You won’t find a passage in the Bible more beloved or quoted than John 3 but why it is so prominent in Christian thinking?
What: The Significance
John 3 starts out as a private conversation and blossoms into the most significant passage in the Bible. It is the focal point of everything in the Old Testament and the summary of everything in the New Testament.
If the Old Testament forms a theological mountain of sorts, the discussion between Jesus and Nicodemus represents the peak. The words in this passage would definitely be high on the list when choosing a motto for Christianity’s family crest: Ye Must Be Born-Again.
Nic and Jesus conversed only one time but the topic of discussion (the new birth) represents the starting point for every Christian. Christians may disagree on many things but the new birth isn’t one of them. It binds us all together. It’s the starting point and the foundation for every conversation.
That makes it one of the most significant and favorite conversations in the Bible. It is mentioned so often that even people who don’t attend church are familiar with the exchange.
What: The Predicament
The story isn’t complicated. Nicodemus approached Jesus at night, under the cover of darkness. He used the cover of night probably to avoid any backlash for meeting with Jesus, whose recent ministry activities had created quite a division among the Jews.
Nic probably had questions but instead of asking a question, he made a confession.
Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God for no one could do the things you do if God is not with him. (John 3:2)
He called Jesus Rabbi. Some translations use the word Master. Either word makes this a significant conversation. We mustn’t read over that too quickly. Rabbis were the most respected teachers in the community and Nicodemus was a Rabbi. A Rabbi calling Jesus a Rabbi was the equivalent of calling Jesus the Rabbi’s Rabbi, the master’s master.
The interesting point is Nic was moved by Jesus’ actions, not His words.
No man could do what you do except God be with him.
More importantly, though, this observation enabled Nic to recognize Jesus for who He was.
We know you are a teacher come from God.
Teacher, by the way, is another expression of great respect and all of this together reflects Nic’s logic. He saw the miracles Jesus performed (John 2:23). He probably witnessed Jesus cleansing the Temple but instead of taking offense like his fellow teachers, he was compelled to investigate further. Confused maybe. Uncertain, yes, but not indifferent.
While his Rabbi peers were skalking around finding fault, Nic came to the only sensible, logical deduction a person could reach: Jesus wasn’t just another trouble maker. He was from God.
But he couldn’t see further than that truth. His vision was good but only for so far. Jesus was still an enigma hence the reason for the meeting. Nic still had questions.
What: The Precursor
Paul later declared that he preached repentance toward God and faith toward Jesus Christ. What Paul preached, Nicodemus illustrated.
Nicodemus could be a study in repentance, what it looks like and how it works. He saw the evidence and instead of closing his mind to the obvious, and going along with his unbelieving peers, he changed. He followed the truth of what he saw and discovered the truth he couldn’t see: the new birth.
He didn’t and couldn’t understand everything but based on the evidence, he knew there was more and was willing to meet with Jesus in spite of the potential persecution it might cause.
What: The Revelation
This passage, however, wasn’t written to tell us what he or we already knew before we met Jesus. Jesus wasn’t in the habit of telling us what we could figure out for ourselves. This record is provided to reveal what we did not and could not know without the intervention of Jesus.
This is the first clear mention of born-again in the New Testament. We all need it but without this passage, we might not be aware.
This brief conversation is fundamental to Christian belief and I don’t mean only in the theological conceptualizing sense. It’s theological, yes, but more importantly, it’s personal. The point of this conversation applies to every person. Every person can be and needs to be born again and every born-again person is changed forever.
We don’t see it before hand, we don’t easily get it when we first hear about it, but we can’t deny it once it happens.
When Jesus mentioned born-again, Nicodemus didn’t understand. In spite of the fact that Jesus did provide a brief explanation (the first birth is water, the second is spiritual), He did not provide a full dissection of the topic.
This is a case where experience is far more instructive than explanations.
Bewilderment was the appropriate response. Nicodemus expressed confusion not denial. He was willing to act but wasn’t sure what to do. His response is quite understandable.
What: The Mystery
Nic clearly equated Jesus with God but he had no clue about born-again. He didn’t know it was a thing so he couldn’t know he needed it, and once Jesus made it known, he didn’t know how to respond. He was baffled. It wasn’t that he didn’t believe Jesus. He wanted to proceed further but he wasn’t sure how to process born-again. Rationally it was beyond reach.
I can tell you confidently that I am born-again. Many other Christians can do the same. I have no doubts that God changed my life forever but if you ask me exactly what happened, other than mention I have a new heart or new nature, I couldn’t explain it.
You can’t put born-again under a microscope. It can’t be x-rayed and there is no genomic code or biological study for the new nature. Like your first nature, it just is.
The first nature and the new nature are similar in this regard. We can’t explain how either one came to be. I can say that I inherited my first nature from my parents but I couldn’t say exactly how that happened. It’s a mystery. Psychologists are still trying to figure out how a person’s nature coupled with circumstance and personal interaction shapes them as they mature. This research, however, starts with the assumption that we all have a nature even if its creation can’t be reproduced in a lab.
