Being Born Again
John 2:23 – 3:16
Being Born Again
I wonder if you’re familiar with the expression “DTR”?
It stands not for Digital Tape Recorder or something, but “Define The Relationship.”
A DTR Conversation, Define the Relationship Conversation, is where 2 people get together, to thrash out, actually what is going on in our relationship?
Are our expectations the same?
What is each party hoping for, needing out of the relationship?
Our passage this morning is a classic example of a Define the Relationship conversation,
The original, DTR Conversation, you could say.
Nicodemus comes with one a particular understanding, one set of expectations,
And Jesus, has something fundamental to say to him, because as it turns out, Jesus’ expectations for a relationship, are completely different to what Nicodemus has in mind.
How the Bible came to be,
But before we get there, I think it’s worth saying something about our Bible which will help us make sense of this section.
And that is, it’s important that we remember, that the chapter and verse divisions, the paragraph headings in our Bible, those things that make sure we’re all on the same page aren’t original. John didn’t get to the story of Nicodemus, and think, “Oh, we’ve been going for a while, I might start a new chapter here.!”
John just wrote, actually without any punctuation, and even without any spaces between the words.
But the chapter divisions, I’ve spoken about before, they’re the work of a man named Stephen Langton who was Archbishop of Canterbury in the 13th Century. And his way of dividing the Bible into 1189 chapters is what we use today, no matter what Bible translation or edition, or even language we’re using.
Our verse numbering, is the work of a French printer by the name of Robert Stephens, who, legend has it, decided on all these verse divisions while travelling from Paris to Lyons, on horseback, which might explain why some of them seem to be in unusual places!
Although there are some scholars who dispute the horseback story and say Stephens actually did the work when he stopped each night, in the pubs along the highway to Lyons, which would also explain some strange verse numbering here and there.
The point is though, that the Apostle John, writing for us, never intended for there to be such a big break between what in our Bibles is the end of chapter 2, and the beginning of chapter 3.
What John wanted us to hear is this:
23 Now while he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many people saw the miraculous signs he was doing and believed in his name. 24 But Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all men. 25 He did not need man’s testimony about man, for he knew what was in a man. Now there was a man, of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council. 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.”
Do you notice, what we tend not to notice when there’s a chapter break and a new paragraph?,
Some faith is inadequate
Nicodemus is described in exactly the same terms as those people whose faith, according to Jesus, is inadequate.
Why does Nicodemus believe?
Because he’s seen the signs.
“Sign” is the Apostle John’s shorthand word for miracle. We know what a sign is, don’t we? A sign is a thing that points to someone else.
In the gospel accounts of Jesus’ life, and particularly in John’s account, what’s most significant about Jesus’ miracles, is not the miraculous events themselves, but what they point to,
What they alert us to, about who Jesus is, and what he’s come to do.
John would really hate for us, as his readers, to get all excited about the signs, and miss where they point.
Some of you, I’m sure, braved the chaos and mayhem that is the post-Christmas sales! Imagine you’re there, waiting for hours before the shops open, and then at that moment when they open the doors, you trample over everyone else, lunging for the big red sign that says “90% off!”
And you stand there, atop the trampled bodies of those who fell, clutching your sign, triumphantly shouting “I just saved 90%! I got 90% off!”
But of course, you didn’t, did you?
You didn’t save 90%.
You have a sign that tells you where and how you can save 90%, but while you’re standing there gleefully clutching your sin, all your foes I mean the other shoppers, have gone where the sign pointed, and they have saved 90%.
So for John, Jesus’ miracles are signs that point people to Jesus,
But people who are only interested in Jesus because of the miracles, Jesus himself says, let me Define The Relationship, that kind of faith is inadequate.
Did you notice it there in verse 24, Jesus would not entrust himself to people who believed on account of the signs, because he knew what was in a man. That is he knew they weren’t really believers.
He knew that their faith wasn’t a genuine faith.
The same Greek word is used of these many people, verse 23, and of Jesus in verse 24.
Literally it goes something like “many people trusted in the name of Jesus, but Jesus would not entrust himself to them.”
Jesus didn’t trust their trusting,
He didn’t believe their believing.
It’s rather confronting for us, who like to define the terms of our own relationships, for Jesus to be the one who defines the relationship,
For him to say “actually there is acceptable belief, and there is unacceptable belief.
There is a kind of belief, that actually isn’t enough, to bring you into God’s kingdom.
There is a type of belief, that will not draw you into what God is doing.
