Tuesday, July 03, 2012

The Necessity of New Birth (John 3:1-10)

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Last week, as the Southern Baptist Convention gathered in New Orleans, the most heated debate took place regarding one particular resolution. Resolutions are the public statements of opinion or conviction of the Convention on a particular current issue. The one that stirred up the most controversy was concerning something that we commonly call “the sinner’s prayer.” This phrase refers to a prayer that is often used in leading a person to accept Jesus as Lord and Savior, in which a person prays (often reading words off of a printed page or repeating, phrase-by-phrase, after a person leading them) acknowledging that they are a sinner, that Jesus died for their sins and rose again, and asking Jesus to come into their hearts as Lord and Savior. I imagine that most of us in this room have prayed a prayer similar to this in our lives. The reason for the heated debate is that, in spite of the popular usage of prayers like this in evangelism, there is nothing in the Bible about praying this particular prayer. Some would encourage us to not use these kind of “canned prayers” at all, while others would urge great caution in so-doing, and yet others would say that such a prayer is effectual in and of itself, and should be used indiscriminately as we try to reach others for Jesus.

Pastor and Messenger Jared Moore articulated the sad reality very well when he expressed, I live in a community where everyone has asked Jesus to come into their hearts and none of them are at church. Many of them live contrary to Scripture. They’re not repenting and having faith in Christ, yet they asked Jesus to come into their heart. … I have to get them lost before I can get them saved.”[1] I can identify with Moore’s concern. I have pastored three churches in three very different communities, and can attest that in each congregation and community there are multitudes of people who have “prayed the prayer.” They can remember the day and the time when they prayed the prayer, but if you were to ask them on what they base their hopes of the forgiveness of sin and eternal life, you would find that they are not trusting in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus to save them from their sin and its consequences. They are being told that they are saved because they “prayed the prayer,” but in reality, they are lost. So the resolution that we ultimately affirmed at our Convention this year denies that praying a specific prayer is necessary or sufficient for salvation, but rather that repentance and faith are necessary for salvation, and can be expressed in a prayer such as the “sinners prayer.” However, the resolution makes clear that a “sinners prayer” is “not an incantation that results in salvation merely by its recitation and should never be manipulatively employed or utilized apart from a clear articulation of the Gospel.”[2]

In our text today, we find a very familiar encounter between the Lord Jesus and a man named Nicodemus. Three times in these ten verses, Jesus tells Nicodemus precisely what is required of him in order to be saved and have eternal life in the Kingdom of God. And in none of these statements does Jesus say, “You must pray a prayer.” Rather, He says over and over again, “You must be born again.” There are many who have been born again who have never prayed a specific sinner’s prayer, and there are, frighteningly, very many who have prayed such a prayer and never been born again. They are like those described in John 2:23, who have come to some level of belief in Jesus, but of whom it is written in John 2:24 that Jesus did not entrust Himself to them, because He knew that their faith was not genuine. As a case in point, we are introduced to Nicodemus here in John 3:1. He has come to Jesus at night. Why did he come at night? Oh, you can read all kinds of ideas in the commentaries and hear lots of opinions in sermons, but the fact is that we are not told why he came at night, and it really doesn’t matter. What matters is that he came to Jesus and that he heard from Jesus. What will matter even more for Nicodemus is what Nicodemus will do about what Jesus has spoken to him. But for us, what happens to Nicodemus is not of the utmost importance. When we stand before God at the end of life, the matter of greatest significance will be whether or not we ourselves have personally been born again. It is a fundamental necessity. And Jesus urges that necessity upon us three times in the text.

Notice first of all how the Lord Jesus insists that …

I. Human achievements do not negate the need for a new birth (vv1-3)

As a whole, we as human beings like the idea of being impressive. We might boast of our accomplishments, drop names, pad our résumés, talk much about some things, remain totally silent about other things, all in an effort to impress others. I suppose it is our inclination to value “impressiveness” that leads us to think that we can impress God at times also. Now, if any human being could have ever impressed God with his résumé and accomplishments, Nicodemus is a likely candidate.

