Religion meets Grace
The 3rd chapter of John’s gospel is one of the most well-known passages in the entire Bible, especially John 3:16, and for good reason. It is a beautiful, though brief, snapshot of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The next two verses add so much clarity to vs 16 that they should be quoted too when we quote verse 16 .
16 “For God so loved the world,that he gave his only Son, 16 that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. (John 3:16-18)
This passage goes hand-in-glove with chapter 1:11-13
11 He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. 12 But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God,13 who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. (John 1:11-1)
Both passages are saying essentially the same thing. Jesus saves those who come to him by grace though faith. Men and women are not saved by heritage, ritual, good deeds, or religion but by the person and work of Jesus. Right away in the opening of John 3 we are introduced to a man, a leader of the Jews and a teacher, one Nicodemus.
By human standards there is little doubt that Nicodemus was a good man. Perhaps one of the best men in Israel. But he was a dead man walking. He needed life, the eternal life Jesus gives as a free gift to those who trust him. John 1:17 says, “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ“. Nicodemus was a Moses man, not a Jesus man. He was all about the law of Moses, he know nothing of the grace of God.
In this meeting was the clash of two worlds, religion was looking grace right in the face! Yet, he didn’t see it. How many are the thousands who think that by faithful church attendance, giving to the poor, not swearing, etc., etc. that somehow God will see their goodness and approve them for eternity with him in the end. Here was a man who was more driven to keep and preserve the law of God than perhaps anyone. Because of his hard work and dedication to the law he had risen in the ranks to the very top of Judaism. He was religious but lost. Jesus was about to give him the news, good and bad.
In John 3:1,2a, we read , “3 Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. 2 This man came to Jesus by night….”
Why did he come at night? Scholars have discussed the question since the first century and they don’t know any more than I do. The Bible does not say why. I have even heard sermons on reasons as if the guy actually knew why. Some suggestions are that he came at night because he didn’t want anyone to see him meeting with Jesus. The cover of darkness would be less risky. Jesus was not popular with the Jewish hierarchy. Perhaps he came after dark because it was more comfortable to travel at night because of the heat. I think a good possibility was that he came when he was off work. He was a teacher, a leader of the Jews, a Pharisee and he sat on the Sanhedrin court. He likely had no time to travel even a short distance on foot for a conversation with a stranger during the day. Why he came at night is not important enough for God to tell us so we move on…
2 This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” (John 3:2)
On some level Nicodemus knew Jesus was different. He also was convinced that God was with him because of the “signs” (miracles) Jesus was doing. Beyond that, even though his scholarship was unquestioned and he represented God and God’s law to the people of Israel, he knew absolutely nothing more. It seemingly never once occurred to him that this “teacher” might just be Messiah.
Jesus was an in-your-face evangelist. Right out of the box in answer to this respected Jewish leader’s inquiry Jesus dropped a verbal bomb!
3 Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (John 3:3)
Of course Nicodemus was caught off guard. What was Jesus talking about? “How can these things be ?” How could anyone be born a second time? It didn’t make any sense to him. Jesus continued then, saying,
“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 5b-8)
Here I want to address perhaps the most controversial statements in the Gospel of John.
“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’
What is the water of John 3 verse 5? I will only be able to draw upon my learning, what I have been taught, and what I have observed in my long life of study. I am not going to give these in order of importance.
- The “water” of John 3:5 means physical birth. Most of the preachers in my early years believed this and preached it. While the next verse fits that meaning, “that which is born of flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit”, it is not logical. Nicodemus had been born, he was standing there in flesh. He did not need to have another flesh birth. It is true that before birth a baby is enveloped in a sac of water and so otherwise sound Bible preachers run off in the ditch here in my view.
- The “water” of John 3:5 means ceremonial cleansing water. Earlier in John when Jesus turned the water into wine it was into those water pots regularly used to hold water for ceremonial cleansing. It is no small thing that those particular pots were used and that the wine as we know represents the blood of Christ which cleanses us in a way ceremonial water never could. This is important, every Jew with much training was well aware of the significance of water in the history of Judaism. Jesus said to Nicodemus in verse 10, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?”. That question alone in my view disqualifies option 2. Nicodemus would have known about that “water”.
- The “water” of John 3:5 means Christian baptism. Perhaps 2/3rd’s of all professing Christian believers agree that this is the correct meaning for “water” in the passage in question. So far as I know all believers with roots in the Stone-Campbell movement, Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Anglicans, Orthodox, some Pentecostals and others to numerous to name accept this definition. Perhaps they are all correct. Now among those mentioned here there is wide differences about the significance of water baptism. Some people I believe go to far making baptism the Savior. Preaching water baptism is not the same as preaching the gospel. We must be careful to not go further on any subject than the Bible goes.
- The “water” of John 3:5 means the Word of God. Many good scholars hold this view, and I might add, with very good cause. Look at these examples of “water” being used to describe the cleansing effects of the Word of God.
Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26 that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, 27 so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish (Ephesians 5:25b-27)
22 Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart, 23 since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God (1 Peter 1:22-23)
18 Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures. (James 1:18)
3 Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. (John15:3)
It was not uncommon but rather very usual for Jesus to use symbolism and parables to get truth to the people he spoke to. He said “I am the door”, but he had no hinges or a latch. He said “I am the bread of life”, and he said as he dined with his disciples before his death “take, eat, this is my body”. And so when Jesus spoke to Nicodemus saying be born of “water and the Spirit” he was not necessarily speaking literally. The word translated “spirit” in our Bibles, in the Greek may be translated either “spirit” or “wind”. In fact Jesus compared a Christian, one born again, as being like the wind. The meaning was interchangable depending on the context of what was being said.
Nicodemus questioned Jesus about this “water”, “spirit”, and “wind” talk saying “How can these things be”. From that point on Jesus spoke clearly and concisely, there is no ambiguity about what he said. Nicodemus left that meeting having understood what Jesus was talking about.
9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? 11 Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony.12 If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
16 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. 20 For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. 21 But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.” (John 3:9-21)
“ And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life
Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.
This is plain talk, easy to understand. Over and over and over again the Bible teaches that sinners are saved through the person and work of Jesus Christ by grace though faith.
You and I don’t have to know the meaning of every verse in the Bible. But God has put the cookies on the bottom shelf when it comes to the gospel of Christ and salvation. As Jesus pointed out to Nicodemus, people refuse the message of Christ because their deeds are evil and don’t want the light of the world to shine on them.
In closing. We should never allow our differences of opinion to interfere with our unity as brothers and sisters in the faith. No person or group has a monopoly on the truth. What we agree on far outweighs what we disagree about.