While He was in Jerusalem during the Feast of the Passover and the week of Unleavened Bread which followed it, Jesus must have begun His ministry of healing the sick and delivering those oppressed by demons because John says, many believed in His name beholding Him (because of) the signs which He was doing (literal). And then John adds the strangest statement. He says, But Jesus, on His part, was not entrusting Himself to them, for He knew all men. Then he reinforces that statement by saying, because He did not need anyone to testify concerning man (humankind), for He Himself knew what was in man.
What does that mean? Its easy to see why He might not trust people who didnt believe in Him, but John tells us He didnt trust those who did, and then he tells us why. He says its because Jesus knew what was inside every human being. So what was it that He knew about us that He didnt trust? As well soon discover, He knew that religious enthusiasm is fickle, and it can evaporate in a moment. He knew that the human heart must undergo a profound transformation before anyone can be trusted to follow Him on the path that leads to a cross. And then to help us understand this truth, John lets us listen to a dialogue between Jesus and one of those people who believed in Him. The mans name was Nicodemus, and during their conversation Jesus explained to him what would have to happen inside him before God could consider him trustworthy. This is a conversation to which we need to listen carefully, because until this happens inside us, Jesus doesnt trust us either. Lets listen.
Nicodemus (Jn 3:1-5)
Nicodemus was a member of the Sanhedrin and possibly one of the most popular teachers in Israel (v10). As he watched Jesus perform miracles and heard Him speak he became one of those who believed in His name. He was an example of a sincere but un-transformed seeker, and as we listen to him we can hear what he believed. He believed Jesus had been sent by God to do what He was doing. He believed Jesus was teaching the truth. He believed God was at work through Jesus because no one could do the signs He was doing without divine power. And because of what he believed he longed to talk to Jesus privately, yet if word got back to the high priest or those on the Sanhedrin who were hostile to Jesus, he would be pressed to renounce Jesus and if he didnt hed probably be removed. So to protect himself, he came at night to the olive grove where Jesus was camping to ask questions. Jesus didnt waste any time in telling this powerful religious leader that God would have to miraculously transform his heart before he could even begin to understand the new way of life that Jesus had come to make possible. He told him this using terms Nicodemus didnt understand at the time. He said he would have to be born from above, and for that to happen he would have to be born of water and born of the Spirit. But Nicodemus didnt know what He meant, yet because he was sincerely seeking the truth a day was coming when he would understand and be changed.
What Jesus knew
As people watched Jesus they believed different things about Him. Some believed He was a great teacher, some a prophet, some even believed He was the promised Messiah (Mt 16:13-16; Lk 9:7-8). And believing doctrinal truth about Jesus is a good thing, but its not enough because truth alone cant change the human heart. Were still helpless to resist our flesh, and Jesus knew that. He knew that when real pressure, real temptation came along, those believers would betray Him, and He knows the same thing about us today. Thats one reason He was absolutely certain that Peter would betray Him (Mk 14:29-31). Peter wasnt a bad man; he was a normal man. So there was no doubt that when the hour of darkness arrived Peter and (almost) everyone else abandoned Jesus. At that point no one had the resources necessary to resist. But they soon would. Most had already been born of water and on the day of Pentecost they would be born of the Spirit, and from then on they were trustworthy. They became fearless in the face of threats, they patiently endured persecution, they conducted themselves with integrity, and they proclaimed Jesus with a holy boldness.
In Jesus footsteps
For this inner miracle to take place Jesus said a person must be born from above, and I believe He used that term to describe what happened to Him when He was baptized by John in the Jordan River. In other words, each of us must follow in His footsteps (Mt 3:13-17; Jn 1:32-33). What happened to Him must happen to us.
When Jesus was baptized by John He didnt confess sins or ask God for forgiveness, because He had no sin to confess. But something very profound took place. He used the symbol of baptism to willingly surrender to Gods path that led to the cross. If He surrendered to Gods will, a cross awaited Him, and He knew it. So as He stood there in the water He changed for us for all time the meaning of baptism. He hadnt come there to wash His sins away. He came there to embrace a cross, so He asked John to bury Him.