Nicodemus was a religious man. Not only was he a Jew, a member of the chosen nation which had been blessed by God for 2,000 years since Abraham, but he was also a Pharisee. Most of us have been trained by our reading of the New Testament to see that as strike against the man, but you have to understand that at one time in Israel, these men were viewed as the most holy and righteous of all people. They were an elite group. There were never more than six thousand of them at any given time.[3] To become a Pharisee, a man had to take a vow before three witnesses stating that he would devote his entire life to complete obedience to the law of God. They were biblically and theologically conservative, and held to strict literal interpretations of the law. In order to ensure that they kept the law in exact detail, they made numerous other rules and regulations to keep them from even getting close to violating the law. If you knew a Pharisee, you knew someone who was serious about religion, and who morally upstanding, at least in terms of the outer workings of his life. You could not easily point your finger at a Pharisee and accuse him of a sin.

In addition to being a religious man, Nicodemus was also an intelligent man. Although a pious Jew, he had a Greek name. That was something of a rarity among Pharisees, and it indicates that his parents had likely prized Greek intellectualism and provided a well-rounded Greek education for him.  So intelligent was Nicodemus that he had become a teacher, in fact perhaps the preeminent teacher of his day. Jesus addresses him in verse 10 as “the teacher of Israel.” The first statement he makes to Jesus is about what he knows. And he seems to know a lot about Jesus. He knows He is a Rabbi, or a teacher. He knows He has come from God. He knows that He performs signs, and He knows that God is with Him.

He was religious, he was intelligent. And he was wealthy, too! Nothing is said about that here in John 3, but when we see Nicodemus in John 19, he has brought a “mixture of myrrh and aloes,” weighing about a hundred pounds for the purpose of anointing the body of Jesus after the crucifixion. Only a man of significant means could afford this.[4]

Not only was Nicodemus religious, intelligent, and wealthy, he was also powerful. Verse 1 tells us that he was “a ruler of the Jews.” This means that he was a member of the Sanhedrin, the highest legislative body in Israel. To put it in terms we can relate to, if you combined all the powers of the President, the Congress, and the Supreme Court in America, that is the kind of authority the Sanhedrin had in Israel. Of course, by this time, they operated under the overriding authority of Rome, but as Jewish politics go, he was on the top of the ladder. He has quite an impressive pedigree in the eyes of men. He’s rich, powerful, smart, and religious. But Jesus is not impressed.

Though he came with an impressive set of qualifications, and approached Jesus with seemingly the utmost respect, Jesus spoke to him with an answer (v3). That’s odd that Jesus would give him an answer; Nicodemus hadn’t even asked a question. But remember, that John 2:24-25 said that Jesus “knew all men,” that He “did not not need anyone to testify concerning man,” and that “He Himself knew what was in man.” And He knew that within Nicodemus was a burning question. Maybe it was something like this: “With all the impressive accomplishments that I have achieved, is it enough to gain entrance into heaven?” Whether that was his question or not, the answer that Jesus gives is the answer to the most important question that any human being could ask. As Morgan writes, “He said to him the thing which is true of every one.”[5] He says in v3, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

Maybe you or someone you know thinks that life amounts to a set of accomplishments and achievements. Maybe you have embarked on the pursuit of the American Dream and have achieved it! You are well-educated, successful, wealthy, powerful, religious and morally upstanding. You know a lot about Jesus – you have read your Bible pretty thoroughly, maybe been in church or Sunday School most of your life. Nicodemus was all of those things. But Jesus says very pointedly that Nicodemus and those who are like him are disqualified from even seeing the kingdom of God. Why? Because these things do not impress Jesus. He knows what is in every person. And He can say of even the most impressive of us, “You must be born again.” So, if you or someone you know thinks that all of your achievements and accomplishments will certainly impress the Lord and gain you heaven when life comes to an end, you are sadly mistaken. The Lord Jesus says, “You must be born again.” Your achievements do not negate that fact.

II. Human generation could never replace the need to be born again (vv4-7).

If you’ve ever been puzzled by something Jesus said, you are in good company. Even the distinguished teacher Nicodemus was puzzled by this expression about being “born again.” Jesus is talking theology, but all Nicodemus can process is biology. Notice his question in verse 4: “How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born, can he?”

