We continue our studies in the Gospel of John where we are considering what it means to “Live life in Christ through the Holy Spirit”.
We started in John 1, considering Jesus, the Creator God, Co-equal with God the Father, but also the Son of God, the source of life and light, a being full of grace and truth and the only One able to reveal God to us. Importantly we also discovered that eternal life can only be found by understanding Him as the Lamb of God, God’s self-provision for our sin and the only means to eternal life. But Jesus is much more. He is both grace and truth. He is the source of joy, true joy. He is the Master of Grace (chapter 2). He is the righteous judge, and also righteously concerned for the mind and will of his Father. He is the Redeemer.
Today’s message is mostly from Ch 3 and is about New Birth New Life. First though, John has a comment about the people and their response to Jesus.
John 2:23- 25.
Some believed on his name, but Jesus did not entrust himself to them. It reads as if he realised that heaps of people were simply following him on account of his miracles or signs. But it seems as if their faith was spurious. It was not real. He knows what is in man. Here then is something new that we are finding out about Jesus. He may be the Creator God of the universe, he created molecules – he can turn water into wine. He also knows your heart, your thoughts and your motivations.
The problem with these people, sadly, was that they were not genuine in their response to Him. It was for that reason that he could not fully give himself and entrust himself to them, but withdrew from them. But then John relates this unique episode of a man called Nicodemus and his interaction with Jesus. Jesus and Nicodemus have a fascinating conversation that reveals what it means to follow Jesus.
So, who was Nicodemus? He was a ruler of the Jews, probably part of the Sanhedrin – the top council of the land, probably quite wealthy. It sounds like he was a teacher. He knew his stuff, especially about the Old testament and the Law.
Why did he come to see Jesus at night? I don’t know. Maybe simply because that was an easier time to get out and about and have a one on one with Jesus, but possibly because he was a bit apprehensive of his own questions, and maybe he did not want to be found out by his colleagues. He recognised that Jesus was someone quite different. He realised that Jesus was a man of God. He was puzzled. Curious. Was he acting on behalf of others and trying to find out more, maybe to even trap Jesus. We don’t know – we are not told.
What happened – The discussion they had was perhaps at first glance somewhat puzzling, but it sure made a difference in Nicodemus life. In Ch 7 he was accused by his fellow councilors of defending Jesus. Later in John 20 he helps Joseph of Arimathea in burying the newly crucified body of Jesus in a new tomb, prior to the resurrection.
Nicodemus starts by calling Jesus Rabbi, or teacher. This at the very least is a measure of respect for Jesus. He recognised that Jesus at least demonstrated that God was with him in some peculiar way. Nicodemus was like his fellow countrymen who were impressed with Jesus’ signs and miracles. He was a long way short of putting his faith and trust in the Lord Jesus Christ.
Jesus interrupts his gentle introduction and comes straight out with the remarkable and emphatic statement in v3:
“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
Nicodemus clearly does not understand what Jesus is talking about. What do you mean? What do you mean about being born again? V.4 Today’s world is also increasingly confused about this term. It can be used in a perjorative and negative way to imply a conservative breed of Christian. Some Christians use it in a somewhat prideful/boastful way as it to imply that their brand of Christianity is the right one. Still others use it to imply simply turning over a new leaf in life. We need to understand this in Jesus’s terms. He says that a person cannot enter the kingdom of God unless he is born again. What does he mean.
Jesus goes on to explain in v5-6:
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.
What does this mean? What does water and spirit represent? If we think about water and spirit in the Old Testament – which is after all the very context that Nicodemus is familiar with – we could ask what water primarily indicates in the Old Testament? Cleansing?
And what is “spirit” identified with in the Old Testament? Is it not new life? Consider this passage from Ezekiel 36:25 where both these ideas come together well:
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.
When Jesus talks here of being born of water and of spirit, he is actually simply talking about the one event, that is a new birth, being born again. He is not talking about baptism or any other topic.
Here is another verse this time from the New Testament in Titus 3:5-6 where the two thoughts are also put together:
5 he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, 6 whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior
Here it is. To be born again means that you have been given a completely new nature. It is a God given nature. It implies that you have been cleansed and you are now inhabited by the Holy Spirit of God. The old life has gone and you are a new creation. That is the new birth. It cannot happen without cleansing. And you cannot cleanse yourself. God does this through his Spirit who comes to indwell you.
Nicodemus thought he knew something of the Scriptures but he had deeply misunderstood the need for a radical transformation of heart that has to happen for anyone, even a Jew, to become a child of God.
This is a miraculous process. Dr Ravi Zacharias describes it in this way. There are 3 abiding things in the Christians life. One is formation – when you are physically born into this world, when non being is brought into being, when a new life is created. But then the Christian also has Transformation, where he is given a new nature. In time he will also undergo Translation into the very presence of God at the end of his earthly life or when the Lord returns.
The next point that Jesus makes is again highlighted by way of analogy. It is a play on words because the Greek word “pneuma” can mean either wind or spirit. Jesus explains that just like you cannot see the wind but can view the effect of the wind, so it is with anyone who is born of the Spirit. Here are the implications. A person who is born again has a new life. When you are born again, you are indwelt by the Holy Spirit.
The evidence of the new birth is this. There will be new desires, new motivations, new attitudes and new behaviours. Something must have changed. You cannot live the way you have always lived as if nothing is different. New birth must be evidenced by New Life.
It is relevant then to ask what sort of changes one would expect to see in a person who is born again.
Firstly there will be a new desire for God, the creator of heaven and earth. He has to be in the pre-eminent place in our lives. The person who is born again, born of God, born from above, born of the Holy Spirit will want to align their whole lives around following God. He will have a desire to seek out God’s will in their lives through his word and through a greater and greater understanding of His purposes. They will have a desire to root out sin in their lives and to repent and follow God more fully and truly. God alone is worthy of worship.
Secondly a person who is born again will have a different way of regarding their fellow man. Jesus said that the greatest commandment is to love the Lord your God with all you soul and heart and mind and to love your neighbour as yourself.
These twin purposes have to struck some chord of response in a person who is born again. The question that will be asked of course is whether these alignments are present in your own life. Praise God if they are. If these elements are not present in someone’s life, then there can be only 2 possibilities. One is that that person, although born again, has slipped and forgotten and denied the way of God’s Spirit within them and they have become unfruitful or backslidden. The second possibility of course is that they have never been born again.
Jesus says emphatically, that unless one is born again, they cannot see the kingdom of God.
Nicodemus is still puzzled about all of this. Jesus gently rebukes him for his lack of understanding. He was still stuck in the thinking of the establishment in terms of obedience to God’s laws and and commands. He is yet to see the absolute failure that the entire human race has in terms of being able to cope with God’s law. The human heart needs transformation and Jesus has come to be accomplish that transformation in the power of the Holy Spirit.
Ravi Zacharias has said in regards to the law that all other religions have some ideas on how to make man better, but only Christ has come so that dead men can live!
Jesus now turns to an Old Testament incident in Numbers 21 to illustrate his role in bringing life to those who are dead.
14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
This incident relates to a time in the distant past when the Israelites were wandering around in the desert in their attempt to get to the promised land. On this occasion, they became deeply impatient