This morning we turn to a very familiar passage – the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus. The first two verses set the scene. Nicodemus finds Jesus as night. We can picture him stealthily seeking out Jesus, perhaps with a cloak pulled over his head so that he won’t be recognized. He’s come to get to the bottom of this. Who is this Jesus? Why are so many people taken with him? Why is Nicodemus himself swept away by the miracles Jesus is performing?
Jesus replies “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.” In a moment we will look at what Jesus meant by “born again”, but first a few things about the kingdom of God as Nicodemus would have understood it.
The Old Testament doesn’t use the full expression “the kingdom of God”, though the idea that the Lord reigns and is king is seen many times. Normally this would refer to God’s reign over the entire universe, whether a person knows him or desires to be included in the kingdom. But the prophets also foresaw the coming of a kingdom at the end of history, ruled over by a Son of David and by the Lord himself (the Messiah).
A Jew like Nicodemus would hear Jesus’ words “kingdom of God” and think of this kingdom at the end of history. He would have believed that this kingdom would bring about eternal, resurrection life.
Predominant religious thought in Jesus’ day affirmed that all Jews would be admitted to that kingdom. Only those who were guilty of deliberate apostasy or extraordinary wickedness would be excluded from the kingdom. It was essentially entrance by affiliation.
And yet Jesus is telling Nicodemus, one of the highest of Jewish leaders, a scholar, ultra religious and ultra respected, that he would not enter the kingdom of God unless he was born again.
In verse 5, Jesus further clarifies what he is telling Nicodemus. “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the spirit.” “Born of water and spirit” – a new birth that cleanses and renews. The OT speaks to this renewal and cleansing. The prophets spoke often about the restoration of the nation of Israel, but they also anticipated a transformation of individual hearts – no longer hearts of stone but hearts that hunger to do God’s will. Apparently Nicodemus had not thought of the OT passages this way. Like other Pharisees, he was too confident of the quality of his own obedience to think that he needed much repentance, let alone have his whole life cleansed and his heart transformed, to be born again.
Why would Jesus tell Nicodemus in verse 7 that he “should not be surprised at his saying, ‘You must be born again’”? He was a student of scripture, and he should have understood the great gap between people and God. He should have understood the need for a new heart, for God-given new birth. He should have understood God’s promise that he would indeed grant his people new hearts, a new nature, clean lives, and a full measure of the Spirit.
Jesus says “You (plural) must be born again.” He switches to the plural from the singular you. This “you” refers to everyone, the entire human race. As readers, this must give us pause. No longer can we simply read this story as an observer. We must realize that we are included in the you.
It can be easy to read over this story without pausing to take in its full implications. Or even to pause for a moment to pat ourselves on the back. I must be born again, and I am. Yay me! However, it is so important that we do pause, and we do explore the full implications. What should we be especially careful to note in this chapter? First, what it means to be born again. Second, what happens if we are not born again. Third, what happens after that.
Born again: What does Jesus mean by this? In this passage we learn several things about what it means to be born again.
Being born of the Spirit
Spirit gives birth to spirit
Produces eternal life and regeneration (resulting in humility)
We learn even more when we turn to other passages where this phrase is used.
Being Born Again:
• Occurs when we believe that Jesus is the Messiah.
1 John 5:1 “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, and everyone who loves the father loves his child as well.
• Is a result of the kindness, love and mercy of God.
Titus 3:4-7 “But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.”
• Gives us hope in this life and hope for the future.
1 Peter 1:3-4 “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade – kept in heaven for you”
• Gives us life that cannot cease to exist.
1 Peter 1:23 “For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God.”
• Means that we are no longer enslaved to sin.
1 John 5:18 “We know that anyone born of God does not continue to sin; the one who was born of God keeps him safe, and the evil one cannot harm him”
• Is evidenced by doing what is right. (doing it through the love of God.)
1 John 2:29-3:1 “If you know that he is righteous, you know that everyone who does what is right has been born of him. How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!”
