Benjamin Franklin was a prolific inventor and an avid correspondent. He received letters from people all over the world. One of the most important letters he ever received was from the British evangelist George Whitfield. Whitfield preached in the 1700s in the colonies from New England to Georgia. He preached over 18,000 times to over 10 million people and brought tens of thousands to faith in Christ. Whitfield wrote to his friend Franklin, “I find that you grow more and more famous in the learned world, as you have made such progress in investigating the mysteries of electricity, I now humbly urge you to give diligent heed to the mystery of the new birth. It is a most important and interesting study and when mastered will richly repay you for your pains.” The new birth is central to Christianity: it was the focus of Jesus’ preaching and is the topic of John three.
In John 3:1-4, we see the futility of religion. Nicodemus was a Pharisee. The Pharisees arose during the inter-testament period and were highly zealous for ritual purity. They were hyper-legalists who externalized religion. Nicodemus acknowledged that Jesus was a teacher from God because of his miracles. Here is a man who had achieved high religious office, considerable national influence but had profound spiritual blindness! Do you realize there are millions of “religious leaders” in our world, who are lost, clueless and hell bound? Jesus answered the question that Nicodemus hadn’t even asked yet, “You must be born again.” Nicodemus, as accomplished as he was, needed what every single human being who ever lived needs – spiritual regeneration, wrought by the Spirit of God. Nicodemus admitted he didn’t understand. God has to open the eyes of the blind. To open Nicodemus’s eyes Jesus gave three illustrations.
We see the necessity of regeneration (5 – 15) through Jesus’ illustrations. First, the water illustration (5-7) refers to being born physically, but to be “born again” refers to being born of the Spirit. Just as there are two parents needed for a physical birth, there are two parents in a spiritual birth: the Spirit of God (John 3:5) and the Word of God (I Pet 1:23). The Spirit of God takes the Word of God and imparts the life of God. Jesus was not teaching that new life comes through water baptism. Baptism is actually a picture of our death with Christ not our birth by the Spirit. A newborn child inherits the nature of his parents: so does the child of God. We become partakers of the divine nature (II Pet 1:4).
Then in the wind illustration (8 – 13) we see the word “wind” in both Hebrew and Greek can also be translated “spirit.” The wind cannot be controlled or really understood by human beings. Likewise the Holy Spirit cannot be understood or controlled but when He is at work there is undeniable and unmistakable evidence. Nicodemus was confused. Jesus said, “You are the (preeminent) teacher in Israel and you don’t understand?” The Pharisees emphasized strict obedience to the law not simple faith in the Lord, but the Bible has always taught this. The just shall live by faith (Hab 2:4). Abraham believed in the Lord and it was counted to him as righteousness (Gen 15:6).
In the serpent illustration (14-15), Jesus refers to a story in Numbers 21:4-9 where Israel rebelled against the Lord. God sent serpents into the camp to punish them and many were bitten and died. But it is also a story of grace. Moses interceded and God provided a remedy. Moses was to make a brass serpent and lift it up on a pole and the stricken person who looked at the serpent would immediately be healed. It is a story of faith and deliverance. Jesus was foretelling that He would be lifted up on a cross and all those who looked to Him in faith would be healed from the curse of their sin and God’s judgment.
Finally, we see the simplicity of redemption (16 – 18). God sent His Son to save sinful humanity (16). This may be the greatest verse in the New Testament. The Son’s mission is bound up in the supreme love of God for the sinful world of humanity. The word “so” emphasizes the intensity and vastness of the Father’s love. What does it mean to “believe on him?” It means more than simply affirming that Jesus is God in the flesh; it means surrendering, obeying and following Him as Lord and Savior. And so sinners who believe will not be condemned (17 – 18) Unbelievers are already under the condemnation of God and face eternal punishment. Belief in Christ results in a new nature, a changed heart, and changed life.
On January 6, 1850, a snow storm struck Colchester, England and a teenage boy was unable to get to the church he usually attended. So he went to the nearby Primitive Methodist chapel, where an ill-prepared layman was substituting for the absent pastor. His text was Isaiah 45:22, “Look unto me and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth.” For some time this teenager had been miserable and under conviction about his sin. The unprepared substitute minister didn’t have much to say, so he kept repeating the phrase, “Look and be saved.” He said, “It doesn’t take a college education to “look” young man, you had better look to Jesus.” That day, the teenager, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, later known as the greatest preacher of the modern era, looked to Jesus and was gloriously saved. Salvation comes through simply looking to Jesus and believing in Him.