Now, I imagine that many of us have had moments of regret in which, looking back, we wish we could go back and relive some moments of our lives and maybe we could do it better. Some, who like myself came to faith in Jesus as an adult, may look back and say, “If only I could relive my teenage years! I would avoid the mistakes I made.” We are thinking about things like Nicodemus is here. “If only I could go back and be a baby again and start all over! I’ve made a mess of this life. I have sinned and messed up so many things. If I could be a baby again, and know what I know now, I’d do better, I just know it.” Maybe you think that if you had better parents, or a better environment to be born into, things would have turned out differently. You might have been going through life blaming all of your problems on mom and dad, and the circumstances of your childhood. But notice that Jesus says that human generation is not the answer to our problems. He says in verse 6, “that which is born of the flesh is flesh.” In other words, even if you could have a second chance to start all over again as a baby, with new parents, new surroundings, and whatever else, and relive your life, you would still be a sinful human being. That is all that a human being can generate or produce. People talk about the innocence of youth. My memories of childhood are still clear enough, and I am raising two of my own, and watching others, and I can tell you that the so-called “innocence of youth” is a myth. Every child that is born is born with a sin nature. The Bible says that, and every living person is a testimony to the truth of that statement. You might wish you could have a second chance to try again from birth, but Jesus is saying that even if you could, you wouldn’t do any better, because you would still be born as a sinner, with a body and a nature that is warped by sin, living in a world that is defiled by sin.

When Jesus says, “You must be born again,” He isn’t talking biology, He’s talking theology. What you need is not another birth experience in the flesh, but a birth experience that comes by the Spirit of God. “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” Two things are true of every person: we are created in the image of God, and we are radically corrupted by sin. Because we are made in God’s image, we are born with a spiritual capacity. But because we are corrupted by sin, that spiritual capacity is dead within each of us from birth. You didn’t become a spiritually-dead sinner when you first sinned. You first sinned because you were born a spiritually-dead sinner. So what we all need is for the Spirit of God to make to make us alive spiritually. This is what Paul says in Ephesians 2 – “And you were dead in your trespasses and sins … but God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved)” (Eph 2:1-5).

The Greek word that is rendered again throughout this passage, as Jesus speaks of being born again can also be translated from above. That puzzles people when they first encounter it, because it makes us wonder if we’ve been translating this phrase wrong for centuries and shouldn’t talk about a born again experience, but a born from above experience. Well, it shouldn’t trouble us. To be born from above is to be born again, and there is no other way to be born again than to be born from above – a heavenly and spiritual birth, brought about by the Holy Spirit of God. And that brings us to the final reality about this necessity of being born again …

III.  The Holy Spirit of God is alone capable of accomplishing the new birth within us. (vv5, 7-10).

It is plain to see that Nicodemus is having trouble comprehending what Jesus is talking about with the new birth. He is thinking in terms of biology rather than theology, and he seems convinced that though some people may need this experience, surely neither he nor his countrymen do. They are the descendants of Abraham, children of the promise and members of the covenant community. As Kostenberger notes, “Jews in Jesus’ day generally believed that all Israelites would have a share in the world to come, with the exception of those guilty of apostasy or some other blatant sin.”[6] But though that may have been how generations of Israelites had understood (or better, misunderstood) God’s covenant with Abraham, Jesus is informing Nicodemus that the covenant which Israel has known in the past is passing away just as the Scriptures had promised it would. Like milk, there was an expiration date on that Old Covenant, and it had come to pass.  

Nicodemus certainly knew the Scriptures. He was the teacher of Israel! And Jesus indicates that as a biblical scholar, Nicodemus should not be surprised to hear Him referring to a new birth. There must be something in the Hebrew Scriptures, that portion of our Bibles which we call the Old Testament, that would have prepared Nicodemus for what Jesus is saying. And of course there is. Among other passages that we could look at, most significant is what the Lord spoke through the prophet Ezekiel concerning the coming of a New Covenant that God would make, not with Israel only but with those who come to Him from all nations.

In Ezekiel 36, we read the Lord promising that He will “sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean.” He says, “I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.” In that passage, the word “flesh” means something different than most of the occurrences of the word in the New Testament. In the New Testament, even here in John 3, “flesh” refers to the carnal, sinful nature of humanity, but here it stands in opposition to “stone.” The Lord is saying that He will remove the hard heart and put in a soft one; He will remove the one that is dead, and put in a heart that is alive and beating. And of this new spirit that He will put into man, He says, “I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances.” So, God is promising that in the days when He inaugurates a New Covenant with His people, He will cleanse them through the washing away of their sins, and He will make them alive by placing His Spirit within them. It is this of which Jesus is speaking in verse 5, “Truly, truly I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”

Jesus says in verse 10, “Are you the teacher of Israel and do not understand these things?” In other words, He is saying that the things of which He is speaking are things that are clearly taught in the Hebrew Scriptures. And what we have just read from Ezekiel 36 clearly points to a new birth that will come with the washing away of sins and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Jesus says, “If you are going to enter the kingdom of God, it is not your Jewish birth that will gain you entrance. You must be born again, in the way that was promised before – under this New Covenant that God is making with humanity in which He will wash away sin and impart His Holy Spirit.

