You Must Be Born Again
Nicodemus is being drawn to Jesus but somehow he’s conflicted in the process and so, rather than instigating this conversation in the public domain, Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night. Under the cover of darkness he begins the conversation...
Here is the transcript from the video:
John 3:1–10 (ESV)
3 Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. 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.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” 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?” 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. 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’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.”
9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?
When I was 19 years old I was introduced to Jesus via a street evangelist in Edmonton. He didn’t have a fancy sales pitch for me – no carefully rehearsed sermon – he simply asked me if I would like to hear the word of God. I was waiting for a Transit Bus, standing there when he just walked up to me and popped the question. As it turns out, the circumstances of my life had primed me for that moment; my girlfriend was pregnant and I was reflecting on all the implications of what that meant. So when he asked the question, I said, Yes. The Transit Bus arrived, and so the conversation moved from the street to the bus. For the next hour or so we rode the circuit, round and round, as is the case with Transit buses, and he shared his faith with me, telling me about Jesus. Jesus profoundly touched me through that man’s words and so when he urged me, as our conversation drew to a close, to go to the Canadian Bible Society the next day and purchase a bible I did just that. “Start with the gospel of John,” he told me. I did, and I’ve never looked back.
John’s gospel still holds a very dear place in my heart. It was my first introduction to the world of the bible and I devoured it like a hungry child. I didn’t grow up in a church home; I hadn’t heard any of this stuff before and yet, page after page, it was profoundly speaking to me. Jesus was speaking to me! And as he did I was swept off my feet. It was like falling in love; I was absolutely captivated with this Jesus of the bible.
There’s something about John’s gospel that it is frequently offered to new believers as a gateway into relationship with Jesus. I can’t put my finger on precisely what it was about the gospel of John that so completely hooked me those 40 years ago but I expect that one of the things was how John has a way of inviting us into the story of Jesus via his record of intimate conversations Jesus has with a variety of individuals. There are many of these moments in John’s gospel but one of my favorites, and the one I want to focus on this morning, is Jesus’ late-night conversation with Nicodemus in John 3.
Nicodemus was a Pharisee of influence – a ruler of the Jews John tells us, who makes his way to Jesus because he has witnessed the astounding signs that Jesus has performed. Nicodemus is being drawn to Jesus but somehow he’s conflicted in the process and so, rather than instigating this conversation in the public domain, Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night. Under the cover of darkness he begins the conversation, “Rabbi, we know that you are from God for no one can do the signs you do unless God is with him.” That sounds like a safe conversation starter… but Jesus’ move in responding to Nicodemus is to immediately turn the spotlight on him. Don’t you hate it when that happens?
If Nicodemus was looking for a purely theoretical conversation – a safe conversation that he could control somehow, emerging and retreating from the shadows at will – Jesus deliberately and immediately dispensed with that notion. If Nicodemus’s aim in coming at night was to avoid making himself unnecessarily vulnerable, what happened next must have terrified him, for immediately Jesus’ probing question dispelled with the darkness and focused a blinding light on the very place Nicodemus wanted to keep in the shadows – his heart.
“Truly, truly,” said Jesus, “unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
When darkness meets the light in the gospel of John, the light is not somehow subdued. It is the darkness that scurries for cover. You can’t come before Jesus and expect to somehow hide in the shadows. Jesus effortlessly sees past what we present on the surface and peers into the very core of who we are. We’re right to feel a sense of awkwardness at this point in the story. What’s Jesus doing? He’s not following protocol. Nicodemus offered a polite starting point for a safe conversation and Jesus immediately makes it awkward. Nicodemus attempts to retreat from the light, and so he deflects, “How can a man be born when he is old, he can’t enter into his mother’s womb a second time to be born can he?”
Jesus ignores Nicodemus’ attempt to hide and persists, “I tell you the truth, unless one is born of the water and the Spirit he cannot enter the kingdom of God. What is born of flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Don’t be amazed that I said, ‘You must be born again!’ The wind blows where it wishes; you hear the sound of it but don’t know where it comes from or where it is going. So too is everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
Nicodemus resists once more, “How can this be?”
