Sayings of Jesus

'Except a man be born again'

'He that believeth..'
'I am the Bread of Life'
'I am the resurrection and the life'
'I am the true vine'
'Salvation is of the Jews'
'You are my friends if..'
 

`Except a man be born again'

The saying of Jesus `Except a man be born again' (John 3.3) forms part of a conversation he had with a man called Nicodemus, who was a leading Jew in Jerusalem and a very wealthy man. Nicodemus was a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin, which was the supreme council of the Jews. Although Israel at the time was a part of the Roman Empire and was subject to Roman laws, the Jewish Sanhedrin had extensive political and administrative powers locally in Judaea and had its own team of law enforcement officers. The Sanhedrin consisted of seventy prominent men in Jerusalem, among whom were the High Priest of the time, former High Priests, members of wealthy and privileged families and legal and religious experts. Nicodemus was an important person simply because he was a member of the Sanhedrin. However, it is possible that he was actually the leader of the Sanhedrin and therefore one of the most distinguished and well-known Jews of his time.

Nicodemus was also a Pharisee. They were a minority religious group but influential nevertheless. They are mentioned many times in the New Testament and Jesus was mostly very critical of them. He condemned them for being over-scrupulous about obeying the letter of the Jewish religious laws (`The Law of Moses') but failing to understand their real meaning and spirit. He called them hypocrites because so often they did not practice what they preached; he was angry with them because they supplemented `The Law of Moses' with their own oral tradition, which added many unnecessary man-made requirements to God's laws. The Pharisees made a great public show of their righteousness, and demanded the respect of the people but Jesus found this flaunting of their religion offensive. For all these reasons, Jesus and the Pharisees never really saw eye to eye and they developed a great disliking for him, which eventually turned to hatred. In fact, they became the prime instigators of his crucifixion by accusing him of trumped-up offences against `The Law of Moses' and they were instrumental in getting the Sanhedrin to sentence him to death.

However, there was one other very important reason why Jesus and the Pharisees so often came into conflict and this was the real reason why they decided that he could not be allowed to live any longer. The main thrust of Jesus' message was that `The Law of Moses' had served its predetermined purpose and was therefore about to come to an end. Many of the enactments of the Law, for example the animal sacrifices, foreshadowed the coming of Jesus to offer his own life as a sacrifice for sin. Jesus told the people that he had come to fulfil `The Law of Moses' and therefore bring it to an end. That Law was to be replaced by Christianity, a religion based on Jesus' own teaching - the Gospel (good news) of the coming kingdom of God. In reality, this was no new teaching but was founded on those great promises which had been made to the Jewish Patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and David. Christianity enshrined the principles that lay behind `The Law of Moses' but Christianity was designed to be accepted by men and women of all different nationalities, whereas `The Law of Moses' was a national law only for the Jews.

The problem with all this was that the Pharisees were `experts' in `The Law of Moses.' They spent much of their time teaching its commands, answering the people's questions about it and encouraging the people to keep it; it was what their lives were all about. Jesus' message that it was now to become obsolete was therefore a great blow to them and they resisted the change as hard as they could. They were too absorbed in the letter of their law and too opposed to Jesus to realise that they could have been important players in the conversion of people to Christianity. It was this threat to their position and to their status that lay at the heart of their opposition to Jesus.

A NIGHT-TIME VISIT TO JESUS

Although he was a Pharisee and possibly the leader of the Jewish Council (Sanhedrin), Nicodemus seems to have been more perceptive than most of his colleagues. He had watched Jesus and had particularly noticed the miracles that he had performed. He had come to the conclusion that despite his unorthodox teaching, Jesus was a force to be reckoned with. One night he came to Jesus to find out more about him. The visit took place at night because Nicodemus would have compromised his important position in the Jewish hierarchy if he were seen to be openly talking to Jesus. It appears that he came not just on his own behalf but because other members of the Sanhedrin were also curious and probably worried about the effects of Jesus' teaching.

Nicodemus, this great teacher of the Jews, greeted Jesus with deference and respect. He called him Rabbi (teacher) and told him that he and his colleagues believed that Jesus had been sent by God. He said to Jesus: `...no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him.' (John 3.2) We do not know what questions he was going to ask Jesus, or what matters he wanted to discuss, because Jesus immediately takes over the conversation with the rather terse and enigmatic saying `Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.' (John 3.3).

Jesus was telling him at least two things. The first is that salvation, or seeing the kingdom of God, is an individual thing; `Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.' (John 3.3) Each man and each woman, who wishes to reach God's Kingdom must undergo what Jesus here describes as a rebirth; without that action, taken on an individual basis, salvation is impossible. The second thing that is evident from Jesus' saying is that a substantial change is needed in a person's life. Birth is the beginning of a new life. Rebirth (being born again) can only mean that a major change must be made by anybody who is seeking salvation; a change so complete that effectively a new life is begun. Even very religious people like Nicodemus, a man who had been steeped in `The Law of Moses' all his life, could not be exempt from this sort of change, the new birth that Jesus was referring to.

Quite naturally, Nicodemus found Jesus' words confusing at face value. Obviously it is impossible, he said, for a man to enter the second time into his mother's womb and be born again. That just cannot happen. Nicodemus, like most of the Pharisees, could not really envisage the necessity for a spiritual rebirth either. For them, `The Law of Moses' and their own oral tradition were quite sufficient; why was any change needed; what was this new and untrained Rabbi talking about? They would have thought that he was mad if it had not been for those amazing miracles that he had been performing!