The provision of this new birth has broken into human history in the person of Jesus Christ. Nicodemus may think he knows a lot about Him, but he has not had that necessary personal experience with Him that each of us must have. Jesus is more than a miracle-working teacher sent from God. He is the Savior of the human race, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. The New Covenant is sealed with His blood that was shed on the cross as He died for our sins. The cleansing of all of our filthiness and idolatry that was promised, which makes us as clean as having been washed in clean water, is accomplished by His blood. And conquering death through His resurrection, and ascending into heaven again, from whence He came, He has sent His Spirit to indwell all who call upon His name by faith as Lord and Savior.

But how can someone who is dead in sin call upon Him? Jesus answers that question in verse 8. “The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Like a mighty wind, the Holy Spirit of God sovereignly sweeps across a human life bringing the new birth and imparting the faith that is necessary to believe upon Jesus as Lord. There is no formula, no superstitious ritual, no mantra that can be recited, no act that can be performed to produce the new birth. You are dead in sin until the Spirit moves upon your heart. And the Spirit moves where He wishes. Neither I nor anyone else has command of Him. He is sovereign. You cannot see Him, but you can see the effects that He produces. Look around you. Here and there, seated near you today, are some people whose lives have been radically transformed by this new birth. How did that happen? The Spirit invaded his or her life and birthed them anew. You didn’t see it coming. You don’t know when it might happen again. But you can see the effects; listen, and you can hear Him. Maybe you hear Him calling out to you today, saying, “Do not be surprised that I say to you, ‘You must be born again.’” And like the refreshing coolness of a sudden breeze, you find yourself feeling differently, thinking differently, believing differently. You believe things you never believed before. You come to the end of yourself and begin to see the Lord Jesus Christ as your only hope. You see His life, His death, and His resurrection, not merely as Sunday School lessons or religious and historical trivia, but as life-giving realities, and you desire to turn away from your sin and place your trust in Him. What is happening? You are being born again. It has happened to many. May God grant that His Spirit would make it happen in even more, here in this sanctuary, here in this community, here in our nation, here in our world.

Are you like Nicodemus? An impressive person: intelligent, successful, powerful, wealthy, moral, and religious. Jesus said that this kind of person still needs to be born again, born from above, by the power of the Holy Spirit. We don’t know if Nicodemus ever was. But we meet a man in Scripture who was very much like him, and he surely was born again. This man says of himself that he was a circumcised Israelite, a Hebrew of Hebrews, a zealous Pharisee, very religious and very morally upstanding. His name was Paul. And Paul met Jesus, and he was born again. And from that day forward, Paul could look back on all that he had been and say, “Whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ. More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord … (I) count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ, and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own … but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith” (Philippians 3:4-9). Whatever accomplishments and achievements Paul considered worthwhile in his life, he saw fade from view when he beheld the glory of the Lord Jesus.

Maybe you are like Nicodemus, and you are thinking biology. If only you could start over, have a new set of parents, a different spouse, a changed set of circumstances, then you would give it a better shot, try harder, and do things differently. Oh no! Listen to the Lord Jesus saying that it is not a biological new birth that you need, not a turning over of a new leaf. You need to be born from above, cleansed of your sin, overwhelmed by the power of His Spirit, and gloriously made alive by faith in Christ.

Whatever your situation today, no matter how good or bad; whatever you are trusting in, be it your church membership, your upstanding moral character, your intellectual knowledge; maybe you prayed a prayer and can remember the time and date, the overarching question is “Have you been born again?” Oh, hear the Lord Jesus speaking to you of this necessity. Do not be surprised that He says to you, “You must be born again!”


[1] http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2012/juneweb-only/baptists-sinners-prayer.html. Accessed June 28, 2012.
[2] http://beforeitsnews.com/story/2296/759/A_Tale_of_Two_Resolutions_on_the_Sinners_Prayer.html. Accessed June 28, 2012.
[3] William Barclay, The Gospel of John (Volume 1; Revised Edition; Daily Study Bible; Philadelphia: Westminster, 1975), 120.
[4] Barclay, 120.
[5] G. Campbell Morgan, The Great Physician (Old Tappan, NJ: Revell, 1937), 65.
[6] Andreas Kostenberger, John (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004), 122. 

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