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The New Birth

The following is a sermon I preached at a United Methodist church in East Tennessee on June 1, 2008.

John 3:1-15

3:1 Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicode’mus, a ruler of the Jews. 2 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.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” 4 Nicode’mus 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?” 5 Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born anew.’ 8 The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes; so it is with every one who is born of the Spirit.” 9 Nicode’mus said to him, “How can this be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand this? 11 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. 12 If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven but he who descended from heaven, the Son of man. 14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” (Revised Standard Version)

For those of us who grew up in the church, this may be a very familiar passage. Because it’s so familiar we can miss aspects of its meaning.  Therefore this morning I want to take a fresh look at this story to see what we might learn from it.

The first person we meet in the story is Nicodemus. What do we know about him?

Verse 1 tells us Nicodemus was a Pharisee, which means he was devoutly religious. This same verse also calls him a “ruler of the Jews.  ”In verse 10 Jesus calls Nicodemus “a teacher of Israel. ” This implies that he must have been fairly well-known as a spiritual leader, someone who was respected as a teacher in spiritual matters. So from these few facts we can surmise that Nicodemus was no lightweight; he was known and respected as a spiritual leader.

In light of this, the fact that Nicodemus comes to see Jesus at night (verse2) is significant. Some of Nicodemus’ colleagues among the spiritual leadership of the Jewish people were suspicious of Jesus and thought he was leading the people astray. It appears Nicodemus was concerned about what his colleagues would think about him coming to consult this controversial rabbi, and so Nicodemus comes to see him quietly at night.

We can also see, though, that he must have had some level of spiritual awareness, because he tells Jesus, “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” (verse 2). Nicodemus recognized Jesus as a man who had been sent by God. One of the themes in the gospel of John is that Jesus is the man who came down from heaven, and this verse indicates that Nicodemus was perceptive enough to see this.

Jesus doesn’t mince any words with this man. In fact, he doesn’t even give Nicodemus time to ask a question or tell Jesus why he came. Jesus cuts to the chase; He tells Nicodemus he must be “born anew” (v. 3).

The fact that Jesus says such a thing to this prominent religious leader is significant: Even though Nicodemus is a spiritual leader of his people—even though he’s a teacher, and a man of some understanding—Jesus tells him there’s more. There’s more to being a part of God’s kingdom than Nicodemus has yet discovered.

Nicodemus questioned what Jesus meant about being born anew. It would be worthwhile for us to consider the issue for a moment.

You probably know that the New Testament was originally written in Greek and that all our English Bibles are translations of the Greek manuscripts into English. In John 3 verses 3 and 7, where the text speaks of being born anew, the Greek word translated “anew” is anothen.

This word can also be translated “again”. Of course, this is the wording we most often hear with respect to this phrase: “born again”. The idea of being a “born-again Christian” has almost become a cliché. However, we see here that being born again is a biblical idea.

The Greek word “anothen” can also be translated “from above”. So Jesus tells Nicodemus that he needs to be “born anew”, “born again” or “born from above.” Each of these translations tells us something about what Jesus meant.

“Born anew” and “born again” have similar meanings. We can tell Nicodemus understood Jesus’ statement in this way because of his question in verse 4: “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Nicodemus understood Jesus to be saying he needed to be born again.

The translation “born from above” is helpful also, because it helps us know what kind of birth we’re talking about. It’s a birth that’s not merely of this earth, but instead is “from above.” We can interpret this to mean that the new birth is from heaven. We’ll say more about that in a moment.

When we hear Jesus tell Nicodemus “you must be born anew” or “born again,” our response might be a bit like that of Nicodemus: “What do you mean I must be ‘born again?’ How can someone be born once they’ve grown up? Can a person enter a second time into his or her mother’s womb and be born?” Let’s take a few moments to consider in more depth what kind of birth this new birth or second birth is.

Our best indication is found in verse 6, when Jesus says: “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” Here Jesus contrasts two kinds of birth.

