Born from Above, John 2:23-3:12 (3/5/12)

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Mar 052012
 

Rev. Jeff Chapman ~ March 4, 2012 ~ Faith Presbyterian Church

 

23When Jesus was inJerusalemduring the Passover festival, many believed in his name because they saw the signs that he was doing. 24But Jesus on his part would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people 25and needed no one to testify about anyone; for he himself knew what was in everyone.

1Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2He came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘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.’

3Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see thekingdomofGodwithout being born from above.’

4Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’

5Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter thekingdomofGodwithout being born of water and Spirit. 6What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.” 8The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’

9Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’

10Jesus answered him, ‘Are you a teacher ofIsrael, and yet you do not understand these things?

11’Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.  (John 2:23-3:12, NRSV)

 

Jesus is beginning to create a buzz.  In the last few days he’s turned gallons of water into wine to save a wedding feast.  He’s stormed through theTempleon Passover, throwing out the circus that had been set up there.  Though we aren’t told specifics, we are told in verse 23 that the crowds witnessed him do many other miraculous signs.

People are starting to wonder just who Jesus might be.  Some are starting to believe the rumors about him.  Maybe this is the next great prophet.  Maybe this is even the Messiah.  Everybody loves a rising star, and in the view of the crowds, Jesus’ star is rising like a rocket.

As quickly as it rises, however, it will fall.  Jesus knows this.  And so wisely, he puts very little stock in his poll numbers.  The hearts of people are extraordinarily fickle.  Nobody knows that better than Jesus.

Among the crowds, however, there were some notable exceptions.  One of them was a man named Nicodemus.  As a Pharisee and a member of the ruling council, Nicodemus was distinguished, a man of great influence and authority.  He was the sort of man you went to for spiritual counsel.  How odd it would have been to have seen the tables turned.

But that’s exactly what happens.  Nicodemus goes to Jesus for spiritual counsel.  Along with the crowds, Nicodemus has been impressed by the miraculous things he has seen Jesus perform.  Lots of people went around saying all sorts of wild things in those days.  Few, if any, of them, however, could back up their words with actions.  This man could.  And did.  In Nicodemus’ eyes, that made Jesus legitimate.  It was what led him to seek a private audience with him late one night.

There is a very important point here to be made.

Lots of different sorts of people have come along over the course of history making all sorts of wild religious claims.  Mormonism, for instance, was born because Joseph Smith claimed to have received a vision from God when he was he was praying alone in the woods near his home in Upstate New York.  Buddhism was born after Buddah experienced what he called an “Awakening” after a night of intense mediation alone under a Bodhi tree.  Islam was born after Muhammad claimed the angel Gabriel visited him in a series of mystical visions as he sat alone in a cave.[1]  Practically every religion or cult you can think of was founded because one person claimed to have alone received divine or spiritual insight which he or she then shared with others.

In this sense, Christianity is distinct from other faith traditions.  I want to make sure you understand this crucial distinction.

Yes, the Christian faith was also founded on the teachings of one person, Jesus.  But those teachings were authenticated by miraculous signs which other people, many other people, witnessed.  Jesus said lots of things about faith and life and God and salvation.  But Jesus also did things.  Publicly, he healed people who were sick.  He gave sight to the blind.  He manipulated the physical elements – turned water into wine and a few loaves and fishes into a feast for thousands.  He controlled the weather.  He walked across a lake.  He raised people from the dead.  Jesus didn’t just say things, or claim things.  Jesus did things.  That means Christianity is not just founded on claims but on events, very public events.

Here’s why this distinction is crucial.  It’s not that hard to make claims about special visions.  It would be quite easy for me to stand before you this morning and claim to have received a special, private vision from God last night and what are you going to say.  It’s your word against mine.  And if I’m a person of extraordinary charisma and intelligence (use your imaginations!), and you are people who are desperate enough, I might just get you to believe my visions were real.  I might even convince myself they were real.

