"It's hard to teach an old dog new tricks!"

Almost everyone has heard this truism. Many who have heard it actually believe it. Now that I have turned sixty and find myself in the "old dog" category, I don't believe it… or at least I don't want to believe it! Several of my greatest heroes have shown this doesn't have to be true — thanks Lynn, Paul, Sister Sanders, and Joe!

Jesus didn't believe it. When Nicodemus approached him one night, he recognized that Nicodemus was searching for truth — he came in the darkness to find the true light of God (John 3:1-2 & John 3:16-21). What Nicodemus didn't realize was that Jesus was about to call him to a radical re-start of his spiritual life, something Nicodemus couldn't hear at this point in his relationship with Jesus.

Nicodemus was the best of the best that Judaism had to offer. He recognized that Jesus had come from God (John 3:2). He was a Pharisee — someone dedicated to keeping the Law of God and separating himself from the sin of the world (John 3:1). He was also a high ranking leader and a respected member of the Jewish Ruling Council, also called the Sanhedrin (John 3:1; John 7:50-51). He also knew other "secret followers" of Jesus among the religious elite and the Ruling Council who had access to Pilate, the Roman governor (John 12:42-43; John 20:38-42). Jesus addresses Nicodemus as "Israel's teacher" (John 3:10).

So standing before Jesus was a great rarity: an influential and important Jewish religious leader with power who respects the words and actions of Jesus. Nicodemus isn't just any "old dog," he's a godly and powerfully important "old dog"! Yet Jesus doesn't soft-pedal what Nicodemus must have happen in his life. He must be "born from above."*1 Nicodemus had achieved his religious status through personal commitment and hard work. He couldn't allow himself to understand the phrase to mean "re-born from above" or "being re-born of God" (John 1:11-13) — what Jesus means by the phrase. Instead, Nicodemus is trying to figure out what he can do to make this new birth happen.

Jesus expands and clarifies what he means. Nicodemus needs to be baptized*2 and be reborn by the Holy Spirit if he is going to be a part of God's kingdom (John 3:5-7). John's baptism by immersion was only for hardened sinners and Jewish immersion was only for Gentiles.*2 Everything Nicodemus had achieved in his religion showed he was beyond such unclean living and debased existence. Yet that is what Jesus impresses on him. Nicodemus was pursuing the kingdom of God through religious performance. Jesus was saying that there was only one way for Nicodemus to find the kingdom: a complete life re-boot. He had to be completely remade by the Spirit.

The Holy Spirit alone makes a person a child of God (Romans 8:9). The Holy Spirit cleanses us of all sin, sanctifies us while making us holy, and justifies us as innocent and pure before God (1 Corinthians 6:9-11). The Spirit comes to live inside of us and makes us the dwelling place of God in the Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). We don't control the Spirit or determine how or when he will do his work in causing this rebirth; human effort and will cannot accomplish this (John 3:6-8). After Jesus' return to the Father, he poured out the Spirit on Pentecost to begin his new kingdom work in the world (Acts 2:32-33).

On that Pentecost as people realized their sin and religious error, they turned from their own way to Jesus as Lord and Christ and were baptized for the forgiveness of their sins and to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:34-39) — Jesus poured out the Spirit upon them and they were born into God's family (Titus 3:3-7). They experienced what Jesus called Nicodemus to do (John 3:3-7) and what John prepared people to accept (Mark 1:4-8).

In Jesus' encounter with Nicodemus, the seeds of this Pentecost response are anticipated.
  • An emphasis on needing to turn from our own ways of religious accomplishment to be born of God — flesh can only give birth to flesh; we must be born of God (John 3:6; John 1:11-12; Acts 2:33-37).

  • An emphasis on immersion — a willing participation in the Spirit's work of rebirth (John 3:5; Titus 3:3-7; Acts 2:36-39).

  • An emphasis on absolute trust that Jesus was "lifted up" on the cross for our sins and raised for our being made right with God (John 3:13-17; Romans 4:25; Galatians 3:26-29; Acts 2:33-36).

  • A primary emphasis that spiritual rebirth is the work of Jesus pouring out the Spirit and the Spirit completely remaking — "rebirthing" — us into a new existence as God's child (John 1:11-12; 1 Corinthians 6:9-11; Titus 3:3-7>.