Repentance and belief are what I do. Born-again is what God does. I can share the events that brought me to repentance. I can tell you how I felt and what I thought before, after, and at the point of the new birth. I can assert that God changed my heart but I can’t tell you how He put a new heart in my soul.
Why: The Necessity
While it is difficult to analyze the birth of a new nature organically, we can at least understand why it is necessary. In simple terms, born-again is essential because our first nature can never be good enough and that creates the necessity for a new one.
This is not difficult to understand. My mother said it, your mother said it and anyone with common sense knows the following statement is true.
You cannot turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse.
This maxim is recognized universally and easily understood. Inferior materials can’t be used to make superior products.
It also implies that the nature of two vastly different materials can never be the same.
One thing cannot become another: water can’t become oil, salt can’t become sugar, tree trunks don’t become steel, fat doesn’t convert to protein, and so on.
And in the case of a sow’s ear there are no conditions under which that principle doesn’t apply:
- It has nothing to do with age. Even the ear of a newborn piglet, though fresh and tender, is still a sow’s ear and will never be a silk purse.
- It has nothing to do with blemishes. The nature of an unblemished sow’s ear is no different biologically than any other sow’s ear and will never be a silk purse.
- It has nothing to do with diet, breeding, domestication, or training. These things can produce a stronger, healthier, more superior breed of sow but none of them separately or all together can produce silk instead of a sow.
- A sow’s ear does serve useful purposes: hearing for pigs, food in many cultures and is even used decoratively but becoming a silk purse is not a possibility and every sensible person knows that.
The idea that a sow’s ear can never become a silk purse is a simple and easy concept to understand but when it comes to the question of “moral nature” we trade common sense for delusion.
Instead of accepting the words of Jesus and believing we must be born again – by which we receive a new nature – we think that somehow we can convert our first-birth nature into one that is considerably more different than even a silk purse is to a sow’s ear. Rational that idea is not.
Even if possible, it would be immeasurably more difficult to convert a sinful nature – the kind with which every person is born – into one that is saintly than it would be to turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse.
And comparing yourself to other humans, though a popular approach, is not the answer either. It is no better than comparing one sow’s ear to another. One ear may, in fact, be better than others but they are still fundamentally the same. A sow’s ear is always a sow’s ear and a sinful nature is always a sinful nature.
The Bible actually has something to say to those who would assess their nature based on how favorably they compare to others:
There isn’t a righteous person on earth who does only good and never sins. (Solomon, Eccelsiastes 7:20)
And in the New Testament Paul verified that:
For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God. (Paul, Romans 3:23)
The answer in both cases is obvious and a reasonable person has no problem admitting to that. The only solution is a completely separate and new nature, which is why Jesus insisted we be born-again.
So, like the sow, your age, apparent perfection, diet, breeding or discipline will not convert your sinful nature into something akin to a saint. Even John the Baptist made the same point:
He (Jesus) came unto his own, and his own received him not. 12 But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name. 13 Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God. (John 1:12-13)
Yes, people in their first-birth state are capable of doing good things and serving many useful purposes just like a sow’s ear but, also like the sow’s ear, their basic nature will never be transformed. An even worse delusion occurs when a person refuses to admit they have a sinful nature, when they think they are above it or beyond it. To that person we say:
Be careful! It may take a moral catastrophe for the penny to drop.
And we encourage you NOT to wait until you fall completely and publicly out of the moral saddle before you accept this basic truth. That was exactly what happened to David who after committing adultery and murder in a rare moment of lucidity, as if seeing an obvious fact for the first time, said:
Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me. (Psalm 51:5)
The sinful nature with which we are born and the saintly nature we desperately need are completely different and totally incompatible. One cannot be molded into the other. They cannot be combined to form a composite whole and neither will ever serve the purpose of the other.
The obvious conclusion? There will be no sow’s ears in heaven, metaphorically speaking. This is a challenging truth for everyone.
I admit that telling people they are basically nothing but a sow’s ear can seem harsh and judgmental and that Christians can be smug and indifferent. It’s a challenge.
But challenging or not each person stands on one or the other side of the issue and both have responsibilities. Those with the new nature must find a way to humbly share this truth with others? Those still musing the idea must realize they can’t make it alone.
How: The Simplicity
This is the best part. Born-again is not difficult to secure. Jesus taught it and Paul preached it.
Jesus: Verily, verily I say unto you. He that hears my word and believes on Him that sent me has everlasting life and shall not come into condemnation but is passed from death unto life. (John 5:24)
Paul: Testifying both to the Jews and also to the Greeks, repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ. (Acts 20:21)
For those that may wonder, hearing as Jesus used the word is more than just an audible register. It is more like The light has come on, I see what you’re saying and I accept this. That is the equivalent of repentance, a change of mind.
Hearing signals a connection between the meaning of one person and the understanding of another. It is the point of failure or success in relationship management.
So, the question is Are you hearing? And if so, Will you believe?
It is only fitting that we end with a quote from Jesus:
Verily, verily, I say unto you, except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. (John 3:5)