You cannot do this, however, with miraculous signs.  You just can’t trick people into believing that you have brought dead people back to life unless you actually bring a few dead people back to life.  And this is one of the many reasons why Christianity, over and against other faith perspectives, is the most trustworthy.  The Gospel writers wrote as eye-witnesses of Jesus’ many, many miraculous signs.  And they wrote to an audience of people who were, themselves, present at these miracles.  This is no way to begin a religious movement unless these miracles actually happened.  If they didn’t, people will simply say, “I was there and it didn’t happen.”

Incidentally, this is why we have to be cautious these days of people who try to discredit the historicity of the miraculous signs recorded in the Gospels.  Because there are those today, even in the church, who will attempt to do this, to say that it’s not so important whether these things actually happened as the Gospels say they happened.  The miracles, even the resurrection, are really just there to teach us important lessons about life.

No!  The authority of the Gospel is all tied with the historicity of the Gospel.  That means the best way to discredit the authority of what Jesus taught is to discredit the historicity of what Jesus did.  But when it comes down to it, who are you going to believe?  The skeptics looking back 2000 years later?  Or Matthew, Mark, Luke and John who recorded these events shortly after they occurred and at a time when such events easily could have been discounted if they had not actually happened?[2]

Jesus was doing things that could not be explained away.  That is why Nicodemus, among others, comes to learn more.  “Rabbi,” he says to Jesus, “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.”

Hidden in his statement is a question.  Nicodemus wants to know what is behind this man who does the sorts of things only God could do.

Jesus tells him.  TheKingdomofGodis behind it all.  And to experience this kingdom, Jesus adds, a person has to be born from above.

You see, I think Jesus knew the heart of this man, like he knows the hearts of all people.  And in Nicodemus I believe Jesus saw a genuine desire to find theKingdomofGod.  Nicodemus came truly seeking.  He wanted to know God’s ways and to participate in whatever it was God was doing in this world.  Sensing this, Jesus tells him, “Nicodemus, if you want to find what it is you’re seeking, you are going to have to first be born again.”

Now here is where we have to think very carefully.  Understand this.  Jesus is not telling Nicodemus that he has to do something to find God’s kingdom.  He’s telling him that he needs to be born.  And being born is not doing something.  In fact, being born is having something done to you.

I know you don’t remember it, but think about your own birth.  What was it that you did that day to bring about your grand entrance into the world?  You didn’t do anything.  Am I right?

Besides my own birth, I have been present at the births of two other people, my two oldest children.  And I can give eyewitness testimony today before you that neither of them lifted a finger to help facilitate the whole process.  In fact, never once have I said to either of my children, “I was so proud of you on the day of your birth.  It was such a fine effort on your part.  It was so impressive how you just worked your way into the world.”

 

By the way, it’s not that there wasn’t anybody working hard to bring them into the world.  OF course, there was somebody working very hard.  And let me tell you, by the end of the day I was exhausted!

 

There is a profound spiritual truth that Jesus is giving us here.  Listen to me.  There is nothing that we do to enter into thekingdomofGod.  ThekingdomofGodis not gained through human effort, human brilliance, human intelligence, human righteousness.  Spiritual life, much like physical life, is simply a gift.  Somebody else has done all the work.  We are merely recipients.  When we understand this we become humble and grateful recipients.

 

Nicodemus has a hard time believing this.  He says to Jesus, “How can anyone be born after having grown old?  Can I enter a second time into my mother’s womb and be born a second time?”

 

You see, Nicodemus is thinking that there is something he can do to be born again.  He says to Jesus, essentially, “Since I obviously can’t crawl back into my mother’s womb again, what then can I do?”

 

Remember, this man is a Pharisee.  All his life he had dedicated every ounce of himself to doing whatever he can to earn his way into God’s favor.  He has observed every detail of the scribal law.  From the moment he gets up in the morning to the moment he goes to bed at night, he is laser-focused on becoming the sort of man who would be found worthy of God’s kingdom.

 

Problem is, the whole endeavor left him deeply unsatisfied.  That’s why he’s still searching.  That’s why he comes to Jesus that night.

