Grace For The Journey
I remember once overhearing a conversation between two or three ladies. I think it was on one of the trains at some airport. I do not remember exactly where. I just remember at some point while they were talking about some other lady, that the one said, “Well, you know, she’s a ‘born-again Christian.’” Right after she said that, everyone else was like, “Ugh! A born- again Christian!” I then remember another saying something like, “If you get it right the first time, you don’t have to do it again.” It was clear that this term, “born again,” was thought of with contempt or scorn.
There is some confusion about this. The Barna Research firm does not help us any when it classifies a segment of Christians as those who are “Born again.” As though there were some distinction between one kind of Christian and another kind of Christian, or a special class or hierarchy among believers.
The Bible identifies all true Christians as those who have been “born again,” born from above, reborn in a spiritual sense. And this term then, strictly speaking, is not a term invented by Baptists or Pentecostals or evangelicals at large, but this term, “born again,” is a term invented by Jesus Christ. It is a Bible term.
In today’s we will study the main movements of this passage insofar as it describes the experience of “new birth.” First, let’ . . .
I. Consider the Necessity of the New Birth.
Jesus says, “You must be born again.” It is necessary. Here Nicodemus, a very religious person. Verse 1 tells us he is “a ruler of the Jews” and that he came to Jesus by night. That may be because he was seeking more information about Jesus but did not want others to know it and so he came secretly. I wonder though whether Nicodemus may have come to Jesus at night more so as a representative of the Jewish ruling class. vHe does say in verse 2, “We know – Rabbi, we (Jewish leaders) – we know that You are at teacher come from God.” Kind of the way a powerful political person may meet someone in the evening for dinner to see whether they can “win them over” to their side. Wanting to see whether Jesus will be part of their group and under their control. Whether Jesus was willing to “play ball” with them.
In any case, Jesus gets right to the heart of the matter by making this provocative statement in verse 3, “Jesus answered and said to him, “Verily, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”” Here is the necessity of the new birth. Unless one is born again, born from above, born a second time, he cannot – not he may not, nor even will not, but that he cannot – see the kingdom of God, the reign of God, both as a reign in which we live here as well as a literal reign in the future, including space, a heavenly reign.
Apart from the new birth, a person cannot see. He or she is blind to spiritual truth. Every person without Christ, says the Apostle Paul in Ephesians 2, is “dead in trespasses and sins.” We need rebirth. We need God to birth us so that we can see.
Most people are familiar with the words from John Newton’s hymn, “Amazing Grace,”
“How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me; I once was lost but now am found, was blind, but now I see.” New birth is necessary because without it, we remain in spiritual darkness and blindness and therefore outside of the realm and reign of God.
Verse 4 says, “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?’” Nicodemus is confused. He is thinking of the new birth in terms of age or stages. He thinks Jesus is talking about his physical birthday when Jesus is talking about the need for a spiritual birthday. How can a guy be born again when he is in his 40s? Does he enter a second time in his mother’s womb? What in the world are you talking about, Jesus?!
In verses 5-6 Jesus answered, “Verily, 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.” Now this is Jesus’ way of explaining that He is not talking about physical birth, but about spiritual birth. Unless one is born of the water AND THE SPIRIT, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh (physical birth), and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit (spiritual birth).
Jesus is likely drawing upon the imagery in the Old Testament book of Ezekiel. Don’t In chapter 36 and verses 25-27 Ezekiel 36:25-27 is speaking on the matter of renewing His people, God says through the prophet, “Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes . . .” The point is that Jesus is telling Nicodemus that if he hopes to see and enter in the Kingdom of God, including receiving the benefits of heaven, then he must be born again, born not just physically, but spiritually, too.
That is what He says in verse 7, “Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’” Here in verse 7 Jesus uses the plural pronoun. He says, “Do not marvel that I said to ‘you all,’ that ‘you all’ must be born again.” Another possible indication that Nicodemus is speaking on behalf of the Jewish Sanhedrin. Jesus is like, “Look, you all may be religious, and you all may have power, but you all need to be born again.” And what is true of the “you all” back then is true of the “us all” of today – the utter necessity of the new birth. You must be born again.
Many people have the wrong idea about how to gain entrance into the kingdom of God.
- Some are counting on their family’s being religious.
- Some are counting on the money they give to charitable causes.
- Some are counting on their acts of kindness, doing good to others and so forth.
But Jesus is talking here to a man who, being very religious, likely did all of those things as a faithful member of the Pharisees. He practiced good deeds and did things for other people, yet he hears Jesus of Nazareth say to him, “You MUST be born again.”
The same is true today. The necessity of the new birth. But not only do we see the necessity of the new birth, secondly we see:
II. Consider the Mystery of the New Birth.
There is mystery here in the rebirthing of a person.
The new birth is something God does.
He brings it about.
We do not make ourselves “born again.”
God does it.
You see, strictly speaking, the term “born again” is best understood as God’s work of regeneration, a term that simply means God takes out that old heart of sin and stone, as Ezekiel called it, and replaces it with a heart of faith. God takes this initiative by way of His Holy Spirit. It is not something we do, though we do respond to the work. It is first, however, a work of God.
It is very similar to physical birth. No one caused his or her own physical birth. Somebody else made that happen. Similarly, no one can cause the Holy Spirit to move upon himself and birth himself. This is an initiative that God alone takes. John makes this clear in his Gospel, especially in the opening chapter in chapter 1, verse 13 where he refers to children of God, “who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” Peter also stresses this regenerative work of God by His Spirit when he writes in 1 Peter 1:3, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to His great mercy, He has caused us to be born again.”
