A Sermon on John 3:3 - Audio Here
Mum and Dad bring their newborn baby girl to church to show her off. Everyone gathers around and sighs and makes faces and says things like “What a beautiful baby! What a gorgeous little nose! How soft her skin is! She’s just adorable! She’s just perfect!” One woman calls her husband over and says “Jim, what do you think of the newborn baby, isn’t she just perfect.” Jim looks her up and down, frowns and asks the mother - “When was she born?” The mother says “10 days ago.” Jim says, “I think she needs to be born again.”
Isn’t that the most offensive thing to say? You need to be born again. Her mother would be likely to say – “What was wrong with her first birth??! How dare you say she must be born again!” It’s very offensive isn’t it?
And it’s no better if you say it to a grown-up.
I was once speaking to a woman at a bus stop. And we started talking about Christian things – she was a Roman Catholic and told me that she loved the teaching of Jesus. I said, “Me too, I was reading just last week John chapter 3 – do you know the story of Nicodemus. She said, ‘Of course.’ I said, well it’s interesting that Jesus says to this very religious man: ‘You must be born again’.” I asked her – “Have you been born again?” Instantly she frosted over. She turned her shoulders 15 degrees to the left and raised her chin 15 degrees in the air, and that was the end of the conversation. It made for an awkward few minutes before the bus came.
But that’s what happens when you start talking about being “born again.” It is dynamite. It is offensive. But Jesus is unrelenting. He says it again and again. Verse 3:
3 In reply Jesus declared, "I tell you the truth, no-one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again."
5 Jesus answered, "I tell you the truth, no-one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit.
7 You should not be surprised at my saying, `You must be born again.'
You must, you must, you must be born again.
[SLIDE – You must be born again]
Jesus says “Don’t be surprised at this”. We are surprised though. Perhaps we’re like Nicodemus, coughing and spluttering in amazement, v4:
4 "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!"
Is that what you’re suggesting Jesus? Going back into my mother’s womb? I don’t think I’d like that, and I’m pretty sure she would object.
No says Jesus – not that. But nonetheless, you MUST be born again.
Are you born again? I look out on a room and there’s one thing I can safely assume about you. I assume that you have been born once. That’s a fair assumption – everyone in this room has been born once. But I don’t assume that everyone here has been born again. I imagine there might be quite a few here who have been born once, but not born again.
And Jesus says, v3, unless you are born again you can’t SEE the kingdom of God. Or again, v5, unless you are born of water and the Spirit which is another way of saying unless you are born again – you can’t ENTER the kingdom of God. You MUST be born again.
Are you born again? Jesus says “You must be born again.” What about your family members. Bring to mind family members – they must be born again. Bring to mind friends – they must be born again. Bring to mind neighbours – they must be born again. Bring to mind work-mates – they must be born again. Everyone you pass in the street today – they must be born again. As we approach the mission next week, may that shape our prayers and our inviting.
So there’s the necessity of the new birth. But let’s ask four questions about this new birth.
First we’re going to consider what the new birth is NOT (clear up some misunderstandings). Then we’re going to consider what it is. Third, we’re going to think about why we need it and finally, how to get it.
So first, let’s think about what the new birth is not.
Because I can hear an objection already. I can almost hear some of you in your pews saying: “I don’t like the phrase ‘born again.’” “I’m a Christian,” you might say, “But I’m not one of those born again types.”
I have heard that many, many times. “I’m a Christian, but not one of those ‘born again types.’”
Now I have some sympathy with that. In certain circles “born again” has become a brand of Christianity. It’s the sort of brand that a US Presidential candidate might claim for themselves to win them votes – “I’m a born again Christian.” I can’t imagine it would help either Gordon Brown or David Cameron in their campaigns claim to be ‘a born again Christian’. I think if either of them claimed to be a born again Christian we wouldn’t have to worry about a hung parliament in May. They would haemorrhage votes instantly. But in some environments, being ‘born again’ is considered a positive label and it describes a certain brand of Christianity – a smiley, intense, exuberant Christianity. The kind of Christian who bursts out in spontaneous prayers in King James English. The kind of Christian that keeps bumper-sticker manufacturers in business. That brand of Christianity.
But Jesus is not interested in starting a brand of Christianity. John 3 is not about a new brand but a new birth.
It’s so ironic that “born again” has become a brand because John 3 is about sweeping aside all brands. Jesus is sweeping aside all labels. Because, think about it – Nicodemus had some pretty impressive labels.
