The New Birth
Series: The Gospel of John
Jesus makes all things new, and will one day bring the kingdom of God to earth in its fullness. The most important question any of us can ask, then, is how can I enter the kingdom of God? Jesus’ answer: “You must be born again.”
We’re going through a series of sermons on The Gospel of John, and a couple weeks ago we began a section where Jesus is making all things new. It began with Him turning water into wine. He didn’t just take impure water and run it through a filter. He didn’t just take bad wine and turn it into good wine. He created new wine out of water. Through Him, the water was born again. That’s what our world needs. If all we do is fix the problems in the world that now is, they have a way of coming back again, or new ones arise. And indeed, the Bible promises a day when the whole world will be made new, when the kingdom of God will come in its fullness. Jesus makes all things new. But if we’re honest with ourselves, it’s not just our world that needs to be made new; it’s each of us. Therefore, Jesus says in this passage: You must be born again to enter the kingdom of God. Therefore, Jesus had to die.
To enter the kingdom of God
As our text begins, we’re introduced to Nicodemus, a pharisee and ruler of the Jews. The pharisees were a sect of Jewish priests who generally were not big fans of Jesus, which likely explains why Nicodemus came to Jesus by night, though we’ll see in just a moment that the darkness is also symbolic of Nicodemus’ spiritual condition. He was among those who saw the signs Jesus was doing, narrated in chapter 2, and it made him think that Jesus was in fact a teacher sent by God, as he says in verse 2. So he goes to investigate, but not in such a way that his pharisee buddies might actually find out. He presents the statement that Jesus is a teacher sent from God, and Jesus responds in verse 3 with these words: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Where’d that come from? The end of chapter 2 showed us that Jesus knows what is in man: He knew what Nicodemus needed, and Nicodemus, after all, said that Jesus was a teacher sent from God. So Jesus teaches him, not first by answering a question Nicodemus did ask, but by teaching him what question he needs to ask: How can one see the kingdom of God? His answer: You must be born again.
Nicodemus responds in verse 4 with the darkness of understanding common to us all before we are born again, before our eyes are opened to see the kingdom of God. He wants to know how a child can enter into its mother’s womb a second time to be born again. In response, Jesus clarifies in verse 5: Unless one is born of water and spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. This reference to water and spirit clarifies for us what kind of second birth Jesus is describing. Here he alludes to Ezekiel 36:25-27, in which God says, “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. 26 And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.” The water refers to a cleansing of our hearts from our uncleanness and idolatry. By saying that everyone needs such a purification if they are to enter the kingdom of God, Jesus teaches that all of us are, from our first birth, unclean. Even Nicodemus, a priest and ruler of the Jews, would need to be cleansed if he were to enter the kingdom of God. Unless one is born of water, he cannot enter the kingdom of God, and so also, unless one is born of the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. The Spirit here refers to the Holy Spirit of God, who regenerates our spirits, so that, as Ezekiel 36 puts it, we walk in God’s statutes and are careful to obey His rules. For any individual to enter the kingdom of God, then, he or she must be cleansed of his or her sins and given a new heart that loves God and desires to obey Him. For anyone to enter the kingdom, be saved, be right with God, have eternal life, go to heaven, you must be born again.
This shows, us, then, the utter inability of any human to enter the kingdom of God through their own resources. We talk today about human capital or social capital, how people are the most valuable asset to any company, we even have departments called human resources, which is all right and good, but no amount of human resources or capital enable one to enter the kingdom of God. We do try, though. There is, of course, the traditional religious approach to trying to enter the kingdom of God, in which Nicodemus was no doubt engaged. Religious people believe there is a real kingdom of God, and they can enter it by their own efforts. They engage in the right ceremonies, say the right words, and do the right things. But deep down they’re radically insecure. Because how do you ever know whether you did all the ceremonies right, got all the words right, and did all the right things? Then the way they bolster their security is by looking down on others, thus becoming harsh, judgmental, and angry. So John Owen says that salvation by a “self-strength, carried on by ways of self-invention, unto the end of a self-righteousness, is the soul and substance of all false religion in the world.”
Then there are the irreligious ways of trying to enter the kingdom of God. Of course an irreligious person doesn’t profess belief in a kingdom of God, but they were still created for it, and so can’t escape a sense that there is something wrong with them, that they are unclean, and that in some way they must deal with that if they are to enter into a higher state of being. Some deal with it in a manner similar to religious people: They try to start doing the right things, though with less of a religious bent: They work hard to succeed at their job, start eating healthy, exercise, recycle, march in a rally, meditate, volunteer, donate to a charity. Alongside that an irreligious person may try to convince themselves that they aren’t that unclean in the first place. They try to find statements, people, and maybe even pay a therapist to tell them that there is nothing wrong with them. And by the way, many of these things I’m talking about are good things, right? Just like there is much good in religion, exercise is good, eating healthy is good, volunteering can be good, therapy can be good. But neither the best therapist, the best diet, the most discipline, nor the right stance on every issue is sufficient for you to enter the kingdom of God. You must be born again. Why?
