The RegeneratorRev. Philip Miller | October 18, 2020
Selected highlights from this sermon
What does it mean to be born again? In this passage from John 3, we see an existential conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus about the pathway to eternal life, a pathway that starts by the Spirit’s work in us.
As Pastor Miller explores this concept of new birth, he poses six questions to help us hear Jesus afresh about what it means for us today. And most importantly, we find out how we can be born again—born into the family of God for all of eternity.
When I say the phrase, “born again,” what do you think of? Do you think of a Bible thumping preacher, or maybe a Billy Graham Crusade, or a political voting bloc maybe, or a particularly religious experience? You know, this phrase “born again” has taken on all kinds of different meanings in our culture. But I don’t know if you know. Do you know where it came from originally, who coined it? It was Jesus. Jesus had a conversation with a guy named Nicodemus, and He used this phrase in John 3:1–21. That’s the passage we’re looking at this morning. And He uses it twice. In verse 3 He says, “Truly, truly I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Or down in verse 7 again He says, “You must be born again.”
So what I want us to do this morning, I want us to set aside all the cultural clutter, all the baggage that we bring in to the meaning of this phrase, and I want us to try to hear it from the lips of Jesus to understand what He meant by being born again, because, as we will see, being born again, this new birth, this regeneration that Jesus is talking about here, is at the very heart of why Jesus came to Earth. And so to navigate our time together this morning, we’re going to look at the new birth, and we’re going to ask six questions. We’re going to ask:
Who needs it?
What is it?
Who does it?
How does it come?
Why do we need it?
And What is in the way?
Okay? So, we’ll jump in and we’ll navigate those together as we open our Bibles.
Will you bow your heads? Let’s pray together.
Heavenly Father, we love you and we come together to understand Jesus, to have Him poke and prod and change us, make us new. Father, whatever this new birth is, we need it. Help us, we pray, in Jesus’ name, Amen. Amen.
All right, so the first question is this: Who needs it? Who needs this new birth? In chapter 3, verse 1 of John this is what we read: “Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night 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.’ Jesus answered him, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.’”
So we’re introduced here to this guy named Nicodemus. Now, who is he? We get some clues here. Number one, he’s a man of the Pharisees. Now the Pharisees were a Jewish conservative social movement that had a lot of influence at the time of Jesus. They were theologically conservative, so they believed that the Scriptures should be interpreted literally, historically, according to the intent of the writers. They were pious and conscientious. They meticulously kept God’s Law. They were religious, faithful people. They believed that the key to seeing the blessings of God, the kingdom of God come to Earth to bring peace and prosperity, was to live righteously in the covenant. So if they were obedient enough, they could bring in the kingdom, that God would send the kingdom of God.
Many of the respected rabbis were Pharisees. So in the synagogues that gathered all throughout Israel, these were the pastors. These were the leaders, the priests that stood up, the religious leaders of the day. In verse 10 we’re going to see that Jesus refers to Nicodemus as, quote, “the teacher of Israel,” not just “a” teacher, but “the” teacher, so it is likely that this man has some prominence. He is a pastor to pastors if you will. He has religious authority. Now, we also learn here that he’s a ruler of the Jews, which means he’s a member of the Sanhedrin, which was a group of 70 religious leaders who governed. They were the governing council over Israel.
So here we have Nicodemus. He is a religious, powerful, respected, influential, prestigious, and honorable man. And we are told here, he came to Jesus by night. Now, that’s a curious time. Why does he come to Jesus at night? All the scholars are agreed. Nicodemus is clearly trying to keep this on the down–low. He doesn’t want people to realize he’s there with Jesus. But we are not told why. Hmm, let’s put a pin in that. We’ll come back to that.
Now, I want you to notice the context, the flow, as this passage relates to its surrounding setting. Remember how John ended chapter 2? He said this in verse 23: “Now when he (Jesus) was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing. But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man.”
So in other words, in Jerusalem there were those who believed in Jesus, in the signs He was doing, but their faith was spurious. It was unreliable. It was a fickle faith, and Jesus didn’t entrust Himself to them because He knew what was in people. He knew what was in their hearts.
