THE NEED OF REGENERATION
The serpent is mentioned in John 3 in such a way as to indicate that we, fallen human beings, are all serpentine. We are not only sinners; we are serpentine because we were bitten by the old serpent. To be sure, when Nicodemus came to the Lord Jesus that night, he certainly did not have any realization that he was serpentine. He probably regarded himself as a God-seeking and God-fearing man, as a man who tried to please God by keeping the law of God and who taught the Scriptures to the children of Israel. Nicodemus, however, was not satisfied with the law or with the teachings in the Old Testament. He had heard about Jesus the Nazarene and what signs He had done. Nicodemus may have seen some of these signs, and he may also have heard the Lord speak. But he did not dare to come to Him directly, because that would have been a shame for a man of his position. This was the reason Nicodemus came to the Lord at night.
We know that Nicodemus respected the Lord Jesus by the way he spoke to Him in verse 2. Nicodemus said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” Among the Jews, rabbi was the highest title that could be given to anyone. Not only did Nicodemus call the Lord a rabbi; he also recognized that He came from God. He knew that as God had sent Moses to the fathers, so He had sent the Lord Jesus to them. Nicodemus seemed to be saying, “The other Pharisees may not respect you, but I do. I respect you as a rabbi sent to us by God. Surely you can give me some better teachings. As a teacher of the Scriptures, I want to receive more teachings, better teachings, higher teachings.” However, the Lord Jesus answered Nicodemus not with teachings, but with a clear word about being born again: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a man is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (v. 3). Here the Lord Jesus seemed to be telling Nicodemus, “You come to Me for teachings. But you do not need more teaching—you need to be born again. Nicodemus, you need another birth.”
In speaking with Nicodemus, the Lord Jesus was wise. He did not tell him frankly and directly that he was serpentine. The Lord did not say, “Nicodemus, because you are serpentine, you need to be born again.” First the Lord told Nicodemus that he needed to be born again. Only later did He bring in the matter of the brass serpent.
In the conversation between Nicodemus and the Lord Jesus there were two sides, the side of Nicodemus and the side of the Lord. As an elderly man, Nicodemus was religious, ethical, and moral. What he said to the Lord here is natural, religious, moral, ethical, and human.
The Lord’s way of speaking to Nicodemus was not religious, ethical, moral, or human. The Lord told him that it was necessary for him to be born anew. Moses did not teach this. Neither was it taught by Confucius or the Greek philosophers. This word is something beyond religion, ethics, morality, and philosophy.
No doubt, the Lord’s word about being born anew was puzzling to such a religious and ethical person as the elderly Nicodemus. Nicodemus said to the Lord, “How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter the second time into his mother’s womb and be born, can he?” (v. 4). Although the Lord’s word about being born anew was something beyond human thought, the question Nicodemus asked in verse 4 indicates that he brought the Lord’s word down to the human level. He thought that to be born anew required a return to the mother’s womb to be born a second time. But even if such a thing were possible, we would still have our serpentine nature. Being reborn physically would do nothing to change this. As the Lord says in verse 6, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh.” Here the Lord seems to be saying, “Even if you could go back again and again to your mother’s womb to be born, you would still be flesh.” In the sight of God, this flesh contains the poison of the old serpent. Our flesh is altogether serpentine.
The Lord was patient with Nicodemus and went on to say in verse 5, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a man is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” We have seen that water is the central concept of the ministry of John the Baptist, that is, to terminate those of the old creation. Spirit is the central concept of the ministry of the Lord Jesus, that is, to germinate people in the new creation. These two main concepts put together are the whole concept of the matter of regeneration. Regeneration is the termination of those of the old creation with all their deeds and their germination in the new creation with the divine life.
(The Fulfillment of the Tabernacle and the Offerings in the Writings of John, Chapter 9, by Witness Lee)