1 Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, 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 again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” 4 Nicodemus 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 again.’ 8 The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? 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 except 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.
In John 3, Jesus told the Jewish teacher Nicodemus that he had to be born again if he hoped to see the kingdom of God. In doing so, Jesus was saying the same thing to us. “You must be born again.” But what on earth does that mean?
R. Kent Hughes has passed on a story about Ian Thomas that is very interesting indeed:
“Ian Thomas tells of getting on an airplane and being so tired that he planned to just curl up and sleep. But then heard a “psssst” and then another ‘psssst.’ Looking in the direction of the sound, he heard a man say, ‘I am reading in the Bible about Nicodemus in John 3, and I do not understand it. Do you know anything about the Bible?”
It’s an interesting story, and one that raises an interesting question: If somebody were to ask you what the phrase “born again” means, what would you say? Unfortunately, many Christians simply do not know how to explain being born again. As Kent Hughes observes:
“One of the greatest of all Biblical terms has been stolen, emptied of its meaning, and dragged through the mire so that today born again can mean almost anything or nothing! We need to rescue it and return it to its proper place…The term born again has been pirated, emptied of its meaning, dragged through the gutter, and given back to us minus its power. Today when a person says he is born again we cannot be sure what he or she means. The mere use of the word tells us almost nothing.”
Kent Hughes makes a very troubling but very true point: the words “born again” cannot really be explained by most Christians who claim to be born again.
But there’s an even bigger question than whether or not you can explain being born again, and that is the question of whether or not you yourself have been born again.
Let me simply pose that question to you this morning. It is very important that you be honest with yourself, as we will see. Have you been born again? Have you? Can you say this morning that you have experienced the second birth, that you have been born again?
As we look at what God’s word says about being born again this morning, let me teach you the word that the church has historically used to describe this reality: regeneration. Regeneration is being born again. Regeneration is the inward work of the Holy Spirit in a man or woman’s life in, by, and through which he or she passes from death unto life and is born again and saved. When a man or woman is born again, he is said to be a regenerate man or woman.
Now, for our purposes this morning, learning the truth of regeneration is not as important as learning the word “regeneration,” but I do think it is a good word and one worth taking note of.
In John 3, we find Jesus being visited by a Jewish teacher. The man, Nicodemus, wants to learn the essence of who Jesus is and what His message is. Jesus responds by talking about regeneration, being born again.
It is a fascinating conversation that Jesus has with Nicodemus. This morning I’d like for us to watch and observe what Jesus does here and what He says. More important than that, I would like for us to listen to Jesus’ teachings about being born again as far as they relate to our own lives.
The Necessity of Being Born Again
The first thing Jesus does is reveal the necessity of being born again. He does so in a rather blunt and straight-forward way. Look at the first three verses:
1 Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, 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 again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
Now, in verse 4 we will see evidence that Nicodemus is almost certainly an older man. He is a man who has a high regard for God and the things of God. He is a man who apparently treasures truth and, to some extent, seems to want to know the truth. But it is also possible that, in this initial meeting with Jesus, Nicodemus is driven in large measure by curiosity. “Who are you?” he seems to be saying. “Who are you and what are you about?”
Jesus’ response goes (as Jesus’ responses always go!) to the heart of the matter, and He strikes at the root issue of Nicodemus’ spiritual condition. “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
Imagine the shock of this statement as it hit Nicodemus’ ears! “Nicodemus! Nicodemus! If you are not born again, you will never see the kingdom of God!”
Like a shotgun blast in the middle of a nap, Jesus’ proclamation of the necessity of being born again is as astounding as it is profound. It cuts through Nicodemus’ surface concerns and hits at the real issue.
Why does Jesus do this? Why is Jesus so emphatic that you must be born again? Because being born again is absolutely necessary. It is essential. Without the second birth, nothing else matters.
Let me assure you that I am not wanting to overstate the case this morning. In fact, I do not think the case can be overstated. You must be born again! Listen to me: you must be born again!
Jesus says that if you are not born again you cannot see the kingdom of God. That is a terrifying thought! It is made even more terrifying when the entire New Testament teaching concerning the necessity of being born again is allowed to speak.
While what I am about to share with you is startling, I give you my word that I am not exaggerating. I am simply going to let the New Testament say what it says. Consider the following:
A. If you are not born again, you are going to perish.
1 Peter 1:22-23
“Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart, since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God.”
B. If you are not born again, you are enslaved to your own unrighteousness.
1 John 2:28-29
“And now, little children, abide in him, so that when he appears we may have confidence and not shrink from him in shame at his coming. If you know that he is righteous, you may be sure that everyone who practices righteousness has been born of him.”
The church father Tertullian made a helpful comment on this truth when he said, “Every soul, by reason of its birth, has its nature in Adam until it is born again in Christ; in addition, it is unclean all the while that it remains without this regeneration. And because it is unclean, it is actively sinful and suffuses even the flesh, with which it is joined, with its own shame.”
C. If you are not born again, you are a child of the devil.
1 John 3:9-10
“No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God. By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother.”
D. If you are not born again, you do not know God.
1 John 4:7
“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God.”
E. If you are not born again, you are wide open to the devil’s attacks.
1 John 5:18
“We know that everyone who has been born of God does not keep on sinning, but he who was born of God protects him, and the evil one does not touch him.”
