Sunday, January 23, 2011

New Testament Lesson #5 "Born Again"

John 2-3


Stories in the scriptures are often placed in a way that enhances the lessons that the stories teach.  Such is the case with the stories of Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman.  Principles are taught by both stories, and more principles are taught by the juxtaposition of the two, which lets us see clearly the opposites involved, and the scope of Christ's reach.


"There was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews" (3:1).  It is apparent that he was "one of the great Sanhedrin" (McConkie, p. 470; Stern, p. 165); in fact, verse 10 tells even more:  The phrase "Art thou a master of Israel" is "literally, 'You are the teacher of Israel.'  The use of the definite article implies that [his] position was uniquely important, although it is difficult to reconstruct precisely what it was" (Stern, p. 165).

"The same came to Jesus by night, and said unto him, Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him" (3:2).  Was it a little unusual to come to Jesus at night and ask about his doctrine?  Yes!  "Nicodemus wanted to investigate the gospel in secret, lest his associates turn against him...But at least he came, and it is apparent that he thereafter believed in Christ and supported the gospel cause.  Indeed, as Edersheim says: 'It must have been a mighty power of conviction to break down prejudice so far as to lead this old Sanhedrist to acknowledge a Galilean, untrained in the Schools, as a Teacher come from God, and to repair to Him for direction on, perhaps, the most delicate and important point in Jewish theology.  But even so, we cannot wonder that he should have wished to shroud his first visit in the utmost possible secrecy.  It was a most compromising step for a Sanhedrist to take.  With that first bold [purging] of the temple (2:13-17) a deadly fued between Jesus and the Jewish authorities had begun" (McConkie, p. 470).


"Then cometh [Jesus] to a city of Samaria...Now Jacob's well was there.  Jesus therefore, being wearied with his journey, sat thus on the well: and it was about the sixth hour [noon].  There cometh a woman of Samaria to draw water: Jesus saith unto her, Give me to drink.  (For his disciples were gone away unto the city to buy meat.)" (4:5-8).  In telling his account of the story, John makes sure we understand that Jesus was in Samaria, and he was talking to a Samaritan.  Why is this important?  "Though both Jews and Samaritans were descended from ancient Israel and practiced similar religions, there was long-standing hostility between them.  Thus it was also unusual for Jews to buy food from Samaritans" (Harper-Collins, p. 2019).  "Assyria conquered the Northern Kingdom of Israel in 722 BC and deported many of its people, who belonged to the ten northern tribes, replacing them with pagans; they later intermarried with the remaining Jews to produce the Samaritans.  Their descendants were not idolaters, but they acknowledged only the Pentateuch [the five books of Moses] as inspired by God.  They also denied Jerusalem as the religious center, opting instead for Mt. Gerizim (4:20)...they [had] tried to obstruct [the] rebuilding of Jerusalem" (Stern, p. 167)   In fact, most Jews took the long way around the land of Samaria, even though it meant increasing the difficulty of their journey.  All of which explains the next verse:

"Then saith the woman of Samaria [John says it again, just to make sure we remember that we are talking about a Samaritan here] unto him, How is it that thou, being a Jew, askest drink of me, which am a woman of Samaria? for the Jews have no dealings with the Samaritans" (4:9).

There were at least three reasons that Christ, according to social custom, shouldn't have spoken to this woman:

1) She was a Samaritan.
2) She was an adulterer (4:16-18).
3) She was a woman.


Neither of these two would have been considered "golden" missionary contacts.  A Pharisee of the Sanhedrin which despised and mistreated Christ?  A woman of Samaria who was also an adulterer?  These were Christ's first two investigators noted by John (after the apostles)?  Interesting!  Nicodemus was from the highest standing possible within the Jewish church; the Samaritan woman from the lowest--a despised outcast.  Nicodemus certainly would have kept all the outward rules and commandments of the Law; the Samaritan woman obviously didn't.  Nicodemus sought Christ under cover of night; the woman in the brightness of noonday. By putting these stories back-to-back, John gives us the clear message that the Lord will answer us from wherever we are.  None is above or beneath his reach, and there is no one he loathes to help.

It is good to note that Jesus "neither criticizes [Nicodemus] for fearing to seek him openly nor praises his insight in perceiving that [Jesus] has come from God.  Rather, he deals with him at his point of need, which is to be born again from above. [The Greek word used] is sometimes rendered 'born again' and sometimes 'born from above'" (Stern, p. 165).

Jesus also offered the gospel, the "living water," to the Samaritan woman.  He addressed her by the respectful title, "woman," (4:21), similar to our saying "lady."  When the disciples returned, they "marvelled that he talked with the woman" (4:27).  But Jesus is truly "no respecter of persons."  "He inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile" (2 Nephi 26:33).  Bear in mind that John's gospel was written to the Church members (see "The Gospel of John" in a previous post) so that they would learn what we should also learn:  We are to give up our prejudices and reach out to all, whether their position in life is above us or below us, and use the gospel to lift them to higher ground.


