Series: Behold

You Must Be Born Again

  • Feb 10, 2019
  • Mark Vroegop
  • John 3:3-14

“Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” 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?” Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, 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. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:1–15).

I’m convinced that there was a particular day in my life where I walked into the woods not a follower of Jesus, and when I left the woods, I had received Jesus as my Savior. The woods behind our home was merely the place where I did some soul-searching.

I had the privilege of being raised in a Christian home. And it was through a Vacation Bible School at a Baptist church that I clearly heard the gospel for the first time. I don’t remember the lesson or story—although I’m almost sure there was flannelgraph. I’m not even sure how old I was.

But here’s what I knew: The Bible told me I was a sinner, and I knew that was true. I understood that Jesus died on the cross for my sins and that I could have a relationship with God if I received Jesus as my savior. When the teacher delivered that news, something burned in my heart.

When I came home, I walked into the woods to think about what I’d heard. I felt like God was drawing me to go for a walk and talk with him. And somewhere along the way, I believed. I turned from my sins. I looked to Jesus. When I walked out of the woods, I was a follower of Jesus.

At the time, all I knew was that I was different. I didn’t know how or why. I’d heard the gospel. I believed, and I was saved. It was that simple. And it is at one level.

But the older that I’ve become in the Lord, I see something else underneath the VBS, my hearing, and my walk in the woods. I see the miracle of God’s movement in my heart. I see the sovereign love of God coming after me. I see the means by which I was transformed.

Born Again to Believe

I was born again by the Spirit, and I believed. And if you are a follower of Jesus, that’s what happened to you as well. If you are still trying to figure out what it means to turn from your sins and trust Jesus, the path is the same for you: You need to be born again by the Spirit and believe.

Today we are looking at John 3:1-15, and I hope to help you understand the concept of being “born again.” We are stopping just short of John 3:16—we’ll pick that verse up six weeks from now because we are going to take two weeks to talk about where we are headed as a church. For the last six months, we’ve been working on a detailed strategy for the next two years, and I want to share with you what is on our hearts. Following that, we have an important Congregational Meeting on Sunday, Feb. 24, which involves approving our annual budget.

Then we will host the annual THINK conference, which will launch a three-week series on our Core Value of Biblical Unity in Diversity. These next six weeks, then, are really important as we consider our vision for the future and how it relates to racial harmony.

For the passage in front of us, I am merely going to unpack this summary statement: You must be born again by the Spirit and believe. Let me help you understand both this text and what this statement means.

  1. Born Again

After the sign of the water turning to wine and after the cleansing of the temple, John records this important meeting between Jesus and a religious man named Nicodemus. Remember, John is not merely recording historical facts. He weaves together a narrative in light of the message he desires to deliver.

In verses one through three, we discover some important details, and we hear what might be considered to be the most important statement in this entire text: “. . . unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). I would think that many of us have heard the term “born again.” But now we are going to learn what it actually means.

First, however, let’s start by understanding the context. Verse one begins with the word “now.” Some New Testament scholars think this connects the account in chapter three to the words that ended chapter two—that Jesus knew what was in man.

You see, the exchange that happens between this man named Nicodemus and Jesus is more than just a casual conversation. The dialogue needs to be read as more adversarial. Jesus’s words rock Nicodemus’s world. And John wants you to see this. Because Jesus always rocks people’s world, especially that of the religious people.

We learn in verses one and two that the man’s name is Nicodemus, and John describes him as a “Pharisee . . . a ruler of the Jews.” By naming him, it is likely that Nicodemus was well-known. He was a Pharisee, which meant that Nicodemus would have been a well-educated scholar in the Old Testament law. Additionally, he was part of the Sanhedrin, the political body which ruled the Jewish people while under Roman occupation. Nicodemus was a man of influence. It would be similar to you hearing that an Indianapolis council member or state senator asked for a meeting with one of our pastors. This meeting was important.

Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night. Now, this may only be related to Nicodemus’s desire for secrecy. Or John may be using it as symbolism since things that happen in the night are typically connected to the opposition to Jesus (7:45-52; 19:38-42). That raises a question: What was Nicodemus’s posture toward Jesus? You’ll have to draw your own conclusion based on what you’ve read, but I think this conversation is more loaded than what you might imagine. Jesus knows the condition of Nicodemus’s heart, and he is taking aim at his religiosity.

If that is correct, then Nicodemus’s first statement in verse two sounds more like intellectual posturing: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.”

Nicodemus uses the title “Rabbi”—a term of respect for Jesus—even though he is an untrained teacher. He sounds as if he is representing a larger group of people—”we know you are a teacher from God.” But the main thing that Nicodemus says here is connected to Jesus’s signs. Nicodemus has seen Jesus’s signs, and he states that he “knows” that Jesus must come from God.

