Summary: Birth from the flesh is not enough, being borne from above is a must to receive salvation.
Nicodemus comes and addresses Jesus as “rabbi.” Nicodemus, a Pharisee, member of the ruling council, well educated, himself a rabbi, and a man of substantial means. Jesus was the carpenter’s son, from the wrong side of the tracks, Nazareth, and he never had any formal rabbinical training. Nicodemus had great regard for Jesus. He respected him. “ We know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him.” He acknowledged that Jesus was a teacher, a teacher with a mission from God. He could even accept that God had a very special mission for Jesus, since he performed miracles. But Nicodemus was still looking at Jesus through eyes of flesh.
Jesus cut Nicodemus short. Jesus was not going to let this be a theological, or ethical, or religious discussion. He abruptly says, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.” All the Pharisaic words and deeds he did and accomplished are nothing. Don’t look to the flesh for the answer to what troubles you. Don’t we try to be good? Don’t we try to be nice? Religious? But lay awake at night unhappy. There must be more. Being “nice” is not enough; it’s unsatisfactory. It is death.
Nicodemus did not understand. He could not yet make the leap. He asks Jesus, “How can a man be born when he is old?” Jesus’ proposition is preposterous. Are the words of Jesus, of the Torah, of the Bible to be taken only literally? Surely man “cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born!” Or any other womb for that matter.
Jesus answered him, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of heaven unless he is born of water and the Spirit.” We must be born again. We must be born from above. It’s not enough to strive with all human effort and power. It’s not enough.
A young man came to Socrates and said that he had come to him for knowledge. Socrates took him down to the river and they waded in. He then seized upon the man and held him underwater. The young man struggled and flailed about. When his resistance was almost gone, Socrates pulled him up and dragged him back to shore. He asked the young man, “When I was holding you under water, what was the one thing that you wanted more than any thing else in the whole world?” The young man said, “AIR!” Socrates replied, “When you desire knowledge as much as you desire air, you will not have to search for it.”
When it comes to our salvation, we are totally helpless by ourselves. People will go hundreds and thousands of miles to find the next spiritual guru. The Beatles went to India to find Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Others look to New Age speakers, who preach that man needs no savior other than his inner self. Even Christians will go to great lengths to attend a Billy Graham crusade, or to see the next “in” charismatic experiment. People are helpless; they are searching for help. Many will take help from whoever offers it cheapest—with the no admission of guilt, wrong, or failure. Men try to avoid these, and yet when they receive the so-called help, it leaves them unfulfilled. It doesn’t meet their needs.
We can desire new life all we want, and beat our arms to get it; but, like the man underwater, we cannot have what we want. We are held captive in chains we cannot break. We are held underwater by hands too strong for us. The Psalmist writes, “I lift up my eyes to the hills—where does my help come from?” Surrounded by foes, standing in the valley of the shadow of death, when you look up to the hills in that dark valley, what do you see? Do you expect to see more forces of the enemy ready to descend upon you and lay you waste? NO! For those born of the water and the Spirit, we see our salvation. “My help comes from the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth.”
“Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to Spirit.” We cannot hope to receive air from what is holding us below the water—the weight of sin. Our own flesh is powerless. But don’t let that worry you. The flesh of those to whom you might seek help is equally powerless. Only by grace! Only by the Spirit is your spirit enlivened. Only by the breath of God do you receive breath. Only by the Spirit working in others is their help of any benefit. There is no explanation for the levity that comes with being born from above. “The wind blows where it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” When you have been born of the Spirit, you are reconciled to God; you have no explanation for it. You enter the kingdom of heaven, and no one—at least from the flesh—can understand where you are going or where you have been.