Verse 1 – He was a man of the Pharisees. That was a really impressive religious sect. The Pharisees were serious about God, serious about obedience, serious about their bibles. Serious about publicly proclaiming God and showing everyone how very holy they were. Pharisees would definitely have bumper stickers – “Holier than Thou” in massive lettering. Nicodemus proudly wears the Pharisee label. And Jesus says, “Forget the label, you must actually BE born again.”
Verse 1 also tells us, Nicodemus was a member of the Jewish ruling council. He was civic minded, he cared about his community, he was an important, upstanding, powerful, moral leader. And none of that matters to Jesus. He says “You must be born again.”
In verse 10, Jesus calls Nicodemus, “Israel’s Teacher.” It’s a good bet that this was an actual title that Nicodemus held. He was like a professor of theology. He was the top bible teacher of his day.
In terms of biblical, religious, moral, powerful men – Nicodemus was the best of the best of the best. He had the most impressive labels. He was a member of the most prestigious clubs. And Jesus isn’t interested in labels and clubs and positions and pedigree. Jesus is not starting a new brand, He’s demanding a new birth. It’s not about the label, it’s about the reality. It’s not about belonging to an outward movement – it’s about having an inward change.
So if you don’t like the phrase “born again” because you associate it with a brand, I sympathise. Jesus does not want us to go out and get “born again” bumper stickers. But He insists that we ALL have the reality. “You must be born again.”
The new birth is not a brand of Christianity – it’s the very heart of it. And while we’re clearing up misunderstandings let me say this as well. Knowing WHEN you were born again is not important. Knowing WHETHER you are born again is essential.
Jesus doesn’t say “You must know when you were born again.” He just says “You must BE born again.”
Some people can point to a day and say “At 3:30pm on the 22nd of September I was born again.” Well Hallelujah, that is wonderful. For myself, I don’t know when I was born again. Some time in the 1990s is about as specific as I can be. Somewhere in that decade I think – I might be wrong. It might have been before then. I don’t know. But WHEN it’s happened is unimportant. WHETHER it’s happened is essential. For some the light comes on in a flash. For others it’s a slow burn.
You may not be able to remember a time when you didn’t LOVE Jesus. That’s wonderful. You don’t remember being born the first time, and you don’t remember being born the second time either. That’s ok. You don’t have to know WHEN, but it’s essential to know WHETHER you are born again. “You must be born again.”
Ok so we’ve cleared up a couple of misunderstandings. What actually is the new birth?
[SLIDE – What is it?]
Did you notice how in verse 5 you expect Jesus to use the phrase “born again” and instead He uses the phrase “born of water and the Spirit.” Obviously Jesus thinks they are the same thing – being born again is being born of water and the Spirit. And Jesus expects Nicodemus to pick up on this language. Verse 7 – you should not be surprised Nicodemus. Verse 10 – you’re Israel’s teacher, you ought to understand this. Nicodemus ought to understand, because the Old Testament speaks of how we become NEW in water and the Spirit. And Nicodemus should have instantly thought of Ezekiel chapter 36. That was our Old Testament reading this morning.
Keep your place in John 3 and let’s turn back to Ezekiel 36:
24 "`For I will take you out of the nations; I will gather you from all the countries and bring you back into your own land. 25 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. 26 I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.
To be born again is to become NEW in water and the Spirit. It’s to have THESE VERSES happen to you.
Verse 25: You are cleansed from sin (a new cleansing).
Verse 26: You get a change of heart. From stone to flesh – from hard to soft – a new heart (new desires within you).
And Verse 27: God’s Holy Spirit comes to live IN you (giving you new power to go God’s way).
That’s the new birth – a new cleansing, a new heart, a new Power – God’s Spirit Himself comes to take residence in you.
Have you been born again? Do you know this reality? New cleansing, new heart, God’s Spirit.
During a Billy Graham crusade, one teenager described what it was like to be born again. He was in terrible trouble at the time and well into the drug scene. But listen to how he describes the new birth. He says:
It was like on a hot day and you are dirty and take a shower, only I felt the shower was on the inside and it was even more than just getting the mud washed away, it was like something else came in.
Sins washed away, hearts made new, the Spirit living within you. That’s the new birth. Do you have it?
Anyone can have this. There are no sins so great that God’s cleansing will not wash them clean. There is no heart so hard that God can’t soften it and make it beat again with warmth and love. There is no limit to what the almighty Spirit of God can do when He gets a hold of a life. Any life can be made new. Any life can be made new.
Every life MUST be made new. You must be born again.
[SLIDE – Why do I need it?]
Turn back to John 3 and Jesus will explain why we MUST have this change in us.
