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John 3:1-22

Jim Davis

We have all heard individuals say, "I have been born again!" I'm really never quite sure what a person means by this statement. When a person says, "I have been born again," of course, I realize that the person means that they have discovered a new way of living. We have heard of movements being reborn, of marriages being reborn, of a losing football team being reborn after a few fresh victories under their belts. If all this happened in line with the New Testament view of that term it would be very encouraging.

Maybe you have been asked, "Have you been born again?" We may want to respond, "Sure, I go to church every Sunday." Or, maybe the question leaves you bewildered as to what is really meant.

It is hard to determine whether the "born again" person is taking pride in their own accomplishments or humbly accepting the will of God for their life. A new birth may seem to be something that we manufacture on our own, but we can no more manufacture our new birth than we can manufacture babies. It would be like conceiving our own physical birth.

Flesh only gives birth to flesh.

"It is very important to understand who the Pharisees were. If ever there was a group, which could be called religious fanatics, it was the Pharisees. If there was ever a group that needed to be reborn, it was the Pharisees. They were a select group -- never more than 6,000 of them -- who had each one taken a solemn vow before three witnesses that he would devote every moment of his entire life to obeying the Ten Commandments, as a way of pleasing God. Nicodemus was a member of the Sanhedrin, a council of seventy men charged with the oversight and defense of the historic and honorable faith, the faith of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the faith that had been handed down from Moses and the prophets generation after generation for literally hundreds of years. He helped the council provide guidance for the people in matters pertaining to God, worship and to challenge any who would seek to lead the nation astray. These men spent their lives studying the Ten Commandments and applying them to situations of life so that the Pharisees could carry out these commands and thus obey God.

In their interpretation of the commandment forbidding work on the Sabbath the scribes decreed that any form of labor which a man engaged in to make his living was forbidden. For example, a farmer could tether his animals with a rope during the week, but he could not tie a knot on the Sabbath. If a sailor tied knots in the course of his labors through the week that was fine, but he could not tie a knot on the Sabbath. Knot-tying was regarded as work -- with, of course, certain exceptions. If it was absolutely necessary to life, one could tie a knot on the Sabbath. Knots that could be tied with one hand were permitted, but not one that required two hands. A woman could tie a knot in her girdle or in a scarf that she tied around her neck. That was essential to women, therefore it was permitted.

So people began to look for loopholes in order to get around these laws. If a man needed to draw a bucket of water out of a deep well, he was not permitted to tie a rope onto the bucket because that would be violating the Sabbath; but if he tied the rope to a woman's girdle and then tied the girdle to the bucket, he could draw up water!" (Ray Stedman, Discovery Papers, http://www.pbc.org/dp/stedman/john/3838.html)

At least, he didn't tie the knot to the bucket. It made little difference about the rules; there was a way around them. This is Nicodemus' approach to religion.

Nicodemus came by his position through the natural means of birth. He was born into one of the respected families in Jerusalem and as a result benefited from the religious training from youth. He was educated in the best synagogue schools, taught by the best minds in service to the High Priest, and he had learned the Torah as thoroughly as any man. He had enjoyed the study of the law, which was given to order their lives.

Nicodemus' pedigree was spotless, but when Jesus said, "You must be born again . . . " Jesus challenged the very foundation of Nicodemus' religious life. Nicodemus' was a Pharisee whose religious practices was no doubt without fault. He was meticulous in following the very letter of the law. Yet, the religion of the Pharisees was largely a fleshly observance of God's law and somehow they had lost sight of the heart and soul of the message they sought to preserve.

Nicodemus' was like many of us, he knew who Jesus was, but he couldn't understand what Jesus was saying.

John 3:2-3
He 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." In reply Jesus declared, "I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again." (NIV)

John 3:5-7
Jesus answered, "I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.

