Nicodemus, a Pharisee and a ruler of the Jews, owned Jesus as come a teacher from God, and this on the ground of such signs as convinced him that God was with Him. It was a sound inference, based on good evidence and sure; but it was only intellectual. It was not conscience searched by divine truth, nor a soul crying to God because of his sins. "Rabbi, we know," etc. (ver. 2), says he vaguely; not, "What must I do to be saved?" He was unconscious of his personal ruin, and was what Scripture calls "dead in sins." The Lord takes higher ground than of a rabbi, and puts Nicodemus on lower ground than a disciple's. In a form extremely solemn, yet more than that of the great discourse on the mount in the first Gospel, He laid down the prime need of fallen man. His words breathe nothing short of divine authority. He speaks not as the scribes, nor even as a prophet with "Thus saith Jehovah," but as consciously God: — "Verily, verily, I say to thee, Except one be born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God" (ver. 3).
As a distinguished rabbi, Nicodemus was familiar with the washing of a proselyte, and with the high-flown platitudes of its effect rife in the schools. But he was no proselyte any more than other Jews. Dull as he might be to the truth, and as all naturally are, he saw that much more was insisted on for everybody who was to see the kingdom of God. Figures were all well to elevate common-place; and to this he was used; but if a new and real quickening were meant, how to get rid of the absurdity for a grown man to be born again? The answer is in terms no less peremptory than before: — "Verily, verily, I say to thee, Except one be born of water and Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God" (ver. 5).
Now Nicodemus was no more converted to God at this time than the woman of Samaria when she first came to the well; he no more believed to life eternal than the crowd which came to Capernaum in quest of Jesus, or any others in their natural state of whom we read elsewhere. If the Lord in plain language invariably called on such to believe on His name, is it an intelligent interpretation that here only He prescribed an ordinance? Even when those who heard the preaching at Pentecost were pricked in their heart, and said, "What shall we do?" the apostle did not so interpret his Master's words. He said, "Repent, and be baptized, each one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ, for remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit " (Acts 2:37-38), a gift therefore over and beyond birth of the Spirit. But repentance toward God implies faith as surely as faith in Christ implies repentance. Compare Acts 16:31 and Acts 20:21. If it be an honest interpretation to suppose Christian baptism here set before an unrenewed Jewish teacher, it can only be in minds prepossessed by tradition and negligent of the unmistakable teaching of the New Testament.
Such men assume that "water" in John 3:5 must be plain fact; but they overlook the mystic or allegoric style in which this Gospel abounds. What is the "water" in John 4:10? Is the "water" plain fact in John 7:38? Nor did the Lord Himself interpret the figure in these cases, any more than in the momentous teaching of John 13:10, founded on His previous action. But in John 15:3 He gives a key to His meaning, if any needed one: "Already ye are clean by reason of the word which I have spoken to you." We are expressly told that He baptized none (John 4:2); but His words were spirit and life (John 6:63); and they received Him, believing on His name (John 1:12). They were thus born of God. Water is the figure for His word.
There is a difference discernible in the use of the figure. In John 3, as in 13, it is "water" to deal with the unclean or defiled. In John 4, and in John 7, it is "living water" to drink, as the power of communion in the one chapter, and of testimony in the other, the gift of the Spirit to believers. There it is not new birth in its cleansing power on him who only now believes as in John 3, or the grace of restoration founded on it as in John 13. It is the purifying power of God's word when received in faith, as we may see laid down in the plain words of Acts 15:9; 2 Cor. 7:1; Eph. 5:26; 1 Peter 1:22. Hence "water" alone, figuring the word, needs the addition of "and Spirit" to convey the Lord's mind fully as to new birth. The soul in bowing to Christ is born of water and Spirit. Had this divine work taken place in Nicodemus, he would have been by repentance a fit subject for Christian baptism, the sign of identification with Christ's death (Rom. 6): thereby were we buried to His death.
