The New Birth

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : John 3:1-15

Let’s eavesdrop on a conversation Jesus had one night with a religious teacher named Nicodemus. He learned the most important lesson in the world – and we can too!

Late one night a man named Nicodemus came to visit Jesus in Jerusalem. In the conversation they had on that occasion, Jesus was prompted to say some of the most important things he ever said.

There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus. He was one of the Jewish rulers. He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. We know that God is with you. If he weren’t, you couldn’t do the miraculous signs you are doing.”

Jesus replied, “What I’m about to tell you is true. No one can see God’s kingdom without being born again.”

“How can I be born when I am old?” Nicodemus asked. “I can’t go back inside my mother! I can’t be born a second time!”

Jesus answered, “What I’m about to tell you is true. No one can enter God’s kingdom without being born through water and the Holy Spirit. People give birth to people. But the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised when I say, ‘You must all be born again.’

The wind blows where it wants to. You hear the sound it makes. But you can’t tell where it comes from or where it is going. It is the same with everyone who is born through the Spirit.

“How can this be?” Nicodemus asked.

“You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus. “Don’t you understand these things?

. . . Moses lifted up the snake in the desert. The Son of Man must be lifted up also. Then everyone who believes in him can live with God forever.”

John 3:1-15, NIrV

JESUS AND NICODEMUS

The man to whom Jesus is speaking here was a Pharisee (a member of the most conservative religious party) and one of the leading citizens of Jerusalem. Nicodemus was also himself a teacher in Israel (cf. v. 10), and a member of the Sanhedrin or ruling body of the elders. By every measure he was a member of Israel’s elite. In coming to visit Jesus at night, Nicodemus gives the impression of stealth and secrecy. Was he afraid, given his position, of being seen talking to the radical young rabbi from Galilee? But though timid perhaps, this man was also apparently a sincere seeker after truth, and so he came. Moreover, John the evangelist is always sensitive to the symbolism of light and darkness. Nicodemus’s night-time visit to Jesus shows him coming out of the darkness into the light of Jesus’ presence.

He was first attracted to Jesus by the miraculous signs Jesus was doing in his public ministry. These pointed to Jesus’ divine origin. Genuinely impressed, Nicodemus opened the conversation politely with a compliment, “Rabbi, we know that God is with you.” No doubt he intended to engage Jesus in an interesting theological discussion, rabbi to rabbi, so to speak. But Jesus stops him rather abruptly. “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.” Nicodemus was interested in discussing religious ideas with Jesus. Jesus was interested in saving Nicodemus. Nicodemus wanted to talk. Jesus wanted to give new life. So he confronted Nicodemus with the most crucial demand any human being faces, “You must be born again.”

YOU MUST BE BORN AGAIN

Those startling words about the necessity of a new birth are intended to be taken personally. That’s clear from the way Jesus paraphrases them later. He repeats them as a command: “Nicodemus, you must be born again.” And the pronoun is plural: “You all must be born again.” This imperative describes the necessary condition for salvation. The only way to eternal life (to “see the kingdom of God,” in Jesus’ terms) is through the new birth. Everyone who hopes to be saved must be born again. It is possible to reach heaven without many other things. You can get there without rank or social distinction, without fame, without education, without money (in fact, wealth is one of the biggest obstacles to entering the kingdom!) But you will never get to heaven without being born again. The people God saves will be different in many respects. They will come from different cultures and races, different nations, different classes, different historical eras. They will speak a multitude of languages; they won’t look alike or sound alike. They will have many diverse backgrounds, different personalities, different levels of ability. In heaven brilliant scholars will stand alongside illiterate peasants on equal footing.

But everyone there will have one thing in common: they all will have experienced the new birth. The company of heaven will consist exclusively of the twice-born: born first in the natural, ordinary human way; born a second time spiritually by the supernatural power of the Spirit of God.

Think for a moment about the person to whom Jesus addressed these words. This was not Zacchaeus the tax -collector, the sinner. It wasn’t the woman taken in adultery or the thief on the cross. This was Nicodemus, solid citizen, religious leader, professor of theology! Nicodemus has to be born again! You see, it’s not enough to be a decent, law-abiding, even God-fearing person. We are all lost sinners who can only be saved through a miracle of inward change so radical it can be described as a second birth. A contemporary of John Wesley’s, annoyed at the great evangelist’s unwavering insistence upon conversion, asked him why he preached so often on the text “You must be born again.” “Because you must be born again,” was Wesley’s simple reply. So must we all, whether we were born into Christian families and raised in the church, or whether we have never heard the name of Jesus Christ before in our lives.

