By Gary D. Erickson
Nicodemus was a Jewish religious leader. He later defended Jesus when Pharisees rebuked their guards for not arresting Him (John 7:50-53). Nicodemus, along with Joseph of Arimathea, asked Pilate for the body of Jesus and buried it in a new tomb (John 19:38-42).
Such displays of loyalty offer convincing evidence that Nicodemus was sincere in his pursuit of Jesus by night. Perhaps he wanted a private meeting with this new teacher without interruption from the crowd. Alone with Jesus, he could ask the most difficult questions and feel comfortable that they would be answered thoroughly in the quiet peacefulness of the night. Or perhaps it was a covert approach to avoid problems with his peers. Maybe he wanted to be sure about his feelings concerning the miracle worker be-lore publically confessing faith in Him.
Whatever his motive, Jesus did not disappoint him. Nicodemus privately received a beautiful explanation of the gospel. Jesus introduced to him a new analogy from New Testament salvation: “Ye must be born again” (John 3:7). Jesus compared conversion from sin to the kingdom of God to being “born again.”
By using this comparison, Jesus emphasized the necessity of change. Since the old life is sinful and fallen from its relation with God, it must die. To be saved, a person must undergo a spiritual transformation; he must die to the old life and be resurrected to a new life. “Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new” (II Corinthians 5:17). The salvation experience is so revolutionary and glorious in its life-changing effect that without exaggeration, it can be called a new birth.
Jesus did not offer the new birth as an option. To the contrary, He stated the necessity of the new birth in bold terms: “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). “Ye must be born again” (John 3:7). Aliens cannot receive naturalized citizenship into God’s kingdom, they have to become natural born citizens. “That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:6).
God refuses to make garments from patchwork. He will not sew His new seamless cloth into the threadbare, rotten rags of the sinful nature. Nor will He pour the pure vintage wine of the Holy Ghost into the old, crusty wine skins of carnality (Mark 2:21-22). The new cannot be mixed with the old, lest the new be spoiled by the decay of the old.
WATER AND SPIRIT
Nicodemus asked Jesus the meaning of this rebirth, pointing out the impossibility of naturally being reborn from his mother’s womb. In response, Jesus explained the necessity of birth by water and Spirit.
It is important to remember that at the time John the Baptist was actively preaching the need to repent, be baptized in water and look for the One who would baptize with the Holy Spirit. As were all the Jewish religious leaders, Nicodemus was familiar with John’s ministry. Clearly, then,
Jesus was describing baptism by His reference to water. He also thereby included repentance, for John preached “the baptism of repentance” and required all baptismal candidates to confess their sins and repent before he would baptize them (Mark 1:4-5; Luke 3:7-8).
Some try to minimize the importance of baptism by saying that water refers merely to the natural birth, since an unborn child is suspended in amniotic fluid. It seems ridiculous, however, to think Jesus was telling Nicodemus that a person must be born physically to enter the kingdom of God. There is absolutely no indication that the Pharisees believed in the pre-existence of souls or believed that the unborn could have a relationship with God prior to this life. Considering the fame of John the Baptist at this time and the New Testament church’s practice of baptism it is clear that water meant repentance and water baptism.
Not only was Jesus confirming the ministry and message of John the Baptist but he was also revealing to Nicodemus the coming of the baptism of the Holy Ghost. The Spirit birth also was to be part of conversion. This message was in perfect harmony with John’s preaching. “I indeed baptize you with water; but one mightier than I com-eth, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to unloose: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire” (Luke 3:16).
In considering the analogy set forth by Jesus, we dis-cover that the conversion experience is beautifully illustrated by the natural birth of a child. Here again we find the witness of blood, water and Spirit.
In many instances, the words blood and death used interchangeably. Blood reminds us of suffering and discomfort.
The process of childbirth is one of the most painful, excruciating experiences a mother will have in life. “Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children” (Genesis 3:16).
