The challenge - John 3:1-15
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
One of the subjects that I was consistently bad at in my school days was art. Art was the bane of my life. None of my pictures ever even vaguely resembled what they were supposed to represent. I tried to convince my teacher that I was aiming to paint like Picasso, but she was never convinced. But a friend of mine truly plumbed the depths when it came to incompetence in the realm of art. One time his class was asked to produce a piece of work and as required my friend gave it his best shot. But try as he did, after hours and hours of hard graft, he found he just couldn't do it. He was just hopeless at art. So he did what many of us have resorted to in desperate measures. He got his Mum to do it. And sure enough her picture was wonderful. In fact, the teacher was so amazed at my friend's instant leap in ability that he won a school prize for his piece of work which he claimed as his own. Well my friend was on cloud nine. And he thought he'd got away with it, until that is, the teacher said: "David, your picture was so good, I wonder if you could just paint another for the school magazine. Would you mind doing it this lunchtime. Don't worry! I'll stop in with you to give you a hand if you need it!" Well my friend was stumped. And try as he did for a whole hour to produce something which even vaguely resembled what was asked for, yet he completely failed. It was hopeless. So he confessed his crime, and prize was taken from him and given to someone else. David simply didn't have the ability to do what was asked. There was no way in the world that he could ever do it. What he needed was his Mum's skills. What he needed was a total transformation, something that was impossible.
And it's a transformation that is our topic as we look at John's gospel this morning, but this time not just about skills in art, but about a total fresh start, a new birth. That's the language that Jesus is using here in his conversation with the Jewish leader Nicodemus. He's saying to Nicodemus that he must be born again. But sadly as soon as we mention those words "born again" a whole host of often negative thoughts spring to mind. To our minds, the phrase "born again" is linked with wacky American TV evangelists with perfect teeth and expensive shimmering suits asking for our money in return for a place in heaven. Politicians in America have certainly tried to woo the Southern Baptists by saying they are "born again". And of course, if you are a "born again" Christian then you are almost certainly a completely crackpot. Sometimes people will says to us, usually in fear or panic: "You're not one of those "born again" Christians are you?" as if we are about to eat them alive. More recently the phrase is being used for all sorts of things other than the spiritual meaning Jesus meant. Back in the early 80's the Datsun car underwent a name change. The parent company Nissan Motors of Japan decided that from that day on, all Datsuns would become Nissans. And in America all the advertising that accompanied the name change was about the "born again" Datsun.
But what did Jesus mean by the phrase "born again". Well actually as we turn to John 3, we find that Jesus is talking not about religious fanatics or political games, or even Japanese cars, but about a spiritual transformation that is given by God himself and which every human being that walks this earth needs to experience. Because as we will see, there is only one type of Christian, the born again Christian. For only those who have received this new birth can go to heaven. And as we have discovered over the last two weeks, once again the whole passage focuses on Jesus Christ. For John's aim in his gospel is that we might come to believe that Jesus is the rescuer and king we all need, and that in him we might have life as it was meant to be lived. And if we are Christians to have our faith in him strengthened. So let's turn to this passage and we'll discover three things about this new birth that Jesus is talking about here in John 3:
1) The New Birth: Why it is necessary (Vv 1-3)
2) The New Birth: How it is possible (Vv 4-8)
3) The New Birth: Where it is available (Vv 9-15)
1) The New Birth: Why it is necessary (Vv 1-3)
So first then, the new birth, why it is necessary. Why do we need it? And Jesus explains to Nicodemus in verse 3 just why it is necessary: "I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again." In other words, no-one can get into heaven unless he or she is born again. That's why we need it. Without this new birth we cannot go to heaven. It's as simple as that. And to Nicodemus that would have come as a massive shock. Because John tells a few things about him which is enough for us to get the picture. Have a look at verse 1 and see what John says: "Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council." Nicodemus you see was one of the top dogs in Jerusalem. For a start he was a Pharisee. We tend to have a very negative view of Pharisees, but actually they had a lot going for them. For a start they were totally devoted to God. They would give away their money, they would read their Scriptures, they would follow all the laws with utter consistency. They were very religious. And coupled to this, he was a member of the Jewish ruling council. He was a member of what was called the Sanhedrin, a group of seventy men who ruled Jerusalem in terms of it's judicial, religious and social structures. These seventy were the government of the day, the MPs of Israel, expect they weren't voted in! And every Jew in the whole world was answerable to these seventy men. And then a third thing we discover about Nicodemus is that Jesus calls him in verse 10 "Israel's teacher". It's probably a title for him which means that as well as being a Pharisee and a member of the Sanhedrin, he was also one of the most important Jewish teachers of his day. He was if you like the Professor of Theology at Jerusalem University, the Grand Mufti no less!