Jesus replies, “Are you the teacher of Israel and don’t understand these things?
It’s captivating to watch this conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus unfold but we’re not told how it ends. At this point Jesus continues to speak and Nicodemus fades from view without further comment. We’re not told if he stormed off angrily into the night or if he just kind of slipped away into the shadows scratching his head and wondering, “What just happened?” We are left with the impression, however, that though Jesus had his finger on Nicodemus’ heart that Nicodemus didn’t respond favorably to Jesus’ touch. When Jesus shone the spotlight on Nicodemus’s soul he had the opportunity to embrace the moment but instead, he declined the invite.
In our typical reading of John 3 we hear a message for the unbeliever, the non-Christian. Nicodemus represents someone from the world, not the church – an outsider to the Christian faith who needs to hear the good news of Jesus and embrace it. After all the most famous text in this chapter urges us to contemplate how God so loved the “world” – John 3:16. Now, of course, that’s true. Nicodemus was an unbeliever and was, in that sense, an outsider who needed to come to faith. And he serves, therefore, in John 3 as an example of someone who resists the message of Jesus. And the record of his late-night conversation with our Lord provides us with fitting words to say to those we might encounter who come looking for relationship with Jesus. “You must be born again.”
But there is also an element in this story that compels us to consider Nicodemus as an insider. John 1:11 tells us that Jesus came to his own but they didn’t receive him. This reminds us that Jesus came first to the Jewish people. “His own” constituted those people who shared in the faith of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. “His own”, to translate this first-century context directly into ours, were the people Jesus “went to church” with. In other words, this encounter in John 3 is not between Jesus and a foreigner – a Gentile –, but a fellow Jew. And consequently part of Jesus’ rebuke to Nicodemus in this context is that he ought to be familiar with the idea of being born again. “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?”
This is the sharp edge of Jesus’ critique. Nicodemus represents those in the Jewish faith who should have embraced Jesus but didn’t; as insiders (in terms of their covenantal relationship with God) they should have been the first to line up to receive John’s baptism – the first to heed his call, “Behold the Lamb of God.” They should have been the first to welcome the Light but they instead clung to the darkness.
At this point, we could entertain any number of ways that Jesus, if he had shown up in the 21st Century instead of the 1st Century, might have encountered the same resistance among us as he did among the Jewish church. That’s kind of a disturbing thing to think about but it’s well worth the time. Would we recognize our Lord if he showed up in our midst or would we find him offensive, his message abrasive, and his theology unorthodox? Would we brand him as a heretic or would we embrace him as Lord? These are important things for us to consider, for perhaps it might be the case that like his brethren of the 1st Century we might have so transformed Jesus into a Messiah after our likeness that we wouldn’t know him if he came at sat down at table with us.
I’m asking us to consider that the idea of being born again is worth contemplating not just at the beginning of our Christian walk but as an ongoing posture in the process of transformation.
But what I want to do this morning instead is to focus on something a little more palatable… perhaps. I want us to entertain the idea that Jesus might yearn to say to us, in a whole variety of contexts, in the midst of our Christian walk, “You must be born again.” Listen carefully… I need you to understand me at this point. I’m not asking us to entertain the idea that perhaps we’re not saved after all, that we’re not born again. I’m asking us to consider that the idea of being born again is worth contemplating not just at the beginning of our Christian walk but as an ongoing posture in the process of transformation.
In other words, as Jesus wishes to continually be shaping and forming us into a people fit for service in his kingdom, we will find ourselves, at times, yet again in need of radical transformation – a level of transformation that is not unlike what we experienced in our initial embrace of the gospel.
This complete overhaul of much of what Nicodemus would have spent
decades fortifying in his soul could only be described in his need to be reborn.