Usually, one of the first effects of pregnancy is “morning sickness.” The little new life begins to draw life from the mother and to reveal many evidences of its presence. For approximately nine months there is a continual weight gain until some mothers wonder if they will ever look normal again. Expectant mothers restrict their activities and take precautions that normally would not be necessary. They require more rest as well as closer consideration of correct diet. Susceptibility to little nagging inconveniences such as dizzy spells, swelling, varicose veins and cramps plagues many expectant mothers. The process is a great sacrifice on the part of the mother.
The process of labor and the birth of the child is the time of greatest pain. Thanks to modern medicine, the doctor usually administers a pain-relieving drug when the pain becomes severe, something that was not available many years ago.
The mother uses her body’s strength and resources, sacrificing her health for a new life. It is impossible to alter the basic process of childbirth. It has been designed by God. It simply must be the way it is.
Just as the natural birth requires a giving of one’s self, so does the new birth. Before a person can be born again, a death must come first. The old man must die to self-interest and ambition. He must turn away from sin and repent in order to foster new life in himself. “Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts: and let him return unto the LORD, and he will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon” (Isaiah 55:7).
To the natural eye, the birth of a child is not an occasion of beauty, grace or charm. “Reduced to its simplest constituents, the process of labor resolves itself into the expulsion from the uterus of the products of conception, that is, the baby, afterbirth, membranes and fluid.” Most fathers are terrified at the possibility of being alone with their wife at the time of delivery. Due to a lack of understanding and skill, the father is usually ill-equipped to handle such a predicament.
The experience of repentance is a time of crucifixion of the old nature. Sorrow for past sins brings tears. “For godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation” (II Corinthians 7:10). Tearing away from the past life is a very traumatic experience. The old man is wounded and fights for life. This war of the flesh may go on for days or even weeks before the death is finally complete. On the other hand, some make a total commitment immediately and conquer the old man in repentance quickly. Those who prolong this death to self become very miserable. Their indecisiveness only leads to a raging war between flesh and Spirit. Only by completing the spiritual death can a person live again. “Repent ye therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, when the times of refreshing shall come from the presence of the Lord” (Acts 3:19).
The first nine months of every human life is spent in the shadowy, warm, watery world of the mother’s womb. Only two weeks after the ovum has been fertilized, water is surrounding the tiny new life:
The balloon-like sac of water which sur-rounds and protects you [is] still smaller than the seed of an apple. . . .Some cells have gathered and formed a bubble-like sac which is filled with fluid. This sac is called the amnion, which is a Greek term meaning “little lamb,” chosen because lambs are often born enclosed in these prenatal mem-branes and fluid. This “bag of waters” will cushion, protect, insulate, and provide free movement to the developing individual.
After the third month of development, the fetus “breathes” the amniotic fluid regularly to exercise and develop the respiratory system. The child also drinks the fluid and digests it.
Occasionally labor is initiated by rupture of the amniotic sac. In such an event, it is time to prepare for the birth of the child.
This aspect of natural birth parallels our water baptism. In accordance with New Testament teaching and examples, we are immersed into a watery grave at baptism. As the meaning of the word baptism indicates, we are immersed into the water—completely surrounded and engulf-ed. The witness of water is a necessary part of the new birth experience.
One of the most awesome and wonderful natural occurrences is the birth of a human being. It brings the parents a most exultant feeling of happiness as they experience the joy of bringing a new baby into the world. The birth process occurs as follows:
The act of birth is thought to be triggered by a complexity of processes. A unilateral “decision” is made by the mature fetus and communicated electro-chemically from his brain to the aging placenta, which is also changing hormonally, and which, in turn, notifies the uterus. The contractions and the labor begin.
The uterine muscles contract and eventually the mother is allowed to “bear down.” Pressures of up to one hundred pounds push and propel the infant through the birth canal and out into his new environment. The jelly in the umbilical cord begins to swell immediately upon contact with air, restricting flow to the placenta and forcing the infant’s blood to its own lungs for oxygen. As the baby gasps and air sweeps into the lungs and fills the thousands of tiny air sacs, a first cry is vocalized.
