Jesus met many people. In every case their lives were transformed. We could think about the apostles Peter, John, Andrew, Thomas, even Judas. Blind people and deaf people, and paralysed people. People with leprosy and people in the grip of demons. Tax collectors like Matthew and Zacchaeus and their disreputable friends. But just one meeting with one man gets all of the first half of John’s Gospel Chapter 3 – the time Jesus met Nicodemus.
Nicodemus was a PHARISEE
The Pharisees were the most religious of all the groups among the Jews, the ones who were most devoted to God. They focused on being ritually pure, with acts of ceremonial washing, and observing the Sabbaths and Jewish festivals most strictly. The Pharisees were most careful about what they ate, observing the Jewish Laws about clean and unclean foods. They would fast for two days each week. And they were scrupulous about tithing – giving one tenth of anything they earned or produced or received back to God again.
If it was possible to find God by obeying rules then the Pharisees would have done – but it isn’t. Knowing God isn’t about keeping rules! When it comes to knowing God, being devoted and enthusiastic and passionate is good, but it isn’t enough!
Nicodemus was also a TEACHER OF ISRAEL – a TEACHER OF THE JEWISH LAW
There were three classes of teachers of Judaism and Nicodemus belonged to the highest class. They interpreted the Jewish Law for everybody else. They knew their Scriptures backwards and inside out. They knew everything that all their predecessors had said – all the sayings and stories of the famous Rabbis and they would debate endlessly the tiniest details of the Jewish Law.
If it was possible to find God just by knowing the Scriptures then the teachers of the Law would have done so. But it isn’t. Knowing God isn’t just an intellectual exercise – a test of memory, or even of understanding. When it comes to knowing God, being clever doesn’t give anybody an advantage. It’s not what we know – it is who we know and the one person who we need to know is Jesus.
Nicodemus was a MEMBER OF THE JEWISH RULING COUNCIL – the SANHEDRIN
Nicodemus had risen to a position of great importance in Jerusalem. He was one of their Ruling Council. Under the benevolent watch of the Roman Occupying army, the Sanhedrin ran the city of Jerusalem, the Holy City for all Jews everywhere. If being important and influential and powerful in human society counted for anything in knowing God then anybody on the Sanhedrin would have it made. But of course being important counts for nothing when it comes to knowing God.
So Nicodemus comes to Jesus. But Jesus mixed with disreputable people and Pharisees wouldn’t be seen dead with disreputable people. So Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night because he is scared of what his fellow Pharisees will say.
Nicodemus already has the beginnings of faith in Jesus.
“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.”
Nicodemus recognizes that Jesus is a teacher – indeed that Jesus is a great teacher! He recognizes Jesus’s teachings come from God – the one and only true God, the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, the God of Israel.
Nicodemus recognizes that God is with Jesus because of the miracles he is performing. Not everybody who witnessed those miracles understood and believed their significance – but Nicodemus did. He was beginning to believe in Jesus. But in one short sentence, Jesus turns Nicodemus’s life on its head
3 In reply Jesus declared, “I tell you the truth, no-one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.”
Born again?? That seems to make no sense to Nicodemus. It wouldn’t to us if we hadn’t heard the phrase before. It never makes sense the first time somebody hears it!
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 isn’t being awkward. He wants to understand! He wants to believe! So Jesus explains.
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. 6 Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. 7 You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ 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.”
Nicodemus. You’re a Pharisee. But all your religious observances count for nothing. You’re a teacher of the Law, but that learning counts for nothing. You’re a member of the Sanhedrin but that counts for nothing. Nicodemus, you’ve got to start from nothing and nowhere. You’ve got to be born again! You’ve got to be born anew!
There is actually a double meaning in the words “born again.” It could mean “born again” or “born anew.” But the words could be equally be translated “born from above” and some bibles like the New Revised Standard Version use that translation. “You must be born from above.” We have physical life from the waters of birth. But to be spiritually alive we need to be born from the actions of God the Holy Spirit.
