Born from Above

Christ Covenant Church
Jon Marq Toombs
10 April 2016
John 2:23-3:12

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May the grace and truth of Christ be with you!

We are walking through the Gospel of John and focusing our attention on Jesus, the Word made flesh for the life of the world. Our sermon text for today is John 2:23-3:12. If you are able, please stand and listen to God’s Holy Word.

[23] Now when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing. [24] But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people [25] and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man. [1] Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. [2] This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” [3] Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” [4] Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” [5] Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. [6] That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. [7] Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ [8] The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” [9] Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” [10] Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? [11] Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. [12] If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?

The word of the Lord. (Thanks be to God!) May God add his blessings to the reading, preaching, and hearing of his word. All the church says: Amen! You may be seated.

I went through some files this week and saw that we have touched on this story many many times over the past few years. It’s one of my favorite stories. Every time I read it I see something fresh and new. I hope to show you some of that today.

One reason I like this story so much is because it’s relational. Yes, it’s about a deep theological conversation, but it’s about more than an exchange of abstract ideas. The story is relational. It’s the story of an older man and a younger man — two different teachers in the same community. It’s the story of the old seeking the new, the Law meeting the Gospel, the darkness making way for the light. It’s about Nicodemus seeking Jesus and then standing in the ring with the world’s greatest theologian.

Nicodemus is a man that needs no introduction, but I’m going to introduce him to you anyway.

Nicodemus was a man of the Pharisees.We have already met the Pharisees in John’s Gospel. They were the ones who sent the priest to investigate John the Baptist.

The Pharisees were the set apart ones. Historically, they were established by devout men returning from exile. They were so determined never to go back into exile that they strictly obeyed the law. Over time their zeal for the Law made them seem like the Puritans or Fundamentalists of their day. They have a bad reputation now, but they were not all bad guys. Some of them were truly devout and sincere. In fact, Jesus had more in common with them than he had with the Sadducees and Zealots. They were the secular humanists and political activists of their day.

Nicodemus was also a ruler of the Jews. That means he was an elder and a member of the Sanhedrin. So, he was practically a presbyterian. Just kidding! The point is that Nicodemus was an older man, a theologian, and a leader among his people.

The more I get to know Nicodemus the more I like him, the more I understand him. In the past I have been way too critical of him and way too cynical about his motives. It’s not uncommon to hear preachers and commentators rip Nicodemus for being nothing more than a scared, legalistic, and ignorant old man.

But that is so unfair to him and the story.

Just because he went to Jesus at night does’t mean he was scared. Maybe he worked all day and he was only free at night. And just because he was a Pharisee doesn’t mean he was legalistic. And just because he did not understand everything Jesus told him doesn’t mean he was ignorant.

I think he was genuinely interested in Jesus. In fact, he might have been among those who believed in his name when he saw the signs that Jesus was doing.

Think about it: This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.”

Some commentators think he was just flattering Jesus, but I think he was expressing himself faithfully. He meant what he said. He had seen or heard about the signs Jesus performed in the zeal of the Lord and concluded that Jesus was sent by God.

Maybe the old man remembered God’s promise spoken through Isaiah the prophet —

“And though the Lord give you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction, yet your Teacher will not hide himself anymore, but your eyes shall see your Teacher. And your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, “This is the way, walk in it,” when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left.” (Isaiah 30:20-21)

— and thought, “Jesus is that Teacher come from God.”

So, who cares that he went to Jesus at night?! Let’s rejoice that he went to Jesus at all!

Now, Nicodemus was right about Jesus and wrong about him. Jesus was a teacher sent from God. But he was more than a teacher. He was also the Word made flesh, the Son of God, the Christ, the Son of Man, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Nicodemus will come to know that soon enough, but for now Teacher will do. Nicodemus has come to Jesus as a student, as a disciple who is quick to listen and slow to speak.

Introductions out of the way, now we can eavesdrop on their conversation. We don’t get to hear the whole thing, but we do hear enough to know that they we were not making small talk about politics, sports, and weather. They were talking about eternal truths that matter right now and later on.

They were talking about monergistic regeneration, spiritual rebirth, newborn babes. They were talking about being born of God.

Once upon a time back in the day I was invited to be a guest on a talk radio program. The host picked a spiritual topic and allowed his guests to share their views. After the first segment the phone lines opened and local listeners could call in and ask questions. The one time I appeared on the show the host wanted to discuss the new birth. Is it caused by God working alone? Is it caused by God and man working together? Is it God’s decision or man’s decision? I shared my view during the first segment and learned that it happened to be very different from the host’s view. At the break he expressed his surprise. When the second segment started he took calls. All three listeners phoned in, but the host kept cutting me off and wouldn’t let me finish an answer. Finally, a sweet elderly lady called in and said to the host, “Listen, you need to let that young man speak. Talking’ bout born again. Dats what we need. Sound like Billy Graham up in there. Hm-Uh.” The funny thing to me and the host was that his view was much closer to Billy Graham’s view than my view was.