 

He’s just like many of us here today.  Many of us have given monumental effort in our lives to trying to make ourselves into the sorts of people we think God might enjoy and accept.  And I don’t know about for you, but these efforts in my own life have only led to disappointment.  We long to experience a whole new life, a life where we love God with all of ourselves, trust him implicitly in all things, and love every person who crosses our path as much as we love ourselves.  We know this sort of life is necessary.  We know this sort of life is what God desires.  But we also know that bringing this sort of life about ourselves is next to impossible.

 

Jesus speaks to us when he says to Nicodemus, “To enter theKingdomofGodyou have to be born from above.  It’s not something you do.  It’s something that is done to you and for you.”

 

“Listen,” Jesus goes on, “and listen carefully.  Nobody can enter theKingdomofGodunless that person is born of water and Spirit.  Can’t you see, just as what is born of the flesh is flesh, so what is born of the Spirit is also spirit.”

 

This is a bit confusing, so let me try to explain.

 

Nicodemus is stuck in crude literalism.  Jesus is talking about spiritual birth and Nicodemus is thinking about maternity wards and umbilical cords.  He’s thinking about physical birth.  But Jesus wants him, wants us, to think about spiritual birth.  For, you see, there is physical life and then there is spiritual life.  And the two are not the same.  They are connected to one another, deeply connected, but they are not identical.

 

Here is a mistake we often make along these lines.  It’s one I think Nicodemus also made.  We see a person who is physically alive and we assume that person is also spiritually alive.  I know this is a mistake people make because I listen to the way people talk about other people after they die.

 

Whenever a person physically dies – their heart stops beating, their brainwaves stops functioning – the assumption is nearly always made that no matter who that person was, or what that person believed, the assumption is that his or her spiritual life continues on even after their physical life has ended.  Even when a person spent his whole life wanting almost nothing to do with God or spiritual matters, it’s still the general assumption that after his death he has gone to live in God’s Kingdom.  It’s as if we’ve concluded that all that has to happen for a person to go to heaven is for that person to die.

 

Now, I understand why the world talks like this.  They don’t know better.  I’m astonished, however, when I hear Christians in the church talk like this.  Because the Bible never talks like this.  Jesus never talks like this.  Instead, Jesus teaches us here that, yes, when a person is physically born, he or she is physically alive.  But that same person, though alive physically, is not spiritually alive until he or she is spiritually born, or born from above.  In other words, to enter fully into life, there needs to be two births.  One physical, and one spiritual.  Which means that there are people walking around this world today who are physically alive but are, in their spirits, dead.

 

Why is this?  Again, the scriptures are crystal clear.  People are spiritually dead because of sin.  That’s what sin does.  We when live life on our terms rather than on God’s terms, we cut ourselves off from God.  And that’s a problem because God is the source of life.  God is life.  Sin, therefore, leads to spiritual death.

 

In his writings to the early church, the Apostle Paul often reminded his fellow believers of their spiritual status before they were born again through Christ.  In Ephesians 2 he writes, “As for you, you were once dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time.”[3]

 

Sin leads to spiritual deadness.  And spiritual deadness, if not addressed, will eventually lead to physical deadness as well.  This is why Jesus and the rest of the New Testament writers constantly teach us that people who die in their sins will not, when all is said and done, be raised to life.  If you are spiritually dead in this life, your physical death is not going to lead to spiritual life beyond the grave.  That doesn’t even make sense.

 

The good news, of course, is that this also works the other way around.  In other words, those who are born again and become spiritually alive, even though they one day physically die, they will ultimately be raised to physical life again.  This is the promise of the resurrection, and it is the bedrock of the Christian Gospel.