Because it’s very easy to think that drug addicts and bankrupts and down-and-outs need to be born again, but do I? Yes. Even the Nicodemus’s of the world need the new birth. Everyone does. WHY? Because humanity is perverted.
Look down at those first five words of verse 6:
Flesh gives birth to flesh.
That is a five word summary of the history of the human race. Flesh gives birth to flesh.
In the bible ‘flesh’ is our frail human nature – but usually it refers more specifically to our sinful human nature. And the story of the human race is ‘flesh gives birth to flesh.’
Adam and Eve got the human race going east of Eden. Flesh and flesh, and they made more flesh. Sinner and sinner, making more sinners. Their children were just chips of the old block. They were all just flesh reproduced and rearranged. And then their children were just more flesh reproduced and rearranged. Sinners giving birth to more sinners until – here we all are.
A world of flesh.
And in our flesh we are the very opposite of what the new birth is about. We all have uncleanness that pollutes us. We all have a hardness of heart especially towards God. And none of us naturally want to go God’s way. We’re all a part of a mass of humanity that is east of Eden, estranged from God, twisted in on itself and not fit for heaven.
I mean you all look very nice in church this morning. But if Jesus is telling the truth here, then our natural state is not pretty. I have to say, underneath – if you could see my heart and all its uncleanness just this week – you wouldn’t want to listen to me. And if I saw your heart and its uncleanness this week – I wouldn’t want to talk to you.
Maybe you think “I’m not that bad, other people put up with me alright.” Well yes, flesh puts up with flesh because that’s all flesh knows. In the end though, God does not put up with it. Verse 3 - in your natural state you CANNOT see the kingdom. Verse 5 – in your natural state you cannot enter the kingdom.
Think about this: In the kingdom of God when Jesus returns, the bible says His face will shine like the sun in all its brilliance. Those who have God’s new life will be able to see Him and enjoy His presence face-to-face. With God’s new life, we can happily gaze at the blazing beauty of Jesus. But if someone doesn’t have this new life – they are not fit for it. On that day they will run shrieking into the outer darkness and they will prefer it there. If you don’t have Christ’s new life, you will hate Christ’s presence. You will positively prefer hell. Flesh cannot enter the kingdom of God.
It’s a real problem. Especially when you consider that flesh can’t stop being flesh. Flesh just gives birth to more flesh. Lemon trees reproduce lemon trees and will never reproduce anything other than lemon trees. Baboons make more baboons and can’t make anything else but more baboons. And sinners keep on producing sinners and they cannot produce anything other than more sinners.
Flesh NEVER gives birth to true spiritual life. There’s nothing in my genes that makes me fit for heaven. There’s nothing in my pedigree that makes me fit for heaven. And there’s no fleshly performance that I can give to make me fit for heaven. The strictest moral regime cannot lift me out of my fleshness. The greatest teachers in the world cannot educate me out of my fleshness. A number of bishops have laid their hands on me in special ceremonies, but that has never changed me from being flesh. And now that I’m an authorized minister of the gospel, still – I can’t change you from being flesh. I’m flesh – you’re flesh and AS flesh we are stuck.
On our human level – all we ever do is reproduce and re-arrange the flesh. We can’t change it. The most brilliant education, the most moral upbringing, the most inspiring religious observance – they all operate on the level of flesh. All we ever do is reproduce and re-arrange the flesh.
Do you feel the weight of our problem? If you don’t, you’ll never see the need for the new birth. I am flesh and flesh cannot qualify flesh for heaven.
But verse 6 wonderfully goes on – “the Spirit gives birth to spirit.”
There is another kind of life. Thank God – there is another kind of life: Spirit life. It’s a life that comes from above.
Perhaps you have noticed the footnote in verse 3 next to born again. Another way of translating “born again” is to say “born from above.” There is a life that comes down from heaven. Not flesh life. Spirit life.
Well, how do I get it.
[SLIDE – How do I get it?]
It’s interesting, Nicodemus asks the How question twice. In verse 4 he asks “How”? In verse 9 he asks “How?” And Jesus doesn’t do what we expect Him to do. Jesus doesn’t say “Here are the 5 steps you’ve got to take to be born again.” Because, of course, that would be the way of the flesh – that would be about our power to change ourselves. But being born from above is not about our powers below. It’s not about US climbing into heaven is it?
No-one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven--the Son of Man.
Flesh cannot climb up to heaven. But Jesus came down. And He came down to our level.
Do you remember those famous verses we say every Christmas? The Word became flesh. John 1 verse 14 - Jesus, the Word of God, who created it all – He BECAME flesh. He stepped down into our flesh-life.
