You Must Be Born Again

John 3:1-15

John 3 contains one of the most memorable conversations in the Bible as it concludes with Jesus revealing the motivation and purpose for which God sent him into the world: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” (Jn 3:16)

This conversation is with a man named Nicodemus, who comes under cover of darkness to see whether what he has heard about Jesus is true. The reason he came to him at night is that he is a Pharisee, and already, the writing is on the wall. Jesus is dangerous – he threatens their way of life – their position, their prestige, their power. If Jesus is who he says he is, then their lives will change dramatically, and they were not a group who viewed change as a good thing.

A little background on the Pharisees: Their origin was during the second century before Christ, and they were a response to the increasing assimilation of the Jews into the Gentile culture. The name “Pharisee” means “set apart, separate.” There were never more than 6,000 Pharisees, so they were a relatively small Jewish sect. Their purpose was to preserve, promote and enforce the observance of the laws and traditions of the Jewish people. And though what we read in the NT is generally negative toward the Pharisees, they were a remarkable group, zealously dedicated to the law, and without their leadership, it is very likely the Jewish people would have completely been assimilated by the surrounding culture and ceased to exist by the time Jesus came on the scene in the first century A.D.

That is part of Nicodemus’ background. John also tells us he was a member of the Sanhedrin. The Sanhedrin was the Jewish ruling council. It had seventy members, and they were the most influential, powerful religious and political force in the nation.

So, when Nicodemus shows up at Jesus’ doorstep, this isn’t a visit from the hospitality committee showing up to welcome Jesus to the neighborhood. He comes because there is something about Jesus that is so intriguing and so appealing that, in spite of the danger to his reputation, he is willing to take the risk to seek Jesus out.

Nicodemus begins the conversation, “Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him.” (Jn 3:2) This is where it would be really nice to have the tape of the conversation, because the tone of voice would tell you what Nicodemus was really saying.

It is possible that his words are dripping with sarcasm, but I don’t think so. I think he comes with a genuine respect for Jesus and amazement at what he is doing. He begins with the honored title “Rabbi.” Jesus was not trained in their rabbinical schools, he had no credentials to his name, but Nicodemus acknowledges the power and authority of his teaching when he says, “Rabbi.” And he also acknowledges twice that Jesus has come from God and that God is with him. And he says it with sincerity. And the evidence for Nicodemus that proves this are the miraculous signs that Jesus is doing.

You remember last week, that we talked about the miracles as signs. You could observe a miracle and be amazed at the spectacular event, but never see anything more. But for the person who is looking for God, a miracle was a sign pointing him in that direction with the purpose of bringing him to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. I believe that for Nicodemus, the miracles he saw Jesus perform were indeed signs pointing him to see the real Jesus.

And I say this because we see Nicodemus two more times in John’s Gospel: in chapter 7, when in the face of his fellow Pharisees conviction that Jesus is too dangerous to allow to live, he challenges their prejudice by saying, “Does our law condemn anyone without first hearing him to find out what he is doing?” And then a third time in chapter 19, when he assists Joseph of Arimathea in taking Jesus’ body down from the cross to help him prepare Jesus for burial in the tomb, a task that no doubt brought the scorn and condemnation of his fellow Pharisees.

There is not a doubt in my mind that this conversation changed the course of Nicodemus’ life. What Jesus said profoundly impacted and convicted him that Jesus was exactly who he claimed to be.

So what did Jesus say that changed the heart and mind of this stalwart defender of the law whose fellow Pharisees were already coming to the conclusion that he must die?

Jesus replies, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.” 

I’ll have to admit, I’m a little confused as to why Jesus responds to Nicodemus this way. I might have expected it if he were talking to the Samaritan woman at the well, or the prostitute who came and washed his feet with her tears, but Nicodemus? Nicodemus is a good guy, he is religious, he is righteous, he is a model of virtue and faithfulness to God. You don’t tell a guy like Nicodemus he has to start all over from the beginning. Maybe sand off a few rough edges, change his thinking on a couple of points, but he stands head and shoulders above almost everybody – including you and me.

But that’s exactly where Jesus starts with Nicodemus – at the beginning. “Nicodemus, you have to be born again.”

It obviously took Nicodemus aback a little as well. “How can a man be born when he is old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born!” (Jn 3:4) Nicodemus has no context for the words “be born again.” This may be the first time he has ever heard them. We’ve heard them all our lives and we know what Jesus is referring to, but this is the first time Jesus uses the phrase, “born again.” And so, of course, Nicodemus immediately assumes Jesus is referring to physical childbirth, and he is absolutely dumbfounded. And so he asks the obvious question, “How can a man enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born?”

But Jesus isn’t talking about physical birth, he’s talking about a spiritual rebirth. That will often happen in conversations with Jesus – Jesus will be speaking on one level and the person he is talking to will be listening on another. It will happen in the very next chapter when Jesus tells the Samaritan woman he can give her living water, and she says, “You don’t even have a bucket to draw water from the well.”

So, Jesus explains to Nicodemus, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’” (Jn 3:5-7)

This will still be a new way of speaking for Nicodemus, but certainly not a new way of thinking. Throughout the OT scriptures, God has used this language of newness and starting over.

