The following is a sermon I preached at Seed Church on March 3, 2019. You can listen to the message by clicking here.
Imagine for a moment if you were in the corridors of power. The elite. You were among a select few that had access to one of the most powerful people in the world. There were secrets that you knew that not many others did. The most important decisions that a person could make for a country or for the world, you perhaps would have some input on.
Throughout history, different individuals have been in these positions. From 1969 to 1973, there was a man named Charles Colson who served as special counsel to president Richard Nixon. Colson was in charge of special interest groups whom he arranged meetings between them and the president. Here was a man who was elite. Who organized which groups the president would hear from. He had access to tremendous power but as there often is, there was a dark underbelly to all of this.
Colson became known as the president’s “hatchet man”. Slate writer David Plotz described Colson as “Richard Nixon’s hard man, the ‘evil genius’ of an evil administration.” Colson himself wrote that he was “valuable to the president because I was willing…to be ruthless in getting things done.”
In 1974, he began serving a prison sentence. He was named as one of the Watergate Seven and had pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice for defaming the Pentagon Papers defendant Daniel Ellsberg.
Well, this nasty political operative had something happen to him. Colson was wealthy, powerful and scary. No one wanted to mess with him. For the first 41 years of his life, he lived in total disregard for most morals or ethical systems. However, Colson would become the guy who founded Prison Fellowship, a Christian ministry and visits prisoners and shares the gospel. An offshoot of this ministry, Angel Tree Fellowship, was started as an organization to give gifts to children whose parents may be in prison. He also became a strong advocate for prison reform, an evangelist and a Christian apologist. What happened?
As the Watergate trial was happening and the press was roasting Colson for his deeds, Colson met with his friend Tom Phillips, a CEO who had been converted to Christianity at a Billy Graham Crusade. Phillips aggressively called out Colson for his sins and told him that he needed to take responsibility for them and shared the gospel with him. On his way home from that meeting, Colson pulls his car over and begins to weep over his life. He becomes a Christian and in 1975 publishes the book about his life (up to that point): “Born Again”.
Everyday, we are confronted with a societal cynicism. Can people really changed? Can you be changed? Can I be changed? A lot of the time, I think, we doubt this don’t we? Can the slate really be wiped clean? Can new fresh starts actually happen?
People don’t just wonder about these questions in our time. They have been asking these questions for centuries. As a matter of fact, a Pharisee by the name of Nicodemus, snuck out to Jesus one night in the first century and he was asking Jesus about this whole weird born again thing. And Jesus provided this Pharisee with some of the most profound truth the world has ever heard.
Let’s dive into John:
John 3:1-3: “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.’”
The infamous personality of Nicodemus comes to visit Jesus at night. Nicodemus is identified as a leader of the Pharisees which would have made him a member of the Sanhedrin. A group that religiously ruled the Jews and also had some political power. Many of you have read the gospels and you will notice that Jesus and the Pharisees do not get along. Jesus often called out the Pharisees for being blatant hypocrities: brood of vipers, whitewashed tombs and other names.
The Pharisees as a sect of Judaism was founded around 167 BC and are estimated to have dissolved around 73 AD (after the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem by the Roman General Titus). The Pharisees had religious power but they are often characterized as being more middle class. The Sadducees were more elite and a part of the powerful in that society. The Pharisees had a fundamentalist take on the Mosaic Law and very dutifully and religiously observed it.
We know from other gospel accounts that the Pharisees thought that Jesus’ works were of the devil. They viewed Jesus as a threat and a kind of charlatan.
Notice Nicodemus interaction here with Jesus. Nicodemus comes at night, not during the day. This should lead us to believe that Nicodemus did not want to be seen meeting with the Son of Man. He may have been afraid for his reputation, it may have been a political fear that he didn’t want the crowds to see a member of the important Jewish ruling group meeting with a homeless guy that they deemed to be a rebel and blasphemer. Nonetheless, he comes at night. Sneaking around to meet with Jesus.
Nicodemus calls Jesus “Rabbi.” This is huge. This suggests that Nicodemus is not playing around. In Jewish culture, the Rabbi was the master. Everyone else was a disciple needing to be mentored. Nicodemus, by calling Jesus Rabbi, is showing him respect and is directly suggesting he has something to learn from Christ.
Nicodemus also says “we”. Underline that. It is not just Nicodemus. Apparently there is a fraction of Pharisees who have observed Jesus’ teachings and his good works (miracles and all) and are secretly whispering to each other: what is going on with this guy? There is something about this Jesus of Nazareth. To this group of Pharisees, perhaps it was small (Josephus estimated there was about 6,000 Pharisees before the temple of Jerusalem fell in AD 70), there was a dangerous compelling with Jesus. A draw that threatened their status and reputations. “We know that you are a teacher come from God.”