Now, the very next verse says, “Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus.” Now forget the chapter break for a moment, which isn’t original. We see here that Nicodemus shows up and he says he believes in the signs. He says he believes in Jesus, but Jesus isn’t going to entrust Himself to him, because there’s something untrustworthy about Nicodemus here. Jesus knows what’s in his heart, and there’s something off, and we’re going to see it.
Verse 2—Nicodemus opens up. He says, “Rabbi, we know you are a teacher come from God for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” So he’s very respectful. He addresses Him as Rabbi, which was a significant honor, especially coming from a man like Nicodemus, and he recognizes Jesus as a teacher who is from God because nobody can do what Jesus does unless God is with him.
Verse 3—Jesus answers him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
Now, remember the Pharisees were obsessed with seeing the kingdom of God. They wanted to see God come with power and restore Israel so they were pious and law-abiding because they believed that if they were obedient enough, God would bless them with the kingdom. And Jesus says, “Look, unless you are born again, you’ll never see it.”
Now, do you realize how shocking this is? This is one of the most religious, powerful, respectable, influential, prestigious, honorable people in all of Israel. And we expect Jesus here to say something like, “Listen, you’re doing a lot right, Nicodemus. You’re eighty percent of the way. You just need a little push and you can get over the hurdle, and you could see and enter into the kingdom of God.” But it’s not what He says. He says, “Unless you’re born again, you’ll never see it. Nicodemus, you’ve got to start over on day one. You’ve got to start at the beginning. You’ve got to begin afresh. You’ve got to begin anew. You’ve got to be born again.” It’s like He’s saying, “Look, Nicodemus, nothing you’ve done counts. All your morality, all your piety, all your religiosity, all of the honor, the standing, the accolades, the achievements of your life, none of it matters. You’ve got all the religion and morality and standing in the universe, but I’m telling you, Nicodemus, you’ve got to be born again.”
This is the very last person we expect to hear this kind of a statement. Yeah, if he was a drug addict or a prostitute or a tax collector or something we would say, “Of course, you’ve got to start over and be born again. Of course, you’ve got to have a do-over. That makes sense, but Nicodemus…” And we’re learning here that from the most religious and moral to the very least, listen, we all must be born again. That’s what Jesus is saying. From the most religious and moral to the very least, we all must be born again. Listen, if Nicodemus needs to be born again, everybody’s got to be born again. So that’s who it’s for.
Secondly, what is it? What is this new birth? Verse 4— “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 answered, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.’”
Now, it might seem like Nicodemus is a bit dense here, and he’s like, “Can I enter into the womb again?” No, no, no, he’s not dense. He’s brilliant, and he knows how to have a theological conversation. He realizes that Jesus is using a metaphor to describe a new start, a fresh start at life, that is innocent and fresh and pure. And Nicodemus is engaging. He’s pressing the metaphor to its limits. He’s saying, “Listen, it’s impossible to start over. Nobody gets a clean do-over in life. Who you are, what you do, it carries with you. For better or for worse, your résumé, your record sticks with you. You can’t be born again. You don’t get a brand new do-over. Nobody does, not in this life.”
Now notice Jesus responds by unpacking what He means by being born again. He says, “You have to be born of water and the Spirit.” What’s with the water and the Spirit stuff here? Well, remember back in the beginning at creation in Genesis 1:1–2, this is what we read. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep.” And listen to this phrase, “And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.”
So at the very beginning, all of creation came from spirit and water. This is the language of creation, that all creation was birthed out of this spirit and water, but that’s not all. In Ezekiel 36:25–27, a famous passage on the New Covenant, this is what Ezekiel writes. God is speaking: “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. (Do you see all the water language?) 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.”
So this is a promise of the New Covenant that will come with cleansing of water, the coming and indwelling of the Spirit, and the new heart, the pliable heart that is ready to respond to God. It is God’s work in giving us a brand new heart prophesied in the Old Testament.So Jesus is saying (You put all of this together) that new birth means a brand new start at life. It means a new creation. It means a new covenant heart indwelt by the Spirit. So to be born again, listen, is to have a brand new recreated spiritual life. That’s what He’s saying. “Nicodemus, if you want to see the kingdom of God, if you want to enter into the kingdom, you need a brand new spiritually recreated life. Your résumé is not going to get you in. You’ve got to be born again.”
