Main Idea: The only credential that guarantees entrance to heaven is the new birth.
- Nicodemus’s Religious Credentials (3:1-2)
- Religious Credentials Are Insufficient to Save (3:3).
- The New Birth Is the Only Sufficient Credential (3:4-13).
What credentials gain a person entrance into heaven? Every man, woman, and child will stand before the God of heaven to be judged. Some will be sent to hell: a place of eternal torment. Some will be given entrance to heaven: a place of eternal joy. What credentials is God looking for? In chapter 3 Jesus gives a clear—and for many people, surprising—answer.
Before we examine the answer, we must consider the context, found at the end of chapter 2 (vv. 23-25). This short paragraph serves as a transition between the previous account—of Jesus in Jerusalem during the Passover celebration—and the accounts that follow. The next few chapters are filled with conversations. Jesus speaks with a religious leader, a promiscuous woman, a government official, and a lame man. In each conversation Jesus looks into their souls. Some believe and follow him, but many only listen to him because they want him to perform miracles. Jesus’s first extended conversation in John’s Gospel centers on what credentials are required to get into heaven. The first couple of verses introduce us to Nicodemus and show us his remarkable religious credentials.
Nicodemus’s Religious Credentials
Nicodemus is very serious about religion. He is a Pharisee. This is the second mention of Pharisees in the book (cf. 1:24), but it’s the first encounter between Jesus and a Pharisee. The main thing to understand about Pharisees is their zeal to obey God’s law. They were serious about obeying every command God had laid out in the Old Testament. Judaism teaches that the Old Testament has 613 commandments—248 dos and 365 don’ts. The Pharisees were a religious group of around six thousand men committed to obeying every single command. When one became a Pharisee, he pledged in front of three witnesses to uphold every detail of the law for the rest of his life (Barclay, John, 1:140). In fact, they were so committed to obeying each command they developed additional commands based on the original 613 commandments to ensure they didn’t mistakenly violate the originals.
Here are a few examples. One of the original commands was to keep the Sabbath day holy. To keep it holy one must avoid working on the Sabbath. The Pharisees spent time figuring out what constitutes work. Is tying a knot on the Sabbath work? Yes and no. Tying a rope to a bucket to draw water from a well is work. A lady tying a knot in her clothing on the Sabbath is not work. So, if you need water on the Sabbath, you can have a lady tie a knot in her clothes around the handle of the bucket and lower it. That’s acceptable (Barclay, John, 2:142). Jeremiah 17:21 commands the Israelites not to bear a burden on the Sabbath. What constitutes a burden? Here are some of the questions the Pharisees asked (ibid., 143): Is moving a chair closer to the table work? If a woman picks up a broach to pin it on, is it work? Can a man wear dentures on the Sabbath? Are these burdens that violate the law?
The Pharisees wrote these laws and commands because they were serious about religion. They were zealous to obey. They wanted to make sure they followed every last letter of God’s law. If you had a Pharisee for a kid, you would have been thrilled. You hit the jackpot. He would be serious about obedience.
Nicodemus is serious about religion, and as a result, he’s morally upstanding. There will be no scandal where Nicodemus is concerned. His closet is free from skeletons. If you ask him a question and he responds, you can believe him. The law says, “Don’t bear false witness,” so Nicodemus will tell you the truth. Teachers can leave him alone in a class while taking a test, and he won’t cheat. The law says, “Don’t steal,” so the other students’ answers are safe around him.
Nicodemus is also a powerful leader. He’s called a “ruler of the Jews” (John 3:1). Most likely Nicodemus is a member of the Sanhedrin. If you were to combine the United States Senate with the Supreme Court, you would have the Sanhedrin. Seventy men, led by the high priest, serve as the governing body of the nation, and Nicodemus is one of them. Later in the Gospel of John, Nicodemus argues a point in front of the Sanhedrin. He’s clearly a man with authority and influence.
With these credentials, we might expect Nicodemus to be arrogant or haughty, but when he speaks to Jesus, he is kind and respectful. In verse 2 he addresses Jesus as, “Rabbi.” Rabbi means “teacher” and is a title of respect. It’s a title Nicodemus would have been called by regularly. By calling Jesus “Rabbi,” he greets Jesus as an equal.