And this is absolutely vital to understanding the new birth. Here is how the new birth came about. Jesus joined our family tree. He summed up our frailties and our sufferings and our sins, our twisted selfish fleshly lives – He became that. And He put it all to death on the cross. He was lifted up, v14, to die the death that flesh deserves. On the cross, HE was cast shrieking into outer darkness. He went the way of all flesh and was buried. But three days later, He burst up out of the tomb into new Spiritual life. As 1 Peter 3:18 puts it: “He was put to death in the flesh but made alive in the Spirit.”
On Easter morning, Jesus pioneered the new birth. He was the Ultimate Human Being who went through flesh-life and into Spirit-life.
If you want to look to find the new birth – ultimately you don’t look into your own heart. You won’t find it there. Don’t look for an experience, look to Christ. To find the new birth – look to Jesus. That’s where the new birth is. In the One who was crucified in flesh-life and raised into Spirit-life, (1 Cor 15:45). And the whole world is meant to find new life there.
Verse 15 everyone should believe in Jesus and find eternal life. When we look away from the flesh and our earthly powers and when we just look to Jesus He gives us His own Spirit-life, His own new birth.
Maybe like Nicodemus that means counting your earthly achievements as a loss. “So what if I’m a Pharisee, so what if I’m a ruler, so what if I’m a respected teacher.” “So what if I was confirmed by Bishop Bell, so what if I’ve sat in church all my life, so what if…” Bring to mind any earthly achievements you’re tempted to trust in. That’s all flesh. Look only to Jesus for your standing before God.
Bishop John Taylor Smith was at one-time Chaplain General of the British Army. One Sunday he was preaching in a large cathedral on John chapter 3 and the necessity of the new birth. And to drive home the point he said, "My dear people, do not substitute anything for the new birth. You may be a member of a church, even the great church of which I am a member, the historic Church of England, but church membership is not new birth, and 'Unless a man be born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.'" The rector was sitting on his left. Pointing to him, he said, "You may be a clergyman like my friend the rector here and not be born again and 'Unless a man be born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.'" Also on his left was the archdeacon in his stall. Pointing directly at him, he said, "You might even be an archdeacon like my friend in his stall and not be born again and 'Unless a man be born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.' You might even be a bishop, like myself, and not be born again and 'Unless a man be born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.'"
Powerful stuff. A day or so later he received a letter from the archdeacon who wrote: "My dear Bishop: You have found me out. I have been a clergyman for over thirty years, but I have never known anything of the joy that Christians speak of. I never could understand it. Mine has been a hard, legal service. I did not know what was the matter with me, but when you pointed directly to me and said, 'You might even be an archdeacon and not be born again', I realised in a moment what the trouble was. I had never known anything of the new birth." He went on to say that he was wretched and miserable and had been unable to sleep all night, and begged for a meeting, if the bishop could spare the time to talk with him.
"Of course I could spare the time," said Bishop Smith, "and the next day we got together over the Word of God and after some hours we were both on our knees, the archdeacon taking his place before God as a poor lost sinner and telling the Lord Jesus he would trust him as his Saviour. From that time on, everything has been different."
An archdeacon could go through 30 years of ordained Christian service and not be born again. Will you allow me to be as rude as Jesus? Can I ask you – are you born again?
Maybe God is particularly speaking to you this morning.
That's what Jesus is speaking about in verse 8.
Verse 8 is a great play on words from Jesus. You see, wind is the same word as Spirit. And ‘sound’ is the same word as ‘voice’. So another way of saying verse 8 is to say “The Spirit blows wherever He pleases, you hear His voice.” That’s the way the Spirit brings the new birth – you hear His voice. The voice of the Spirit is God’s word. And right now as you hear God’s word, you are feeling the wind blow. The wind is blowing in this room. The Spirit’s voice is being heard. He is speaking Jesus’ words into our midst. “You must be born again.” “Flesh only gives birth to flesh. The Spirit gives birth to spirit.” “Everyone who believes in Jesus may have eternal life.” The Spirit’s voice is carrying these words to you and if you receive them, you have eternal life. If you hear the Spirit's voice - do not harden your heart.
Here's what you should do...
Turn back a page and we’ll finish with John chapter 1, verse 12:
12 Yet to all who received Jesus, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God-- 13 children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband's will, but born of God.
How do you get the new birth? Receive Jesus into your life, believe in Him and He will share EVERYTHING with you. He will share His cleansing with you, He will share His own heart with you, He will share His Holy Spirit with you, He will share His new birth with you.
Are you born again? Jesus says You must be born again. You can be born again. Receive Jesus into your life – and you WILL be born again.