Just now over on Facebook I did a live video about how to put a sermon together. I mentioned that I would post the notes for anyone interested. Here ya go!
You Must Be Born Again
June 3, 2018
We are seven sermons in, so before I start the eighth let’s take stock of what we have looked at so far:
-The purpose of the gospel, 20:30-31, signs that lead to or shore up faith, and that leads to life.
-We’ve already seen two stories involving Jewish authorities snooping around and asking questions, in 1:19 with John and in 2:18 with Jesus.
-Jesus’ first two major actions (water to wine and the temple cleansing) had a common denominator – the theme of transformation – from the Law and its system to something much better.
-Jesus is attracting a following, but he doesn’t trust this growing popularity – 2:24-25.
All of this background sets the stage for the first extensive conversation Jesus has with someone. Not exactly how long this conversation goes. 3:10? 3:15? 3:21? “Red letter” decides for you, but I am not definitive. And in the big picture, what John says is guided by the Spirit and is the same as hearing Jesus – see 13:20 (“whoever receives the one I send receives me”).
The topic of this conversation is the new birth, the idea of being “born again.” That’s not a phrase I’ve heard a lot in the churches I’ve been a part of, but certainly very common phrase in popular culture. So much so that this car dealer [SLIDE] took the phrase as its name – “Born Again Auto.” I guess they would specialize in conversion vans!
The popularity of this phrase has also bred a lot of cynicism by people in the world. For instance, The Atlantic magazine ran a story about the president (https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/06/trump-born-again/489269/) [SLIDE] “Just Another Sinner, Born Again” with this subtitle –
“The claim that Donald Trump has come to Jesus follows a long pattern of redemption narratives among American evangelicals.”
So what are we to make of this idea? What does it really mean to born again? That’s what this conversation is all about. And it begins with Jesus laying out…
1. The Necessity of the New Birth
1 Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews.
Ruler, according to v. 10 a famous teaching, and according to 7:4-52 a member of the Sanhedrin.
2 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.”
“Night” – could be because of time of day typically used for study and conversation about the Bible. Could be because of fear of the rest of the Jewish leadership, which does play a role in the way others responded to Jesus.
I will say that in John’s gospel, “night” tends to have a dark spiritual connotation (as in 9:4).
Anyway, this formidable Jewish leader with a list of credentials comes to Jesus and extends the professional courtesy of calling him a colleague, “Rabbi.” That’s what Jesus’ early followers called him in 1:38, but they weren’t part of the elite. This is Nicodemus.
And how does Jesus respond? You have to become a completely new person!
3 Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
Take the verse in reverse order.
“Kingdom of God” refers to God’s reign. And there is a tension in the way the Bible speaks of the reign of God. Sometimes it is a present reality, sometimes yet future. That’s because there is a sense that God reigns now, but there is an ultimate sense of God’s reign, when every knee bows. Mary liked to talk about the kingdom established and the kingdom perfected. And if you do not submit to God’s reign in Jesus, you will not enjoy the perfection of the eternal kingdom.
And that’s what Jesus means by “see.” It means to experience and share in something, cf. 3:36. And what Jesus says is that without experiencing something you CANNOT share in the perfected kingdom of God.
What is it? Being born again. Some of your Bibles have a footnote that this word in Greek can also be translated “above,” and as it turns out, this new birth is a heavenly one. But Nicodemus clearly understood Jesus to mean “again,” because he talks about being born a “second time” in the next verse.
But before I get to that verse, let me emphasize that what Jesus is saying here is that none of us can share in the glorious eternal reign of God unless we have a complete makeover, a fundamental change in our identity, new birth. That’s the necessity. So necessary that Jesus prefaces this with the solemn declaration, “Truly truly.”
But what does this mean? That’s what Nicodemus wanted to know.
2. The Meaning of the New Birth
4 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?”
I don’t think Nicodemus was a dunce and literally imagined that Jesus meant climbing back into your mom (my poor mom was 4 11 – that would have never happened!).
Rather, I think he is exasperated, “You can’t possibly mean this!”
5 Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.
So now Jesus explains. What does “water and the Spirit” mean?
The key is v. 10, where Jesus says that a teacher of the OT should know this.
Any passage that speaks of a transformation that gives new life through water and Spirit? Yes!
Prophet Ezekiel overlaps with Daniel, captivity. But God promises a different future:
25 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. 26 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. 27 And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.
Jesus says that this is the transformation that is so profound and comprehensive it is like you are starting over as a new person, reborn!
When does this new birth take place? Well in the NT there is an obvious time at which there is a transformation that gives new life through water and Spirit – Acts 2:38-39 (notice – promise to your fathers).
