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August 23, 2009

Jesus said, “You must be born again.” (John 3:7, NIV)

John tells us the story of how a man called Nicodemus came to meet with Jesus. We are told that this man was “a man of the Pharisees,” and he was “a member of the Jewish ruling council” (v1).

That means that he was a man of integrity, and that he was a highly successful man who was respected, trusted, and held in high regard in the community. More than that, he was drawn to Jesus. He wanted to learn from Jesus. He felt that he could talk with Jesus, and he came to him one night looking for a private conversation.

Nicodemus had already come to some very positive conclusions about Jesus. He believes Jesus has come “from God” and that God is “with him,” and he affirms the authenticity of our Lord’s miracles, and the truth of his teaching (v2). We should recognize this man. Most of us are like him.

The Master Builder interrupts our plans

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)

Before Nicodemus can get any further, Jesus interrupts him, stops him dead in his tracks. “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again” (John 3:3).

This is an extraordinary statement. If you are going to see God and live in the glory of his eternal rule, if the joys of heaven are to be yours, here is what must happen, not only for you, but for every person who has ever lived: You must be born again!

Imagine that you spend your whole life building a house. The house is a life project for you. You build it from the foundation up—every nail, every screw. You go for quality in everything you choose: Fixtures, fittings, draperies. Everything that is in that house is a reflection of you and your commitment to excellence.

The house is your joy. It reflects your craftsmanship, your style, and your values. It is the fruit of your labor over years, as you have continued to make improvements, incorporating new ideas.

One day you meet a master builder. You have read about his work in magazines, so you invite him to come over and look at your house. You want to know if there is anything that he would do different, change some fittings, move the deck, perhaps even open up a wall. What could he suggest that would make your house even better?

He comes in and he’s very quiet. He looks round, shakes his head and says, “This is a tear-down.” That’s devastating; a tear-down? I have put my life into this house!

Jesus offers a new life, not a better one

That is what’s happening here for this highly successful man who is trusted and respected in the community. Jesus says to him, “You have come to me, thinking that I can add something that is missing in your successful life. I am telling you that your whole life needs to be made again, begun again, lived again. You must be born again.”

A lot of us are like Nicodemus. You have a good education. Your achievements are solid. Your relationships are healthy. Your work ethic is sound. Your example is respected. And you want to reach higher. So if someone says, “There’s a God-shaped hole in your life and Jesus Christ can fill it,” that makes sense to you. There’s always more. Your life isn’t perfect. You have faults. There are some things in your life that you need God to forgive.

A message that says, “We need Christ to make us complete,” makes sense to the natural man. It appeals to our pride. Let Christ fill the God-shaped hole in your life! But that is not what Jesus says here. Christ does not say, “You are doing great, but there’s something missing that I can give you.”

He says, “Your whole life needs to be remade and relived. You must be born again. And unless that happens, you cannot see the Kingdom of God. Nicodemus, you came to me thinking you are somewhere close to God’s Kingdom. I’m telling you that you’re nowhere near!” That is devastating.

Don’t miss the stunning fact that Jesus says this to Nicodemus. Who would be surprised if he said this to the thief on the cross—a criminal who had wasted his life? No one would be surprised if Jesus said this to the prostitutes or the tax collectors, who were notorious for extorting money from the people.

But Jesus did not say this to them. He says it to Nicodemus—man at his best, most ethical, most successful, and most educated. Jesus says this to trusted, respected, successful, moral, suburban family men and women like us. “You must be born again. Unless you are, you cannot see the Kingdom of God.”

The Change that Needs to Happen in Your Life
is More Radical than You Thought

Do you see yourself here? Here is a successful man who is drawn to Jesus and thinks that Jesus can add something to his life. Do you see what Jesus is saying to you? “You must be born again. No one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.”

Are you on the same page as Jesus? Will you agree with him today, that the change that needs to happen in your life is more radical than you thought? Perhaps you came to church today thinking you are very near to God’s kingdom. The first thing Christ tells you is “You are nowhere close!” He says that to the best of us. He says that to you!

You’re never too old for the new birth

Jesus says, “Your whole life needs to be remade and relived. You must be born again. And unless that happens, you cannot see the Kingdom of God.” Nicodemus says, “My whole life remade and relived? How can that possibly happen? 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!” (v4).

Nicodemus is a mature man. Youngsters didn’t get on the Jewish ruling council. In asking “How can a man be born again when he is old?” Nicodemus gives away his life stage. You can see the point of his question. As you get older, the shape of your life begins to set; the cement hardens. Over time, you come to terms with who you are.

