What I am going to do may seem a very unusual thing, that is, speaking on the basis of that which is almost exclusively used for the unsaved. "Jesus said... Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except one be born from above (RV, margin), he cannot see the kingdom of God" (John 3:3). Of course, originally as here, they [the words] so apply, but I am remembering that John wrote this many decades after the incident. The old man, the apostle who outlived all the other apostles wrote this, and went right back to this early time, and wrote it not for the unsaved, but for the church.
John's writings are undoubtedly for the church, and he wrote for the church: "Except a man be born from above, he cannot see the kingdom of God", I do not mean, of course, that he said to the church that it had to be born again, but he was laying down something of primary importance for Christians. You notice that I have changed to the actual text - "Except a man be born again" - is the Authorised; "born anew" the Revised; but it is actually "born from above", because the word here is the same word as in verse 31 - "He that cometh from above is above all". It is the same Greek word: "born from above". I have said that it is an unusual thing to address Christians upon that basis, but the fact is that, in one way or another and in varying degrees, the whole of the New Testament is about that which is born from above, the nature of it, what it is, what it does, how it should behave and everything else. That is a sweeping statement, but it will stand investigation.
So we are going to read a section and dismiss this very unfortunate chapter division. We have to refer to it for convenience sake, but you will see how unfortunate it is. We go back into what is verse 24 of chapter 2 and go on to verse 13 of chapter 3.
"Jesus did not commit Himself unto them, for that He knew all men, and because He needed not that anyone should bear witness concerning man; for He Himself knew what was in man. Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews: the same came unto Him by night, and said to Him, Rabbi, we know that Thou art a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that Thou doest, except God be with him. Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except one be born from above, he cannot see the kingdom of God. Nicodemus saith unto 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? Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except one be born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh; that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born from above. The wind bloweth where it will, and thou hearest the voice thereof, but knowest not whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit. Nicodemus answered and said unto Him, How can these things be? Jesus answered and said unto him, Art thou the teacher of Israel, and understandest not these things? Verily, verily, I say unto thee, We speak that which we know, and bear witness of that which we have seen; and ye receive not our witness. If I told you earthly things and ye believe not, how shall ye believe if I tell you heavenly things? And no one hath ascended into heaven, but He that descended out of heaven, even the Son of Man, who is in heaven."
Two Men - The Earthly and the Heavenly
Now, in that section, we have two persons face to face, an earthly person and a heavenly Person. One word is used of them both, the word 'man'. "Jesus did not commit Himself unto them, for that He knew all men, and because He needed not that any one should bear witness concerning man; for He Himself knew what was in man. Now there was a man...". I do not want just to pass over anything without its force striking you. That John put in that word 'now' is tremendously significant. For some time I puzzled over the place of Nicodemus in the gospel by John. John in his summary said he had written his gospel with the one object of showing that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God (John 20:31), and I could not see how Nicodemus fitted into that; but that little word 'now' linking with what had just been said and what follows, is a key. "Now there was a man...". And then as we go on we find that this word is used of the other, Christ, "the Son of Man". That title, as you may know, occurs some eighty-eight times in the New Testament, and eighty-four of the eighty-eight are in the gospels, and eleven times in this gospel by John. Forgive this detail, but it is important. What I said just now about why John wrote this, this title Son of man when it is used of Christ always has the definite article - "the Son of Man". It is a title used of others in the Bible, but whenever it is used of anyone else, it is always without the article - 'son of man'. But when it is Christ, it is always "the Son of Man".
