Birth  –  Scripture Lesson: John 3:1-17

Norman Pritchard has written:  “Familiarity can breed, if not contempt, at least indifference in our hearts and lives.”  Sometimes it seems that this has what has happened with John 3:16.  Now here’s a verse of scripture that has probably inspired more sermons, gospel tracts, and political campaigns than any other in the New Testament.

I wonder if there could be a danger here.  Could it be that we have heard this verse so often – and typically out of context – that we are actually missing its meaning?  Folks, every time I see that fellow in the end zone at a football game, holding up a poster with the reference “John 3:16” written on it in giant block print, I worry that somehow we are missing the radical message the scripture intends to communicate.

Jesus spoke these words to a man named Nicodemus.  What we know about Nicodemus is that he was a fairly well-to-do Pharisee, a intergral part of the religious establishment of his day.  We probably don’t need to know much more than that to understand how radical a message this verse of scripture really contains.

The title “Pharisee” means “the separated ones.”  Pharisees were a small and select group of no more than 6000 Jewish men.  They aimed to live better lives than the rest of the popolace, and most of them were hitting that target.  The Pharisees separated themselves from the rest of the populace.  They devoted themselves to the study and interpretation of scribal law.  They believed that their acceptability to God was a matter of believing the right things and expressing those beliefs with right living.   “Trust and Obey, for there’s no other way!”  This was the Pharisaical way of SALVATION and BLESSINGS.

That’s why Nicodemus’ visit to Jesus is considered so strange.  He came looking for answers to issues most Pharisees thought were already settled.   Even Nicodemus must have thought that his visit was strange, for he approached Jesus under the cover of darkness.  It was scandalous for a learned scholar of theology like Nicodemus to seek counsel from a man like Jesus, an unorthodox, passionately free-spirited, trouble-making and rabble-rousing rabbi.  Still, he comes to Jesus.  He’s hidden in the shadows of darkenss, but still he comes.

Nicodemus comes to Jesus seeking answers to the great questions about life.  He had spent his life learning and teaching others that “being right with God” was a result of believing the right stuff and living the right way.  Yet somehow it wasn’t enough.  He’s facing an identity crisis.  He does the right things, says the right stuff, participates in the right rituals,and has join the right religious clique – but something is missing.

Nicodemus represents the religious establishment.  He represents the status quo.  He represents the clergy, the church leaders, the denominational officials, and the professors of religion.  We make a mistake to cast ourselves in the role of Jesus and the rest of the world in the role of Nicodemus.  Nicodemus is us!

He starts his conversation with pleasantries.  “Rabbi, we know who you are. You are a teacher come from God.  No one can do the things you do unless God is with him.”

What a nice thing to say.  Isn’t he sweet?

Jesus ignores all that.  Jesus plows right through all that manure and cuts right to the chase.  “You must be born again!”

Now here is one of the most radical, off the wall, out-side-the-box, what did he just say, he really didn’t mean that, is he crazy or what, kinds of statements in the entire Bible.  Here’s what Jesus is saying,   “If you really want to experience the life God intends, you are going to have to start over from scratch.”  “If you want to see the Kingdom of God, you’ll have to be born of God.”

Up to this point, Nicodemus’s faith had become a cosmetic matter.  He had painted his life with broad religious rituals and obedience to all the rules.  He had followed the formula.  He had said the right words.  He had confessed correct doctrine and had practiced right behavior.  And when he did all those things he did so with passion and zealotry.  He stood behind every action and meant every world.  Yet somehow some this was missing.

Jesus is saying, “It’s not about you.  It’s not about what you’ve done or failed to do; it’s not about what you’ve said or failed to say.  It’s simply not about you at all.  It’s about God.  If you want to be a part of this God thing, you’ve got to start over from scratch.  You’ve got to be born of god.  It’s the only way!”

This is not the “new birth” teachings of my Baptist church growing up.  I remember when the guest evangelist would come to town.  He’d hold his finger in the air then point it in our direction and say:  “You must be born again!” Then we’ve told folks what that means.  Being “born again” meant confessing A-B-C and doing 1-2-3!”  “You have to affirm a particular religious formula and live with a certain lifestyle.”  What the evangelist was doing was taking this most radical of biblical statements and domesticating it and making it a message about joining the religious establishment.

The problem is that Nicodemus IS the religious establishment.  He does not represent the irreligious masses that are living pagan lifestyles with no knowledge about doctrines, dogmas, and creeds.  Just the opposite.  Nicodemus represents those (of us) who place our confidence in our religion traditions, our good deeds, and faith – pretending that these things somehow place God is now in our debt.

