“You Must Be Born Again”

John 3:1-16

The Reverend Bryn MacPhail / February 5, 2006


            I can’t help but think that the Jesus that is presented in many churches today has been domesticated. And I can’t help but conclude that the message of Christ has been exceedingly watered down in our day. How do I know this? As I dialogue with individuals, and as I survey the different responses to Jesus and His message, I note that very few people are startled by Him. Very few people seem bothered by Jesus.


            The collective response to Jesus and His message, two thousand years ago, was very different. Jesus upset a great many people when He spoke. And this was the usual response to His preaching. On one occasion, the listening multitude attempted to throw Jesus over a cliff (Lk. 4:28-30). On at least two occasions those who heard Jesus’ message attempted to stone him to death (Jn. 8:59; 10:31). And, on countless occasions, the religious leaders sought to have Jesus arrested because of what He was teaching.


            Jesus made many bold claims about who He was and what He had come to do. And as we move through this sermon series, as we examine some of Jesus’ claims, it will be prudent for us to rethink our own responses to Jesus and His message.


What you will undoubtedly notice is that the claims of Jesus do not amount to a pool of ethical counsel. Jesus’ message is not that of a cheerleader, shouting, ‘keep up the good work.’ People don’t stone cheerleaders. Teachers who encourage others to ‘keep up the good work’ are typically not in danger of being thrown over a cliff.


Jesus’ message was, indeed, a bold one. The claims of Jesus challenge both our worldview and our lifestyle at the very core. And I submit to you that if you take these claims seriously, a response of indifference will be impossible for you. One possibility is that you will be exceedingly bothered by the words of Jesus—Jesus will offend you. Another possibility is that, having better understood Jesus’ claim on your life, you will renew your commitment to follow Him.


One of the earliest claims made by Jesus is found here in John, chapter 3. It is not a claim about His identity, but rather, it is a claim about what is required for entry into the kingdom of God. Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you are born again, you cannot see the kingdom of God” (3:3).


What comes to your mind when you hear the phrase ‘born again Christian’? Do you think of a group of fanatical Christians who approach Christianity a lot differently than you? Or, when you think of the phrase ‘born again Christian’ do you think of yourself?


For reasons unknown to me, the phrase ‘born again Christian’ has become synonymous with Christianity's over-zealous fringe, rather than being known as a description for every Christian. It is important that we realize the notion that every Christian is "born again" is a fundamental claim made by Jesus.


As such, we must not shun the phrase just because it has been hijacked by a corner of Christianity that we are not comfortable with. Jesus is describing what is required for entry into heaven and, surely, that’s something worth investigating.


Admittedly, John chapter 3 is famous more for verse 16 than it is for verse 3. And yet, clearly, verse 3 is the hinge on which verse 16 turns. We cannot have one without the other. What we have in chapter 3 is the recorded dialogue between Jesus and a man named Nicodemus. And what we learn from Jesus at the outset of this conversation is that the kingdom of God is reserved  for those who are "born again".


As we seek to determine what Jesus means by “born again”, we will be helped by what we know about the man with whom Jesus is speaking. We read that Nicodemus was a "Pharisee" and "a ruler of the Jews" (3:1). That is to say that Nicodemus was a member of the Sanhedrin, the powerful ruling body of Judaism in the first century.


It is noteworthy that John mentions that Nicodemus came to Jesus "at night"(3:2). Theologians speculate that Nicodemus came by night because he didn't want to be seen by his colleagues who were known to throw people out of the synagogue for believing in Jesus (Jn. 9:22). Unlike his colleagues, Nicodemus was anxious to learn from Jesus, addressing Him respectfully as "Rabbi"(3:2).


Although Nicodemus addresses Jesus respectfully, acknowledging that He has "come from God" (3:2), Jesus does not hesitate to cut short the pleasantries. Immediately, Nicodemus confronted by the words of Jesus, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God"(3:3).


So what does that mean? What does it mean to be "born again"? Nicodemus responds by asking, "How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born, can he?"(3:4).


It is unfortunate that Nicodemus' reply has often been misunderstood. Jesus was teaching a spiritual truth in symbolic terms. Nicodemus, a teacher himself, would have been quite familiar with this rabbinical method of teaching. Nicodemus picks up on Jesus' symbolism, and replies utilizing those same symbols.