First he refers to our natural birth when he says “That which is born of the flesh is flesh….” Every person is born into this world in the natural manner: Parents conceive, the mother carries the baby to term (hopefully) and eventually the mother gives birth to a healthy baby from her womb. This natural birth that every person goes through to come into this world is what Jesus is referring to when he says “that which is born of the flesh is flesh.”

But then Jesus goes on to say that “that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” Here he’s talking about the second birth, or the new birth. So from this we know that when Jesus says “you must be born again” he’s talking about a spiritual birth. This fits with the idea of being “born from above,” which we talked about a moment ago. When he speaks of “that which is born of the Spirit” he’s referring there to the Holy Spirit. The new birth is a spiritual birth coming “from above,” when a person is born of the Holy Spirit.

This goes along with what Jesus said in verse 5: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” Scholars have debated what Jesus means here by being “born of water.” Some say the reference to water refers to the waters of baptism. Others claim Jesus is referring to the natural birth, as we think of when we say that the mother’s “water broke” just before giving birth.

Since Jesus is talking here about what must happen in order for a person enter the kingdom of God, and since he contrasts the natural birth with the spiritual birth in verse 6, I don’t believe being “born of water” here is referring to the natural birth. I think it’s safe to say that the water Jesus mentions in verse 5 is the water of baptism. Jesus is saying that in order for a person to enter the Kingdom of God they must be baptized and spiritually reborn. (Note: We should not take this to mean that baptism is necessary for salvation. But that is a topic for another sermon.)

So to sum up, when Jesus tells Nicodemus “you must be born again” he’s saying to him: In order for someone to enter the kingdom of God a person has to be born in a spiritual sense. They must be born of the Holy Spirit.

To learn more about this idea of being born again, let’s look at another passage in the gospel of John, John 1: 9-13.

9 The true light that enlightens every man was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not. 11 He came to his own home, and his own people received him not. 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God; 13 who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. (RSV)

Here John is talking about Jesus coming into the world. He says that Jesus “was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not. 11 He came to his own home, and his own people received him not” (verses 10 and 11). But then notice what it says in verses 12-13: “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God; 13 who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.”

Here we see another reference to the new birth, when John speaks of being “born of God.” John tells us that the way to become children of God is by being born of God.

What the gospel of John is talking about here and in chapter 3 is becoming a Christian. And what we see in both places is that in order to become a Christian a person must be born again.

We have heard talk over the years of “born-again” Christians, but these verses let us know that really there is no other kind. If you want to be a Christian, if you want to enter the kingdom of heaven, if you want to be a child of God, says the Bible, you must be born again. Notice it says “you must be born again.” Not you “may” or you “might want to be”, but “you must be born again.” And lest we think Jesus was only addressing this thought to Nicodemus, we should take note of the fact that when Jesus says “you must be born anew” in verse 7, the word “you” in the Greek is plural. So it means “you all must be born again.” (You didn’t know Jesus was a southerner, did you?  😉 ) Taking this into account, the full meaning of verse 7 is as follows: “Do not marvel that I said to you, Nicodemus, that you all must be born anew.”

Jesus wasn’t just telling Nicodemus he had to be born again. He was saying that any person who desires to become a Christian needs to be born again.

Why? Why do we need to be born again?

The answer goes all the way back to the book of Genesis. When Adam and Eve were deceived by the serpent in the Garden of Eden, disobeyed God’s command, and ate of the forbidden fruit, their disobedience caused them to die spiritually. This gave them a sinful nature which also passed to their children and on down through the generations, so that every person who’s ever been born has a sinful nature that separates them from God.

Every person who is born into this world is born spiritually dead. When we come into this world our spirits are dead. That’s why Jesus said we must be born of the Spirit in order to be saved. In order to enter God’s kingdom we have to be born into it via the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit revives our spirit and brings it to life, giving us new life, the life of Christ.

Back in the days when kings ruled the earth, the normal way to become a king was that you had to be born the son of the king in order to succeed to the throne. Kingship was normally passed on by blood through birth.

When we become Christians, we become children of God, who is the great king of all the earth. God invites us to become his children. But in order to do this, we have to be born into his kingdom.