This text is aimed to make religious folks feel uncomfortable.  Raphael Warnock writes:

We are Nicodemus! For Nicodemus is clearly the religious person with all of the right credentials. Nicodemus is the religious veteran who represents the institutional religion of the establishment. And it is Jesus the revolutionary, Jesus the radical, Jesus the religious heretic, who stands on the margins of our religious comfort zone and says to those who (think they) have it all figured out, “You must be born again!”


We use the phrase born again.  Like I said earlier, that not exactly right.  It’s more accurate to say that we must be born from above.  This is not a lesson about turning over a new leaf, redoubling our efforts, or rededicating ourselves to live right (whatever that means).   It’s not about reaffirming our traditions, remembering what granny taught us as a child, and then devoting ourselves answer to the doctrines, dogmas, creeds, formulas, rules, rituals, regulations, and requirements of our established religion.  It has nothing to do at all with human effort or human resolve.  None of these things have anything to do with being born of God.

Nicodemus didn’t get it.  I fear we don’t get it much of the time either.  We make it about all that religious stuff.  We make it about what we do rather than what God does – as if anything we do can save us or put God in our debt.

Nicodemus asks, “How can a person be born when he or she is old?  They can’t enter the womb again, can they?”  Now, when I say that Nicodemus didn’t get it, I am not necessarily implying that he didn’t understand WHAT Jesus was saying, but rather that he didn’t get how WHAT Jesus was saying was even possible.  Nicodemus was a bright guy, familiar with philosophical and metaphysical discourse.  I think Nicodemus knew exactly what Jesus was talking about, he just didn’t see how something like that was possible.   Nicodemus was saying:

You talk about being born again—that’s all well and good, but is it possible?  Can a person really experience such a radical, fundamental change in his or her life?  I know it’s necessary, but is it possible?  There is nothing I’d like more, but what you’re asking me to do is like entering my mother’s womb and be born all over again.

Nicodemus certainly desired that  kind of change—the BORN FROM ABOVE EXPERIENCE experience.  I think that was the sort of this that drove him to find Jesus, albeit under the cover of darkness.  He wanted that experience, but he simply did believe it was possible.  Why such doubt?  I think it is because he was so tied to an established religion that immediately translated the idea of starting over from scratch – i.e. NEW BIRTH—as some sort of human achievement, something we earn or obtain through right doctrine and right religion.  Nicodemus had already figured out that finding a life worth living in all of that kind of stuff was impossible.

Is it possible for a man or woman to enter their mother’s womb and be born a second time?  No, of course not!

Is it really possible for me to change everything about myselfn in such a radical and fundamental way?  Not a chance!

Is new birth really possible?  For Nicodemus the answer was:  “No!”   It is not possible for anyone to radically and fundamentally change who they are.  That’s probably what Nicodemus was thinking and, if so, he is absolutely correct.

But Jesus was not just talking about being born a second time.  He was not talking about a plan for personal reformation.  He was not talking about fixing ourselves us and making ourselves look respectable.  Jesus was talking about being born “from above.”  He was talking about being born into God’s family.  He was talking about being borth by God as daughters and sons of God.

This is not something we can accomplish for ourselves, no matter how moral our lifestyles or orthodox our confession.  We do not and cannot save ourselves—salvation is God’s business.  It is completely a work of grace – grace that transforms, grace that redeems, grace that remakes, grace that includes, and grace that gives experience of life that is starting over from scratch.

When grace enters the picture – we are born from above, born again, changed, transformed, saved, liberated.  When grace enters the picture, old way dies and new ways are birthed.  When grace enters the picture we are brought into the awareness of our relationship with the Triune God.  We grace enters the picture, we recognize that we have been born anew in Christ, filled with the Holy Spirit, as a part of God’s  household.  When grace enters the picture, we start life over from scratch, able to cry our to Almighty God, the Father, using the most inimitate of terms: “Abba!” or  “Daddy!”

Jesus continues, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit.  Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.” By ourselves we are just flesh.  As mere flesh, we are easily limited, frustrated, and defeated.  But God’s Spirit is more powerful than our flesh. When God’s Spirit takes possession of our lives we are able to do experience life in ways we never thought possible.  We are forgiven and empowered to forgive others.  We are accepted and live with inclusive love toward others.

Jesus likens the Spirit’s work to the wind.

