A New Birth

  • Text: John 3:1-8, CSB
  • Series: The Kingdom (2019), Pt. 3
  • Date: Sunday, September 1, 2019 – AM service
  • Venue: Trinity Baptist Church – Seminole, Oklahoma
  • Speaker: Jared Byrns
  • Download Audio: mp3

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This morning we’re going to look at a story that will probably be familiar to many of you. It’s a story that I’ve preached about many times over the years. But it’s one of those passages that has something new for me to learn every time I look at it, and I suspect it’ll be the same way for you. Please turn in your Bibles to the book of John, chapter 3. We’re going to look at John 3:1-8 for a few moments, and we’re going to read the story of a man named Nicodemus who came to see Jesus in the middle of the night. 

I’ve heard a lot of preachers speculate about the reasons why Nicodemus came in the middle of the night. Entire sermons have been built on the idea that he was embarrassed, or that he was afraid, or that he wanted privacy. But the fact is, it’s all speculation. There could be some great spiritual significance to the timing of his visit, or he may have just hated crowds. We don’t know; the Bible doesn’t tell us why he went in the night; it just tells us that he did.

Now John 3:1-2, CSB, says: “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.’”

We do know a few things about Nicodemus. He was a Pharisee, meaning that he was a member of the religious elite. We know that as a Pharisee, he was highly educated in the Jewish religion. He knew the Old Testament inside and out and had mastered the teachings of the rabbinical authorities. He was also meticulous about keeping Jewish customs and traditions. We know that he was a ruler of the Jews. He held a position of power and was probably wealthy on top of it. We know that he was a man of high status among the people, and we know that if religious activities or human effort could make a man closer to God, Nicodemus was the kind of man who would’ve been close to God.

But we also know that he wasn’t the expert on God’s truth that he appeared to be. He didn’t have the things of God all figured out. So he came to ask Jesus a question. Before he asked his question, though, he broke the ice by complimenting Jesus. He called Jesus “Rabbi.” As a Pharisee, an authority on Jewish teaching, that’s not a word Nicodemus would have thrown around lightly. It meant that he had examined Jesus and had concluded Him to be a reputable and authoritative teacher of the Scriptures. That was quite an admission from a Pharisee. But he went further. Nicodemus said that he and the other Pharisees knew that God had sent Jesus. The others might not have wanted to admit it—but they knew it. He said in verse 2, “We know that you are a teacher who has come from God.” They knew that because of the evidence. They had seen the miracles Jesus had performed, and Nicodemus said, “No one could perform these signs you do unless God were with him.” Nicodemus recognized correctly that the Father was validating Jesus’ ministry through miracles.

When Nicodemus had questions about the things of God, he needed someone who—unlike him and his fellow Pharisees—really knew the Father and spoke with the Father’s authority. So he came to Jesus, acknowledging Jesus as a great teacher, sent by God’s own authority.

Now, Jesus’ response is interesting. Look at verse 3. Nicodemus had said in verse 2, “We know that you are a teacher who has come from God.” But in verse 3, “Jesus replied, ‘Truly I tell you, unless someone is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.’” What just happened here? Nicodemus called Jesus a great teacher, and Jesus responded by telling him he wouldn’t get into Heaven without being born again. Recently, I was teaching my kids this story, and they thought I left out part of the conversation.

Here’s what happened. In John 2, Jesus drove money-changers out of the Temple with a whip. At the end of that story, John 2:25, CSB, says, “He himself knew what was in man.” Jesus knew what was in people’s hearts—that includes Nicodemus.

So, while Nicodemus was easing into the conversation, Jesus just leapfrogged over the small talk to address the real questions in Nicodemus’ heart. After all, he knew both the questions and the answers before Nicodemus even asked. He wanted to know about God’s Kingdom. John the Baptist’s preaching on the Kingdom had attracted a lot of attention in Jerusalem, and Nicodemus may have been wrestling with these questions as a result. Nicodemus had questions about getting into God’s Kingdom that he knew only Jesus could answer.

Nicodemus, despite all of his head knowledge of the Scriptures and his intellectual mastery over religious teachings, realized that something was missing. God’s Kingdom was a mystery to him. There was a longing deep in his soul to understand the truth about God’s Kingdom. So he came to Jesus, and Jesus told him, “Truly I tell you, unless someone is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” 

If the whole concept of being born again is confusing or uncomfortable for you, you’re not alone because Nicodemus felt the same way. This morning, we’re going to walk together through Jesus’ explanation to Nicodemus to help each of you understand this requirement for entering the Kingdom.

The phrase Jesus used has a double meaning. The Greek word anothen can mean “again” or “from above.” And people have debated between these two options: does it mean “born again,” or does it mean “born from above?” After searching the Scriptures, my answer to that question is, yes. It means both “born again” and “born from above.” It means that we’re given a new life and that that life comes from God.

