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Born Again From Above

March 5, 2023 |Born Again From Above|John 3:1-18

JD Cutler

What do you think the most popular Bible verse in the world is?

According to a project by world vision published in Oct 2022 they statistically found John 3:16 as the most popular Bible verse in the world. They compiled searches of scripture by country and found overwhelmingly that this little verse in John is the most searched verse.

  1. John 3:16 – 2,100,000 monthly searches

  2. On Instagram, the hashtag #john316 has been used on over 250,000 posts. Moving over to TikTok, the current hotspot for social sharing, we can see that videos with the hashtag #john316 have been viewed 55.9 million times! This verse is one that resonates with people worldwide and inspires them to share its message.

This is consistent with what bible study found in their search results as well.

This makes sense because this has long been a verse that the church has used in evangelism and in my experience is one of the first verses taught to our children. If you grew up in or around church, you may remember when you memorized this verse as well.

It has been called "the golden text of the Bible" and "the gospel in a nutshell".

16th-century German Protestant theologian Martin Luther said the verse is "the gospel in miniature"

The problem is compounded when we fail to define terms like God’s love and belief in Jesus.

The problem is that it alone does not address vital elements of the gospel, mainly repentance and obedience. It is a great evangelistic tool if we use it as a jumping off point to give the gospel. The problem is compounded when we fail to define terms like God’s love and belief in Jesus. When we leave these open for people to ascribe their own meaning to, then tradition, culture, or personal opinions can take this beautifully encouraging verse and make it something that it was never intended to be.

This is when we get things like ‘easy believism’, right?

Many people are even unaware of its context. It is not an isolated scripture given by Jesus apart from anything else, it is not a proverbial maxim. Rather it is closely connected to an encounter and subsequent conversation between Jesus and a man named Nicodemus. To rightly understand John 3:16, we need to rightly understand why scripture gives us this statement in the context of a statement about being born again, we also need to rightly understand the way Jesus references Old testament scriptures not just once but twice in this short conversation.

When all of these things fall in place, John 3:16 is opened up before us and it is then we can see the beauty of it and rightly share it. What is at stake this morning is a right understanding of the gospel, apart from which no man can be saved. If there was ever a place where the people needed to be sure they understood the gospel it is the place where people have gathered in the name of Jesus because of its message. Amen?

With that in mind, this morning is going to be a little different in the sense we are not going to focus in on one or two verses but rather we are going to work our way through this encounter leading up to John 3:16. To further confuse the baptist, we don’t have three points this morning but rather two divisions of two points. Madness, I know.

Let’s set the scene by looking at the first three verses together this morning.

John 3:1-3 (ESV) 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.”

Jesus' trip to Jerusalem (Jesus is in Jerusalem for the passover, he has cleansed the temple for the first time and is performing miracles and teaching in Jerusalem)

Nicodemus the man (refers us back to what John had just recorded)

John 2:23-25 (ESV) 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.

Essentially John says many believed in him but he did not believe in them!

That is he knew that their faith was not rightly placed and rightly understood. They did not yet understand who he was and therefore the basis for their faith was incomplete. But it is interesting that this is the immediate context of belief for John 3:16.

This encounter begins with praise of who Jesus is, but Jesus cuts him off and cuts to the core issue, the one that Nicodemus is obviously wrestling with.

We are told a few details that help us understand who Nicodemus is.

Of the Pharisees, a ruler of the Jews. (he was a teacher of the law, an upstanding moral man, and all around respected and revered. He is the one people bring questions to and in one short sentence, Jesus turns that all around and the only thing Nicodemus does from then on is ask questions of Jesus.

One final note before we get into the message. Have you ever wondered why Jesus uses this language of being born again with Nicodemus? He didn’t use it with everyone that he met. He talked about Living Water with the woman at the well, he talked about selling treasures and having treasure in heaven with the rich young ruler? Why new birth with Nicodemus?

Because Nicodemus was a Jew, and not just a Jew, but a Jew among Jews. His theology said that he was acceptable to God because of his lineage, because he was part of the Jewish race, and that he had Abraham as his ancestor. He had been born into the covenant and favor of God, or so he thought. So Jesus, cutting to the very core of his identity tells him if he really wants to experience the kingdom of God, he must be born again, his earthly birth did not matter in reference to his ultimate destination.

He (Nicodemus) had been born into the covenant and favor of God, or so he thought. So Jesus, cutting to the very core of his identity tells him if he really wants to experience the kingdom of God, he must be born again, his earthly birth did not matter in reference to his ultimate destination.

John 3:4 (ESV) 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?”

