Thursday, May 21, 2015
"Born Twice" Sermon: John 3:1-8
May 10, 2015 Second Reformed Church
Last week, we saw that Jesus did not give Himself over to the crowd because He understood that they were still in their sin – still following after their inclination of their heart towards evil – not after the things of God. All mere human beings since Adam are born with original sin – that is, we are born desiring to sin – to rebel against God – to do the opposite of what God commands.
The text moves from telling us that Jesus “knew what was in man” to “now there was a man” – and that is not accidental. John is using a literary device to link these two – Jesus knew what is in man – and Nicodemus was one of them – a man who was interested in the signs Jesus was performing, but did not see and believe that the signs showed Jesus to be God the Savior.
We see first, this morning, that the Pharisees – or at least a certain group of them, believed that Jesus was sent by God.
“Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews.”
We remember the Pharisees were a group of Jews that worked meticulously at keeping the Law of God. They were very learned men, and they were very moral people. However, there was a tendency among the Pharisees to be so concerned with the outward appearance of people’s lives, that they neglected the heart – which is of primary importance in salvation.
This Pharisee, Nicodemus, was also a ruler of the Jews – he had political power – under the Romans – and over the Jewish people.
Nicodemus was a very influential person.
“This man came to Jesus by night”
And he came to Jesus at night – why?
We’re not told. Many people have written and preached about Nicodemus coming secretly to Jesus so no one else would know about the meeting, but the text doesn’t say that – in fact, we will see that the text goes on to say that Nicodemus was one of a group that was curious about Jesus and believed that Jesus had been sent by God.
What we are told later in the Gospel is that once Nicodemus believed in Jesus savingly – then – he followed Jesus in secret for fear of the Jews. But, at this point, all we know is that they met at night – we are not told why.
“and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.’”
Notice, Nicodemus says “we know.” Nicodemus was part of a group of Jews – likely other Pharisees – who had seen the signs that Jesus had been doing and concluded – unlike others who accused Jesus of being in league with the devil – that He was sent by God and empowered by God to do the signs He was doing. Nicodemus and his group recognized that Jesus was sent by God and was doing signs by the Power of God, but they didn’t understand what the signs meant, because they were still in their sin – they had not believed in Jesus savingly and been forgiven of their sins and credited with Jesus’ Righteousness.
It would be like showing someone a stop sign, and they could say it was a sign, but if you asked what the stop sign meant, they would say, “deer crossing” or, perhaps, “I don’t know.” The inclination to sin – which is called “original sin” – keeps people from seeing and believing the signs that have been given.
Nicodemus and others knew about Jesus, they believed Jesus was sent by God and empowered by God, but they did not believe in their hearts that Jesus is God the Savior – so they were still lost and condemned in their sins. And we ought to take that to heart: we can know everything about Jesus – His history and teachings – we can even intellectually agree that He said He is God the Savior and He must be God the Savior, but, if we do not believe in Him in our hearts, we are still unbelievers.
Then, Jesus does something very Jewish – very rabbinic – what question did Nicodemus ask Jesus? He didn’t ask a question; still, Jesus had an answer.
And we see, second, we must be born twice to be saved – made right with God.
“Jesus answered him, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.’”
Notice, Jesus says, “truly, truly” – and we remember that when things are repeated, they are done so for emphasis – so, instead of saying “very truly,” Jesus said, “truly, truly,” but it means the same think – “pay attention, I’m saying something important.”
“Unless one is born again.” Some of us will remember when President Carter was in office, he commented that he was a “born again Christian.”
The issue here is what the word “again” means. This phrase can be translated, “born again,” “born anew,” “reborn,” “born twice,” “born a second time” – and there are distinctions among these expressions, but, since Nicodemus specifically comments about being “born a second time,” we will read this as being “born twice.” Rather than merely being transformed into something different, there is a second, separate, similar, but distinct “birth” happening.
So, unless a person is born a second time, unless someone has a second birth, “he cannot see the kingdom of God.” What does the second phrase mean?