6 Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. …. 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.”
The Greek word for wind and for Spirit is the same word. To be spiritually alive we need the Holy Spirit of God to blow through our lives and give us new birth, birth from above. We need to be “born of the Spirit.”
We heard about this first before Christmas in the Prologue in John 1.
John 1:12 Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God- 13 children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.
Born of God. Born from above. Born again – that is God’s gift to all who put their trust in Jesus Christ, who receive Him and believe in His name.
A Christian is a person who has been BORN AGAIN. That phrase “born again” is used in all sorts of contexts nowadays. Do a quick internet search and you’ll find that “Born again” is the name of all kinds of shops, from Born Again Second Hand Book Shop to Born Again Motocycles to “Born Again Bear”, which recycles old fur coats into teddy bears! And the phrase “born again” is also given meanings way beyond that religious sense in which Jesus used it. A man changes jobs, and his career is “born again.” A restaurant changes its menu, and its labeled “born again.” A man in later years buys himself a motor cycle and becomes a “born again biker”. A rugby team gets some new players and starts to win and they become the Born Again Springboks! Politicians changes their allegiance, and especially if they become passionate and crusading for their new cause they become a born again Conservative or a Born Again Euro-sceptic or a Born Again Environmentalist.
So the phrase “born again” refers to anybody who has had almost any kind of a life-changing experience – a dramatic change of direction, a U-turn.
I found a news story which tells us a little bit better what being born again is all about.
A born-again Christian who moved to New Zealand has paid out £400 for hundreds of unpaid Tube fares. (May 2005)
Transport for London (TfL) said the man anonymously posted them eight £50 notes apologising for years of fare dodging. In the letter, signed A Christian, he said that since becoming a born-again Christian he realised his years of persistent fare dodging were wrong and that he had deprived London Underground of much-needed income. He wrote: “My life is radically different to what it was then. I can’t stand the thought of stealing and therefore I enclose £400 to cover my fares.”
That Christian knew he had been born again: “My life is radically different from what it was then!”
In many people’s minds, being “born again” is linked to former American President Jimmy Carter, who was the first world politician who publically identified himself as a “born-again Christian” Jimmy Carter explained it like this.
“The first time we’re born, as children, human life is given to us; and when we accept Jesus as our Savior, it’s a new life. That’s what “born again” means.”
“You must be born again.” It’s one of Billy Graham’s favourite phrases. Back in the 18th century there was an English evangelist who was the Billy Graham of his day, a man called George Whitefield. At 16 he became deeply convinced of his need of God. He tried everything to become acceptable to God. He wrote, “I fasted for 36 hours twice a week. I prayed formal prayers several time a day and almost starved myself to death during Lent, but only felt more miserable. Then by God’s grace I met Charles Wesley, who put a book in my hand that showed me from the Scriptures that I must be ‘born again’ or be eternally lost.” So Whitefield understood that he had to put his trust in Jesus Christ. He believed and his life was transformed. The transforming power of Christ – power to save from the guttermost to the uttermost. After he became a preacher, Whitefield preached at least a thousand times on that subject, “You must be born again!”
A century before Whitefield, the author of Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan, put it this way:
The egg’s no chick by falling from the hen, Nor man a Christian till he’s born again.
We are born physically into this world – but we are spiritually dead. If we want to be alive spiritually, we need to be born spiritually too. We can’t enter the kingdom of God, we can’t even SEE the Kingdom of God, unless we are born again. Jesus Christ the Son of God said so! And we know Jesus is right. Nobody needs me to convince them of the truth that we are spiritually dead. God seems far away. Heaven is an impossible dream. The reason why most people can’t find God is the same reason that the burglar couldn’t find the policeman – he was too busy running away from him. God seems impossible to find because most people are living life the Frank Sinatra way – My Way
17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. 19 This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20 Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. 21 But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God.”