“Again” was the part that threw Nicodemus. Verse 4 says, “‘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?’” In one of the more disturbing thoughts in all of Scripture, Nicodemus asked how an adult could crawl back into the womb and be born a second time. We know that’s physically impossible. Take Carly Jo, for example. She’s six months old and still little, but we’ve talked about how far even she would stick out if Charla were still carrying her now. (And before you think my family is weird, that discussion only started because we were watching a show on the Discovery Channel that said elephants stay pregnant for two years.) But Carly Jo, as little as she is, wouldn’t fit back in the womb. For a grown man to be born again physically is a ridiculous suggestion. But Nicodemus knew that. The way it’s phrased in Greek tells us he was looking for a negative answer. It’s like when you ask your wife, ‘You’re not going to eat the last hot dog, are you?’ When I ask that, in that way, I’m looking for a no. So was Nicodemus. He was basically saying, ‘Jesus, you’re going to have to explain this further because I know you’re not talking about getting back in the womb.’ So Jesus explained that it had nothing to do with physical birth—in fact, it has nothing to do with human effort at all.

His explanation here includes some of the most widely debated verses in the New Testament, but I think if we remember who Jesus was talking to, it’ll be easier to understand what He meant. We adjust our approach to communication all the time, depending on who we’re talking to. Those of you who’ve lived in this area for decades can swap stories about people and places with little explanation because you both know what you’re talking about. With a carpetbagger like me, you have to explain these references. So you talk to me a little differently than you talk to each other. It’s natural. We use language and references that our listeners will understand.

Jesus and Nicodemus were both intensely familiar with the Old Testament, so Jesus would have used Old Testament language and references that Nicodemus would have understood. So to understand Jesus’ explanation, we’ll need to look at the Old Testament as well. 

Look at verse 5. It says, “Jesus answered, ‘Truly I tell you, unless someone is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.’” We have to be born of water and the Spirit. This is one of those verses that people debate, so before I take you to the Old Testament and tell you what I believe it means, let’s look at what it doesn’t mean.

First of all, this verse does not teach that we have to be baptized to be saved. The only way we’d see that here is if we start with the belief that baptism is required for salvation and then go hunting for evidence. But nothing in the text itself tells us that. On the plan of salvation, the New Testament is too clear in too many places to allow that explanation. We are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone—not because of our works and certainly not because of any religious ritual. Baptism isn’t what Jesus meant. 

Another suggested explanation for what Jesus meant by the water is physical birth. Because He contrasted flesh with spirit in verse 6, some people conclude that verse 5 refers to physical and spiritual birth, with the water being the amniotic fluid. Because the mother’s water breaks, you might say the child is born of water. I’ve gone back and forth on this explanation over the years, but it doesn’t seem to be the best fit. I’ve read that they didn’t typically use that kind of terminology to describe physical birth.

Let me tell you what I believe Jesus was talking about. I believe that when He said “born of water and the Spirit,” He was using two descriptive phrases to describe one event. Being born of water and being born of the Spirit are both describing what happens when God gives a person new life in Jesus Christ. Remember, Nicodemus was a scholar of the Old Testament, so we need to see where those concepts are discussed in the Old Testament. Let’s look at Ezekiel 36. It’s a prophecy about how God planned to restore the nation of Israel—cleansing them, changing them, and drawing them to Himself. Ezekiel 36:25-27, CSB, says: “I will also sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean. I will cleanse you from all your impurities and all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will remove your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will place my Spirit within you and cause you to follow my statutes and carefully observe my ordinances.”

Notice the five times God says, “I will,” in those three verses. This passage describes the supernatural act wherein God cleanses His people, changes them, and gives them new life. It’s all the work of God, from first to last. There are two major components to what will take place in Israel’s new birth: God will cleanse them like with water, and He will renew them with His Spirit to give them new life from above. When Jesus told Nicodemus that he had to be “born of water and the Spirit,” He wasn’t inventing new terms. He was drawing on Old Testament terms to explain the truth that Nicodemus had missed there. For us to be in God’s Kingdom and have fellowship with Him, He must cleanse us, and He must transform us.

To get to the Kingdom, Nicodemus needed a new life that only God could give him. This man had realized that something was missing from his pursuit of God’s acceptance. Outward obedience to laws and traditions would leave him empty and outside the Kingdom. So Jesus showed him that it wasn’t about Nicodemus bettering himself; he needed God to transform him completely from the inside out.