The problem, of course, is that Jesus and the religious leaders are not on good terms. The religious leaders are not widely accepting of Jesus, something we’ll see more in the future. The Pharisees consistently challenge Jesus’s authority just as we saw when he cleansed the temple. So, Nicodemus is saying that he knows what he sees. And Jesus is going to challenge both what Nicodemus knows and what he sees.

Nicodemus was blinded by his spiritual knowledge. He was confident in his intellectual and religious knowledge. And Jesus is going to blow his mind. Maybe you know someone like that. Perhaps you are that kind of person. It is increasingly popular to be “spiritual” in our present culture. And you may encounter someone who is well-read and philosophical in their approach to the topic of Christianity. While there is nothing wrong with intellectual inquiry, it can become a barrier. Worse, it can become something you can trust in. Let’s see what Jesus does here.

In verse three we read these critical words: “Truly, Truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” There are three important words: kingdom, see, and born again.

When Jesus talks about the kingdom, he is referring both to the future realm of God’s rule and to the spiritual elements of that rule which Jesus inaugurated. This is the “already and not yet” about God’s kingdom. The Pharisees believed that all Jews would be admitted into the kingdom unless they were guilty of apostasy or great wickedness.[1] Kingdom, therefore, refers to being right with God now and in the future.

To “see” the kingdom means more than just to walk into it or enter it. Jesus is not just referring to the future. He’s responding to Nicodemus’s previous statement about knowing that Jesus is sent from God because he has “seen” his signs. Nicodemus connected what he thinks about Jesus with what he sees. The issue here is not just entering the kingdom; it is also about even recognizing what the kingdom is!

Finally, Jesus uses the term “born again.” The Greek word born refers to the actions of a father conceiving or a mother giving birth—the creation of life. And the word again is the word that means “from above” or “again.” Jesus takes the imagery of birth—full of life and the helplessness of the child—as what must happen to a person spiritually. To be born again means that a person is reborn or regenerated.

And this work of new birth must happen or one cannot see the kingdom. In other words, Jesus is telling this religious ruler that he doesn’t really “see.” What’s more, he’s telling Nicodemus that something supernatural has to happen to him (to be born again from above) or he’ll miss the kingdom. He’s telling Nicodemus that he cannot see what he sees on his own.

Do you feel the stunning and glorious tension of Jesus’s words? If you have put your trust in Jesus, this means that in the process of you understanding and believing the gospel, God was opening your eyes, wooing your heart, and transforming you. Did you believe? Did you choose to receive Jesus? Absolutely. But did you do it on your own? No way. And the older I grow, the more I understand my own heart, the more experienced I am with raising children and shepherding people, the more convinced I am that God is the one who is behind our belief.

If you are not yet a follower of Jesus, you may resonate with the intellect and spirituality of Nicodemus. And here’s the point of this text: The first step is realizing you need God to do something in you that you cannot do on your own. Becoming a follower of Jesus means that you look to Jesus not only for the forgiveness of your sins, but for him—even now—to help you believe.

Jesus shocks this spiritually-minded intellectual by telling him that he doesn’t even see spiritual life correctly. And he won’t unless he is born again from above.

The greatest barrier for every human being is the belief that we can make it on our own. The first step toward Christ, and the way followers of Jesus live, is by embracing the need to be completely transformed by God. You must be born again by the Spirit and believe.

  1. By the Spirit

You can probably imagine that Nicodemus’s internal reaction. All of his training, all of his authority, and every aspect of his position was challenged by Jesus. And the conversation that follows will direct Nicodemus to the role of the Spirit.

But first, we need to hear his question: “How can a man be born when he is old” (v. 4)? This seems to be a legitimate question. Nicodemus feels the impossibility of what Jesus is saying. What he needs seems to be far away. How can this happen? That’s the question.

But the next question pushes the boundaries. There is a tone of sarcasm or incredulity. “Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born” (v. 4b)? Nicodemus knows this can’t be the case. It’s a pejorative question—designed as an intellectual “pushback.” Look at what Jesus says next:

“Jesus answered, ‘Truly, truly, 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. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit’” (John 3:5–8).

The “born again” language shifts to “cleansing” language. When Jesus says “born of water and the Spirit” he is referring to spiritual cleansing like what is talked about in Ezekiel 36:25-27.

I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules” (Ezek. 36:25–27).

Jesus is pointing Nicodemus toward the deep heart-based change that he needs. Internal cleansing and forgiveness is the target, and it only comes by the work of God through the agency of the Holy Spirit. That is why Jesus sets up the contrast between the flesh and the Spirit in verse six. He’s identifying a fundamental contrast between human effort and divine intervention. Spiritual life is not created by human effort. Jesus is telling Nicodemus, “You can’t do it.” Nicodemus needs this from God. He needs this cleansing from the Spirit of God.

In verse seven, Jesus chides Nicodemus, and he uses the wind as an illustration. He brings Nicodemus back to the concept of being born again. He tells him not to be surprised by this concept even though he can’t figure it all out. The wind is obvious and effective. You can see what it does. You don’t know where it comes from or exactly how it happens. But it is still real.

