What it Means to be Born Again

Henry Ossawa Tanner / Public domain

Synopsis: Many Christians claim to be “born again.” The term comes from the scene of Jesus’ visit with Nicodemus in John’s Gospel. When we Christians say we are “born again,” do we understand what Jesus meant, or have we created our own meaning?

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Scripture: John 3: 1-17

Peace be with you from Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Imagine if a great preacher and healer came into our world at this time, and there was a lot of excitement and speculation about whether this person is the second coming of Christ. Now, imagine if Joel Osteen or Franklin Graham or any of today’s famous Christian evangelists came to visit this person, confessed their faith, and they were told, “Your belief isn’t enough to save you.”

Imagine how flabbergasted they would feel, and you can begin to imagine how Nicodemus might have felt in our scripture reading for today.

First, let’s look at the setting of this event, which might explain why Nicodemus visited with Jesus. Nicodemus was a Pharisee and a member of the powerful Jewish council. He was one of the most prominent religious teachers of his day, and the power of Jesus’ teaching and healing got his attention.

Jesus astonished his audiences with the depth of his Scriptural understanding from the time he was twelve years old and continuing into his ministry as an adult. At the end of Matthew chapter 7:28-29, after Jesus had finished teaching the crowds, we read, “the crowds were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.”

Not only did Jesus astound the crowds with his teaching, but also with his healing. We read in Luke 5:17 “One day, while he was teaching, Pharisees and teachers of the law were sitting nearby (they had come from every village of Galilee and Judea and from Jerusalem); and the power of the Lord was with him to heal.”

At this point, the religious leaders were hard-pressed to criticize Jesus, but Jesus didn’t have any trouble criticizing them. In the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew chapter 5, Jesus taught the people that he came not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. Then he said in verse 20, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

If that wasn’t enough to get Nicodemus’ attention, then perhaps Jesus’ cleansing the temple was. Nicodemus’ visit is placed immediately after this event in John’s gospel. When the religious leaders asked Jesus to produce a sign to prove his authority to cleanse the temple, he replied, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”

And that brings us to our scripture reading for today. Nicodemus was one of the most renowned Torah teachers of his day, yet when Jesus preached, he captivated audiences in ways that Nicodemus never could, and when Jesus preached, he answered questions that had puzzled Nicodemus for years. Jesus also performed many miracles, yet Nicodemus himself had yet to perform one.

Jesus made the Jewish teachers of the law look like amateurs – even ones as great as Nicodemus. Blinded by pride, most of them refused to believe that he came from God despite the obvious power of his preaching and healing abilities, and most of them would eventually join together to find ways to discredit Jesus and have him arrested.

Nicodemus came to see Jesus at night – alone. The Pharisees normally operated during the day – and in packs. Why is Nicodemus acting so unlike the other Pharisees?

Well … because Nicodemus was indeed unlike the other Pharisees. The first thing he says to Jesus is, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”

Nicodemus shows Jesus great respect by calling him “Rabbi,” a title reserved for teachers of the law like himself. But notice that Nicodemus doesn’t say, “I know that you are a teacher who has come from God.” He says, “We know that you are a teacher who has come from God.” Is he speaking for all the Pharisees?

The majority of the Pharisees ultimately rejected Jesus, so he must not be saying, “All we Pharisees believe in you, Jesus!” I think he’s saying, “Based on the way we Pharisees judge things like miraculous signs, the evidence suggests that your power must come from God.” He was drawing a logical conclusion based on the evidence according to his Pharisaic training.

At this point, I’m sure Nicodemus was looking forward to hearing Jesus talk all about himself and his divinely-inspired mission. I’m sure he had a lot of questions he would have liked Jesus to answer.

Instead, Jesus makes a statement that totally confounds Nicodemus. He says, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the Kingdom of God without being born from above.” He’s essentially telling Nicodemus, “Thanks for the vote of confidence, but your belief is not enough to save you.”

I’m sure Nicodemus was shocked by this statement. He probably thought, “Wait just a minute here! I don’t need to be born again! I was born a Son of Abraham – an heir to the Kingdom of God. I follow Torah Law and teach others to do the same. How is that not enough?”