Now, third question: Who does it? Verse 6: “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” Okay, this makes sense to us. Just as bodies beget bodies, the Spirit begets the spirit. So if you need a brand new recreated spiritual inner life, there’s only one person who can do it, and that is the Holy Spirit of God has to do the work.
“Nicodemus, if you want to see and enter into the kingdom of God, you’re going to need something done on the inside that only the Spirit can do. You need a newly created spiritual vitality in life.”
Verse 7: “Do not marvel that I said 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.”
Now, the word for Spirit in Greek is the same word as the word for wind, and so there’s a little pun in the metaphor, the illustration that Jesus is using here. He says, “Just like you have no control over the wind (It just comes and goes; you can’t even see it, but you see its effects), so it is with the Spirit. This new birth is the work of the Spirit alone and it is totally beyond our control. This new birth is the work of the Spirit alone, and it’s totally beyond our control. Nicodemus, the one thing you need, if you want to see the kingdom of heaven and enter into it, is the thing you have no control over. After all, babies don’t give birth to themselves. This is being born again. Somebody else gives birth. You’re the baby. You are helpless. You don’t do anything. You are simply born, and through the agony and pain and suffering of another, you come to life. That’s what you need, Nicodemus. Only the Spirit can do this. You have no control over it.”
Now, question number four: How does it come? How does this new birth come? Verse 9, “Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’” Can you hear the incredulity in his voice?
Verse 10, “Jesus answered him, ‘Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?’”
Do you notice the progression here? In verse 10 He says, “You do not understand, Nicodemus.” In verse 11 He says, “You do not receive, do not embrace.” Verse 12: “You do not believe.” So Nicodemus is backing away from Jesus here. He finds it’s too much, too hard. And Jesus says, “Look, if you can’t even follow track with me except what I’m saying about an earthly metaphor of being born again, how can I tell you about heaven? I’ve got so much I could share with you because (verse 13), no one has ascended into heaven except He who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.”
“I’ve come down from heaven. I’m the Son of Man from God the Father. There are so many heavenly things I could tell you, Nicodemus, but I can’t because you won’t believe. Well, I’ll try you with one thing, one heavenly truth (verse 14), ‘And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.’”
Well, you say, “What is this? What is the serpent lifted up in the wilderness?” Well, when the people of Israel were trekking through the wilderness (This is under Moses many, many years before), they were grumbling and complaining in the wilderness. They wanted to go back to Egypt. They had bad attitudes everywhere. They grumbled against God. They grumbled against Moses. And in Numbers 21 we read the story, a very weird story, that the Lord sent fiery serpents, poisonous serpents, among the people. They bit the people and the people were dying. And they cried out.
First of all, why would God do that? Why would God put snakes in the camp? I mean, this is a weird thing, right? But listen. Think about it. God sent these serpents to poison their bodies so it would match up with the poison that was running through their souls. See, they were infected with something—sin. And it was killing them. And with their grumbling and complaining...and so God matched in their bodies what was happening in their souls. He put poison in their bodies to illustrate the poison that was coursing through their veins, through their souls.
The people then repent. They say, “We’ve sinned. We’ve sinned against God. We’ve sinned against you, Moses. Pray for us.” So Moses prayed. And this is Numbers 21:8, “And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.’” This is so weird.
So Moses makes, out of bronze, a snake. This is the same symbol that is on so many of our medical buildings now. Do you notice there’s like a pole with a snake on it? This is where that comes from. He made a bronze serpent, put it on a pole, hoisted it up in the middle of the desert. And listen, when the people were bitten by the serpents, and they felt the poison, the venom running through their veins, and they knew they were condemned to die, what did they have to do? He doesn’t say, “Make sure you run as fast as you can to the pole,” because they might not have made it. He doesn’t say, “Crawl your way and reach up and touch the serpent,” because some of them weren’t strong enough. He doesn’t say, “Make sure you get close and touch it,” because some of them were too far away. He says, “Look! Look! Just look, in faith, trusting in the promise of God that when you look you will be saved, you will be healed.” And they were saved. Listen, they were saved by grace through faith in the promise of God, not by what they did. They didn’t try to heal themselves. They didn’t try to fix themselves. No, they just looked. They just looked.
