John 3:1-16 Being Born Again

Authored By Rev. Takao Kiyohiro, Tokyo, Japan

Unless One Is Born Again

1. There was a man named Nicodemus. He was a Jew who belonged to the sect of the Pharisees, and he was a member of the highest law making body of the land, [the Sanhedron]. This particular character visited Jesus one night and said, "Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God because unless God is with [someone], no one can do the kind of signs you do," (verse two).

2. Nicodemus had seen Jesus do something. We don't know what that might have been. But, whatever it was, he had seen in it a sign that showed the Lord Jesus to be "a teacher who has come from God." As a result he called out to Jesus and addressed him as "rabbi."

3. It goes without saying but when one used the words "rabbi" and "teacher" it was a teacher of the law. Because he had come for a visit having viewed Jesus as a teacher of the law, it is obvious that Nicodemus was wanting to find out [something]. It was "What should he do?" That is, it was about "By doing what will he enter the kingdom of God? Can he inherit eternal life?" Nicodemus wasn't alone in having come to Jesus with this type of question. In the other gospels a story is recorded of a rich youth having come to visit [Jesus] and saying, "What should I do to inherit eternal life?," (Mark 10:17ff and parallel passages). I'd say a lot of people have been [asking questions] like that.

4. So, Nicodemus came to visit Jesus thinking of him as a teacher of the law, but he himself was actually "a teacher of Israel," (verse ten). Therefore, he should have been teaching and practicing it himself up to this point. Nevertheless, the reason he came to Jesus must have been because he felt that something was still missing. As for entering into the kingdom of God he still didn't have enough [of something]. I suppose there is still something I am not understanding unless I were "a teacher who had come from God." Because that was how he felt, he came to Jesus.

5. But what did the Lord give as an answer to him? He didn't say you should add this one more thing to what you have already been doing to this point. The Lord said, "I clearly say to you. Unless a person is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God," (verse three).

6. I just can't help but call this a pretty striking statement. Think about it. While a person is confident to a degree the right way to be to which he or she has been living, he or she may be ready to add something else to it. "If I could become even 'better' by accepting some kind of excellent teaching, I will be saved then," think more than a few people. If one is missing something, [we] think we should make up for it. A person is all the more like Nicodemus, when he or she has practiced doing good very conscientiously and consistently, and in seeking for salvation has been living very seriously. But, the gracious One, Jesus, you might say in one single stroke, cut in two the life that was filled with such conscientious efforts. That's what was said in, "You must be born again." "Birth" for a human being is the starting point of life. Therefore, what "You must be born again" means, you could say, is that "you are not adding what you are missing to your life so far. It means [a life] completely brand new. It is a starting from absolutely day one." [He] said, "Unless you are born again, you cannot see the kingdom of God."

7. In reply Nicodemus said, "How can an old person be born again? Can they be born by entering into their mother's womb again?," (verse four). As we see in this statement, it is believed that Nicodemus had already reached old age. The older one gets, humans inevitably will have to face the brute fact of reality that life can't ever go backwards. Earlier I stated, "While a person acknowledges to a degree the right way to be to which he or she has been living, he or she may want to add something else to it." Of course, we can't live when we don't have some measure of confidence. But, on the other hand, I think that people will have instances again and again of thinking, "How much better it would be if I could just do it all over again from the beginning?" They say, "If I could just go back into my mother's womb once more and be born, if I could be born all over again?" But, that's impossible. We can't go back [in time]. We're beyond starting all over again from scratch. We know it. What Nicodemus has on his lips is the tragic cry of humanity having to come face to face with this grim fact of reality. "How can an old person be born?"

8. But, Jesus says, "I clearly say to you. Unless someone is born by water and the Spirit, he or she cannot enter into the kingdom of God. [He who] is born from the flesh is flesh. [He who] is born from the Spirit is spirit. You mustn't be surprised that I said to you, 'You must be born again.' The wind blows the way it wants. Even though you hear its sounds, you do not know from where it comes or to where it goes. Everyone who is born from the Spirit is that way," (verses five through eight).

9. Persistently, Jesus says, one can be born again. He says don't be surprised at the statement "You must be born again." No matter how old one is, one can be born again. How's that? The words of "to be born again" are replaced here with the words "to be born by water and the Spirit." The Lord says a person can be born again through water and the Spirit.