This is confirmed, as the genuine character of the birth here meant, by the earlier words of our evangelist in John 1:12-13: "But as many as received Him, to them gave He right to become children of God (even) to those that believe on His name: which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God." The possession of spiritual life everywhere in this Gospel hinges on faith, as may be seen not in chap. 1 only, but in John 3:15-16, 18, 36; John 5:24-25, 39, 40; John 6:27, 29, 32-35, 40, 47, 51, 53, 54; John 7:38-39; John 8:12, 51; John 10:9-10, 26-28; John 20:31. What can be clearer than that the Lord attaches life eternal to faith in Himself without one word about baptism? So true is this, that it is merely the effort of superstition to bring baptism into John 3:3-5 as it does the Lord's Supper into John 6, with the utmost violence to both chapters. Indeed it is a Gospel which avoids outward forms expressly, so as to lay the stress on Christ's Person and the gift of the Holy Spirit — its grand topics. If we misapply John 6:54 to the Lord's Supper, the inference would be that every partaker of it has life eternal, and shall be raised up in the blessed resurrection at the last day. It is therefore manifestly erroneous. If one again misapply John 3:3-5 to baptism, the words must shut out from the kingdom every unbaptized person. But the Lord, in the most touching and effective way, teaches us the contrary by the converted robber — a sample of many souls since that day.
Nor need we confine our view to those saved by the gospel since. The Lord tells us in Luke 13:28 that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob shall be seen in the kingdom of God. Are we to doubt the same of Abel, Enoch, Noah, to say nothing of "so great a cloud of witnesses" after those elders, that time would fail to enumerate all? Yet not one of them was baptized.
In short, the truth of Scripture thus requires us to believe that all who are born of God shall inherit the kingdom of God. It is not a fresh New Testament privilege of which the Lord here treats, like "the hour cometh, and now is," in John 4:21-23. On the contrary, it is for all time a truth of vital moment; it looks back as well as forward, it concerns every converted soul without a single exception. The Lord solemnly insisted on it to Nicodemus, not only as his then need, but because it was buried at that time under the darkness of Jewish self-complacency; as it is now under the corrupting sacramentalism, which the tiniest sect may share with the proudest and most prevalent that pretends to be the church.
The inevitable effect is to set up ordinances, dispensing saving efficacy, through officials arrogating a sanctity which is unreal, and mysterious powers which are not of Christ but a delusion of the enemy. For his aim is to hinder the sinner from finding life eternal in Christ, to Whom the Holy Spirit points in the gospel as its only source to faith, "The Son of man, who came to seek and to save that which was lost" (Luke 19:10). Yea, Satan's aim is to dishonour the Son of God, and to ruin man. Nor have any of his wiles been more mischievous than the antiquated lie that baptism is here meant as the divine means of new birth.
It has been already shown that to put baptism before one of ripe years, and still in the darkness of nature, is contrary to the tenor of all Scripture. The error and even absurdity of such a thought proves the impossibility of applying John 3:3-5 to baptism. Besides, people forget that Christian baptism (not John's of course, nor yet the disciples', which was analogous) did not exist till Christ died and rose, which indeed gave the special force to it. Our Lord did not institute it until after His resurrection (Matt. 28:19). "Know ye not that as many of us as were baptized unto Jesus Christ were baptized unto His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism unto death," etc. Not one of the disciples, neither John nor Peter, could have understood the truth of it in the least degree at that time. How strange then to imagine that a distinctively Christian privilege, the sign of Christ's death and of our identification with Him in it, was or could be set before an unreconciled Jewish teacher! Col. 2:12 must have been still less intelligible then ("buried with Him in baptism, wherein ye were also raised with [Him] through faith in the working of God," etc.).
Even Acts 22:16, Gal. 3:27, and 1 Peter 3:21, though simpler perhaps, could only have mystified real believers till the finished work of Christ set them all in the light. But every scripture referred to furnishes its own special and overwhelming proof that John 3 speaks of divine quickening, the necessary work in every soul that ever was born of God. This is not at all the truth that is signified by the "one baptism" of water, the initiatory privilege of Christian profession. For baptism is nowhere made the symbol of the new birth, but of Christ's death; and thus it is said to be for remission of sins and of death with Him. In short it is a figure of salvation, as in 1 Peter 3. Hence we perceive the consistency of Scripture, singularly lost sight of in Christendom. For our Lord only instituted baptism to the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit (the Trinity), when His mighty work of redemption was accomplished, not from the day of fallen Adam when grace gave believers to be born anew by faith in the woman's Seed.