You should not be surprised at my saying, "You must be born again." (NIV)

The trouble with so many lives in the church and in the world is that they are ordered by the priorities of the flesh. There is not really much difference in lives under the management of the flesh; it makes little difference whether they are in the world or in the church. Both take pride in their accomplishments. The individuals in both groups are proud of what they have accomplished by their own fleshly efforts. Jesus said flesh could only give birth to flesh.

Jesus spoke a parable to some that were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else. This parable gives us insight to the religion of the Pharisees. "Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: 'God, I thank you that I am not like other men-- robbers, evildoers, adulterers-- or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.' (Luke 18:9-12 NIV) Do you see the fleshly pride ingrained in that prayer? The Pharisee is parading the accomplishments of religious observances, which were given birth through fleshly desires.

It is little wonder that Jesus said, "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?' Then I will tell them plainly, 'I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!' (Matthew 7:21-23 NIV)

A fleshly birth takes on a form of godliness but it denies the power of God for real lasting change. Too many activities, religious and otherwise are totally governed by the will of the flesh.

2 Timothy 3:1-5
But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God--having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with them. (NIV)

Isaiah 29:13
The Lord says: "These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is made up only of rules taught by men. (NIV)

Isaiah 58:1-4
"Shout it aloud, do not hold back. Raise your voice like a trumpet. Declare to my people their rebellion and to the house of Jacob their sins. For day after day they seek me out; they seem eager to know my ways, as if they were a nation that does what is right and has not forsaken the commands of its God. They ask me for just decisions and seem eager for God to come near them. 'Why have we fasted,' they say, 'and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?' "Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers. Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists. You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high. (NIV)

No other writer of the New Testament stresses the need for a rebirth, as does John. John said, "He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God--children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband's will, but born of God." (John 1:11-13 NIV)

Only God Can Give Us A New Birth

Jesus pronounced this verdict to those born of fleshly decisions: "Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But 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)

The fleshly heart is willing to allow us to adhere to religious doctrine while remaining totally unchanged. It is willing to allow us to remain in total darkness. In fact the human heart may refuse to come to the light. Jeremiah indicates that the human heart is deep and deceitful and it is hard to know it. (Jeremiah 17:9)

Jesus didn't come trying to change the way the religious folks did things. He endeavored to change the reason behind what they were doing. Jesus told them they needed a rebirth of the heart.

An illiterate couple had just been saved. They met with a group of believers who all dressed alike. The men wore red shirts while engaged in a certain project, so the woman made one for her husband. He came home after the meeting, however, with a look of disappointment on his face because the others had a message printed on their shirts but he did not. His wife, undaunted by her inability to read, sewed three words on his shirt, which she copied from a sign in a store window across the street. He wore it to the next meeting and came home bubbling with joy. He said all of the men really liked the inscription because it so aptly described the wonderful change they had seen in his life. It turned out that his wife had written, "UNDER NEW MANAGEMENT."

To be born again we need new management. The flesh cannot manage our lives; the flesh is far too deceptive and self-reliant.  Jeremiah says that when we listen and follow the stubborn inclinations of our own evil hearts, it will take us backward and not forward. (Jeremiah 7:24 NIV) We need God's management for a new birth. Unless our lives are given birth by the power of God's Spirit we will never experience a new birth nor see the kingdom of God.

It is God who gives us a new heart through faith in Christ. We are children of God by faith in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:26) We become sons and daughters of God through faith in Christ. Christ is the master of changing hearts. God said of the Israelites, "I will give them a heart to know me, that I am the LORD. They will be my people, and I will be their God, for they will return to me with all their heart." (Jeremiah 24:7 NIV)Proverbs 21:1-2The king's heart is in the hand of the LORD; he directs it like a watercourse wherever he pleases. All a man's ways seem right to him, but the LORD weighs the heart. (NIV)

