Have you ever been talking to someone and begin to think that while you both are talking to each other there are two different conversations going on? It dawns on you that not only are you on different pages, but, you’re quite possibly in different libraries. The other day we were at the dinner table and I think I asked Evan how his day went. I was expecting a rundown on playing outside, a gleeful report on something Reese got in trouble for, or a fun animal fact he learned. But, after spacing out for a couple seconds he launched with, “Well Dad did you know the invisible man died 25 years ago in a house attack?” Two different conversations.
Have you ever noticed how Jesus seems to do that to his inquirers? More than once we find a direct question receives from Jesus what seems to be a fragment from a completely different conversation. Enigmatically, it is like He decides to import an entirely unrelated thought, which has the effect of leaving his already perplexed audience more confused than before.
For example in John 12 some Greeks want to see Jesus and it says that Andrew and Philip inform Jesus of this. Rather than saying something like, “Yes, bring them here”, Jesus, appearing to ignore the request, launches into a discourse on His death, losing your life to save it, and His Father honoring those who serve Him. You can imagine the disciples shuffling their sandals on the ground, glancing at each other, and nervously asking “So…, can they come see you?” Or, in Matthew 15 when the Canaanite woman rushed up begging Him to free her daughter from demon possession He says rather indifferently – even insultingly – “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” Again, you can imagine His disciples shrugging to each other.
Sometimes He throws it right down the middle, coming straight out with very direct answers. But sometimes He won’t spell something out – he hangs his words a little higher so you gotta get up on your toes and reach for the meaning. Jesus is the best teacher, and He knows that a conclusion you reach yourself is better than one handed to you. You “own” it more that way – making you less likely to let go of it. Listenting to Jesus you find He forces you to use your mind and digest His words, making you arrive to the point yourself which will bring the lesson home much more forcefully. Some bites are spoon fed to you, but others you gotta pick up your own spoon.
Nicodemus was a man – more than anyone else – we can reasonably expect to “get” what Jesus says when He puts the fruit on a little higher branch. He was an elite religious leader in Israel, a highly educated master of the Jewish Law, an expert in the Holy Scriptures, and a careful student of his religion. Yet, with these cred’s, Nicodemus is reduced to a confused child with one statement from Jesus Christ. And that statement is number 3 on our Top Ten Things Jesus Said list: “You must be born again.”
This statement is another one of those apparently abrupt and “out of left-field” answers Jesus gives. Nicodemus sneaks over to see Jesus in the middle of the night, we assume to avoid detection from His fellow Pharisees. He also appears to represent a small faction within the Pharisees who are open to Jesus, unlike the majority that wanted Him dead. He promptly reports to Jesus what they’ve been able to assess so far of Him – mainly that He is doing miracles and that only a man with God on His side could be doing them. The text doesn’t say Nicodemus asked a question, so at this point, perhaps we would expect Jesus to say something affirmative like this: “Well, Nick, you are right, I am from God. The miracles I am doing are by God’s power. Actually, as a matter of fact, I am God. You’re on the right track. Anything else?” But He doesn’t. Instead His response seems to be entirely extraneous to anything Nicodemus mentions: I tell you the truth, unless a man is born again he will not enter the kingdom of God.” Wait a minute, Nick didn’t ask about eternal life or the kingdom of God.
What is Jesus doing in this instance – and the others? Jesus doesn’t have a short attention span, nor does He ignore His questioners. He hears them. But sometimes people don’t know what to ask Him. Sometimes they ask the wrong questions. He knows their question before it is on their lips (Psalm 139:4). He knows what they are asking. He knows what’s in their heart better than they do, and He, I believe, is answering the questions asked in the soul of a man even when his mouth doesn’t ask it right. We might say Jesus is answering their spiritual need, not necessarily their capricious want of information.