Finally, in verse 10 Jesus refers to Nicodemus as “a teacher of Israel.” In the Greek, Nicodemus is literally the teacher of Israel—he is extremely knowledgeable. You don’t become one of the voices, if not the preeminent religious voice, in Israel without having an amazing grasp of the Old Testament. Nicodemus certainly has lengthy portions of the Old Testament memorized. He’s an expert in the 613 commandments, plus the additional commandments that explicated the original ones. Other religious leaders would have sought Nicodemus for advice.
If Nicodemus were around today, here’s what you would think: Man, I wish we had hired him instead of our pastor. He’s got much better credentials. He’s more serious about keeping the law. He’s made far fewer mistakes. He’s more humble. He knows the Bible better. He comes from a more prominent position. He’s everything a church would look for in a pastor and more.
Religious Credentials Are Insufficient to Save
Jesus looks at Nicodemus and says in effect, “Your religious credentials aren’t good enough to get you to heaven. The only way you get to heaven is through rebirth” (v. 3). Try to picture Nicodemus’s face at this news. There would be no hiding the look of shock and amazement. “What do you mean? With all I’ve done, how could I be excluded from God’s kingdom?” Jesus is swinging a sledgehammer and shattering the foundation Nicodemus stands on. Nicodemus has lived his entire life assuming his religious credentials guarantee him a place in God’s kingdom, and now Jesus essentially says, “Sorry, Nicodemus, you’re wrong. You aren’t good enough to get in.”
Jesus says something similar in the Gospel of Matthew. He tells the people, “Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never get into the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5:20; emphasis added). Surpasses that of those devout people? Exceeds? That’s impossible! Exactly. Entrance to heaven is out of reach, even for the most moral, upstanding, law-keeping person you know.
The New Birth Is the Only Sufficient Credential
Only one thing gains a person entrance to heaven, and that’s being born again. Jesus uses the word unless. The new birth is the exclusive way to enter heaven. Nicodemus takes it literally: “How does that work? What do you mean? It sounds impossible” (v. 4). But Jesus is not referring to a physical birth (vv. 5-6).
Jesus is flipping Nicodemus’s theology upside down. Nicodemus thought entering God’s kingdom had everything to do with physical birth. If a person was born a Jew, he would automatically have a spot in God’s kingdom. He would only be kept out if he were blasphemous or extremely wicked (Carson, John, 189). But Jesus says the opposite. No matter who a person is, he is automatically kept out of God’s kingdom by his sin. He would only be let in if he were born again.
If being born again isn’t a physical birth, then what is it? Jesus says it’s a spiritual birth. The Spirit of God makes a person alive and new from the inside. The new birth happens when God’s Spirit animates the human spirit, making a person alive to the things of God. It’s the total transformation of a person from the inside out. Nicodemus and the Pharisees had studied the Old Testament, but they missed what God said. God said following external laws would never be enough for a person to enter his kingdom. What a person needed was an internal transformation. God made this promise in the Old Testament:
I will also sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean. I will cleanse you from all your impurities and all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will remove your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will place my Spirit within you and cause you to follow my statutes and carefully observe my ordinances. (Ezek 36:25-27)
In spite of all of his learning, Nicodemus had missed it. He was so focused on cleaning the outside and keeping external laws that he missed what God said. In essence God said, “You need to be clean on the inside—washed with water. You need your heart to come alive by my Spirit. Then, and only then, will you be able to obey me.” The Pharisees thought God wanted radical external conformity, and they missed the promise of radical internal transformation. God said, “I don’t want you to clean yourself up. I want to make you brand-new.”
We often think God is after a clean outside. “If I just get things in order—get a haircut, start making better choices, avoid sin, go to church, look nice—then God will be pleased.” God is not interested in your personal remodeling project. He wants to remake and reshape you from the inside. We struggle to understand this because we don’t understand how bad we are. We think we’re pretty good. Like Nicodemus, we think our religious credentials will stand up to God’s examination. We don’t understand God’s requirement: perfection. After Jesus said your righteousness must exceed the Pharisees’ righteousness to enter heaven, he went on to say, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt 5:48). But you can’t be perfect! In fact, we’re all far from perfect, so we need more than a little touch-up. We need to be made new. Our radical corruption from sin demands a radical redemption from God: we need a brand-new birth.