Celtic Christians had a name for the Holy Spirit.  They called the Spirit Gealdh Glas which translated means “Wild Goose.”  In his book Wild Goose Chase, Mark Batterson writes:  “The name hints at mystery.  Much like a wild goose, the Spirit of God cannot be tracked or tamed.  An element of danger, an air of unpredictability surrounded Him.  And while the name may seem a little sacrilegious, I cannot tink of a better description of what it is like to follow the Spirit through life.”

You may not be comfortable with the idea of calling the Holy Spirit, but you’ve got to admit that following the Holy Spirit is sort of like being on the proverbial wild goose chase.  Jesus said as much in today’s text.  He said the Spirit is like the wind.  Like the wind, you can’t see the Spirit.  You can’t control the Spirit.  The Spirit comes and goes as the Spirit please.  The only thing we can do it point to the after effects and say, “Look and see what God is involved with!”

Jesus speaks once more.  He says that the Spirit can’t be controlled.  He is saying that “New Birth” is the work of the Spirit and cannot be limited to human philosophies, religious traditions, well reasoned theologies, or carefully thought out doctrinal formulas.  It is not the property of the Baptists, or the Methodist, or the fundamentalists, or charismatics, or liberals, or even the “Christians.”  It’s not something we own, possess, achieve, control, dictate, or direct.  It’s all in God’s hands and we cannot limit it by anything WE do.

Jesus says, “You can’t control the Spirit like that.  The Spirit is like the winds—it blows where it wants to.  The best you can hope to do is notice the effects and rejoice.”

Now if Nicodemus isn’t confused enough already—Jesus goes on to to identify himself as the means that God’s Spirit is going to use to bring the gift of NEW BIRTH to the world.  How will Jesus bring us this gift?  Well, it will involve something called a cross.  The power of God’s grace will be revealed as the Jesus is lifted up on a cross.

This is a radical thought too.  We have packaged it so neatly in our theologies that we often miss the truly “out-side-the-box” reality of what Jesus was talking about.

Jesus points to a story in the Hebrew Scriptures to illustrate for Nicodemus the point he was trying to make.  After the Exodus and before the Promise Land, the people of Israel wandered in the wilderness and spent a fair amount of time complaining.  Despite their freedom from slavery and the opportunity that was before them, they could only see the struggle and they often longed for a return to Egyptian bondage.

One day in their wilderness wandering they happened upon a nest of serpents that began biting the people causing great sickness.  Understandably, the people interpret this plague of serpents to be a punishment from God fro their constant complaining.  So they sought the intervention of God through Moses on their behalf.  Following God’s instructions, Moses made a bronze replica of the poisonous snakes that were attacking them and placed it on a tall pole lifted up in the middle of the camp.  Those who looked toward the serpent were healed.

Why the image of the serpent?   It was the serpent that caused the people to suffer, right?  The serpent made people think of death, not life!  That’s the point—the serpent can’t heal the people, only God can.  God had chosen the serpent—the very symbol of their rebellion—to show the people that even in the midst of their sin, God is still present to save.  Even when they fail to trust, God does not forget them.  Even when they abandon God, God does not abandon them.  Even when they turn their backs on God, God does not turn His back on them. The serpent, symbolic reminder of their sin, embodies the healing and forgiving love of God for the people.

Jesus used this story to illustrate his life and work.  He used it to illustrate God’s unfailing love for humanity.  Now this considered odd to Nicodemus.  Understand how Nicodemus would see the cross.  It was an instrument of torture used by the Empire in Rome to keep dissidents in their place.  It was used to keep the masses under control and knowing their role.  It was a picture of cruelty and death – but Jesus held it up as a symbol of life.  For him the cross was a picture of our darkness and rejection of God, as well as God’s determination to love us and redeem us anyway!

Later in the Gospel we would see all that stuffed play out specifically in the death of Christ on the cross.  We’d see the kind of darkness that touches our lives because of our brokenness and since.  At the cross we see hatred, injustice, oppressions, indifference, failure, sorrow, suffering, and death.  But not only that – the cross also includes many of the things we consider good like religious devotion, politics, the law, and even the democratic vote.   All of these things are there and found wanting.

That’s not the way we like to think about the cross!  Our smooth, cleaned-up cross of institutional religion is much more familiar and much less threatening.  The cross that we dress up in generalities about love and sacrifice is much easier to accept then the cross on which we are confronted with our own personal evil and sin. We want to polish the cross, smoothing out its rough edges so that it will not offend; but such a cross will not redeem us.  Only when we see how vile the cross can be, how expressive it is of our sin, can we feel the wonder of it all—that God was on the cross, working out our salvation.