So why the “born again” answer with Nic’? Why not the answer given to the rich young ruler “Go sell all you have and follow me”? Or why not the answer given to the Samaritan woman by the well and point out the immorality in his life? Or why not the answer the betrayed brother who didn’t get an inheritance received when Jesus told Him “Watch out for all sorts of greed”? Why born again with this sincere Pharisee? Because greed, immorality, possessions and probably prestige weren’t Nicodemus’ problem. His was religion. He was a sincerely devout religious man, no doubt honest and known as a good man. But as good as his religion was it could not do two things: it could not generate new spiritual life inside of him and it could not bring him into the kingdom of God. So if religion can’t do that, then how good is it? Nicodemus, while pointed in the right direction in that he recognized Jesus was from God, he needed to go further still so that he could become born again.
First, this born again reality is a requirement
Our first point here is that being born again is a requirement. Jesus said “you must be born again”. You MUST. This MUST happen to you. If it has not happened to you your religion does not matter. Your charity is worthless. Your aspirations for a better life, a more moral life are all for nothing if you are not born again. You MUST be born again.
Being born again means that you are given a second birth – a spiritual birth. It is also called “regenerated” or the new birth. It is mentioned in Scripture often. John 1:12 says, “Yet to all who received Him, to those who believed in His name, He gave the right to become children of God – children not born of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.” In 1 Peter 1:23 it says, “For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God.” It’s the point in 2 Corinthians 5:17, “Therefore anyone who is in Christ is a new creation – the old is gone and the new has come.” It’s what Galatians 6:15 is driving home too: “Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision (religious vs. non-religious) means anything. What counts is a new creation.”
Being born again is the only thing that counts before God – it is essential, not optional. Why? It is a must for someone to become right with God. It’s the only way to enter the kingdom of God. It’s the only way to be forgiven of your sins, to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, to become a child of God.
It is the only way that you can be united to the unending, indiminishable, inconquerable, glorious life of the resurrected Jesus Christ. Being born again is getting new life, but not your old life with a do-over. The new life you get is the life of Jesus living inside of you. Getting born again is getting joined to the miracle of Jesus’ resurrection. You may have religion but if you don’t have resurrection life – which you must be spiritually born into – then you have nothing but death. And that is just the problem – without being born again you are dead. You’re saying “Well I’m breathing just fine pal”. You sure are, but it is the fact that you are dead spiritually! Ephesians 2:1 says, “You were dead in your transgressions and sins”. Colossians 2:13 says, “When you were dead in your sins…God made you alive with Christ.” You do not yet have the spiritual life God offers to you and so you are dead. And as that great 18th century preacher Christmas Evans once said, “Life is the only cure for death”. So before you do stop breathing you need to become born again – born out of death and into life. As Jesus said: You MUST be born again.
Second, entrance into the kingdom of God is through spiritual birth alone.
Secondly, entrance into the kingdom of God is only through spiritual birth. Notice verse 3, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.” The invitation is inclusive: all are invited to the kingdom of God. However, the way in is exclusive. There is only one way in. It is the born again way.
This point highlights an important teaching in the Bible. Not only is someone spiritually dead apart from this new birth, but, they are also citizens of the kingdom of darkness. Colossians 1:13 says, “For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves”. This kingdom of darkness is under the power of the devil. He is called “the ruler of the kingdom of the air” in Ephesians 2:2, the “god of this age” (2 Cor. 4:4), the “prince of this world” (John 14:30), and it says in 1 John 5:19 that he has the whole world under his control”, and Revelation 20 says he deceives all the nations of the world. His kingdom is worldwide, spanning the whole earth and beyond into the kingdom of the air.
We cannot escape his kingdom on our own. No religion. No self-improvement. No personal reforming. Like Kommandant Klink he runs an escape proof kingdom. The only way out of the enemy’s hands is through a womb. We must be born out of this kingdom of darkness and into the kingdom of God. Until then we have nothing but darkness. WE belong to it. We have no light. It is not until we are born again that we enter into the kingdom of God.