Beyond controversy God uses His word in converting souls now as ever. So the apostle tells the Corinthian saints, "In Christ Jesus I begot you through the gospel" (1 Cor. 4:15). Not otherwise, but speaking of the source, James 1:18 teaches, "Of His own will He begot us (or brought us forth) by the word of truth," not by an ordinance. 1 Peter 1:23 lays down the same doctrine: "Having been begotten again, not of corruptible seed but of incorruptible, through God's living and abiding word." Nor is John less distinct in his First Epistle, declaring (1 John 5:9-13) that for life eternal all turns on receiving the witness of God about His Son; while he that believes not God has made Him a liar, and has not life.
Now when God's word enters the soul by faith, it deals with conscience in a purifying way; it awakens to a sense of sin, and produces repentance toward God. Therefore Peter speaks of cleansing our hearts by faith (Acts 15:9), and wrote to the elect sojourners of the dispersion what is equally true of all believers, that they had "purified their souls in their obedience to the truth" (1 Peter 1:22). So the Lord told the disciples (John 15:3), "Already ye are clean, because of the word which I have spoken to you." The atoning work was not yet done, nor was Christian baptism enjoined or even possible. It was God's word which wrought in His grace, being received not as men's word, but, even as it is truly, God's word, which also effectually works in those that believe (1 Thess. 2:13).
In accordance with this the Lord spoke of being "born of water and Spirit." Thus the truth of a spiritual cleansing was presented in the most forcible way as the beginning of a new life not before enjoyed. "Water" was the appropriate figure of the word of God, which has always been and is and must be the means invariably used to quicken a dead and unclean soul. But this can only be when the Holy Spirit gives the word efficacy. The soul bows to God, recognising and hating his sins; there is faith no less than repentance. "I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven and in thy sight." This was always true in principle; but the gospel of God's grace adds, now that Christ is come, "Bring forth quickly the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet: and bring forth the fatted calf, kill it: and let us eat, and make merry; for this my son was dead, and is alive again; was lost, and is found" (Luke 15). A soul is justified by faith as well as born anew; and that, not this, is what baptism symbolizes.
The allusion in John 3:5 is to such passages in the Old Testament as Psalm 51:7-10, "Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow … Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me." Again, Isaiah 1:16, "wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes." So speaks Jeremiah 4:14, "O Jerusalem, wash thy heart from wickedness, that thou mayest be saved." But fullest of all is Ezekiel 36:25-27, "And I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean; from all your filthiness, and from all your idols, will I cleanse you. A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you a heart of flesh. And I will put My Spirit within you," etc. Here we have beyond legitimate doubt "water" used figuratively, yet the Spirit is put with it in plain and direct terms as the divine agent in the work: the very objection raised to deny the true sense of John 3:5. And this Old Testament scripture is the more pertinent because it seems to have been chiefly before the Lord in speaking. But He clothed the truth with a fulness and precision, proper to Himself, making it, as the first reception of divine life, absolutely requisite for all that enter the kingdom of God.
In verse 6 this is cleared and strengthened by His words, "That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit." Not a word is said about the remission of sins or any other fruit of Christ's death. It is a question of a new and spiritual nature from the Spirit as the source. Here water is left out. The object was to explain that the nature given is according to the character of the divine agent, as it must be to qualify sinful man, now believing, for God's presence and kingdom, His service and worship. Baptism has its importance, and the Lord's Supper yet more, as being the constant feast of the church. But neither one nor other could do what the Spirit effects in making the believer a partaker of the divine nature, as 2 Peter 1:4, or born of God, as it is often said by John. A new nature is communicated by the Spirit, a nature similar to His own: the word, without the Spirit, could have no such efficacy.
Then the Lord exhorts Nicodemus, in verse 8, not to wonder that He insisted on the new birth as indispensable, not for heathen or Gentiles only, but for Jews like himself. "Ye must be born anew." A Jew might readily enough have acknowledged the necessity for some radical change in those that were aliens from the polity of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world (Eph. 2). But was it not a hard saying of those whom Jehovah called His chosen and holy people, His peculiar inheritance?