When He came up out of the water, the heavens above Him opened up and the Holy Spirit descended on Him like a dove. At that moment He was baptized in the Holy Spirit. There in the river two actions took place:
1) Jesus full surrender was symbolized by His burial in the water.
2) Gods indwelling presence came down upon Him from heaven (from above).
In that moment God prepared the human Jesus for the ministry that lay ahead of Him, and Jesus told Nicodemus that the same thing would have to happen to him. He too must be born of water (full surrender to the path of the cross). He too must be born of the Spirit (baptized in the Holy Spirit) in order for him to see (spiritually understand) and enter into (participate in) the new work that God was now doing in the earth. For Nicodemus to be changed there would have to be a human decision and a divine response; the water and the Spirit; a deep surrender and a powerful indwelling.
Ezekiel and Jeremiah
Jesus was surprised that a student of the Bible like Nicodemus didnt understand what He was talking about, because this inner miracle had been foretold very precisely by the prophets. Its actually mentioned in many places, but two prophets saw it with amazing clarity: Ezekiel and Jeremiah. They said when the Messiah arrived a great miracle would take place in the hearts of people. Listen:
Ezekiel 36:25 I will sprinkle clean water on you and you will be clean.
Ezekiel 36:26 Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you, and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.
Ezekiel 36:27 I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances.
Jeremiah 31:31 Behold, days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah,
Jeremiah 31:33 ...this is the covenant which I will make
after those days
I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it
Jeremiah 31:34 They shall not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, Know the Lord for they shall all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them
for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.
In other words, when that promised miracle arrives a person can be trusted. God trusts them because they genuinely want to please Him and have been filled with the Spirit so that they have the power to obey Him. They arent perfect, but they are continually forgiven which means God will not leave them, and even the least (weakest) will still know Him (Ro 7:15-8:1).
A transformed person
This is why you can know a tree by its fruit (Mt 7:15-23). A transformed person will, as time progresses, produce good fruit. Why? Because they want to and have been given the power they need to obey, and God wont leave them while theyre struggling to learn how to obey. This person doesnt need to be motivated by threats or bribes, they already desire to please God. They simply need to be shown how and encouraged while they learn.
Yet not everyone who calls themselves a believer is like that. Have you noticed the difference? Im not talking about people who are still struggling to learn to obey. Im talking about people whose hearts seem unchanged. Theyre still selfish, dishonest when they feel they need to be and resent any sort of correction. No matter what they say, it doesnt appear that theres a new heart inside. We all know genuine believers with huge problems, but through it all you can tell theyre really trying. They do some surprising things that are very generous or kind or self-denying. Theres a different look in their eyes, a softness; theres even a difference in the tone of their voice. At times they may be a little too honest, but through it all you see a heart that loves Him (wheat and tares, Mt 13:24-30).
Its not our place to sit in judgment of others, but just like Jesus we too have to make decisions of whether or not to trust ourselves to people, whether or not to be vulnerable, whether or not to take their word on a matter. And Jesus own example warns us that there are people who say they believe in Him whom we should not trust, even very religious people like Nicodemus or Peter before they were born from above, or people like us before we were born from above.
What Jesus said to Nicodemus He would say to us today. He would say, You too must be born from above. And for that to happen, you and I must follow Him down into that river and surrender ourselves completely to our cross, to that selfless path that God has planned for us. We too have to bury ourselves in that watery grave with Jesus and then rise with Him to a life which is no longer focused on ourselves. And we too must welcome that dove from heaven, the baptism with the Holy Spirit, so that He can dwell inside us in power. The miracle Jesus called being born from above still requires a human decision and a divine response, the water and the Spirit, a deep surrender and a powerful indwelling. Does anyone want to be born today?
1) Describe someone you know who has that new heart. What makes you so sure that they love God?
2) Have you been born from above? For some this came in a dramatic moment, for others they cant pinpoint a time but they know its happened. If it has happened tell us when you knew for sure. If not, what has been your biggest obstacle?