Jesus tells Nicodemus that mystery is still part of the equation. Coming to Jesus is not anti-intellectual. Unless your trust is in intellectualism. There’s always a gap—a faith step. In order to become a follower of Jesus, faith enters into the equation. And it is the Holy Spirit who is behind the movement of people from unbelief to belief.

What a beautiful thing to consider that Paul describes us as being indwelt by the Spirit (Rom. 8:13-14), sealed by the Spirit (Eph. 1:13), and empowered by the Spirit (Rom. 8:2). The work of transformation started when you became a Christian, but it continues throughout your entire life.

If you were born again by the Spirit, then you can have confident assurance of your salvation. God did something in you that cannot be undone. It was a supernatural, other-worldly reality that moved you from spiritual death to life.

Becoming a follower of Jesus means being born again by the Spirit. And it leads to belief.

  1. Believe!

The point of this text is simply: You must be born again by the Spirit and believe! And we see this final and important point in verses 9-14. These verses reinforce what Jesus has already said, but they add a call to believe in Jesus.

Once again, we find Nicodemus unconvinced. He asks, “How can these things be?” (v. 9). He’s having a hard time as Jesus deconstructs the categories underneath his life. Have you ever had that happen? It’s painful. Something happened recently where I was sure I perceived a situation the right way. And Sarah observed it as well. And I was sure that she and I were on the same page. But when Sarah asked me later why I looked troubled, it was shocking. I had never considered that I was wrong! And as I stood there in stunned silence, she asked me what why I was so quiet. My answer was telling: “I’m just so shocked that I was wrong, I don’t know what to say.”

Well, Jesus doesn’t give much comfort to Nicodemus. In verse ten, he almost adds salt to the wound by reminding Nicodemus that he’s a teacher of Israel. And then Jesus, in verse eleven, uses the words “know” and “see,” which have to be a play on words based upon what Nicodemus had said earlier. But it gets even worse! Look at what Jesus says in verse twelve: “If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?”

Now, lest you think Jesus is being mean here, there is a divine strategy in play. Nicodemus’s problem is his trust in his religious heritage, his intellect, and his authority. Jesus blows all of this up. Over and over Jesus tells him that he cannot do this. It’s beyond him. It’s impossible. It’s not for him. Why is he doing this? Because the wall that stands between Nicodemus and his God is religious self-confidence. Until he sees and feels the futility of that barrier, he’ll never come to Jesus.

Nicodemus has called him a teacher from God. But he needs to see him as the Son of God and the one who is able to save people from their sins. He has to believe. Nicodemus has to turn from his self-assuring spirituality and religious system and look to Jesus.

That’s why Jesus talks about the Son of Man descending from heaven and ascending into heaven in verse thirteen. Nicodemus has to know who Jesus really is, and he must believe in him. And then to drive this point home with a story familiar to Nicodemus, Jesus talks about the serpent being lifted up.

Numbers 21 tells us that when God punished Israel for its sin by sending deadly serpents, the people were saved as they looked to a serpent held up on a pole. This symbol not only marks our present-day medical world, but it was a picture of the crucifixion of Jesus. And that’s why Jesus says, “. . . so must the Son of Man be lifted up that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:15).

Jesus calls Nicodemus to believe. The Israelites were powerless to save themselves from the judgment of God unless they looked to the uplifted object of their judgment. In the same way, Jesus called Nicodemus to believe in him as he predicts his own “lifting up” on the cross.

And so, through this spiritual boxing match, Jesus tore down what Nicodemus trusted in. He told him that he must be born again and believe. And if you read the rest of John, you’ll find that he did. In a stunning display of love, Nicodemus brought seventy-five pounds of spices to anoint the body of Jesus after his death. That amount is reserved for royalty. It seems that Nicodemus believed.

At some point along the journey, he was born again by the Spirit and believed.

Two Applications to Two Groups

Let me give you three brief applications of this text beyond what we’ve already learned.

First, if you have not become a follower of Jesus, this text clearly identifies the path for you. Nicodemus’s story may be like your own. Perhaps you feel the tension of beliefs that are crumbling and objects of trust falling down around you. If you know you need to be transformed, look to Jesus today. Call upon him as Savior and Lord. Acknowledge your need for the miracle of the new birth. Why not be born again today and believe?

And finally, if you are a follower of Jesus, I want to remind you of two things. First, I want you to remember that Jesus regenerated you to transform you. He worked the miracle of your conversion so that you would be changed. So, keep growing. Keep trusting. Keep living by faith. And second, I want you to marvel at the way God worked in your life.

You have a story just like I do. Yours may not involve a walk into the woods or a VBS lesson, but the same Spirit was at work in you that was at work in me. When you understood the gospel and when you believed, God was at work in you.

You were born again by the Spirit and you believed, and God was behind it all.

 

Ó College Park Church

 

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[1] D. A. Carson, The Gospel according to John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; W.B. Eerdmans, 1991), 189.