In fact, Nicodemus was not so childish as those who fancy the Lord meant here Christian baptism. An ordinance would have been easy for a Jew to comprehend and to submit to even then, if prescribed by one he owned as come from God, a teacher furnished with credentials of power indubitably divine. His construction may be as wild as the view of the fathers is weak and heathenish; for they imagined it to be a religious ceremony, wherein the Spirit accompanied the water of immersion, pouring, or sprinkling (as the case might be), so as to make it the vehicle of life spiritual. One cannot say "life eternal," for the great majority of those who entertain that superstition deny its everlasting virtue, and are obliged to own that by far the most of their baptized live and die in their sins. Nicodemus, mistaken though he was, did not understand that any rite could meet the Saviour's words. He was so far not wrong in thinking that a supernatural operation was implied. He did not fall so low as to dream of literal "water" invested by God with quickening energy. His mind reasoned on being "born anew." What he suggested is quite short of what grace does effect, as it has ever done. For what work can be more evidently and exclusively of divine operation than for a sinner, in a true, living, and eternal sense, to be born of the Spirit — "born of God"? If somehow born again of his mother, it must be the same "old man" over again.
Yet that is the good work which God has been doing throughout, man's sad history, and in the gospel it was to be far more widely wrought than ever; and therefore the moment was most fitting for the Lord here to set it out in His own striking manner. Hence He adds in verse 8, "The wind bloweth where it listeth, and its voice thou hearest, but knowest not whence it cometh, and where it goeth: so is everyone that is born of the Spirit." As the wind is above man's comprehension and control, so is the Spirit sovereign in His activity, and the blessing is thus not limited to any people or land. Open to everyone, it might be made good to any; as Paul claims for the righteousness of God preached in the gospel.
More and more perplexed by that which broke up the superficial and narrow system of Jewish tradition, Nicodemus in verse 9 asked, "How can these things be?" when the Lord answered, "Art thou the teacher of Israel, and knowest not these things?" Nicodemus as a Jew, and familiar with the Old Testament scripture, ought to have known "these things" of which the Lord had spoken thus far, and of which all that Nicodemus said proved his total ignorance.
Here again we have the plain and strong inference from our Lord's words that there was not the least allusion to the institution of Christian baptism, and that all which He had announced was no more than a learned Jew should have known. The law and the prophets say nothing of Christian baptism, but treat of the same need, and press it on Israel. Not even a Baptist would be disposed to own that God's sprinkling clean water on a defiled Jew means Christian baptism. He must own that it is a figure of a spiritual blessing promised to the ancient people of God, and not literal water; and he has to face the fact that the Spirit of God literally is in the same place connected with the figurative water.
But the Lord, not contented with setting Old Testament truth in a brighter light, next intimates a character of knowledge and testimony such as no prophet, however gifted, could propose. They were borne on by the Spirit beyond their comprehension. They had to confess their ignorance of their own inspired utterances (1 Peter 1:10-12). They had to search what or what manner of time the Spirit of Christ which was in them pointed out, even when they said, Thus saith Jehovah. But the Lord knew things as they are, being the Son, a Divine Person; He knew them in the communion of the Godhead, of which His becoming flesh had in no way deprived Him. He had seen and could testify what was above man's or creature's ken. "Verily, verily, I say to thee, We speak that which we know, and testify that which we have seen; and ye receive not our testimony. If I told you earthly things, and ye believe not, how shall ye believe if I tell you of heavenly things?"
Here again we have proof upon proof that the Lord had not passed beyond what was needed even for the "earthly things" of God's kingdom. Therein is Israel to be blessed and honoured pre-eminently on earth. But when God is thus truly "good to Israel," their own law carefully restricts it to such as are of a "clean heart" or pure in heart (Psalm 73:1). Then only will they be received to (or with) glory (ver. 24). For then as surely as His salvation will be for them that fear Him, so will glory dwell in that land beyond every other (Psalm 85:9). Yet will it be the day when, through Israel restored to favour and blessed, God's way will be known on earth, His saving health among all nations (Psalm 67:2) Then, indeed, shall the peoples, all the peoples, praise God as they have never done; for the kingdom of God will have come in manifested power under the King of kings and the Lord of lords. His people at last are under the new covenant (Jer. 31:31- 34), and will be all righteous (Isaiah 60:21).
