John 3:1-17

2nd Sunday in Lent – 3/5/2023

Have you heard any good news lately? How many of us have threatened to no longer listen to the news reports or read the daily newspapers because all they tell us is more bad news? Tragic train derailments, massive earthquakes, killing thousands, more murders, carjackings, and riots, skyrocketing prices on everything from gasoline to food, escalations of a possible nuclear war with Russia, and almost daily warnings from some climate change alarmists and politicians announcing that the world faces an inevitable catastrophic Armageddon before the end of this decade if we in the USA don't entirely end the use of all fossil fuels. As someone has quipped, "If not for the bad news, there would be no news!"

"So what is new?" At the tumultuous birth of our nation, Thomas Paine wrote, "These are the times that try men's souls." That was the first sentence of a popular pamphlet that Paine wrote to encourage the colonists to support the revolutionary effort and inspire the colonial army to fight for victory.

Every generation faces "times that try men's souls." Jesus warned His first-century followers, "See that no one leads you astray... You will hear of wars and rumours of wars. See that you are not alarmed, for this must occur, but the end is not yet. Nation will rise against nation and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are but the beginning of the birth pains. Then they will deliver you to tribulation and put you to death, and all nations will hate you for my sake. And then many will fall away, betray, and hate one another. And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because lawlessness will increase, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved" (Matt. 24:4–13).

Here's the point: Terra firma is not our eternal residence. You, dear Christian, are citizens of a different kingdom. Times of trial serve the purpose of reminding us of that. Jesus said of the disastrous happenings of His day, "I tell you, unless you repent, you will all likewise perish" (Luke 13:3). This fallen world, with all of its trying times, is a testing ground of sorts. After all, being born into this world is not the true life God intended for us. He created human beings in His image to share in His life—to live forever in fellowship with Him, that is, to live in His kingdom. Since that life was lost through humanity's rebellion and sin, it is now necessary for sinners like you and me to be born back into the life and kingdom God intended for us.

Forget then the disaster predicted to occur on account of climate change. Forget nuclear annihilation from a war with Russia. Forget the ominous threats of a more deadly pandemic! The threat of not being able to enter the Kingdom of God is the absolute disaster of disasters. In our Gospel text this morning, Jesus makes this earth-shattering statement: "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God."

That is huge news! No news could be of more importance to you and me and all our fellow members of the human race! It is both disastrous to some and eternal comfort to others.

What makes it more problematic for us to understand this is that many in the Christian community have totally distorted and falsely taught Jesus the meaning of His term "born again," endangering people's salvation. After all, if only the born-again are saved to eternal life, that is, if they can enter the Kingdom of God, then it is paramount that we understand what Jesus means by the terminology born again.

Now, let's step back and look more carefully at the context of Jesus' warning here. First of all, we see that Jesus spoke these words to a Pharisee named Nicodemus, who had come to Him by night out of fear of what his fellow Jewish leaders might do to him if they found out he was meeting with this man, whom they considered to be a charlatan—a false prophet at best and a blasphemer at worst.

From Jesus' dialogue with Nicodemus, it is clear that being born again is not simply knowing or accepting certain things about Jesus as accurate. Nicodemus had formed some startling opinions about Jesus. For example, all the miraculous works, or, as Nicodemus calls them, "signs" that Jesus had been doing, were clear evidence that Jesus was more than some self-proclaimed prophet. Nicodemus even gave Jesus the revered title of Rabbi, or "teacher. Being a member of the ruling council of the Jews, Nicodemus would not have granted that title to anyone who went around teaching. Only those recognized as God's teaching words were afforded that title. Jesus' miracles were enough evidence to convince Nicodemus that, as he testified, Jesus was "a teacher from God."

But Jesus' rather blunt response that "unless one was born again, he could not see the kingdom of God" informed Nicodemus in no uncertain terms that he still did not know Jesus, let alone comprehend the kingdom of God. When John wrote that Nicodemus came to Jesus by night, he was saying much more than just that Nicodemus was using the cloak of darkness to hide his visit from the eyes of his fellow council members, many of whom were very hostile toward Jesus. Instead, John indicated that Nicodemus was also in the dark regarding proper spiritual understanding. Nicodemus could not see the kingdom of God because he could not rightly see Jesus.

It remains night for many today also. Even among some who call themselves Christians, the light has not yet dawned, and they will not see the kingdom of God. Even with their earthly eyes, people can see that there is something special about Jesus. His miracles are well documented. His teachings do indeed reveal wisdom far beyond this world. The historical record of His accomplishments and his perseverance in the face of opposition by even His people is awe-inspiring. His life and times make for excellent and inspiring movies. But unless people see by faith that Jesus is more than a marvelous teacher and person, but that He is also God Incarnate and the sole Savior of sinners, and genuinely trust that He is their Savior, then they are still living in blindness and will not see nor enter the kingdom of God. They are still dead. As Jesus taught Nicodemus, true enlightenment comes only to those born again!

Nicodemus had no clue what Jesus was talking about. He sarcastically replied to Jesus, "How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter his mother's womb again and be born?" Now, this borders on the ridiculous, doesn't it? And Nicodemus knew it. That is why he said it. You see, he used the same tactic we all use when we hear something our human reason cannot comprehend. We make light of it to make it sound utterly preposterous.

"Imagine an adult getting back inside his mother's womb!" Outlandish? Yes! But it also revealed just how ignorant Nicodemus was. After all, Jesus was not talking about physical birth. Being born again is a spiritual experience completely beyond fleshly comprehension or influence.

Jesus, however, did not put Nicodemus down or scold him. Instead, in a very patient and gentle way, Jesus set the record straight: "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God."

