You Cannot Birth Yourself (John 3:1-15)
Topic: One Lord: So Great a Salvation Passage: John 3:1–15
I. “Born Again”?
While the phrase is rooted in Scripture (as we'll see this morning), the idea of being “born again” became well known in this country starting in the late 1960's. Christian renewal movements like the “Jesus movement” or “Jesus People movement” seemed to use this phrase as a title to distinguish individuals who had experienced a genuine and profound conversion to Christ from those who seemed to be Christians 'in name only'. By the mid 1970's, the mainstream media talked about a 'born-again movement', as former Watergate conspirator Chuck Colson released (in 1976) his conversion account, entitled Born Again. That same year, Democratic nominee (and soon-to-be President) Jimmy Carter described himself as “born again”, and by 1980, all three major, presidential candidates stated they had been “born again”.
So undoubtedly, there are many of you who first became familiar with that phrase because of its increasing use in popular culture. For some, it was a helpful, identifying label. For others, it was a term of disdain (e.g., “You're not one of those 'born again' people, are you?”).
But as I mentioned at the outset, the phrase is, in fact, a biblical phrase, one that first appears in the Gospel of John, chapter 3. Why don't we look at that passage together this morning, and consider what God might want us to know about this concept of being “born again”.
II. The Passage: “Unless One is Born Again” (3:1-15)
Now, even though we'll be focusing on 3:1-15 this morning, I think it's important we begin this morning with 2:23-25. Why? Because that final bit of chapter 2 is a king of 'hinge' passage, one that is connected to chapter 2, but also introduces chapter 3. We'll see in a moment why that's important. So look back with me at John 2:23...
Now when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing.  But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people  and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man.
1. A Need for New Eyes (vs. 1-3)
Now with that passage in mind, listen to what John writes, beginning in 3:1...
Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews.  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.”  Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
Okay. I want you to notice that, like the “many” mentioned in verse 23 of chapter 2, this Nicodemus has also seen Jesus perform miracles. In fact, he's coming to Jesus because of those miracles. Now to be clear, the only major miracle that John has described so far is Jesus turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana. But as I've mentioned before, even though John has built his book around seven specific miracles (or signs), he acknowledges the kind of wonder-working ministry that's described in the other Gospels: Jesus casting out demons, Jesus healing the sick, etc.
But look at how this man Nicodemus describes his spiritual appraisal of Christ: “we know that you are a teacher [who has] come from God”. That's not quite the appraisal of John the Baptist, is it? John declared, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (1:29). This is not quite the appraisal of Nathanael, is it? Nathanel stated, “...You are the Son of God! You are the king of Israel!” (1:49)
And Jesus confirms the incompleteness of Nicodemus's profession of faith. Verse 3: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” What is Jesus saying here? I believe he's telling Nicodemus, “Yes, you've seen miracles. And yes, you've seen there's something special about me. But you have not seen the Kingdom of God. You don't yet have new eyes. And the only way to get those new eyes is to be 'born again' (or, another possible translation is 'born from above')”.
2. A Need for New Feet (vs. 4-8)
So what exactly does Jesus mean? That's precisely what Nicodemus goes on to ask. Verse 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?”  Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.  That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.  Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’  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.”
When Nicodemus hears “born again”, he's thinking in literal terms, isn't he? But Jesus clarifies: to be “born again” is to be (v. 5) “born of water and the Spirit”. In verse 6, Jesus repeats that last part: “that which is born of the Spirit is spirit”. So Jesus is talking about a spiritual rebirth, not a physical rebirth. And as a Pharisee, Nicodemus should recognize the language Jesus is using. It comes from the promise of God in Ezekiel 36:24–28...
I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land.  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.  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.  And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.  You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God.
The new birth described there is what gives us, not only new eyes, but also new feet; new feet to walk a new path in the Kingdom of God. And notice the one acting in Ezekiel 36. It is God who will do these things. He will move. He will act. He will save. He will give new life.
I believe that's the same point Jesus is making in verse 8. Being “born again” is not a matter of your religious position or ethnic identity or knowledge or appraisal of Jesus ministry... or even your own will. It is simply a matter of the Spirit. And like the wind (same word for spirit), the Spirit blows wherever it wishes. You can see its effects in transformed lives, but it doesn't work according human expectations or efforts. John told us something very similar in 1:12–13: But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.
3. A Need for New Ears (vs. 9-13)
But even though Nicodemus should understand, he doesn't. That's clear in verse 9...
Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?”  Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?  Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you [pl. “all of you”--i.e., the Jewish leadership] do not receive our testimony.  If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?  No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.
