ response is what Nicodemus had at the point was not enough. Nicodemus “knew” that Jesus was special. The interesting thing about that word is it is a word that means you perceive something by observation. Nicodemus had put together the facts of what he had seen and experienced and decided that Jesus was special. There are many people who will teach that all you need for salvation is belief and they define belief as a mental recognition of who Jesus was. The word “know” in John 3:3 is the word for mental recognition. It is a completely different word than the word for belief in John 3:16. Jesus is telling Nicodemus and all of us, that this sort of belief will not be enough.
Jesus also tells Nicodemus that there are conditions to see the kingdom of God. God has put conditions on his blessings since he created man. It is not a strange or new concept. In the garden, he placed conditions on Adam and Eve being able to live there. They could stay there forever unless they ate of the tree of knowledge of Good and Evil. God gave conditions to the children of Israel to keep the promised land (Josh 23:13-16). Jonah preached conditions that the Ninevites had to conform to if they wanted to escape God’s wrath. God has filled His Holy Book with conditions.
Some may say that when you attach conditions, you change the grace of God into something you earn. Either these people are wrong, or Jesus is wrong. You are welcome to draw your own conclusions on who is right. But when Jesus says “unless” He is attaching a condition to seeing the kingdom of God.
Third, Jesus tells Nicodemus that every person who wants to see the kingdom of God must be “born again”. This phrase was perplexing to Nicodemus. He asked Jesus how can this be possible? He was thinking in physical terms but as we all know, Jesus was not talking about a physical rebirth. He was talking about a spiritual rebirth. In answering Nicodemus’ objections Jesus says, “unless one is born of the water and the spirit, He cannot enter the kingdom of God.”
There are two components to entering into the kingdom of God. What exactly is the water and what is the Spirit? And how do they allow us to be born again?
Let’s quickly look at what the Bible says about being born in Spirit. In John 6:63 Jesus says, “It is the Spirit that gives life, the flesh profits nothing. The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life”. That is a wonderful commentary to what the Lord told Nicodemus! In Luke 8:11 Jesus tells us that the seed of the Kingdom is the “word of God”. Romans 10:17 says that faith comes from hearing the word of God. In 1 Peter 1:22-23 it says that ones soul is purified by “obeying the truth through the Spirit” and that we are born again “through the word of God”. The Spirit gave the message that we must believe and obey if we would be born again (John 3:36).
Now, the question turns to the water. While they are not inspired men, the early church fathers contended that the water here was an obvious allusion to water baptism. It was not a contentious issue for centuries. It is believed that the first person to identify water apart from baptism was John Calvin. The problem with this, is John Calvin was alive in the 1500s. That is about 1500 years too late to be introducing a new understanding. Unfortunately today, many people buy into Calvin’s interpretation without even realizing that history.
The Bible provides excellent commentary to allow us to understand what Jesus meant. In 1 Cor 12:13 Paul says “in one Spirit were you all baptized into one body”. Now the body is the kingdom of God (Ephesians 1:22-23, Matt 16:18). Paul teaches us that we enter the kingdom through the spirit, but then substitutes “baptism” for “water”. Either Paul was mistaken, being deceptive, or was giving commentary to help us better understand what Jesus meant by water.
Consider also what the Bible says about what water baptism does. In Romans 6:1-4 we learn that baptism allows us to participate in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. We are dead in our sins, baptism allows us to bury that old self in the water, and then be raised to “walk in newness of life”. He says in verse 6 that “our old man was put to death”. What an awesome commentary on what is happening as one is “born again”.
Finally, please consider what people were told before the Lord ascended into heaven. In Mark 16:15-16 Jesus gave the great commission. He told the disciples to Preach the Gospel, and that he that believed and was baptized will be saved. In Acts 2, Peter does exactly that. He preached the gospel (14-36), the word of God penetrated their hearts (37), but they were still not saved. Peter told them to repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of their sins(38). Then they lived faithful. That is what it means to be born again.
Unless you are born again you cannot enter the kingdom of God.