And it's this very important religious official, one of the top men in the land, who comes to Jesus to have a chat. Verse 2: "He came to Jesus at night and said, 'Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him.'" At the very least there is something about Jesus that is attractive to Nicodemus. He knows Jesus is not some crackpot who does magic tricks. No there is something special about him. But the last thing Nicodemus would have expected is what comes next. Verse 3: "I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again." Nicodemus would have thought he was the one asking the questions, the one weighing up Jesus, not the other way round. And what was even more staggering was the fact that Nicodemus and all his Jewish MP friends would have thought that they were guaranteed a place in heaven. Surely if anyone deserved a place in the kingdom of God, it was Nicodemus. He'd be there at the end of history, he thought. He'd got all the right credentials. Theology degree, great spiritual track record, and one of the top jobs in the land. I'll be there thought Nicodemus. But Jesus pulls the rug right from under his feet. "Oh no," says Jesus. "I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again."
But why, Jesus? Why aren't my credentials enough? Why do I have to be "born again" whatever that means in order to go to heaven? You can imagine the outrage going through Nicodemus' head can't you? And actually there is a little hint in verse 2 as to Nicodemus' real problem. You might not have spotted it at first. It's the words "at night." Nicodemus came to see Jesus "at night". Now on one level it may simply be that Nicodemus went to see Jesus in the evening, perhaps away from the crowds, perhaps when both men had more time. But in John's gospel, light and darkness are very loaded terms. Whenever John uses darkness it has the overtones of moral darkness, moral failure and human opposition to God. Just look over to 3 v 19: "This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds are evil." And do you remember what we saw in John 1 a few weeks ago. 1 v 5: "The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it." John is hinting that Nicodemus has a much more serious problem. His problem is that he is not actually good enough for heaven, however painful that might be for him to hear it. He is a man who for all his religious credentials has a heart which needs cleaning up and wrong doing which needs dealing with. He's in the spiritual wilderness, the darkness, and he needs to come into the light. He must be born again if he is to enter heaven. He must undergo such a radical transformation in his life, that he is a new man, not just turning over a new leaf, but a total fresh start with God. Because without this new birth, he cannot enter heaven.
And that is why every one of us in this building needs this new birth. Because without it, not one of us can get to heaven. It's doesn't matter whether we've been coming to church for 50 years or 50 minutes, we all need the new birth. And it's doesn't matter whether we are a respected member of the community or a person that everyone else has written off, yet we all need the new birth. The story is told of Bishop Taylor Smith, who was once the Chaplain General of the British Forces, when he was preaching in a large cathedral. He was preaching on John chapter 3, and in order to make his point, he said: "My dear people, do not substitute anything for the new birth. You may be a member of a church, but church membership is not new birth. And unless you born again you cannot see the kingdom of God." On his left sat an archdeacon in his stall and the bishop pointed directly at him and said: "You might even be an archdeacon, like my friend here, and not be born again. And unless you are born again you cannot go to heaven. You might even be a bishop like myself, and not be born again." Well a day or so after the sermon, the bishop received a letter from that same archdeacon, which read as follows: "My dear bishop, you have found me out. I have been a clergyman for over 30 years but I have never known anything of that joy that Christians speak of. I never could understand it. Mine has been a hard and legal service and I did not know what was the matter with me. But when you pointed at me directly and said: 'you must be born again" I realised in that moment what the problem was. I had never known anything of the new birth.'"
And that is what each one of us must do. Realise that we cannot enter heaven on our own merits, but realise we need to be born again. Because we are all in the spiritual darkness and we need a total spiritual transformation. Let none of us here proudly harden our hearts to that truth, but humbly admit we must be born again. That's why we need the new birth.
