THE present section begins properly with the last three verses of chapter 2. We read, "Now when He was in Jerusalem at the passover, in the feast day, many believed in His name, when they saw the miracles which He did." A faith that rests upon miracles is not a saving faith. A faith that rests upon signs and wonders does not bring salvation to anyone. That is why it is not worth while for us to debate with unbelievers about their objections to the inspiration of the Bible. Jesus said, "Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature." We are told, "The preaching of the cross is unto them that perish, foolishness." Paul says, "I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek." God gives miracles to authenticate the Word, but faith must rest on something far better than miracles. Here were people waiting for the Messiah to come and they said, "Well, now, if Messiah came, could He do any more miracles than Jesus did? He must be the One of whom the prophets have spoken." In that sense they believed that He was Messiah, but they did not confess that they were guilty souls needing salvation and they did not see in Jesus the Saviour whom they needed. They believed in His name when they saw the miracles; but the rest of the verse says that Jesus did not commit Himself to them. The words "commit" and "believe" are really just the same in the original. We might read it, "Many believed in His name, but Jesus did not believe in them." He did not trust His interests to them, because He knew they were not genuine. He knew what was in man and needed not that any should testify of man. He knew the wickedness and unreliability of the human heart. You and I like to make out a good case for ourselves. Scripture shows how little we have to boast of, if we would be honest with God. When we think of the eyes of His Son looking down into our hearts, what corruption, lusts, perversity, dishonesty He finds there! "The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked. Who can know it? I, the Lord, search the heart, I try the reins, even to give every man according to his ways, and according to the fruit of his doings." Because Jesus was God manifest in the flesh, He knew what was in man. He is as truly omniscient as the Father. He knows what is in you and me and yet, knowing it all, He loved us and gave Himself for us, but He does not trust us, or rely upon these wicked hearts of ours. He knows that we cannot be depended upon. We are lost and ruined and undone; what we need, therefore, is a new life. We need to be born again, and that is the new life He gives us.
There is a little Greek word that has been dropped out in our English translation here. It sometimes is translated "and," though more generally, "but." It is the same word used in the beginning of verse 24 of chapter 2. So, if we put it in its right place at the beginning of verse 1 of chapter 3, we read, "But there was a man of the Pharisees." The Spirit of God thus puts this man in contrast with the people of verses 23 to 25. Here is a man whom Jesus recognizes as sterlingly honest in seeking after truth, and whenever our Lord finds a man who is really in earnest, He will see that that man will get the truth. You ask, Well, what about the heathen who have never heard? Will God condemn them to everlasting judgment for not believing in a Saviour of whom they have never heard? No, of course not. But what He will do is this: He will condemn the heathen for all the sins of which they have not repented, but He will see that every repentant soul gets light enough to be saved. He will not let a man be lost if he is seeking for the truth.
So here is Nicodemus, an honest seeker, and Jesus treats him as such. "There was a man of the Pharisees (the most religious group in Jerusalem) named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews." But this man, now face to face with the Christ of God, finds out he has a tremendous lack. A great many people are like Nicodemus. They are good folk, they reverence spiritual things, and yet there are many who have not confessed their sins before God and know not the second birth. Have you not often said, in the words of Tennyson. "Oh, for a man to arise in me, that the man that I am might cease to be?" You are dissatisfied with yourself, yet you have never turned to Christ that you may be born again. Let us follow our Lord Jesus' conversation with Nicodemus. Let us listen as though we had never heard it before.
Here is Nicodemus. "The same came to Jesus by night." I am not going to scold him for that. Some preachers do. I see no evidence of cowardice there. He does not act like a coward. I think Jesus was busy all day long, and Nicodemus says, "I would like to have a close-up talk with that man, and I cannot do it in a crowd. Perhaps if I ask Peter or James or John where He lives, I can have a private interview." And so he arranges to see and talk with Him at night after the Lord has withdrawn from the throngs. All honor to Nicodemus that he was interested enough to go. I am not going to find fault with him because he went by night.
Nicodemus began by saying, "Rabbi, we know that Thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that Thou doest except God be with him—." This was not the end of the sentence. The Saviour interrupted him, and declared, "Verily, verily (truly, truly; amen, amen), I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God." "Born again," or "born from above"? After all, I think the emphasis is on the newness of it. That which made the impression on Nicodemus was not so much "born from above," but being born for the second time, "born again." Jesus was saying, as it were, "It does not help to say nice things, Nicodemus. You need more than a teacher, you need a Saviour—One who can give you a new life. You need a second birth!" "Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God." There is a widespread notion today that men may be educated into Christianity. Religious Education is one of the greatest abominations of the present day. The idea is that you can take a child and instruct him along the lines of the Christian philosophy and thus educate him into salvation. I do not object to the term Christian Education. I believe that is a right and proper thing. It is right and proper to instruct the Christian along Christian lines. But Religious Education which simply tries to make people Christians by educating them into it, will, I believe, be the means of making tens of thousands of hypocrites instead of making them Christians. "Ye must be born again." There must be the communication of a new life.
