Sunday, September 17, 2023

“You Must Be Born Again” [Matt's Messages]

“You Must Be Born Again”
Life in Jesus’ Name - The Gospel of John
Lanse Evangelical Free Church
September 17, 2023 :: John 3:1-15 

It was nighttime when Nicodemus came to visit Jesus.

I’ve said many times that this was the original episode of “Nick at Nite.” But it wasn’t a comedy or a children’s cartoon when Nicodemus came to Jesus. 

It was darkness.

I don’t think it was just incidental that Nicodemus visited Jesus at night. John probably doesn’t just throw in this detail for nothing. Though I’m sure it actually happened this way, I’m thinking that John mentions it to get our minds making the connections. For example, to his Prologue. Remember chapter 1? That preview trailer of the movie that told us what we were about to see in his gospel?

John told us that the Word (Jesus) was the light of men. And then he said, “The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it” (Jn. 1:5 NIVO). Nicodemus came in the darkness.

He might have come out of fear of being seen. Perhaps he was afraid of what other people would think of him talking to Jesus. It doesn’t say that. Perhaps he didn’t even come alone. We aren’t told. There were certainly others present, like John, who recorded this coversation for sharing later with us. 

Perhaps Nick came at night so that they had the whole evening to talk. We don’t know. But we do know that he came at night, and almost every time the word “night” shows up in this book, it is highlighting the evil and falsehood of the darkness and the contrasting goodness and truth of the light.

Regardless of when he came, I’m glad that he came to see Jesus because through this encounter we are given some wonderful mysterious truth that thrills our hearts and changes our lives today and forever.

Because in this story, Jesus tells us over and over, “You must be born again.” 

"Born again." This is the passage where we get that oft-repeated phrase.

Have you heard someone say that they are “born again?” It’s probably been over-used and mangled and manhandled into meaning all kinds of things that are different from what Jesus is talking about here.

But Jesus says it. And He means it for all of us–with no exceptions. “You must be born again.”

Let’s see how He got there. Let’s start in the first verse, verse 1.

If you remember, last week’s chapter 2 ended by saying that many people saw the miraculous signs that Jesus was doing at the Passover the Feast where He had been zealously cleaning house in the temple, and many of them had believed in Him–at least superficially. But Jesus did not believe in them. He could read their hearts and know that they really didn’t get yet Who He really was. So He pulled back. 

Chapter 2 verse 25 says, “He knew what was in a man.”

Well, the very next verse says, “Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, ‘Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him.’”

Now, that sounds pretty good, but Jesus is not impressed. He knows what is in Nicodemus’ heart.

It seems like Nicodemus may be trying to butter Jesus up, right? 

He comes to Jesus instead of requesting Jesus to come him. And he uses a bunch of words to honor Jesus even though Nicodemus was an elite ruler himself. Nicodemus was a Pharisee. So he was a member of that religious group that was so focused on rule-keeping. They were focused on attaining and maintaining holiness through scrupulously observing the Jewish traditions. Following the Law (at least on the outside) plus following all of the various traditions around the Law. That was the Pharisees.

But he wasn’t just a Pharisee. He was also a ruler. Nicodemus was a member of the Jewish ruling council, a select group of men who had political power in Israel under Rome. Nicodemus was a Somebody. He himself was a rabbi (a teacher). We might think of him as a clergyman or even a professor in a seminary. And a congressman or senator. All wrapped up into one.

And he comes to Jesus at night time and says that he (and his compatriots) know that Jesus is from God. “Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs [saymeion, same word as the last two weeks] you are doing if God were not with him.’”

Again, it sounds good, but what’s wrong with that?

Is that Who Jesus is?

Is that Who we have found Jesus to be so far in the Gospel of John? Is Jesus merely a great heaven-sent teacher from God? He is a great heaven-sent teacher from God. Praise God for Jesus’ teaching!

But what did He say when He was tossing tables in the temple?!?

“Get these out of here! How dare you turn my Father's house into a market!” (Jn. 2:16 NIVO).

Nicodemus’ mind is clothed with darkness.

He is missing Jesus’ true identity. He is missing Jesus’ true messiahship. And he is missing Jesus’ divine Sonship! “[The Word] was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him” (Jn. 1:10 NIVO).

Really Nicodemus is kind of challenging Jesus here. He’s saying, “We know that you’re a great teacher from God. Right? Right? Is that Who you are? We are the credentials committee, and we’re ready to confer some credentials on you if you meet our criteria. You clearly seem ready for our blessing.”

But Jesus is unimpressed. And He doesn’t seek Nicodemus’ blessing or his credentials. Instead, he blows right past Nick’s opening statement and goes right to the heart of things. V.3

“In reply Jesus declared, ‘I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.’”

Jesus doesn’t even respond to Nicodemus’ attempt at flattery. He goes right for his heart.

I have two points to hang this morning’s teaching on, and we’ve reached the first one.

It could be summed up with the words, “No one.”


That’s a statement of fact and a fact of life.

No one can see the kingdom of God unless He is born again. No one.

