What do your friends think you believe?
One student was doing a questionnaire on campus that contained the following question: ‘’if you had to explain what Christianity is, what would you say?’ One reply said, ‘To be good to other people.’ That is the sort of thing many people believe. They think that you are a do-gooder who believes that you are a Christian because of all the good things you do. In other words they think that you are an arrogant self-righteous individual who thinks that you have earned God’s acceptance.
When it comes to explaining to people what we believe we need to re-educate them to see that the gospel is actually about what God has done for us rather than we have done for God. In other words it is about grace—God’s free, unearned and unmerited favour. This conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus is a great way to illustrate this truth.
1. Becoming a Christian involves been born again (1-3)
The Pharisees were a religious movement that looked at the religion of their day and believed it was weak. They were going to be proper Jews, and they were very strict. 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; and, ultimately, they seek to have him killed. However, Nicodemus is a different sort of Pharisee.
Nicodemus is respectful towards Jesus, calling Jesus ‘Rabbi/Teacher’ (even though Jesus had not undergone the formal training rabbis were subject to). Nicodemus is insightful (enlightened), recognising that Jesus had come from God. He is highly respected (being a member of the Jewish ruling council, and referred to as ‘Israel’s teacher’). He was deeply religious and undeniably sincere. But Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be born again if he is going to see the kingdom of God.
What does it mean to see God’s kingdom? Well, the Jews were waiting for God’s promised king, and to see his kingdom meant to be one of his people. Jesus is making the startling claim that no matter how kind or pleasant people think you are you are outside of God’s kingdom and you are not one of God’s people unless you are born again.
You see your background, reputation, prayers, church-attendance, Bible-knowledge, popularity, baptism, first communion or whatever can’t get you into God’s kingdom. You will see the kingdom of God unless you are born again.
2. Being born again involves forgiveness and change (4-8)
If you can only be a true Christian by being born again then it is really important to understand what it means to be born again. The following verses tell us what it means.
Nicodemus hasn’t a clue what Jesus is talking about. ‘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!’
Jesus explains, ‘I tell you the truth no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit.’
But what does it mean to be born of water and the Spirit? It means the same thing as being born again. While there is some debate about this passage I think it is best to look to the Old Testament for an explanation, and a passage that Nicodemus would have known well.
In the book of Ezekiel God declares that a time was coming when, ‘I will sprinkle clean water on you, 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’ (Ezek. 36:25-27).
Water is a picture of cleansing—the promise of God washing away everything that stops us enjoying fellowship with him. The Spirit refers to the fact that through Christ the Holy Spirit can dwell with in us and enable us to become more like Jesus. Forgiveness and transformation!
A business man went to his pastor and said, ‘my wife is glad I have become a Christian. My kids are also 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!
3. Christianity centres on the cross (9-15)
Being born again is the result of the work of the Holy Spirit, and this work is made possible because of what Jesus achieved on the cross.
‘How can this be?’ Nicodemus still doesn’t understand.
‘You’re Israel’s teacher and you don’t understand these things. 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.’ This is a reference to our Old Testament reading (Numbers 21:4-9).
The Israelites were dying as judgement for their sin. Yet god graciously gave Moses a rescue plan. All they needed to do was look at the bronze snake lifted up by Moses and they would be forgiven. In the same way we are commanded to look at the Son of Man lifted up on the cross. He is God’s solution to the problem of our sin. He is the only way that we can experience eternal life.
4. We will face much rejection, but we trust God to do wonderful things (16-21)
‘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.
So what can we expect when we share this life-giving message? People run from this truth. ‘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.’ By nature we are rebels, who don’t want to face up to the reality of our guilt.
However, thankfully, there will be people who respond to the gospel of Jesus Christ. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out by God. People are born again because of a work ‘carried out by God.’ It was he who woke us to the fact that we were rebels in need of rescue. It was he who pointed to the cross where Jesus died that we might have life. It is he who is transforming our life so, though we let him down every day, we are showing the reality of being born again by being made more like Jesus.Conclusion:
So what do your friends think you believe? I think Gerry Adams reflects what many people believe.
On one occasion he was being interviewed on a program called ‘The Meaning of Life.’ The interviewer asked him something like this: ‘supposing there is a God and at the end of your life you stand before him hoping to get into heaven. What will you say?’ Adams responded, ‘I will look at him and say, “I did my best, here I am, take me in.”’
That’s just not the good news about Jesus. Nicodemus was a respectable man, who knew his Bible and prayed. But that won’t make him one of God’s people. You must be born again!
Doing your best just won’t cut it with God for the good news about Jesus is that Christianity is not about what we do for God but what God has done for us. He did not send his Son into the world to condemn that world, but to save the world through him. In an act of unparalleled love the Father sent his Son to die that we might be forgiven. The Holy Spirit applies this truth to us so as he awakens us to our need of his forgiveness, opens our eyes to the beauty of life with him and brings God’s forgiveness and transformation.