Jesus is talking about having knowledge – in the sense of being intimately aware – of experiencing, understanding – being part of the kingdom of God. As we said a moment ago – this is not merely the head knowledge that Nicodemus and his group had – this is a heart knowledge in which we are talking about true belief.
Now, what is the “kingdom of God”? In this context, it is the same thing as the Church – all those throughout time and space who believe savingly in the Savior God promised to send.
So, what Jesus said to Nicodemus was “Listen to me very carefully, this is important: unless you are born twice, you cannot become a Christian.” Unless you are born twice, you cannot have that intimate heart-belief that saves you from the Wrath of God for your sins and makes you righteous in the sight of God. All the outward keeping of the Law is meaningless, if you are not born twice and have the saving faith to believe in the Savior. You can’t work your way to salvation, you must be born twice, and then you will believe in your heart and confess with your mouth in the Savior God sent.
“Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?’”
Jesus had just told Nicodemus something profound and spiritual regarding the salvation of all those who will believe – and remember, Nicodemus was one of the best theologians of his day – and he responded, “Do you seriously mean we have to get back into our mother’s wombs?”
(There’s a picture! Happy Mother’s Day!)
Nicodemus went straight to biology: how is a person supposed to get back into his mother’s womb and be born a second time?
We see, third, we do not choose to be born; birth happens to us.
Before we look at Jesus’ response, let me ask you: did you ask your parents to conceive you? Did you ask your mother to bear you and give birth to you?
You may have heard an angry child say, “I didn’t choose to be born!” And while the child’s thanklessness and dishonoring of his parents is sin, he has a point: no one chooses to be born. No one causes himself to be born. No one asks his mother to bear and give birth to him. Right?
Our parent’s chose to come together in the flesh and conceive us and bear us and give birth to us, and we had no choice – no vote – no opinion in the matter. Birth happened to us.
“Jesus answered, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is the flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I say to you, “you must be born again.” The wind blows where it wishes and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
So, let’s break this down:
“Jesus answered, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.’”
Again, Jesus begins His sentence emphasizing the importance of it, and then He expands what He said to Nicodemus:
First Jesus said, “Unless one is born again [born twice, born a second time], he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
Now He says, “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”
He is saying the same thing – only He explains that the two births He is talking about are the birth by water and the birth by the Spirit. Unless one is born by both of these two births, he cannot savingly believe in Jesus – he cannot become a Christian.
So, what is it to be born of water and to be born of the Spirit?
“To be born of water” is something that everyone can be born of, but what it specifically means is not clear. In looking at John’s baptism and at the fact the Nicodemus was a Pharisee, many scholars interpret this phrase to mean “being repentant for sin and desiring to follow after God’s Law.”
Remember, John the Baptist was baptizing Jews in the Jordan – saying that they needed to repent of their sin – to recognize that they are sinners and return to God. And the Pharisees were working hard to keep (especially) the external rules of the Law.
So, it may be that this first birth is the birth of being drawn to God – understanding that we cannot merit forgiveness and salvation – we can never do enough good or keep the Law of God perfectly enough.
“To be born of the Spirit” is the birthing of a person by God the Holy Spirit. It is the work by which God the Holy Spirit changes a person’s heart and its inclination and causes a person to believe with his heart that Jesus is God the Savior. This is the birth by which a person is saved.
This is what Ezekiel prophesied to the exiles as he recorded the Word of God: “And I will vindicate the holiness of my name, which had been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them. And the nations will know that I am the Lord, declares the Lord God, when through you I vindicate my holiness before their eyes. I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleanness, and from all your idols, I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules” (Ezekiel 36:23-27, ESV).
God promised the exiles that the day would come when God would vindicate His Name and His Holiness before all the nations, and He would bring His people into the land from all nations, and spiritually birth them again, giving them a new heart and a new spirit, and indwelling them with God the Holy Spirit that they would be empowered to believe God and desire after His Will.
“’That which is born of the flesh is the flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.’”
Jesus continues by paralleling the births again: the first birth – the birth by water – is a fleshly birth – it is not a birth that can make a person right with God. The second birth – the birth by the Spirit – is the spiritual birth – the raising from the dead of our spiritual self, so we believe in the Savior and desire God’s Will rightly.