 

As Paul writes in II Corinthians, “We do not lose heart!  Though outwardly we are wasting away [we are physically dying], yet inwardly [i.e. spiritually]we are being renewed day by day…Now we know that if the earthly tent [our physical body] is destroyed, we have a building from God [a new body one day!], an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands.”[4]

 

Again, this is not something we do for ourselves.  It’s done by the grace of God.  We simply receive it in faith.  Spiritual birth, just like physical birth, is not something you do but something which is done for you.  After all, if you’re dead, what can you do.  As one writer put it, “Jesus came to raise the dead.  The only qualification for the gift of the gospel is to be dead.  You don’t have to be smart.  You don’t have to be good.  You don’t have to be wise.  You don’t have to be wonderful.  You don’t have to be anything…you just have to be dead.  That’s it.”[5]

 

Understand this is true for everybody.  Jesus makes that clear.  Everybody is spiritually dead.  And nobody can enter thekingdomofGodunless they are, through faith, spiritually reborn.

 

This is clearly news to Nicodemus who likely assumed that because he was a Jew, one of God’s chosen people, and on top of that a Pharisee, if anybody had a pass into the Kingdom it was him.

 

Seeing the confusion on his face, Jesus personalizes it all for him.  “Do not be astonished that I said to you, Nicodemus , that, yes, even you must be born again from above.”

 

Then Jesus says a very curious thing.  “The wind blows where it chooses,” he says, “and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.  So it is with everybody who is born of the Spirit.”[6]

 

What’s Jesus saying here?  Well, by pointing out the characteristics of wind, Jesus is giving Nicodemus, and us in turn, two very specific and very important warnings about spiritual birth.[7]

 

First, Jesus reminds us that wind is uncontrollable and unpredictable.  It blows where it chooses.  We all know this.  A week ago Thursday, you may remember, was an extraordinarily blustery day.  That afternoon I coached a Little League practice for a bunch of nine and ten year old boys.  Believe me when I tell you that trying to get young ballplayers to chase down fly balls in the outfield that afternoon was an exercise in futility.  Wind is uncontrollable and unpredictable and, at least that afternoon, infuriating.

 

Jesus is warning us here that spiritual birth and spiritual life are also uncontrollable and unpredictable.  In other words, we should never imagine we know the sorts of people in whose hearts God is working and in whose hearts God is not working.  All through history, the wind of God’s Spirit has blown through the lives of all sorts of unexpected people who have, in spite of all conventional wisdom, come to walk with God.  Who are we to say where the wind blows?

 

Furthermore, who are we to say how the wind blows?  Have we really figured out exactly how people come into God’s Kingdom?  Just because I came to know God one way does not mean that everybody else will come to know God in the very same way.  I’ve heard enough of your stories in this church to realize that God leads people to spiritual birth in Christ in thousands and thousands of amazing and unpredictable ways.

 

Salvation is not a human program we control but a divine movement prompted by the wind of the Spirit.  As one writer said, “No human family, tribe, organization or system can keep up with it.”[8]  Our job is not to control it, or manage it, or even understand it.  We’d be fools to even try.  Like wind, God’s spirit is unpredictable and uncontrollable.

 

The second characteristic of wind Jesus points out here is that when the wind blows, you know it’s blowing.  You can’t control it, but you can hear the sound of it.  You can see the things it moves around as it passes through.  In other words, wind is never present without evidence that it’s present.

 

Jesus is warning us here that spiritual birth and spiritual life also never show up in a person without evidence of their presence.  If a person is physically alive, you’ll know it.  There will be evidence of that fact.  In the same way, if I have been truly born again from above and my spirit has been made alive, you’ll also know it.

 

This is why the Bible in general, and Jesus in particular, emphasize over and over and over again that if a person is truly walking with God, that person’s life will, in time, begin to show evidence of that relationship.  Granted, not all at once.  And sometimes in fits and starts.  But always there will be evidence.  True faith shows itself in works.  Genuine in love is more than just talk.  It’ shows itself in action.  A branch connected to the vine will bear fruit.

 

Interestingly enough, this leads us to end this morning in exactly the same place we started.  Nicodemus had a sense that God’s Kingdom was alive and at work in this man Jesus not only because of what he heard Jesus say, but really because of what he saw Jesus do.  Similarly, the world around us will know that God’s Kingdom is also alive and at work in us not only because of what they hear us say, but because of what they see us do.