The point is that the concept of new birth is just as controversial and confusing in our day as it was in Nicodemus’ time. Let’s see if we can clear things up a bit.

Jesus was a teacher sent by God to teach a teacher. So what did he do? He started teaching. Notice he taught the same thing in three different ways. He starts out with an abstract concept (born from above) and ends up with a concrete example (wind / born of the Spirit).

The first thing Jesus teaches is the concept of born from above.

[3] Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born from above he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

Jesus deliberately used an ambiguous phrase to get a feel for Nicodemus and size him.

Like Nicodemus, we are used to hearing this translated as born again. But it is better and more accurate to translate Jesus’ words as born from above. Nicodemus heard born again, as in born a second time, but (as we will see) Jesus meant born from above.

The fact is that everyone who descends from Adam by natural generation is born from below, for flesh gives birth to flesh, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, and all that jazz. But, in order to experience the kingdom of God, we need to be born from above, for spirit gives birth to spirit.

This concept flew over Nicodemus’ head, so Jesus brings it down a notch.

[5] Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.

Born of water and the Spirit means the same thing as born from above. Like a good teacher, Jesus tweaks the words just enough to nudge Nicodemus towards the answer without giving him the answer.

Jesus expected Nicodemus — a teacher of Israel and a devout theologian — to understand “born of water and Spirit” as referring back to God’s promises revealed through the prophets. For example, it is written in the Book of Ezekiel:

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. 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. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God. And I will deliver you from all your uncleannesses. (Ezekiel 36:25-29 ESV)

There, water and Spirit refer to God’s sovereign and gracious work of cleansing his people, changing their hearts, and causing them to walk in a new life of obedience to God. (Notice that God is the one who sprinkles the water and puts his Spirit in us — not a prophet, a priest, or a pastor.) God intended to fulfill all these promises in the Christ.

Jesus expected Nicodemus to know all this and understand what he meant by “born of water and Spirit.” But, like many of us, he did not understand the new birth.

So what does it mean to be born of water and the Spirit? It means to be cleansed of your sins, to be changed from the inside out, to be conformed to the image of Christ. Not by your decision or effort, but by God’s power and grace.

In response, Nicodemus sat there stunned and speechless. We know that because of what Jesus said next.

[7] Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’

The word for marvel means surprised or shocked. So, in effect Jesus was saying, “Do not be shocked and surprised that I said ‘Y’all must be born from above.’ I am only echoing the words of the prophets that are written in the sacred writings.

It has been experience through the years that people who (allegedly) know the Bible the most, sometimes understand it the least. Why? One, because none of us knows as we ought to know; two, because we tend to see what we want to see in the Bible, and not see what we don’t want to see, instead of seeing what is actually revealed there; three, because we don’t know what we don’t know — what we’re missing.

For example, a few years ago I was preaching from this text and explained (albeit, too forcefully!) that Jesus’ notion of born of water and the Spirit has nothing to do with getting baptized. (I am not against water baptism at all. I just don’t believe Jesus was teaching about it in this story.) The following evening I was called to an elders’ meeting. At the start of the meeting one of the elders said to me, “If this were a typical CofC, this meeting would be about your dismissal.” For those who might know, Church of Christ folks tend to treat new birth as something that happens at the moment of water-baptism. They gave me a chance to explain my view some more and we spent the rest of the evening doing what Jesus and Nicodemus were doing. And the rest is history. As you can see, I was not dismissed.

(Side-Note: As a minister in that tradition I was expected to hold that view, but I did not because I was trying to speak where the Bible speaks as I was taught to do. This took place in 2007 long before we became Christ Covenant Church and joined the PCA.)

The point is that we all have blind spots, and whether we are old or young, clergyman or layman, we all need gospel teachers who will come and say, “This is the way, walk in it.”

Now, let’s get back to the story and hear what the Teacher has to say.

One of the most misunderstood statements in the NT is ‘You must be born again.’ We hear the word must and feel a sense of duty to make something happen, or a sense of guilt because we have not done what we must do.

What if I told you that that word, it does not mean what you think it means?

Jesus was not commanding Nicodemus and Israel to go find a way to get born again. He was stating a fact: It is necessary for you all to be born from above. This is a diagnosis, not a decree.

