This Epiphany season we’ve been examining the book of John’s Gospel. We’re heard John the Baptist call Jesus the Son of God. We’ve seen Jesus’ first miracle testify to His divine power. Today we hear the testimony of the great Teacher Himself.
May relief and peace fill your souls, from God our Father, and from His Son our Rescuer, and through the Spirit who makes Him known to our hearts. Amen.
Babies enter the world in a lot of different places. Some are born in hospitals. Others in birth centers. Still others at home, in taxicabs or even on airplanes.
But no matter what the surrounding details, babies must be born to enter the world.
The same is true when it comes to entering the kingdom of God. There is simply no other way to enter God’s kingdom other than being born into it.
Jesus teaches us what this means, how it happens and what follows spiritual rebirth in our reading from John.
Jesus, we are about to read your own Words again. Help us to perceive your meaning in every syllable. Open our ears and our hearts to your teaching. Make us good students to You, our greatest Teacher. Make us strong learners of Your love for us. Amen.
John 3:1-21 (NIV)
1Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council. 2He 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.”
3In reply Jesus declared, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.”
4“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!”
5Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. 6Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. 7You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ 8The 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.”
9“How can this be?” Nicodemus asked.
10“You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? 11I tell you the truth, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. 12I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? 13No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man. 14Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15that 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. 17For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. 18Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. 19This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. 21But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God.”
“THE ONLY WAY INTO GOD’S KINGDOM”
The Pharisees were used to being in control. Many of them had seats on the religious council called the Sanhedrin. By teaching they sought to control the people.
Even when it came to their personal relationship with God, they figured they were still in control. Their outward lifestyle of strict religiosity would ensure them a place in God’s Kingdom. Or so they thought.
The Pharisees were used to being in control, and they liked it.
That’s why it rattled Nicodemus so much to hear Jesus say, “…no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again” (John 3:3b NIV).
What kind of control do you have in being born? None.
Nicodemus had come to Jesus under the cover of darkness to get some information. He had approached Jesus like any Pharisee would have liked to be approached: with a good buttering up. He calls Him “Rabbi” or “Honorable Teacher”. He mentions Jesus’ work as proof that God was with Him.
But before Nicodemus can get any further Jesus drops the bomb on him, “You can’t get to heaven unless you’re born again.”
Jesus pitches Nicodemus this curve ball to jar him out of his controlling, outward focused, Pharisee thinking.
True religion is of the heart. It is a spirit thing, not a body thing. True religion is above all a faith thing, not a think of works.
You can imagine the furrowed brow of Nicodemus. “You just wait one minute”, he must have thought, “I made the choice to be a Pharisee. I have worked hard to obey the rules of God. I do all the tithing and the Temple stuff and the feast days and the fasting. Surely I’ve got a shot at seeing heaven. Don’t I?”
Jesus’ second pitch comes in hard and fast, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit” (John 3:5b NIV). The important word there being “Spirit”.
God is the only one who can cause a woman’s womb to conceive and a child to be safely born into the physical world. So also, God is the only one who can cause a sinner’s soul to be reborn into God’s family. Reborn a saint.
“INDUCED BY THE MESSAGE OF CHRIST”
The human body usually keeps the womb closed up tight until the right time for a baby to be born. Then it releases a chemical which induces the mother into labor.
The message that all our sins have been forgiven because of Jesus is what induces spiritual rebirth into God’s Kingdom. The Good News of Jesus is the chemical which the Holy Spirit uses to bring rebirth to the sinner’s soul.
In the Bible it says,
“Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
14How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?” (Romans 10:13b-15 NIV).
That’s why Jesus was preaching to the people of Israel. They needed to know that God’s promised Savior had come. They had been duped by Pharisees like Nicodemus to believe in themselves and their own ability to make themselves acceptable to God. They needed to believe in God’s sent Savior, not themselves. So Jesus went preaching and teaching.
But the Pharisees did not believe God’s message. They had heard John the Baptist say repent and believe, and had not seen the need. They had heard Jesus’ preaching about turning away from sin and trusting in God’s promised Savior, but they had pushed His message away too.
Sometimes a mother’s body doesn’t respond to the special chemical that naturally induces labor. Doctors will then help the mother’s body into labor by giving her a synthetic version of that same labor inducing chemical.
Jesus does the same thing with the Gospel right here. Nicodemus needed spiritual rebirth. For his eternal good. For his earthly understanding. So, Jesus gives him a quadruple dose of the Good News.
“14Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:14-15 NIV).
Nicodemus would have known the story of the Bronze Serpent. When Israelites were traveling through the desert they complained that there was no food, and no water. They rudely suggested that the food which the LORD had miraculously provided for them was disgusting.
