Good morning, Friends!
Today we’ve got a story which includes two of the most interesting quotes in the gospel. One of them has caused a lot of controversy, as people have debated for centuries what it really means. The other is one of everyone’s favorite verses.
Trouble is, we usually read these two quotes as though they were completely separated. And so we lose the richness of the story.
That’s bad Bible study. It leads to mixed-up thinking, and bad theology. It also means we miss the real people who were involved in these stories.
So, let’s go back, and read together.
Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. Nicodemus came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”
Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”
“How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”
Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.
You shouldn’t be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you can’t tell where it comes from or where it’s going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
“How can this be?” Nicodemus asked.
“You are a teacher of Israel,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? Very truly I tell you, 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.”
Then Jesus said, “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.
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 didn’t send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.
Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.
This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people 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 their deeds will be exposed.
But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.”
– John 3:1-21
When you put it all together like that, and don’t just pick out the two verses that everybody likes, it makes the story a lot more powerful, doesn’t it? There’s a lot going on here.
First, let’s look at the guy who started the story. His name is Nicodemus.
Nicodemus was one of the top guys in Israel, a member of the ruling council. The council couldn’t decide matters of life and death, but they could handle most everything else. They were like the House and the Senate and the prosecution and the Supreme Court, all in one body. Pretty powerful.
Nicodemus was also a Pharisee – he was one of the people who thought that the best way to God was to keep ALL the rules very strictly. Pharisees were nit-pickers. They they thought it was a matter of life and death to take the law of Moses literally. They went to what seems to us like incredible lengths to interpret and apply the law in all of its hundreds of details.
But Nicodemus seems to have had some questions. He had heard about Jesus. Jesus preached a more broad-minded and big-hearted approach to religion. Jesus said we needed to dig deep, to get down to the basics again – to our relationship with God, and to our relationship with our neighbor.
Jesus always said that it’s more about love than about keeping rules. He said that God wanted mercy and kindness towards our fellow human beings, not prayers in the Temple and sacrifices. Jesus said it was more important that one lost or missing soul be sought out and brought back, than to worry about all the good people who had never gone astray.
And a lot more stuff like that – Jesus’ religion was very different from the religion of the Pharisees. Yet, here was this Pharisee, this legalist, this person who truly believed that God was to be found in obeying the rules, coming to Jesus to talk with him privately.
It says that Nicodemus came to Jesus at night. Most people figure that means Nicodemus was afraid other people might see him with Jesus. Jesus was already a controversial figure. Just being seen with Jesus could be dangerous. To Nicodemus, it could have meant losing everything. So he came at night.
Nicodemus started out with a compliment to Jesus. Actually, he was expressing the private feelings that many people must have had.
“Teacher,” he said – using the title of honor – “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. No one could do the miraculous signs you’re doing if God weren’t with them!”
Jesus didn’t thank Nicodemus for the compliment. He didn’t say, “Thank you. Thank you very much!”
Instead, he slammed right back and he said, “I tell you the truth – no one can see the kingdom of God unless they’re born again!”
That one line has been endlessly interpreted and argued about for more than a thousand years. What does it mean to be born again?
Does it mean to join the church? Does it mean to be baptized in a certain way? Does it mean going to a revival and saying, “Lord, I accept you as my personal Lord and Savior,” and that’s it?
Does being “born again” mean you have to speak in tongues? Does it mean you have to agree to a certain creed? I’ve heard all those ideas expressed. And a lot of people say that their way is the only way to be born again.
I think that a lot of those definitions and requirements are going straight back to the kind of rule-keeping that the Pharisees were pushing for – which is just what Jesus rejected. Being born again isn’t about my definition of what it is. It’s about the spiritual experience people have, of being reborn, of starting over, of having a second chance to live.
It’s not what you or I say it is. It’s what people know, in their hearts and in their bones. And it can happen in lots of different ways, in all kinds of different situations.
I don’t question that everybody needs to be saved. But one of my teachers, years ago, told me that the important question isn’t “Are you saved?” but rather, “What are you saved from?”
Everybody’s going to answer that question differently.
If you asked Peter, that time he went out in the boat and was drowning, if Jesus had saved him, Peter would have said, “Absolutely! Jesus reached out his hand, and lifted me up, and saved me.”
If you asked the little girl who was dying – in fact, the people around her had already pronounced her dead and were getting ready for the funeral – but then Jesus came into the room, and took her by the hand, and said, “Little girl, get up!” – if you asked her if she’d been saved, she would have said, “Yes! Jesus saved my life. I was dead, and he brought me back to life again!”
Or the man with mental illness, who everybody said had demons, because they couldn’t understand his illness and nothing they did could control him. He was cast out from society, and had to live in the graveyard, which everybody in their superstition thought was haunted. Jesus healed him, and embraced him. Would he have said that he was saved? You tell me.
But it didn’t have to be illness. The tax collectors who Jesus befriended and invited to come and walk with him – they were saved. The Roman officer, the officer of the occupying army – he was saved, along with everyone in his household. The foreign woman, who everybody said should go home to where she came from – Jesus saved her, and her son, and he welcomed her faith.
Do you see what I’m saying? They were all saved. But it was different for each of them. Being born again isn’t a uniform experience. It’s unique for every one of us. It’s about what we’re saved from, and that’s going to be different, each time.
