1 Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. 2 He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”
3 Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”
4 “How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”
5 Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. 6 Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.
Two weeks ago, we began investigating the foundations of our Christian faith in hopes of better understanding where we come from, what God has done for us, and who we are now called to be in Christ. We started by looking at where we come from, and we learned that God created Adam and Eve in his own image to enjoy fellowship with him. Because he loved them, he gave them free will – the ability to freely decide whether or not they would return God’s love.
We learned that Adam disobeyed God’s command to abstain from the fruit in the middle of the garden, and so chose to follow his own desires, rather than God’s desires for him. And, as a result of Adam’s sin, each of us here today has inherited a sin nature, which means we have a tendency to choose sin and worship temporary things instead of our eternal God.
But we also learned from Scripture that God is love. And because he loves us, he stepped in at the moment of Adam and Eve’s fall to stop their downward spiral and to care for them in their fallen state. God’s prevenient grace goes before us and points us toward God, enabling us to recognize good and evil for what they are, and granting us the ability to respond favorably to God’s call to follow him. We are each responsible for our sin, because God has given us the ability, by his grace, to rely on him in faith. But, when we choose sin over God, as the Bible says we all do, we become guilty of disobedience and deserving of God’s wrath. This is where we come from.
Last week, we talked about what God has done for us. We learned that being guilty of sin is just like being guilty of a crime in a court of law. We have damaged our relationship with God through our disobedience, and our guilt requires a response from God, because he is just and righteous. God has decreed that a blood sacrifice is the only means by which we can atone for sin and turn away God’s just punishment. And out of his love for us God has provided Jesus as the once and for all sacrifice for sin. When we receive God’s gift of grace, through faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus, God removes our guilt and we become blameless. We share in Christ’s sin offering, we are justified by his blood, and we are declared righteous by God.
We heard that the result of justification is forgiveness for our disobedience, freedom from the power of sin in our lives, and the gift of assurance that our sins are forgiven and that we belong to God. And finally, we reaffirmed the Bible’s teaching that justification is only available by grace, through faith. The Bible says that when we confess with our mouths that Jesus is Lord, and believe in our hearts that God raised him from the dead, we will be saved. This is the gift of God to all those who put their trust in Jesus.
Today, we are going to continue talking about what God has done for us, as we discuss what it means to be born again.
Now, we use phrases like “born again” to describe Christians all the time don’t we. But have you ever stopped to really think about that phrase? I have to be honest, it just sounds weird to me. And I’m pretty sure it sounds extra strange to people outside the church. But here is some good news for us to consider: this has always sounded strange to people, even religious ones, so at least we aren’t alone in our confusion. In fact, the first time this phrase appears is in the passage from John that we just read, and the very first person who heard it was just as puzzled as we might be about its meaning. John tells us that the first one to hear about this was a man named Nicodemus.
Nicodemus is introduced as an important Jewish figure. He was a Pharisee, which means that he was one of the religious elite. If you remember, a few weeks ago we talked about the Apostle Paul’s conversion, and we learned that he, too, was a Pharisee. Now, not all Pharisees were as zealous as Paul and they certainly didn’t all persecute Christians, but they were all concerned with keeping the letter of the law, so they were very strict. John also says that Nicodemus was a member of the Jewish ruling council, the Sanhedrin, and a teacher of Israel (v. 10), which means that he was familiar with the doctrinal issues of his time.
Up to this point, Jesus had already been making some waves. John the Baptist had been talking about him, and how he saw the Spirit of God descend on Jesus like a dove. He had begun to call together a group of disciples, who were traveling through the countryside with him. When it was nearing time for the Passover Feast Jesus traveled to Jerusalem with his disciples, but when he saw the money changers ripping people of in the Temple courts, he turned over their tables and chased them out for dishonoring God with their greed and showing disrespect for God’s house. Jesus had also been making some strange claims, like the time he told some people who challenged him that, if they destroyed the temple, he would rebuild it in three days.