David had written, “Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.” (Ps 51:10)

Ezekiel proclaims, “Therefore, O house of Israel, I will judge you, each one according to his ways, declares the Sovereign LORD. Repent! Turn away from all your offenses; then sin will not be your downfall. Rid yourselves of all the offenses you have committed, and get a new heart and a new spirit. Why will you die, O house of Israel?” (Ezek 18:30-31)

In chapter 36, Ezekiel will say, “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” (Ezek 36:25-26)

This idea of a new heart, a new Spirit, a new start was imbedded in their longing for the coming Messiah – that God was going to send a deliverer who would bring about a restoration and a renewal of all things.

When Jesus talks about new birth in water and in Spirit, he is talking about baptism. But not baptism as a religious ritual. The Jews had their ablutions and purifications and religious ceremonies of baptism – there were ritual purification fonts all over the Temple. But they were little more than ritual. What Jesus is speaking of is a wholesale, ground up, starting over – being born again. It takes place in water, but the substance is the Holy Spirit. When we are baptized, it is in water and our sins are washed away, but we are baptized in the Spirit, as we receive the gift of the Holy Spirit living within us. We are new creations.

Peter will later describe baptism in this way: Beginning in 1 Peter 1:3, “In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead…” He will continue in 3:21, “… and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”

Paul will write: “Don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.” (Rom 6:3-4)

Within baptism – this new birth – is imbedded the resurrection, the ultimate new start.

Jesus tells Nicodemus, “…no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit … ‘You must be born again.’” If you are thinking of baptism as an optional religious ritual, then you do so in the face of every scripture in the NT that insists that baptism is the moment in which God takes control of your life and you begin again. You must be born again.

If anyone would have been good enough to have deserved salvation on his own human merits, Nicodemus probably would have, but even Nicodemus wasn’t good enough. Nobody is good enough. Paul writes, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” Nicodemus was included, you and I are included. We must be born again.

But Jesus isn’t through. He continues: “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” (Jn 3:8)

Since Nicodemus is listening on the wrong level, Jesus uses an example he will understand – the wind. You can’t see the wind, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t real. You can see the evidence of its passing, as the trees blow and the leaves rustle. The same is true of the Spirit. You cannot see him, but you can see the evidence of his presence in the changed lives of the people in whom he dwells.

Those who challenged Jesus did so because they could not see beyond what their eyes could observe. Jesus was a poor, itinerant preacher. To those who knew of him, he was Mary and Joseph’s son, a carpenter, whose origin raised eyebrows and sparked gossip as to his parentage. And to those people, he would never be anything more. To imagine that Jesus might actually be the Messiah, the Son of God, was more than their minds could grasp.

We have the same problem today. To many, Jesus is an interesting character in the Bible, who even did some amazing things and taught some wonderful truths. But to see him as anything more – to not only say, but let Jesus be the Lord of our lives is more than they can imagine. We live in the real world. Reality is what I can see, hear and touch. A spiritual life in which I live a life of holiness and follow Jesus carrying my cross daily doesn’t fit very well into that kind of reality.

So, just like Nicodemus we ask, “How can this be?” His question was not a challenge, but a pleading, a longing for it to be true – a desire for understanding.

At that point, Jesus takes Nicodemus back to the classroom: “You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? I tell you the truth, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man.” (Jn 3:10-13)

Jesus explains Nicodemus’ basic problem – he is trying to understand the things of heaven through earthly eyes – as Jesus had said, “Flesh gives birth to flesh.” He wants to fit things into his familiar paradigm to make sense of what Jesus is saying, and Jesus says it isn’t possible. Think how many times Jesus said something like, “You must lose your life in order to live,” “Those who are poor will be rich,” “Blessed are those who are persecuted.”

Life in God’s kingdom cannot be grasped or contained in the limited, earthly perspective we try to fit it into. We try to live with one foot in this world and one foot in God’s kingdom and we wonder why we get no joy out of either. As Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, “You cannot serve two masters. You will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and this world.”

And when you try to understand Jesus or explain Jesus from an earthly perspective, you will always fall short. You will never get beyond a great teacher or a good man or a divine prophet. And none of those adequately describe him. In fact, if Jesus was not the Son of God, then none of those describe him because he claimed boldly and without apology to be the Christ, the Son of God. And if he was not that then he was not a good man, he was a liar or a charlatan or a lunatic.

This conversation with Nicodemus is going to take a part two to see how it concluded, but I believe that because of this conversation, Nicodemus walked away a believer in Jesus. That in spite of the opposition of his fellow Pharisees and members of the Sanhedrin, Nicodemus believed that Jesus really was the Son of God.

I’d like to tell you that Nicodemus proclaimed his belief publicly and left everything to follow him that day, like Peter and Andrew walking away from their fishing boats, like Matthew walking away from his tax collector’s booth. He didn’t. Maybe there was too much at stake, perhaps the peer pressure was more than he could have endured.

You may be in that same position. You believe that Jesus is who he claims to be – the Son of God and Savior. But something is holding you back from going all in. This morning, whatever that is, put it in the perspective of eternity. Jesus said, “Whoever acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge him before my Father in heaven. But whoever disowns me before men, I will disown him before my Father in heaven.” (Mt 10:32-33)

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