Explore the Bible Sunday School Lesson for January 1

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By Douglas K. Wilson, Ph.D.
Professor of Biblical Studies, University of Mobile

EVERYONE WHO BELIEVES (John 3:4–18)

Saving faith is never divorced from action.  As a religious leader and biblical scholar, Nicodemus believed Jesus was unlike other men.  He specifically said Jesus was a teacher from God, His signs were supernatural and God was with Jesus.

Nicodemus’ evening encounter with the Master indicated a delicate balance between his social status and inquiring interest in Him.  He visited Jesus under cover of night, in part to avoid backlash he would receive for identifying with Him (vv. 7:50–52).  Our focal passage this week reminds believers and informs inquirers of Jesus’ words that spiritual rebirth and faith in His work are essential for eternal life.

Born Again? (4–8)

“You must be born again.” As a Pharisee, Nicodemus interpreted Scripture as literally as possible.  No wonder he took Jesus’ analogy concretely, asking about reentering the womb as an old man.  In his mind, this was an unfathomable concept.

Jesus had to explain there are two births for those who believe in him: birth by water (physical birth) and birth by the Spirit (spiritual birth).  John 3:6 interprets v. 5.  Birth by the flesh occurs through predictable, natural causes.  Birth by the Spirit occurs by ways neither natural nor predictable.

How? (9–13)

Jesus’ response did not satisfy the curiosity of Nicodemus: “How can these things be?” Even more, Nicodemus’ response did not satisfy Jesus: “Are you a teacher of Israel and don’t know these things?”

Jesus’ next expressions are interesting.  He spoke of Himself and His followers as “we” who speak and bear witness of what they know.  Then He spoke of “you” (plural, like “y’all”) in vv. 11–2: “…[y’all] do not accept our testimony … I have told [y’all] about earthly things … [y’all] don’t believe … how will [y’all] believe … tell [y’all] about heavenly things?”  At this point Jesus included Nicodemus among the unbelievers.

Believe (14–18)

The Master then paints a word picture from the Torah, reminding Nicodemus of Moses lifting the bronze serpent in the wilderness.  He ties in the necessity of the Israelites looking at the uplifted serpent (Num 21:4–9) with the necessity of Jesus being lifted up.  Deliverance is the result for all who believe.

Interpreters are not unanimous about when the night visit ends and commentary begins.  Some separate Nicodemus’ encounter with Jesus from the next section. We learn that we who place our trust in the atoning work of Jesus have eternal life.  Those who do not believe are under condemnation.

In Alabama, many Baptists have grown up in church.  They have attended worship and VBS, learned Bible stories, sung Bible songs and memorized Bible verses.  They know about Jesus, they know God sent Him and He died and rose again.  They assume because they know these things, they have eternal life.  They believe the historical facts, like they believe George Washington was the first president. But their lives have not yet been transformed by Jesus, who was “born to give them second birth.”

In first century Nazareth, many knew Jesus personally.  They knew His parents and His siblings (Matt. 13:53–58).  They knew Him but did not believe in Him.  It was not enough to know Him as a neighbor or as the carpenter.

Neither is it enough to believe Jesus was simply a historical figure. You must be born again.