Not Nicodemus with all of his fancy credentials.
Not Pastor Matt with all of his titles and degrees.
Not [fill in the blank with someone who you might think might have achieved what it takes to enter the kingdom of God by some other means].
Not anyone in this room or any other room.

No one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.

Remember, the Kingdom of God is Jesus’ favorite subject to teach on. How many times did we talk about that when we read through the Gospel of Matthew in 2017, 2018, 2019, and 2020?!

We long for that kingdom to come. And King Jesus is going to bring it! He is the King of this Kingdom.

But no one, but no one gets to see this kingdom come unless they are born again.

What does that mean? The Greek words here are “gennathay anothen.” To “be born” “once more.” Or the word “anothen” can also be translated “from above.” And it is translated that way many times in the Gospel of John. “Born from above.”

I think that Jesus probably means both of those. But Nicodemus only fixates on one of them. V.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!’”

Nicodemus doesn’t get it. But I think he might be playing dumb. He’s being obtuse. He kind of mocks Jesus, doesn’t he? I think there’s some darkness here. “Surely we can’t crawl back into our mommy’s tummies, right? What a weird and silly idea!”

Jesus answers Nick’s confusion with a bold restatement of the facts of life. V.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. 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.'” No one gets into the kingdom any other way.

Clearly being “born of water and the Spirit” is another way of saying, “born again.”

A lot of Bible scholars have come up with a lot of ways of interpreting the phrase, “born of water.”

Many have assumed that it was about baptism. And that’s possible since John had been baptizing for repentance, and that might have been tied into living a new way. But this is before Christian baptism, and I just don’t think that Jesus was saying that you have to be baptized to be born again. That’s not how the rest of the Bible reads.

I think it’s more likely that water is natural birth and of the spirit is spiritual birth. So He’s saying you have to be born twice. Once through amniotic “water” and then secondly “from above, from heaven, by the Spirit.” That’s much more likely.

But here’s a third way to think about it. Water as a symbol of cleansing. 

Here’s a passage of Scripture that Nicodemus should have known from his study of the Old Testament. Ezekiel 36:25-27. 

Listen to this to promise to Israel of restoration after exile:

“I will take you out of the nations; I will gather you from all the countries and bring you back into your own land. 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. 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” (Ezek. 36:24-28 NIVO).

Does that sound familiar?

It sounds the promises of the New Covenant to me. Like we learned about in Book of Hope in the Prophecy of Jeremiah.

And it sounds a lot like Jesus in John chapter 3. Cleansing of water and a new spirit inside of God’s people so that they now obey from the heart. That sounds to me a lot like being born again.

Nicodemus should have known about that. No one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.

Now, notice that this not something that you and I can do for ourselves.

It sounds like a command, “You must be born again.”

Can you make that happen?  Can anybody here regenerate their hearts? Just like you can’t get back inside your mother’s womb physically, you can’t somehow give your own sinful heart a new spiritual beginning. “Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.” This is God’s work, not ours.

It's just like we read in the Prologue: "Yet to all who received 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" (Jn. 1:12-13 NIVO).

It sounds like a command, “You must be born again.” But it is actually a condition, not a command. If you are not born again, you will not enter the kingdom of God. But you can’t do it to yourself. The Spirit has to do it in you.

We don’t have control! We don’t even know How He does it. It’s mysterious. It’s like the wind. Look at verse 8.

“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.’”

There’s a big play on words there. The word for “wind” is the same word as for “spirit.” It’s “pneuma.”

In my mind’s eye, at that moment in the story, the door of the house they’re in bangs shut and the wind kicks up and howls through the window. 

It doesn’t say any of that. But Jesus is talking about the wind. It’s mysterious. It goes where it wants. You don’t control it. And you can’t say where it is coming from or going to.

But you can sure tell when it’s been there! You see the effects of the wind. You hear the sound of the wind. You see how the wind changes things. Like after a windstorm, and you see the all limbs down. You can tell where the wind has been.

And, Jesus says, that’s how it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit. You can tell that the Spirit has been through them. You can tell that the Spirit has given them a new birth inside of them by the results.

Which reminds me of another passage of Ezekiel. The one the next chapter, chapter 37, when the LORD tells Ezekiel to talk to the wind and breathe new life into the dead bones. Remember that one? Ezekiel 37:9 and 10. 

“Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to it, 'This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe into these slain, that they may live.' So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet–a vast army”  (Ezek. 37:9-11 NIVO).

That’s a picture of the Spirit bringing new life where there was no life. Unless the Spirit blows, then there will only be death. No one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.

I think it’s interesting that Jesus says that Nicodemus shouldn’t be surprised at his saying, “You must be born again.” Because Nicodemus is obviously surprised by that!

So where did Nicodemus go wrong? He probably goes wrong in the same place that most people go wrong when you ask them what is the condition for going to heaven. What does it take to see the kingdom of God?

What do most people think? Being a good person. Doing good things. Maybe doing more good things than bad things. Following the rules. 

Who do you think deserves to be in the kingdom of God?

It’s the rule followers, right?

The folks that took the Ten Commandments seriously.