Now, we are getting somewhere! Jesus is not talking about any earthly process but a heavenly one. When Jesus said born again, the word He used that is translated again literally means not "again" but "from above." In fact, in all other places where Jesus uses this word, as recorded in John's Gospel, it can only be translated "from above." For example, later in this chapter, v. 31, Jesus says, "He who comes from above is above all; he who is of the earth is of the earth and speaks of the earth." To be consistent in our translation, here we should also translate "born again as "born above" or "born from above."

With the more appropriate translation, "born from above," we can all better understand what this birth is that Jesus is talking about. He says this birth has nothing to do with earthly things. It comes from above. Jesus elaborates: "That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the spirit is spirit."

To say that one is "born again" is misleading and quite damnable at worst. This birth that allows a person to see and enter God's kingdom is not a rebirth. It is a new and different birth: a spiritual birth. After all, as Jesus later would also say, "The Spirit gives life; the flesh profits nothing" (John 6:63). This birth has nothing to do with the flesh. Just as God gives us our physical life and birth into this physical world, God alone gives a person birth into the kingdom of God. This birth is not a physical rebirth. It is a whole different kind of birth. With it, God transforms a person into a spiritual being who truly knows Him. It is a birth from above.

In the continued teaching that follows, Jesus also helps Nicodemus and us understand that this "birth from above" is to be equated with not just knowing about Jesus but believing in Him as God and Savior.

Twice, Jesus reiterates that everyone who believes in Him will have eternal life. The person who is born from above will enter the kingdom of God. The person who believes in Jesus will enter the kingdom of God. Do the math. One is equivalent to the other. Being spiritually born from above means being given faith to believe in Jesus. The person who is a true believer in Jesus has been born again, that is, born from above—born of God. In his opening chapter, John said as much: "to those who believe in His name, who were born not of blood, nor the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God."

That is why, as many want to do today, using the phrase "born-again Christian" makes no biblical or spiritual sense. Every true believer in Jesus Christ is born again, "born from above," otherwise they could not believe. Their spiritual birth is coming to faith in Jesus. Real spiritual life is not some emotional high, an ecstatic experience, or higher meditation. These are all fleshy experiences. That is why people in other religions and cults can also have them. But only those in whom God's Spirit has given birth will believe in Jesus Christ. Only Christians are born from above.

This spirit-given birth makes you, who believe in Jesus Christ as our Savior and God, new persons. You are now alive in your faith in Christ. You were once dead in your transgressions and sins. But when you were made to believe in Jesus Christ as your Savior, you were made alive in the forgiveness of sins and the eternal salvation that forgiveness secures—being Christian means being born again from above. Being born again means being a Christian. To refer to someone then as a born-again Christian is as ridiculous and redundant as saying that person is a Christian!

That also tells us then that those who insist on making distinctions between Christians by referring to some as "born-again Christians" have not only sinfully divided Christians, but they are heretics who preach salvation falsely!

Over the years, when I have asked those who believe this way what they mean by "born-again Christian, over and over again, they say it refers to that person who has made some public acknowledgement or confession of Jesus as their Savior; that is, they have decided for Jesus. Then there are others for whom it means that the person has received some special baptism of the Holy Spirit, some emotional high, where often they have some miraculous ability, speaking in tongues, healing, etc.

The only spiritual birth that God knows about is the one He gives to people, making them alive in faith in Jesus as their Savior and Lord. It has nothing to do with answering some altar call for Jesus or having some ecstatic experience.

Now, to be sure, when you and I believe in Jesus and confess Him as our Savior, our minds are fully engaged. We can feel that now we do look to Jesus, that we do want to follow Him, and that we do love Him. But what we feel and see are only the effects of the Spirit's work in us.

Jesus uses the word "spirit" (pneuma) to drive home this point. The Greeks used the same word to mean breath or wind. So, Jesus says, you and I can observe what the wind (Spirit) does; we can see the wind moving the branches of the tree. Those branches can even feel themselves moving. But they do not move on their own. The pneuma—that is, the wind—sets them in motion. So, we can feel and see movement in our hearts and minds to embrace Jesus as our Savior, but we did not move them. The Spirit blew faith into us.

However, the Holy Spirit does not simply work in a vacuum to give us this birth; He employs means. As Jesus says, this birth is not of the flesh but rather "of water and the Spirit." What else can this mean but holy baptism? In Holy Baptism, the "wind" of God, the person of the Holy Spirit, blows to wash and cleanse sinners in the forgiveness of sins and give the baptized a new birth.

As the Apostle Paul states, in baptism, God puts the baptized to death in Christ's death and makes him alive in the resurrection of Jesus (Romans 6). In these holy waters joined to His Word of promise, the Spirit makes a person alive in faith, just as He makes people alive in faith through the spirit-filled words of the gospel. Through that faith, they are truly alive. They receive the gift of eternal life. They have entered God's kingdom of grace and life.

Therefore, as those born of God in these trying times, do not allow the tribulations of these days to lead you to despair and lose your way, as did Thomas Paine. You see, for all he did with his words to pave the way for independence and democracy in America, he lost his way. Even before the 13 Colonies became the United States of America, he had moved back to England. There he became radical in his views of individual freedom and rights. He was declared an outlaw in England and France for his advocacy of the assassinations of their kings. He even wrote an anti-church tract entitled "The Age of Reason." Eventually, through the efforts of James Monroe, he made it back to the United States, but only to die in public scorn and all alone.

In these trying times, dear Christian, remember from whence you have been born. This world is passing away. But remember, thanks to God. You are not of this world. You have been born from above! Through faith in Jesus Christ, you are a citizen of His kingdom, which is indestructible, eternal, and only knows peace! Amen.

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