Now we come again to John 3:16.  Now we read it within its context, not as a stand-alone, feel-good expression of our religion, but as a radical expression of God’s great love – a love so great that it is revealed in the middle of our darkness, sin, and rebellion, reminding us that despite all that stuff, WE ARE STILL LOVED AND GOD IS STILL AT WORK IN OUR WORLD.

What does the story of Nicodemus and the words of John 3:16 teach us about God’s grace and salvation?

First, the story of Nicodemus and the message of John 3:16 tells us that God saves.  We don’t approach God in order to “get saved,” but rather God approaches us with the gift of salvation.  Our salvation is the initiative and work of God.  The invitation of the gospel is not that we must say yes to get God’s grace.  The invitation of the Gospel is to stop saying no because God at the cross has said yes to you.

I like the way James Torrance says it when he writes:

“Our response in faith and obedience is a response to the response already made for us by Christ to the Father’s holy love, a response we are summoned to make in union with Christ….our… task is not to throw people back on themselves with exhortation and instructions as to what to do and how to do it, but to direct people to the gospel of grace—to Jesus Christ, as they might look to him to lead them by the Spirit into his eternal life of communion with the Father.”

Let me put it this way.  Reading John 3:16 in the context of the entire story of Nicodemus and his night-time visit teaches us that the invitation of the Gospel is not, “Repent, and when you do, you will be forgiven.”  That makes it seem that God must somehow be appeased before we can be saved.  The problem is that this inverts the order of grace.  The right order of the Gospel is this:  “Jesus, the Lamb of God, has taken our sin upon himself and dealt with it at the cross.  Therefore, repent and believe the good news, receiving his forgiveness in repentance!”

Second, this story also tells us that at the heart of God is love—not punishment or condemnation.  No doubt there is enough sin in the human race to justify God’s judgement against us because of our unrighteousness.  That’s why the cross is so amazing.  God does not approach us to condem us, but to love us.  Atonement is not a matter of justifying an angry God, but rather an expression of grace and reconciliation offered to us as a gift from a loving God.

In other words, the phrase that sets the foundation for it all is this:  “God so LOVED the World!”  God enters our darkness and God redeems.  The aim of salvation is not to get God to change God’s mind about us.  The cross aims to change our mind about what we have thought God thinks about us.  The cross is there to say, “God so loved the world…”

And finally this story tells us about the breadth of God’s love.  God loves the world.  God’s love is not restricted to those who are “good people.”  God’s love is not restricted to those who are powerful, important, and morally upright.  God’s love is not restricted to a particular nation, race, culture, or religion.  God’s love is not restricted to those who are religiously righteous or politically correct.  God loves the word—the entire world.  God loves the world—the unlovely, unlovable, unrighteous world.

John 3:16 is clear: God so loved the world!  God approaches YOU today with the gift of salvation and grace.  That’s the message of the Gospel.

So, in the light of this love is what will we do with the gift?

I guess we could go on our merry way and just keep trying to be religious.  We could just keep saying our little prayer before meals and reading our devotional books.  We can be content with having some doctrines in our heads and some actions expressed in our lives.  We could just keep paying our religious dues.  That’s what Nicodemus had been doing all his life.  But wait a minute, that’s why he came looking to Jesus for something more.

John 3:16 is clear: God so loved the world!  God approaches YOU today with the gift of salvation and grace.  That’s the message of the Gospel.

So, in the light of this love is what will we do with the gift?

I guess we could reject it.  We could assert that it is just too scandeloous to be true, this whole death on the cross and birth from above kind of thing.  We could reject that.  We could reject the idea that God comes to us in our darkness, allowing us to start over from scratch with nothing going for us but the love of Almighty God.  We could reject that – and reject the experience of life lived out of intimacy with God both now and into eternity.  We could reject it.

John 3:16 is clear: God so loved the world!  God approaches YOU today with the gift of salvation and grace.  That’s the message of the Gospel.

So, in the light of this love is what will we do with the gift?

There is one other option.  In the light of all God’s has done – in the light of the love and the grace and the birthing into God’s family that happens through the cross and the movements of the Holy Spirit, we can follow the guidance that comes after the declaration of God’s love.

“God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son that whoevers believes in Him would not perish, but have eternal life.”

We can do that too.  We can believe that we are loved by God and made alive In Christ.

That’s what God invites us to do – all of us.

“For God sent not His Son into the world to condem the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.”

One Response to “Birth”

  1. Terry Spencer says:

    Outstanding expounding of John 3. Needs to be widely published.
    The whoever believes brings man into confrontation with himself.
    Either he will perish or he will have eternal life. Belief is the difference.

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