Last week, we saw from John 2:23-25 that “when he was at the Passover Feast, many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing. But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man.”
In the next few chapter, Jesus encounters a Samaritan woman at the well, a Gentile official, and a man needing healing at a pool at Bethsaida, and others. He would come across a number of individuals from a wide array of backgrounds and occupations. In John 3, he would come across a man whom the culture deemed a religious and intellectual elite—“a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews.”
Jesus, as the Scripture recently said, “knew all people … for he himself knew what was in man.” No matter our situation, no matter our background, no matter our family, no matter our jobs, no matter our wealth or fame—He knows what is in us. He knows what fuels us, what motivates us. After all, Scripture tells us that “everything was made by him and for him” (Colossians 1:17).
He knows our situation and condition—and he knows what must happen. “You must be born again.” Whatever label you have, ‘born again’ is the most important. Granted, some have taken this label and put it as more of a political label of sorts. Politicians leverage it, pollsters dilute it of its effect, others use it as a way to distinguish regular Christians from true Christians. One Scotish pastor remembers a time when someone asked him if he was a Christian! He said, “Yes, I am.” The reply? “Yes, but are you a born-again Christian.”
The truth is, neither pollsters nor politicians came up with this phrase. Jesus did! What does it mean? And why do we need to be born again? Because Jesus knows all men and what makes them tick—and the only antidote to the cancer of our sinful, fallen nature is that we must be born again, born from above, born of the Spirit.
1. You cannot see nor enter the Kingdom of God (John 3:1-3).
Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. 2 This man came to Jesus[a] by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again[b] he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
Nicodemus comes to Christ by night. Some speculate that this not only refers to the time of day, but to the moral and spiritual condition of Nicodemus—an interesting insight, considering he was a ruler among the religious leaders. Pharisees knew the Old Testament—had to have it all memorized—and sought originally to preserve the purity and authority of the Scriptures centuries prior. But soon, their interpretations of Scripture (originally intended to rightly divide the Word) because just as if not more authoritative than the Word itself. Nicodemus was a ruler of the Jews, the elite of the elite who knew the Word of the Lord—but by the way he approached Jesus, he did not know the Lord of the Word.
But he recognized something powerful in Jesus—even attributing this power to the presence of God in him. He wasn’t the only one. Rabbi, we… He, like so many who “believed” in him did so because of the signs—even those who were from the Pharisees.
Jesus comes along and says, “Unless you are born again, you cannot see the Kingdom of God.” How rich is this phrase! He’s answering a question Nicodemus didn’t directly ask, but again remember, he knew what was in people. He knew exactly what Nicodemus needed to hear.
He’s talking to us personally. He tells Nicodemus, and by virtue tells you, you must be born again—otherwise, you cannot see the Kingdom of God. Christ deals with us individually—how is He dealing with you?
He’s talking to was spiritually. You cannot be born again. Another way to put this, you must be born from above. We will see from Nicodemus that he did not look at things from a spiritual standpoint. Nicodemus even asked, “Do I need to return to my mother’s womb and start that process again?” He didn’t get it.
He’s talking to us eternally. “you cannot see the Kingdom of God.” You cannot truly see and understand his rule.
With this, we understand that when Christ calls us to talk to someone, He knows exactly what they need to hear. And when we are born from above, we will see soon that we are also (synonymously) born of the Spirit, sealed by the Spirit, and indwelt by the Spirit, and bear fruit of the Spirit. Nicodemus couldn’t understand spiritual things because he had not been born of the Spirit. Only the Spirit can help us understand spiritual things. And only by the Spirit of Christ will we ever know our situation before God, or how to speak to someone else’s situation.
Jesus whetted the appetite of Nicodemus. He threw that out there. Has this whet our appetite?
2. Being born of the flesh is not enough, you must be born of the Spirit (John 3:5-8).
5 Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.[a] 7 Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You[b] must be born again.’ 8 The wind[c] blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
Jesus begins to unpack. Unless you are born of ‘water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.’ One elderly member of a former church put it to me this way, and maybe you have heard this: “If you’re born once, you will die twice; but if you’re born twice, you will die only once.”
What does he mean? “Water and the Spirit” have taken on a number of interpretations. Some have said this means that baptism is a part of salvation. But this is not so, because baptism is that in the NT which is the first step of obedience rather than the last part of salvation. But in reality, we should recognize the person that Jesus is talking to—a Jewish ruler who understood, in some aspect, the intricacies of certain OT symbols.
Water is used in the OT to refer to cleansing and purity. In Ezekiel 36:25-27 puts this in all perspective:
25 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. 26 And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.
This priestly cleansing of taking the water and sprinkling it on the sacrifice and made them clean. But here is a cleansing of our hearts, of our spirits, from the idols that have made their home in our hearts. He does not merely improve our hearts, he gives us a new one. If you were to take a stone and grasp it, pinch it, throw it and hit it against a wall—it will not feel any pain, it will not feel anything.
Each of are born with hearts of stone. Yes, we do have feelings about the things around us, but all of the feelings we have come from our own standards, our own way of thinking and living. But we have a heart that is hardened to the things of God. While, even with this, we can still do good things, this gives testimony to how God has made us in His image—but when it comes to eternal, spiritual things, we have no feeling. We have hearts of stone.