While you were out in the frenzy of the post-Christmas sales, perhaps as you were heading back to your car dejectedly with your 90% off sign, you might have come across a busker, or one of those street performers, doing card tricks, or juggling with fire while riding on a unicycle or whatever they do!
And you notice with those people, the guy’s there doing his magic show, and he’s got his audience, they’re huddled in around, watching what he’s doing, pick a card, any card, and those are the people who are going to toss a few coins in his cap at the end of the show,
But standing further away, is another group of people, just kind of intrigued and mildly interested.
They’re watching, but from a safe distance, and they’re also checking their phone, or talking to a friend.
And they block the entire footpath, because they’re walking along, the busker catches their eye, they’re a little bit interested, and so they just stop where they are, and everyone has to weave around them.
Those people aren’t committed enough to actually go up and interact with the guy, they’re definitely not going to put any money in his hat,
This isn’t going to cost them anything,
They’re just interested,
That’s the kind of relationship with Jesus, faith in Jesus, of the crowds who saw the signs.
But Jesus knew all men John says.
Jesus knew what was in a man
And he could tell that their faith, was inauthentic and inadequate.
It was the intrigued,
Not going to cost me anything kind of relationship, of shallow, unreal faith.
And into all this, strolls Nicodemus
If Nicodemus can’t get it right – no one can.
Let me read again,
Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all men. 25 He did not need man’s testimony about man, for he knew what was in a man.
Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council. 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.”
Nicodemus is one of these, whose faith in Jesus is not real faith, at least, not yet.
We meet Nicodemus twice more in John’s gospel, and he does seem to end up with a more real faith in Jesus, but at this point, he doesn’t see Jesus as anything more than a teacher, not even a prophet, and definitely not God’s chosen king.
Nicodemus is in darkness, highlighted by John recounting the detail that Nicodemus came to Jesus at night.
Every time John uses the word night, he uses it metaphorically for moral and spiritual darkness,
For people who are far from Jesus,
For those who are opposed to God’s plans and purpose.
We believe Nicodemus says, because of the signs.
It has the feel of someone who, slightly embarrassed, says, “I have a friend who, dot dot dot”
But because we’re told what Jesus knows, we know that the faith of Nicodemus, isn’t the faith that draws someone into God’s work in the world.
And that, really bursts the bubble of anyone who thinks that we can become part of what God is doing, through our effort,
Or our cleverness,
Or our religious activity,
If Nicodemus, can’t see the kingdom of God then no one can.
Did you notice how John described him?
Verse 1, a man of the Pharisees,
A member of the Jewish ruling council
Verse 10 “You are Israel’s teacher”, literally, the teacher of Israel!
He’s a Pharisee, that is, he’s super religious, but not in a bad way. We often tend to think of the Pharisees only in negative terms today. But the Pharisees were passionate about God’s Word, and very careful to live in the light of their Scriptures, and keen for the rest of the nation to live rightly in the light of God’s Word too.
He’s a member of the Jewish Ruling Council. He is a significant community leader, and Jesus can call him the teacher of Israel.
He’s the Archbishop,
The Lord Mayor,
The Chancellor of Adelaide University,
And the Principal of the Bible College of SA, all rolled into one.
And when that person announces their assessment of what God is doing, and makes an evaluation of Jesus, we sit up and take notice.
But Jesus says Nicodemus hasn’t grasped who he is,
He doesn’t have a handle on what God is doing in the world.
And if this man, passionate for God’s law, the teacher of Israel, the archbishop and Bible College principal, if he can’t force his way in to God’s kingdom through his own effort,
Or if he’s not welcomed in because of his religious devotion,
Or because he’s in church every Sunday,
Or because he gives generously when the bags go past,
If Nicodemus is still outside in the dark, then there’s no chance that any of us, could succeed where he failed.
It takes a new birth to enter God’s kingdom
What’s required”, Jesus says “is not the shallow moderately interested belief that comes from seeing miracles, but a completely new birth”
Verse 3 In reply Jesus declared, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.”
It’s quite a, almost a slap in the face isn’t it?
Nicodemus comes to Jesus and says “I can see something about you”, but Jesus says, “no one can see the kingdom of God,
No one can come to grips with the rule of God,
No one can be part of what God is doing in the world and in eternity, without being born again.
I used to be part of a team that would go to the Body, Mind & Psychic expo and talk to the people there who were exploring “spirituality”.
But one of the things that I found incredibly frustrating, was the vague and nebulous language that the various stall holders used in promoting what they offered for sale.
I guess it makes sense, that if you’re flogging falsehood, you don’t want to be too specific in your promises!