So how does this happen? How do we become born again? Let’s look again at John 1: 12-13.“But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God; 13 who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.

John says that those who were given power (the Greek word also means “right” or “authority”) to become the children of God were those who “received” him, those who “believed in his name.” This is how we are born of God, by receiving Christ and believing in his name. Let’s look briefly at these two ideas.

First, what does it mean to receive Christ? We must begin by remembering that Jesus is a person. He’s not a concept or an idea or a thought, but a person. Yes, he’s risen from the dead and ascended to sit at the right hand of the Father in heaven. But the Bible teaches that Jesus comes to us spiritually and makes his home with us if we love him. Consider these verses from the 14th chapter of John:

18 “I will not leave you desolate; I will come to you. 19 Yet a little while, and the world will see me no more, but you will see me; because I live, you will live also. 20 In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. 21 He who has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me; and he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.” 22 Judas (not Iscariot) said to him, “Lord, how is it that you will manifest yourself to us, and not to the world?” 23 Jesus answered him, “If a man loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. 24 He who does not love me does not keep my words; and the word which you hear is not mine but the Father’s who sent me.

If a stranger comes to your house, you have a couple of options as to how you will respond to them. You can turn them away, or you can receive them into your home and show them hospitality. If you get to know them well, you may begin to show them love and in a sense receive them in a deeper way, into your heart.

John 1 says that when Jesus came into this world, many didn’t receive him. They rejected him. They didn’t believe he was who he said he was, they didn’t believe or accept his teaching, they didn’t receive him in any way.

The chapter goes on to say, though, that there were some who did receive him. These were the ones who “believed in his name.” In Bible times, someone’s name represented everything they were. To believe in Jesus name is, among other things, to believe in everything that he is. These people believed Jesus was who he said he was. They believed and accepted Jesus’ teaching. They received him into their homes and into their lives and showed him hospitality and love.

Unfortunately, the idea of believing in Jesus is often misunderstood. The Greek word translated “believe” in the New Testament is the word pisteuo, which really means to “trust” or to “have faith in.”

Too often people think that believing in Jesus is just intellectual assent; that is, merely believing in Jesus as an idea or a concept; believing facts about Jesus—that he was born of a virgin, died on the cross, rose again, saved us from our sins, will get us to heaven when we die, etc. These facts about Jesus Christ are all true, and we do need to believe them.

But when the Bible talks about believing in Jesus, what is meant is trusting in him, having faith in him. Jesus Christ is a living person, more real than you or I. And we can have a relationship with him, just as you would have a relationship with a very special friend; or with a father who loves you and looks after you and watches out for you and has the best advice and wisdom for you. In order to be born again we are called to place our trust in this very special friend, to put our very lives in his hands.

Likewise, receiving Jesus means opening our hearts to him and receiving him, his very life, his very being, into our very selves.  Letting all that He is fill all that we are. THIS is what it means to be born again.

And so the question I have for you this morning is: Have you been born again? Have you received Jesus into your heart and life? Have you believed in his name, not just as an idea, but as the Lord of the universe and your closest friend?? Have you invited to Jesus to come and live inside you, to fill you with Himself?

The Bible says that unless a person is born again, they cannot enter the kingdom of God. Simply being born into this earth of natural means is not enough. Every person is born that way. But in order to become a child of God, we have to be born of God, born of the Holy Spirit.

This means God has no grandchildren. Every new person who comes into this world must be born of God themselves. We don’t become Christians automatically, simply because our parents were Christians, or because we grew up in the church. The only way we become Christians is if each one of us personally receives Christ ourselves and puts our trust in him.

Friends, there are a whole lot of people who have gone to church all their lives but have never come to know Jesus Christ personally. They may have been faithful in their church attendance but have never received him. They may even be leaders in their church, just as Nicodemus was a teacher of the Jews, and yet they have never placed their faith in him. To every one of us Jesus says “you must be born again.”

