Summary: Jesus was visited by Nicodemus, who learns of the essential need to be born again. What does it mean to be ’born again’ What about us?
Nicodemus was an expert. He was a religious expert. He knew what made for good religion, and he knew it all. His way of life, like many other of the Pharisees was pretty comfortable. He was respected and he’d even made it on to the ruling council. Life couldn’t get better. He was the ideal respectable and respected citizen.
Then his comfort zone is invaded. Along comes this firebrand of a teacher. Well, there had been John the Baptist already, and he’d caused enough trouble, apart from all the rude things he had said about respectable religious men like himself. Now there’s this Jesus of Nazareth. He’d caused quite a stir, it was rumoured, by turning gallons of water into wine at a wedding feast at Cana up in Galilee. If that weren’t enough, he had caused a real storm in the Temple- and just before the Passover feast. Then he’d performed miracles right in the heart of Jerusalem, and during the middle of the feast. Yet…..it gave one to think.
So: Nicodemus decides one night to find Jesus out and have a few words with him. Now, it’s interesting that he comes to Jesus at night time. Was he afraid of what his fellow-Pharisees might think of him going and consorting with this Jesus? Or- did he simply recognise that there were too many crowds round Jesus during the day-time?
He begins with a complement. ‘Rabbi’ (giving Jesus some mark of respect). ‘We know that you are a teacher come from God. For no-one could perform the miracles you are doing if God were not with him’ Then Jesus cuts him short.
‘You must be born again’ In effect Jesus is saying to Nicodemus:
You’ve got to start all over again. It’s no use seeing me as a special teacher or even a miracle worker from God; specially because I turned water to wine at the wedding. No! The water of your life has got to be turned into wine. Poor old Nicodemus was on the wrong track: he might witness the signs, but he could never perceive the Kingdom of God, of which they were but signs, without that complete new start which is the equal of a new birth; a new life with new faculties.
Nicodemus just can’t fathom this out! Born again! You mean I’ve somehow got to crawl back into my mother’s womb! Put yourself in Nicodemus’ shoes. What else was he to think. And, unless you go through with this then there’s no place for you in God’s Kingdom. Certainly Jesus had set out, as John the Baptist had with the proclamation that the Kingdom was at hand, and well, yes, that’s what every good Jew looked forward to, and the Pharisees would surely have the place of honour in that Kingdom- they’d preserved the purity of God’s laws for him, for goodness sake! But- no place in the kingdom without being born all over again. Straightway Jesus tries to resolve Nicodemus’ conundrum for him. ‘Spirit gives birth to spirit and flesh gives birth to flesh’. In other words, Jesus is talking about the birth of an entirely new form of life.
But, let’s leave Nicodemus to one side for a moment. For what Jesus had to say in the midst of a night 2 000 years ago impacts us today. The message is still there; still true, still relevant, and you know, it still confounds and annoys many good ‘religious’ people. Plenty of good church people there are, who maybe, say, know what makes a good church service, who know what the churches ought to be doing, but at the mention of being born again, they lose interest at once.
We are all born. Well, I hope so, though occasionally from vantage point of a pulpit one might be forgiven for doubting even that basic fact! We all have ‘life’ The trouble with the English language is that it can’t cope with all the intricacies of New Testament Greek. For there are two words for ‘life’
First, there’s bios. That’s biological life, the physical life we have from our mother’s womb. It’s the basis of human life. We eat, sleep, talk and take part in all human activities, and possess all human faculties. Yet, that life is not sufficient. It is a life which is finite. The one certain event in our future is our physical death. ‘Bios’ will come to an end. ‘Flesh gives birth to flesh’
But there is another from of life- zo’e. This is something quite different. It is ‘zoe’ which gives life to our spirits, and God’s Kingdom, which is eternal requires this extra dimension of life, a dimension of life that was lost when Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden.
So, this life comes from God’s Spirit; it is something we can’t see, feel or touch’ And it is not something at our- or anybody else’s, command. Only God can give it. We only have this life as God’s Spirit breathes it into us. It is not something which we can make or cause to happen. We don’t know even where it comes from or how. That’s maybe a corrective to those who would try and proscribe a set train of events before a person can be said to be ‘born again’ The way and the route and sequence of events is as free as God’s Spirit.