God takes the initiative in causing this new birth. In a way that is admittedly hard to put one’s finger on it, there is a point during this regenerative work of God that brings about a willing response on our part to receive Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. But admittedly it is a mystery. I believe that is what Jesus is addressing in verses 8 to 10, “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit. Nicodemus answered and said to Him, ‘How can these things be?’ Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not know these things?’” That must have humiliated Nicodemus! Are you the teacher of Israel, Nicodemus, and you do not know this stuff you are supposed to teach others about?! Nicodemus is very much “in the dark!”
There is an aspect of the new birth that is mysterious. Jesus says, “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit.” As the wind blows, you really cannot determine the wind’s precise origin or its ultimate destination. You can, however, see the effects of the wind. You hear it. You may see the way things are affected by it – leaves and dust are blown around. Jesus says that this is all a bit like the mysterious nature of the new birth. The Holy Spirit does the work. Much of His work is mysterious to us, but one can see the visible effects of His work.
The hymn-writer alludes to this mysterious work in the classic hymn, “I know Whom I Have Believed.” He writes:
I know not how the Spirit moves,
Convincing men of sin,
Revealing Jesus through the Word,
Creating faith in Him.
“But I know whom I have believed!” – that much I do know. That much you can know.
The necessity of the new birth, and the mystery of the new birth. Now we move on to . . .
III. Consider the Simplicity of the New Births.
There is one sense in which becoming
A Christian is a relatively simple thing.
We have said that we do not enter the kingdom of God
By being “religious,” by being a good person, by doing
A bunch of good deeds or giving our money to good causes.
The way we enter the kingdom is through
Simple faith and trust, a look to Christ.
Jesus explains in verse 13, “No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of Man who is in heaven.” Jesus refers to Himself here, the incarnation. He is the One who has come down from heaven. Now watch this analogy that illustrates the crucifixion beginning in verses 14 and 15, “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up,
that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.”
Jesus refers to the sin of Israel recorded in Numbers chapter 21. God’s people had complained and spoken against God so He judged them by sending serpents to them. Many were bitten by them and died. Moses prayed for them and God told Moses to remedy the situation by making a bronze serpent and holding it up on a staff. All the people who looked upon the bronze serpent were healed from the judgment and lived. Jesus says just as Moses lifted up the serpent that others would look upon it and live, so must the Son of Man be lifted up so that whoever looks upon Him will live. The Son of Man is lifted up on the cross.
The Son of Man is the One who takes
The judgment of sin upon Himself
That the judged may go free.
We look upon Jesus.
We look upon Him by believing.
This is the context of a favorite Bible verse, verse 16, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” We must look upon Jesus. We must believe in Him, believing what the Bible teaches about Him, believing that He took our judgment for sin. If we believe then we have eternal life. That is the simplicity of the new birth experience: belief in the Lord Jesus Christ. This belief includes, however, a turning away from our sin. The context makes this clear as we read in verse 17, “For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.
The reason God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world is because verse 18 tells us the world is condemned already, verse 18, “He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.” Remember that we are born into this world with the problem is sin. We inherited the problem from our first parents, Adam and Eve. Because of sin, man is under condemnation. Man is under the judgment of God. He is condemned already.
A few years ago, I saw a bumper sticker on a car. Instead of the words “born again,” it read: “Born against.” I assume the owner of the bumper sticker meant this phrase “born against” as a humorous parody of the phrase “born again.” But the sticker illustrated more truth than the driver himself may have realized.
We are all “born against,”
Born into this world naturally
Against the things of God.
We have a sin nature and
We are under God’s judgment.
Mankind is under the judgment of God. He is condemned already.
Jesus Christ came into the world
To take care of our sin problem.
He did not come to condemn us.
He did not come to add
To our condemnation, but
To fix our condemnation.
He came to fix our sin problem.
If we fail to turn to Christ, we remain under condemnation, a state Jesus explains further in verses 19 through 21, “And this is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For everyone practicing evil hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But he who does the truth comes to the light, that his deeds may be clearly seen, that they have been done in God.”
Belief in the Lord Jesus Christ includes a turning away from evil deeds, turning away from sin. This is repentance – leaving the darkness and stepping into the light. This is the only way we may be saved. We must leave the darkness and step into the light by looking upon the Lord Jesus Christ. We must turn away from sin and turn to the Savior. There is no other way to enter into the kingdom of God.
I preached another graveside service. Funerals present an opportunity, of course, to talk to the living about dying. I often say that when we die our soul lives on in one of two locations. If we die without Christ we remain separated from God because of sin. We remain in condemnation. We spend eternity, therefore, in hell as just condemnation for our sins and rebellion. If, however, we have “looked to Christ,” looked to the One who is “lifted up,” if we have looked upon Him, then we have entered into the kingdom of God and our soul lives on forever in heaven.
Yes, there is a lot of mystery in the new birth, but it really comes down to this . . .
Look to Christ
The Bible says in Hebrews 3:15, “Today, if you will hear His voice, do not harden your hearts.” Do not harden your heart, simply trust Christ.
This is Grace for your Journey …
Rest and Rejoice in this eternal truth!
Ephesians 4:7 – “But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it.”
Hebrews 4:16 – “Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.”