I want to tell you a story from my own life. I grew up going to church. My parents were Christians. They had grown up Methodist, and as a child our family attended the Methodist church. For reasons I won’t go into, when I was about 12 our family became Presbyterian (a fact for which I hope you all will forgive us. 😉 ). So my formative teenage years were spent in the Presbyterian Church. I was confirmed in that church and became very active in the youth group. Around the age of thirteen I began to make some conscious decisions to try to live the way I believed God wanted me to live based on the teachings of the Bible.

From then on I was at church almost every time the doors were open. As a teen I tried very hard to live a righteous life. I became a leader and song leader for my youth group, and taught Sunday school on occasion with the younger kids.

In college I continued to serve with youth groups as a leader and during the summers I worked as a camp counselor at our church camp, eventually working my way up to the position of head counselor. I felt like my efforts as a spiritual leader at the camp were well-received, and so I concluded this was perhaps an indication that maybe God was calling me to be a leader in the church. I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a pastor, but I felt drawn to some form of church leadership.

So my senior year I decided to go on to seminary. I applied to become a candidate for ministry in my denomination and began applying to seminaries. When I was accepted at Princeton seminary I decided to go there.

After seminary I was ordained as a pastor and served two churches. My years of ministry were filled with personal struggles of various types. I found that the beliefs I had weren’t sufficient to deal with the struggles I was facing. I felt like something was missing from my life, but I didn’t know what it was.

I had entered the ministry in 1991. In about 1996 or ’97 I heard a sermon on tape by the pastor of a fairly large church in Knoxville on this very same passage from John 3 about being born again. As I listened to the tape, I concluded that whatever this experience was of being born again, I had not had it. I didn’t know what it was, but whatever it was, I was pretty sure I had not experienced it. So I began to pray, “Lord, whatever it means to be born again, I don’t think it’s happened to me, but I would like it to happen, so would you bring it about in my life? I want to be born again.”

In 1998 I was invited by some other ministers in the town where I lived to attend a prayer retreat for pastors. There I had a chance to share some of my burdens and struggles with the other pastors, and they prayed for me.

On the third night of the retreat, I learned of some men there who were praying for pastors in a more personal way, and so I sought out these men and asked them to pray with me. As I shared my struggles with them and we prayed, I felt my burdens beginning to lift. I was being released from spiritual bondages and sins I had been carrying around for a long time. It was a wonderful, freeing experience, and the presence of the Holy Spirit in the room was palpable.

During this prayer time, one of the men turned to me and asked, “Have you ever asked Jesus into your heart?” At this point I had been a pastor for seven years, so the question kind of took me by surprise. I might have been tempted to dismiss it, but because God was working so powerfully in my life, and because I was in such obvious need, I took the question seriously.

I responded that I wasn’t sure I ever had asked Jesus into my heart, but that I had made a decision to serve Him as a young teenager. The man replied gently that this was good, but it wasn’t the same thing. And so he put the question to me again: “Have you ever asked Jesus into your heart?”

I said, “I don’t think I’ve ever asked that exact thing, but I think it’s already taken care of.”

“Well,” he replied, “since you’re not sure, why don’t you take a moment now and ask Jesus into you heart. Then if anyone ever asks you about this again in the future, you’ll know for sure.”

I agreed. I bowed my head, and he encouraged me to say a simple prayer in my own words. So I prayed, “Lord Jesus Christ, you know I love you and I want you to be in my heart. And so I ask you now to come into my heart,” or words to that effect.

At that moment, as I prayed those words, I was aware of a benevolent spiritual presence filling my heart with a peace and a feeling of cleanness and joy and love that I have never known before. Jesus Christ had answered my prayer and come into my heart, just as I asked him to!

Later that night, after the prayer time was over, when I went back to my room in the conference center where the retreat was being held, I was filled with joy and excitement and wonder! As I lay in bed that night I found myself asking, “Lord what has happened to me???” As I lay there, the Lord began speaking to my heart about what had happened in my life. Over the days and weeks that followed, as I studied the Bible to find explanations for what I had experienced, I concluded that I had finally experienced this new birth Jesus talks about in the third chapter of John. I had been born again, born of the Spirit.  That prayer I had prayed a couple years earlier had been answered.