Do you see now why Jesus immediately confronted Nicodemus about being born again? Do you see now why He immediately confronts us as well? There is no more important question than this.
Billy Graham once told how the great preacher, George Whitfield, “preached every night on the subject, ‘You must be born again.’ Some of the leaders of the church came to him and said, ‘Why don’t you change your text?’ He said, ‘I will when you become born again.'”
Whitfield understood what we must understand: without regeneration, without being born again, nothing else matters. It is that important!
The Agent of Being Born Again
Having established the necessity of being born again, Jesus, in response to Nicodemus’ questions, explains the agent of regeneration. Who creates the reality of being born again? Who gets the glory for the amazing transformation?
Nicodemus, being an elderly man and a teacher, is caught off guard by Jesus’ insistence that he be born again. Hear verses 4:
4 Nicodemus 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?”
You’ll have to admit that, looking at it from the angle from which Nicodemus was looking at it, that’s a pretty good question! But once again we note that Jesus and the one to whom He is talking are talking past each other on very different levels. Nicodemus is being a literalist here, while Jesus is trying to make a much more profound point:
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 again.’ 8 The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
Jesus’ answer to Nicodemus’ question is powerful in that it reveals the contrast between the first and second birth.
Nicodemus is thinking only of the first birth, which is physical, originates with man, and is medically observable. Jesus is speaking of the second birth, which is spiritual, originates with God, and cannot be observed by the human eye (although the fruit of the second birth certainly can be observed).
The first birth results from the union of a man with a woman. In a physical sense, man is the agent of the first birth. But the second birth is different. The second birth is a result of an inward work of transformation wrought by the Holy Spirit of God.
In verse 5, Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” This verse is fascinating, and no small number of interpretations have been proposed to explain it. Among the most likely are the following:
- That “water” refers to physical birth and “Spirit” refers to spiritual rebirth.
- That “water” refers to baptism (meaning you cannot be saved until baptized).
- That “water” refers to repentance, of which baptism is a symbol, and that repentance leads to the second birth.
In truth, I find the third option most likely. After all, we are on the heels of John the Baptist’s baptism of repentance in the Jordan. Nicodemus was aware of the fact that people were going to the Jordan to repent in anticipation of the coming Messiah. He may have even observed John the Baptists baptism of repentance. Matthew’s record of John the Baptist’s work is helpful here. In Matthew 3:11, John the Baptist says:
“I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
John said that his baptism, the baptism of repentance, was one of water, but that Jesus’ baptism was one of the Holy Spirit. So you have water (repentance) and the work of the Spirit in the believer’s life.
When a man or woman repents of their sins and places faith in Christ, they receive the Holy Spirit who works an internal transformation in their very hearts and souls. The Holy Spirit affects the new birth. He is the agent of regeneration, of being born again, of the second birth.
John already hints at this in the first chapter. Do you remember?
“But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” (John 1:12-13)
The first birth is one of body and blood and human procreation. The second birth is of God.
Likewise, Peter is more explicit in 1 Peter 1:3 when he proclaims:
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.”
He has caused us to be born again! It is a miraculous, gracious, inward work of a holy God who loves us and gave Himself for us.
When you repent of your sins and place your faith in Jesus Christ, He works an inward work that cannot be grasped by the human mind. He makes a dead thing live. He makes a sinful thing forgiven. He breaths light into darkness, life into death. The second birth is nothing less than a resurrection, a re-generation, a beginning again.
The Means of Being Born Again
Being born again, then, is absolutely necessary, and it is wrought inwardly by the Holy Spirit, but how does it happen? What is the means of regeneration?
Nicodemus had the same question, as verse 9 reveals:
9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?”
This, too, is a very important question! How can I be born again? By what means?
Jesus has already put the spotlight on Nicodemus and his lost condition. And He has put the spotlight on the Holy Spirit who affects the new birth. But finally He turns the spotlight on Himself.
10 Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? 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 except 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.
Jesus is reminding Nicodemus of a story he knows well. He is reminding him of Israel’s wilderness wanderings in the Exodus. He is calling to mind that terrible scene in the wilderness, so many years ago, when poison serpents came into the camp of the Israelites and bit the people of God so that death hung over the entire camp.
When that happened, the Lord instructed Moses to fashion a serpent, put it on a pole, and lift it up. Whoever then looked up toward the raised serpent was healed.
Nicodemus undoubtedly thought this was a strange time to be telling this particular story, but Jesus does two interesting things with it: (1) He connects it to the new birth and (2) He applies it to Himself.
What is the means of the new birth? It is nothing less than Christ crucified, Christ lifted up, Christ on the cross. Christ is now the One to whom we who have been bitten by deadly sin look for forgiveness, healing, and salvation. We are born again when we cry out to Christ, bowing at the foot of His cross.
John would say this letter in 1 John 5:4-5
“For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world— our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?”
Notice the progression of verbs and concepts: (a) whoever has been born again overcomes, (b) we receive this overcoming victory through faith, and (c) the one who overcomes is the one who believes in Jesus Christ.
We are born again, then, when we believe that Jesus is the Son of God. We are born again when we come to Him in faith and repentance. And when we come in this way, the Holy Spirit of God works an amazing miracle in our lives. He regenerates us, causing us to be born again into life everlasting.
It is a very simple question, and a very important question: have you been born again?