• Is evidenced by our love for one another.
1 John 4:7-10 “Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.”
• Is evidenced by our love for God, shown through obedience.
1 John 5:3-4 “This is love for God: to obey his commands. And his commands are not burdensome, for everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith.”
What does being born again have to do with the kingdom of God? Being born again gives us entrance into the kingdom of God, which means eternal life for all who belong in the kingdom.
Everyone who believes in him (Jesus) may have eternal life.
Granted when one believes in him (Only Son – Jesus)
Provided because of God’s great love for the world
Rejection of the Son: no eternal life, God’s wrath remains on him
Why am I taking the time this morning to teach on these two, familiar, maybe seemingly obvious phrases? Well, first of all, because though they are familiar, they are the very heart of everything the Bible teaches us. Sin has separated us from God, but God has provided a way out of our sin. Jesus Christ was our atoning sacrifice, giving us life and making us righteous in the eyes of God. Because instead of seeing us, God sees Jesus standing in our place. But this only happens if we are part of his kingdom, part of him family. And for that to happen we must be born again.
The other reason why it is so important to spend this morning teaching on being born again and eternal life is that sometimes I think we misunderstand what it means to be born again. We simplify it to a set of words. Yes, it is simple. We simply believe with all of our hearts, souls and minds that we need a Savior, and that Jesus is that Savior. But it is not so simple that it is a formula prayer or a set of words we must say in order to gain admittance to the kingdom. If we misunderstand this, we are in danger of misleading others and confusing ourselves.
I see this firsthand in my own life. For most of my life, I have said that I was born again at age 4 or 5. It is true that this is the first time that I opened my life and heart to God. I was hungry for the truth at this young age, and I wanted to know God. I also did not want to go to hell. Then again in high school, I had a pivotal moment where I embraced faith in God. I began to understand that this faith must be my own rather than just claiming my parent’s faith as my own. But it wasn’t until my early 20s that I now believe I was truly and fully born again and admitted into the kingdom of God. I had spent several years ambivalent at best toward God, angry at worst. Then for six months or so, I struggled with God. I was hostile toward Him and anything that pertained to him. These were dark and depressing days. I never doubted his existence, but I denied his goodness. I wanted nothing to do with him.
It didn’t work. I couldn’t run from him. Finally I realized that it didn’t matter what I might not like about what the Bible taught. What mattered was that I needed God. Without him, life was dark and heavy. It was then that I realized, really realized that God is good. Why would I say that this is the true point of conversion, being born again, in my life? Because my life has never been the same since. Sure, I have struggled and I have sinned. I have had to fall on my knees in repentance over and over. But I have never doubted or denied Him again. I see God working in my life all of the time, refining me, convicting me, protecting me, changing me, teaching me. There is a song lyric that sometimes runs through my head “I will never be the same again.”
But what happens if we are not born again? We are rejected by Jesus. We face condemnation. Do you feel the gravity of this? Are you born again, in the true sense of what the Bible tells us that born again is? If you can answer a resounding yes to this, praise God! If you are not sure that you can, please talk to someone about it. Talk to me, to Kelly, to your discussion group leaders, to a friend, to anyone who can explain more about what God asks of us, and can pray for you.
If you did answer the resounding yes to this, you are not off the hook yet. If you have been born again, does your heart burn for the people around you who have not? Are you burdened for them? Because I know firsthand how tempting it is to sort of ignore the gravity of the situation – the reality of what is to come, the judgment and eternal condemnation of those who do not believe. Are you praying for those who don’t believe? Are you praying for opportunities to speak truth and to share the gospel? Are you then seeking out those opportunities? Do you believe in the power of the Spirit to change lives? If you are doing all of these things already, are you then encouraging the same of other believers? God’s purpose is to save the world. Verse 17 “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” If we love God, we love what he stands for, we love his purposes. And his purpose is to save the world. How are you and I serving and loving God by furthering his purposes?