Proverbs 3:5-8
Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight. Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the LORD and shun evil. This will bring health to your body and nourishment to your bones. (NIV)
God is still in the business of changing hearts in a powerful way. A changed heart is the result of the work of the Spirit of God.New Birth Dependent upon the Spirit Breathed Word of GodAny religion that stresses what a person knows and what a person has done instead of what a person is, is generally a religion of the mere flesh. Those born of the flesh only preach what the flesh tells them to preach and they want us to listen to them.
Jeremiah 23:25-29
The Lord said, "I have heard what the prophets say who prophesy lies in my name. They say, 'I had a dream! I had a dream!' How long will this continue in the hearts of these lying prophets, who prophesy the delusions of their own minds? They think the dreams they tell one another will make my people forget my name, just as their fathers forgot my name through Baal worship. Let the prophet who has a dream tell his dream, but let the one who has my word speak it faithfully. For what has straw to do with grain?" declares the LORD. "Is not my word like fire," declares the LORD, "and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?

Many rely on haunches, dreams, and emotional experiences as evidence of their rebirth. Many times these things are only delusions of the flesh. Many believe that all you have to do is be baptized. But we must rely on the directions of the living spiritual Word of God to give us a new birth. The living Word directs us to follow Christ.

John 6:63-65
The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing.The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life. Yet there are some of you who do not believe." For Jesus had known from the beginning which of them did not believe and who would betray him. He went on to say,"This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled him." (NIV)

John 6:68-69
Simon Peter answered him, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God." (NIV)

Born of the Water and the Spirit

John 3:4-8
"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!" Jesus answered, "I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, 'You must be born again.' The 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." (NIV)

It is clear from the context that Jesus is talking about baptism. John's baptism was the sensation of the nation at this time. Everyone was talking about it. The Pharisees had sent a delegation to John to ask him why he was baptizing. Many Pharisees sought to be baptized by John. The meaning of John's baptism was the central theological question of the day in which our Lord speaks.

Some think baptism is the only important thing. Water doesn't change anybody. Many people superstitiously think that if they baptize their babies that will assure the children entrance into the kingdom of heaven; or if they themselves were to be baptized as adults that would guarantee them admittance into heaven. That is rank superstition.

Water does not change anybody that way. It may make you a little cleaner, you might even smell better, but it does not make you any different in God's eyes. What the baptism stands for is what is important. Do not, like the many in John's gospel, miss the real meaning because of the symbol! The symbol behind baptism is repentance, an honest admission of need. Baptism acknowledges a need to die to self in order to accept the rebirth the Savior has to offer.

I want to tell you that the one thing that keeps most people from being born again is that they do not want to admit their need. They do not want to admit that there is something basically wrong with them; they still cling to the idea that there is some good thing about them that God ought to accept, and if they do more good than bad he ought to let them into glory. I do not think anything has been more destructive in the whole realm of theology than that idea. No, repentance is necessary, an awareness that despite your best efforts you are not fulfilling God's law. You are not able to do so. You desperately need a Savior. That is what baptism acknowledges.

It is a rebirth of the water and the spirit. There is second element, which is the spirit, which we must consider as we consider baptism.

Acts 2:37-39
When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, "Brothers, what shall we do?" Peter replied, "Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off-- for all whom the Lord our God will call." (NIV)

When John the Baptist baptized Jesus , the Spirit of God descended upon him. It was then that God said, "This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased." Jesus was God's son from birth, but it was the Spirit of God upon Jesus that made his life powerful. Peter says we receive "the gift of the Holy Spirit" when we are baptized. I believe at baptism we receive a new birth, a new life given by the Spirit. The gift of the Spirit is the gift of a new life in Christ.

Paul says, ". . . the Spirit gives life." (2 Corinthians 3:6) It is not something that you can see and feel; it may be mysterious in one sense, but it is real. It is in baptism that we agree to die with Christ. The moment we bury ourselves with Christ in God through baptism, God gives us the Spirit of eternal life.

When a man, or a woman, boy or girl, admits he or she needs help and comes to Jesus, then the Spirit does something. God does what no man can do: he imparts his own life to that individual. After all, what is a birth but an impartation, or transferal, of life? When a man and woman have a child, what have they done? In a most remarkable way they have transferred their lives to that child; they have imparted life.

