Being Born Again

May 25, 2008
日本キリスト教団 頌栄教会牧師 清弘剛生 Pastor Takao Kiyohiro, Shoei Church, Church of Christ, Japan
Translator M.A.F., Indiana, USA
John 3:1-15

Nicodemus Came To Request A Lesson

1. There was a man named Nicodemus. He was a Jew who belonged to the sect of the Pharisees; he was a member of the Jewish "congress." This man came to visit Jesus one night and said, "Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God because nobody could perform signs like you are doing unless God were with him," (verse two).

2. "Rabbi!" That's how he addressed him. By having called him "rabbi," it meant he was a teacher of the law. He had come to request a lesson from the teacher of the law. In truth, this Nicodemus himself was also "a teacher." In verse ten Jesus himself calls Nicodemus "a teacher in Israel." Jesus himself knew it, that [Nicodemus] was pretty much a well-known teacher. The reason this Nicodemus went so far as to avoid public notice and deliberately came to him at night was that he regarded Jesus as a special teacher and not as some ordinary person. It is just as he had said it when he called Jesus "a teacher who has come from God." Nicodemus had seen within the numerous deeds of Jesus clear signs of "God being with" him. Come what may, he had wanted this special teacher of the law, whom God was with, to teach him.

3. What did he want to find out? Because he had come requesting a lesson by saying "rabbi," it is clear [what he wanted to find out]. It was about the issue of "What must I do?" In The Gospel According To Matthew we find the story of a certain rich youth coming to Jesus and asking the following. "Master, to obtain eternal life, what good actions must I do?," (Matthew 19:16). Nicodemus was the same [way]. Because he was a teacher, he surely had taught this before. And naturally, he hasn't just taught it, he has surely practiced it before. He must have been following the law of God and been doing good deeds. But, when he looks at the teacher named Jesus of Nazareth, [Jesus] was clearly different from him. He had come to that realization. "God is with him!"

4. When it says that he came to request a lesson from the teacher whom God was with, it probably means that he didn't think that "God was with him" in regard to himself as a teacher of the same law. While he teaches and practices the law, nevertheless, God is still not with him. He doesn't think that he has been accepted by God. It seems to him that he isn't loved by God. He is still not worthy. He still isn't [good] enough to be approved of by God. He won't be saved in this condition. He won't be entering into the kingdom of God either. There has got to be a lesson I must hear. These are the exact thoughts he must have been thinking so that he came to request a lesson from the teacher named Jesus, though concerned over public notice of it.

To Be Born Again

5. Here's how Jesus replied to Nicodemus in his condition. "I truly say to you. Unless a person is born again, the person cannot see the kingdom of God," (verse three). Jesus didn't say you should add some good deed to what you have done so far. He didn't say, "If you become a better person than you are, then you will be accepted by God, get to where God is with you, and you will be let into the kingdom of God." That's not what the Lord said, instead he said, "What you need is to be born again."

6. How should we understand the meaning of "You must be born again?" Does it mean, "Your life must start over?" It appears that Nicodemus heard it that way. You would be hard pressed not to say that that is a really harsh message because it meant "Don't think you'll be able to see the kingdom of God just by adding some good works from here on." If it were you, how would you have understood it? If you were told by Jesus that "Your life must start completely over," wouldn't you naturally have the feeling that that was totally right? I am quite certain we would feel that way too, and I think Nicodemus was the same way; he had so many many things he would have wanted to do over in his life. I really should have done this. I really should have done that. To say nothing of the fact that he likely had so many things that he must do over again and fix considering how that he would ultimately stand before God and considering that the time was coming when he would ultimately be held accountable before God.

7. But, in all reality, he could not start his life over or anything. There were a number of things that he had no excuse for when questioned by God over them, stains left over that could not be wiped out, problems that still remained neglected. No time was left to re-do them. For that reason, how great it would be if he could re-do them from the beginning, resetting it like a game! But he couldn't do that. We know that well. There is no second chance to re-do one's life. The older we get the more we realize the pain of knowing that there are no second chances.

8. Therefore, Nicodemus said, "How could a person who has aged be born? Can a person be born by going into mother's womb again?," (verse four). He is not arguing for the sake of arguing. In a way, this is the painful cry of humanity. It is the painful cry of humanity having to come face to face with the reality of not being able to go back. "Though your telling me to 'Re-do my life,' it can't be done, I'm telling you! There is no such time left for that. Are you saying go back into my mother's womb and then come back out again? You can't expect such a thing to be done, can you?!" That's what he said.

To Be Born By Water And Spirit

9. However, Jesus said to Nicodemus, "I truly say to you. Unless somebody is born by water and spirit, the person cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born from the flesh is flesh. That which is born from the spirit is spirit. You should not be surprised that I have said to you, 'You must be born again.' The wind blows as it wills. Even though you hear the sound of it, you don't know from where it comes or to where it goes. Everyone who has been born from the spirit is that way," (verses five through eight).