10. We should think of the word "water" here as pointing to baptism. The church has been using water and administering baptisms still today after two thousand years have elapsed since the days of Jesus. In this way then, the church has put great value on water baptism. However, though baptism is so important of an ordinance to the church, the water in and of itself does not make a person to be born again. The water is always just water. It is "the Spirit" at work in it, that is, it is the Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit which causes the person to be born again.

11. Human beings certainly cannot go back in life. [We] never become younger than the age [we are] now. [We] cannot return to [our] mother's belly. But, God can make us be born all over again. Through the Holy Spirit God can give a human being a radically fresh starting point in life, the kind you can really say is a start from here on out.

Because The Son Of Man Was Lifted Up

12. Still, Nicodemus holds to his original point of "How is such a thing possible?" Then, Jesus gives the long answer starting in verse ten. Since there are not parentheses in the original text, the boundaries are not necessarily clear as to where the words of Jesus originally went up to and where the explanation of the evangelist went up to. But, that's not what matters most. The main thing is that we along with Nicodemus ask the question to [Jesus] of "How is such a thing possible?" and that we listen hard to the answer given to Nicodemus and to us.

13. The Lord said, "If you won't believe even though I have spoken of earthly things, why will you believe when I have spoken on heavenly things?," (verse twelve). The stuff about "earthly things" is this matter of "being born again" which he has been speaking of so far. It is to take place on earth. But, what the Lord is trying to speak about is not just about "earthly things." There are "heavenly things" at the background in which "earthly things" are taking place. That is, in heaven, in the place that goes way beyond human imagination, there is a plan set by God. God has something that he is about to do through the Christ. The Lord Jesus was trying to communicate to the people concerning "heavenly things," and [John's] gospel is trying to communicate to us concerning "heavenly things."

14. In today's passage of scripture, these "heavenly things" are expressed in the following manner. "So, as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, the son of man also must be lifted up. This is so that everyone who believes will obtain eternal life through the son of man," (verses fourteen and fifteen).

15. The words "as Moses lifted the snake in the wilderness" come from a story in the Old Testament. It is written in Numbers chapter twenty-one from verses four to nine. It is the following story. The people of Israel were set free by God's deliverance from a life of slavery in Egypt. But, the people had forgotten God's blessings while along their long journey, and as things got hard, they started to complain. "Why did you lead us up out of Egypt? Was it to make us die in the wilderness? With no bread or water, but this coarse food, our energy is disappearing from us," (Numbers 21:5). Then, it happened that a poisonous snake called "a serpent of fire" attacked the people and many lost their lives. Through what happened, they realized their sin, repented of their sin, and came to Moses and said: "We have criticized the Lord and you and we have committed a sin by doing that. Please pray to the Lord and take the serpent away from us," (Numbers 21:7). Then, when Moses prayed to the Lord, the Lord commanded as follows. "You will build a serpent of fire and put it atop a pole. If the person who has been bitten by the snake will look up at it, [he] will gain [his] life," (Numbers 21:8). Right away, Moses built a bronze serpent and put it up. Whereupon, the scripture says, "Even if the serpent had bitten a person, that person, when he or she looked at the bronze serpent, gained his or her life." It was this bronze serpent that Jesus had spoken about.

16. The people had to believe and not just look at the bronze serpent. What they needed in order to be forgiven and to live once again was only to believe and look at it. So, in the same way, just as the bronze serpent was put up [in the air on a pole] by Moses so that the people could believe and look at it, the son of man as well, that is the Christ, had to be lifted up. -- This had been God's plan that he had set in heaven. This is "the heavenly things."

17. And then, "the heavenly things" of which Jesus spoke did come true like he said it would. Like the serpent that was cursed and lifted upon a rod, Christ was lifted upon the cross as a cursed man. Bearing all of our sins upon himself, Christ was lifted upon the cross and died for us. Then, he was lifted up into heaven so that all people can look [to him] even still today and so that believers would be forgiven for their sins and would obtain eternal life. God's plan came true.

18. "How is such a thing possible?," asked Nicodemus. Because of "heavenly things" "earthly things" are given. Because Christ obeyed the will of God in heaven and achieved the atonement for sin [for humankind], people can be born again. No matter who, anybody can be born again. No matter how many years they have on them, they can be born again. It's because of the lifted up Christ that anyone can have a part in the pardon of sin. As persons pardoned by God, from that point on [people] can begin to live born again. As God's children, [people] can start living in a relationship with God. Then, when a person is in a relationship with God, he or she is already having a part in eternal life. The person has begun to live in the kingdom of God. As Jesus said, when one is born again, he or she sees the kingdom of God.

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