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. 7 You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
9 “How can this be?” Nicodemus asked.
10 “You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? 11 Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. 12 I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? 13 No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man. 14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”
16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.
What do you think of when you hear the phrase “Born again”? It is a phrase that has been around for a couple thousand years, but I believe that it has only been really popular in Christian circles for the last fifty years or so with the rise of evangelicalism in the 1960’s.
When I hear the phrase “born again,” I think of people sharing their faith, sometimes in ways that are helpful, sometimes in ways that are not. I think of televangelists with big hair and bigger smiles (both fake?). Sometimes, when I hear people outside of the church describe a Christian as being born again, it is not done in a favorable way.
I want to spend some time looking at that phrase “born again” and I want to reclaim it today because it has significant meaning for us. We need to ask ourselves, “What did Jesus mean when he told a specific Pharisee that he must be born again?” and “How should that affect us today?”
Our text begins by telling us that a man named Nicodemus came to see Jesus one night. Now I don’t think that we should make too much of the fact that he came to see Jesus at night. Some people have made a big deal about Nicodemus trying to sneak around without others seeing him because he was a secret follower of Jesus and it might be bad for him socially or politically to be seen in the presence of Jesus. That could be the case, or maybe this was just the time that these two busy men were able to catch up with one another.
Nicodemus was a man involved in various forms of leadership. John tells us that he was a Pharisee, which means he was one of the highly educated lay leaders of the Jewish tradition. He was one of the people that interpreted the Torah and dictated how it was to be lived out. John also tells us that he was a member of the Jewish ruling council, or the Sanhedrin. So not only was he one of the ones who studied and interpreted the Torah, he was also one of the people who was in charge of making sure that people were able to live together civilly.
So to hold both the position of Pharisee and member of the Sanhedrin, Nicodemus must have been a very learned and respected man in the eyes of the people of Jerusalem. And he comes to Jesus in the middle of the night and says in verse 2, “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.”
The fact that Nicodemus, a wise man himself, came to Jesus and called him Rabbi tells us just how special Jesus is. Rabbi is a term that means teacher, and Nicodemus is recognizing Jesus as a teacher; someone that he can learn from.
The weird thing here is that Nicodemus never asks Jesus a question, yet Jesus answers an un-asked question for him. Jesus replies, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” Nobody asked how to see the kingdom of God, but Jesus felt that it was necessary to tell Nicodemus how to see the kingdom anyway. We can only assume that Jesus knew the real reason that Nicodemus had come to him and Jesus was ready to get to the point. Nicodemus, you want to know how to see the kingdom of heaven, and I’m going to tell you how. You must be born again.
Nicodemus understands immediately that this is going to pose some logistical problems like fitting back into his mother’s womb. Most of us have outgrown our first home. But Jesus explains to Nicodemus that this is indeed a metaphor. You aren’t to be born again of flesh and blood. You are to be born again of water and spirit.
There is a lot of symbolism behind the metaphor of new birth. Remember who Jesus is talking to here. He is speaking to a Pharisee; he is speaking to a ruler in the Sanhedrin. He is speaking to a highly religious man who seeks to keep every letter of the Law and make sure that others do as well. But most importantly, Nicodemus was a Jew. He was a descendant of Abraham. He could probably trace his family lineage back generation after generation and come to the patriarch of his religion. And to a Jew, being born in the line of Abraham is what provided you with the opportunity to be a part of God’s kingdom.
It wasn’t the Torah or following the Law back in Jesus’ day that was assumed to have got someone into the kingdom of God. You were assumed to be a part of the kingdom if you were a Jew. A Gentile that followed the Torah to the finest detail wasn’t a part of God’s kingdom. They weren’t even allowed in the Temple. You had to be born to a Jew, or go through a complicated conversion process to become a Jew if you wanted to be a part of God’s kingdom. To a Jew in the 1st century, how you are born is what really matters. And Jesus comes in and says “No, if you want to be a part of the kingdom of God, you must be born again, or born from above.” The kingdom of God is not about our birth family, relations, or genetics. Joining the kingdom of God requires a second birth.
How many of us remember our first birth? I don’t remember my first birth, but I do remember my son’s birth. There was a lot of screaming, nausea, and some hair pulling involved. But my wife handled it all wellJ. But picture if you will life in the womb. All that you know is that it is warm, dark, wet, and this rhythmic sound: beat, beat; beat, beat; beat, beat.
Then comes the big day when everything changes; everything that you know changes. That rhythmic beating gets faster. The moisture around you disappears. There is a bright light, and all at once you are out in the cold world. The world will never be the same again! Now Jesus is saying we must go through that process (figuratively) again.
There was a movie that came out when I was in college that I think really helps us to understand this concept of being born again. It was a Science-fiction movie and it…was…awesome. I am talking about The Matrix.
The Matrix is the story of a young man named Thomas Anderson who goes by the alias “Neo”. Neo works as a computer programmer and is very gifted in that field. The problem is he stays up too late night after night playing around on the internet and he therefore has a difficult time getting up for work the next day.
But Neo seems to realize that the world isn’t quite right. Things aren’t exactly how they should be. He begins to get suspicious of things around him, but he really doesn’t know what to do about it. He thinks he is the only one that notices things aren’t quite right. Until one day, when he meets a group of individuals dressed from head to toe in leather (because that is what people wear in the future).
