Summary: God provides a new birth for those who recognize their first one did not fit them for heaven.
Sermon #6 in a Series on the Gospel of John
Someone once asked a young woman, “What is the difference between my religion and yours?”
She responded, “They are actually quite close. In fact, only two letters separate our beliefs. Your religion is spelled, ‘D-O; DO.’ Mine is spelled: ‘D-O-N-E; DONE.’”
“How do you spell religion?” That very question confronted and confused Nicodemus. He ought to have known the answer – he was a leader in the church. And not just any leader, either; he was a Pharisee. That title may mean little to us, but it was significant in Jesus’ day. The Pharisees were the ultimate in people committed to their religion.
They had, for example, many rules dictating acceptable behavior on the Sabbath. Because God prohibited work, they carefully measured their food so as to only carry what weighed less than a dried fig. They prohibited a woman from picking grains of wheat and eating them, for that required the “work” of harvesting and “threshing.” Their acts of devotion seem ridiculous to us, but we surely must be impressed by the seriousness with which they practiced their faith.
Nicodemus was a Pharisee; but he was not only a Pharisee; he was also (verse 1): “a ruler of the Jews.” That refers to the Sanhedrin, the 70 men who governed the Jews under the ultimate authority of the Roman Empire. They had “wide-ranging powers in civil, criminal, and religious matters.” As an example, they could both arrest and conduct trials.
So Nicodemus was no fool; he was both educated and sophisticated. Therefore, we are not surprised that Jesus’ conversation with him overflows with subtle reasoning, complex scriptural allusions and deep spiritual truths. For the rest of us, we may feel we fallen into the deep end of a theological pool! But in spite of the depth of the spiritual water, do not despair. There is plenty of plain truth to grab onto while we enjoy splashing around.
As we have seen almost every week in studying John, the main theme is marked clearly by repetition. It is a favorite teaching method of Jesus; and it is a favorite writing tool for John. In this case the main point is: “You must be born again.” Verse 3: “Jesus answered him, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.’” He repeats himself verse 7: “Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’”
“Born again” – when Jimmy Carter, the President of the United States of America, said that he was “born again,” the evangelicals knew they were in tall cotton. “One of us” was in the big house. Unfortunately, Mr. Carter’s theology and practice turned too often against the Bible, and so began the draining of meaning from the term, “born again” and now, ultimately its defilement. Jim Jones claimed to be born again. In 1980 Forbes magazine described “Born-again Companies.” An LA Times article reported on a football player who made a career comeback, “The Steeler Who Was Born Again.” And even Madonna says that, “When my daughter was born, I was born-again.”
In spite of the misuse and abuse of the phrase, it was first spoken by Jesus, and we will take the risk of seeking to learn from it today. Three truths to observe in this text, all of which tell us why Jesus said, “You must be born again.”
1. We Must Be Born Again Because of the Nature of the Kingdom (John 3.1-3)
Nicodemus is a conflicted fellow. He is not sure what to think about Jesus. He has seen “these signs” (verse 2) and he is clearly impressed. We do not know if he was personally at the wedding (recorded in chapter two), where Jesus changed the water into wine, but he has surely heard of that miracle. And this verse makes it clear that Nicodemus has seen other miracles himself. So he concludes that Jesus must be from God.
Additionally, Nicodemus admits that Jesus is a teacher and he calls him Rabbi. This is a complement; Nicodemus, the older and wiser Rabbi is “graciously” treating Jesus as a peer, as a man to be honored. We would not go so far as to say that Nicodemus is “buttering up” Jesus, but he is certainly speaking of him and to him with some respect.
At the same time, he visits Jesus under cover of night. And he tells Jesus what, “We know….” There is a old saying, “Who is this ‘we’ you keep talking about? Do you have a mouse in your pocket?” Who is the “we” Nic? It’s just you and Jesus speaking.
Good friends who want to be identified with the Rabbi do not come by night. They also need not imply there are others standing behind them, unseen.