The result for Nicodemus:  When the church "officers" failed to take Jesus later in his ministry saying, "Never man spake like this man," the chief priests and Pharisees were livid and retorted, "Are ye also deceived?  Have any of the rulers or of the Pharisees believed on him?" (7:45-48)  Well, the answer was yes, although they didn't know it:  One of their leadership, Nicodemus, believed.  Perhaps his conviction was not strong enough yet to stand in front of his brothers and testify, but it was enough to defend Christ by reasoning, and therefore buy him a little time.  "Doth our law judge any man, before it hear him, and know what he doeth?" Nicodemus asked the others.  Even this was spoken dangerously, as the Sanhedrin insulted him, "Art thou also of Galilee?" (7:50-52).

At Christ's death, Nicodemus was still there. When Joseph of Arimathea (also a secret disciple from the Sanhedrin, according to Stern, p. 211) claimed the body of Christ, Nicodemus "brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about an hundred pound weight," (19:38-39) a very costly gift for the embalming of his Savior.  "The myrrh and aloes (the latter is an aromatic wood) would have been in powdered form and were meant to reduce the odor of decay.  The hundred (Roman) pounds (about 75 English pounds or 34 kilograms) of burial spices is much more than was necessary" (Harper-Collins, p. 2052).  Clearly, Nicodemus' testimony had grown, and he wished to show great love and honor for Christ.  Was he still a secret disciple?  Not after this act, which would have been reported widely among the believers.

As for the Samaritan woman (too bad we don't have a name!), she first said to Christ, "Sir, I perceive that thou art a prophet" (4:19).  Within minutes, she added, "I know that Messias cometh, which is called Christ; when he is come, he will tell us all things" (4:25), and as soon as the conversation was over, she shared her testimony with any who would listen, saying, "Come, see a man, which told me all things that ever I did: is not this the Christ?" (4:29)  And, although a woman was not considered a credible witness in that culture,

"Many of the Samaritans of that city believed on him for the saying of the woman, which when the Samaritans were come unto him, they besought him that he would tarry with them: and he abode there two days.  And many more believed because of his own word; and said unto the woman, Now we believe, not because of thy saying: for we have heard him ourselves, and know that this is indeed the Christ, the Saviour of the world" (4:39-42).

It took quite a long time for Nicodemus to become a public witness for Christ.  But for the Samaritan woman, it was instantaneous.


Being Born Again

To Nicodemus, Jesus said, "Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God."  Then to clarify, he said, "Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God" (John 3:3,5).

The leaders of the Jews did not believe that Jews needed to be baptized, according to some historians.  (See "The Baptism of Jesus Christ" in a previous post.)  Jesus taught Nicodemus clearly that baptism and the receipt of the Holy Ghost were necessary.  He also taught it by example, being baptized himself.

Elder Dallin H. Oaks taught, "We were born again when we entered into a covenant relationship with our Savior by being born of water and of the Spirit and by taking upon us the name of Jesus Christ...In order to realize the intended blessings of this born-again status, we must still keep our covenants and endure to the end. In the meantime, through the grace of God, we have been born again as new creatures with new spiritual parentage and the prospects of a glorious inheritance."

So being "born again" is more than just the single act of baptism.  It is a life-long process.
Elder Bednar clarified this doctrine:  "The Lord’s authorized servants repeatedly teach that one of the principal purposes of our mortal existence is to be spiritually changed and transformed through the Atonement of Jesus Christ. Alma declared: 'Marvel not that all mankind, yea, men and women, all nations, kindreds, tongues and people, must be born again; yea, born of God, changed from their carnal and fallen state, to a state of righteousness, being redeemed of God, becoming his sons and daughters; And thus they become new creatures; and unless they do this, they can in nowise inherit the kingdom of God' (Mosiah 27:25–26).

“'Because of the covenant which ye have made ye shall be called the children of Christ, his sons, and his daughters; for behold, this day he hath spiritually begotten you; for ye say that your hearts are changed through faith on his name; therefore, ye are born of him and have become his sons and his daughters' (Mosiah 5:7).
"The spiritual rebirth described in this verse typically does not occur quickly or all at once; it is an ongoing process—not a single event. Line upon line and precept upon precept, gradually and almost imperceptibly, our motives, our thoughts, our words, and our deeds become aligned with the will of God. This phase of the transformation process requires time, persistence, and patience."  Elder Bednar compared spiritual rebirth to pickling cucumbers: a process, not a single event, with multiple steps that cannot be skipped and which take time.