Jesus responds by saying someone must be born again to see the kingdom of God. This is what we are exploring today. Being “born again’. More on that later. Notice that Jesus says it is a prerequisite for someone to be born again to SEE the kingdom of God. A lot of teaching takes this verse as an insurance policy for heaven. You need to be born again to eventually go to the kingdom of God when you die. That is not what Jesus is saying here. He is saying IF someone becomes born again, you can see the kingdom of God…right now.
John 3:4: “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?’
Haha! Is Nicodemus being a smart ass here? “Jesus, how can I go back inside my mother’s womb? Physics Jesus and science. I’m a grown man. That cannot happen.” Nicodemus was probably a fairly smart guy so this may be a sarcastic commentary on Jesus’ instructions as Nicodemus completely does not understand Jesus’ exhortation to be born again. Keep in mind: Nicodemus we already know is a Pharisee. He was extremely learned in Jewish thought and the Old Testament. Being born of water and the spirit was probably confusing to him. He wanted to understand what Jesus was saying (he respectively called Jesus “Rabbi”) but just did not get it.
John 3:5-8: “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 flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 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.”
Jesus talks about being born of water and the spirit. What does this mean? These are identified as the prerequisites of being able to enter the Kingdom of God. Water seems to be the baptism element. Jesus was baptized by the forerunner, John the Baptist, most famously in Matthew 3 (Account is also in Mark and Luke). Jesus says He wanted to be baptized to fulfill all righteousness. Then we get a beautiful picture of the Trinity: the father speaks saying He is well pleased with His Son. The Spirit flies as a dove over the proceedings. Jesus, as God and the leader of a righteous movement, is going first with the baptism thing. Leading by example. The symbolism of baptism is that your sins are washed away and you are cleansed from all impurity and unrighteousness. Water is a physical thing and its impact on your body is physical. The Spirit is an invisible thing. This is the immaterial part of you. The center most part of your being. The spiritual part of you that goes on after your body dies. Personally, I’m a dichotomist (di meaning two) which is fancy language for saying each person has a material part of them and an immaterial part. Jesus wants to renew this centermost part of Nicodemus and everybody. He wants to change it, to make people born again and grant them entrance into His kingdom. This change will not just impact your immaterial or spiritual part. It will bleed out into your full being affecting the physical as well. People are holistic. To come to Jesus, repenting and asking to be born again, we will change us entirely.
The question will arise: is water baptism required to be saved? Jesus says here that we need to be born of water and the spirit. Seed Church’s stance is no, water baptism is not required. There is a lot of theology we can cite for this position but we don’t have time. The clearest example in the gospels is the thief on the cross next to Jesus. Jesus promised that upon death, this thief would enter into paradise after he confessed that there was something more to this Jesus guy. There is not any indication that this thief received a water baptism. He was born again because of his confession of Jesus and a genuine inward change which Jesus could sense.
Jesus also implies in these verses that the spiritual aspect of things can be mysterious. The wind blows where it wishes and you hear its sound but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.” Unpredictability and even a sense of danger. In Hebrew, the Spirit of God is the word ruah which is a feminine article and can literally mean, “the intimate breath of God”. In Greek, the word for spirit is pneuma and it is gender neutral. It means, “wind of His spirit” or “breath of God”.
Have you ever been in a severe windstorm? You certainly feel the affects of the wind blowing in your face, right? My freshman year of college out in Indiana was my first experience with a tornado. We were dumb college kids. There was a storm. It was midnight and for whatever reason, we were driving to Walmart. Yes, Walmart…the only thing to do, at night, in Warsaw, Indiana. While we were inside Walmart, a tornado touches down in the parking lot. A guy comes over the loudspeaker, “Attention Walmart shoppers!” He wasn’t announcing a midnight special. “A tornado has touched down in the parking lot. Everyone to the center of the store.” So our group of 6 or so starts wandering to the center of the store. Upon getting to the center of the store, we noticed other people from our school, not even with our group, coming out of the woodwork to the center of the store as well.
Now, I’m sure if you were a scientist, you could go out to the parking lot with a bunch of instruments and measure exactly where on the wind was coming from and the storm front and record all the details as to why we were having this storm at the Walmart in Warsaw, IN. But we weren’t scientists and we had no idea where this wind was coming from. We just knew what its affects were. Cars being damaged in the parking lot, Light poles being blown over. People huddled in the center of the store in case the tornado hit the building. The affects could be seen and/ or felt. The origins of the storm were mystery to us. Jesus says, “ so it is like the Spirit.”