10. The Lord is persistent in saying, "You must be born again." But, it looks like the meaning of it is different from what Nicodemus is thinking. He is not saying, "Re-do your life from the beginning." There is another meaning to the word translated as "again, anew," that of "from above." "From above" means "from God" or even "by God." In short, Jesus is saying, "You must be born again by God."

11. A person can be born anew by God. You don't have to start over again from your mother's womb. Jesus put it like this, "to be born by water and spirit." We could regard "water" as pointing to "baptism." Even still today, after two thousand years since the time of Jesus, the church baptizes using water. Thus, the church has put a value on baptisms that have used water. But, how ever great a sacrament baptism may be, [he] is not going so far as to say that the water itself causes a person to be born again. The water is still [just] water. What causes a person to be born again is the Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit at work in it.

12. A person can be born anew through the Holy Spirit from above. Since it is a matter of "being born" we become babies. We become children. Because we are born from above, by the Spirit of God, we become children of God. Upon being born again by water and spirit, we too get to live calling God, "Abba, father," whom Jesus used to call "Abba, father." Paul, who had experienced this grace, later spoke in an epistle addressed to the followers at Rome as follows. "You have not received a spirit to make you fall back into fear again as slaves, but you have received the spirit that makes you a child of God. By this spirit, we call 'Abba, oh father!'," (Romans 8:15).

13. That was exactly what Nicodemus needed. [He didn't need] to become a better person by receiving lessons and laws. Much less, [he didn't need] to start his life over from the beginning. [What he needed] was to be born again from above, to be born again by the grace of God, to have God make him into a child of God through the Spirit of God. Then, [what he needed to do] was to begin to live calling God, "Abba, oh father!" I still can't get God to love me. I still can't get God to accept me. I'm still not worthy. I'm still not [good] enough. -- There is no need to live like a slave afraid of getting [verbally] beaten up like that. After a person receives the spirit that makes one a son [or daughter] of God, [you] can live always trusting and calling out beseeching your [heavenly] parent as a child of God. You see the kingdom of God as a child of God.

The Son Of Man Lifted Up

14. But, Nicodemus said, "How could such a thing be possible?" Jesus gave a long reply to that [question]. Please look at a part of his answer, in particular, at verses fourteen and fifteen. The text says, "And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, the son of man must be lifted up. That way all who believe will obtain eternal life through the son of man," (verses fourteen and fifteen).

15. The reference to "Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness" is the story that is found in the book of Numbers chapter twenty-one. The gist of it goes like this. -- The Israelites were set free through God's salvation from slave life in Egypt. But, the people forgot God's grace along the long journey, and started to complain as things became hard to endure. They began to say things like, "Why did you lead us up out of Egypt? Was it so that we could die in the wilderness? Our strength is vanishing away with no bread or water, with this rough food," (Numbers 21:5). Whereupon, it came to pass that a poisonous serpent called "a flaming serpent" had attacked the people, and many of them had lost their lives. They realized their sin, were sorry for their sins, and came to Moses, saying, "We have sinned by criticizing the Lord and you. Please pray to the Lord and take away the serpent from us," (Numbers 21:7). Then when Moses prayed to the Lord, the Lord said, "Construct a flaming serpent and put it atop a flag pole. If a person bitten by the serpent will look at it, he or she will obtain life," (Numbers 21:8). Without delay Moses constructed a bronze serpent and placed it on it. Whereupon, "Though a serpent bit a person, that person, upon looking at the bronze serpent, obtained life," (Numbers 21:9). This is the narrative the Lord was quoting.

16. God said to anyone bitten by the snake to just look up at the bronze serpent. That was God's answer to their statements that "We have sinned." That is, the posted serpent was a sign that their sins were forgiven and taken away. As a result, all they had to do was believe God's word and look up. And just like that serpent, Jesus too had to be lifted up. That's what the Lord had said. [But] it wasn't on a flag pole. It was on a cross. And in fact, Jesus, just like the cursed serpent, became accursed there in our stead, and he became the sign of the forgiveness of sins, which all of us can look upon.

17. Why can a person be born again by water and spirit and begin to live as a child of God? Why is it okay that a person cannot start life over from the beginning? It is because Christ has already accomplished everything we need in order for our sins to be forgiven. Because of the work of salvation which Christ has accomplished for us, we can hear the following words of Jesus which we read for today as being addressed to us. "Since you have been born again, you can see the kingdom of God." "Since you are born by water and spirit, you can enter into the kingdom of God." "Everyone who believes can obtain eternal life through the son of man."