2) The New Birth: How it is possible (Vv 4-8)
But secondly we see the new birth, and how it is possible. Because it's one thing to realise we need to be born again, quite another to realise it is possible and how it is possible. And that was Nicodemus' question. Verse 4: "'How can a man be born when he is old?' Nicodemus asked. 'Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother's womb to be born!'" "OK, Jesus, you talk about a new birth, but how on earth is that possible? I mean you don't expect me to climb back in my mother's womb do you?" Now Nicodemus wasn't stupid. After all he was Professor of Theology! But he struggled to grasp how it could be that Jesus was expecting Nicodemus to be born again. And it may be that you are sceptical too! What is Jesus talking about? Some weird religious experience? Maybe it's just turning over a new leaf? But you see it's no good just turning over a new leaf, because that won't help at all. It's not a case of doing a little bit better. We'll simply go back to our old ways. Why is that that most of our new year's resolutions are finished by the first week of January? It's very hard to make resolutions and stick to them isn't it? We might be able to do it in one or two areas of life, but the whole thing? It's just not possible to change that dramatically. At heart we're still the same people. Many of us echo the poet John Clare's words: "If life had a second edition, how I would correct the proofs." But what Jesus is talking about here, is something so different it almost defies belief. He is talking about a total transformation of our lives so that we change direction from going our way to going God's way. From being hell bound to being heaven bound. How is it possible?
a) A Total Transformation- Jesus speaks first of a total transformation. Verse 5: "Jesus answered, 'I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he
is born of water and the Spirit.'" So want does Jesus mean here? Well in verse 10, Jesus expects our theology professor to know the answer, so the answer probably lies in the OT. And it's possible that Jesus has in mind a passage like Ezekiel 36 vv 25-26: "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." Here the prophet Ezekiel is promising a time when we can be forgiven and washed clean totally from all the wrong things we have done. And Jesus is saying that time is here. It is possible now for our lives to be washed clean of all the things we have ever done wrong and will ever do wrong so that we can enter heaven. And it's not just a clean up act that Jesus is talking about. We're not just cleaned up and left to get on with it ourselves.
b) In God's Power- Because secondly this transformation is in God's power. He is the one who actually cleans us up, gives us a fresh start and empowers us to live a new life in his power. That is what it mean to be born again. It is to be brought to life spiritually speaking by God himself. The new birth is something God does in us. Verse 6: "Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, 'You must be born again.'" The trouble is flesh gives birth to flesh. All humans can do is propagate a sinful human race. But in order to be part of God's family, you must be born again, that is given a new life by God himself. And it's his Spirit brings us to new birth. And that is why God has no grandchildren. Each of us personally must accept this new birth for ourselves. Just because our parents come to church or used to come to church does not make us Christians. No God only has children, men and women, boys and girls who have humbly accepted this new birth for themselves. It is God's work to bring about this transformation in our lives and he does it by his Spirit. And so the only way you and I will get to heaven is if we have been born again.
But there's more that Jesus says about this new birth. The wonderful thing about beginning the Christian life is that God by his Spirit actually changes our hearts and empowers us to live the Christian life. Often people will say if they are investigating the Christian life: "I'd love to become a Christian but I'm just not sure I'll keep going." Well the good news is you won't be on your own. Jesus begins and continues his work in us by his Spirit. That's what he's saying in verse 8: "The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit." Think of the wind, says Jesus. You cannot see it or know where it comes from or where it's going, but you can certainly see it's effects. It's the same with the Spirit of God, says Jesus. You cannot see him or control him, but you see his effects.
And that is what happens when Jesus by His Spirit takes hold of person's life. Over time you can see the changes. The marks of someone who is born again is someone who has a passion for the gospel, someone who loves to be with God's people, someone who delights in God's word, someone who is devoted to prayer, someone who hates sin in their lives and strives to get rid of it. In other words, whatever the Spirit of God hates or loves, those will be your desires. So if you claim to be a Christian, are you characterised by those things. If not, then we will need to do some serious self examination. But if we have accepted this new birth, then we will over times see changes. No we're not perfect, but we are people under reconstruction, people being remade into the glorious image of God. Christians can say: "I know I am not what I'm supposed to be. And I know that I'm not what one day I will be. But I thank God that I am not what I used to be." If you are a Christian then you should be able to see changes in your attitudes, mindset, love and holiness as the Spirit of God changes you. Because that is what happens when God washes you clean and begins his rebuilding work in your life.