On top of all this, Jesus had been going around performing miracles. These started with a wedding feast where the bridal party ran out of wine, which would have been viewed as shameful. At his mother’s request, Jesus turned water into wine and protected them from disgrace. This was his first public miracle, and we find out after that, in John 2:23, that Jesus had been performing other miraculous signs all over Jerusalem, which led many people to believe in his name.
So, when Nicodemus heard about Jesus’ miracles and teachings he was understandably interested to find out more. He approached Jesus at night, which might indicate that he was concerned with other people seeing him associate with this new teacher. But he wasn’t harsh in his approach. In fact, his greeting was courteous, and he acknowledged that no one could do the things Jesus was doing, unless God was with him.
Jesus, who was able to read and understand the hearts of people, knew why Nicodemus was really there. He wasn’t there to exchange pleasantries; he was curious about what Jesus was teaching. So Jesus, who was able to read people so well, got right to the point and revealed to him the truth about the one question he knew was most important to Nicodemus. How can we enter God’s kingdom? This is the question to which he had devoted his entire life. It was his single pursuit, and the reason for his religious zeal. He was trying to enter the kingdom by his strict adherence to the Law of Moses. So, Jesus must have thrown him for a loop, when he said, “No one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.” What in the world could this mean?
III. Born Again (from Above)
Nicodemus’ response seems pretty ridiculous on the surface doesn’t it? I mean, this was an educated man, but it sounded like he was asking how a person could re-enter their mother’s womb and be physically born again. I think we have to give poor Nicodemus a bit more credit here, and assume he understood that Jesus was talking about a spiritual reality, rather than a physical one. The word John used to convey the Jesus’ idea that a person must be “born again” was ανωθεν, which is better translated as “from above”. In other words, what Jesus meant was that a person has to be reborn as a citizen of heaven, rather than a citizen of the earth. So, when Nicodemus asked how a man could be reborn when he is old, he was trying to understand if it was possible for a person whose habits and ways of thinking had been fixed by age to truly change to the point that they are worthy of one born into heaven. I mean, it isn’t as if we can start over like a newborn baby and learn everything from scratch.
Jesus’ answer was to elaborate a little, by telling Nicodemus that what is required for a person to enter God’s kingdom is not a new way of thinking or a new pattern of behavior. What is required for entry into the kingdom is a transformation so complete, that it is like being born all over again. And this can only happen when we are born of water and the Spirit.
But what did Jesus mean by this? Was he simply saying that a person must first be born as a human, a process that involves watery fluid? Or was he talking about something else? Jesus was attempting to clarify his teaching to Nichodemus, and John would presumably want his audience to also understand his meaning. So, when Jesus talked about being born of water he was most likely pointing to baptism, which both Nicodemus and the reader would understand, since John the Baptist’s ministry immediately preceded Jesus’ ministry.
We need to proceed cautiously here, though, because some interpretations of this particular text have taken Jesus’ words to mean that baptism is required for salvation. Baptism is a work that God does in us as a means of grace, and it is also a symbol of our death to sin and life in Christ. But it does not have the power to save us from sin. Let me be clear this morning that there is no ritual that can rescue us from sin to eternal life. Only Jesus can do that. So, we have to go a bit deeper than the surface to understand Jesus’ meaning. When he referred to being born by water, he was talking about the repentance that baptism symbolizes. And when he talked about being born of the Spirit, he is talking about the Holy Spirit that is received by faith.
In other words, Jesus was repeating the same message that he had preached over and over, as you may recall from the other gospels, and the same message John the Baptist preached before him: “repent and believe, for the kingdom of God is at hand.” Nicodemus approached Jesus wanting to know what the key was to entering the kingdom of God. Jesus’ answer to him was “repentance and faith”, which lead to new birth and new life in him.
IV. What Happens in the New Birth?
Let’s very briefly look at three things that happen, when we are born again through repentance and faith in Jesus.
- First, we are born out of a life of sin into a life of freedom. As you recall, each of us has been born with a sin nature because of Adam. This means that we have a tendency to choose sin over God. When we are justified by grace through faith in Jesus, our sin guilt is removed, and we gain freedom from sin’s power and presence in our lives. The Holy Spirit gives birth to a new spirit in us, one that is purified and made holy. This is the beginning of our sanctification.