And Jesus says, “Just like that serpent, just as Moses lifted it up in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man, Jesus, be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him might have eternal life.” When was Jesus lifted up? On the cross! When was Jesus lifted up on a pole? On the cross! In fact, John 12:32, says, Jesus speaking, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”
Now, connect this then to the context. “Nicodemus, what you need, if you’re going to enter into the kingdom of God, you need a brand new recreated spiritual life that can come only from God’s Spirit. You have no control over it. How will you get it? How will you get this new life? Not by your efforts, not by crawling or walking or reaching or striving. You will get it by looking, just looking, looking at the Son of Man lifted up so that you might have eternal life in Him.”
Friends, we are born again as we look in faith to Christ alone. We are born again as we look in faith to Christ alone. We don’t have to run. We don’t have to crawl. We don’t have to reach. We don’t have to strive. We just have to look. And in faith, Jesus says, we’ll be saved.
Now, why do we need this? Why do we need this new life, this eternal life in Jesus? Fifth question, verse 16, famous verse: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not sent his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”
Do you realize what this is saying? It’s saying that in love, God sent His one and only Son to be lifted up on the cross, that whoever looks and believes in Him, trusts in Him, should not perish but have eternal life.
Look, Jesus didn’t come into the world to condemn the world. We did that to ourselves. The venom of sin is running through our veins. It’s killing us, friends. Jesus came to rescue us, and new birth in Jesus is the only antidote for the venom that is coursing through our veins. This new birth in Jesus is the only antidote to the venom that is coursing through our veins.
Do you realize what Jesus is saying here? He says, “Everyone’s been bitten, bitten by the serpent, including you, Nicodemus.” All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. The wages of sin is death. And verse 18 says there’s only two kinds of people in the world, those who believe and look to Jesus who are saved, and those who don’t look and are condemned already because the venom will run its course.
See, we usually divide the world into two groups. We say, “Well, there are good people and there are bad people.” Right? And the good people get to go to the happy place. The bad people go to the bad place. That’s just how the world is. But according to Jesus that’s not how the world divides out. Jesus is saying, “Look, we’re all bad people.” We’re all bad people. We’re all bit by the serpent. We all have venom running through our veins. We’re all dying. And the world is divided, not between good and bad people. We’re all bad people. The world is divided between those who look and believe in Jesus and are saved, and those who don’t look and are condemned.
Now the question is why wouldn’t everyone just look? Why wouldn’t everyone just look?
Sixth question: What’s in the way?
What’s in the way? Verse 19: “This is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.”
So the principle is clear enough, isn’t it? That light reveals, darkness conceals. And when the light clicks on, we’re like cockroaches. We run for the darkness, right? The cover! We try to hide our sin. We try to conceal our selfishness and cloak our hypocrisy because the light, when it turns on, it shows us for who we are. We don’t like it. We would much rather be in the dark because in the darkness we can pretend we’re okay, friends. In the darkness we can do whatever we want. In the darkness we can live in denial of the venom of sin that is coursing through our veins, and the condemnation that hangs over us. And when Jesus comes into the world, friends, He flips on the light. He flips on the light and it exposes the darkness, the venom of sin that is in our hearts that forces us to make a choice. We can hide in the darkness and conceal our sin, or we can come into the light and let it expose us and all the ugliness that is deep down inside of us, that we are serpent-bitten, sin-poisoned, death-awaiting people, and then look to Christ to be saved by someone else. That’s the choice.
Now, why does it end with this light-darkness metaphor? Think with me. Who came in the dark? Who came in the dark? Nicodemus.
In the book of John darkness is always moral. Jesus is the light. People love the darkness. Chapter 1 says the light shines in the darkness. The darkness has not overcome it. In John 13:30 John says that Judas, when he was about to go betray Jesus, left the room and he went out and it was night.
John is framing this to help us see something. Nicodemus comes at night, listen, because there’s darkness in his soul. He is not yet willing to come into the light here, friends. He may be moral, he may be upstanding, he may be pious and religious, he may be respected and powerful. But he too has been bitten by the serpent, he too has the venom of sin running through his veins, and he too is hiding in the darkness because listen, listen, listen. Listen! Pharisees always have the most to hide! Pharisees always have the most to hide.