The Earthly Man, Represented by Nicodemus
You have, then, two men, two people called 'man', and they are facing one another. On this side is the earthly man. Jesus does not commit Himself unto him. He knew all men in that category. He knew what was in that man, what he was made of, how he was constituted, what he was capable of. He knew all the constituents of that category, all men: man. And it is to that earthly man that these other words relate - "There was a man...", and John is really in the back of his mind saying and meaning, 'Now there was an earthly man named Nicodemus.' "That which is born of the flesh is flesh", that is the earthly man. Verse 13 again, "No one hath ascended into heaven" - that is the earthly man. Perhaps you say, "Well now, that is doubtful; Elijah did and Enoch did!" But if you knew the exactness of the Greek here, you would know that the Greek says, "No man of himself hath ascended into heaven." Elijah did not of himself, nor did Enoch of himself; but this One, this heavenly Man, ascended Himself. But this earthly man - "no man of himself". Verse 19 - "This is the judgment, that the light is come into the world, and men loved the darkness." Verse 27 - "A man can receive nothing, except it hath been given him from heaven." This is the earthly man, what he is made of, how he is not going to be trusted by heaven, what his limitations are, what he cannot do of himself, and what he cannot receive of himself. "There was an earthly man".
The Lord Jesus, the Heavenly Man
On the other side, there is the heavenly Man. "That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit." "Born from above". Verse 12 - "If I told you earthly things and ye believe not, how shall ye believe if I tell you heavenly things?" And, "no one hath ascended into heaven, but He that descended out of heaven, even the Son of Man, who is in heaven." Here is the heavenly Man. Verse 16 - "God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son" (the heavenly Man from heaven, given from heaven). "God sent not the Son into the world to judge the world"; God sent His Son. Verse 31 - "He that cometh from above is above all." Then, of course, you want to read all those other passages later on. Take chapter 6 as a whole, or almost as a whole, "I am come down from heaven" (verse 38); "I... came down out of heaven" (verse 51); "I am the bread which came down out of heaven" (verse 41). You know how much there is of it there, and especially verse 62 of chapter 6 - "What then if ye should behold the Son of Man ascending where He was before?"
The Earthly Man at His Best
An earthly man and the heavenly Man standing face to face. Now, these two are representative men. Look at Nicodemus. There is a touch of genius about this thing in John's putting Nicodemus in here, let us say there is the genius of the Holy Spirit. Nicodemus, a representative earthly man. As to his nation, he belongs to the chosen nation; out of all the nations, chosen of God, to whom belong the oracles (Rom. 3:2) and the covenant, a nation peculiarly and particularly related to God. Nicodemus belongs to that nation. As to his sect, he is a Pharisee, a man of the Pharisees. Pharisee is a Hebrew word which means separated by specific beliefs and practices. Within the chosen and particular nation, a particularly religious people or sect, you may say the very core of an elect nation; very strict in their tithing, eating and drinking, washings and rites; and they held very strictly to the belief in the natural immortality of the soul.
Jesus said to this representative Pharisee - "Except a man be born from above, he cannot see the kingdom of God." As to his position: a member of the Sanhedrin, a ruler of the Jews, that is, a member of the National Council. As to his character, he is no man to be despised. Let us get rid of anything like that in our mentality about Nicodemus. He is a man to be honoured. He is mentioned three times by John. He is a perfectly honest man. The second mention is when he raises the question in the Council - "Doth our law judge a man, except it first hear from himself and know what he doeth?" (John 7:51). The third time is when beloved friends were bringing their spices to the tomb and it says: "And there came also Nicodemus, he who at the first came to Him by night, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds" (John 19:39). He is out in the open now. He is an honest man. As to his spiritual condition he is blind, ignorant, helpless, "Art thou the teacher of Israel, and understandest not these things? ...We speak that which we know, and bear witness of that which we have seen; and ye receive not our witness. If I told you earthly things and ye believe not, how shall ye believe if I tell you heavenly things?" Blind, ignorant, helpless - that is the representative man, the earthly man at his best in every way.
Features of the Heavenly Man
The heavenly Man's nationality is from heaven. "He that is from above is above all", above all sects, above all laws and regulations; that is what John is bearing out throughout the whole gospel; above all ritual. His position is that of Divine authority: "the Father hath given all judgment unto the Son" (John 5:22). "As the Father raiseth the dead and giveth them life, even so the Son also giveth life to whom He will" (John 5:21). His character is Divine. His spiritual condition is over against that of Nicodemus; there is one word that sums it up - "knowing". In his present condition, Nicodemus was blind, ignorant, helpless. Here is the Lord Jesus; just the opposite. Knowing, and, because knowing, never being at a loss, never being in a quandary, never knowing an impasse. He knew all men; He Himself knew what was in man. "We speak that which we know". "If I tell you heavenly things...", meaning that "I could, I know them... We speak that which we know." He is knowing.