One of the grave sins of Evangelicalism in America preaching the holy gospel of God is making the Spirit of God safe. We have probably all heard preaching that seems to directly imply that if you become born again, your life will become easy and you will get these pat answers and everything will make sense. This is not what an encounter with the Spirit of God looks like. It can be mysterious, we sometimes have spiritual things come over us and we don’t know what is going on in the moment or where the spirit is leading. There is a little bit of a recklessness to this thinking about the Spirit. Even a dangerousness. A good danger. The Spirit can blow through our lives disrupting our sin patterns, our selfishness, our greed, our consumerism, our addictions. And in this sea change, as they say, nothing is safe.
John 3:9-13 “Nicodemus said to Him, ‘How can these things be?” 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 told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except He who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.”
Nicodemus says, “Say what?” And Jesus’ comeback is interesting reminding Nicodemus that he is a teacher, a leader an authority of Israel (and we know specifically a Pharisee). This seems fairly cutting on Jesus’ part identifying Nicodemus as a teacher and being astounded on why Nicodemus cannot answer these things. Jesus says that He and his fellow ministry partners speak about what they know (as we all do) and they are a witness to what they have seen which is Jesus performing miracles, people having their lives changed and getting baptized.
Jesus confronts Nicodemus stating that the Pharisee cannot believe what he has witnessed happen in Jesus’ ministry then how could he come to believe heavenly things. Here again, Jesus is tying together the physical and the spiritual. They are linked together and in major ways, cannot be separated.
In verse 13, we have another deity reference for Jesus. No one in Jesus’ audience in that day including Nicodemus obviously had seen heaven. None of us here at Seed have seen the spiritual place that is heaven. We have not been there yet. However, Jesus has been there as He makes clear in His statement. He has come from heaven, the Son of Man (one of His favorite titles for Himself). Jesus has descended from heaven and He was God incarnate that has come to show humanity that they can have a real and genuine encounter with the God of the universe.
John 3:14-15. “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.”
Jesus is referring in this verse to the account of the bronze snake which is found in Numbers 21:4-9. Israel had suffered from a plague of snakes that were sent as a punishment for and consequence for their persistent grumbling. The bronze snake, held up by Moses on a pole, was the way that God granted new life (physically) if an Israelite were bitten by a snake.
So Moses lifted up this snake on a pole so that every member in the Israel camp could see this bronze snake and live as a result. Jesus, who had taken on human flesh, must now be lifted up on the cross to suffer and die (per the will of God) and then ascend back to heaven after the resurrection. People are now to look up at the “lifted up Christ” and live.
John 3:16-18. “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 send 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.”
The famous verse. A verse that we see at football games and other sporting events. God loves the world and the word there is agape. God unconditionally loves the world. God unconditionally loves you.
Whoever “believes” in God shall not perish but have eternal life. Believe here is the word pisteuo which means “to have faith in” or “to pledge allegiance too”. It is not just a mental ascension but something that is more intimate or personal. And Jesus mentions a fork in the road: there are people who “perish” in His words and people who go onto eternal life who are within Christ or within God’s kingdom. This is a stark contrast. Jesus continues this in Matthew 25 with the sheep and the goats. Paul also teaches a separation between people who believe in Christ and those who don’t. Revelation talks about people’s names being written in the book of life and the book of the dead. The New Testament, including in our passage today, teaches a separation of people who believe in Christ and people who do not. This is the urgency of the gospel message.
God did not come to condemn the world. A lot of Old Testament prophets, in their times, spoke righteously but they had strong rebukes for God’s people, Israel. Jesus did not come to let people know that they were doomed. He did not come bring a giant divine club or sword to just cut people down and enact furious vengeance. No, Jesus came to save. He came to save the world through Him.
People who believe in Jesus are not condemned. Paul says there is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus but the condemnation of a person comes from not believing in the only Son of God.
John 3:19-21. “And 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.”
People who stand condemned for not believing in Jesus, verses 19-21, let us know what the judgment is or the verdict. Jesus is identified as being the light of the world. John uses this analogy for Jesus all the time. Jesus is a bright beam of light cutting across a dark room and exposing terrible deeds of darkness. And these verses are logical. If someone is doing an evil deed or a sin, usually they are discreet about performing those sins. There are of course exceptions. We will find in our world terrible dictators who murder their citizens openly and don’t think anything of it. People in positions of power do evil acts brazenly and in plain view and don’t seem to care. However, most people feel a sense of shame and work to hide their sins.