It is necessary for y’all to be born from above, but that doesn’t mean y’all need to find a way to make it happen. The Spirit is the Lord and Giver of Life, not the flesh. So don’t even try to get yourself born again by saying a prayer or by getting baptized.

From Jesus’ point of view, Nicodemus and Israel (and you and me) were exiles in the world. They were as dead in sin. They were not just weak and sick but dead as dry bones (Ezek 37). They had no life in them. But Jesus came teaching about the hope of new birth from above.

As it is written in Isaiah:

Your dead shall live;
their bodies shall rise.
You who dwell in the dust,
awake and sing for joy!
For your dew is a dew of light,
and the earth will give birth to the dead. (Isaiah 26:19 cp Ezekiel 37 ESV)

That is why it was necessary for them to be born of God, from above, of water and the Spirit.

Jesus’ point is that Nicodemus and Israel needed God to do for them by his Spirit what they were not able to do for themselves by the flesh. They needed the Spirit to come from above and birth them anew; to breathe in them the breath of life; and to blow them into union and communion with the One who was truly born from above — Jesus Christ, the Son of Man. (3:13 cp 17:20-24)

The same thing is true for us. No matter how old or young you are, no matter how devout an religious you might be, no matter how much you know, no matter if you are a member of a good denomination, you must be born from above in order to experience and enter the kingdom.

No one can enter on their own — it’s not by age, rank, or intelligence; nor by anything else that comes from the flesh. The new birth is a gracious work of God that is necessary for everyone.

Once again, this concept flew over Nicodemus’ head, so Jesus brings it down one more notch and uses a concrete example.

[8] The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.

Born of the Spirit is just another way to say born of water and the Spirit and born from above. Thus far in the conversation he has moved from the abstract to the concrete, and Nicodemus still doesn’t quite seem get it.

[9] Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?”

Jesus puts the cookies on the bottom shelf, but Nicodemus still seems to struggle to reach them. Or does he?

There are two ways to interpret his question. I leave it to you to decide which one fits the story.

One, It is possible that Jesus’ teaching left him mystified and confused. Some personality types despise mystery and much prefer systems. “How can these things be?” might be Nicodemus’ way of asking Jesus to show him the method, process, or technique of the new birth.

Two, It is just as possible that Jesus’ teaching left him as giddy and wide eyed as a child in a toy store on his birthday. “How can these things be?” might be his way of expressing, “Is this really and truly happening? Are God’s promises actually being fulfilled right here, right now?”

I prefer the second option. Here’s my reason. There is a psalm that says,

O God, from my youth you have taught me,
and I still proclaim your wondrous deeds.
So even to old age and gray hairs,
O God, do not forsake me,
until I proclaim your might to another generation,
your power to all those to come.
Your righteousness, O God, reaches the high heavens.
You who have done great things, O God, who is like you?
You who have made me see many troubles and calamities will revive me again;
from the depths of the earth you will bring me up again.
You will increase my greatness and comfort me again. (Psalm 71:17-21 ESV)

The psalms were the prayer book of the Jews. There is no telling how many times Nicodemus prayed that psalm before he met Jesus. But I like to think that on the night he met Jesus that prayer was finally answered. He came out of darkness into the light. He came at night and left in the day.

So, did Nicodemus experience new birth? Was he born from above, of water and the Spirit? Did he believe in the name of Jesus? I think so, but I wouldn’t fight about it if you  disagree.

The truth is that I am more concerned about you than him — Do you believe in the name of Jesus? Do you receive his testimony about God’s sovereign and gracious work for you? Do you believe Jesus is the Word made flesh, the lamb of God who takes away your sins and gives you the gift of eternal life?

You must be born from above means you need something from above that you cannot find below. You need God to do for you what you cannot do for yourself. You need to cry out to him and acknowledge your need and ask him to give you a new heart and a new spirit.

Whether old or young, the Spirit is the one who revives us again, who regenerates us, rebirths us from darkness to light, renews us, resurrects us from earth to heaven.

How? It is a mystery. As it is written in the Book of Ecclesiastes, the Preacher says, “As you do not know the path of the wind, or how the body is formed in the womb, so you cannot understand the work of God, the Maker of all things.” (Ecclesiastes 11:5)

Suffice it to say for now that the new birth is a supernatural work of God. It takes a miracle for anyone to be born from above. It is a miracle than any of us is saved. And it is a miracle that God is pleased to perform for all those he loves.

Pastoral Prayer — Psalm 139

Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me. If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light about me be night,” even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is bright as the day, for darkness is as light with you. For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them. How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! If I would count them, they are more than the sand. I awake, and I am still with you. Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting! Amen

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Leaves and open umbrella blowing along pavement

 

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