As our hearts are reoriented toward God by grace, it becomes possible for us to choose what is good, and reject what is evil. And we gain a new foothold on life; instead of being defined by our sin, our identity now rests in Christ. We no longer live with a birth heritage tied to sin, but one that is tied to the life of God. This means that we truly are a new creation. Sin has no more sway over us. We are free to be God’s chosen people, to worship him openly, and to serve him as witnesses in the world.
- Second, we are born from above as citizens of God’s kingdom. Now citizenship always comes with some rights. Our citizenship in the United States of America gives us the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Likewise, our citizenship in the kingdom of God gives us the rights of assurance, hope, and peace.
You may remember from last week that 1 John 5:10-12 promises: “Whoever believes in the Son of God accepts this testimony [of the Holy Spirit]. Whoever does not believe God has made him out to be a liar, because they have not believed the testimony God has given about his Son. And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.” Belief in Jesus is all that is required for us to be remade in Christ. Since we know that being in Christ has nothing to do with our efforts, we also know that our failures won’t suddenly cause us to fall out of Christ when we stumble. The knowledge that we are secure in God’s grace, even when we falter, should bring us assurance that we belong to God and that his promises are true for us.
As citizens of God’s kingdom we also share in the hope that God’s kingdom brings to the world; the hope of eternal life with God that begins right now, and future resurrection in the new creation. God’s kingdom also brings the hope that all the things that have been turned upside down by sin are being put right again. And though the kingdom has not yet fully arrived, we can have confidence that God will complete the good work that he has started.
We also have peace with our God and king. We no longer live as enemies of the state, but as full-fledged members of God’s kingdom. We have been found innocent of our crimes against God, and can enjoy the peace of knowing that we rest in the sovereign will of our Creator.
- Third, and finally, when we are born again, we are born into a new family as daughters and sons of the King. Romans 8:14-17 says,
“For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.”
As heirs of God, we share in all the blessings of Christ’s glory. This means that we receive the Holy Spirit, who helps us in our weakness and intercedes for us in accordance with God’s will (Romans 8:26-27). It means we can have confidence that in all things God works for our good, as those who love him (Romans 8:28). And it means that we can trust that God will continue to work in us, conforming us daily into the image of Jesus.
Nicodemus came to Jesus seeking answers about what a person can do to enter into the kingdom of God. Jesus’ answer to him is the same answer he gives to each of us today. There is nothing we can do that will gain us entry – only the grace of God can do that. When we repent of our sins and when we confess our belief in Jesus, by God’s grace, we become justified before God and we are reborn in the Spirit – we are born out of a life of sin into a life of freedom, we are born from above by the Spirit as citizens of the kingdom, and we are born into the family of God and new life in Christ.
We have an opportunity today and every day to live into these promises of God. This morning, I invite you to reflect upon the work of God in your life. Have you ever taken hold of the benefits of your rebirth in Christ? Are you still struggling with sin in your life, or have you accepted the freedom of life in the Spirit and turned away from sin? Have you taken full advantage of your citizenship in the kingdom of God? Do you have the assurance, hope, and peace that come from knowing you are a subject of the King? Do you live with the knowledge that you are a beloved child of God, adopted by grace in to the family of God? Have you received God’s inheritance and learned to rely on the Spirit in your weakness? Have you learned to depend on God to work on your behalf? And do you trust the Spirit to transform you into the image of Christ?
All of these things are available to you today, when you trust in Jesus alone for your salvation and live into the new birth you have received through him.
VI. Closing Prayer
Let us pray. Heavenly Father, we give you thanks today that we can indeed call you our Father. We thank you that you love us so much that you sent your Son Jesus to die on a cross for our sin, so that we might share in his inheritance as your daughters and sons. We thank you that you have given us the key to the kingdom of God, and that entry into your kingdom doesn’t rely on our efforts, but on your grace and mercy. Help us today to live as citizens of your kingdom. Help us to receive your gift of rebirth; to begin living as those for whom the old has passed away. Help us to put on the new life that can only be found in Jesus, and begin living lives fully submitted to the Holy Spirit. We ask all of this in Jesus’ name. Amen.