But I had lots of conversations with stallholders, and practitioners of various new age and spiritual philosophies, and the phrase they used over and over was “connecting with the divine.”
Buy what they’re selling,
Adopt their philosophy,
Immerse yourself in their methods, and you can “connect with the divine.”
The connect that I seek might be different from what you seek.
I can connect on a level that suits me, a bit like a Facebook friendship, you know, you can decide what level of engagement you want.
But it’s appealing isn’t it?
If you think there is something or someone divine, who wouldn’t jump at what these stallholders are offering?
We’ll connect you with the divine.
Draw you into something bigger than yourself,
And yet what Jesus speaks of to Nicodemus is vastly different.
The “connection to the divine” that Jesus offers, is to see the kingdom of God,
That is, to have a part in God’s kingdom,
To come under the reign of God’s king.
See, to be part of what God is doing in the world and in eternity, we don’t just opt in, with whatever level of connection suits us,
We do so on the terms that Jesus defines,
Being born again is essential
And despite what the New Age Fair with its many different stalls and offerings will tell us, the only way to connect with the divine, is to be born again.
Now Born again is a term that has come to represent a particular flavour of Christianity, especially in the United States.
It’s come to be shorthand for a type of Christianity we see in the media, think Ned Flanders from The Simpsons, or teenage kids with megaphones standing on footpaths shouting at people that they’re going to hell.
So with the term hijacked into representing only those particular scenarios, it’s no surprise that I’ve heard people say, about themselves, “Well, I’m a Christian, but not one of those born again Christians.”
But Jesus says, there’s no other kind of Christian!
no one, can see the Kingdom of God unless he is born again, unless she is born again.
If you have an NIV Bible, you’ll notice at the end of verse 3, the NIV translators have put a footnote, saying the words in the original might also mean, “born from above.”
It’s not that John knocked over his coffee cup on the original manuscript, and so now we’re not really sure what’s written under the smudge! But the Greek word that he used, can mean either “again” or “above”.
And I think John’s used that word with its 2 meanings deliberately, to communicate both.
Jesus is speaking about a new birth, about being born again,
But he’s also speaking about a completely different kind of birth.
See Nicodemus thinks that Jesus is talking about being physically born another time. 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!”
It’s clear that he doesn’t understand what Jesus offers, and he doesn’t understand, what he so desperately needs.
Even if you could be physically born a second time, and start your whole life over again, it still wouldn’t do you any good in terms of getting into a right relationship with God.
Being born again is the work of God
The way into God’s kingdom isn’t through some physical process.
It’s a spiritual event.
And in fact, being born again is the work of God.
That is, this new birth, by its very definition, it’s something that happens to you, not something that you do.
We have 3 kids, and, from time to time, we’re able to get them to make a contribution to the tasks, and chores, and activities, of family life.
Packing up toys, for example,
Setting the table,
Doing the dishes.
To varying degrees our kids contribute to different aspects of life. So much so actually, that I figure if we keep having kids, eventually I won’t have to do any work at all!
But there’s one part of life where they made absolutely no contribution whatsoever.
And in fact at least one of our kids was fairly resistant to that!
You don’t make a contribution to your birth!
Your birth is the work of someone else!
And about half the people here know that only too well!
See after Jesus says in verse 3, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again, he explains it a little more for Nicodemus, with the theological and Scriptural context that Nicodemus should have understood.
Look at verse 5 with me, Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. 6 Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. 7 You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ 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
Now, being born of water and the Spirit, perhaps to us sounds a bit like baptism,
But this actually has nothing to do with baptism, Jesus is talking about the fulfilment of a promise God had made centuries earlier through the prophet Ezekiel.
The particular part of Ezekiel’s prophecy is printed there on your outline, it’s from chapter 36, and God says to his people Israel, 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. 26 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.
27 And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.
See how the water and Spirit go together in God’s promise of renewal?
Water brings cleansing,
The Spirit brings new life, transforming the heart, actually transplanting hearts!
Dr Christiaan Barnard, who performed the world’s first human heart transplant in South Africa in 1967, this must be where he got the idea!
God promised to give people new hearts!
And just like a physical heart transplant gives life to the recipient, so the work of the Spirit of God gives life as he cuts away a heart that is sinful and broken and opposed to God, and puts in its place, a heart that follows and trusts in God. I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.
So to be born of water and the Spirit is to gain the new kind of life that God offers, and had been offering, for centuries. It’s why Jesus expresses his incredulity that Nicodemus doesn’t get this “You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things?
This is at the heart of what God has been promising his people for generations.
Cleansing from sin,
The life made possible only by the work of God.
See without being born again, we’re God’s enemies.
