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Born Again?

We become new creations through Christ.


One of the most familiar stories of Jesus, found at the opening of John 3, begins this way: "Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night."

Don't miss this man's spiritual pedigree. He was, first, a Pharisee—a professional theologian, who knew the entire Old Testament virtually by heart. He made it his daily work to observe the law of Moses minutely. Later Jesus says to him, "You are Israel's teacher." He and the 69 other men on the Sanhedrin had jurisdiction over all the religious affairs of Israel.

On top of all that, I think this man was genuine. Often Pharisees came to test and trick Jesus, but this man didn't. He came at night when there were no crowds to impress. Later John tells us he defended Jesus to the other leaders, and when Jesus died on the cross, Nicodemus was there—along with Joseph of Arimathea—to bury his body. He was Jewish—born among God's chosen people, heirs of God's promises. Surely if anyone, anywhere, was ever a citizen of the kingdom of God, it was Nicodemus.

John makes note that Nicodemus came to Jesus at night, but he is telling us more than the time. He's giving us a literary hint of Nicodemus's need.

A salvation case study

Nicodemus is a salvation case study of someone who was as good, devout, well-born, and sincere as you can be. Here was a man who fully expected to enter the kingdom of God. We know lots of people like that who have far less impressive credentials than Nicodemus: people who assume that in due time they will enter God's kingdom.

In John 3:2, Nicodemus says, "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." Not all the Pharisees were hard-hearted and opposed to Jesus. Nicodemus and some of his colleagues had concluded from listening and watching that Jesus was "a teacher who has come from God"—a prophet, in other words. They realized that the miracles Jesus did proved he was God's messenger.

Not all the Pharisees thought that. Some attributed Jesus' miracles to Satan. But not Nicodemus. So that dark night, he came to Jesus to learn. He came to listen.

'Unless they are born again'

In verse three, Jesus begins his reply to Nicodemus with a kind of alert: "Very truly I tell you." It signals that Nicodemus should take what Jesus is going to say very seriously, because it comes straight from God. Then Jesus tells him that "no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again."

This language came out of the blue to Nicodemus. As a man who was thoroughly acquainted with the Old Testament and who was talking to a rabbi, Nicodemus was surely scrambling to think of a cross-reference somewhere in the Scriptures: Born again? There's nothing! The Old Testament never used a phrase like that. In fact, if this had been a finish-the-sentence exercise—"No one can see the kingdom of God unless ________"—Nicodemus's answer would have certainly been, "Unless he is circumcised (e.g., Jewish) and obeys the law of Moses."

But "unless they are born again"? Where did that come from? If you are a Jew who obeys God's law, what other birthright do you need? "Born again" was a completely foreign expression. I think Nicodemus was actually listening very carefully and openly to Jesus because he doesn't ask the obvious defensive question: "Why would I need to be born another time? I was born right the first time."

What he does ask in verse four is actually a much deeper question: "'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!'" Nicodemus was not being silly. He wasn't a silly man. What he thought he heard Jesus say was the only hope of entering God's kingdom was a biological redo, and that, of course, is impossible.

Our whole culture is used to this phrase "born again." We use it to indicate any fresh start, new beginning, remake, or second chance. "It's like the Cubs have been born again this year!" So if he had been talking to us, Jesus might have laid the emphasis carefully to be sure we understood: "No one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born … a second time." Not metaphorically, but literally born a second time.

A person needs to be born again in order to "see the kingdom of God." The Jews believed that the reward of a righteous life would be to enter God's kingdom at the end of the age. A lot of people we know believe some variation of that as well. But if you must be born into it, then you're in the kingdom of God the moment you're born. So it could happen before the end of time, even before you die? Could someone see and enter the kingdom of God here and now?

The shock here is that the only way anyone sees God's kingdom now, or ever, is to be born into it, yet no one who has been born once qualifies. John has prepared us for this in the opening verses of this gospel. John 1:12-13 says, "Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband's will, but born of God." Born again, to put it another way. No one gets a passport to God's kingdom. Everyone needs a birth certificate.

'Born of water and the Spirit'

Back to John 3:5-7: "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 should not be surprised at my saying, "You must be born again."'" That gives us new information: to be born again is to be born of water and the Spirit.