It is Jesus' answer to this first question that we get our first division…

The Nature and Necessity of the new birth (5-8)

It is highly unlikely that Nicodemus asked this question in sincerity, at least in the straightforward manner in which it is recorded. He knew that no one could be born again in this way, but he also didn’t understand what Jesus was talking about when he said one must be born again, or born from above, as it can be translated. What he is asking seems to be “How could this second birth be accomplished?” What in the world did Jesus mean? This was not figurative language that Nicodemus recognized. So Jesus answers him.

John 3:5-8 (ESV) 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.

Jesus again says Truly, truly, I say to you, which emphasizes the importance of what he is about to say. We are going to look at what he says under two headings: nature and the necessity of the new birth.

Nature- Spiritual

There is a lot of theology we could dig into here, but for our purposes this morning I want to share a definition from Pastor Alistair Begg in reference to the nature of the New Birth here. Rather than getting bogged down in theological technicalities, he says the nature of the new birth is simply- a spiritual transformation that has a heavenly origin and has a divine initiative.

With that in mind, let’s look at the original statement that prompted this question from Nicodemus.

Unless one is born again. The word translated again can be literally translated ‘from above’

g0509. ἄνωθεν anōthen; from 507; from above; by analogy, from the first; by implication, anew: — from above, again, from the beginning (very first), the top.

I think Jesus intentionally uses terminology with dual meanings. It is not the first time and it won’t be the last time that Jesus does just this. There is a surface level understanding that Nicodemus grabs on to by understanding that Jesus is saying one must be born again, but there is also the idea, that we will see, that this second birth comes from above.

When Nicodemus presses Jesus on how this can be, Jesus alters his language a bit doesn’t he?

Before his question, Jesus says ‘unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.’ After his question he says, ‘unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.’ There is an obvious parallelism here in Jesus words.

Born again is explained as being born of water and the Spirit.

There are a couple possible understandings offered for this by commentaries and bible students.

Water and the Spirit could refer to baptism, which is easy enough to see if we take into account what scripture says about being baptized with water and being baptized with the Spirit. However, this is unlikely for two reasons. Jesus at this point had not given baptism in the way that we understand it. This would be stretching his words a little. Two, never are we told that baptism is a part of the new birth although it surely should follow it. The same could be said of John’s baptism.

Second, some commentators point to the following statement that which is born of flesh is flesh and that which is born of spirit is spirit and say that it could refer to natural birth and spiritual birth. This is like when we say a women’s water breaks in labor. Again, this is unlikely that Jesus would use terminology that would probably not mean anything to Nicodemus and there are certainly easier ways Jesus could have referenced natural birth.

Third, and in my opinion, most likely to be what Jesus is referring to is that water and the spirit refer to the same event. Jesus specifically rebukes Nicodemus in this conversation for not understanding what he is talking about as a teacher of Israel, referring, I think, to the fact that Nicodemus should have an understanding of what Jesus is talking about from his studies of the old testament. There is specifically one important reference that I want us to look at.

Ezekiel 36:25-27 (ESV) 25 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.

This is the language of the new covenant when God would give his people a new heart. The bookends of that promise is that God would wash them to cleanse them and pity his spirit within them. I believe Jesus is pointing Nicodemus to this passage and showing him that this new covenant will not be based on Nicodemus’ lineage or his natural birth but a supernatural work of God, described here as being born again. Further evidence for this understanding comes at the end of verse 8, when Jesus now summarizes being born again as ‘so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.

The new birth is spiritual in nature. To which Jesus adds two explanations.

That which is born of flesh is flesh- that is the flesh cannot produce the things necessary for spiritual birth.

Two, the work of the new birth is seen in its effects not its event. Jesus says it is like the wind, you cannot see it, you don’t know where it comes from, but you see its effect and understand that it is caused by the wind. So he says, is this new birth, it is not like your physical birth, you cannot ‘see it’ like you see a newborn baby, but you can see the effects of it. When we talk about being born again, we first understand that it is spiritual in nature, it is something that the Spirit does in our spirit.

The second thing Jesus says is that it is necessary for experiencing the kingdom of God.

Necessity- Unless (2x)

The word unless introduces a conditional requirement. No one can see or enter the kingdom of God without this supernatural work of the Spirit.

This means that there is nothing we can ‘do’ in our flesh to experience the new birth. Nicodemus would not find the answer to his heart’s question, how can I experience the kingdom of God, how can I make sure I am in the kingdom of God both now and for eternity, with his religious obedience. He would not find the answer in his nationality either.

Do you hear me this morning? The same thing applies to you.

