The Person Born Of The Spirit
You Must Be Born Again
1. A person named Nicodemus, one night, came to the Lord Jesus. He belonged to the Pharisees, that is, a sect that lived their lives in a very strict keeping of the law. And he was also a member of the Jewish "parliament." That is, he was a member of the council of seventy-one members called the Sanhedrin and he was in a leadership position in Jewish society. In addition, he was also called "a teacher of Israel," (verse ten). Thus, he was religiously faithful to the traditions and scholarly as well; he was very sought after by the people and his influence on them was great. However, such an one as he came to the Lord at night, afraid of the public eye.
2. That means that there had been a strong urge within him that had prompted him to such an act. If put in other words, it meant that he had sensed something missing in his own life, which needed to be filled by the One called Jesus. He came to the Lord Jesus in order to ask about some teaching which would fill what was missing. But all of a sudden, the Lord spoke to Nicodemus like this, "I clearly say to you, unless a person is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God." He says that the need for Nicodemus was not that he add something he was now lacking and be complete, but "to be born again."
3. Even in modern times as well many persons live all the while feeling like something important is missing in them. Even though they may be blessed both materially and mentally like Nicodemus was, they live all the while knowing that there is still something definitely lacking in their lives. And in order to fill that deficiency they seek religion. Although they already have [so much] in their lives, there are still many people who come to Christ to add that something more and be more complete. But, Christ says, "I say to you, unless a person is born again, he [or she] cannot see the kingdom of God." It is not by adding something to what he or she already has that a person attains salvation. It is not by becoming a good person by taking lessons and learning what not to do anymore. It does not require improvements and reform. That's not how it is, rather the Lord says, "You must be born again."
Being Born By Water And Spirit
4. But, Nicodemus couldn't understand this. He asks, "How could a person that is old be born? Is it possible to be born again by entering into one's mothers' womb?" He is not making a wise crack to counter the words of the Lord Jesus. What we are hearing in the words of Nicodemus is the cry of the hearts within many people still today. This is the sad cry of those who know this phenomenon [of dissatisfaction and ill at ease] all too well.
5. Nicodemus himself had probably attained the old age just as he was talking [about when he said] "a person that is old." He had already come a long way in life. We can tell from his Hebrew name that he was a pure Hebrew. From the time he was young he was taught the law and must have lived making every effort to be a good Jew within the Jewish tradition. But, the more a person tries to live soberly and the more one seeks to live right, the more one sees into one's ugliness and sinfulness. And the longer one lives like that and gets closer to old age, the more remote do the words become that say "be born again." "Since it can't ever happen, isn't such a thing as re-entering your mother's womb and being re-born ridiculous?!" This must have been the real feelings of this person who had attained old age.
6. But, the Lord Jesus spoke to Nicodemus again, "I clearly say to you. Unless someone is born by water and the spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh. That which is born of the spirit is spirit. You should not be surprised that I said to you, 'You must be born again,'" (verses five and six).
7. The Lord re-phrased the phrase "be born again" with "be born by water and the spirit." We would do well to think that what he meant by "water" signifies baptism. In our worship service today a person will receive baptism. That the church still uses water and practices baptism in the same way as it took place back in that time and even today when about two thousand years have elapsed is terribly awesome when you think about it. In this way, generations of the church have treasured the baptism in which the church consistently practices and uses water to this very day. However, we ought not to say that baptism is so important or think that the water itself makes a person be born anew. The water is always just water. On the other hand, we ought not to spiritualize this to the extreme and think that the depths of earnestness and repentance at the time one receives baptism will make one new. The Lord Jesus said, "Unless one is born by water and the spirit." The water is a sign. The spirit is the substance. Spirit means the Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit. When a person receives baptism, he or she is not born anew by the water. He or she is born anew by the Holy Spirit. "By the Holy Spirit" means the same as "by God." God is the one who makes a person be born anew. It comes from God's Spirit. Actually, the phrase itself translated as "be born anew" is this phrase that one can also translate as "be born from above." In other words, these phrases show the contents of "being born by God."
8. So, in "being born anew" what is it that becomes new? Since one is "born by God," the first thing that is made new in [the re-birth] must be one's relationship with God. By God's Spirit the person is born into a new relationship with God. Paul expresses this in the letter addressed to the church at Rome in the following way, "All who are lead by the Spirit of God are sons1 of God. You have not received a spirit that enslaves a person and ensnares one again in fear, but have received the spirit that makes one a son of God. By this spirit we call out 'Abba, Father,'" (Romans 8:14:15). By the Holy Spirit we are made sons* of God, have fellowship with God, are led by God, and are made into persons who live from the life of God.
