Sermon series: Hello, My Name Is Jesus
I Said It - John 1:1-2, 6
I Made It - John 1:3
I Show It - John 1:4-5
I'm Here - John 1:9-11
I Am Here - John 1:12
I Give It - John 1:13
I Have Come - John 1:14
Two sons of the king brought their father a question. "Is a gentleman born or made?"
"What do you think?" he replied.
"I think a gentleman is born a gentleman," replied one son.
"I disagree," replied the other. "A man becomes a gentleman by training and discipline."
The king looked at his sons and issued a challenge. "Prove your case by presenting me an example. I give each of you a week to return with proof of your opinions."
And so the two sons departed in different directions. The son who believed a gentleman was made, not born, found his proof in a tavern. He'd ordered a cup of tea and was amazed when he saw that the waiter was a cat. This cat had been trained to stand on his hind legs and carry the tray in his forepaws. He wore a tiny uniform and hat and was proof that a creature could overcome his nature with training and discipline.
The first son had his example. If a cat can be changed, couldn't a man? So the prince purchased the animal and took him to the court.
The other son was not so fortunate. He'd searched the kingdom but was unable to find any support for his theory. He returned home empty-handed. What's worse, word had leaked about his brother's discovery. News of the walking cat made him doubt his convictions. But then, just hours before the two were to appear before the king, he saw something in a store window that made him smile.
He made the purchase but told no one.
The two sons entered the court of the king, each one carrying a box. The first son announced that he could prove that a man could overcome any obstacle and become a gentleman. As the king watched, the son presented the cat, dressed in miniature court dress, who gave the king a tray of chocolates.
The king was stunned, his son was proud, and the court broke into applause. What excellent proof! Who could deny the evidence of the walking cat? Everyone pitied the second son. But he was not discouraged. With a bow to the king, he opened the box he had brought, releasing several mice into the court. Instantly the cat scampered after the mice.
The cat's true nature had been revealed, and the point had been made. A walking cat is still a cat. You can change his clothes, teach him tricks, give him a hat, and train him to walk. And for a while he will appear to be changed. But present him with the one thing he can't resist, and you'll be faced with an undeniable truth-a walking cat is still a cat.
The same is true with people. We can change our clothes, our habits, our vocabulary, our reading level, even our attitude, but according to the Bible, there is one thing we cannot change-our sinful state. Changing the clothes doesn't change the man. Outward discipline doesn't alter what is within. New habits don't make a new soul. That's not to say that outward change is not good. That is to say that outward change is not enough. Something more is needed. Someone else is needed.
John has introduced Jesus to us as the Word, the Creator, the Life, the Light, the Savior, and the Lord. Now he introduces Jesus as the Divine Parent. John writes, ". . . children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband's will, but born of God" (John 1:13 NIV). Here John explains the Someone who takes the initiative so that people who receive and believe in him alone for their salvation can become God's children. The key words are born and God, which we will get to in this study.
I. The meaning
Notice that this verse contains three negative statements and one positive statement about becoming children of God. First let's look at the negative statements.
A. Being a child of God is not the result of:
Or genetics. Or an inheritance. The phrase "not of natural descent" literally reads "not of bloods." There was the idea in antiquity that birth took place as the result of the commingling of the blood from the man and the woman. And Jewish people thought that since their bloodline was the chosen one, the one from God, that they were in right standing with God, just because they were born into the Jewish race. Being Jewish, part of a natural blood line linked with God, was not good enough to be a child of God. John is saying that one does not become a child of God by the accident of physical birth.
Being a Christian doesn't run automatically from one generation to another. You aren't a Christian just because your parents were Christians or because your grandfather was a Methodist bishop. And you won't get brownie points with God just because you come from a good family and have a fine education. While your family background is important it doesn't count when it comes to salvation. Something more is needed. Someone else is needed.