It’s good to see younger people professing faith in Christ and being baptized, but how can a man or woman in their fifties, sixties, seventies or eighties be born again? How could the very core identity of your life change? Years have gone. You cannot get them back. Your life is what it is. “How can a man be born again when he is old? Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born!”

What is this new birth?

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 3:5)

What in the world is Jesus talking about? Some think Jesus is saying in order to enter the kingdom of God you must have both a natural birth (the waters) and a spiritual birth. But since every living person has a natural birth, why not just say, “No one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of the Spirit.”

Others think that Jesus is referring to baptism—baptism in water and baptism in the Spirit. The problem with that is that baptism reflects the new birth; it does not bring the new birth. Besides, making entrance into Christ’s kingdom conditional on baptism would be out of line with the teaching of the New Testament.

When Jesus says, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the spirit,” he is reflecting the twin blessings of the Gospel that we find throughout the Bible: A new cleansing and a new creation.

“I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean… I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you” (Eze. 36:25-26). It’s more than washing. You need more than a second chance. You need a new cleansing and a new creation. You need forgiveness and you need new life. You need justification and you need regeneration.

These are the twin blessings of the Gospel, and I think that is what Jesus is saying here. “You must be born of water and of the Spirit.” You must be washed clean and you must be made new. How does this new birth happen? Jesus says, “Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to Spirit” (v6). This new birth is the work of the Holy Spirit.

How does the Spirit bring about the new birth? You might think that Jesus would say, “Ok, Nicodemus, you want to be born again? Here are the three steps…” But he doesn’t do that. Instead, he says, “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit” (v8).

What kind of an answer is that? The Holy Spirit gives new birth, and he moves like the wind. You don’t control what the wind does, and you can’t predict where the wind will go.

The Change that Needs to Happen in Your Life
is Beyond Your Power

How can this be? (John 3:9)

You cannot give yourself this new birth. “Flesh gives birth to flesh…” (v6). Everything that you give birth to is an expression of who you are. All you can do is all you can do! Only God can bring the change that needs to happen in your life.

“Nicodemus, you must be born again! That’s what needs to happen in your life. Please understand—this does not lie in your power.” It’s not surprising that Nicodemus said, “How can this be?” (v9).

First the diagnosis, then the Gospel

Notice that “You must be born again” is not the Gospel. It is the problem to which the Gospel is the answer. If you tell someone “You must be born again,” and that is all you tell them, you have not told them the Gospel. All you have done is told them the problem. That’s like a doctor giving a diagnosis without offering a prescription.

When Jesus says to Nicodemus, “You must be born again,” He is identifying the problem: “The change that needs to happen in your life is more radical than you thought, and it is beyond your power.” You can’t end there.

When Nicodemus says, “How can this be?” How can I be born of the Spirit? He is not yet responding to the Gospel. He’s responding to Jesus’ diagnosis: The house that you’ve been building your whole life needs to be torn down.

Before we see where Jesus goes next, seeing where he does NOT go will help us avoid two mistakes in evangelism:

Jesus does not say, “Well it’s all up to you. It depends on your faith and your response and your repentance and your obedience.” He confronts Nicodemus with his own inability.

Jesus does not say, “Well, it’s all up to God. It all depends on whether you are elect, whether or not you are predestined, and, of course, there is nothing you can do about that.”

This whole conversation seems like a dead end, and it is—except for one thing. Notice where Jesus takes the conversation:

Jesus Christ was Lifted Up to Bring
the Change that Needs to Happen in Your Life

No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven–the Son of Man. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. (John 3:13-15)

Jesus says two things about himself: He is “the one who came from heaven.” That makes him different from any of us and different from any other religious teacher or leader. He is in a category all his own, unlike anyone else who has ever lived.

Jesus uses the words “lifted up,” to describe his death on the cross. “When I am lifted up… I will draw all men to myself.” Then John adds, “He said this to indicate the kind of death he was going to die” (John 12:32, see also John 8:28).

Come with me and look

Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert… (John 3:14)

Jesus used an Old Testament story to help us understand the significance of his death and what it can mean for us. (You can read this story in Numbers 21:4-9)

The whole community of Israelites in the desert was angry and frustrated. “They spoke against God and against Moses…” (v5). The Lord sent venomous snakes among them and many people died (v6). This was a terrible curse. It threatened to wipe out the whole community right there in the desert.

The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you” (v7). So Moses prayed for the people. God said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live” (Num. 21:8).

Jesus uses this story as an illustration to help us understand his death on the cross. “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:14-15).