The Heavenly Knowledge of the Son of Man
Now the point. Go back to chapter 1:48-49. "Nathaniel saith unto Him, Whence knowest Thou me? ...Thou art the Son of God." This attribute of knowing man in the Bible is locked up to God alone. It is only attributed to Jehovah, the Lord. You remember the words of Jeremiah - "I, the Lord (Jehovah), search the mind, I try the heart" (Jer. 17:10). "I, the Lord, know". It is an attribute of God alone to know man in this way. "Whence knowest Thou me? Thou art the Son of God".
Now you see what I meant when I said John is putting two things together. Jesus is the Son of God; Jesus is the Son of man. The Son of man is the Son of God. Because He has Divine attributes, He knew all men. You notice that this knowledge is both universal and individual. He knew all men, and knows what is in man. All men universal, and man individual. And this characteristic of Deity was the thing which was constantly coming out, for in this gospel by John this word 'knew' in this sense occurs fifty-six times. It is constantly coming out - His, what men would call, uncanny knowledge, His supernatural insight, that He was never at a loss for want of knowing what to do. He tested His disciples, "This said He to prove him: for He Himself knew what He would do" (John 6:6). He was always precipitating impossible situations, and pushing them on to His disciples, and saying in effect, what are you going to do about that? "We cannot do anything! Two hundred pennyworth of bread will not go very far in a crowd like this!" - always helplessness because they did not know. And then He did a miracle, He knew. The heavenly Man over against the earthly.
Now, how are we going to bring this together for a present application? We are brought face to face with these two persons, one representative of the earthly at its best, the other representative of God's only acceptable Man, the only One who stands with God, the only One. He is alone with God, and all other men stand apart. Therefore you must be born from above. Except you be born from above, you cannot see the kingdom of God, or enter the kingdom.
There is a great divide between these two men, it cannot be bridged by argument, by discussion, by any kind of explanations sought by Nicodemus. You cannot get Christians from the one to the other. It is a great divide of irreconcilable differences, hosts of differences every day. There is the 'cannot' man. That word 'cannot' is final. "He cannot see". The 'cannot' man is the earthly man. Here is the Man who can, the heavenly Man. John is showing this all the way through this gospel: when no one else can, the Lord Jesus can.
The Earthly and the Heavenly Man in the Individual Christian
Now our point is not just the fact of the difference, nor the fact that we must be born from above, but it is the nature of the difference. Everything for the Christian begins here. We have stated it, we always declare it. There is nothing at all until you have been born from above. But I doubt whether any of us have got very far yet in the recognition and understanding of the difference between these two men, and until we do understand that, and mark the difference or the differences, we are going to get nowhere in the Christian life. You and I are still far more earthly as Christians than we ought to be; far less heavenly than we ought to be. The great divide between us in our natural life and our spiritual life is not so clearly marked as it ought to be, and that just opens the place for the understanding of God's strange ways with us.
When we get into the realm of the Holy Spirit's activities we get into the realm of the greatest, terrible reality. You cannot play with flesh, you cannot tolerate nature, or the natural life if you have come into the realm of the Spirit's activity, the reality is terrible reality. If we admit carelessly, knowingly, persistently, habitually, any of the earthly, we meet no other than very God Himself. That is the reality of this difference. You at once begin to discover that you cannot get on. There is a wall, a barrier, you are brought to a standstill when you admit any of the earthly into what is essentially the heavenly. These two are so utterly apart with God that this natural cannot work with God; there is no playing with it. The very first thing is the barrier of the impossibility of the natural being brought into the spiritual, the earthly into the heavenly. That will explain all the confoundings. Nicodemus is confounded when he comes face to face with the heavenly Man, and if we are on natural, earthly ground in any respect, we are going to be confounded by reason of our relationship with the Lord Jesus.
