Born Twice

William C. Brownson Uncategorized

READ : John 3:3-7

Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, `You must be born anew.'”

John 3:5-7 RSV

It’s one of the most radical teachings of the Christian faith. It shocked the first man who heard of it and has been startling others ever since. It’s the Christian doctrine of the new birth, the idea that people need to be born twice, that is, to receive a new kind of life. Let’s listen to the conversation in which Jesus first spoke about being “born again.” I’m reading from the Gospel according to John, chapter 3, beginning at verse 1:

Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “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.” Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, `You must be born anew.'”

DIVINE NECESSITY

Think with me first about those words, “You must be born anew” or “born again.” Jesus is saying that even for outstanding religious people, the new birth is an absolute necessity.

Consider this man Nicodemus. He’s a Pharisee, a member of the most orthodox, dedicated, pious group within Israel. The Pharisees were the most serious of all the Jews about keeping even minute details of God’s law. What’s more, Nicodemus is a ruler. He’s a member of the highly regarded Sanhedrin, which provided leadership for Israel both politically and religiously. He’s a student of the law of God and a mentor of the people of God. You could hardly find in all the land a better, more religious man than Nicodemus.

Further, he seems to have a high regard for Jesus. Nicodemus is himself an authorized teacher in Israel, but he calls Jesus “Rabbi,” or “my instructor.” He recognizes that though Jesus has not been formally trained in the teachings of the law, He is yet one of God’s inspired spokesmen. He affirms that: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God.” Quite high praise coming from a Sanhedrin member! Nicodemus also acknowledges that Jesus’ ministry has been attested by remarkable signs. Jesus has performed miracles. He has done great good for people. Nicodemus has been led by that fact to the right conclusion: “No one can do these signs that you do, unless God is with him.”

If we’re looking then for a person of character and commitment, of faith and large-heartedness, this man Nicodemus seems a candidate for the top of the list. Surely Jesus will appreciate this recognition from him, this tribute from such a man. But no, He responds in a way that must have severely jolted His night-time visitor. “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” It’s as though Jesus is picking up the words of Nicodemus and saying, “You’re speaking about God – the persons He sends, the works He does. I want to tell you this: No person can ever grasp the reality of God’s kingly rule or enter into it, without a new birth.”

This cuts across what Nicodemus had previously believed. Throughout his life, he had stressed careful observance of God’s law and the traditions of the elders. For a loyal Pharisee, this was regarded as the way to salvation. This was the accepted way to win God’s favor and enjoy His fellowship. Now Jesus seems to be sweeping it all away. He hasn’t come simply to recommend devout regard for the law, important as that may be, or even a revised presentation of the Israelite faith. He’s saying that nothing will do but a radical rebirth. Do you want to know God? Do you want to belong to His kingdom? Do you want to dwell forever in His presence? Then, says Jesus, “you must be born again.”

A little later in the conversation, Jesus says: “that which is born of the flesh is flesh.” Human nature begets only human nature. That’s what becomes ours the moment we are born. But our first birth, apparently, is not enough. Human nature doesn’t measure up. The kingdom of God is a different kind of realm and requires a different sort of life.

Christian preachers and evangelists have been proclaiming that ever since. George Whitefield, who electrified multitudes with his preaching all over the British Isles and colonial America, had as his first published sermon a message entitled, “The Nature and Necessity of our Regeneration or New Birth in Christ Jesus.” That theme, writes a distinguished historian, “was featured in one way or another in virtually every sermon Whitefield preached.” The same was true in the proclamation of the Wesleys in early Methodism. It’s the truth today. Jesus is still saying through His word, through His servants, “You must be born again.” There’s no other way. This is the one thing needful.

HUMAN IMPOSSIBILITY

Now this is a shattering message to hear because it makes us all feel so helpless. We can’t imagine how such a thing could be possible. That was precisely the response of Nicodemus. He asks, amazed, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” It was as though he had said, “What do You mean, Jesus? Another birth? A repetition of the event in which our mothers brought us into the world?” At first glance, his question doesn’t seem very profound, does it? It surely doesn’t portray Nicodemus as a religious expert. He’s plainly baffled. But let’s not dismiss his question too quickly. He’s not simply asking how this is possible physiologically. There’s a deeper heart-cry here. He’s wondering how it is possible for any of us to begin again.