2. Human desire
The next phrase is "nor of human decision." Literally this phrase reads "not of the will of the flesh," meaning not of human desire or aspiration. The word for desire is the same word used for the strong passion or appetite for sexual relations. It has been said that the two strongest desires in the world are for sex and religion. John is saying that one can have great desire for God, but there is nothing you can do to save yourself-so don't bother trying. Something more is needed. Someone else is needed.
3. Human effort
The next phrase "or a husband's will" literally is "not of the will of a man." Here John is referring to personal determination and will. We can't will our way, bribe our way, work our way into God's good graces. No man is big enough or strong enough to swing open the pearly gates, no matter how hard they try. Something more is needed. Someone else is needed.
B. Being a child of God is:
Being a child of God is not the result of heredity, or human desire, or human effort, but rather it is God's miracle. The last phrase of this verse, the positive statement, "but born of God," contains the heart of the gospel. Salvation is of the Lord. All human initiative is ruled out. It's a free gift-totally free and totally of grace. The word born denotes the action of the male parent in begetting children, carrying with it the idea that our spiritual birth and the divine nature that comes with it originates from God alone and from his initiative. Jesus is the something more and the Someone else needed.
Becoming a child of God is (dare I say it?) the greatest miracle of God. The one who made everything the first time is the one who makes everything new the second time. The Creator creates again. It is astounding when God heals the body. It is extraordinary when God hears the prayer. It is incredible when God provides the new job, the new car, the new child. But none of these compares to when God creates new life. God gives us a new start, a new beginning, a new life, and a new heart.
But someone may object, "Don't I have a part to play in salvation?" Sure you have a part. Your part is to be hopelessly lost in sin-that's the sinful state that you can do nothing about-and God's part is to save you. That way God alone gets the credit. Salvation is the miracle of God from start to finish. It's not a cooperative venture where you do your part and God does his.
II. An example
Jesus uses this same birth metaphor when a man approached him at night. His story is told in John 3. "Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, ‘Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him" (John 3:1-2 NIV). Here was a man desiring to be a child of God.
A. He was trying to be a child a God as a result of:
1. His impressive heredity
Tradition indicates that Nicodemus belonged to a distinguished and wealthy Jerusalem family. His family heritage was part of the "old money" of Jerusalem's ruling class. Some have identified him as the wealthy brother of the illustrious Jewish historian Josephus. What can I say, he looked good. He wore the right clothes. In regard to background, he was king of the hill.
2. His overwhelming desire
Nicodemus had an impressive resume. He was a Pharisee-one of the intellectual guardians of the Law. He was a member of the Sanhedrin-the esteemed Jewish ruling council. This was a select group of 70 men who served as a kind of combination Congress and Supreme Court. He was Israel's teacher-the authority, the one whose opinion could sway the vote, the one whose words were most quoted. It sounds like he was covering all his bases in an attempt to get to God. In regard to passion, he was hot in his pursuit of God.
3. His colossal effort
If you are a student of the Bible, you probably have a negative view of the Pharisees. You may think that all the Pharisees were legalistic hypocrites who hated Jesus. But that's not true at all. In the first century the Pharisees were widely respected for their intense piety and deep scholarship. Nicodemus had devoted his life to the study of the Torah and its application to daily life. Nicodemus had pledged to be righteous, to separate himself from any and all sin. That meant studying the Bible for hours each day, praying two hours a day, giving a tithe of all he possessed, and in general, being scrupulously concerned about morality. Nicodemus had taken an oath to spend his days striving to keep all the details of the law, not only the Ten Commandments but the hundreds of do's and don'ts the Pharisees had added to the Mosaic law. It was such a devout group that there were only a few thousand Pharisees because not many men were willing to make that kind of sacrifice. In a word, he was religious. He had all the outward signs that he knew God. Like all Pharisees, Nicodemus believed that keeping the rules perfectly would be his ticket to heaven. He was good. He did the right things. In regard to piety, he was at the top of the religious ladder, looking down.
