You Must Be Born Again? (John 3)

Notes from a sermon preached on 05.10.08

‘Are you a born again Christian?’
It’s funny that this phrase has become a shorthand way of asking if you are a particular kind of Christian, if you buy into a particular way of doing Christianity.
Bit of an oxymoron really – Jesus says that to enter the Kingdom of God you need to be born again. In other words you can’t be a Christian and yet not born again!

Love the way Jesus used word-pictures and often deliberately ambiguous words in order to provoke people to think and to see new ideas.

You must be born again is one of those phrases.

What I want you to try and do is listen to this phrase as if you’re hearing it for the first time – put aside all the connotations that can come with it, put aside the meanings you’ve heard given to it. Try and put yourselves in Nicodemus’ shoes for a moment. Here he is, a significant religious leader, coming to Jesus in the night. We’re not told why he came. Has he come to test him? We have many other stories of Pharisees and teachers of the law doing just that. Has he come because he wants to know more, but is embarrassed or worried about what his colleagues might say if they knew hence using the cover of darkness? Or is it simply that he works long hours, studying the scriptures into the late hours every night? We’ve not told. His motive is not clear, what he wants to find out is unclear – and we never find out as Jesus interrupts before he can say anything…

‘I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again’

Imagine hearing it for the first time – put aside all the connotations and associations it has developed in the last 2 millenium. I would imagine if I heard it today for the first time, like Nicodemus I would imagine it had some literal meaning With Nicodemus I would be saying – what do you mean, you’re talking rubbish. How can we be born again? How can we climb back into our mothers’ wombs? The very idea is ludicrous!

But whatever Nicodemus really thought about Jesus, he saw him as a teacher, a wise-man – maybe even from God (he knew of the miracles after all). Given time Nicodemus would have realised that Jesus must have meant something else. Perhaps he means something more poetic? Perhaps it is a metaphor of some kind.

What do you associate with a new born child? What are young babies like?

· Dependence
· Vulnerability
· Wonder
· Trust
· New future ahead
· Chance to grow up again
· Fresh start
· Learning afresh

What is it Jesus said elsewhere about how to enter the Kingdom of Heaven – unless you become like one of these (referring to children)…

But how can we return to that state? Even if we’re not meant to be literally born again, if we’re meant only to regain that way of seeing the world and ourselves, its still an impossible dream isn’t it? Once you’ve lost childlike innocence, how can you ever forget what you’ve learnt or experienced? Once you’ve become jaded, how can you become trusting again?

Nicodemus clearly doesn’t get it either, and Jesus responds to his confusion with another strange statement.

‘No one can enter the Kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying you must be born again.’

So what does this mean? Does it help us grasp anymore about what being born again means?

Being born of water? What does this mean? Could it refer to natural birth – ‘my waters have broken!’ Or maybe it alludes to the waters of baptism, the symbol of the start of our Christian life?

How about flesh giving birth to flesh? Some have seen this as being in contrast to Spirit giving birth to spirit – flesh being an evil thing, the Spirit being good. But the word translated flesh here is not the one used by Paul to mean our sinful nature, the inclination to do wrong that we all have. No this word simply means flesh, skin and bones, the stuff we are made of. This has no negative connotations at all. He is simply contrasting human birth with divine birth.

Jesus is calling for something more than what we can humanly achieve. Being born again entails some sort of spiritual birth, initiated by the Holy Spirit.

Let’s leave John for a while and return to Genesis for a moment. One of my favourite and oft repeated pictures is that of God breathing the breath of life into the model of Adam formed from the earth. The Hebrew word for breath is ruach. The same word is used for the Spirit in the Old Testament. In that first birth, God is breathing his Spirit into Adam. Now here’s the thing. The Greek word for Spirit is pneuma, and you’ll never guess what that word can also mean? Yes, breath!

By saying we must be born again, and that we must be born of water and of spirit, is Jesus saying that in some God enabled way, we must be recreated, restored to that first creation – to be made again as we were always meant to be made?

I’ve never seen that connection mentioned before, but I can’t help but see it. In order to enter the Kingdom of God we need to regain that which Adam lost when he was cast out of the Garden of Eden – if not lost, that which became corrupted, tarnished, God’s spirit, God’s breath, his image in us.

But we end up saying the same thing again – how can I be born again? I can’t climb into the womb? I can’t regain innocence lost? Eden is barred and I can’t go back, or somehow breath in God’s breath afresh.

And yet, Jesus is surprised by that. ‘You are Israel’s teacher and you do not understand these things?’ He expects Nicodemus, the Pharisee and member of the ruling Jewish Council to understand, to know what he’s talking about. Doesn’t this imply that that his background should have alerted him to what Jesus is saying? Is there something in Old Testament – the Scriptures that Nicodemus would have loved so much, that would help us understand this phrase better?

There is, Ezekiel 36. In this chapter God announces that having punished the Israelites because of their sin by sending them into Exile, he is now going to astonish the nations and show them his power by bringing them home and gathering them up to himself:

24 ” ‘For I will take you out of the nations; I will gather you from all the countries and bring you back into your own land. 25 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. 26 I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. 28 You will live in the land I gave your forefathers; you will be my people, and I will be your God.

God is to bring his people back to him, to cleanse with water and restore them through his Spirit (its that being born by water and spirit again). No doubt Nicodemus thought this had happened when they returned from Exile, but there is something more here that Jesus is alluding to. This being born again is not something we can achieve, but that only God can do for us. He sprinkles water on us, he puts his Spirit in us.

Remember I said that Jesus loved to use ambiguous words. This phrase ‘born again’ can be translated or understood in two ways. The other way is ‘born of above’ or ‘born from above’. The only way we can enter the Kingdom of God, to receive eternal life, to be part of the New Jerusalem of Revelation, is through God’s work, not our own. It is no coincidence that following this passage in Ezekiel is the story of God bringing life to old bones in Ezekiel 37 (read Ez. 37:1-14?) Here God call’s the four winds to come and breath into the bones, to bring the skeletons to life – its that word again, wind, breath, ruach, Spirit. God brings new birth through his power, through his Spirit. God can do the impossible, that which we cannot.

And how does this come about? John explains in the most famous verse of all, John 3:16. ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not die but have eternal life.’ Jesus, God’s sent Son, was lifted up for us on the Cross so that we may be cleansed and restored, renewed to what we were before the Fall, children of God.

Do you wish to receive this gift?
Do you wish to be restored, renewed?
Do you want innocence lost to be found?
Doesn’t just refer to that point when we become a Christian, but also to our lives as a whole as we allow God to transform us by his Spirit into his likeness.
Prayer for God’s promised renewal.


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