Now 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.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, 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?” 5 Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, 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. 7 Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?
One of the most difficult issues in Bible interpretation is to understand how the New Testament uses the Old. I have in front of me a massive commentary called Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament edited by C.K. Beale and D.A. Carson. It is a great work which seeks to give answers about how New Testament writers used the Old Testament. Sometimes it is very difficult to determine how the Old Testament is being used in the New. When it comes to Christ’s rebuke of Nicodemus in John 3, even the best of New Testament scholars are often perplexed, wondering what Christ meant when he rebuked Nicodemus concerning his ignorance.
In the above passage, Christ is talking about the new birth. To make things as simple as I can, Christ tells Nicodemus that no one can enter God’s kingdom unless he has been born again. This idea of being born again can also mean “born from above.” Nicodemus, though desirous to go against the grain of Jewish leadership and follow Christ, is confused by Christ’s teaching. He takes him quite literally believing that Christ is saying that we must pass through the birth canal twice. He responds with what seems to be a valid question to Christ’s confusing and, seemingly, radical statement. “How can these things be?”
Christ does not miss a beat in lowing the hammer on Nicodemus’ ignorance. “Are you the teacher of Israel and you don’t know these things?” In other words, Nicodemus was the theology professor of the day. He was a leader of the congregation of Israel. He was supposed to know these things! How could he lead without know this basic truth?
Concerning this John Calvin adds to the rebuke:
As Christ sees that he is spending his time and pains to no purpose in teaching so proud a man, he begins to reprove him sharply. And certainly such persons will never make any progress, until the wicked confidence, with which they are puffed up, be removed. . . But still Nicodemus, with all his magisterial haughtiness, exposes himself to ridicule by more than childish hesitation about the first principles. Such hesitation, certainly, is base and shameful. For what religion have we, what knowledge of God, what rule of living well, what hope of eternal life, if we do not believe that man is renewed by the Spirit of God? (Calvin’s Commentaries: John 3:10).
But how was Nicodemus supposed to know these things? Why does Christ come down so hard on him? Was the new birth taught in the Old Testament? If so, where?
These are good questions. The first thing we may try to do is find some parallel with such teaching explicitly taught in the Old Testament. New Testament scholars have offered some possibilities:
But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” (Jer 31:33 ESV)
And I will give them one heart, and a new spirit I will put within them. I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, 20 that they may walk in my statutes and keep my rules and obey them. And they shall be my people, and I will be their God. (Eze 11:19 ESV)
If, indeed, these are the passages that Christ was speaking of then the process of being “born again/from above” would carry the connotation of a “new beginning” (Kostenberger, John, ECNT, 123). However, while I certainly see the redemptive theme present in both these passages, I don’t see the radical idea of being “birthed” again being explicit enough to bring about Christ’s rebuke.
Other passages proposed by scholars include Isa. 29:10, Deut. 30:6, Ps. 51: 6, and Ps. 51:10. I even heard a message from a prominent Old Testament professor who linked this text to Psalm 87:4-7, believing that the new birth is explicitly alluded to there. However, I think it is a bit of a stretch to attempt to find explicit reference to the new birth in any one Old Testament passage. Nevertheless, I am not arguing against Jesus. Nicodemus should have known about the new birth. Nicodemus should not have been surprised. As the “teacher of Israel” his hope and teaching should have been grounded here.
So where do we find the new birth in the Old Testament? I am glad you asked. While I don’t believe that there is any one passage of Scripture we can point to, I do believe there is a theological theme throughout the entire Old Testament that necessitates Christ’s new birth theology. It goes all the way back to the fall. The first time that death is mentioned in the Bible is in Gen. 2:17 where God warns Adam not to eat from the tree of knowledge: “But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” The consequence of eating the tree was death. Just one chapter later, Adam and Eve both ate from the tree, but they did not die. In fact, Adam lived 930 years! How is it that he died “the day” he ate of it?
Theologians have wrestled with this question for some time. It would seem that the best answer we can give is that death entered into the human condition on that day in two ways: 1) Man was forced out of the Garden and no longer had access to the tree of life (Gen. 3:22-23). In this sense, that day they were prevented from eternal life and therefore that day death began. 2) Most importantly for our purpose here, the day they ate of the tree of life they died spiritually. Let me state the obvious: spiritual death is the opposite of spiritual life. Throughout the Scriptures humanity is shown to be in its natural condition spiritually dead. “And you were dead in your trespasses and sins,” “But God . . . made us alive together in Christ” (Eph. 2:4). Since the spiritual death of the first man, Adam, every human ever born has been still-born spiritually. This is what theologians refer to as “imputed sin.” Because of our connection with the sin and death of Adam, we too have inherited sin and death (Rom. 5:17-19).
Being born again is nothing less that a complete restoration of spiritual life. All of humanity was separated from God in Eden. Through the cross that separation was bridged. In Adam we have the imputation of sin and death. Through Christ we have the imputation of righteousness and life. We are either found death in Adam or alive in Christ.
Nicodemus was rebuked not because there was a particular passage in the Old Testament that escaped his notice, but because he was unaware of humanities spiritual condition since Gen. 3. Nicodemus should have known that people must be born again in order to inherit eternal life and enter the Kingdom precisely because he should have know that they were dead. The only hope for a dead man is resurrection. The only hope for spiritually dead people is to be born again or “from above.”
While Christ’s rebuke of Nicodemus was harsh, it is nothing less than a rebuke for a failure to acknowledge the utter helpless condition that all of humanity faces outside of Christ. The new birth was just as necessary for people in the Old Testament is it is for all people.
If I am right and Christ’s rebuke of Nicodemus is due to his theological ignorance, this should serve as a stern warning for many of those out there who see our identification with Adam as something that can be sacrificed. Imputed sin is the reason why we are dead. Our deadness is the reason why we need to be born again. The sad thing is that I believe there are many prominent leaders in the church today who would say to Christ “How can these things be?” due to their neglect of the reality of humanities still-born condition.
C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo House Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger.
Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I’m a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. He can be contacted at [email protected]