The folks that got their lives cleaned up.
The folks that went to church.
The folks that were fine upstanding citizens.
The folks that gave their money.
The folks that jumped through all the hoops.
The folks that followed the rules.
The folks who were religious.

You know whom I’m describing, right? Those are the Pharisees. And this guy Nicodemus is a prime example of them. And if left on my own, that’s what I might become, too! So many times I’ve been a rule-following, religion-doing Pharisee.

But that’s not the condition that Jesus talks about here. Our Lord says that no one (no matter whether they have followed the rules all their life or not) will see the kingdom of God unless they are born again. And Nicodemus should have known that, and so should we.

Nicodemus should have known it from his Old Testament. The necessity of a new heart is all over it. And he should have known it from his own heart. How he desperately needed a new one. Do you know that you need a new heart?

Do you know that you need to be born again? Born of water and of the Spirit?

No one. No one gets in unless they are.

In verse 9, Nicodemus responds with one last question. He’s still confused. He’s still pushing back. He still doesn’t get it. He’s still in darkness. V.9

“‘How can this be?’ Nicodemus asked.”

At least he’s honest. He wants to know–if his rule-following isn’t enough, then what will be? “How can this be?” 

That’s the last thing that Nicodemus says in this story. We’ll hear from him again in chapter 7 and then again in chapter 19, but he falls silent right now.

He no longer tries to argue with Jesus. He just listens to Him. V.10

“‘You are Israel's teacher,’ said Jesus, ‘and do you not understand these things? I tell you the truth, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things?”

He doesn’t go easy on Nicodemus, does he? He’s frustrated that Israel’s teachers aren’t teaching the new birth from the Old Testament. And He’s disappointed that they aren’t receiving His diving teaching either.

“You talk, Nicodemus, about how “we know” that I’m a rabbi who has come from God. But I actually have come from God, so “we know” what we’re talking about! And you aren’t receiving what I’m teaching about earthly things like wind, water, and birth and the necessity of the new birth for seeing the kingdom. How are you going to graduate to the next level when I start talking about what living in the kingdom will actually be like when it comes? “You talk about credentials and qualifications? Well, let me tell you mine.” Verse 13.

“No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven–the Son of Man.”

“I’ve actually been there. It’s my home. I’ve just come from there. And I’m going to return there. I know what I’m talking about. So let me answer your question about how this can all be: I’m going to make it all possible by going up on a Cross.” Look at verse 14.

“Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.”

And that’s point number two; summed up in one word: “everyone.”


No one sees the kingdom unless they are born again, but everyone who believes in Jesus will have eternal life.

Now, this is the only time that you and I are allowed to say that Jesus is like snake.

That snake-like Jesus!

But that’s exactly what Jesus says about Himself. “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up...” What is He talking about?

Snack and Yack kids, you might want to draw a picture of a snake on a pole. It’s the story from Numbers chapter 21. It’s a short story. I’ll read it to you:

[The people of Israel] “traveled from Mount Hor along the route to the Red Sea, to go around Edom. But the people grew impatient on the way; they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the desert? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!’

[They were complaining about manna!]

Then the LORD sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, ‘We sinned when we spoke against the LORD and against you. Pray that the LORD will take the snakes away from us.’ So Moses prayed for the people. The LORD said to Moses, ‘Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.’ So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, he lived” (Num. 21:4-9 NIVO).

God told Moses to make a fake snake and put it up on pole and if you looked at it in faith, you were saved. Everybody was rebelling. Everybody deserved death by snake bite. But God was merciful and provided a way out, a way of salvation. Lifted up.

The snake was the symbol of sin. The original snake in the garden. The snake on the Pharaoh’s headdress. The snake was a symbol of the darkness. But the snake was impaled on the pole and lifted up. And if you looked, you lived.

And Jesus says that He was going to be like that snake. He’s predicting His own sacrificial death on the Cross! He is going to be a fake snake, taking on His people’s sins. And being lifted up.

That “lifted up” is also a double meaning phrase. Like being born again and born from above. This is lifted up in crucifixion but also in glorification. He is not just killed on a pole but exalted and enthroned as He does.

“That’s how, Nicodemus. That’s how this can be.”

The Bible says, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21-6:1 NIVO).

Do you believe that?

If you look to Him, then you will live. You and I can’t make ourselves born again. That’s the mysterious work of the Spirit of God. But by God’s grace, we can look to Jesus and live. We can believe.

And everyone, everyone[!] who believes in Him may have eternal life.

No exceptions. That’s a rule. That’s a statement of fact and a fact of life.

That’s the whole point of this gospel. John wrote this book, “that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (Jn. 20:31).

The Bible says, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree’” (Gal. 3:13 NIVO).

“Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.”

And you know what the next verse is which we will look at closely next time:

“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” (Jn. 3:16 NIVO).

Look and live.
Look and live.
Look and live.

Nicodemus may have come in the darkness.

But on that night he was exposed to the Light.


Messages in this Series

01. "That You May Believe" - John 20:30-31
02. "In The Beginning Was the Word" - John 1:1-18
03. "John's Testimony" - John 1:19-34
04. "Come and See" - John 1:35-51
05. "The First of His Miraculous Signs" - John 2:1-11