Notice the parallel: Moses says, “Anyone can look at the snake and live.” Jesus says, “Everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.”

In other words, looking at the snake on the pole is a picture of what it means to believe in Jesus Christ and his death for us on the cross.

I picture people writhing in pain from these venomous snakes, legs and arms swelling from the poison. Death is near. Someone says, “Moses has lifted up a pole at the center of the camp. There’s a bronze snake on it. People who look at the snake are recovering. Come with me, and look at the snake.” Would you have done that?

The image on the pole must have been repulsive—it’s the snake that bit me. And so is the gospel: “The change needed in your life is far more radical than you thought, and it is completely beyond your power. Eternal life comes through one man who died on a cross, bearing the curse of your sins. Look to Jesus Christ crucified as your only hope.” To millions of people in the world that is utterly repulsive.

But Moses tells us “When anyone looked at the bronze snake, he lived”

(Num. 21:9). And Jesus says, “God so loved the world that He gave his one and only Son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

Look to Me!

I want to end with the marvelous story of the conversion of C. H. Spurgeon, the greatest preacher of the 20th century. I was reminded of this story again this week in reading a message by John Piper.

I sometimes think I might have been in darkness and despair until now had it not been for the goodness of God in sending a snowstorm, one Sunday morning, while I was going to a certain place of worship. When I could go no further, I turned down a side street, and came to a little primitive Methodist chapel. In that chapel there may have been a dozen or fifteen people… The minister did not come that morning; he was snowed up, I suppose. At last, a very thin-looking man, a shoemaker, or tailor, or something of that sort, went up into the pulpit to preach… He was obliged to stick to his text, for the simple reason that he had little else to say. The text was “Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth” (Isa. 45:22).

He did not even pronounce the words rightly, but that did not matter. There was, I thought, a glimpse of hope for me in that text. The preacher began thus: “My dear friends, this is a very simple text indeed. It says, ‘Look.’ Now lookin’ don’t take a great deal of pain. It ain’t liftin’ your foot or your finger; it is just, ‘Look.’ Well, a man needn’t go to college to learn to look. You may be the biggest fool, and yet you can look. A man needn’t be worth a thousand a year to be able to look. Anyone can look; even a child can look.”

“But then the text says, ‘Look unto Me…’ Many of ye are lookin’ to yourselves, but it’s no use lookin’ there. Ye will never find any comfort in yourselves. Some look to God the Father. No, look to him by-and-by. Jesus Christ says, ‘Look unto Me.’ Some of ye say ‘We must wait for the Spirit’s workin’. You have no business with that just now. Look to Christ. The text says, ‘Look unto me.’”

Then the good man followed up his text in this way: “Look unto Me; I am sweatin’ and great drops of blood. Look unto Me; I am hangin’ on the cross. Look unto Me; I am dead and buried. Look unto Me; I rise again. Look unto Me; I ascend to heaven. Look unto Me; I am sittin’ at the Father’s right hand. O poor sinner, look unto Me! Look unto Me!”

When he had gone to about that length, and managed to spin out ten minutes or so he was at the end of his tether. Then he looked at me under the gallery, and I dare say, with so few present he knew me to be a stranger. Just fixing his eyes on me, as if he knew all my heart he said, “Young man, you look very miserable.” Well, I did, but I had not been accustomed to have remarks made from the pulpit on my personal appearance before. However, it was a good blow, struck right home. He continued “and you always will be miserable—miserable in life, and miserable in death—if you don’t obey my text; but if you obey now, this moment, you will be saved.”

Then lifting up his hands, he shouted, as only a primitive Methodist could do “Young man, look to Jesus Christ. Look! Look! Look! You have nothing to do but to look and live.” I saw at once the way of salvation. I know not what else he said—I did not take much notice of it—I was so possessed with that one thought. Like as when the brazen serpent was lifted up, the people only looked and were healed, so it was with me. I had been waiting to do fifty things, but when I heard that word, “Look!” What a charming word it seemed to me! Oh! I looked until I could have almost looked my eyes away.

There and then the cloud was gone, the darkness had rolled away, and that moment I saw the sun; and I could have risen that instant, and sung with the most enthusiastic of them, of the precious blood of Christ, and the simple faith which looks alone to him… Now I can say—

E’er since by faith I saw the stream
Thy flowing wounds supply,
Redeeming love has been my theme,
And Shall be till I die.[1]

I urge you today: Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. Look to Him and live.


[1] C.H. Spurgeon, Autobiography, Vol. 1, (Whitefish: Kessinger Publishing, LLC, 2010), 87-88, cited in John Piper sermon,


© Colin S. Smith

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