On Sunday I was preaching in the next of our series on discipleship about the role of the Holy Spirt in our discipleship. It was just a quick overview in many ways anchored in John 16 and Galatians 5. But I’m going to blog through some other key passages this week that are helpful for us to understand as disciples.
We begin this morning by coming to a key passage for understanding conversion, for understanding what it means to follow Jesus. But it’s a passage that comes with baggage. When you here the phrase ‘Born Again’ what images does it conjure up?
As we look at John 3 we’ll see why it is such an important idea.
(1)Sets the scene; Nicodemus the Pharisee, a member of the Jewish ruling council comes to Jesus at night. He obviously has questions about who Jesus is. The miracles Jesus has performed have got him thinking though he isn’t sure yet who he is.
Jesus response (3)seems a bit abrupt. “Very truly I tell you, no-one can see the kingdom of God without being born again.”
Not only is Jesus a bit abrupt but he can’t be right can he? Nicodemus is a Jew, a descendant of Abraham, more than that he’s a Pharisee, a member of the Jewish ruling council. He’s very religious, goes to the temple, lives rightly, very moral and yet Jesus says he is outside of God’s kingdom. He isn’t living under the rule of God or in relationship with God, in fact he is dead as far as God is concerned. It’s a shocking thing for Jesus to say, and he repeats it(5, 7).
John tells us it is night(2), and darkness, night is significant in John’s gospel, it is night both physically and spiritually for Nicodemus. (1:5, 9)John opens his gospel by describing Jesus as “The light that shines in the darkness… The true light that gives light to everyone…” Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night but also in darkness, because he does not know who Jesus is.
Nicodemus’ darkness is reinforced by his reaction to Jesus teaching, he is confused (5)“How can a man be born when they are old?” “How can this be?”(9). And do you notice that Nicodemus confusion and being in the dark are questioned by Jesus(7, 10) who expects him to understand these things, why? Because he is Israel’s teacher.
Nicodemus is a Jewish religious leader and yet he doesn’t understand how to get into the kingdom of God. His religion, learning, nationality, and position count for nothing. He is dead before God and he needs to be made alive.
It takes us to Gen2:17 God promises Adam and Eve that “When you eat of it you will surely die.” They eat and what happens? They don’t instantly die physically, that comes later, but that very day they are excluded from the Garden, from God’s presence, exiled from the kingdom – they die spiritually, sin separates them from God, his rule and his kingdom.
Nicodemus for all his religion, learning, and position is in the same position, just like we are, spiritually dead. That’s why Jesus emphasises three times Nicodemus’ need to be born again, and it’s not just limited to Nicodemus. Why must I be born again? Because we’re dead towards God by nature and cannot see and enter the kingdom of God.
So how can I be born again?
Jesus says there’s only one way into the kingdom of God and that any other way leaves you outside the kingdom of God, dead towards God facing judgement and a lost eternity. And what is perhaps more shocking is that he says we cannot solve the problem ourselves.
Imagine that I dropped down dead right now? What would you do? Hopefully you’d check for a pulse, maybe perform CPR, call an ambulance and at the hospital they may shock my heart to start it pumping again. What would I do? I could do nothing.
That’s what the problem for Nicodemus. Spiritually he is dead and what he needs is to be given life, to be born again, or born from above so he is alive towards God. (5)Jesus rephrases it “being born of water and the Spirit.” It’s not a new idea, that’s why Jesus expects Nicodemus to understand, this is from the Old Testament. Ezekiel 36:25-27, Israel is in exile, judged for sin and idolatry, but God promises that he’s not finished with them, and do you notice in these verses who is acting? God, “I will…take you…gather you…sprinkle clean water on you…”. God sprinkles them to cleanse them – ritually done after contact with a dead body, and he gives them a new heart and puts his spirit in them.
In the same way we cannot save ourselves, a corpse can’t bring itself back to life, but God gives us new birth by his spirit. In ch37 Ezekiel sees Israel as a valley of dry bones which God by his spirit gives new life to.
Come back to John 3, God gives us new birth by cleansing us and by giving us his Spirit. (13-15)Tells us how, the Spirit enables us to have faith in his son who cleanses us as he is lifted up. Jesus again looks back to an incident in Numbers21 where the people are dying because of God’s judgement for their sin but God provides a way for them to live by looking to a bronze snake on a pole, as they look at it they are saved by faith.
The Spirit brings new birth by uniting us by faith with Christ who cleanses us from our sins at the cross, thereby making us alive, giving us new birth into spiritual life.
There are a number of implications of that. Maybe you’re here this morning and you know that you haven’t been born again. Perhaps you’ve never heard this before, never understood that you need to be born again. There is no other way to see the kingdom of God, to be in a right relationship with God. You must be born again!
It confronts us with a black and white reality. You are either born again and in the kingdom or not born again and facing exile for eternity. It’s not one road many paths to God, pick’n’mix spirituality will not do. Only by faith in Jesus Christ, only by being born of water and the Spirit is salvation found. We must not allow ourselves to be so lulled by society’s mantra about equality that we lose our burden for lost people. Our friends, our families, our neighbours face a lost eternity. It should drive us to pray and to share the gospel with them.
We are liberated in our evangelism. We can’t save people and shouldn’t feel under pressure to, salvation is a work of God through his Spirit. We are to pray, tell them the gospel and then trust God, not worry about whether or not we did it well enough.
Finally there is no room for pride; we are saved in different ways purely by God’s grace, not because of anything we did. We must praise God for our salvation and the new life he has given us.
So, what does it produce? A new person Being born again is transformational. (6-8)To be born of water and the Spirit makes us alive towards God, to use the language of Ezekiel it replaces our heart of stone with a heart of flesh, a heart soft and responsive towards God, that treasures Christ above everything else, that loves God and wants to see him glorified. God’s spirit gives birth to new people who now live by the Spirit.
God’s Spirit brings life, it regenerates us, it makes us new beings and indwells us so that we live pleasing our Father. And others will see the difference. Just as the wind can’t be controlled but its effects observed so it is with those born of the Spirit, people will look on and see the change the Spirit brings as it brings new birth but not understand it.
Jesus isn’t talking about turning over a new leaf here; it is not about having a moral spring clean of the way we live. It is a whole new way of living; you are in affect a new person with new priorities, motivations, loves, hope, dream, and desires. You change; things you did, believed in and followed before are put aside, everything changes. In the coming weeks we will be exploring what this looks like. It means change, it means transformation. It is not adding the conservatory but starting with new foundations.
Why must I be born again? Because we are spiritually dead towards God and exiled from him for eternity. How can I be born again? It is a work of God by his spirit who unites us by faith with Jesus who cleanses us from our sin at the cross. What does it produce? A new person living in step with God’s Spirit for his glory.