The birth from above. 3:1-15


Jesus' encounter with Nicodemus serves to teach the truth that salvation requires a birth from above, a spiritual birth available to all who believe.

The passage

v1-2. We are told Nicodemus is a member of the Sanhedrin, "the Jewish ruling council". He comes to Jesus, moving from darkness into the light. He addresses Jesus as "Rabbi", recognizing him as a new teacher of the Law.

v3. Jesus pulls down the framework of Nicodemus' life. Even just to see the kingdom of God requires a radical spiritual from above. The term "kingdom" is not used much in this gospel. It is best understood as both the realm and reign of God.

v4. The word-play between born from above and reborn has Nicodemus thinking Jesus has called for rebirth - the remaking of his person.

v5-8. Jesus again repeats his proposition. This time he uses the word "enter" rather than "see" and describes the birth from above as a washing with the Spirit. Of course, as with wind, we do not understand the dynamics of spiritual birth - it is real, but mysterious. It's important to note that Jesus' reference to "water" here has nothing to do with water baptism.

v9-13. Nicodemus is baffled, but Jesus assures him that he knows what he is talking about. In the discourse so far, Jesus has revealed a fairly basic Biblical truth, but Nicodemus has failed to understand the point Jesus is making. If a person like Nicodemus cannot understand an idea like "born from above", how will he even understand the redemptive purpose in Jesus' crucifixion - a heavenly thing indeed.

v14-15. We are now given a glimpse of the "heavenly things", a glimpse into profound theology. In the same way as the bronze serpent was lifted up on a stake in the desert during the time of the forty years wandering of the children of Israel, so will Jesus, the Son of Man, be lifted up. All who looked at that snake were spared death. So too, all who look in faith at Jesus will be spared. The lifting up obviously refers to the cross of Jesus, but it must be remembered that for John, Christ's lifting up on the cross is his lifting up to heavenly glory. So, when someone looks in faith to Jesus, trusts Jesus, they are caught up in both the humiliation and the glory of the cross. The point being made in verse 15 is that whoever looks to the crucified Christ, trusting him for God's promised fullness of life, that person finds themselves "in" Christ, identified with Christ, and thus in possession of eternal life. Through faith we possess the fullness of God's promised real life in Christ.

By grace through faith

The Son of Man has been lifted up on the cross so that whosoever believes, may be born from above and so possess eternal life in him.

From the Church Fathers, through Martin Luther to John Wesley, preachers have stressed the sate of human loss - flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God. We may be a descendent of Abraham, a faithful pious Jew, a teacher of Israel, but unless we are born from above, born spiritually, we cannot enter the kingdom of heaven, let alone even see it's coming. Entering the kingdom of God, possessing salvation, getting into God's presence and standing eternally approved before him, is not something gained by human effort, or ingenuity.

To stand accepted before God requires a conversion of one's whole being. It requires being born from above, washed new by the Spirit of God. Such a dynamic life-change demands a total renewal of our being. For our frail humanity, such a spiritual change is impossible. Our only hope lies in the hands of God. Only the Spirit of God can renew our beings; only he can give eternal life as a free gift.

So, life eternal is a gift of God's grace. We apply that grace to ourselves by trusting Christ. It is when we reach out to him as the only ground for our eternal security, that we receive, as a gift of God, eternal salvation. "Ask and you shall receive."

The basis of this salvation, freely offered in Christ, is found in Jesus' sacrificial death on the cross. He dies in our stead; he rises on our behalf. In the cross of Jesus we die and we rise. We look to the lifted up one, and in that looking we are lifted up to glory.

The theology, encapsulated in our passage for study, has driven the Christian church to undertake mission, to reach beyond itself to the lost and broken. We recognize the essential need for personal conversion and so we preach for conversion. We proclaim the simple message that there is no way to get into the presence of the living God other than by a spiritual birth from above. This spiritual birth is offered to humanity as a gift from a gracious God, on the basis of Jesus' death and resurrection, and is appropriated through the instrument of faith. So, a mark of the Christian church is a love of the evangel - the gospel, the message of God's grace in Christ.


1. Discuss Jesus' word play - born again / born from above. What idea is he trying to convey to us?

2. Explain how the lifting up of the snake in the desert by Moses relates to Jesus' lifting up.

[Printer icon]   Print-friendly: Sermon Notes. and Technical Notes

Index of studies: Resource library
[Pumpkin Cottage]
Pumpkin Cottage Ministry Resources
Lectionary Bible Studies and Sermons