The New Birth
Benjamin Franklin became famous in his own time through experiments with electricity and other scientific projects. Franklin received an important letter from British Evangelist George Whitfield, “I find that you grow more and more famous in the learned world. . . As you have made such progress in investigating the mysteries of electricity, I now humbly urge you to give diligent heed to the mystery of the new birth. It is a most important and interesting study and, when mastered, will richly repay you for your pains. . . Jesus has assured us that without it we will not enter the kingdom of God.”
Let’s look at what Jesus taught us about being born again:
I. The people of the new birth
Jesus told Nicodemus, “You must be born again.” The very name “Nicodemus” meant “superior man.” Demos—the same root as in our word “democracy”—means “of the people.” “Nic” means “superior” or “victorious.” We could understand if Jesus spoke to an alcoholic in the gutter, “You’ve got to be born again.” But what about Jesus’ speaking these words to Mr. Superior Man?
Think of Nicodemus:
A. He was first of all a religious man. As a member of the Seventy, the ruling Sanhedrin Council, he had to have been very religious. You and I couldn’t in a hundred years become as religious as Nicodemus. As a Pharisee he gave a triple tithe. And, you might say that he had been going to church all his life. He studied the Old Testament several hours a day. Yet, to Nicodemus Jesus said, “you must be born again.” When we look at the people in the Bible who were lost but ultimately became saved, it ought to give us pause to think about it and make sure our hearts are right with God.
B. Nicodemus was also a respected man. Jesus called him The Teacher of Israel. Scholars believe that behind Gamaliel, Nicodemus was the leading teacher of that day. We could have called him a well-known seminary professor. Can you picture mothers with their children in the market place whispering “That’s Nicodemus,” while the children looked on with awe. But to respected Nicodemus Jesus said, “You must be born again.”
It doesn’t matter to God how religious people think you are. It doesn’t matter to God how much respect you receive. It doesn’t matter to God how much you education you have. Jesus said, “You must be born again.”
C. Not only was Nicodemus religious and respected, but he was also rich. As a member of the Sanhedrin Council, Nicodemus served full time without pay. Members of the Sanhedrin had to be independently wealthy. Archaeologists uncovered pottery shards in Jerusalem whose writing translated to, “Property of Nicodemia.” They believe that Nicodemus owned the property rights to water in Jerusalem. With the many thousands of guests coming into the city each year for the three annual feasts, Nicodemus must have been very wealthy. Yet, his coinage would not spend on the streets of gold! No man goes to heaven pulling a U-haul with his money behind him. Jesus even said it is very hard for the wealthy to enter the kingdom of God.
D. Nicodemus was not only religious, respected and rich, but he was also inquisitive. He was teachable. Even though he had taught many others, he knew that he lacked something in his life. There was a hole in his soul. John referred to Nicodemus three times in the Book of John, and each time he wrote Nicodemus “came to Jesus by night.” That is, he slipped in to visit Jesus when no one would notice. The reason? Nicodemus had questions in his heart but he didn’t want to be condemned by the other priests. Jesus, who can read men’s hearts, cut to the chase and told Nicodemus, “You must be born again.”
Who needs to be born again? Religious, respected, rich Nicodemus. But not only Nicodemus, you and I also must be born again. Jesus on two occasions said, “You must be born again.” The first time he used the singular—“Nicodemus, you individually, must be born again.” The second time Jesus used the plural, “You all must be born again.” The only way you or I can enter heaven is if we have been born again!
II. The Priority of the New Birth
Twice Jesus said, “Truly, truly I say to you, you must be born again.” The words “Truly, truly” are literally in the Greek, “Amen, Amen.” Some versions translate it “verily, verily.” Whenever Jesus used the phrase, “truly, truly” he always spoke about something of utmost importance.
Furthermore, Jesus’ use of the word “must” is also significant. He never used the word “must” unless He referred to something necessary for eternal life with the Father. We sometimes think, I must buy that shirt or that car or that house. But must we? There is one thing we must do: we must be born again.
III. The Paradox of the new Birth
Nicodemus asked, “How can these things be? Can a man enter into his mother and be born a second time?” Of course Jesus hadn’t referred to a physical birth but a spiritual one. There is a mystery to it.