You cannot be born into being a Christian. I was reading the transcript from a well known ‘Pastor’ the other day and both him and his wife both said in reference to the question, have you always believed, that they had both been Christians all their lives. Now according to Jesus that is impossible. No one is born able to see or enter the kingdom of God apart from the regenerative work of the Spirit.

You may have been in church since you were in the nursery, that doesn’t make you born again.

You might have attended every VBS, special event, and service available since you were little, and that doesn’t make you born again. Your parents, grandparents, and great grandparents may have been Christian, and you may have been raised in a christian home, but that does not make you born again.

Furthermore, you may have done a lot of religious things, you might have said a prayer, been baptized, tithed, gone on mission trips, even taught the Bible, but know this morning, that none of that makes you born again.

Furthermore, you may have done a lot of religious things, you might have said a prayer, been baptized, tithed, gone on mission trips, even taught the Bible, but know... that none of that makes you born again.

Jesus says in no uncertain terms, the only way to enter the kingdom of God is to be supernaturally born again by the work of the Holy Spirit. Hopefully now you are asking the same question Nicodemus asks next.

John 3:9 (ESV) 9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” How can someone experience this new birth? Jesus’ answer forms our next division this morning.

The Manner and Method of the new birth (10-16)

John 3:10-15 (ESV) 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? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

Jesus says if you don’t understand human things like birth and wind, how will you understand heavenly things? Jesus is not pulling any punches here. With all of Nicodemus’ study and knowledge, he should have been able to see the need and necessity of this supernatural work.

One interesting note here is that the you Jesus uses here is plural. This is for Nicodemus and everyone he represents. Remember that Nicodemus came to Jesus and said we know you are a teacher come from God. Nicodemus was speaking for more than himself but as a representative of those who were trying to understand who this miracle working Jesus was.

After rebuking Nicodemus for his lack of understanding and his refusal to accept the testimony of Jesus, he tells Nicodemus the answer to his question, how can these things be?, by showing him the manner and the method of the new birth.

Jesus references an old testament event in the time of Moses. This comes from the 21st chapter of Numbers.

Numbers 21:4-9 (ESV) 4 From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom. And the people became impatient on the way. 5 And the people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.” 6 Then the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. 7 And the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the LORD and against you. Pray to the LORD, that he take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. 8 And the LORD said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” 9 So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.

Manner- Christ being lifted up

How will this new birth be made possible? What is the manner in which it will be? So must the son of man be lifted up.

Here again is Jesus’ use of language that has dual meanings. Lifted up means exalted, but it is also a clear reference to the crucifixion where Jesus would physically be nailed to the cross and lifted up. Let’s examine this illustration that Jesus uses here.

The Israelites sinned against God and therefore in God’s justice he sent fiery serpents on them and when they were bitten they were as good as dead. They received the just punishment for their rebellion against a holy and righteous God.

When they repented and turned back to God, he commanded Moses to provide a way for them to be healed. They had to look on the image of the very thing that was causing their death, a symbol of their sin.

What do we see on the cross?

Jesus dying because of our sin, our rebellion, Jesus experiencing the just wrath of God in our place. The very cause of our death embodied in an undeserving, innocent, savior.

And if we would be saved, if we would escape spiritual death, we must look to him in the same way they looked to the bronze serpent.

Can we talk about for a minute, what this old testament story entails? If you were bit and dying from this bite, don’t you need medicine? Don’t you need someone to physically intervene? You cry out to God through Moses hoping for a remedy and he comes back with a bronze serpent on a pole and says if you are bit look to this and you will live. It’s downright ludicrous.

It is also a great example of faith. Trust that if God said this is the remedy then it is the remedy. If he says look, then I will look. So, if you will, how do we look to the lifted up Christ in this way? Jesus answers that question when he says, whoever believes in him may have eternal life. They may experience this new and necessary Spiritual birth. It is to this method we turn now.

Method- Believe in him

The word translated believe here is sometimes translated as faith and is an important word in the gospel of John. He uses it some 98 times. It also serves as bookends to his gospel.

John 1:9-13 (ESV) 9 The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. 12 But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.

John 20:30-31 (ESV) 30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; 31 but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

What does it mean to believe in him? This is where we have failed as the church and as evangelists. We have taken what Jesus says here and turned it into something far less than it is.

We have boiled down the method of the new birth into 4 easy steps. Someone comes down the aisle or asks you how to be saved and you say, do you believe Jesus is the son of God? Do you believe he died for you? Do you believe he rose again? Do you want to be saved? Then pray this prayer. Now, did you mean it? Then you are saved.

Do we really think that is what Jesus meant when he said whoever believes in me? That if we simply agree with some statements about him it is the same as believing in him.

The word is so much more than that.