You may recall that Nicodemus came to Jesus saying (v. 2) “we know that you are a teacher come from God”. But Jesus turns that around in verse 11: “we speak of what we know”. It's not clear who the “we” is here. Jesus and those “born of the Spirit”? Jesus and the Spirit? Jesus and the Father? But his point is clear: in spite of what Nicodemus has claimed (under the cover of darkness, by the way), the Jewish leaders have not accepted Jesus' “testimony”, but they should. Why? Because only the Word has been in heaven, in the Father's presence and counsel, and has subsequently descended.
But Nicodemus certainly wouldn't understand heavenly revelation if he cannot understand what Jesus is saying about things that concern earthly life... like being “born again”. You see, Nicodemus needs not only new eyes and new feet, but also new ears; new ears to truly hear and receive the testimony of Jesus.
III. Now Live By the Spirit (vs. 14, 15)
So let's stop and consider what we've learned about this idea of being “born again”. It is 1) a spiritual birth, it is 2) necessary to recognizing, receiving, and entering the kingdom of God, and 3) it is a work of the Spirit, not of you or me. Or to put that last point differently, as was the case on the day you were conceived and the day you were born...you cannot birth yourself (2x).
Now think about that statement. Even though this passage is commonly misrepresented, Jesus is not calling Nicodemus to be “born again”, since that isn't something Nicodemus can do through his own efforts. Even accepting that the miracles of Jesus are of God, will not cause one to be “born again”. Even accepting that Jesus is a teacher from God, will not cause one to be “born again”. The wind blows where it wishes... So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Writer Matthew Barrett comments on these same ideas:
Unfortunately, even the most well-meaning Christians today can get [the] miracle backwards. We think the new birth is something we must do. But that misses the miracle of it all. It also misses the meaning of the metaphor: Birth is something that happens to us, not something we accomplish. How much more so with matters of the heart? (Matthew Barrett)
Do you believe that this morning? Do you believe that you need those new eyes, new feet, and new ears, that the only way to get them is to be “born of the Spirit”, and that such a rebirth is ultimately not up to you? If you do, then please consider three ideas for living that out:
First, the new birth should inspire gratitude and worship. If you cannot birth yourself, then someone else did. And we know that someone was God, through his Spirit. As Jesus would later declare, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.” (John 6:65). Paul would express that same truth in this way: But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us,  even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved... (Ephesians 2:4–5) And Peter would later confirm this idea in no uncertain terms: Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead... (I Peter 1:3) Wow! If it hasn't already today, give thanks to God for your new birth and praise him for his grace, acceptance, adoption, power, purpose, at work in your life. Then ask yourself, “What can I do to fan that practice praise into the flame of a daily habit?”
Second, the new birth should inspire daily prayer for life in the Spirit's newness. Even when you are genuinely born again, it is very, very easy, to be like Nicodemus; that is, to slip into a religious mentality, yet one that is, sadly, ignorant of and insensitive to the true, spiritual nature of God's work in and among us. We are daily tempted to what Paul warned about: those having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. (II Timothy 3:5) Our persistent prayer should be, “Father, as I've been born of the Spirit, let me live by the Spirit; to live with the new eyes, new feet, and new ears you've given me as your new creation.” If you cannot birth yourself, you cannot grow yourself. But you can pray... and... be fed by God's means of grace.
Finally, third, the new birth should inspire examination of your own profession of faith. What motivated Nicodemus to come to Jesus isn't clear. But it's important to note this is not a rebuke of Nicodemus. And yet, Jesus desperately wants him to understand that something is missing; that truly coming to Christ and truly seeing Christ requires something far more revolutionary than Nicodemus has in mind. And maybe that's what God wants you to understand this morning: that something's missing. Maybe, like Nicodemus, you also have religious credentials. Maybe, like Nicodemus, you've also affirmed Jesus in some way. But, if you're com-pletely honest, you know, even now, God is showing you that you have not been “born again”.
If that's the case, let me direct you to verses 14 and 15: And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up,  that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. Jesus is telling Nicodemus, though the Son of Man has descended from heaven, he will be lifted up once again. And when He is... look to him... with faith; just as the Israelites did when they were dying from the snake bites with which God had judged them in Numbers 21. The lesson was simple: look and live (2x). If Nicodemus, if you, will look to the cross upon which Jesus, the “Son of Man [was] lifted up”, you will have eternal life.
Brothers, sisters, friends, we will meet Nicodemus again in this book. And John will give us glimpses of what God was doing in him. But this morning, please ask yourself, “What is God doing in me?” Let us look to the cross, to the One who took our place there; to the One who died for our sins; who perfectly paid the price; who demonstrated his amazing love there. You can be born to new life, because Jesus died for your old one! Let us look and live. Then let us give thanks. Let us worship. Let us pray. Let us live... with new eyes, and new feet, and new ears, that we might see Christ, and go for Christ, as we listen to his word. Amen? Let's pray.