To illustrate what I mean let’s go back to the Nicodemus story for a minute. On one level Nicodemus was already an insider; he was a believer in the God of Israel. But as Jesus entered into the scene of his world there was something wired up within Nicodemus that prohibited his embrace of Jesus. The “new birth” that Nicodemus was in need of didn’t involve turning from idols to the living God. But it did involve a transformation of his theology (how he thought about God), it would involve a new way of viewing Israel’s sacred scriptures, a new imagination with respect to how the Messiah he longed for had arrived, and how that Messiah would go about bringing in the long-awaited kingdom (rule) of God. This complete overhaul of much of what Nicodemus would have spent decades fortifying in his soul could only be described in his need to be reborn. He needed to let go of things he was holding tightly onto; he needed to remove the scaffolding that he was standing on as he sought to build for the kingdom of God and start over again from the beginning. He needed to be born again.
As I look at my own life as a Christian there have been times in my past when I have needed an overhaul of this magnitude. There have been times (I now see looking back) where I needed what Nicodemus needed, where my picture of Jesus and what he was all about needed to be systematically dismantled and then rebuilt. And it would have helped me in those moments if I could have heard Jesus say to me, “Lee, you must be born again. You need to let go of that so that you can take hold of this!” Sometimes the way we cling to old ideas puts us in exactly the same place Nicodemus was – trapped in a world that we can’t find our way out of. And I think Jesus says to us in those moments, “You must be born again!” This is not an easy thing for us to do for we’ve grown very comfortable walking on the scaffolding we have built. It feels safe under our feet. And the very idea that perhaps the structures we have built need to be dismantled can be very threatening. Welcome to the world of Nicodemus.
And so that’s one angle I’d like to address this morning. We need to expect that the way we think about God (our theology) will be in frequent need of overhauling; we need to expect that there will be times when the doctrines we hold dearly to, Jesus may see as holding us back; it shouldn’t be a foreign concept to us that there will be times when what we thought was solid ground under our feet is in fact sifting sand. “You must be born again!”
I don’t know about you but I don’t have any memory of my birth – I mean that day when I left my mother’s womb and entered into this world. I suspect that we aren’t wired up to recall this moment in our lives for good reason – I watched my kids being born; it looks like a rather traumatic experience. One day life is grand; you’re in a safe place comforted by the constant beating of your mother’s heart. It’s warm there, you are perfectly nourished, all is at peace… although it is getting a little crowded in here. And the next moment violence intrudes into your world; your place of security is contracting violently, compelling you to an impossible exit that you cannot fathom going through. Squeezed beyond your imaging, crushed almost to the point of death you finally emerge into a world totally unlike anything you have known. But alas it’s the world where you belong; in the arms of your mother, nourished at her breast, and adored by your father who cannot take his eyes off of you.
Our Christian birth was no less traumatic, no less world-altering, and yet no less absolutely worth it. But who would sign up for such a venture as this? Who would voluntarily leave the safety of the old world for the glory of the new one? Jesus beckons us from the comfort of the womb into the life he has for us.
Even in the physical realm ‘new birth’ is a fitting metaphor for the transformation of life as we know it. When a boy transitions into manhood someone it seems is saying to him, “Son, you must be born again!” When a girl is transformed into a woman, the same voice is there, beckoning her to embrace her future. And it’s an awkward transition – this puberty thing – to say the least.
The same moment reoccurs when the children leave the nest; the transition to independence is often abrupt, sometimes painful, but we all know it’s necessary just the same. “You must be born again!” And it’s no less painful for the two old birds left in the nest. “Now what?” And once again the answer comes, “You must be born again.”
Life is full of these moments, and if we’re wise, and surrounded by wise people, we’ll embrace them as necessary points along the timeline of life. We need to expect the same journey in our spiritual lives.
There will come a time in your Christian life when you find yourself coming to Jesus at night knowing that there’s something that he has that that you desperately need – an old wound that you’ve been holding back from him; a wound that you can’t heal from; a wound that you know is eating you up from the inside – and so you approach him with one foot in the darkness so that you can easily retreat to your place of comfort; but then to your horror he shines a bright light right on that old festering wound and says, “You must be born again!”
He’s beckoning us from the darkness of a womb that’s too small for us!
Can we trust him in those moments? Is the light he shines intended to destroy us or to bring us to a glorious new beginning? We know the answer but we also know the comfort of living in the darkness. “You must be born again! He’s beckoning us from the darkness of a womb that’s too small for us! Can we believe that?