As Jesus continues, he indicates there is a clear and radical difference between the old and the new birth. He says, "That which is born of the flesh is flesh; that which is born of the Spirit is spirit." What do you get from your first, fleshly, birth? More flesh! You get a body, a living body. Then what do you get from a new birth, a spiritual birth? You get a living spirit; your spirit is made alive.

Paul wrote to the Ephesian Christians, "You has he quickened [made alive] who were dead in trespasses and sins," {cf., Eph 2:1 KJV}. Only God can make one alive in the spirit. It is quite obvious that it does not make any difference how hard you try; if you do not have God's life you cannot live in a way that pleases him. There is no way to do that. If you are trying, with an unchanged, fallen nature, to please God, you can reduce it to the most ridiculous applications and tedious spelling out of what this means, but you still will not be able to do it. You will only miss the point. That is what Jesus is telling Nicodemus.

John 3:6-15
Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, 'You must be born again.' The 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."

"How can this be?" Nicodemus asked.

"You are Israel's teacher," said Jesus, "and do you not understand these things? I 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. I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven-- the Son of Man. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. (NIV)

It is Jesus' turn to be astonished now. He has spoken to a man who is the teacher of Israel, a man who has given his life to studying the Old Testament. Jesus also knew that book. He knew that Isaiah had spoken about a new life from God; that Jeremiah had predicted a new creation that would be given; that Ezekiel had said that God would take out the old heart of stone and give a new heart of flesh. All through the Old Testament there are statements about a new birth, a new beginning, a new creation, a new life that would come as a gift of God to those who would humbly, without pride, receive it as something they desperately needed. So Jesus says to Nicodemus, "How can this be? How can you, a teacher of Israel, not know about these things?"

The Love of God Motivates Change

John 3:16-17
"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. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. (NIV)

Have you ever said, or heard someone say, "Oh, if I could just do it over again! If I knew then what I know now, and could go back and live it all over again, I think I could get it right!" But this is absolutely wrong; you would never get it right. I think that we believe this because we believe that it is impossible for God to love us the way we are. More than 400 years before Jesus was born, the Greek poet Agathon said, "Even God cannot change the past." Historically speaking, he was right. What has happened cannot be undone.

The problem with humanity is not that we do not know enough, it is because of what we are. That is what makes us do the things that are wrong. We can't change that until God gives us a new birth. Here our Lord is laying the foundation for that most unpalatable doctrine of Scripture that teaches we all belong to a lost race. That is the problem. It is who we are that is wrong, not so much what we do or do not do.

Some believe that to begin a new life that somehow we must go back and change the past. Yet when God sent His Son to die on the cross for our sins, He provided a way whereby our sinful past could be erased and life could be reborn in us. It was love that motivated God.

I was watching a Discovery channel program that described the solid earth's crust floating upon a core of molten lava. We see this lava erupt around the world as volcanoes explode. Imagine what a hole in the ocean floor would do if it let all the sea water escape into the volcanic fires. It would create force that could blow the world apart, so the Lord Jesus Christ by dying and rising again broke through the past and allowed eternity to pour in, shattering, turning and overturning, changing, and altering all things. When we allow Jesus Christ to enter our past he cleanses it by His blood and transforms our hearts in such a way that the time-rooted life gives way to life eternal. It is the love of God that makes this possible.


Are we willing to come to the light that our deeds may be exposed?

There once was a rather rough, uncultured man who for some reason fell in love with a beautiful vase in a shop window. Eventually he bought the vase and put it on the mantelpiece in his room. There it became a kind of judgment on its surroundings. He had to clean up the room to make it worthy of the vase. The curtains looked dingy beside it. The old chair with the stuffing coming out of the seat would not do. The wallpaper and the paint needed redoing. Gradually the whole room was transformed. When you put Christ on the mantel of your heart, your whole life is transformed through the powerful work of God.


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