And this is why earliest commentators on this passage connected it with baptism:
John Chrysostom (born AD 344)The first creation then, that is, that of Adam, was from earth; the next, that of the woman, from his rib; the next, that of Abel, from seed, yet we cannot comprehend any of these.… How then shall we be able to account for the unseen generation by baptism, which is far greater than these, or how can we require arguments for that strange and marvelous birth?… The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit do everything. Let us then believe the declaration of God. That is more trustworthy than actual seeing. Sight often is in error; it is impossible that God’s Word should fail. Let us then believe it. (Homilies on the Gospel of John 25.1–2)
So this is the meaning of the new birth. In baptism God transforms us to new life through the Spirit. [Back to SLIDE]
6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.
Nicodemus represents human achievement and excellent pedigree. Those things are irrelevant to the kingdom of God. What matters is not human parentage (“that which is born of the flesh”) but divine parentage (“that which is born of the Spirit”).
This is what John told us from the start – 1:12-13.
Nicodemus was amazed by this abrupt demand for spiritual renovation, but for no good reason according to Jesus:
7 Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’
To drive home the point that the work of the Spirit is different than the work of man, Jesus uses a down to earth analogy:
8 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.”
In Hebrew and Greek, the same word for “wind” is also “Spirit.”
Really talking about the Spirit.
How much do we control the wind? Not at all. Where does it come from or go? You can see a car come and go, or a person, but not the wind. All you really see are the effects.
That’s the new birth through the Spirit. This is not engineered by man, manipulated by us. It is the Spirit that gives new life, out of our ability to see or comprehend, but we can see the result of the Spirit’s work.
But why is the Spirit going to give us life? Why does baptism make us new people? That leads to Nicodemus’ third comment:
3. The Means of the New Birth
9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?”
And here Jesus rebukes him for lack of comprehension.
10 Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?
What is true of Nicodemus was also true of many in Israel. They placed their confidence in their family tree, and ignored the OT teaching that in order to be in God’s restoration there must be internal transformation. And the next verse seems to confirm that Nicodemus is representative of many –
11 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.
“You do not receive” – plural, y’all.
And the “we” could be Jesus speaking formally in response to Nicodemus’ “we” in v. 2, but it could also be Jesus and the disciples, especially by the time John wrote this gospel.
12 If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?
Earthly things, two analogies of birth and wind, but these did not create faith and understanding. How will Nicodemus and fellow Jews believe when Jesus is more explicit about his own identity and other aspects of God’s work, the “heavenly things”?
And Jesus is certainly qualified to talk about heavenly things-
13 No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.
There isn’t a revolving door of people going back and forth from heaven to earth to reveal who God is and what he is doing. There is one who is unique, the “Son of Man”, who has come to make God known to us.
But Jesus isn’t finished with analogies to explain the means of the new birth. He draws one from the OT that Nicodemus knew and taught.
14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up,
Do you remember the story? It’s in Numbers 21-
9 So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.
Jesus picks up on two key details. First, the serpent was “lifted up,” and second, it gave life.
And just like the serpent was lifted up, Jesus – the Son of Man – mays be lifted up. This is John’s unique way of describing the crucifixion, as in 8:28.
Through the serpent lifted up on a pole the people were given life. And through Jesus, lifted up on the cross, we have life – ETERNAL life.
15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
In other words, the means by which the new birth takes place is the death of Jesus. Through our faith in his death, at baptism we are born of the water and Spirit and find new life, a new start, a new identity in Christ.
Nicodemus was perplexed by Jesus’ teaching on being “born again.” On the other hand [SLIDE], 29% of Americans claim to know what it means to be “born again,” but when surveyed, less than half believe what Jesus just said – that his death on the cross is the only means by which the new birth takes place. (https://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2017/december/you-must-be-born-again-evangelical-beliefs-politics-survey.html)
For them, being “born again” may just refer to an experience they have had, or a team they chose to be on. But according to Jesus, being born again is the vital, essential, work of the Father through the Spirit on the basis of the death of the Son.
So on the one hand, lots of people who claim to be “born again” but don’t understand much more than Nicodemus.
But on the other, there are lots of us who never use the expression, “born again.” We use different terms, like the package of HBRCB. And those are true enough, bullet point summaries of what the Bible says. But where in that list is is the emphasis on transformation that Jesus talks about? Becoming a new person?
Is it possible that the reason lots of people get immersed in water but don’t reflect any change at all in the sort of people they are is because we don’t talk about being “born again” enough?
Maybe we don’t emphasize this as we should, but Jesus did – and this morning we invite anyone here who is not born again to be born of the water and the Spirit, baptized on the basis of your faith in Christ and his death.