So, God sent venomous snakes into the camp and many died. When the remaining people repented, God told Moses to make a snake out of bronze and lift it up on a pole. Everyone who looked to that bronze serpent would be healed.
In the same way, all would see Jesus lifted up on a cross. He would be crucified and abandoned by God the Father so that the punishment for sins would be drained out on Him. All who look to Him in faith are spiritually reborn and will live forever.
“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” (John 3:16 NIV).
In this expression of the Good News, Jesus emphasizes that it is because the Father LOVES the world that He did something to save it. He did the unthinkable, giving His Son to suffer in the sinner’s place.
“17For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him“ (John 3:17 NIV).
There are many prophesies about the Savior in the Old Testament. Some speak of a suffering servant of God. Others speak about His glorious and powerful return on Judgment Day. The Pharisees got these mixed up. They thought that when the Messiah appeared it would be with great outward power to free Israel from the tyranny of Rome.
Jesus sets Nicodemus straight. This first of the Son’s visits to earth would not be to judge and condemn, but to save.
Have you ever noticed that even though Jesus wields huge power in His ministry, He never once uses it to destroy or hurt anyone? Even the people who hate him and try to kill him don’t get blasted. He walks past the people in Nazareth who wanted to throw Him off a cliff. He escapes the grasp of the angry Pharisees in the Temple grounds. Most obviously, He lets Himself be condemned by Pilate. Scourged by soldiers. Nailed to the cross. All with no lighting bolts of retribution.
Because this is not the visit of judgment. This is the visit to win and offer forgiveness. This time, the Son has come to save.
“18Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.” (John 3:18 NIV).
The only condemnation that accompanies the Son of God on this visit is self condemnation. Those who push the Father’s Gift away condemn themselves. Those who trust in the Father’s Son will never be condemned by God. They have been born into His holy family.
Do you want others to be reborn? Do what Jesus does. Induce them to rebirth by dosing them with the Good News. The Holy Spirit will be with your message. He will watch over the birthing.
“THE BEGINNING OF A NEW LIFE”
Babies are funny looking when they are just newly born. They’re all little and scrunched up, wrinkly and trembling. Their little eyes are all squinty.
Of all the changes that must be a shock to them, the light must be right up there at the top. Nine months in darkness, now bam! Brilliant light everywhere!
You ever notice how much newborns just stare at things. When they’re not sleeping of course. They just look. Observe. Take in the visual data that is streaming in through their eyes.
It’s the same way with the reborn sinner. For the sinner who born into the light of Jesus’ family, there’s a lot to see.
It can be a bit frightening for the growing Christian. In the light sins are right out there for everyone to see. For the Christian doesn’t hide sins, but holds them out so that God can take them away. We confess our sins openly, fully confident that because of Christ, our heavenly Father will forgive.
We live by the truth, not by lies. We come into the light, not hang back in the darkness.
The Christian lifestyle is one that shows that God is alive and active in their life. A lifestyle of seeking to live a godly life, and asking God’s forgiveness for every failure along the way. And there are lots of those.
The lifestyle of the spiritually dead is very different. They seek no forgiveness for God’s Son. They see no need. They refuse to come into the light because the guilt and shame of sins they love would become visible.
Jesus frankly told Nicodemus:
“19This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. 21But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God” (John 3:19-21 NIV).
Every child born into this world is a miracle. Each child born into this world sings glory to God. Each person reborn spiritually gives glory to God even more.
Nicodemus experienced spiritual rebirth. We don’t see it in our reading for today, but in John chapter 19 it says,
“38Later, Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for the body of Jesus. Now Joseph was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly because he feared the Jews. With Pilate’s permission, he came and took the body away. 39He was accompanied by Nicodemus, the man who earlier had visited Jesus at night. Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds. 40Taking Jesus’ body, the two of them wrapped it, with the spices, in strips of linen. This was in accordance with Jewish burial customs. 41At the place where Jesus was crucified, there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb, in which no one had ever been laid. 42Because it was the Jewish day of Preparation and since the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there” (John 19:38-42 NIV).
“…whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God” (John 3:21 NIV)
In the light of day, in full view of all his fellow Pharisees, Nicodemus showed that God was at work in his life now.
We have been reborn by the Holy Spirit. By the waters of Baptism and the Word of Jesus. We have been shown the love which the Father has for us. Our new life has begun. A life lived not for ourselves, but to God.
May the Holy Spirit continue to work in our lives. Leading us in the light. Showing others the way to God’s Kingdom.
Not through religiosity and outward show. But through inward faith in the Christ of God.
I invite you to pray with me.
Holy Spirit, through Your preserved Word You have given us rebirth. By that same word build strong faith in our hearts. Christ, be ever our only hope. Our sure hope. Our life. Amen.