I’m sure today’s biggest Christian evangelists would be just as shocked. They might think, “Wait just a minute here! I was baptized a Christian, I say the Apostle’s Creed, I administer and partake in the sacraments, and I preach the gospel. How is that not enough?”

Nicodemus was not afraid to express his confusion and ignorance: “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”

We Christians got the term “born again” from this story, so our Christian evangelists might say, “Oh, yes, Lord! I know exactly what you mean. I’m a born-again Christian.” When we call ourselves “born again,” what do we mean? Have we adopted Jesus’ meaning or our own?

Jesus explains to Nicodemus that to be reborn from above involves two things: The first is water. I believe Jesus’ use of the word “water” relates to John’s baptism. Remember that John’s baptism wasn’t for the forgiveness of sins. It was a sign of God’s blessing on those who had repented and made a commitment to God.

Jesus liked using parables to make a point, and I’d like to do the same using one of his parables – the Parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke chapter 15. Jesus tells a story about a father with two sons. The younger son brazenly asks his father for his inheritance – basically expressing a wish for his father to die. In response, the father divides his inheritance between his two sons.

The younger son cashes in all his assets and goes to a “distant country.” When a famine strikes, he comes to his senses, repents, and begins to return home to his father. Along the way, he makes plans to ask his father to be accepted as a hired hand, but his father runs to meet him with open arms and throws a feast to celebrate his return.

The elder son becomes jealous and complains to his father saying in essence, “Here I’ve served you all these years, and you never rewarded me!” Now, it was the elder son’s duty to keep the family together, yet he gladly took his share of the inheritance and said “see ya!” to his younger brother.

Clearly, the elder son didn’t serve his father out of love; he served him for profit. He saw his father more as a boss whom he served only for a paycheck – for what he could get in return – not out of love – not out of gratitude – and with zero concern for him or his brother.

Rather than joining with his father and his brother, the elder brother exiled himself because he resented the fact that he couldn’t use his family for his own personal gain. He shook his finger at his younger brother while he himself despised his family and while he himself desired to be on his own every bit as much as his younger brother had – but without repentance.

The elder son was even more lost than his younger brother. We Christians can be deceived just like the elder son when it comes to our relationship with God and with one another. We can’t have a right relationship with God and with one another if our heart is in the wrong place.

In the wilderness, Satan tried everything in his power to get Jesus to abandon his commitment to God. Satan does the same thing to us – every single day.

I once said that I believe Satan is the ego. I’ve changed my mind. Satan is a fallen angel and the Prince of Darkness. He is real, but we don’t need to fear him. We do need to be aware of how he deceives us. His favorite way to deceive us to tempt us by appealing to our greatest weakness – the ego – our desire to be separate and to serve only ourselves.

Satan has no problem with people being religious. He can easily tempt people to use religion to profit themselves – to acquire more power, pleasure, prestige, or material possessions. Satan has no problem with religious belief at the shallow level of the mind. He can easily tempt people to mask their sins – their apathy, their arrogance, their greed, and their hatred – behind “religious beliefs.”

Satan has a major problem with people joining with Christ. Because once all of humanity joins with Christ, the Light of the World, the Prince of Darkness will have no more power over us.

Being “reborn of water” means a lot more than just admission into “Club Christian” through baptism. Our heart must be in the right place. We must be willing for the Holy Spirit to show us if it isn’t so that we can repent and make a new commitment to join with Christ.

Jesus explains to Nicodemus that to be reborn from above involves not only being reborn of water but also being reborn of Spirit.

Nicodemus responds to this idea with, “How can these things be?” Jesus gently rebukes him saying, “Eeeeya! And you call yourself a teacher of Israel?” We Christians should have some compassion for Nicodemus because we too are deeply ignorant when it comes to our true nature.

If we believe that we were born and will someday die; then, we believe we are of the flesh. But the flesh hardly scratches the surface of who we really are. The flesh is like the tip of an iceberg so vast under the surface that we can’t even begin to imagine how big it is, or how deep it goes.