With the prophesies and the promises of the Scripture, we look back now and wonder why Nicodemus didn’t get it – how could he read that passage from Ezekiel and not understand that God was going to cause a birthing among His people – even a resurrection of His people – that they would be able to be eternally forgiven?
But we need to remember that Nicodemus was not yet a believer. He had been born of the water – of the flesh. He knew the Word of God. He tried in his own power to keep the Word of God as best as he understood it. But he had not been born again – he had not been born a second time. Once he was, he would be able to see that God’s promise in Ezekiel is that God will replace the heart of His people – God will indwell His people in the Person of God the Holy Spirit – God will birth a people for Himself and to His Glory.
So, Jesus said, “’Do not marvel that I say to you, “you must be born again.” The wind blows where it wishes and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
Jesus draws a parallel for Nicodemus to help him understand: Consider the wind – the wind exists – you know it when it comes – it blows here and there – you can hear it – but you cannot pinpoint its origin – and you cannot plot out the path that it will take from you. (Even with today’s scientific advancement, weather prediction – “meteorological science” – is an estimate – an approximation – the weatherman gets it wrong!) And no human has control over the wind – where it comes from and where it goes. God controls the wind.
In the same way, understand the second birth – being born again – being born twice – spiritual rebirth is a work of God the Holy Spirit, and the Spirit goes where He wills and births those He wills. No human can control God and force God to cause a person to be born a second time. Right?
So, what do we see this morning?
Nicodemus – and his group – had been born of water and the flesh. They knew what God said, the believed God’s Word should be followed. They followed the Law of God to the best of their ability. But they, like all merely human people, were born sinners, inclined towards sin, and unable to keep the Law of God perfectly or to make themselves right with God. So, while they could see that Jesus was from God and empowered by God, they didn’t understand or believe that He is God the Savior.
Jesus explained to Nicodemus that for anyone to be saved – to be right with God – to become a Christian – he has to be born twice – he has to be born again – he has to be born of the Spirit. Unless and until he has been reborn by the Spirit and indwelled by Him, he cannot be saved or be right with God, and he remains under God’s righteous condemnation.
Lastly, this morning, Jesus explained to Nicodemus that we cannot choose to be born – we cannot will ourselves to be born – birth by the Spirit is a work of the Spirit as the Spirit wills – for His reasons and in His time.
This is what John meant when he wrote, “But to all who did receive [Jesus], who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood, not of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:11-13, ESV).
Two applications we can take from this:
First, let us be humble and profoundly thankful if we are believers in Jesus Alone for salvation. This belief is nothing we earned or caused – just as we don’t will or cause ourselves to be born – we don’t will or cause God to work salvation in us. Salvation is the Work of God – by Himself, for Himself, as He wills. God is beholden to no one. No one can command God to act. No one deserves or earns salvation. It is all of grace – all a gift.
And second, every mere human being is born in the same state of sinful inclination, needing the same salvation from our One God and Savior, Jesus Christ. And no matter what you do or I do or anyone else does, we cannot cause a person to believe savingly – and we cannot make God cause a person to believe savingly.
God has called us to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ – those historical facts that we state in our Communion Liturgy – and we are also to pray for those who hear our proclaiming the Gospel – that God would be pleased to open their ears and hearts – causing them to be birthed by the Spirit. Let us proclaim the Gospel as we have be called to proclaim, and let us pray for those who hear us, and then let us trust God that God will do what is pleasing to Him with the proclamation. Let us proclaim the Gospel and trust God for the results of our proclaiming it.
Let us pray:
Almighty God, we want to be the captains of our fate – we don’t like to be told that we cannot birth ourselves – or do whatever we want. Humble us and cause us to glory and rejoice in seeing You work Your Hand in the lives of men and women throughout the world – using our proclamation of the Gospel as the means by which You have chosen to bring people to salvation in Your Son and through the work of the Holy Spirit. May Your Name and Your Holiness be glorified. For it is in Jesus’ Name we pray, Amen.