What would you say, if the most respected religious authority you knew, commended you on your faith and the practice of it? As Jesus began His ministry, He drew the attention of several people who were religious leaders in Jerusalem. Most of them did not like Him, probably because they felt threatened by Him. However, one man, Nicodemus, came to Jesus by night and began with a flowery benediction as he addressed Him.
John 3:1-2 There was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. 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.”
I don’t think that he got the response that he expected. Instead of returning the nicety, Jesus immediately began to instruct this “teacher of Israel” on basic points of the Faith. Remembering that Nicodemus was one of the Pharisees, this would be unheard of audacity if Jesus was not indeed, “a teacher come from God.” Nicodemus considered himself in the Kingdom of God already (though it was a kingdom that awaited its consummation). He was a Pharisee, the most elite group of Jews there was, the most holy of the holy men of God’s people, Israel. As Jesus dispensed with the cordial conversation and went to the heart of the matter, He destroyed the religion of this man.
John 3:3-4 Jesus answered and said to him, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” 4 Nicodemus said to Him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?”
This obviously caught Nicodemus off guard. Jesus was telling him that he needed a foundational, fundamental and thorough change before he could even “see the Kingdom of God.” He needed to be utterly recreated, to be “born again.” Nicodemus was overwhelmed at the thought and failed to comprehend its spiritual nature. So Jesus clarifies:
John 3:5-6 Jesus answered, “Most assuredly, 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.
Jesus refers to the fact that Nicodemus has the nature of a fallen man and that no matter how religious he is, he is still lacking the fundamental nature that goes with the Kingdom of God. He needs to be born of the Spirit. Not only that, but Jesus refers to his need to be “born of the water” as well as “of the Spirit.” This is a bit of a thorny passage and has often been misinterpreted. Some believe that Jesus refers to the physical birth when He speaks of being “born of the water.” This is not so. “it is important to note the Greek grammar in this verse would seem to indicate “being born of water” and “being born of the Spirit” are thought of as one item, not two. Therefore, it is not speaking of two separate births, as Nicodemus incorrectly thought, but of one birth, that of being “born from above” see the complete article Born of the Water from GotQuestions.org
As Jesus later rebukes Nicodemus for not understanding this, being a “teacher of Israel,” it is because this idea is taught in the Old Testament. Ezekiel 36:25-27 tells us; “Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. 26 I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will keep My judgments and do them.” The idea of the spiritual birth that is given by the Holy Spirit includes a cleansing from the inside. The idea of being born again carries with it the idea of our old nature being cleansed and our desires being turned from the flesh to the things of God. This is pictured in water baptism, but Jesus is not saying to Nicodemus that he must be physically baptized.
This reference to the reality that is depicted by water baptism, puts this highly religious man on the same plane as an utter heathen. For a non-Jew to gain entrance into the community of Israel, he would have to submit to the outward rite. Jesus takes it to the next level and says the work needs to be worked in his heart. Nicodemus believes that his heritage and his religion are what God requires. Jesus dispels that myth and so He says,
John 3:7-8 Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
The Holy Spirit will call whom He will call. It is not about the people who appear to be religious, either by heritage or by outward show, but about the work of the Spirit in the heart. This sends Nicodemus into a tailspin. He cannot fathom this and cries out in despair!
John 3:9-10 Nicodemus answered and said to Him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered and said to him, “Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not know these things?
Outward religion is not the way to the Kingdom of God. Yet, the inward work of the Spirit on the heart of man, the work of regeneration, results in a visible change in the behavior of man. Not an external religion, though holiness and devotion mark the true believer, but an inward change of heart that results in faith, as well as love for God and for His people.
It takes the miraculous intervention of the Holy Spirit to move man away from relying on himself to be right with God. Unless and until the Holy Spirit destroys your hopes of satisfying God through religious observance or personal righteousness, you have no hope of seeing the Kingdom of God. As a matter of fact, trying to work our way into the favor of God has the opposite effect. God has established the standard of righteousness. Jesus told His hearers in the Sermon on the Mount, “unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:20) These were the most righteous men in the nation and must bring us to despair if we hope to attain the Kingdom on our own. God has promised, through faith in Jesus that He would give us His perfect righteousness. If we try to do the job with our own inferior righteousness, we are telling God that we do not want, nor appreciate His perfect gift. We have added insulting God to our list of sins and made no progress at all.
I encourage you to listen to the audio of the sermon by clicking on the link below, and I pray that you will cry out with Nicodemus, “How can these things be?” and then reject your own righteousness and receive the righteousness of God that is by faith in the Person and Work of Jesus Christ as it is applied to you by the Holy Spirit.
Destroying My Religion – AUDIO