A child can be perfectly normal in every way, but unless it begins to breathe, it will not live. One of the major problems with premature infants is poorly developed lungs. If the child cannot breathe, it will die.
This transition to new life parallels the new birth in the Spirit. The child before birth receives oxygen from the mother through the umbilical cord. But at the moment of birth it must break that dependence upon its mother. The umbilical cord begins to close off its supply to the child, forcing it to breathe air into its lungs.
After a person has repented of his sins and been baptized in water in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, he must be filled with the Spirit. This breathing in of the Holy Spirit completes the new birth experience. He has not been born again until he receives the Holy Spirit.
This is the final break with the old nature. No longer does he need an umbilical cord. Once a baby begins to breathe, the doctor will cut the cord and the infant will begin life independent of its mother. The child is now dependent upon the breath of air to sustain its life. After we are born again, we then become dependent upon the Spirit and not the flesh. “But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you” (Acts 1:8).
The baptism of the Holy Ghost is the very breath of the Lord. “He [Jesus] breathed on them, and saith unto them, Receive ye the Holy Ghost” (John 20:22). The Lord Jesus was signifying that the Holy Ghost would be His very breath of spiritual life upon and within them.
Breathing is an involuntary function of the human body. We do not have to consciously tell our lungs to breathe. If a person has fully repented, has been baptized and opens his heart in faith, the filling of the Holy Ghost will occur naturally. “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost” (Acts 2:38).
John the Baptist, speaking of the Spirit birth, said, “He shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire” (Matthew 3:11). Just as a child is surrounded or baptized by water before birth, after birth it is surrounded or baptized by air. That is why being filled with the Holy Ghost is called a baptism. We are baptized from above. “And, behold, I send the promise of my Father upon you: but tarry ye in the city of Jerusalem, until ye be endued with power from on high” (Luke 24:49).
A doctor is not satisfied until he hears the newborn cry. Vocal cords are developed when the fetus is only three months old. If there is no cry, the doctor will give the infant a spat on the posterior which will always activate a squawk of frustration in a healthy baby. A newborn babe in Christ will also show signs of life. There will be a cry heard giving evidence of the Holy Ghost’s presence. He will begin to speak with other tongues as the Spirit gives the utterance. “And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues” (Mark 16:17). The prophet Isaiah said, “For with stammering lips and another tongue will he speak to this people” (Isaiah 28:11).
The New Testament believers in the following places spoke in tongues when they received the Holy Ghost:
- Jerusalem, on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:4). “And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.” As many as eighteen different languages were spoken by these 120 newly baptized believers. They spoke in intelligible languages and were understood by the crowd.
- Samaria (Acts 8:18). “And when Simon saw that through laying on of the apostles’ hands the Holy Ghost was given, he offered them money:’ Simon had seen miracles, unclean spirits cast out, palsied people healed, lame people healed and great joy in the city. He also had seen water baptisms. Even Simon had been baptized. But when he saw people receive the Holy Ghost by the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered to purchase that power. Something remarkable happened to those people as they received the Holy Ghost. What was it that aroused such desire in Simon? A comparison with the other accounts shows that they must have been speaking in tongues.
- Caesarea (Acts 10:45-46). “On the Gentiles also was poured out the gift of the Holy Ghost. For they heard them speak with tongues, and magnify God.” Speaking in tongues was the confirming evidence that the Gentiles had received the Holy Ghost just as at Pentecost.
- Ephesus (Acts 19:6). “And when Paul had laid his hands upon them, the Holy Ghost came on them; and they spake with tongues, and prophesied.” These apostles of John the Baptist spoke with tongues when they received the Holy Ghost.
“In the mouth of two or three witnesses shall every word be established” (II Corinthians 13:1).
The above article “A Natural Birth As God’s Witness” is written by Gary D. Erickson. This article was excerpted from chapter six in Erickson’s book The Conversion Experience.
The material is copyrighted and should not be repainted under any other name or author. However, this material may freely be used for personal study or purposes.