The leader of this group, named Morpheus, offers Neo an opportunity to see the world as it truly is. He tells Neo a little bit about the world. He tells Neo that it is not 1999 like Neo thinks it is, but it is really about the year 2199 and that computers are running the world and using the body heat from people as their fuel. The computers need the people to stay alive, so they keep them in a sleep-like state and feed dreams into their heads. The people all live in a virtual reality known as The Matrix.
Morpheus offers Neo two options. He opens his hands to reveal in one a red pill and in the other a blue pill. He tells Neo, take the blue pill and you will wake up tomorrow and think our meeting was just a dream. You will go on with your life like nothing ever happened. Or, if you take the red pill, you will wake up and you will see the world as it really is. Neo takes the red pill.
We might say that Neo was “born again” in this situation. Like a baby coming out of his mother’s womb, Neo left the safe, comfortable world that he had known all of his life to experience the world from an entirely different perspective.
To be born again means that things change. Maybe not everything, but everything that is not in-line with God’s will can or should change. To be born again might mean that you will leave the comfort and warmth of everything that you have ever known. It might mean that you find out that everything that you have ever known is not real. In the church, we call those things idols.
Being born again means that the things that so much of the world strives for no longer matter to you. Money, wealth, power, and things of this nature might have been a part of your old life. But when you are born into the kingdom of God, you realize that these things, while they might be good, can be abused and elevated above the giver. Being born again means you now see the world differently.
No longer do you see a person on the street as a lazy rift-raft; you see them as people made in the image of God. No longer do you see an attractive woman and you lust for her in your mind; you see her as a person made in the image of God. No longer do you see some naïve person with a lot of money as someone that you can take advantage of to make a profit for yourself; you see them as a person created in the image of God. No longer do you see a person living in a different country, a different neighborhood, or a different family system as an enemy; you see them as people created in the image of God. And our job as people who have experienced new birth in the kingdom of God is to love them, showing the sacrificial love that Jesus showed the world when he died on the cross. New birth means you will see the world differently. You will see the world as a place that needs redemption; redemption that can only be found in Jesus Christ.
The most famous “new birth” in the Bible probably belongs to the Apostle Paul. Before his rebirth, Paul doesn’t seem like someone that I would like to spend a lot of time with. He persecuted Christians, throwing them in jail, even encouraging the stoning of Christians. But one day on the road to Damascus, Paul was met with a blinding light and a voice from above asking why he was persecuting Christ. Paul changed his life from one who persecuted Christ to one of the greatest champions of Christ, starting churches throughout the known world, writing large portions of what we now know as the Bible, and dying because of his belief in Jesus.
That is one way that we can experience new birth. We can have a big conversion experience where we see the world differently and all at once change our life drastically. The other way is that we can change gradually.
There are some people who teach that if you do not have a big conversion experience like Paul’s that you are not truly saved. I disagree. There are many people that have grown up in the church and been raised with a Christian world-view. And yes, I believe that they too must make a decision to follow Jesus with their life, but new birth doesn’t have to be instant and drastic. It can take place over a period of time, like it did with the disciples.
Our passage concludes this morning with one of the most commonly referenced Bible verses today. If you scan the stands during a sporting event, you may see a man wearing a rainbow-colored wig, holding a sign that says, “John 3:16” on it. This is John 3:16 (and 17), “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”
So far I have tried to show that being born again requires a choice, a decision to begin again. To be born again means that you may have to leave behind some of the things that you know for something new and even scary. But John 3:16 seems to stand in contradiction to what I have said about being born again. Being born again seems to require something physical of you. But John 3:16 simply states that if you believe in Jesus, you will have eternal life.
When Jesus, or Paul, or any other biblical character speaks of “believing in Christ” or “believing in God” it always requires an action. Action always naturally follows belief. Belief in the Bible is not simply about making a cognitive choice as to whether or not you think Jesus is real like you might choose to believe in the boogey man or not. Belief from a biblical perspective means that you will try to do what you believe.
It seems to me that there has been one tragedy after the next in the world over the last couple of years. Maybe it has always been like this and we are just more aware of things because of the ability of communication in the 21st century with media such as the internet and satellite television. Just a few weeks ago Japan was rocked by a large earthquake that continues to affect the people of this island nation. And when an earthquake strikes near water, there is always the chance for large waves to result from the motion of the earth. These large waves, called tsunamis, can cover large distances and flood countries miles and miles away.
I guess the threat of tsunamis is somewhat frequent in coastal places and most of the time the threat never really amounts to anything severe. So most people just ignore the warnings. Following the earthquake in Japan I heard President Obama make a public statement to the people of Hawaii and the western coast of the United States. He was saying, “This threat is real. If you are advised to evacuate your homes, please do so.”
If you believe that a tsunami is going to hit your home, you are going to take precaution against the potential damage to your home and your life. If you don’t believe that it is going to be an issue, you won’t do anything. You will just keep on living your life like you always have.
This is how I see the Bible speaking about “believing” in Jesus. The Bible isn’t just telling us that we are called to believe that there was a man that lived 2,000 years ago named Jesus. The Bible doesn’t just call us to believe that he was the Messiah. The Bible calls us to live like we believe it. Belief shapes us; so much so that Jesus calls it being born again.