Two questions. First question: ‘are you sure that you have eternal life?’ Second question: ‘if you died, and God said to you, “why should I let you into my heaven?”, what would you say?’ Take a moment and think how you would answer each of these.
In this sermon we are looking at the question of what it means to be born again. It does not matter whether you call yourself a ‘born again’ Christian or not, but it does matter that you have been born again. You aren’t a Christian if you are not born again.
Becoming a Christian involves being born again (1-3)
The Pharisees were a religious movement that looked at the religion of their day and believed that it was weak. They would not only seek to obey the rules, they would add to the rules.
The Pharisees are generally portrayed in a negative light in the gospels. They try to trick Jesus. Despite Jesus’ obvious goodness, they accuse him of evil. Ultimately, they seek to have Jesus killed.
But Nicodemus comes across as a different kind of Pharisee. He calls Jesus ‘rabbi’ (‘teacher’), although Jesus had not undergone formal training. He is insightful, recognising that Jesus comes from God. He is sincere. He is respected, being called ‘Israel’s teacher’, and is a member of the Jewish ruling council. He would have been a man of prayer. He would have regularly been at meetings of worship. Yet Jesus tells him, ’truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.’
What does it mean to see the kingdom of God? Well, the Jews were waiting for God’s promised king. Jesus is that king. To see his kingdom involves being one of his people. We might say that is what it really means to be a Christian. What Jesus says is shocking! A religious Jew would have expected to be one of the king’s people. Jesus say only those who are born again are.
Can you see that your background, your baptism, your first communion, your reputation, your prayers or your church attendance don’t make you right with God? Nicodemus was religious and devote. Yet Jesus says, ‘truly, truly I say to you, unless you are born again, you will not see the kingdom of God’ (3).
Being born again is a work of God (4-8)
It is the most important thing in the world to know what it means to be born again. Nicodemus doesn’t have a clue what it means. He thinks that Jesus is speaking about physical birth. ‘How can a man be born when he is old? Surely, he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born?’ (4).
Jesus explains, ‘truly, truly I say to you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit’ (5). These words might seem confusing to us, but Nicodemus should have known what they mean. You see Nicodemus was an expert on what we call the Old Testament.
In the book of Ezekiel God declares that a time is coming when, ‘I will sprinkle clean water and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws’ (Ezekiel 36:25-27).
Water is a picture of cleansing. God promises to wash away all your sin. When you are born again the Holy Spirit comes to dwell in your heart. The Holy Spirit changes you from the inside out. He causes you to desire to follow God and he enables you to live a life pleasing to God. Being born again involves knowing God’s forgiveness and transformation.
A business man went to his pastor and said, ‘my wife is glad I have become a Christian. My kids are glad.’ They saw the change that Jesus made in his life and they were impressed. Forgiveness and change are the results of being born again.
A girl was always in trouble at school. Her name was always being brought up at staff meetings. But over the holidays she attended a Christian camp, where she was a handful for the leaders. Yet she heard the good news about Jesus and it impacted her. When she returned to school her name came up in the staff meeting. However, this time the principle exclaimed, ‘what has happened to that girl?’ Forgiveness and transformation!
Before we move on to see the role of the cross in all this, I want you to see the words the Spirit gives birth to spirit (6). It is saying that just as we contributed nothing towards our physical birth, neither did we contribute to our spiritual birth. We didn’t make our mother pregnant. We didn’t produce our own food in the womb. We didn’t do all the pushing and shoving of labour. We were born by the efforts of another. Similarly, it is the Holy Spirit who shows people that they are dead in rebellion and sin, who tells them that Jesus has taken the punishment for their sin, and who raises us from spiritual death. If you are born again then you should be among the most grateful people in the world.
Being born again is a result of what Jesus did on the cross (9-15)
Nicodemus still doesn’t understand. ‘How can this be?’ (9).
‘You’re Israel’s teacher and you don’t understand these things’ (10). ‘Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life’ (14). This is a reference to our Old Testament reading (Numbers 21:4-9).
In the reading from Numbers, the people were dying as judgement for their rebellion against God. Yet God graciously gave Moses a rescue plan. All the people needed to do was look at the bronze snake that Moses lifted up and they would be healed. That bronze snake pictured Jesus being lifted up on the cross. We are dying in our sins but look to the Saviour. Put your trust in him. He died for people’s guilt. He is the rescue plan we need. He is the only way to we can have eternal life.
So why not choose life? (16-21)
Then comes what one of the most famous verses in the Bible. ‘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’ (16). The amazing thing about this verse is that in John’s writings the term ‘world’ doesn’t mean the planet or even people in general. For John ‘the world’ specifically refers to society in rebellion against God. God sent his Son for rebellious people like us who had done nothing to deserve his favour.
‘Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God’ (18). You are presented with a stark choice! Jesus spoke plainly about the righteous and eternal judgement of hell. You are invited to come to Jesus for life or you will spend eternity apart from him and all that is good.
So why aren’t people flocking to Jesus to experience forgiveness and transformation? ‘This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed’ (19-20). By nature, we are rebels who don’t want to face the reality of our guilt. We need to be asking God to change people’s hearts. We should be thankful for the grace that ‘taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved’ (John Newton, ‘Amazing Grace’). ‘But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be seen clearly that his works have been carried out in God’ (21).
I began by asking you two questions. Let’s take them in turn.
‘Are you sure that you have eternal life?’ You can be sure! ‘God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.’ Later in this gospel, Jesus will promise that he will not turn away anyone who comes to him (6:37).. There is nothing in your life that he is not willing to forgive if you will bring your life to him.
‘If you died and God said to you, “why should I let you into my heaven?” What would you say?’ Can you see that any answer that depends on you is the wrong answer? ‘God, you should accept me because I am a nice person, because I pray, because I was baptised, because I go to church, because I have never been in trouble with the law.’ All the wrong answers! Nicodemus was a nice, respected, religious, man and Jesus said, ‘you must be born again.’
If you are not sure that you are right with God, why don’t you pray with me?
‘Lord God, I offer no excuse for all the wrong that I have done. I realise that there is a problem with my heart. But I now see that you are a God who delights to forgive and want people to experience your mercy. Please forgive me for trying to justify myself. Please make me sincere as I ask you to take my past, present and future sin. Please give me a heart that longs to follow you. Please let me not be ashamed to tell people that I am born again. Thank you. Amen.’