Our hearts of stone lead us to live in the world God made, with no regard for the God who made the world.
But when we’re born of water and the Spirit, or born again, or born from above, God himself gives us a new heart, that doesn’t reject him, it seeks after him,
And loves him,
And loves his Word,
And follows his pattern for life,
A heart that willingly submits to God’s king, Jesus.
Without this new birth, none of that is possible, but with a new heart, a new life, it is.
You read these strange stories of heart transplant recipients, who, although they’ve been vegetarian all their adult life, when they wake up from the surgery with someone else’s heart in them, they start craving steak!
And it turns out that the heart donor was a beef cattle farmer, who had a massive ribeye steak for dinner every night of his life!
Which may have contributed to his untimely death and new status as a heart donor!
But, have you heard those stories!
It’s exactly the kind of transformation that this new heart from God, the new birth, brings about.
To be born again, is to be cleansed, and renewed, and given a new heart by God himself.
It’s why there is no other kind of Christian other than, a “born again” Christian.
There is no new birth without a death
But how is such a radical transformation possible?
How can God give a new birth, and a new heart to people who have lived as his enemies?
How can this be? Nicodemus asks, verse 9?
Well, there is no new birth without a death. For us to be born again, Jesus had to die.
Jump down to verse 14 with me, Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.
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.
Again, Old Testament context, In Numbers 21 the Israelites were being judged for sin and rebellion, with God sending poisonous snakes among them.
But, God instructed Moses to make a bronze snake, and stick it on a pole, and lift it up before the people, and anyone who looked at the snake, would live.
The bronze snake was a provision of God, to deal with the sin of the people, to give them an opportunity, to escape from the penalty of their sin and rebellion. It wasn’t an automatic salvation, anyone within a 5 kilometre radius gets immediately saved,
No, the sinful dying Israelites had to look at the snake,
Had to believe that this was the method of salvation that God had provided,
Had to trust that this was the way out from their situation,
That this was the way to life.
Can you see why Jesus chooses that as the illustration of his own lifting up, on the cross?
Twice more in John’s gospel, Jesus uses this “lifting up” language to speak of his crucifixion, his death, through which, he saves people from sin,
Provides a way out, from the consequences of rebellion against God,
Takes away our sin, so that we could have the new life that God offers.
Again, it’s not automatic,
It’s not universal,
Jesus makes that point in verses 15 and 16, everyone who believes,
Everyone who trusts that the cross is the way that God has provided.
How do we connect with the divine?
How do we become part of what God is doing in the world?
How do we enter into a relationship with God?
We see and enter the Kingdom of God,
We are born again,
We receive the new life of God, a spiritual heart transplant, when we look to Jesus lifted up on the cross, and believe in his saving work.
Dr Barnard’s life-saving heart transplant on Louis Washkansky , the 54 year-old shopkeeper, that day back in December 1967, of course it was only possible, because someone had died.
A young woman named Denise Darvall, had been killed when she was hit by a drunk driver the day before.
Without her death, there would have been no transplant.
Without Jesus’ death, we would have no heart transplant.
How can new life and new birth be given to someone who’s still stained with sin?
But because there is an end to sin, a way out from sin, we can be born again, and enter into the eternal life Jesus himself enjoys.
A Passover Resolution?
Let me say one more thing really quickly.
You may have noticed in verse 23 that John notes it was Passover time, the celebration of Israel’s deliverance in the Exodus from Egypt.
Passover, in John’s mind, is a time for believing, and for decision making. So in some ways, Passover was a bit like our New Year, a time for resolutions,
A time for change!
A time to stop talking about that thing, and standing around the edges as an intrigued, but uncommitted bystander, and actually do something about it.
Perhaps for you, you need to take seriously the new birth that Jesus offers,
Maybe for the first time.
Maybe you need to ask God for that spiritual heart transplant.
Maybe you need to give some serious thought to Jesus’ death,
What is the sin and rebellion that you need to be saved from?
Maybe you need to take it seriously, because you’ve believed in the new birth and the new life that Jesus offers, but you’re not actually living in a way that fits with the kind of heart that God’s given you.
Maybe you’re like the heart transplant patient who’s been smoking all their life, they get their transplant, but then they keep smoking 3 packs a day!
It’s incompatible with the new heart they have!
Perhaps your life, is at odds with your new heart.
Of course all this talk about resolutions might make us think that seeing the kingdom of God is only about turning over a new leaf, just trying a little bit harder.
But what’s the relationship that Jesus defines?
We need a work of God.
God’s spiritual surgery,
We need to be born again.