9. In order for a person to be born again and to begin living new, his or her relationship with God must be made new. No matter how much we adjust the old lifestyle that has lost God, or reform, or kick off a new life changing our attitudes, if our relationship with God does not change, it [all] essentially makes no difference whatsoever. It doesn't mean "[we] are born again." That's why the Lord said, "that which is born of flesh is flesh," (verse six). "Flesh" means the true nature of humanity one is born with. Flesh is flesh no matter how it changes its form or even if it adds something to it. The truly important thing is not becoming good little by little but to be born again in one's relationship with God.
10. And just as the phrase "be born" expresses, humanity is through and through just a passive recipient. What humankind can do is only trust in the work that God accomplishes. In regard to that the Lord said this, "The wind blows as it pleases. Even though you hear its sound, you do not know where it comes from or where it is going. All those born of the Spirit are that way," (verse eight). The modern person has somewhat of a knowledge on winds. But, for the person at the time of the Lord Jesus the winds must have been a mystery that had no meaning at all. It really was that "You do not know where it comes from or where it is going." But, regardless of whether one has scientific knowledge about winds like they do today or one doesn't know about winds like they did back then, the very phenomenon that the wind blows remains the same. It is the same regarding the work of the Holy Spirit. The important thing is the fact itself that the Holy Spirit makes us be born again, and it is not whether or not we understand his work in the reality [of the world itself].
11. It is the same even with today's baptismal ceremony. It is only the pouring of watering on someone's head that we can accomplish. If a church practices baptism by immersion, they submerge a person into the water. That's all they can do. As far as what they see with the eye or can understand with their heads, it ends there. So, aside from what we have done to that point, baptism [is something done that] is separate from our human hands. There is nothing else we can do. The rest of the work belongs in God's territory. It is the work of God's Spirit. Thus, we pray and then let go of the baptism. We entrust it over to God [for him to finish.] Humans become completely passive in the work to be done. All that remains afterwards is but to listen to the sound when the wind blows in the life of this brother who has received baptism. Another way of saying it is, we only have to look with thanksgiving at the workings of the Holy Spirit and His fruit.
In Order For A Person Who Believes To Obtain Eternal Life
12. However, Nicodemus still has more to say to the Lord, "How could such a thing be possible?," (verse nine). In reply to that the Lord Jesus gave a long answer. Look please, in particular, within verses fourteen and fifteen. It reads like this, "And just as Moses lifted up a snake in the wilderness, the son of man, too, must be lifted up. This is in order so that everyone who believes obtains eternal life through the son of man," (verses fourteen and fifteen).
13. The Lord was not telling Nicodemus how a person is born again. The Lord was instead giving here the basis upon which a person is able to be born again. For that purpose the Lord quotes an Old Testament story. It is the story from Numbers 21:4-9. The gist of it goes like this:
14. The Israelites were set free from a life of slavery in Egypt through God's deliverance. But, along the way of a long journey they had forgotten the blessings of the Lord, found it hard to endure and soon started complaining. They started saying things like, "Why did you lead us up out of Egypt? To let us die in the wilderness? Without bread or water, our energy is disappearing because of this rough kind of food," (Numbers 21:5). Whereupon, it came to pass that venomous snakes called "blazing serpents" attacked the people and many of them lost their lives. They took notice of their own sins, repented of them, and came to Moses saying, "We have criticized the Lord and you, and we have sinned. Please pray to the Lord and take these snakes away from us," (Numbers 21:7). Then when Moses prayed to the Lord, the Lord said, "Build a blazing serpent. Set it atop of the flagpole. If the person who has been bitten looks up at it, he or she will obtain life," (Numbers 21:8). Right away Moses constructs a flaming serpent and sets it. Whereupon, "Even though a snake bit someone, that person obtained life when he or she gazed forth at the blazing serpent," (verse nine). This is the story the Lord quoted.
15. The snake bit persons could not do a thing at all to save themselves. But, God said to them like that, just look at the venomous snake. That was God's answer to their statement of "We have sinned." That is, the snake that was set [atop the pole] was a sign that their sins were forgiven and had been taken away. Because of that, it was good enough for them just to believe God's word and look upon it. And he said that just as with that serpent the Lord Jesus himself had to be lifted up. It meant that he was to be crucified and lifted up from the earth.
16. Just like the cursed snakes, the Lord indeed became cursed in our stead [lifted up] there [on the cross]. Similarly, he has become a sign of the forgiveness of sins, that everyone of us can look upon. In this we have the basis for being able to be born anew. Why can a person be born anew? Why can anyone, no matter who, have a new relationship with God and live as a child* of God? Because Christ has already accomplished everything necessary for our sins to be forgiven. Because Christ became the accursed fiery snake for us.
17. Because of the work of salvation that the Lord Jesus has accomplished for us, we [should] be able to hear the words of the Lord Jesus which we have read today as a message directed to us as follows, "[When] born again you can see the kingdom of God." "[When] born by water and the spirit you can enter the kingdom of God." "Everyone who believes can obtain eternal life by the son of God." Amen.
1 The first born male in Japan and Israel have the most privileges and duties, which is implied here and wherever marked by an asterisk, *.