This is even more strange than hearing we must be born a second time. The phrase "born of water and spirit" sounds kind of like the way we would describe our parentage: "I'm Lee Eclov, born of Lyle and Grace Eclov." When water and spirit met in me, I was born of them. I have the DNA of water and spirit. They made a newborn citizen of God's kingdom. That's where I get my identity. But that really is confusing!

This "water and spirit" language is pretty foreign-sounding to us, but it shouldn't have been to Nicodemus. In fact, in verse 10, Jesus says to him, "You are Israel's teacher, and do you not understand these things?" In other words, how would this not be clear to someone with his training and responsibility? Here's why.

Re-creation of a person

Look at Ezekiel 36. More than 500 years before Christ, God tells Israel—through the prophet Ezekiel—that after the terrible exile caused by their sin, God would eventually restore them. God tells them the day will come when he will show the holiness of his great name not only to Israel, but to all the nations.

How? He's going to do two things to show how great and holy his name is.

The washing away of sins
In Ezekiel 36:25, God says, "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." There's the water Jesus is speaking of. God will cleanse sinful people, which means we cannot cleanse ourselves. God sprinkles the water.

Nicodemus was well aware of John the Baptist, who was "preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins," according to Mark 1:4. Everyone had been going out to be baptized by him. God's cleansing was all over the news! What's more, John 1:29 says that when John the Baptist saw Jesus coming to be baptized, he said, "Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!"

So one "parent" in our second birth is water: the washing away of our sins through the blood of the Lamb of God, leaving us clean, forgiven, and reckoned righteous, despite how sinful we've been.

A new heart and spirit
Ezekiel 36:26-27 reads, "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. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws." He will give a new heart to replace the heart that constantly rebels against God, and he will give a new spirit—new breath to give life to what was dead. This is what makes a person baby-new: a goodness—a God-wardness and godliness—that comes naturally to us because we now have new hearts.

The other "parent" of new birth is the new heart and the breath and Spirit of God. This isn't a matter of turning over a new leaf, of a fresh start; this is a re-creation of a person. Paul said in 2 Corinthians 5:17 that "if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come." It takes us back to the creation of the world, and of Adam in particular. Genesis 2:7 says, "Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being." For a person to be born again, God has to do that again. To be born again from our mother's womb would do us no good at all.

Divine, unseen, unmistakable

Jesus is saying to Israel's teacher, "You should certainly recognize what I'm talking about here when I say you must be born of water and spirit! You've studied Ezekiel." To be born again is to be born of water and spirit. God washes us clean of sin past, present, and future, and then God gives us a new heart and breath. That born-a-second-time person is then and forever in God's kingdom.

In John 3:8, Jesus says, "The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit." It's not the womb that births you into God's kingdom; it's the wind. Jesus tells the over-achiever Nicodemus that he can no more bring about his own new birth than he can summon the wind.

Jesus isn't saying that God is random in bringing the breath of life. His point is that God's life-giving breath is divine and unseen, but unmistakable. "The wind blows wherever it pleases," and it pleases the wind—the Spirit of God—to breathe life into all who repent and who want to be clean and who believe in Jesus.

Here is the very best news you will ever hear, in verse 16: "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." You can't be born by yourself, and you have no more to do with being born again than you did with being born the first time. What you can do—the only thing you can do—is believe the Good News.

That's the whole point of this book of John. He writes at the beginning, in 1:12, that "to all who did receive [Jesus], to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God." John tells us at the end of this book, in 20:31, why it was written: "But these [signs] are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name."


Christians, thank God for such wonderful salvation: free, transforming, and everlasting. Tell others this good news. Tell them the story of Nicodemus and what it means to be born again—a phrase they know but do not understand any more than he did. You who are seeking—who come to Jesus at night—Jesus says to you that you must be born again, and that you can be born again: right here and now.

Lee Eclov recently retired after 40 years of local pastoral ministry and now focuses on ministry among pastors. He writes a weekly devotional for preachers on Preaching Today.

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Sermon Outline:


I. A salvation case study

II. 'Unless they are born again'

III. 'Born of water and the Spirit'

IV. Re-creation of a person

V. Divine, unseen, unmistakable