The reason that the new birth is a universal necessity is because every human being is by nature spiritually dead, that is, dead with respect to God and to the things of God. We are born in sin, according to the Bible. By nature we are God’s enemies, as the apostle Paul says in Romans. We are dead in trespasses and sins, he writes to the Ephesians. And the only way for us to be saved from those sins is for God to make us alive inwardly. The result is that we begin to believe in him and to obey his Word.

But this business of being dead in sin, helplessly lost and unable to save ourselves, seems to many people an overly harsh assessment of the human condition. The natural human approach to religion is to assume that nothing more than a good effort is needed in order to be accepted by God and granted eternal life – if even that much. But listen to John Wesley again:

Men may indeed flatter themselves (so desperately wicked and so deceitful is the heart of man) that they may live in their sins till they come to the last gasp and yet afterwards live with God, and thousands do really believe they have found a broad way which leads not to destruction.

But for that to be right, Jesus would have to be wrong. Beware of the delusion that you don’t need to be given new life from God in order to be saved. Anything less than this is not enough, says Jesus.

THE NEW BIRTH

The question naturally arises: if the new birth is so crucial a necessity, how does it work? How do you get it? Nicodemus wanted to know that, and so do we. While his absurd literal interpretation of Jesus’ words (his question about having to enter his mother a second time) must have been intended as sarcasm, still the question needs an answer. Jesus gives that answer in a way that still leaves many of us perplexed. According to his explanation, we must be born “by water and the Spirit.” What does that mean? The difficulty lies in understanding what is meant by the phrase “born of water,” and a number of interpretations have been suggested. Some think the water here is just a reference to the amniotic fluid of birth, so that Jesus is saying in effect, “You have to be born first physically and then spiritually.” Others see it as a reference to the water of baptism, which symbolizes the new birth that comes through the working of the Holy Spirit.

Whatever symbolism Jesus may have intended, the primary emphasis is upon the Spirit’s role in the new birth. People are born again, “from above” (as the phrase could also be translated), through the secret work of the Holy Spirit within the human heart. The Spirit’s working is mysterious and unexplainable, Jesus says, like the blowing of the wind which no one sees and no one can predict or control. But the transforming power is real and unmistakable. The Spirit of God himself works a great inward change through which we are made alive spiritually where before we were dead. The signs of this new life include a new responsiveness to God’s Word, a new faith in and love for Jesus Christ, and a new way of living that results in new habits, ambitions and pursuits.

AN IGNORANT TEACHER

Nicodemus still doesn’t get it. “How can this be?” he asks in bewildered confusion. “I don’t understand all this stuff about water and the wind and the Spirit and a new birth.”

Jesus becomes a bit exasperated. “Wait a minute – aren’t you supposed to be an expert, Nicodemus? Here you are, a teacher of God’s people, and you don’t understand the most basic and important lesson of all?” And then he tells Nicodemus something more.

He reminds him of a familiar story from Israel’s history. During the years when God’s people wandered in the wilderness, they often offended God by their disobedience and unfaithfulness. On one occasion God sent poisonous snakes into the camp, and many Israelites were bitten and died. When the people cried out to the Lord for help, he instructed Moses to fashion a snake out of bronze and fix it to a tall pole, and then lift up the snake so that anyone could see it. Thus, when anyone was bitten, they could look up at the bronze snake, and they would be healed. It was an object lesson, not just for the Israelites, but for us. “I will be lifted up on a pole like that snake,” Jesus told Nicodemus. “I will die on a cross for the sin of the world. And everyone who looks to me and puts their trust in me will be saved. They will not die. They will live with me forever.”

Nicodemus may not have understood everything about being born again through the work of the Spirit, and you may not understand it all either. I really don’t understand it all myself. But we can understand what Jesus says here. I think he’s telling us, “Don’t worry about what you don’t understand. Just look at me. Believe in me. Understand how much I love you and what I’ve done for you. That’s enough – the rest will come later.”

Give praise to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. In his great mercy he has given us a new birth and a hope that is alive . . . because Jesus Christ rose from the dead. He has given us new birth so that we might share in what belongs to him. It is a gift that can never be destroyed. It can never spoil or even fade away. It is kept in heaven for you.

1 Peter 3:3-4 NIrV