But the view from the top is, at best, disappointing. Nicodemus had the right background, the burning passion, and the proper piety, but it wasn't enough to fill the hole in his soul. Religion was not enough. The clothes did not make the man. And, what's worse, he didn't know how to fill it. Even after drinking long at the well of religion, Nicodemus knew his soul was parched. It was that thirst that drove him to Jesus. He needed something more. He needed Someone else.
Nicodemus came to see Jesus "at night" in Jerusalem. By the way, those two words follow Nicodemus through the Gospel like a stray dog. Later when John describes Nicodemus, he doesn't mention his credentials but rather the telling clue of his character: "Nicodemus, the man who earlier had visited Jesus at night" (John 19:39 NIV). But why come at night? Perhaps because he knew that Jesus was controversial and he couldn't risk being seen publicly. Or perhaps he wished to have time for a lengthy personal interview. I'm sure there were elements of curiosity mixed with a sense of duty. After all, this upstart rabbi had been gaining followers by the day. As a leader, he had an obligation to find out more about this man. Or, maybe, John is referring to the condition of his soul-it is as dark as the night. He needs the Light of the world, Jesus, to fill it.
Nicodemus comes to the conclusion: Being religious is never enough. If it were, Nicodemus wouldn't have the time or the interest to meet Jesus. Nicodemus had the right clothes, habits, vocabulary, but his soul was empty. Nicodemus had a high moral character and a deep religious knowledge, but an aching void in his heart and a profound spiritual hunger. Something was missing in his life. Could it be that Jesus could fill that void? Jesus explains how.
B. Being a child of God is:
Being a child of God is not the result of heredity, or human desire, or human effort, but rather it is God's miracle of birth. "Jesus declared, ‘I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.' ‘How can a man be born when he is old?' Nicodemus asked. ‘Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother's womb to be born!' Jesus answered, ‘I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit'" (John 3:3-5 NIV). The answer Jesus gave to this cultured, educated, well-respected religious leader was that he had to be born again.
Here Jesus uses the same word that John had used in John 1:13. Let's focus on the key phrase "born again." In the original language it has a double meaning. The word can mean "again" or "above." In this case, both meanings apply. Jesus is telling Nicodemus that the only way to find what he is looking for is to be born again from above. Despite all his learning, Nicodemus is utterly baffled by this thought. Is it possible to re-enter his mother's womb a second time? No, that's not what Jesus meant. He's not talking about a second physical birth, but a spiritual birth. You are born once physically. That physical birth introduces you to the physical world. But if you want to enter the kingdom of God (the world of spiritual reality), you need a spiritual birth.
Lest Nicodemus misunderstand this truth, Jesus added an important fact: "You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again'" (John 3:7 NIV). Notice the tense of that statement. You must be born again. The new birth is not optional for any of us. Jesus didn't say, "I recommend that you be born again" or "You should be born again if after investigation it seems to meet your personal need" or "I think it would be a good idea to be born again." No! Jesus used the urgent language of forceful command: You must be born again.
Before we go on, let me remind you that Jesus spoke these words not to some immoral outcast, but to one of the most religious men of his day. By any human standard Nicodemus was a very good man and certainly a man we would admire for his intense devotion to God. No doubt Nicodemus had been taught and had taught that if you change the outside, you can change the inside. He thought that just as the right training could make a waiter out of a cat, the right actions could make a Christian out of a sinner. Yet Jesus told him, "You must be born again." Something more is needed. Someone else is needed.
III. The response
Nicodemus's response is sincere. He didn't ask Why? He asked How? Perhaps you are asking the same question. How is a person born again? We must understand that-
A. Only God can give us what we need
At our second birth God remakes our souls and gives us what he need, again. He gives us new eyes so we can see by faith; a new mind so we can have the mind of Christ; new strength so we won't grow tired; a new vision so we won't lose heart; a new voice for praise and new hands for service. And, most of all, he gives us a new heart-a heart that has been cleansed by Christ.