Verse 6: That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. No matter how healthy you make your flesh, no matter how hard you work your flesh, no matter how well you counsel your flesh, it’s still just flesh. And when you hear flesh in the Bible don’t just think skin or body. Flesh in the Bible refers to human nature, body and soul, and in human nature under its current condition there is a two-fold deficiency requiring a new birth. First, we were not created in the everlasting kingdom of God. The first humans were created good, but not perfect. The first humans were morally upright, but able to fall from that condition. As Augustine put it, they were “able to sin”. And the kingdom of God ultimately is not only one in which righteousness dwells, but in which it dwells eternally and irreversibly. To enter the kingdom of God, we need a new life that causes us to walk in God’s statutes and obey His rules forever.
But not only is our flesh deficient in that we are able to sin; the flesh in which we now live is, by nature, sinful flesh. Once the first humans sinned, all flesh that was born of their union inherited their sinful flesh. We are born, to use Augustine’s words again, “not able not to sin.” And so, that which is born of the flesh is flesh. We were all born, by virtue of our first birth, not only with a flesh that was able to sin, but with a flesh that wanted to sin. That’s why it comes naturally to kids to know it’s wrong when someone takes their toy, but to still want to take others’ toys. That’s why we know it’s wrong when someone lies to us, but are willing to lie ourselves when we sense it will help us and we’re unlikely to get caught. It’s why we know murder is wrong, but still get pleasure from imagining ourselves hurting those we hate. It’s why we know greed is wrong when we see it in others, but we’re never content. It’s why we all love to stand up for the right cause until it starts to be unpopular among the people we want to like us, or until it starts to cut into our property value. Everything born of the flesh is flesh. And when you just try to obey better, work harder, or think more positively, all you’re doing is throwing more flesh at the problem.
But, that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. God the Holy Spirit brings new life. He cleanses you of your sin and gives you a new desire to walk in God’s statutes and be careful to obey all His rules. That is what you need if you are to enter the kingdom of God. No one is a citizen of God’s kingdom by virtue of their first birth. No one has been a Christian their whole life. I know people say that sometimes and sometimes they just mean “I’ve been a Christian as long as I can remember.” Ok, fair enough; sometimes God gives the gift of new birth to people at a very young age. And almost no Christian actually knows the exact day or moment they were born again. But other times people say they’ve been Christians their whole lives because they don’t understand what it means to be a Christian. They mean, “I’ve always believed what the priest said and was basically nice.” But look, Nicodemus seems like a nice guy, and he didn’t just listen to the priest; he was a priest! And he still needed to be born again! I mean, if anyone’s first birth should have sufficed, it should have been his. God promised to bless Abraham and his offspring, and Nicodemus was an offspring of Abraham, a child of Israel, to whom the promises were made. Yet Jesus says if anyone, Nicodemus included, you included, me included, is to enter the kingdom of God, you must be born again. Jesus doesn’t say, “Some of you must be born again to enter the kingdom of God, but others of you have just kind of always gotten it.” Your parents may have been awesome, and they may have raised you in the godliest environment imaginable; I hope that’s true. And you still must be born again.
Does this surprise you? It surprised Nicodemus, but Jesus says in verse 7: Don’t marvel at this. This is the way the Spirit works, according to verse 8: The Spirit works like wind. At the time especially without meteorology, the wind was unpredictable, and even today we aren’t great at it. We don’t know where wind comes from or goes, but we hear its sound. So we cannot control where, when, or with whom the Spirit gives new life, but we can observe the effects, like we can hear the sound of wind. The effect is people who once hated God and loved sin now love God and hate sin. The effect is people who are careful to walk in His statues and obey His rules, not to gain new life, not to enter the kingdom of God, but because they have new life, because they are now citizens of the kingdom of God. Do you see that if you genuinely, though always imperfectly, take care to walk in God’s statutes and obey His rules, it can only be because this has happened to you? It cannot be because you’ve just always been a good kid who grew up in a good family. Thinking and speaking of it in that way steals from the glory of God. It takes something the Bible says only the Spirit can do and ascribes it to you. And it’s stealing your joy. You’re missing the incredible blessing of rejoicing in the miracle God has done in your life. Could that be why your praise of God is so faint? Could it also be why you think the people around you are unlikely to become Christians? Of course, in and of themselves, they aren’t just unlikely to become Christians; they’re unable to become Christians. But so were you. If He saved you, why can’t He save them? The Spirit blows where He wishes.
Nicodemus, however, was still perplexed, and asked in verse 9 how these things can be. In His answer to Nicodemus, Jesus eventually gives another “must.” In verse 7 we saw that we must be born again. In verse 15 we’ll see that the Son of Man must be lifted up for that to happen. For us to be born again, Jesus had to die.