Jesus reinforced his initial statement with a further saying: `...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.' (John 3.5) Now he was being more specific and more meaningful. The reference to being `born of water' is clearly a reference to baptism a rite which Nicodemus would have been well aware of because John the Baptist had been baptising huge numbers of people over the previous few months. So what is baptism and why did Jesus tell Nicodemus that anyone who wants to be saved must be baptised?

THE IMPORTANCE OF BAPTISM

It becomes apparent from the Bible that baptism is a vitally important subject. For example, it is directly mentioned over one hundred times in the New Testament. In addition to these direct references there are incidental allusions to baptism in both the Old and New Testaments which also highlight its importance.

One of them is found in the first letter of Peter where he refers to the days of Noah and the time of the flood. Out of the whole of the world's population at that time, only Noah and his immediate family were saved because they obeyed God by building the ark. The very flood waters which destroyed everyone else enabled the ark to float safely, thus preserving the lives of Noah and those who were with him inside it. Peter makes the point that they were therefore saved by water and he likens that to baptism. This is what he wrote:

`...God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, and this water symbolises baptism that now saves you also...' (I Peter 3.20-21 NIV)

Put in its simplest form, Peter's point is this. Just as the ark floating on the flood waters was essential to the salvation of Noah and his family, so baptism in water is essential if we are to be saved. If Noah had refused to listen to God and had not been prepared to enter the ark, then he would have died like everybody else. Likewise, if we refuse to be baptised then we cannot have any hope of being saved from death.

Another illustration is given by the Apostle Paul. Like Peter he draws an analogy between a historical event recorded in the Old Testament and baptism. Paul writes about the Exodus the way in which the Israelites left Egypt in the days of Moses, after God had brought the ten plagues on that country. God miraculously divided the waters of the Red Sea so that the Israelites could escape from the Egyptians who were pursuing them. The waters of the sea parted and the Israelites walked through the dry pathway that was formed. Above them was the cloud which represented God's presence with them, so they had water all around them as they crossed the sea to safety. Like Noah and his family, the Israelites were saved by water and like Peter, Paul says that this also was effectively a baptism. This is what he wrote:

`Moreover, brethren, I would not that ye should be ignorant, how that all our fathers were under the cloud, and all passed through the sea; and were all baptized unto Moses in the cloud and in the sea;' (I Corinthians 10.1,2)

Again, put in its simplest form, Paul's point is this. Just as the Israelites passage through the divided sea under the cloud (in other words they were surrounded by water) was essential if they were to be saved from death at the hands of the Egyptians, so baptism in water is essential if we are to be saved. If the Israelites had not been prepared to cross the sea when it parted they would have died. Likewise if we refuse to be baptised, we cannot have any hope of salvation from death.

A highly important feature of both these Old Testament illustrations is that the effective baptism marked the start of a new life. Noah and his family emerged from the ark after the flood and a whole new phase in the earth's history began. The Israelites journey across the sea bed led them away from their life as slaves in Egypt towards a new life in the land that God had promised to give them.

When we follow this analogy through to New Testament baptism, we find the same to be true. Baptism marks a new beginning in a person's life. This is what Jesus told Nicodemus when he described baptism as being born of water. He was saying that baptism was a new start, a rebirth or the beginning of a new life. Paul makes exactly the same point when he describes baptism as being the death and burial of one's old life:

`Therefore we are buried with him (Jesus) by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.' (Romans 6.4)

In another place Paul refers to baptism as being `the washing of rebirth' (Titus 3.5 NIV) The verse in Romans, which describes baptism as a death and burial, indicates the form of Biblical baptism. It was the burying in water of a person; it was complete immersion in the water, not just the sprinkling of a few drops of water on the forehead.

When Jesus spoke to Nicodemus he said `Except a man be born again.' A man is a grown up person, not a baby. In the New Testament there are no examples at all of young children or babies being baptised and there is a very good reason for that. Jesus and his apostles make it very clear that belief must precede baptism. Jesus said to his disciples `Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature. He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.' (Mark 16.15,16) Notice the order belief first, then baptism. Notice also that if there was no belief then baptism did not even come into the picture; it was not relevant. An unbelieving person cannot be saved: `...he that believeth not shall be damned' (condemned). Babies are incapable of believing, which is why there are no examples in the New Testament of them being baptised.

WHAT FOLLOWS BAPTISM?

Belief and baptism must be followed by a new life. As we have seen, baptism is only the beginning the birth. Just as a natural baby grows into an adult, so spiritual growth and development must follow the born again believer. He or she must grow into the sort of person that Jesus wants to be in his coming Kingdom on earth, for that was what Jesus told Nicodemus: `Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.' (John 3.3) Only those who make a lot of progress towards that character development will be allowed to enter the Kingdom and in order to enable them to enter they will undergo the second part of their rebirth. Remember Jesus' second comment to Nicodemus:

`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.' (John 3.5)

Paul tells us that `flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God,'

(I Corinthians 15.50) on the basis that what is corruptible (flesh and blood) cannot inherit what is incorruptible. Those who will be privileged to inherit the kingdom will be given eternal life by Jesus; they will be spirit beings rather than creatures of flesh and blood. Having learned about God's plan of salvation they will have believed it; they will have been born of water baptised as adults following that belief. They will have lived the rest of their new lives in obedience to God's word, building the characters that will prepare them for their reward in the Kingdom. Finally, they will have been approved by Jesus, welcomed as his friends; they will have been born of the spirit given eternal life and they will live for ever on the earth.

From what the Bible tells us it seems that Nicodemus, the leader of the Jewish Sanhedrin, became a follower of Jesus. He must have listened carefully to what Jesus told him and was courageous enough to put aside his lifelong Pharisaical beliefs and behaviour in favour of the true Christian way of life.

We must be prepared to do the same. Are you?

 

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