Preached on Sunday, July 24, 2022.
There was a man from the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to him at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one could perform these signs you do unless God were with him.”
Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, unless someone is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” “How can anyone be born when he is old?” Nicodemus asked him. “Can he enter his mother’s womb a second time and be born?”
Jesus answered, “Truly I tell you, unless someone is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. Whatever is born of the flesh is flesh, and whatever is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be amazed that I told you that you must be born again. The wind blows where it pleases, and you hear its sound, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
“How can these things be?” asked Nicodemus. “Are you a teacher of Israel and don’t know these things?” Jesus replied.John 3:1-10
There are certain phrases or terms Christians use that fall into the category of “Christianese.” Maybe you’ve heard of these: “backslidden,” “traveling mercies,” or “hedge of protection.” It’s like insider lingo, things we say or ways we talk that are understood by us but often are incomprehensible to others. Another one of those terms is “born again.”
I remember growing up as a Catholic how once in a while I would hear that phrase: You must be born again. When I was younger I heard it whenever I came across a televangelist. When I was in high school I would sometimes hear it from my Baptist friends.
It wasn’t terminology I was used to and I came to associate it with a very specific idea of Christianity. To me, it meant much more than believing certain things. It meant going to this church rather than that church. It meant behaving in certain ways.
My impression was that there were people who went to church and then there were born again Christians. And all I knew is that virtually no Baptist would ever have considered me to be a born again Christian—even though I went to church every week.
The funny thing is, because it wasn’t explained to me I never associated being born again with an actual relationship with Christ, with putting my trust in God and experiencing spiritual transformation. For the longest time, no one ever put the phrase in context.
And actually, the phrase born again comes from the very lips of Jesus in ur passage from John 3. What does he mean by being born again? What does it mean for us? That’s what we’re going to look at this morning.
“Unless you are born again . . .”
In our story we meet Nicodemus. Nicodemus is a Pharisee and a distinguished teacher. He’s also a member of the Jewish ruling council called the Sanhedrin. He’s a member of the religious elite. He’s a scholar and theologian. He knows his stuff. And he is one of the prominent Jewish leaders intrigued by and drawn to Jesus.
Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night. Why at that time? Some say it’s just a simple fact. That’s simply when he met with Jesus. Some suggest that it highlights the themes of spiritual darkness and light, and his journey from the former to the latter. Others suggest that perhaps Nicodemus wants to approach Jesus without anyone else finding out about it. He doesn’t want other people to know of his admiration for Jesus.
Whatever we say about that, we know that Nicodemus thinks highly of Jesus. He recognizes that Jesus is from God. That’s the first thing he says: Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one could perform these signs you do unless God were with him.
Nicodemus isn’t opposed to Jesus. He’s not here seeking to confront and correct Jesus. He acknowledges the legitimacy of what Jesus has been doing. He knows God is with Jesus. And he wants to know more about Jesus and his intentions.
Now, if you haven’t noticed already, Jesus rarely takes conversations where we expect. Usually he digs deeper into the heart of the person speaking to him. And almost always, he surprises both the person talking with him and those of us reading his words now. And this is important, because Nicodemus has come to Jesus with a particular view of God and how God works. He’s come as someone who is interested in the kingdom of God.
So, knowing this, Jesus says to Nicodemus: Truly I tell you, unless someone is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. Now, since we’re much more used to reading the Bible or with what it says, we might hear Jesus say this and think we get it. Maybe we summarize it unconsciously as, “Believe in Jesus, be saved, and you will go to heaven when you die.”
But this was new, surprising language to Nicodemus. Jesus is coloring outside the lines. Look at how he responds: How can anyone be born when he is old? Can he enter his mother’s womb a second time and be born?
You can almost hear his head spinning. You can hear him thinking, “Jesus, what are you talking about? What does a baby being born have to do with the kingdom of God? What does that have to do with why I came to see you?” Nicodemus is genuinely puzzled. Instead of getting clarification, he gets more confusion.
The thing is: Jesus often seeks to unsettle us and disorient us long enough to open our eyes to seeing things differently, to open us up to a fresh perspective. That’s what he’s doing here.
Think about the metaphor of birth he uses. I remember when our kids were born. I was there both times! And, for example, when I think back to our daughter’s birth, I vividly remember her emerging into the world with her eyes open, responding to my voice, and seeing everything for the first time.
Think about a newborn child. Most of you are parents and grandparents, so you have lots of experience with new babies! To a newborn child, everything is new. People’s faces are new. The feel of fabric on their skin is new. The taste of food is new. Sunshine is new. Grass is new. A newborn baby is a new creature learning to live in a new world.
Now imagine this happening at a spiritual level. With how you see yourself. With how you see people around you. With how you see your circumstances. With how you see the world. Perhaps we can put it this way: Being born again means having our eyes opened to spiritual reality. It means having your eyes opened to the reality of God, to who he is and what he wants for you.
It also means seeing ourselves and all the world with new eyes thanks to the work of God in our hearts and minds. As Jesus says to Nicodemus: unless someone is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.
The kingdom of God is a phrase that points to God’s presence and activity in the world around us. Don’t we to want to see what God is doing? Don’t we want to participate in the presence and work of our God in the world, in our neighborhood, in the lives of those around us? Don’t we want to be alive to the presence and power of God? Unless you are born again . . .