Where are you? Are you in darkness? Today you may make your exit and enter into the kingdom of God. It is through the Light of the world, Jesus Christ. As the song says, “Light of the world/ You stepped down into darkness/ open my eyes let me see.” Be born again today. Only in this way can you come into the kingdom of God.
Third, how to be born again.
Third, here is HOW someone becomes born again. Notice Jesus says in verse 5, “No one can enter the kingdom of God unless He is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘you must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear it’s sound but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.’”
In order to be born again you need “water and the Spirit”, according to Jesus. Nicodemus misunderstands Jesus because he interprets Jesus words as having physical meaning when Jesus is using the physical to illustrate the spiritual. John shows us often throughout his gospel how the Jews misunderstand what Jesus is teaching. He is teaching them spiritual truths and they are interpreting them physically: the temple (2:20), living water (4:15), bread (6:52), death (11:13),
And here Nicodemus misunderstand Jesus by thinking of a being born again physically when Jesus is talking about new spiritual life (v4). But Jesus is gracious and patient with those who honestly are seeking. He says in chapter 6 verse 37, “whoever comes to me I will never drive away.” Are you honestly seeking? Jesus will never drive you away if you come to Him, and He will graciously show you the truth if you seek it from Him.
He did for Nicodemus, which is why he explains what he meant by being born again. It means to be born of water and Spirit (v5-8). Jesus does not mean that a water baptism is part of the born again experience. That is a physical, outward work of man. Salvation is by God’s work and God’s grace, so water baptism is not it here.
Some think water means the physical birth – that born again means to be born physically and the “water” means the amniotic fluid in the womb. But, being born physically is the first birth and Jesus is talking about the second birth and the water Jesus mentions here has to do with the second birth, not the first physical birth. Plus it just seems inane to say you have to be born physically.
There are other explanations, but the one that makes the most sense is that Jesus is talking about both the Holy Spirit and the Word of God. The Holy Spirit is often metaphorically described as water in the Bible. In chapter 7 of John’ gospel Jesus says that anyone who believes in him will have streams of living water flow from within Him. John interprets for us what he means in the next verse and says that this stream of living water is the Holy Spirit.
But, the Word of God is also spoken of in connection with purifying water. Ephesians 5:25, 26, “Husbands love your wives just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word”
The work the Holy Spirit is to wash the believing sinner of their sins and to bring them from spiritual death to spiritual life in Christ. Titus 3:5 says, “He saved us by the washing of re-birth and the renewal of the Holy Spirit” Born of water and spirit – water refers to the cleansing and purifying of sin and guilt at the moment a sinner receives Jesus as Savior.
This would be familiar to Nicodemus because as a Pharisee they used water to wash everything as part of their religious rituals. Mark 7 says, “The Pharisees do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. When they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.”
Washing things with water was a ritual that purified things from being defiled. Nicodemus would have recognized right away that Jesus was saying being born again was an event whereby one was purified from sins.
And since he was a Pharisee, a teacher and ruler of Israel, he was most certainly acquainted with what God through Ezekiel in chapter 36 verses 25-27, “I will sprinkle clean water on you and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities…and I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.” The parallel language of being cleansed with water and receiving the Spirit that Jesus uses would not have been missed by Nicodemus.
Jesus is telling Nicodemus that real religion is something that happens from the inside out. It’s not a work of man but a work of the Spirit. Nicodemus had to come to the point where he realized his strict religious lifestyle, his temple worship, his exact tithing, his following the Law and the oral traditions of the elders, all of HIS effort to be counted in the kingdom of God counted for nothing.
What counts is a new life that comes from a new birth. What counts is a new creation from the cleansing and regenerating work of the Spirit. This, Nicodemus must realize, is received, not rewarded to him for his religious works.
Conclusion: New Start
The powerful thing about being born again is that it is a completely fresh start. A second start at life. This means that nothing in your past or present can prevent you from this new life. But not with your old self – but rather with the new you that Jesus creates inside of you. And not only that but it’s a new life lived with and for Jesus Christ.