From my own experiences I’ve concluded that being born again involves a personal encounter with God. It isn’t necessarily something that happens just by being in church every Sunday or by doing spiritual activities like prayer and Bible study. I did all those things and more as an active church member, and as a pastor; and yet I never experienced the new birth through those things alone.

You may find it hard to believe that someone who grew up in church, was active in youth group, went to seminary, and became a pastor could do all that and yet never come to know Jesus Christ in a personal way. But I’ve become convinced there are lots of people who’ve been in church all their lives but have never been born anew. They are elders, and deacons, and Sunday school teachers, and church board members, even pastors, bishops, and seminary professors. They are good, responsible religious people like Nicodemus, but just like him they need to be born again.

Since you all are Methodists, I’ll close with a story from the life of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. (You all probably know this story better than I do, and might be able to correct me on any details I get wrong.)

Wesley grew up in the Church of England, and at the age of 22 made a profession of faith. After this Wesley decided to pursue a career as a priest.

Eventually John Wesley became the leader of a group of Oxford university students started by his brother Charles called the Holy Club. These young men were very zealous in their desire to live a holy and spiritual life, and so they adopted a very strict regimen of Bible study, self-denial, and acts of service. This group later became known as “Methodists” because of the method of spiritual discipline they rigorously pursued.

In 1735 Wesley decided to come to America to be a missionary to the Indians. On the trip across the ocean, one day a storm came up and everyone on board thought they were going to die. Wesley himself was very fearful of death at this time in his life.

During the storm the young preacher noticed a group of Moravian Christians from Germany who remained calm and serene. Wesley was impressed by their faith and concluded they had something he didn’t have, something he wanted.

In Wesley’s own estimation, that first trip to America was a failure. The response to his ministry was not as he had hoped, and in 1738 he returned to England. Once back home, Wesley sought out some Moravians like those he had met on his trip to America, and began attending their meetings.

You’ve probably heard the famous story about how one day, while attending one of these meetings held on a street called Aldersgate, as someone was reading a passage from Martin Luther’s commentary on Romans, Wesley felt his “heart strangely warmed.” After this spiritual experience, Wesley’s life was profoundly changed. He discovered a new power in his preaching, as people responded like never before. Eventually a revival a broke out that continued for 50 years.

Scholars have been divided over exactly what the experience was that Wesley had at Aldersgate. Some have said it was salvation, some have said it was sanctification; others have concluded it was the filling of the Holy Spirit. But one thing is clear—after this experience, Wesley was never the same. His life was forever changed. He knew the power of God in his life as never before.

Through my own experiences and the testimony of others, I’m convinced that the new birth, being born again, is a personal encounter with God. If you’ve had it you will know, because your life will be changed.

It may happen different ways for different people. But the point is have you had it? Do you know that you know that you’re born again?

When a baby is born, mother and baby go through a very painful and wrenching process of labor. (Since I’m a man, I’ll never know what this is like in a personal way, but the ladies can tell us). The mother never forgets the labor she went through with her children.

I think it’s the same way with spiritual birth. You know when it happens because it is significant and memorable.

If you have any doubt in your mind that you’ve been born again; if you have any uncertainty as to whether you’ve met and gotten to know Jesus Christ in a personal way, I encourage you to seek to know him personally. If you’re unsure, why not ask Him just to be certain. Tell God, “Lord, I’m not sure I’ve ever had this experience of being born again, but I would like to.” If you’re not sure you’ve asked Jesus into your heart, why not pray a simple prayer asking him to come into your heart and live inside you.

For years I thought the Christian life was me trying real hard to live the way I was supposed to live. Today, even ten years after I met Jesus Christ, I am still learning that living the Christian life is not trying our best to live as Jesus wants us to live. Instead, it’s inviting Jesus Christ to come and live inside us, and letting Him live His life through us.

I encourage you to seek to know Jesus Christ personally. Feel free to ask me about this if you want to know more.

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