It's what happened to Charles Colson some years ago. Do you remember Charles Colson? He was one of Richard Nixon's hatchet men back in the 1970's when Nixon was President of the United States. Time magazine said that there were few "tougher, wilier or nastier" men in Washington than Charles Colson. On one occasion he said that he'd "walk over his grandmother if necessary" to achieve his political ambitions. But Colson got his comeuppance in the Watergate affair and was sent to prison. But it was then that Colson began to realise that his life was spiritually empty. A friend began to lay before him the claims of Jesus Christ, and Colson became convinced that Jesus was either who he said he was or stark raving mad. One evening it all came to a head, and Colson puts it like this: "I knew the time had come for me: I could not sidestep the central questionsquarely before me. There was no way to walk round it. I would step through or I would remain outside." That night, Colson stepped through the gate. He later wrote his autobiography about how he became a Christian. What did he call it? Born Again. Only the Spirit of God could transform a man like Chuck Colson, and to this day he is a man who champions Christ's cause. And that is why we should never give up hope for those we want to become Christians. Because God can change even the most hard hearted rebel. He's done it in my life and in yours if you are a Christian. How is the new birth possible? Because it is something God does in our life by His Spirit to wash us clean and bring us to new birth.
3) The New Birth: Where it is available (Vv 9-15)
But finally, the new birth, where it is available. How can we get it? And that was Nicodemus' final question to Jesus. Verse 9: "'How can this be?' Nicodemus asked." This new birth, this fresh start seems almost too good to be true doesn't it? How on it can we get it? Is it just for the spiritual elite? Well no. We've seen already that we all need it. No, the answer is in what Jesus has done for us. He tells us in verse 14: "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." And to make his point Jesus points us back to an OT story from Numbers 21. The people of Israel rebelled against God and in judgement he sent poisonous snakes into the camp which would cause many Israelites to die. But God acted in mercy as well, and he told Moses to make a statue of a bronze snake and put it on a pole. So wherever the Israelites were bitten, they would look up at the pole and be healed. And Jesus saying that his death on the cross will do a similar but much more profound thing. For human being are suffering from a poisonous disease called sin. We too are under God's judgement. But on the cross, Jesus died our death in our place so that the curse of sin may be paid by him. What does John say in verse 16? "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." How do we get this new birth, this amazing transformation and fresh start that Jesus is offering? By trusting Jesus' death for us on the cross. We simply need to believe, that is trust in Jesus and we will be washed clean, forgiven and given a fresh start. It's almost too wonderful to believe isn't it? But that is the promise that Jesus gives us.
One cold Sunday morning in the middle of the 19th century, a young man trudged through the snow to get to church. When he got there he found that the regular preacher was absent, and another man was in the pulpit. The preacher was a common labourer, but though his grammar and diction left a lot to be desired, he spoke very earnestly to his audience of twelve. Towards the end of his short sermon, the preacher looked directly at the young man who had just come in, and said: "Young man, you look very miserable. And you will be always miserable if you don't obey my text. Look to Jesus Christ. You have nothing else to do but to look and live." The young man did look to Jesus and was born again. His name? Charles Haddon Spurgeon who went on to be one of the most influential preachers of the 19th century.
Well have you looked to Jesus? Today is a great day to do that as we share bread and wine, remembering what it cost Jesus to rescue us. And if you have looked to Jesus, then you can be absolutely guaranteed that your sins are dealt with and you are forgiven. Don't be tempted to doubt your forgiveness if you have looked to the cross. Because Jesus promises that everyone, no matter who are or what you've done, everyone who believes in him will have eternal life. That's where the new birth is available. Through the cross of Christ.
And what became of Nicodemus? Well the signs are he did take Jesus seriously. By the end of the gospel he is the one who has the courage to take Jesus' body and bury it. Perhaps after all he had the courage to receive the new birth that Jesus promises. Because the fact is we all need it. God is the one who provides it. And it's available through Jesus' death on the cross. The question is: Have you received it? "For I tell you the truth, no-one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again."
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