Therefore, Jesus had to die
Jesus’ first response to Nicodemus’ question in verse 9 is to question him a bit, suggesting that if Nicodemus is a teacher of Israel, he ought to understand these things. After all, it’s right there in Ezekiel 36, or in Jeremiah 4:4, or Jeremiah 31, or Deuteronomy 10, or Deuteronomy 30, among other places, that we must be born again. If Jesus speaks to Nicodemus of this earthly thing and he does not believe, verse 12, how can Nicodemus believe if Jesus tells him of heavenly things? This teaching about the new birth is earthly, not in that the birth itself is earthly; it’s from the Spirit, not from the flesh. It’s earthly in that it’s already been revealed on earth. It’s right there in the Scriptures, which Nicodemus ought to have known. And even this Nicodemus and others do not believe. How then, Jesus asks, will you believe if I tell you heavenly things, things not yet revealed, but that I bring with me from heaven. For, verse 13, no one else has gone into heaven to know these things which I now tell you. The idea that you must be born again was there for anyone with a Bible to see. But now Jesus brings new revelation which only He could see, and gives it to Nicodemus in verse 14.
Here’s what He says: “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” The story of Moses lifting up a serpent in the wilderness was also already there in the Bible, but the heavenly revelation Jesus now brings is what that story was ultimately about: The Son of Man being lifted up, that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life. The story of Moses lifting up the serpent began when God’s people were in the wilderness grumbling against God, and as a judgment God sent snakes among them who bit them and injected them with poison. However, God also then provided a remedy: He told Moses to make a bronze serpent and set it on a pole, and whoever among the Israelites looked at the serpent on the pole was healed of their disease.
So also here, for anyone to receive eternal life, the Son of Man had to first be lifted up. We too have all sinned against God, and live now under the curse of sin. Remember Jesus said we must be born of water; we are defiled, and we need to be cleansed. If we had never sinned, we could be born again without a death. But we are naturally under the judgment of God just as truly as the Israelites were under the judgment of God when He sent poisonous serpents among them. And God is just. So how can God justly cleanse us and give us eternal life? Since we have sinned, the only way we can be born again unto eternal life is for someone with no sin to first die in our place, taking upon Himself the judgment we deserved. Just as the Israelites had to look up and see their judgment on a pole in the form of the serpent, we must look to Jesus on the cross by faith, where He was lifted up, and see Him bearing our judgment. We must look to Jesus lifted up from the dead and lifted up into the kingdom of God, having been born again from the grave by the Spirit, if we are ever to know that we have been born again.
Perhaps you’ve wondered today whether you truly have been born again. Good news: Whoever believes in Jesus will have eternal life. Whoever believes in Jesus can know in so doing that they have been born again. That means whether you were born again or not when you came here, whether you can figure that out or not, whether following Jesus faithfully for years, wavering in your faith, or even running in the other direction from what you know to be true, this promise is for you today: Whoever believes in Him will have eternal life. You can’t rule yourself out of that. Whoever means whoever, and this promise is made to you as much as it is made to anyone else. There are no individual names written in it. The sacrifice of Christ on the cross is sufficient to save whoever believes.
Don’t say, “I just can’t be made new” or “That could never be me.” It’s a whoever promise. The moment any Israelite gave up trying to heal themselves of their venomous snake bites or trying to convince themselves that the venom wasn’t that bad, and instead stopped and looked to the serpent lifted up, they were healed. So the moment any human gives up trying to enter the kingdom of God by their works, whether religious or irreligious, the moment any human gives up trying to convince themselves that they’re fine just the way they are, and instead turns, and with the eyes of faith, receives and rests upon Christ and what He did on the cross on their behalf, in that moment they receive eternal life. You need this; don’t play games with it. Don’t settle for fleshly solutions. Jesus died so that you could be born again. Believe in Him, and you will receive eternal life.
Then those of us who receive eternal life, whose eyes have been opened to see the kingdom of God, who now believe the heavenly things of which Jesus speaks, go and tell others. It’s interesting, you know: Jesus basically says to Nicodemus in verse 12 that if I’ve told you the earthly teaching about the new birth and you don’t believe it, you definitely won’t believe what I’m about to tell you. But then He tells Nicodemus anyway. Why? Because Jesus knows that the way the Spirit ordinarily brings dead people to life is through the preaching of the gospel. So He tells Nicodemus about His work on the cross, His resurrection and ascension, and promises him that whoever believes will have eternal life. Any time you encounter an unbelieving person, you are encountering someone who must be born again, and you can’t birth them. They can’t even birth themselves; that’s why Jesus never tells Nicodemus to “Be born again.” Birth by its very nature is not caused by the will of the one born. But what you can do is proclaim Christ and issue this promise: If you believe in Him, you will have eternal life. And if the Spirit blows in that person’s heart, what they can do is believe in Him, and they too will receive eternal life. And to all of you here today I extend the same promise in the name of Jesus Himself, by the authority of His Word: The Son of Man has been lifted up, and whoever believes in Him will have eternal life. You will have eternal life now living in you by the Spirit, and the day will come when all that is earthly in you, which remains for the time being alongside the new life the Spirit implants in us, will die, and your body too will be raised to the new life Jesus enjoys now.