God's Ways to Bring About the End of the Earthly Man
(a) On the negative side
And then, what do the strange dealings of God with us mean? Sometimes we would like to run away from the reality, it is so real. God is so real, things are so real. They are working out according to theory. Then what is God doing if He has us in hand through His strange, mysterious ways, His deep dealings with us? He is just winding up the earthly, bringing it to an end, in order to make us those who are heavenly, "Born from above", not only as a beginning, but in fulness of growth and manhood, conformed to the image of His Son. And the course of God's dealings with us is, on the one hand, to confound us in our natural earthly life, and write over it 'Impossible!' that in spirit, in soul, in body, we have no power, no attributes, no qualifications for knowing or doing heavenly things. At our best, we are helpless, blind and in the dark. But that is the negative side.
(b) On the positive side
On the other side, the positive, God is working mysteriously and strangely to bring us into heavenly things in knowledge and understanding. It is true that we as children of God do know things that no one else knows, that the earthly do not know. We do know, maybe a little, but we do know in that degree what the natural man does not know, and our knowledge of things spiritual and heavenly is growing, slightly perhaps, but it is growing. By deep, dark, mysterious, painful ways, we are moving through into a realm where we are coming to see that which we could never see and what no one could ever see but by a passage through death to being born from above. Oh, we cannot explain all God's methods, we cannot give an answer to all the why's of God's ways, but what we do know is that we are passing through into a realm that is altogether new in the matter of knowledge that is different, that is other. All the values of God are of this kind.
You cannot bring your natural mind to the things of God and begin to play upon them and give them interpretation with any spiritual value. However much you study the Bible, the Bible is closed for real spiritual value to everyone who has not gone through death to a heavenly new birth. That has to follow, but understand that this great divide, these two men, they are two men totally different, and there is no companionship, there is no shaking of hands between Nicodemus and Jesus. There is no fellowship, there is no understanding, they belong to two worlds, they cannot speak one another's language. Even when One from heaven gives heavenly meanings into earthly things, the earthly man cannot see the heavenly meanings, even in earthly things; so utter is the difference.
The Progressive Disappearance of the Earthly Man Dating from Heavenly Birth
The Lord is going to get rid of the differences where we are concerned. "Ye must be born from above", and then the differences begin to go. The things which lock us up and limit us will go; things which are impossible are now becoming the very things of our normal life. We are learning, but oh, it is a deep way because this earthly man is so deeply rooted, he is always cropping up in some way or other.
Understand what God is doing with you. God is working with us so that, as we move on this earth and through this life and leave this world, the one remaining impression will be: a heavenly man, a heavenly woman, has been on this earth! Not how much we have done or said, all our activities, but just the impression we have left behind: that a heavenly man, a heavenly woman, has passed through this world, has been recognised here; that is all. That is the explanation of God's dealings with us. If you forget all the other that I have said, do not forget that.
The one consequence that God is after is to leave this impression by our having been on this earth: something has come from heaven and registered its heavenliness here in this world. Oh, it may have been rejected, the reactions to it may have been violent. The more heavenly it is, perhaps the more violent the reactions to it will be. That is what John says about the Lord Jesus, but that does not alter the fact that Jesus passed through this world and left the impression of a heavenly Man. And that is the whole argument of the New Testament in every part, that believers are to be here, not for this or that or some other incidental thing, but to leave the impression of heaven here, that God should have a witness here, that heavenly things, things of eternity, things of the Spirit, are the things which matter. Do not think that it is a matter of how much preaching or teaching or Christian work you do. Those things may be accompaniments, but if there is not the presence of Christ, the heavenly Man, in those concerned and in what they do and in what they say, and if the one remaining thing when they have passed on is not - "We recognised the Lord in that man, that woman" - then we have missed the meaning of Christianity. Christianity is that. Therefore you must be born from above, because that brings in what is of heaven.