Human beings are spiritually dead because they want to live their lives “my way” instead of “God’s way”. They can’t see God’s light because they have turned their backs on Him and all they can see is the darkness and their own shadows. And we can’t find our own way back to God. We can’t change ourselves! Only God can change us. Only God can give us new life! The only way we can see God and see heaven is to be born again, to be born spiritually!
Jim Packer wrote this: “The use of the figure of new birth to describe this change emphasizes two facts about it. The first is its decisiveness. The regenerate man has forever ceased to be the man he was; his old life is over and a new life has begun; he is a new creature in Christ, buried with Him out of reach of condemnation and raised with Him into a new life of righteousness.
The second fact emphasized is that regeneration is due to the free, and to us, mysterious, exercise of divine power. Infants do not induce or cooperate in their own procreation and birth; no more can those who are dead in trespasses and sins prompt the quickening operation of God’s Spirit within them.”
So, you may be asking, just HOW can a person come to be born again??
John 3:16 God so loved the world that He gave his only Son, so that whoever BELIEVES in Him should have eternal life.
We are born again when we believe is Jesus – when stop living our lives “my way” and we put our trust in Jesus and ask Him to help us to live life God’s way.
When a person believes deep down in their heart that God has raised Jesus from the dead. That Jesus Christ is alive today and that Jesus Christ is Lord! At that point, the Bible says, we are saved – we begin a new life!
The apostle Paul puts it this way: When a person becomes a Christian they become a brand new person inside. Nothing is the same any more – a new life has begun. 2 Cor 5:17
So when a true believer claims, “I am a Christian”, they aren’t in any way boasting about who THEY are or what THEY have done. They are actually talking about what GOD has done, the difference Jesus makes in their lives. “I was dead, now I am alive. I was lost, now I have been found. God has given me new life – I’ve been born again!
What exactly is a Christian? A Christian is somebody who is living a brand new life because he or she has been born again.
A Christian is somebody who has recognised that Jesus Christ really is the Son of God, God born as a man to be our Saviour.
A Christian is somebody who believes that Jesus died on the cross to bring us back to God, so that we could be changed from God’s enemies into God’s friends.
A Christian is somebody who knows that Jesus Christ is alive today.
A Christian is somebody who has accepted God’s free gift of eternal life.
A Christian is somebody who knows God personally as Father.
So whether a person is a Christian or not is not to do with them loving their neighbour, or believing in God, or going to church or reading their Bible or saying their prayers. Being a Christian isn’t really about what WE do at all – it’s about what GOD has done in our lives – in giving us NEW LIFE in Christ. You must be born again!
So what happened at the end of the story? Was Nicodemus born again? We meet him again standing up for Jesus against the Pharisees in John 7.
John 7:50 Nicodemus, who had gone to Jesus earlier and who was one of their own number, asked, 51 “Does our law condemn anyone without first hearing him to find out what he is doing?”
52 They replied, “Are you from Galilee, too? Look into it, and you will find that a prophet does not come out of Galilee.”
Then we find Nicodemus alongside Joseph of Arimathea at Jesus’s tomb.
John 19: 38 Later, Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for the body of Jesus. Now Joseph was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly because he feared the Jews. With Pilate’s permission, he came and took the body away. 39 He was accompanied by Nicodemus, the man who earlier had visited Jesus at night. Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds. Taking Jesus’ body, the two of them wrapped it, with the spices, in strips of linen.
So was Nicodemus born again? For me the answer lies in one simple question. How did this story of a secret meeting at night get into John’s gospel? Nicodemus met Jesus alone. Nobody else was there. Read the account again and you’ll see. It just doesn’t sound the way it would if Jesus had told it to his disciples later. The phrasing is different. It sounds to me the way Nicodemus would have remembered what happened and told other people for years to come. That’s what we read here in John 3. It’s Nicodemus’s story in his own words. The night I met Jesus. The night Jesus changed my life. The night I, Nicodemus, was born again!