These predictions of the Old Testament are the "earthly things" to which the Lord here refers, and distinct from the "heavenly things" revealed afterwards to us in the Epistles. And the Lord insists that, even for the earthly things, to be born anew, born of water and Spirit, is an absolute necessity. How much more for the "heavenly things " now revealed to the Christian! He and He only was their suited witness, whether directly or through the Holy Spirit Whom He was to send them from the Father (John 15:26; John 16:7, 13-15). For, as He said, "No one hath ascended into heaven, but He that descended out of heaven, the Son of man that is in heaven" (John 3:13). Thus, when the context is examined, it becomes certain and evident that the notion of Christian baptism here is untenable; as we have seen it to be refuted by the actual text itself.
Again, there is the moral impossibility that it should be set before one who is as yet treated by our Lord as of those not receiving "our witness"; and there is also thc actual impossibility that Nicodemus could know an institution only enjoined after our Lord's death and resurrection; whereas the Lord censures him for not understanding these things as "the teacher of Israel." For it would not only attach an exorbitant place to a form of the truth, and a meaning wholly different from what Scripture does attach, but it would assert what is confessedly false, which is not and cannot be in Scripture.
But if we now turn for a moment to what Scripture says of Christian baptism, the incongruity and the danger of impressing John 3:5 into that service are transparent. Thus the apostle does not hesitate, when writing to his children in the faith (1 Cor. 1:14), to thank God that he had personally baptized so few in Corinth, though no doubt all were baptized there (Acts 18:8) as elsewhere. But how can we conceive such a thanksgiving if baptism be the means of new birth? Were it so, he that loved God and man must the more thank Him the more he baptized. He thanked Him that he had baptized none there save Crispus, Gaius, and the household of Stephanas, lest any should cry up his name in it. For Christ sent him not to baptize, but to preach the gospel. Of the gospel he had no fear or shame; for it is God's power unto salvation for everyone that believes. And he declares later in 1 Cor. 15:1-11 that the gospel of salvation was what he preached and they received — Jesus and His work — unless they believed in vain, without one word about baptism. What do these men know of the gospel or of baptism compared with the apostle?
We may also observe the plain fact that where our Lord does enjoin baptism, the order wholly differs from that which the misuse of John 3:5 involves. Thus in Matt. 28:19 He says to the eleven, Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them, etc. Discipling the Gentiles was of course to precede their baptism. So in Mark 16:16 He says, He that believed and was baptized shall be saved. The essential turning-point lay in the first; the due outward order in the second; which is strengthened by what follows, "and he that believed not [without a word about baptism] shall be damned." Baptism without faith only aggravates the condemnation. How easy and perilous it is to corrupt the word of God!
Take an instance from a tract on the New Birth, published by the author at Margate. The main point urged is a distinction between being "begotten" and "born," which he professes to draw from Scripture. One is begotten by faith (says he), as shown in John 1:12-13 (though John says "born"), 1 Cor. 4:15, Philemon 10, James 1:18, 1 Peter 1:23, and 1 John 5:1. But when he wants to prove that we were not spiritually "born" when we believed and were "begotten," he has only human reasoning. There is not a single word to show that we are born by baptism, nothing save the worthless tradition which so interprets the text in question, John 3:5, 7. Physiology is quite out of court.
But let me tell the author that he is throughout under mistake as to the words and meaning of Scripture. For it is exactly the same word in John 3 translated "born" as in John 1:13, where he deserts thc revised text for their margin. The Revisers knew, which he does not, that the Greek expresses no such difference. Hence in 1 John 5:1 it is the same Greek word for "born" and "begotten" ("begat" being the active form of the same also). And so it is elsewhere. The alleged distinction is not the truth of Scripture. To be "born" or "begotten" is the self-same word and fact, at any rate in the spiritual realm; therein to pretend the difference argued for is deplorable ignorance.
The believer is, according to the New Testament, not only "begotten" but "born" by the same life-giving work of God's grace, or rather, the same word employed by the Holy Spirit demonstrates that the alleged distinction is a mere blunder to defend the heterodoxy that by faith we are only "begotten," but not truly "born" till we are baptized: a flagrant contradiction of plain Scripture. The author's own use of James 1:18 ought to have dispelled the error, which is refuted alike by John, Paul, and Peter also. There is not a shadow of support from God's word. The divine truth is quite certain and clear, and so is the falsehood of men.