We’ve focused for so long on the tip of the iceberg that we’ve lost awareness of the vastness of our Being beneath the surface, and now we wonder like Nicodemus, “Really? How can it be that we are more these individuals?”

Think about this: When winter comes, many things in the natural world die. We aren’t horrified by this at all because we know spring is coming. We love spring because life returns to the Earth. Everything is reborn. We accept that the natural world is all part of this cycle of Life, and Life never dies; it continues on in ever-changing forms.

Isn’t that glorious? Well guess what? We’re part the natural world and therefore part of this glorious cycle of life. When Jesus said, “I am the way the truth and the life,” he was speaking as the Christ, and he was speaking quite literally. In Christ, we are the Life! We are literally Life itself!

That’s how God created us, but we humans refuse to believe that. We’d rather believe we’re separate – maybe because we’d like to think we’re superior to the rest of the natural world. We’d rather believe that we are this individual that dies than simply take our humble place alongside the rest of Life.

We’d rather believe that we can be separate and exploit the rest of Life and keep all the goodies to ourselves. Of course, keeping all the goodies to ourselves is meaningless unless we can somehow figure out how to make this individual live forever. Since that is “mission impossible,” we live in constant fear.

We choose to believe in this illusion of separation and experience fear, suffering, and death rather than to believe in who we are as God created us, as One with Him and All of Life, and to gratefully accept our inheritance: peace, joy, and eternal life.

Jesus said to Nicodemus, “No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.” He’s saying that the only way we can see the Kingdom of God is to join with Christ because Christ was born from above, not this thing (body).

Why in the world would we choose to believe we are these individuals and accept fear, suffering, and death when we have a far better choice? Perhaps, like Nicodemus, we can now draw a logical conclusion based on the evidence: We humans are spiritually insane.

Thankfully, God does not condemn us for our insanity. The insane can’t exercise their free will, so God had to intervene to save us. Jesus said, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

This verse sums up the Gospel, but it is usually taken out of context. Because of that, the word “so” is often mistakenly interpreted as “God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son ….” But in the Bible, the word “so” is often used to mean “in the same way.”

A better translation would be “For God in the same way loved the world that he gave his only Son ….” In what same way? In the same way as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness. Jesus is using the word “so” to point Nicodemus back to an event in Israel’s history.

This event takes place in Numbers chapter 21. The Israelites were still wondering in the wilderness at this time, but they were growing impatient. They spoke out against God and Moses, so the Lord sent poisonous snakes among the people. Many Israelites who were bitten by the snakes died, so the people cried out to Moses, asking him to pray to God to remove the snakes.

God didn’t remove the snakes; instead, he instructed Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.”

Jesus is telling Nicodemus that God has a plan to heal humanity in the same way he healed the Israelites in the wilderness. I believe the serpents represent this false idol (the body), and the poison is our belief in it. God in his love for us sent Jesus to take this false idol to the cross to prove to us that it is nothing and to show us who we really are in Christ. Those who look up to the Christ and believe will be healed of the poison that has caused our spiritual insanity.

To be born again requires more of us than a simple confession of belief on the level of the mind. First, our heart must be in the right place. Therefore, we must be willing to allow the Holy Spirit to examine our hearts and help us come to our senses if we are living in the filth of fear, suffering, and death – or feeling a sense of entitlement and bitterness.

Next, if our heart is in the wrong place, we must repent and turn our faces back toward home, never again to turn them back toward that “distant country.” We must make the journey back to God step-by-step, keeping our eyes fixed on Christ, as we wait for God to run to greet us and enfold us in His Arms.

It is only then that we will truly know what it means to be “born again.”

Let’s pray together: Lord, we are willing to be born from above – to be reborn of water and the Spirit. Through the Power of Your Holy Spirit, bring to our awareness what is in our hearts that may need to be cleansed with the water of repentance so that we can turn our face up toward Christ once again and continue our journey Home. Amen.

Resources

Deffinbaugh, Bob. “8. Jesus and Nicodemus (John 3:1-21).” Bible.org, 19 Aug. 2004, bible.org/seriespage/jesus-and-nicodemus-john-31-21