 

We can talk about the love and forgiveness of God all we want.  Do we actually love and forgive one another?  Do we include people who others exclude?  Do we care for the poor who have nothing to offer us in return?  Do we treat our enemies with kindness and grace?  Do we freely share what we possess?  Do we honor God with our bodies and our minds?  Are our lives being transformed in noticeable ways to become more and more like Jesus?

 

If Christ is alive in us, if we truly have been born again from above, the evidence will eventually speak for itself.  If the wind of Christ’s Spirit is truly alive and blowing around in me, it’s bound to start moving some stuff around.  And you’ll notice!

 

If all this seems a little overwhelming at this point, know that your experience is not unique.  At this point in the conversation, Nicodemus was also feeling a little overwhelmed.  This is why Jesus stops to challenge him before he goes further.  “I’m speaking about what we all have seen,” Jesus says.  In other words, the things Jesus is telling Nicodemus here should be obvious.  That fact leads to this challenge.  Jesus continues, “If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe them, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?”

 

We’re not going to look at them this week, but in the following verses, Jesus is going to go deeper, into heavenly things.   He’s going to tell Nicodemus, and us, more, much more, about how all these things work.  In fact, he’s going to go right to the heart of what makes spiritual rebirth possible.  Before he does, however, Jesus needs to make sure that Nicodemus believes that being born again is even possible in the first place.

 

It’s the same challenge I suspect Jesus puts to you today.  I’ll end with this question.

 

Do you believe that for anyone to enter into thekingdomofGod, they must be born again from above?  If you do, then come back next week and Jesus is going to show us how.

 

Amen.

 

The Next Step: A resource for Life Groups and/or personal application

 

Read John 2:23-3:13 again.  It’s a familiar story.  Try and listen with fresh ears.  What do you notice this time through?

 

Nicodemus believed Jesus was from God because of his miraculous signs.  Why do you believe (assuming you believe) Jesus is from God?

 

The term “born again” has been used and misused quite a bit.  What does it mean to you?

 

Have you been born from above?  If so, how did it happen?

 

An Episcopal priest named Robert Farrar Capon once wrote, “Jesus came to raise the dead. The only qualification for the gift of the gospel is to be dead. You don’t have to be smart. You don’t have to be good. You don’t have to be wise. You don’t have to be wonderful. You don’t have to be anything … you just have to be dead. That’s it.”  Do you agree?

 

In the sermon we heard it stated that there are many people in the world today who are physically alive but, because they have not been born from above, remain spiritually dead.  Do you agree?

 

Jesus compares the Holy Spirit to wind.  How is the Spirit like wind?

 

At this point, how has Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus left you feeling?

 

Further Scripture Readings for the Week:  This Lenten season, in preparation for Easter, join others in the church setting aside at least 1% of their day each day to read through the Gospel of Luke.

Monday:               Luke 7:1-17

Tuesday                Luke 7:18-35

Wednesday:         Luke 7:36-50

Thursday:             Luke 8:1-18

Friday:   Luke 8:19-56

Saturday :             Luke 9:1-27

 

 



[1] Bruce Bickel and Stan Jantz, Guide to Cults, Religions and Spiritual Beliefs, (Eugene,Oregon: Harvest House, c. 2002).

 

[3] Ephesians 2:1-3, NIV.  Italics mine.

[4] II Corinthians 4:16, 5:1.  (NIV)

[5] Robert Farrar Capon, reference unknown.

[6] Nicodemus should have known these things.  That’s why Jesus later scolds him in verse 10.  If he would have looked into the Hebrew scriptures he would have seen these things.  See, for instance, Ezekiel 36:25-27 or Ezekiel 18:31.

[7] A reminder that the Old Testament Hebrew word for wind is the same word used for spirit.  The same is true in New Testament Greek.  Apparently the Holy Spirit behaves quite a bit like wind!

[8] N.T. Wright, John for Everyone, (Louisville:Westminster, c. 2002), p. 30.