by John E. Werhan
Jesus in his night-time meeting with the Pharisee Nicodemus establishes one of the foundational doctrines of Christianity. Nicodemus begins by noting that he understood the distinctiveness of Jesus’ teachings and actions.
“Rabbi, we know that You have come from God as a teacher; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him” (John 3:2).
Nicodemus could have been a witness of the sign manifest by Jesus during the Passover.
“Now when He was in Jerusalem at the Passover, during the feast, many believed in His name, observing His signs which He was doing” (John 2:23).
Truly, Nicodemus could have been one of the individuals who “believed in His name” or at least observed what Jesus had done.
It is not recorded if Jesus ever acknowledged the compliment. What John records is Jesus’ teaching concerning the new birth that was to be established in the New Covenant.
“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3).
This statement was confusing to Nicodemus. He could not see how an individual could undergo a second physical birth.
“Nicodemus said to Him, ‘How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born, can he?’” (John 3:4).
Nicodemus was confused because he was thinking about an individual’s physical birth and Jesus was taking about spiritual birth.
“Jesus answered, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit’” (John 3:5-6).
Jesus’ teaching differentiates between physical and the spiritual birth. He also teaches that this new spiritual birth was to be constituted in water. Jesus established the foundation of water baptism as the gateway to the Kingdom.
His command at the conclusion of John’s gospel also notes baptism is the point of salvation (salvation being a prerequisite to entering the Kingdom),
“And He said to them, ‘Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved; but he who has disbelieved shall be condemned’” (Mark 16:15-16).
Peter in the first Gospel sermon teaches by inspiration:
“Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38).
This foundational command is taught as an absolute throughout the New Testament.
History also dictates the significance of water baptism in this context. For centuries following the establishment of the Church/Kingdom writers like Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, Tertullian Cyprian, etc. understood that Jesus was talking about water baptism. It was not until the teachings of John Calvin (1509 – 1564) that baptism was excluded as the element of the new birth.
The followers of John Calvin and his misunderstanding have influenced much of the incorrect teachings concerning this context today. It is a sad reality that many who believe themselves to be born again have never studied or understood this simple foundational teaching.
But instead, they have blindly followed the teachings of men to their detriment. We pray they will come to the truth.
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