I’m reading “The Great Train Robbery” right now by Michael Crichton. This was a historically famous heist in 1854 and was legendary (still is) in Victorian England. The main perpetrators, Edward Pierce and his fellow conspirators, planned this theft and how they were going to do it for a long time. They did tons of research and moved slowly enacting pieces of their plan in stealth mode, building up to when they actually pulled the heist off. All of the deeds they did leading up to the heist, they did very quietly and under the radar. They did not want to be caught.
Verse 21 says that people who are performing acts of righteousness for the kingdom are fine doing these acts in the light of Christ. There is nothing to hide. Note that Jesus doesn’t want us flaunting our good works around (see the Sermon on the Mount) but that is not what He is saying in this verse. People who do good works for the kingdom are not ashamed too. They are doing righteous work.
This passage involving Jesus laying out a vitally important gospel messages has been one of the most meaningful passages to people ever. There is a reason why our camp, Evangelicalism, with Billy Graham’s preaching and going through this day has found this passage preached on so often.
We live in a larger culture that yearns and longs for spiritual experiences. I listen to religious podcasts, often of people I completely disagree with on numerous topics, and find people hungry for spiritual experiences. I have heard atheists, who if they were consistent would be complete materialists, talk about meditation practices and being able to, reportedly sit outside their body as a result of their meditation practice. So a philosophical materialist meets a spiritual experience? I have heard otherwise secular people bemoan the fact that religiosity or a seeking after spiritual highs or insight or transcendence is so built into the human condition that we will never be able to get rid of it.
People long for change. Remember that airline commercial, ‘wanna get away’ for Southwest Airlines. Somebody does something embarrassing and then immediately thinks of an airline and flying out of town. We all have wanted do-overs. Some of us here may want or need a do-over.
Most people are seeking greater insight via spiritual transcendence. Jesus in this passage (later He would claim to be the way, the truth, and the life) is explaining to people how to have exactly that exclusively through Him. He is telling Nicodemus that he can indeed be born again and by giving Nicodemus that message, Jesus has proclaimed the truth about being born again down through the ages to us today.
Thesis: Jesus offers people who come to Him a way to see as they join His Kingdom and not only a way to see, but a process to be transformed by being born again.
With the message of being born again, there are numerous ways that we struggle with the most central message that Jesus has brought to us.
- The first one is a lot of us have doubts about whether people can actually change. After all, we here at Seed are good Calvinists, right? Predestination. What is interesting is when scientists and other secular thinkers sound like Calvinists as well. More and more, smart people are theorizing that we as people have very little choice if any. We are the sum parts of nature and nurture, both our DNA and how we were raised in our formative years. Both of these things, we have little to no control over. With a lack of culture and with forces inside of us guiding us more intensely perhaps than we realize, can we really change in significant ways?
2) The second one is that some of us are veteran Christians have been around the church awhile and we have seen some truly deplorable behavior from fellow Christians and churches. How many of us in this room have been abused by churches? Many people in our area have been spiritually abused and had pastors or elders use “god” as a manipulative tool in order to get what they wanted or to control people. In the news recently are more denominations that have covered up child sexual abuse, seemingly to protect institutional names. When we see these grievous and heinous sins and coverups against other people, we are tempted to become jaded and cynical about this born again thing. The very “institution” quote/unquote that is supposed to be proclaiming this most holy of concepts falls so far short and doesn’t not act like it has been truly transformed by the Spirit’s power.
3) The phrase “born again” has become an empty talking point. This crucial phrase that Jesus used has been plastered on bumper stickers and turned into a slogan and sentimentalized in cheesy Christian subculture songs. It is a terrible tragedy that we have become numb to what it really means to be born again in Christ. That we, as the church in general, have sanded down this powerful engine of transformation that Christ has called us too and simply use the phrase as a cultural signifier that we are some kind of churchy person.
4) The engine of being born again is the love of God. If we are honest, some of us doubt the love of God. The love of God is another thing that has become trivialized and a phrase that we may intellectually acknowledge but this does not connect with our hearts and the messages we tell ourselves. Even if this profound truth does not connect with our hearts though, that doesn’t make Jesus’ proclaimed love for us any less so.
Think about that for a moment. There are people in your life who have hated you. Sadly enough, sometimes this could be family members or former friends. Co-workers. People in our lives have done hateful and hurtful things to us. People may have hated you for sexist reasons or racist reasons or may have bullied or abused you. And when those people did those things, they often have these lists of things that they don’t like about you from shallow to maybe somewhat sophisticated. There is so much guilt and shame that people walk around with. So many of us are wished down by these messages.