The German scholar Wolfhart Pannenberg writes frequently on the subject of theology and science. He has this to say on the subject of time, “Time is irreversible. We cannot travel backwards in time, though our imagination can play with ideas like that [you know, fantasies like the time machine]. One speaks of the arrow of time pointing invariably from the past to the future.” As much as we might like to, we can’t go back and re-live the events of the past. That shameful thing we did, hurting someone badly, is graven in time. That moment of marvelous opportunity we missed will never come again in just the same way. Nicodemus knows that, feels that. But Jesus, in this strange teaching about a new birth, is pointing to something almost unimaginable – that you and I could become new people, that we could actually get a fresh start.

Common sense says it can never happen. We’re a product, we are told, of our genetic makeup and our life’s experiences. It’s as simple as that. These factors, these forces, have molded us to be what we are. They’ve dealt us our hand, as it were, and now we have to play it. We have to live with it. How can anyone get beyond all that and experience a new and different life? It’s something we might dream about or devoutly wish for. But seriously, is such a thing possible?

For us, by our own wit and will, it’s obviously out of the question. Nicodemus is right. No one can return to a mother’s body and travel down that birth canal again. No one has the power to start his or her life afresh or to make oneself profoundly different. So from our standpoint, these words of Jesus seem at first a counsel of despair. Many indeed have despaired over them. If what I need is a new birth, if I can never belong to God and His heavenly kingdom without being born anew, and if I’m helpless to bring that about, what hope is there? Where do I turn?

HOW IT CAN BE

But, you know, it’s not so bad to feel that way. It leads us to ask the right questions and prepares us to receive the real answer. Jesus is saying that what we can’t do, God can do – and does. When He says here, “You must be born anew,” the final word in that sentence has several meanings. “Again” or “anew” is one. Another meaning, the more natural one, is “from above.” The new birth, in other words, is not from earth but from heaven. It doesn’t come from within ourselves, from our “little pool of ego strength,” but from God. This new birth is a birth by the power of God’s Spirit. Jesus says “what is born of the flesh is flesh.” What is born of human nature is human nature. On the other hand, “what is born of the Spirit is spirit.” What is born of God has a God-like character. Apparently, it’s possible for God by His Spirit to move upon us in such a way that we are inwardly transformed. To our ordinary, everyday human life is added another life – a new dimension, if you will. We begin to share God’s life. We’re regenerated from above, born by the Spirit, born out of God.

Nicodemus is still puzzled. Maybe we are, too. Jesus talks about the Spirit being like the wind, powerful, mysterious, unpredictable. How can I have any solid expectation that this will happen in my life, that the Spirit will blow my way, that I can be born anew? It’s one thing to know that God can do it but will He do it for me? How can anyone know about that?

A little further on in the chapter we get some added light. Jesus is still speaking of the new birth, but now He’s describing it as a special kind of life, eternal life. He has this to say about how it comes to us, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:14-15). Here we get a clue about how it is that the Holy Spirit comes to us and touches us with this new and wonderful life. It’s in connection with Jesus, with His historic life and especially with His death when He was lifted up on the cross. When we believe in Jesus as the One who bore our sins and died for us, we have eternal life. That’s why the new birth is possible, because Jesus died on our behalf, rose again from death and has sent His Spirit into the world. When we believe in Jesus, the Holy Spirit brings the life of Jesus, the life of the risen Lord, into our experience here and now, making everything new.

But even that isn’t the whole story. Why is there a life-giving Spirit to breathe newness into us? Why is there a Savior to come among us and lay down His life for our sakes? Because of God’s love. Listen to this word again, the most familiar and beloved verse in all the Bible, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (v. 16). Behind the gospel message is the seeking, suffering, saving love of the One who made everything. That’s why it’s possible for you and me, mixed-up mortals that we are, to be twice born, to have a new life.

So there you have it in a nutshell, the most radical teaching in the Bible. If you and I are to enter God’s kingdom, nothing will suffice but a new birth. Further, it’s impossible for us by any virtue, effort, or genius of our own to bring that about. But here is the great good news: because of God’s love for us, because of Jesus’ dying on our behalf and rising again, because of the Holy Spirit’s wonderful working in us, you and I can enter the kingdom of God. We can be born from above. And it all begins when we look in faith at the dying form of one on Golgotha who cried out before He died, “It is accomplished!”

Are you ready to say something like this: “Lord, I cannot save myself, I cannot make myself acceptable. But I believe wholeheartedly in You as the one who did everything needful.” And are you willing to say, “I put my life in Your hands”? As you trust God’s great love in the gift of His Son, a miracle will be going on within you. We don’t know just how and when the Holy Spirit begins that work in us, but all who trust in Christ can be assured that it has happened. They, by God’s marvelous grace, are among the twice-born.