What matters is that we’re reborn. Those Greek words we translate as “born again” can also mean “born from above” – because being saved is a gift from God in heaven.
Those words can also mean “born from the beginning.” I like that idea. It’s as if God travels all the way back to the very beginning of our lives, and heals all of the hurts and mistakes that we’ve ever experienced.
An you imagine that? Every hurt and every disappointment we’ve ever had. Every mistake and every wrong turn we’ve ever made. We don’t lose our memory of those things. But those things no longer destroy us. We’re healed. It’s like being born all over again.
Jesus said, “You can’t tell which way the wind of the Holy Spirit is going to blow. The wind blows where it wants to, and no one can tell where it comes from or where it’s going.”
It’s not up to you or me to control. We just need to pay attention to the Spirit, to feel the wind on our skin, to turn and face it, to breathe it in, to let it take us into places we never expected.
Maybe being “born again” means not fighting the wind of the Holy Spirit, but accepting it, learning to recognize it, and following it.
Nicodemus heard Jesus saying all this, and he said, “How can this be?”
And Jesus said, “You call yourself a teacher of Israel, and you don’t understand this? This is something we see. This is something we know from the inside. If you don’t believe what you see for yourself here on earth, how can I talk to you about heaven?”
Good question. Nicodemus didn’t have any kind of an answer. Maybe this was the turnaround time for Nicodemus. Maybe this was the way that Nicodemus got born again.
There’s a line in this morning’s story that may not make a lot of sense to you, unless you’ve been coming to Bible study on Wednesday nights. We read this one a couple of months ago.
Jesus said, “Just like Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.”
Everybody who heard Jesus the first time knew the story. It’s from the book of Numbers in the Old Testament. It’s in Numbers chapter 21.
See, the people were out in the desert, on their way to the Promised Land. They got impatient and angry with God, and they complained about the miraculous food that God gave them – the complained about the manna. Food from heaven wasn’t good enough. Having God take care of them every day wasn’t all right anymore.
And suddenly they found themselves in an area where there were lots of poisonous snakes. People were getting bitten by the snakes every day, and dying by hundreds.
It’s as though the way they lived – barren and dry and complaining all the time, and rejecting what God provided – wasn’t leading them to life. If you put it that way, it brings it closer to home. I think a lot of people try to live that way. It doesn’t work very well.
Anyway, in the Old Testament story, God told Moses to make a big bronze snake and put it up on a pole. And if you could lift your eyes up from your snakebite and look at it, you’d live. You’d survive.
Kind of a weird story. Just as a side note, you might have seen a symbol in some doctors’ offices. It’s kind of like a long pole or cross with intertwined snakes hanging from it. It’s called a cadeuceus. Medical officers in the armed forces wear it. It’s the bronze serpent hanging from the pole. Look at it and live.
But Jesus said, “It’s like that with Me. People are living a way of life that’s really a way of death. It’s barren, and dry, and they’re being bitten and poisoned all the time. But if you look at me, you’ll live instead of dying. Look at Me, on the cross, being faithful. Not denying my Father. Laying down my life for you all. I died, but I’m alive again forever. And you all can be like Me.”
Jesus took that Old Testament story, and he applied it to himself. He offers us life. Whatever our problems are, whatever we need to be saved from, we need to look up from our problems, and look at him. See him on the cross. Listen to him teaching. Walk with him along the road.
“Look at Me,” Jesus says. “Hear my words. Walk my way. Live my life. Look at me, and live.”
And then Jesus said the line that everyone loves: “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.”
Then Jesus went on to say, “God didn’t send his son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. . .”
That is such an important statement. You’ve heard me say before that God isn’t in the condemning business. God isn’t in the punishing business. God is in the business of love, and mercy, and forgiveness, and reconciliation. God is in the business of saving people. And that should be good news for all of us.
God doesn’t want anyone to die forever. God doesn’t want anyone to go to hell, or to be punished and broken. God wants people to be saved, to live, to be reborn. God wants us all to have another chance. That’s what Jesus came here for.
People who know that God has helped them out, and give Jesus the credit, are Christians. People who walk the way Jesus walked are followers of Christ.
If anyone ever asks are you saved, or if you’re born again, don’t argue with them. Don’t worry about what their definition of being saved or born again is.
It’s something you need to know for yourself. It’s a decision that you’ve made, to trust God all the way. It’s a forgiveness that you accept. It’s a life that you want to lead, because you know that God wants you to live a different and better way.
All of us are different. But all of us are coming home through Jesus.
I want you all to remember that. I want you all to feel confident when you leave here today.
Love God, with all your heart, mind, strength and soul. And love your neighbor as yourself. Those are the two big things Jesus said we all have to do.
We all come home by different ways. But we all come home together.
Let’s take this into our time of quiet prayer.
P.S. for those of you who are reading this. Nicodemus shows up two more times in the gospel of John. The next time is in John 7:45-52, when Nicodemus spoke up on Jesus’ behalf when they were trying to arrest him. The last time is in John 19:38-42, when Nicodemus and a friend came to claim Jesus’ body after he was killed, and contributed an extravagant amount of spices to bury him. So, it looks as though Nicodemus really was all right after all.
Copyright © 2017 by Joshua Brown