Jesus believes — no, more accurately stated, Jesus knows — that old hearts, weary souls, men and women of every age can be reborn by the Holy Spirit into a new life in Jesus. The whole book of Acts gives testimony to this. Young and old, men and women, Jew and Gentile, slave and free, are all remade by the power and grace of the Holy Spirit. These people are brought into fellowship with each other — notice the beautiful phrase "fellowship of the Holy Spirit" (2 Corinthians 13:14) and made a part of God's family (1 Corinthians 12:13; Galatians 3:26-29).

There is no new life in Jesus apart from the gracious work of the Holy Spirit. Works-based justification along with status-based and achievement-based religion end up in the failed efforts of human flesh (John 3:5-6; Romans 7:21-25; Galatians 3:1-11). But thanks to Jesus our Lord, the fresh wind of the Holy Spirit brings us before the Father as his holy children (Romans 8:1-4; 1 Corinthians 6:9-11; Colossians 1:21-22) and brings us life that lasts until we see our Lord face to face and are caught up in the wonders of his grace forever (Romans 8:9-11; 2 Corinthians 1:22; 2 Corinthians 5:5; Ephesians 1:4).

Yes, we must be born from above… born of water and Spirit… born of God. And how sweet and precious is that birth by the Spirit's transformational power and presence!

*1 The phrase here means both "born from above" and "born again" John 3:30; John 3:31 where the same phrase is used to mean "from above". Clearly Jesus means "born from above" or "born of God," but in Nicodemus' confusion, he understands it as being born again.

*2 Baptism in the New Testament means immersion. The Greek word, baptizo means dip, immerse, or plunge. This understanding lies behind John baptizing where there was "much water" (John 3:23) and probably the identification of baptism with being "buried with Christ" (Romans 6:3-5; Colossians 2:12). While Jews would self-perform what were called washings for ritual cleansing in a
mikveh or ritual religious purification pool, John's baptism was different. John actually baptized people — something normally reserved for only Gentiles who wanted to convert to Judaism. As someone extraordinarily careful to be righteous and religiously accomplished, there was simply no way for Nicodemus to see himself needing baptism.

While it has become popular in the last several hundred years in evangelical interpretation to see "born of water" to mean "the waters of physical birth," a number of things mitigate against this interpretation:
  1. Jesus is not referring to two things in the phrase "born of water and Spirit," but one. Both water and Spirit stand under one preposition, linking the two as one event — this is technically called hendiadys and a reminder the two would not normally be grammatically separated as two separate and contrasting events, but one event characterized by both elements.
  2. Until the last several hundred years, the near universal understanding of the phrase "born of water and Spirit" was understood to refer to Christian immersion and the coming of the Holy Spirit. The modern interpretation of the water of physical birth occurring only in the last several hundred years.
  3. The context, as in all good biblical interpretation, must be strongly considered. In the near context of this passage, you have talk of John's baptism (John 3:22-23) along with Jesus baptizing (John 3:6) and Jesus' disciples baptizing (John 4:1-2). Then in prior context, you have extended discussion of John's baptism (John 1:19-34).
  4. The connection of the Holy Spirit with baptism (Acts 2:38-39; Acts 8:12-17; Acts 9:17-19; Acts 10:44-48; Acts 19:1-7) and also with water as an image of Spirit-filled life that runs throughout the New Testament (John 7:37-39; 1 Corinthians 6:9-11; Titus 3:3-7). Rather than seeing baptism as a work, the New Testament connects it to grace (Romans 6:2-14; Titus 3:3-5) and faith (Acts 2:33-39; Galatians 3:26-29; Acts 16:25-34).

Ultimately, however, all the debates about baptism and faith must give way to the emphasis of Jesus in the new birth: the essentiality of the Holy Spirit's coming! Without the Spirit, we are left to our own striving and accomplishment, something that is doomed to failure. We are saved by grace as we trust in Jesus' work and surrender our lives to him as Lord. The cleansing, rebirth, coming, and power of the Spirit are what make salvation real in the life of a disciple.