If you’re trying to be perfect so God will love you, if you are on a performance track trying to earn your way toward God to prove that you are worthy enough to be loved by Him, you can’t be real. You can’t be open. You can’t be honest about your sin. You have to pretend you’re okay. You’ve got to put a good face on. You’ve got to deny your need of Him. You’ve got to outrun your sinfulness by being as good as you can desperately be, and you cannot be seen to be asking for help. It would look incredibly bad if you were the teacher of Israel and you were seeking help from someone like Jesus, so you have to come under the cover of darkness. You have to hide. But Jesus knows what is in man, just like He knew Nathanael when he was under the fig tree. Jesus knows the depths of Nicodemus’s heart, and friends, in these words here, Jesus is inviting Nicodemus into the light to admit the sin that is coursing through his veins, to acknowledge the helplessness and his desperation of his life, to own his need, listen, to own his need for grace, to look and receive a new birth from somewhere beyond his control.
Friends, to be born again, the only thing we need is nothing, but it’s the one thing most of us don’t have. Do you realize that? To be born again the only thing you need is nothing, but it’s the one thing most of us don’t have. Nicodemus didn’t have nothing. He had all his righteousness, all of his honor, all of his clout and privilege, and Jesus says none of it matters.
You’ve got to lay your résumé down, Nicodemus. You’re going to be saved by salvation. Your salvation is going to come by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. Nicodemus, you’ve got to do what the old hymn says. “Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to Your cross I cling.”
Now, in the end, Nicodemus makes the turn. If you fast forward to the end of the book in John 19:38–42, you will see that Nicodemus publicly comes forward with Joseph of Arimathea and claims the body of Jesus Christ after He was crucified and they go and bury Him. And Nicodemus finally shows his loyalty to Jesus, listen, in the light, in the light of day.
John wants us to see Nicodemus tipped. He believed. He pledged his loyalty to Christ that day. Now what made Nicodemus tip? Think about it. He saw Jesus lifted up. He saw Jesus lifted up on the cross. As Moses lifted the serpent in the wilderness, so the Son of Man was lifted up on the cross, that whoever believes in Him might have eternal life. And friends, Nicodemus looked. He looked and through the pain and agony and suffering of another, Nicodemus was born again. And the takeaway for us, friends, is look to Christ and Christ alone. Look to Christ and Christ alone.
Friends, this is the hardest thing you can do if you’re a religious good person, the hardest thing. Listen, it’s so much harder for religious people to be saved than irreligious people. If you’ve made a royal hash of your life, you know you need a Savior, but if you’re a good kid, and you’ve gone to church, and you’ve kept the rules and kept your nose clean, and you’ve done everything right and you feel like you’re better than most of your peers, listen, you’re like Nicodemus. And the hardest thing in the world is to lay your religious résumé down and say, “None of this matters before the holiness of God. The only thing that counts is to look to Christ to be saved by grace, through faith in Christ alone.” It’s the hardest thing.
But won’t you come into the light? Won’t you look to Jesus? Would you believe in His name? Won’t you be born again? Coming to Jesus is simple. It’s not easy but it’s simple. It’s as simple as A, B, C.
A, we admit we are sinners.
B, we believe that Jesus has done everything to make us right with God, and
C, we commit ourselves to Him. Say, “Come be my Savior, come be my Lord.”
It’s what you heard in all the baptisms earlier today, admitting my sin, believing in Christ, committing my life to Him.
Won’t you do that? Won’t you pray and ask the Lord to give you the new birth you have no control over? Won’t you look to Jesus, see Him lifted up, and through the pain and agony and suffering of another, won’t you be born again?
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” Won’t you look to Jesus?
Let’s pray.Father, we do admit that we are sinners, that we’ve wandered far away from you. There is sin coursing through our veins. We are selfish and unloving people. We deserve nothing but condemnation before you, but we believe. We believe that Jesus is enough, that He died in our place, and for our sake, that He took the penalty of our sin. He took the venom into Himself that we might be set free and healed and have eternal life in His name. And we look to Jesus. And we commit ourselves to you. There’s nothing half-hearted about this. We want to be all in. Be our Savior. Be our Lord. Be our King. Be our everything we pray.
Father, we look to Jesus. He’s our only hope. In life and death we look to Christ alone. It’s His name that we pray in, Amen. Amen.