He explained the vast gulf between what we can do and what God can do in verse 6. He said, “Whatever is born of the flesh is flesh, and whatever is born of the Spirit is spirit.” The word that’s translated as “born” throughout this passage describes a cause—the cause that brings something into existence. And here, Jesus was talking about the work of the flesh that man causes versus the work of the Spirit that only God causes. As fleshly creatures, we can only produce fleshly results. It’s like the old principle that so many of us learned in biology class: like produces like. Months ago, we drove by a pasture and saw a cow beginning to give birth. We knew that she would birth a baby cow—a calf—because like produces like. We never once thought it would be a puppy. We drove back home the same way later and saw the calf standing next to her. If a cow is pregnant, she’ll always produce a cow. If a dog is pregnant, she’ll always produce a dog. If a person is pregnant, she’ll always produce a person—no matter what Planned Parenthood may say otherwise. Like produces like.

So, to Jesus’ point, fleshly causes can only produce fleshly results. Spiritual results only come from spiritual causes. That means that all of our human efforts are entirely insufficient to produce the slightest bit of spiritual transformation. We can never work hard enough to produce a new spiritual life within ourselves. Spiritual life and transformation are the work of the Spirit of God. Jesus was looking directly at someone whose whole life was wrapped up in trying to produce spiritual results through fleshly efforts, and He told him that it would never work.

This was a lot for Nicodemus to process. In verse 7, Jesus said, “Do not be amazed that I told you that you must be born again.” Jesus said this shouldn’t have surprised Nicodemus, that man requires a spiritual life and change that only God can produce. Because of his familiarity with the Old Testament Scriptures, Nicodemus should’ve understood better than anybody the holiness of God and how far we fall short of it. It should’ve been obvious to him that we’re incapable of fellowship with God unless He totally renovates us first. The transformation we need is something only God can do, and it’s out of our hands. In that regard, Jesus compared it to the wind.

Look at verse 8. Jesus said, “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.” He pointed out that we don’t control the wind. We can’t make it blow or stop it from blowing. Right? Here in Oklahoma, we know that better than most people. In the spring, we can’t stop the wind from blowing no matter how much we’d like to. And in the summer, when it feels like we’re about three miles from the Sun, we can’t summon up a breeze at will to cool us off. Jesus said the wind blows where it pleases.

We don’t control it. We don’t even understand it all. We don’t know where the wind starts or where it ends. But we can feel it and hear it. It does what it’s going to do, and we sit back and feel the effects of it. Jesus said the same thing is true with the Spirit of God. We can’t control the process. We can’t transform ourselves. We can’t give ourselves a new life. We can’t produce the works of the Spirit. We have to let the Spirit of God work to cleanse and transform us. We can’t control the spirit, but we certainly experience its effects.

Nicodemus was a man who had everything but the assurance of being in God’s Kingdom. So he approached Jesus, wondering how he could get there. But Jesus told him that what he needed was something he couldn’t do for himself. He needed God to cleanse him, to change him, and to give him new life by the power of His Spirit. That’s the same thing you and I need today. Our own efforts leave us no assurance at all of being in His Kingdom. Just like Nicodemus if we want fellowship with God in His Kingdom, we must be born again. 

The natural question some of you probably have is, ‘How can I be born again?’ If it’s not up to you to give yourself a new life; if it’s not up to you to create a new heart in yourself and change yourself; if it’s not up to you to birth yourself again; then what? Why even bring it up? If we don’t control it, how can we be born again?

The Spirit of God moved the Apostle John to answer that question in a very concise way in I John 5:1. He wrote, “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God.” God’s Word ties this new birth and this new life to faith. John also explained that he wrote so “that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31, CSB). 

Here’s the bottom line—it requires faith. You acknowledge your sin and your need for a Savior, and you believe that Jesus died to pay for your sins in full and rose again from the dead. You have faith in Jesus Christ as your one and only Savior, and God does all the work of changing you. He’ll give you new life in Christ. He’ll cleanse you, transform you, and bring you into the Kingdom.

You can only be born again by the power of God, but that new birth—that new life—requires faith in Jesus Christ.

That means, first, admitting that you’ve sinned against God and that your sin has separated you from Him.

Second, it means that you must believe with all your heart that Jesus died on the cross to pay for your sins in full and that He rose again from the dead.

Finally, it means that you need to ask God for forgiveness, trusting fully in Jesus Christ as your one and only Savior.When we trust Jesus as our Savior, God cleanses us, changes us, and gives us new life in Him.

The preceding sermon text formed the basis for the message preached but may differ in places from the resulting audio recording. Sermon audio and text, © 2019, Jared Byrns. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, Biblical references are taken from The Christian Standard Bible. Copyright © 2017 by Holman Bible Publishers. Used by permission. Christian Standard Bible®, and CSB® are federally registered trademarks of Holman Bible Publishers, all rights reserved.