In your Christian walk you will come face to face with seemingly impossible obstacles; you will face mountains you can’t imagine climbing. But he sees the way through and beckons us, “You must be born again!” Who knew he would give us eagles wings. But they don’t come without the pain and uncertainty of new birth.
There will be times when you set out on a journey for Christ, knowing that God has called you to the task but then you will face an obstacle you never imagined you would encounter, and what do you suppose will we hear Jesus saying in that moment? “You must be born again!”
Tod Bolsinger in his book Canoeing the Mountains illustrates beautifully this frequent dilemma we find ourselves in as Christians seeking to walk out the mission of Christ. He takes us to the story of Lewis and Clark who in the early 1800s set out on an American expedition given to them by Thomas Jefferson to find a water route to the Pacific Ocean via the Missouri River. The explorers knew full well that paddling upstream they would eventually arrive at the headwaters of the Missouri. They envisioned at that point they would simply portage over the continental divide and then slip their canoes in a westbound river that would gently sweep them to the Pacific Ocean. What they didn’t expect was the terrible spectacle of the Rocky Mountains that greeted them at the headwaters. There was no possible way that they would be portaging over this most terrible range of mountains they had ever seen. They would have to ditch their canoes and become mountaineers.
We face these kinds of obstacles in our Christian walk all the time. It’s what we do with them that really counts. Will we conclude that the obstacles are too great, get back in our canoes and head downstream with our tails between our legs? Will we mistakenly conclude that we must have somehow misheard our calling? Or will we heed the call of our Lord who says to us in these very moments, “You must be born again!” Lewis and Clark accepted the challenge, ditched the canoes, left the safety of the womb of the Missouri and were reborn to take on the Rocky’s as mountaineers.
It seems that it’s the rule, not the exception, that when God calls you to his mission that he doesn’t provide you with a thorough view of what’s ahead. It’s not necessary and it might actually keep us from putting our canoes in the water and heading out on the adventure in the first place. But it’s a tragic mistake to imagine that when the obstacles come that we conclude that God has not called us after all. No, for Jesus in those very moments yearns to demonstrate his capacity to transform us into the people we need to be. But we must heed his call, “You must be born again.”
Let me be sure that you don’t misunderstand what I am saying here. Our rebirth in these moments, while it is something we need to participate in – he will call us to be reborn and we will have a choice in the matter – is not a process we engage in as if we achieve this astounding transformation under our own steam. The child in the womb does not accomplish his own birth; all he can do is submit to the process and anticipate the glorious outcome. The same is true for our new birth in Christ; we choose it but it is Christ who accomplishes it. And it’s the same for every subsequent rebirth we will experience for the remainder of our Christian lives.
It seems to me that these various birth experiences have some common themes.
The womb of our present existence feels like home but yet we sense we have outgrown it.
We know we are being squeezed into a new future, but we only get glimpses of it.
The route to new birth appears to be impossible to navigate.
The birthing process is by definition a painful one.
But we are assured that the outcome will be glorious.
I don’t know where this message meets you this morning but it’s important for you to pay attention to what you hear Jesus is calling you to here and now. He’s speaking to you and to me. Our task is not to deflect, imagining how our spouse or son or daughter needs to be reborn. Our challenge is not at this moment even, to imaging how the church as a whole needs to be reborn. Our task is to come with Nicodemus to Jesus and to permit him to address us where we are, to address you where you are, and then to commit to yield to his work of transformation.
Are you in the midst of one of life’s major transitions?
Starting a family
Becoming an empty nester
Going through puberty
Do you have old wounds from the past that you know are haunting you in the present?
Abuse you may have suffered from your childhood or from some subsequent relationship that deeply hurt you.
Perhaps you grew up without a father or mother figure in your life and that hole in your soul is haunting you.
Are you facing what appears to be insurmountable obstacles in the course of your life?
Dreams that you dreamed that seem to have hit a dead end.
A struggle with depression
A relationship you cannot restore
Remember church it is not some tyrant who beckons us to be reborn so that he can exploit us; it’s our Lord Jesus. He’s up to something glorious for you and me. Take his hand, come into the light, and be born again.