Once and for all, let us get clear on what believe means in the Bible. It has been said that there are three components to belief.

  1. Knowledge- that is you have to know what to believe in. Someone has to tell you about who Jesus is, why he came, and why you need to be saved or born again.

  2. Assent- that is you have to mentally agree with what you have been told. I understand that Jesus is the son of God, I understand that he was born of a virgin, I understand that he lived a sinless life, I understand that he died on the cross for sin, I understand that he rose again victorious over sin, death, and hell, I understand that he is the way, the truth, and the life and that apart from him I cannot be saved, and that if I call out to him I can be saved.

And that is where many people stop. Right? We say you believe all that? Yes. Okay, do you want to pray? Of course. Okay, repeat after me?

But believe goes beyond that. For it to be belief it has to move into the third component, trust.

  1. Trust- not merely assenting to the truth, but grabbing a hold of it, clinging to it as your only hope. Deciding that there is nothing more important or necessary than trusting Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior.

There is an illustration that I heard long ago that may help us grasp this.

Imagine you are on a plane, and the pilot comes out of the cockpit and says, the plane is going down and the only way for us to survive is to put on this parachute and jump.

You have heard of parachutes, you know what they are for and have some idea how they work. That is not belief, that is knowledge.

Let’s say you put it on and sit back in your seat. You have assented or agreed that this parachute can save you. That is not belief.

The captain says it is time to jump, it is only when you have grasped that parachute and jumped out of that plane that you have truly believed in that parachute.

You see? Some of you have heard about Jesus, enough to be familiar with him and the Christian faith.

Some of you have even mentally agreed with what you have heard, but you are holding out. You tell yourself one day, when it gets bad enough, or when you are ready, you will trust in Jesus.

Some of you have even gone through the motions of putting the parachute on. You said the prayer, you got baptized, right, better safe than sorry. But for all intents and purposes you are no different than the man in our story that put on the parachute and sat back down to enjoy his in-flight entertainment or finish his meal. Putting on that parachute hasn’t made an ounce of difference in your life.

It is not until you abandon everything else, turn from trusting in anything else, your inherent goodness, your good works, your religion, and put your trust in Jesus that you have truly believed in him.

And if you haven’t done that, the bible says you have not been born again, and therefore, you are still dead in your trespasses.

To go back to our old testament story. You are bitten. The poison of sin is coursing through your veins and you are going to die. Someone told you that God has provided a way for you to live. Laying in your tent acknowledging that will not save you, knowing that if you climb out and look at the bronze serpent and you will be saved will not save you, saying that you believe that if you did you would be saved will not save you, it is not until you turn in faith and obedience and look to the object of faith God gave that you will be saved.

And now, we are ready for the most famous verse in the world.

16 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.

A couple of notes. The so in the English is misplaced. It does not, as the amplified bible says, modify loved. It is not saying for God so (greatly) loved, it is referencing back to Jesus statement in verse 15. Rather, in the same way God gave the Israelites a way to be saved through faith, because God loved the world, he gave his only Son, how, on the cross as a substitutionary atonement for your sins, so that whoever believes in him, whoever looks to him in faith, repenting and turning from everything else they could trust in and wholly trusting in him for salvation, they will not perish from their sin but rather they will enter the kingdom of God and experience the new birth and eternal life.

That is the gospel, that is the means and method of the new birth Jesus promises for those who believe.

Where do we go from here? Let’s look at the last two verses of our text this morning as a conclusion.

John 3:17-18 (ESV) 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.

If you have never believed in Jesus the way we have looked at this morning, Jesus says you are condemned already.

You have been bitten, you are dead, and there is no hope in the flesh for you.

You cannot do anything, you cannot produce anything, and you cannot earn anything by your efforts to save you.

But, if you will put your faith and trust that despite your rebellion, despite your sin, God loved you enough to provide the means of your salvation, and you will wholly place your trust in him, believing that he not only can but will save you, then you are not condemned, but saved.

Not because you said the right words, not because you raised your hand or walked an aisle, but because you have wholly placed yourself in the merciful hands of God.

Have you done that?

As we come to a close, please hear me this morning.

I’m not asking if you were sincere when you said a prayer asking Jesus into your heart.

I’m not asking if you really meant it when you rededicated your life.

But rather since that moment, have you seen the Spirit at work in your life? Are you radically different than you were before? That is what it is to be born again. It is to receive a new heart, new life from God, and no one stays the same after that.

Do you hate your sin? Do you desire the things of God? Are you obedient to his word? Do you hunger and thirst for righteousness?

These are the questions we need to be asking ourselves and one another if we truly understand what Jesus says when he says you must be born again.

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