And, how we need it. We have soiled what he gave us the first time. We have used our eyes to see impurity, our hands to give pain, our feet to walk the wrong path, our minds to think evil thoughts. All of us need to be made new again.
The first birth was for earthly life; we received a physical heart, enabling us to have life on this earth. The second birth is for eternal life; we receive a spiritual heart, enabling us to have life eternal. Only God can give us what we need.
B. We have nothing to do with the process
Think about your physical birth. (I know you don't remember it, but play along with me here.) How active were you in the process? Did you shove yourself out? Did you let the doctor know the times of the contractions? Did you have radio communication with your mother telling her when to push? You were passive, weren't you?
You were not born the first time because of what you did. Someone else did all the work. Someone else felt all the pain. Your mom did the pushing and the struggling. Your birth was due to someone else's effort.
The same is true for our spiritual birth. It is through Jesus' pain that we are born. It's not our struggle, but Christ's. It's not our bloodshed, but his. He did all the work.
C. It takes time to grow
We do, however, have something to do with our growth. A newborn baby can't walk, can't feed himself, can't sing or read or speak. Not yet. But someday he will. But is the parent in the delivery room ashamed of the baby? Is the mom embarrassed? Hardly. They know that growth will come in time.
Likewise, God knows that in time we will grow and mature in the faith. Yes, we will fall. We will stumble. We will give in to old desires. But God is still at work. He is often more patient with us than we are with ourselves.
So, you see, in many ways the new birth is like the first birth: in your new birth God provides what you need; someone else feels the pain, and someone else does the work. And just as parents are patient with their newborn, so God is patient with you. But there is one difference. The first time you had no choice about being born; this time you do.
D. It is your choice
You must take a personal inventory of your life, realizing that despite your background and your best efforts, something vital is missing. Religion-as sincere as you are with it-has not filled the hole in your heart. New clothes may dress a person up, but it does nothing for the soul. Then you must come to Jesus personally, on your own, person to person. Salvation involves a personal, individual commitment of your heart to Jesus Christ. No one else can do it for you. You must trust Christ completely, relying on him alone for your salvation. He is the Someone else you need.
Nicodemus made the choice. Have you?
Have you ever been born again? Surveys suggest that around one third will say yes, one third will say no, and one third will not be sure. Surprisingly, those percentages tend to stay the same whether we're asking people on the street or regular church members. So what's your answer? Have you ever been born again?
Nicodemus represents all of us. He stands in the place of every good, decent, law-abiding, upstanding citizen who ever lived. He was a good man who knew about God but he didn't know God personally. His story reminds us that religion is good, but the new birth is better.
We need what Nicodemus needed because we stand in exactly the same place. We need a vital experience of spiritual rebirth.
Nicodemus experienced the new birth. How do we know? Notice-
IV. The result-a changed nature
Nicodemus was born again. He was born of God. Notice the telling result of his life. It occurred at the burial of Jesus. Joseph of Arimathea asked for Jesus' body. When he came to take it way for burial he had a helper. John records, "He was accompanied by Nicodemus, the man who earlier had visited Jesus at night" (John 19:39 NIV). The man, who once visited Jesus at night, came into the light. The man, who once was fearful of his association with Jesus, now is not embarrassed that the whole world knows of his allegiance.
Nicodemus was a changed man. That's what happens when a person is born of God. Their nature is changed. Their heart is changed. Their soul is full. They become a new person from the inside out. And, people recognize it.
It seemed more prevalent several years ago. When a hardened, sinful person became a believer his or her life would change. People would notice the change and ask, "What happened to you?" The new believer would often say, "I am a born again Christian."
That's what happens to one born of God, one born again. They change. They follow Jesus Christ in their daily lives. They live their lives according to biblical standards. They move from religion to a relationship with Jesus Christ. They submit to Jesus as Lord. They act like a Christian.
Have you been born again?