But God comes and changes all that! He gives a heart of flesh. Christians become sensitive to the Spirit’s work. We become convicted when we sin, we become joyful and free when we confess our sins, knowing He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness!
Then he puts his Spirit within us! The Spirit causes us to obey. Our will is freed from the shackles of the slavery of sin, and now set free to obey the Lord by the help of the Spirit!
But Jesus goes on, bringing in the issue of the wind. Have any of you here ever had pneumonia? If you have, then you know that it is a breathing (respiratory) condition in which there is an infection of the lung. In the Greek, the root word of pneumonia is pneuma. In the Scriptures, this word is translated word, breath, or spirit.
In verse 8, the word ‘wind’ and the word ‘Spirit’ is the same word, so Jesus is using the wind to explain something significant about the spiritual realm. The wind blows where it wishes. You do not know where it comes from or where it goes.
It is here we all must take heed of knowing the work of God through the Spirit, and seeing the work of man. Evangelists and preachers have held long to bringing about revivals through man-made means: heart-rending stories, illustrations, scare tactics, and other forms of manipulation to bring people to some sort of decision where they respond to the tactics more than Christ.
When I was a youth pastor, I took my youth to hear a man who used to be with a pretty good Christian music group to talk to our youth in the area. He would do his concert, preach, then we would come together for pizza afterwards. It started at 7:30 and went for three hours. He sang eight songs, spoke quite a bit in-between each songs using various methods. He had it in his mind that 25 people would come forward. When 22 came forward, he kept on and on. Finally, three more came forward. Why? I could overhear them saying, “We’ll never get out of here until we come up.”
We do not know how the Spirit will move! We cannot control the Spirit’s movement any more than we can see or control the wind! Revival does not and cannot come in our timing, but in God’s timing! But I love what G. Campbell Morgan once said, “We cannot know when revival will come, but we can set our sails so when the wind of the Spirit blows, we will sail in His direction and not ours.” We do not know when God will change a heart. We can help people to understand and maybe even convince them it is true (chair #1 and chair #2)—but only by the Spirit can he change our hearts to bring us to Chair #3.
J. Gresham Machen says, “To say that we are justified by faith is just another way of saying that we are justified not in the slightest measure by ourselves, but simply and solely by the One in whom faith is reposed.”
3. Because Jesus knows what He is talking about (John 3:9-13)
Look with me at John 3:9-13:
9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? 11 Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you[a] do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.[b]
Poor Nicodemus! How frustrated he must have been? But dear friends, this is the best thing that could have happened to him. He needed to be broken! Jesus asks him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?” He needed to become desperate. He needed to come to the end of himself.
On Wednesday night, we began our study through the book of Galatians. We kiddingly called it a manual for recovering Pharisees. Phil Ryken put it this way:
Galatians is a letter for recovering Pharisees. The Pharisees who lived during and after the time of Christ were very religious. They were regular in their worship, orthodox in their theology, and moral in their conduct. Yet something was missing. Although God was in their minds and actions, he was not in their hearts. Therefore, their religion was little more than hypocrisy.
Nicodemus’ heart had not changed. His actions were impeccable. His theology surpassed everyone’s. He received every attendance pen and award one could receive for coming to his religious observances. Where did that get him with Jesus?
Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount unloads a devastating truth on his listeners:
21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ 23 And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’ (Matthew 7:21-23).
Nicodemus was a ruler of the Jews—that did not help his standing before God. I’m a pastor of a Southern Baptist Church in Denver—that will not help me one whit. Deacons, you being a deacon will not help you one iota. We can have church attendance—nope! Teach Sunday School—uh-uh! We are ‘workers of lawlessness,’ because the Spirit of God has not changed our hearts through the atoning work of Christ. We have trusted in the works of Christ, but not in Christ! The Spirit has not written his law on our hearts.
Remember when Samuel was looking for the to-be king of Israel after King Saul lost the mantle. God reminded Samuel that man looks to the outward appearance, but God looks to the heart.
Friends, Jesus knows what He is talking about. He descended from heaven and is a witness to His Father’s teachings. He “bears witness to what we have seen.” Not only this, but even more, he describes himself as the Son of Man. What does this mean?
In Daniel 7:13-14, Daniel had a vision:
I saw in the night visions,
And behold with the clods of heaven, there came one like a son of man,
And he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him.
And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him.
His dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away
And his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.
Nicodemus understood exactly what Jesus was saying when he invoked the Son of Man. This was a lot to take in.
The question you may be asking yourself is, “Did Nicodemus ever believe?” Look with me at John 19:38-40
38 After these things Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly for fear of the Jews, asked Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus, and Pilate gave him permission. So he came and took away his body. 39 Nicodemus also, who earlier had come to Jesus[a] by night, came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds[b] in weight. 40 So they took the body of Jesus and bound it in linen cloths with the spices, as is the burial custom of the Jews.
Nicodemus came by night at first, but now was out in broad daylight now. To the rest of the Pharisees, Jesus was a criminal who needed to be silenced. Nicodemus treated him with honor, respect, reverence—and even worship!
So enough about Nicodemus! The Spirit included Nicodemus as a mirror to our hearts.
What about you?
Do you understand why you must be born again?