The Atonement

Christ also told Nicodemus of his divine mission: "For God so loved the world, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life" (John 3:16).  Most interesting is this comment by David H. Stern, a Messianic Jew

"This perhaps most famous and most quoted of verses in the New Testament epitomizes the truth of God that has come to Jews and Gentiles alike in Yeshua [Jesus Christ] the Messiah.  It teaches that (1) God loves his creation, the world; (2) to love is to give, to love much is to give much, and God loves the world so much that he gave what is most precious to him; (3) Yeshua was fully aware in advance that he would die as God's own sacrifice, (4) Yeshua knew that he was uniquely God's son; (5) the destiny of man when he relies on himself and does not trust in Yeshua is total destruction...not cessation of conscious existence, but the eternal suffering that is the inevitable consequence of sin; and (6) the destiny of an individual who trusts in Yeshua is everlasting life--not only in the future but right now--not just survival beyond the grave, which everyone has, but positive life 'in' Jeshua.  Trusting in Yeshua is not mere intellectual acknowledgement but adherence to, commitment to, trust in, faith in, reliance upon Yeshua as fully human, completely identified with us, and at the same time fully divine, completely identified with God" (Stern, p. 166).

The Identity of Jesus

When the Samaritan woman said to Jesus, "I know that Messias cometh, which is called Christ: when he is come, he will tell us all things.  Jesus saith unto her, I that speak unto thee am he" (John 4:25-26).  In the King James Translation of the Bible, words that were added by the translators for clarification are italicized.  So the word he is an addition.  "The original phrase used by Christ is ego emi in Greek, translated as I AmJehovah is the third person form of this term: He is.  Christ, therefore, was saying that he was the God of the Old Testament, Jehovah" (Bokovoy). 

David Stern explains it similarly:  "The declaration, 'I am,' echoes [God's] self-revelation [to Moses], "I am who I am" (Exodus 3:14).  Yeshua says this "I am" nine times in [John's] Gospel (here; 6:20; 8:24, 28, 58, 13:9; 18:5, 6, 8).

Living Water

Kathleen Hinckley Hughes taught us about the Living Water. "The Samaritan woman looked into the face of Christ, listened to His voice, and recognized Him at a time when most others rejected all He taught. We know Him too, or we can, if we allow His healing power, His nourishing strength, His peace and joy, to flow through us like 'a well of water springing up into everlasting life.'

She explains, "The living water is the gospel of Jesus Christ; its communicator is the Holy Ghost."  In our times of trial, worry, depression, heartache, "a wellspring of goodness, of strength and confidence is within us, and when we listen with a feeling of trust, we are raised up. We are healed. We not only survive, but we love life. We laugh; we enjoy; we go forward with faith.

"The living water also nourishes. I testify to you that just as He promises, Christ comes to all who are heavy laden; He gives us rest. He sustains us when we are weary. A wellspring is a flowing well, offering continual refreshment—if we drink of it. Pride can destroy its effects, as can mere inattention. But those who drink deeply not only become whole themselves, but they become a fountain to others, as one spirit nurtures and feeds another...

"Christ’s promise is simple and sublime: 'Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid' (John 14:27). Brothers and sisters, turmoil is raging all about us. Economies are in distress; families are struggling; we are living in, as President Hinckley has said, 'perilous times'. But the living waters still offer peace and joy. When we live righteously, when we have done all we can do, one of the gifts we receive is confidence. The Lord tells us, 'Be still and know that I am God' (D&C 101:16). In the midst of chaos, we must pause. We must listen for the Spirit that tells us, 'All is well!' just as the early Saints had to do. There is cause to be concerned, but there is greater reason to be at peace."

The great LDS psalmist, Joseph L. Townsend, voiced the invitation made by Christ to Nicodemus, to the Samaritan woman, and to each of us, to partake of the Living Water in his hymn, "Reverently and Meekly Now:"

Bid thine heart all strife to cease;
With thy brethren be at peace.
Oh, forgive as thou wouldst be
E'evn forgiven now by me.
In the solemn faith of prayer
Cast upon me all thy care,
And my Spirit's grace shall be
Like a fountain unto thee.


Bruce R. McConkie, The Mortal Messiah, Book 1
David H. Stern, Jewish New Testament Commentary
The Harper-Collins Study Bible
Dallin H. Oaks,"Have You Been Saved?" General Conference, April 1998
David A. Bednar, "Ye Must Be Born Again," General Conference, April 2007
David Bokovoy, BYU Campus Education Week Lecture, August 2002
Kathleen H. Hughes, "Blessed by Living Water," General Conference, April 2003
Joseph L. Townsend, "Reverently and Meekly Now," Hymns of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, no. 185, verse 3

Free downloadable/printable pictures of Christ, including those used in this post, are available from the online Gospel Art Book at


Liz said...

Here is a link to another blog that can help with lesson preparation:

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for posting this. I am teaching the Lesson Sunday and your notes and references have been very helpful.
Janice P.

Anonymous said...

Thank you very much for this valuable information! It will be a blessing to my Seminary students when I teach the lesson on John 3!

Anonymous said...

I enjoy your insights and ponder these thoughts as I prepare my lessons. Thank you.