What does Jesus say here? All those messages about you are wrong. Why? Because God loves you unconditionally. The most powerful being in the universe embraces you. When He created you, He said it was good. His embrace of you, as his child, is unconditional. The most powerful love that we could ever experience.
I heard a sermon one time about bad tapes in our heads. We have these bad messages about ourselves rattling around in our minds. These are messages of guilt and shame. “You are not a good person.” “You did that one thing when you were younger and therefore you are no good.” “You have sexual sin in your past so you are damaged goods and worthless and no one can love you.” “You are a terrible Christian because of these sins you are struggling with.” And these messages, these tapes, keep getting played over and over and over again in our heads. Guilt. Guilt. Guilt. Guilt. Shame. Shame. Shame. There is a lot of shame to go around.
So, what do we have to do? We have to burn the tapes and get new tapes.
All those taped messages saying that you are worthless or will never measure up or that you are a bad Christian need to be replaced with this message, this tape: For God so loved the world.
God’s love is what defines you. Not your sins, not your crimes, not your addictions, not the abuse or hurtful commentary others have foisted upon you. God created you in His image. He created you good. The Bible does not start with total depravity. Genesis begins with people as image bearers of God. From there, humanity sinned and we became marred by this thing we call the Fall.
The meaning and value that we have as people comes in the profound truth of God’s love. Now, we cannot ignore the other truth. We have been ensnared by sins. Sins against God or sins against our neighbors. Who can honestly claim to be perfect? We all know we have done wrong. There are websites we have been to that we should not have been too. There are ways that we have hurt others by not doing the right thing.
While we are defined as people by God making us in His image and loving us, the truth is we have also fallen short morally. We have missed the mark. We are imperfect. Which is why God gave His only Son.
Paul would go on to say in Romans 5 that God demonstrated His love for us because Christ died on the cross.
Remember, there are a couple of things going on here: First off, we have to see these truths. You have to see that God loves you. You have to see that you and I and that everyone has fallen short in our own sins. You have to see that Jesus died on the cross for all of us.
Jesus does not stop with just asking us to see from His vantage point. Jesus asks us to be born again. His mission is getting us to see and then come to Him and be transformed. Transforming people is why Jesus came because this transformation is redeeming and restoring people (and really all of creation) back to God.
God can and will transform you. God is bigger then Calvinism and honestly, He probably laughs at some of our theological systems. God is bigger than the way we were raised and bigger than our DNA. Jesus can change you and He can change me. The good news is we can be redeemed. There is a whole history of people who have been changed by Jesus including many in this room.
Maybe there are some of you who have not been born again. This means believing in Jesus as Lord and Savior of your life. It is inviting Him to transform you. To become born again.
I always quote these verses because I love them. Paul says in Romans 10, “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the grave…you will be saved.” Notice how simple that is. He is not saying “clean up your life and all your sins and then come to Jesus.” No. He is saying come right now, as you are.
If you are not sure whether you have been born again, you are welcome to talk to any of us. I’m happy to talk with you. Some people can remember a distinct day that they trusted Jesus and believed in Him and began their journey with God. Others are not sure about what date but it was a pathway of realizing and believing certain things and then over time, they were born again. Some of you have made a commitment to Jesus in the past and perhaps you have ventured into sins and addictions and you doubt if the commitment was real or if you meant it when you wanted to trust Jesus. We would love to pray with you and help you get to a place where you are confident in your salvation and your place in God’s kingdom.
Many of us here have been born again for, maybe, a long time. The risk of being in God’s Kingdom for a long time is we can become, not exactly, like Nicodemus but basically some kind of a good religious person. What is your walk with Christ like now? Are there things going on in your heart that disrupt your walk with God? Are their sins you are hiding from your spouse or your loved ones that you have not come clean on?
This is hard work. The gospel in America is unfortunately preached sometimes as “come to Jesus and all your problems go away.” Often coming to Jesus actually creates more problems. Personal change can be painful. It can be excruciating hard for all of us to deal honestly with how we have hurt God and hurt other people.
The end goal though is not to wallow in the bad sins and actions we have done. The end goal is to be transformed. To be renewed. To live in peace with God and as much as possible, with our neighbors. It is to be free of habits and patterns that can destroy our life and rob us of peace and joy that is available in Jesus.
The kingdom that we can be transformed into is perhaps best described in 2 Peter 5-11…
Don’t let being “born again” become another trite talking point in Christian subculture. Let us uphold this holy action of God as the miracle that it is. That Jesus came to meet and redeem sinners and not leave them the same.