Being born again means discovering that Jesus is our source of life, hope, and peace. It means living with a joyful confidence that whatever else happens in this world or even to us that Jesus is with us and will never leave us or forsake us. It means knowing we can trust him with our very lives—straight into eternity.
Does this describe you? If this is what it means to be born again, would you call yourself born again?
Ultimately, therefore, being born again means becoming someone new. Because we don’t automatically trust God. We don’t naturally place our faith in Jesus. It means being changed. It means spiritual transformation.
So maybe the question is this: How does this happen? How is someone born again? Jesus explains to Nicodemus that it takes the power of God.
“The wind blows where it pleases . . .”
Speaking of power, we all know wind is powerful. I remember a few years ago driving around with the kids to look at all of the trees and branches damaged by strong storm winds. Wind can have a dramatic effect. What we saw around here on that day was the least of what wind can do.
Now, Jesus talks about the wind in our passage. Listen again to what he says: Whatever is born of the flesh is flesh, and whatever is born of the Spirit is spirit . . . The wind blows where it pleases, and you hear its sound, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.
It’s important to note that the Greek word for wind—pneuma—is the same as the Greek word for breath and for spirit. Jesus is using some creative wordplay to get through to Nicodemus.
Just as the wind is invisible but its effects are seen, so it is with the Spirit of God. We can’t see the Spirit. We can’t predict how God’s Spirit will move. We can’t control what the Spirit will do. Yet the Spirit of God is powerful and active.
And Jesus makes it clear here to Nicodemus and to us: Being born again only happens by the power of the Spirit. In other words, human effort cannot cause the new birth Jesus is talking about. Only the power of God can transform us and cause us to be born again.
In fact, interestingly enough (or at least I think it’s interesting!), the word we translate as born again can also be translated as born from above. This word itself tells us that whatever else is going on, the power behind it is from God.
So: Being born again means experiencing spiritual transformation. That’s what Paul is talking about in 2 Corinthians 5:17 where he says that if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, and see, the new has come!
This is Paul’s way of describing what it means to be born again. Only the person of the Holy Spirit can transform a person into a new creation and effect such profound change.
Think of people we know who are not Christians and do not follow Christ. Do we believe spiritual transformation is possible in their lives? Do we believe they can be born again? Or in other words, do we believe God can change them? And do we genuinely entrust them to the power of the Holy Spirit when we share our faith and live as examples?
Think of the words of God in Zechariah 4:6: Not by strength or by might, but by my Spirit. This verse isn’t about conversion but it can apply there too. We can’t make someone a Christian. God is the one who changes hearts and minds. He is the one who transforms lives. And he does so by the power of his Spirit.
This also means we can trust God is active in ways that go beyond anything we say or do. When we share our faith with someone, who knows how God has been preparing that person for your words? Or how God will use your words to prepare that person?
I’m sure many of us here can testify to the way God used other people to draw us to him, to bring us to faith in Christ. But how it all works together—our words and witness and the powerful working of the Spirit—is still a mystery.
After Jesus tells Nicodemus about the working of the Spirit, Nicodemus asks, How can these things be? Despite being a teacher of Israel, a Pharisee, and a member of the Sanhedrin, there were things Nicodemus couldn’t understand on his own, not without having his eyes opened by God’s Spirit.
Surely, Nicodemus wasn’t far from the kingdom. But he wasn’t there yet. He’s an example of what Jesus is talking about—the need to have your eyes and your heart opened and transformed by the Spirit of God to the reality of the kingdom of God.
Nicodemus appears one more time in the Bible. After Jesus is crucified Joseph of Arimathea, a secret disciple of Jesus, took Jesus’ body and placed it in a new tomb. Nicodemus helped him with this process. I wonder what happened to him after Jesus’ resurrection. He was obviously open to the work of God in his life.
Pastor and former president of Fuller Seminary Mark Labberton tells this story: “Ben was a very successful man. His professional life flourished. His family life was challenging, as a parent of several teenagers. For him, Christian faith was a distant and disconnected reality. But he began to have conversations about it with his wife and later with me. One Sunday I was surprised but pleased to see him in the worship service. As he approached me at the door afterward, his eyes began to fill with tears. He explained that while visiting Washington, D.C, for a professional conference, he had gone to visit the National Cathedral. He slipped into an empty side chapel and sat down for some quiet time and reflection. There, unexpected and unsought, God’s Spirit simply came upon him. Ben became a new person. The awe and wonder of grace and truth beyond his own mind, his own questions, his own needs, simply met him and changed him. It was as though his life was utterly redefined, and it has been ever since.”
That’s what it means to be born again. To be changed. To be redefined. To become a new person. And who knows how God used various people and conversations to draw this man Ben to himself.
Being born again ultimately means trusting that in Christ God has revealed himself fully. It means being transformed by the Spirit through the good news of Jesus. It means having peace in this life and hope for the next. It means resting in the embrace of a loving heavenly Father. It means living more and more out of faith rather than fear. This is what God seeks to do: to open us up to the reality of who he is in such a way that we in turn are made new.
What about you? Have you experienced such spiritual transformation? Do you trust that only God by his Spirit can bring about such change? Are you born again? Do you want to be made new?
May God by the power of his Spirit continue to transform those of us who have been born again and keep drawing new people into his presence to experience the new birth.