Jesus said to Nicodemus, “The wind blows where it will.” The word “wind” in the Greek can be translated “wind,” “breath,” or “spirit”—all three are the same word in the Greek; scholars translate it according to context. Here, however, Jesus could have been saying that “the Spirit blows on whom He will.” Meteorologists cannot predict the exact place a tornado will hit; they can merely say the conditions are right for a tornado. Despite all their study and experience there is still a mystery to it. The same thing is true for the new birth. Like the wind, it comes upon a person whose heart has the right condition of humility and openness.
Though Nicodemus wrongly alluded to a second physical birth, there is a similarity between a physical and a spiritual birth. In the physical a man joins with a woman and a new life begins. In the spiritual the Spirit of God takes the Word of God and implants it in the heart of a person who is open to receiving it. A new birth follows.
There is still an enigma about the new birth. No one understands it fully. One college student said to his professor, “I’m not going to believe or do anything that I cannot understand fully.”
The professor replied, “I think you have an untenable position. You are on the third floor, right?” The student agreed. The professor asked if the student took the steps. And he had. The professor then asked, “Can you tell me the molecular structure of the steps you took to get up the stairs?”
“No,” the student replied.
“But you trusted them enough to put your weight on them?”
“Then you have done something you do not understand.”
We don’t understand a lot of things about the new birth but we see the changed lives of those who have experienced it. And, we know that God has provided a way of salvation. He told us we must be born again, and He explains to us how.
IV. The Person of the New Birth
When Nicodemus asked further about the new birth, Jesus explained by way of an illustration Nicodemus knew. Jesus spoke of Moses lifting the serpent in the wilderness. Nicodemus undoubtedly had taught that lesson many times. It stems back to the Exodus when the children of Israel were traveling to the Promised Land. Many Israelites complained bitterly about the hardships along the way. Snakes struck many and some of the travelers died. When Moses took the matter to the Lord, He told Moses to make a bronze snake to place on a pole. When a bitten Israelite looked on the pole and believed, that person would be healed. Still today a snake on a pole—called a caduceus—is the symbol of the medical profession.
Can you picture it: an Israelite man reached down to pick up some firewood for their evening warmth, and Zap! A snake struck. His son asked about the redness on his hand, but he said not to worry about it; a snake bit him but it will soon get better. Only it didn’t. He got worse and worse. His daughter pointed out that Moses raised a bronze serpent on a stick and all who looked on it and believed would be healed. But the man said, “Who would believe that nonsense?”
The next day his hand swelled and red streaks ran up his arm. His wife begged him to go to the serpent on the pole. However, the man persisted in his unbelief. Neighbors came in and pleaded with the man to let them carry him to the serpent on the pole before it was too late. “Do you think it will work?” He asked. They assured him of several neighbors who had already been healed. He agreed to give it a try.
They carried him on a pallet of quilts to the serpent on the pole. There the man saw several humble themselves before the image and come away without the poison from their snake bites. Finally, he agreed that there must be something to this and he asked to be taken before the pole. There he knelt and asked God to forgive his complaining and unbelief. When he finished his prayer, he began to feel better immediately. Soon the red lines disappeared. The swelling in his hand went down. He felt better and stood up. By his belief, God saved him from death.
God gave this instruction to Moses not only to heal the Israelites along the Exodus route, but also to serve as a symbol of His Son who would take a pole (a cross) for our sins. Some don’t believe in the power of the cross, but for those who look and believe, God begins to drain the poison of a sin-filled life. Death fades away and eternal life begins. The people of being born again are all of us—Jesus said you (all) must be born again. But the means of being born again comes through one person—Jesus Christ. When we look on Him and believe we find eternal life.
Sixteen-year-old Charles Haddon Spurgeon decided to go to church one snowy Sunday. The weather was so inclement that the minister couldn’t make it. A layman took the pulpit and begin to expound on a text in Isaiah, “Look, all the nations, Look to the Lord and live.” Because he wasn’t prepared, he kept speaking the words “look and live” over and over. Spurgeon got bored and looked down. The layman called “Young man sitting over there. Young man! You look so discouraged. Look up! Look to Jesus and live.” Spurgeon realized the layman was talking to him.
He said, “I saw Jesus on the cross who died for my sins and I believed in him. At that moment I became born again.”
You, too, can look to Jesus, believe in Him, and be born again!