Jesus states, in symbolic terms, that in order to gain the kingdom of God one must become a new person. Nicodemus replies, using those same symbolic terms, asking, ‘How can an old man fundamentally change who he is? You can't teach an old dog new tricks, can you?’


Nicodemus had committed his entire life to not only being a good Jew, but also being a teacher of the Jews. Now Jesus was saying that he had to forsake the path he was on and start over. Jesus explains further what He means, "unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God" (3:5).


It is important to clarify that "born of water" does not mean baptism. Although baptism is mandatory for every Christian, salvation is not accomplished by baptism. The water Jesus is speaking of is symbolic—as it was in the Old Testament—of purification. The insistence of Jesus that we must be "born of water and the Spirit" relates to the prophecy of Ezekiel found in chapter 36, verses 25 to 27. Ezekiel, speaking for the Lord, talks of a time when "(The Lord) will sprinkle water on you, and you will be clean", a time when, " (The Lord) will put (His) Spirit within you."


You see, Jesus was simply reminding Nicodemus of what had long been prophesied in the Old Testament. And for this reason, Jesus says to Nicodemus, "Do not marvel that I said to you, 'You must be born again'" (3:7).


Sadly, Nicodemus still didn't altogether grasp Jesus’ message. After hearing what was required to enter the kingdom of God, Nicodemus asks, "How can these things be?"(3:9).


We live in a day and age where people want answers—answers that are clear, logical, and easy to understand. Perhaps Nicodemus' day was not much different from ours since, he too, wanted to hear a more logical and understandable message from Jesus.


Unfortunately, explaining how rebirth takes place is difficult. Without apology Jesus explains how being "born of the Spirit" is similar to the wind blowing, "you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit"(3:8). That is to say that while we cannot track the Spirit’s movement, we can discern the effects of the Spirit upon people’s lives.


We may not be able to precisely pinpoint when the Spirit caused rebirth within us, or within others, but we will be able to see the effects where spiritual rebirth has taken place. In other words, there should be evidence within our lives indicating that the Spirit of God is present and at work.


One of the ministers within our denomination, Dr. Ken McMillan, asks an excellent question to help us in this regard, he asks, “If it were a crime in this country to be a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?”


            We can’t simply point to our being a caring and loving person, for there are many caring and loving people who are not Christians. We can’t simply point to our being committed to our family and friends, for there are many non-Christians who could claim as much. Some examples of evidence that would get you convicted of being a Christian is if you attended public worship; if you were known to gather with others for prayer and Bible study; if you were known to be sharing your faith in Christ; if you were known for refraining from worldly vices because of an articulated devotion to Christ.


            If it were a crime in this country to be a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?


            Those who have been born again, those in whom the Spirit of God dwells, should be different and distinct from those who have not yet been reborn. There should be outward evidence that God’s Spirit is at work within us.


            Now, with that being said, I wouldn’t want you to think that the Spirit’s transforming work is entirely automatic. The Bible teaches that we have the ability to “quench” and the ability to “grieve the Holy Spirit” (1Thess. 5:19; Eph. 4:30).


            If we liken the Spirit of God to water running through pipes, the way we access God’s Spirit is by turning on the tap by faith.


            What’s going to motivate this? What is going to compel you and I to live by the Spirit of God? At least two things: First, our new nature—being born again—causes us to have new longings. Our new nature causes us to want that which we previously rejected—namely, God’s Spirit at work in our lives, transforming our habits and our behaviour. And secondly, God’s love should compel us to submit to the Spirit’s leading.


            What about this love? How does God demonstrate His love toward us? “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (Jn. 3:16).


            I recently read a story of a minister who was talking to a married couple who were having marital difficulties. The couple was shackled by mutual bitterness and a lack of understanding. At one point in the meeting, the husband spoke up in obvious exasperation, ‘I’ve given you everything’, he said to his wife. ‘I’ve given you a new home. I’ve given you a new car. I’ve given you a new fur coat. I’ve given you . . .’, and the list went on. When the husband had finished speaking, his wife responded in a very quiet tone, ‘That much is true—you have given me everything . . . except yourself.’


            Surely, the greatest gift you can give another is yourself. Then we look at Jesus and we see that God has given us the very best—He has given us Himself.


            Love should beget love. We should love God because He first loved us (1Jn. 4:19). God’s sacrifice should compel our devotion. It is only fitting that we would give of ourselves to the One who gave up His life for us. Let us heed God’s example of love, let us reciprocate God’s love towards us, and let us hold nothing back. Amen.