Nicodemus said, "But I don't understand it. How can a man be born when he is old? Can he go through the whole process of nature again? Why, that seems absurd. Just imagine! Can I go back and be born of my mother again?" And Jesus says to him, "Nicodemus, listen to Me; it would not make any difference if you could; you would be no better off the next time than you were before. The natural birth does not count; it must be a spiritual birth." "Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see 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." What weighty words are these! First the Saviour says, "Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God." What did He mean? I know that there are those who tell us that to be born of water means to be born of baptism. But no one ever received the new life by water-baptism. You can search your Bible in vain for anything like that. It is not there. It is not in the Word of God. Nowhere is baptism in Scripture likened to birth. It rather speaks of death. We are buried with Him by baptism into death. Water-baptism is the picture of the burial of the old man, not a picture of a second birth. Well, then, what is the water by which we are born again? Go through the Word of God. Nowhere do we find people being born. of literal water. Trace "water" through John's writings. You will find that it is the recognized symbol for the Word of God. David asked the question, in Psalm 119:9, "Wherewithal shall a young man cleanse his way? By taking heed thereto according to Thy Word." And in the fourth chapter of John, Jesus, speaking to the woman of Samaria, said, "Whosoever drinketh of this water shall thirst again: but whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life." What is the water that Jesus gives? It is the water of the Word. It is the testimony of the gospel. "As cold waters to a thirsty soul, so is good news from a far country." "Whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely." What is the water of life? It is the gospel message. We read in Ephesians 5:25, 26, "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, that He might present it to Himself a glorious Church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish." And Jesus says to His disciples, "Now are ye clean through the Word." So we are to be born again by the Word of God, brought home to our hearts and consciences by the Holy Spirit.
Here are two men sitting side by side as a preacher, proclaiming the gospel of God, perhaps quotes some such verse of Scripture as, "This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief." One man pays no attention; the other man looks up and says, "What! He came to save sinners! I am a sinner. I will trust Him." What led him to do that? The Holy Spirit using the Word as the means of his second birth. "Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God." The Lord makes it very clear that there is a great distinction between the flesh and Spirit. "That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit." You can do anything you like with the flesh, but it does not turn it into spirit. If you baptize it, it is baptized flesh. If you make it religious, it is religious flesh. Flesh remains flesh to the very end. "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." Nicodemus said, "How can these things be?" The Lord explains that there are mysteries in nature that we cannot understand. "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." You cannot see the wind, but you recognize its power. You cannot see the Holy Spirit, but you recognize His power. He is invisible, but He makes His presence felt in a mighty way as He convicts and regenerates sinful men. He changes men completely. You recognize the power, although you do not see it actually working. You see a vain worldly woman, and suddenly she becomes a quiet woman of prayer. You see a wicked, godless man changed into a saint. That is the work of the Holy Spirit. You do not see the Spirit, but you see the power manifest in the life.
Nicodemus is still perplexed and says, "How can these things be?" Jesus says, "Art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not these things?" He should have known about the new birth. He had the Bible. In Isaiah 44:3 we find these words: "For I will pour water upon him that is thirsty, and floods upon the dry ground: I will pour My Spirit upon thy seed, and My blessing upon thine offspring." What is this? Why, God is saying, "By the water of My Word and by the power of My Spirit I am going to work the miracle of the new birth."
In Ezekiel 36:25 we have the same thing: "Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean: from all your filthiness, and from all your idols will I cleanse you." There you have it again, "Born of water and of the Spirit." "Why," He says, "Nicodemus, you are a master in Israel and you are surprised when I speak of being born of water and the Spirit! You should have known this." "If I have told you earthly things, and ye believe not, how shall ye believe, if I tell you of heavenly things?" What does He mean by this? Well, these earthly things were spoken of in the Old Testament. It was always necessary to be born again in order to come into God's kingdom. This kingdom was heaven's rule on earth. But Jesus knew that that earthly kingdom was, for the time being, set aside. He said, "I have other secrets, but you will not understand them, you do not even understand earthly things." I think the Lord meant that Nicodemus was not ready for a revelation of the heavenly kingdom, because he had not apprehended the truth of the earthly things.
"And no man hath ascended up to heaven, but He that came down from heaven, even the Son of Man which is in heaven." Let me say here, and I frankly say so, I do not know whether Jesus said that, or whether John, the apostle, wrote it as inspired of the Holy Ghost. If the text were written as ordinary literature, we might have a quotation-mark at the end of verse 12, and then verse 13 might come in as a parenthesis. I do not know whether that is so or not. It may be that Jesus said this, or it may be that John put it in to explain a mystery. What is the mystery? No one has ever ascended to heaven of his volition. Enoch was caught up; Elijah went up in a whirlwind. If these words were spoken by the Lord Jesus, He was looking into the future when He should ascend. If they were written by John, then he had in mind the ascension. But the wonder of it is this, that He who came down from heaven and had the power to ascend into heaven, was at all times the Son of Man in heaven, for He was omnipresent.
In verse 14 we have our Lord's answer to Nicodemus' questions. He refers him to an incident that occurred long years before in the wilderness, and He says, "And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up." That is your answer, Nicodemus. It is as though Jesus said, "I am going to the cross, and there on that cross I will become the antitype of that brass serpent. There I will be made sin in order that sinners may become the righteousness of God through faith in Me." In the wilderness it was the serpents that afflicted the people. The poison of these dreadful creatures was in the blood of the dying Israelites. The remedy was a serpent of brass uplifted, and all who looked to it were healed. It was sin that caused the trouble for humanity. The serpent was a type of Satan and sin. But what took place on the cross? The sinless One was made sin for us. He is the antitype of that brazen serpent. That serpent lifted up on the pole had no poison in it. It had never done anybody any harm. It was a picture of the great sin-offering. When they looked to it they were healed. The Lord Jesus Christ had no sin in Him, but in grace He took the sinner's place, and when people look to Him in faith they are born again; they have eternal life. Have you looked to Him? Have we all looked to Him? All who believe in Him shall never die, but have life eternal.
—H.A. Ironside Expository Commentary