Nicodemus is floored by this news, but Jesus explains how this new birth happens (John 3:7-8). The new birth is a sovereign work of the Spirit of God, which is unmistakably evident in a person’s life. Jesus uses the wind to illustrate the Spirit’s work. He says that “the wind blows where it pleases,” and so does the Spirit. In other words, you can’t do anything to make yourself come alive spiritually. You may be able to clean up the outside, but you can’t remake the inside. What must happen for you to enter God’s kingdom is something you are unable to do.
You can’t do anything to enter God’s kingdom. You can’t keep enough rules. You can’t give enough money. You can’t attend enough services. You can’t memorize enough verses. You didn’t do anything to be born physically, and you can’t do anything to be born spiritually. The only way you can be born again is for the Spirit of God to do it all. If you’re not a Christian, you won’t become one by work or effort or ability or sacrifice, but you can pray for God to send his Spirit like the wind and blow through your dead heart and make you alive. If you are a Christian, you didn’t become one because you’re particularly lovable, smart, or talented. You’re a Christian because the Spirit of God blew where he wished, and he wished to blow inside your soul. He swept through your heart and brought you to life; he made you alive to God. R. C. Sproul wrote,
If you have in your heart today any affection for Christ at all, it is because God the Holy Spirit in his sweetness, in his power, in his mercy, and in his grace has been to the cemetery of your soul and has raised you from the dead. (John, 40)
The new birth is a sovereign work of God’s Spirit, and it is an evident work of God’s Spirit. We may not know where the wind is coming from, where it’s going, or why it’s blowing, but we know when it’s there. I drove by a stretch of road where a tornado had hit. I wasn’t there when the tornado came. I don’t remember hearing about the tornado in the news. But I knew a tornado had gone through there because along both sides of the interstate I saw uprooted and snapped trees—unmistakable evidence of a mighty wind. When the Spirit of God blows life into a person’s soul, there will be unmistakable evidence. The first piece of evidence is that the person will believe in Jesus. That’s what Jesus tells Nicodemus (vv. 9-13).
If you’ve been born again, you will believe what Jesus says. You will understand he came from heaven to be born as a man, and you will place your faith in him. The single, unmistakable sign of the new birth is faith in Jesus. It’s not respect for Jesus or a good opinion of Jesus—Nicodemus had both of those. It’s wholehearted faith in Jesus. It’s believing every word he says and committing everything to him. When the Spirit blows, we don’t find toppled trees; we discover toppled doubts. The Spirit uproots the forest of skepticism and self-reliance that grows in our hearts and plants seeds of faith.
At one point Chuck Colson was one of the most hated men in America. He was part of the Nixon White House and was sent to prison for his role in the Watergate scandal. When he got out of prison, he wrote a book called Born Again. In the book he claimed to have had his life radically transformed by Jesus Christ. People were skeptical. Eventually their skepticism faded as they watched Colson devote his life to teaching the Bible in prisons around the world.
It doesn’t matter if you’re morally blameless like Nicodemus or morally compromised like Chuck Colson. You may think you’re really good, or you may think you’re really bad. No matter who you are, when you stand before the God of heaven, the only thing that will matter is whether the Spirit of God has transformed you from the inside out.
What Nicodemus thought was a title of honor—I’m a Pharisee, a member of the Sanhedrin, the teacher of Israel—was actually a stumbling block keeping him from God. What’s keeping you from being born again? Someday you’ll stand before him, and he’ll ask to see your credentials. You can’t bluff him. You can’t trick him. You can’t impress him. All that matters is whether he’s transformed you from the inside out—whether he’s made you new.
Reflect and Discuss
- Who were the Pharisees, and what did they do?
- What do we know about Nicodemus from this passage?
- How is Nicodemus’s interaction with Jesus different from the way other Pharisees interacted with Jesus?
- What are we to believe about Jesus from this passage?
- How is the central message of this passage good news for you today?
- What does it mean to be born again?
- How does the need to be born again show the folly of the Pharisees’ extreme focus on obedience?
- Is it hard for you to believe that God desires an internal transformation in your life rather than external conformity?
- What evidence will exist in the life of a person who has been born again?
- Why are Jesus’s words to Nicodemus a message of hope to sinners?