Born. Born Again?


Text – John 3:1-22

Reader:  Tinu Olabimtan

As we continue our series through John, today we have arrived at the chapter where two of the most famous phrases in the Bible are found. You may be wondering if the two very famous phrases are perhaps, 1. “God helps those that help themselves” or, 2. “God works in mysterious ways.” Those two phrases are from poems, not the Bible. Besides which, they run contrary to the Bible’s teachings that we are to rely on God and not on ourselves, and that God and His ways are fully knowable to anyone who seeks Him or His will and ways.

Some of you might think, “Ok, if it wasn’t those two famous phrases then maybe these are them”: “Money is the root of all evil” or, “This too shall pass”. But, again, neither of those phrases are from the Bible. The Bible does state in 1 Timothy 6:10 that, “The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil”. And, as for the phrase “This too shall pass”, it was a medieval Persian saying popularized by the 19th century British poet Edward FitzGerald.

“Ok’” others of you might be pondering, “If the two famous phrases weren’t any of those four, then perhaps they are these two: “It was meant to be” or, “Everything happens for a reason”. Those phrases, when I hear Christians say them, make my hair stand on end for they definitely are not from the Bible. They are from Eastern religions which believe in fatalism and mean that whatever happens, happens for a reason, and we humans have no say in it. In other words, God is behind them. But that would mean that the abuse of children, or the rape of women, or the beheading of men is according to God’s plan, whereas I would say that the reason for some things lies in human sin or stupidity or choices. The Bible expressly teaches not fatalism but freedom of will for everyone, and that there will be consequences to our behaviours and actions, both good and bad.

So, what are the two famous verses we will hear in John 3? Verse 3 where Jesus says, “I tell you the truth, you must be born again in order to see the kingdom of God”, and verse 16, “For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.”

The setting for these two verses was that Jesus was still in Jerusalem following the Passover he had attended there when a Jewish religious leader named Nicodemus came to see Jesus. He came stealthily because he didn’t want other members of the Jewish ruling council to know what he was doing or that he was impressed by Jesus and interested in what he had to say. Nicodemus looked at the signs which pointed to Jesus and indicated who he was and is.

The Jewish ruling council, by the way, was called the Sanhedrin and it was composed of both priests, Levites and Aaronites, as well as laymen, the Pharisees and the Sadducees. The Pharisees and the Sadducees were de facto religious political parties who moved themselves into positions of power over Jewish society even though no one had elected them to be in those positions. They are like the modern-day bureaucrats or unelected leaders in our world and nation (think of the World Economic Forum or the European Council or the people on different Human Rights Commissions in Canada who have maneuvered themselves into positions of power though nobody asked them to, and who cause the world grief. By the way, the fact that the Pharisees were not priests and yet added onto the Law of Moses and enforced numerous unbiblical laws upon the Jewish people are the reasons Jesus had such little respect for him. Ok, let’s begin reading:

Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.” (John 3:1,2)

Although he didn’t quite yet believe in Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God, and the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (all things said about him in John 1 by the first followers of Jesus), Nicodemus was moving toward faith. Nicodemus’ indicates in his statement “We know that you are a teacher who has come from God” that there were other Pharisees who were journeying with him in his faith journey. As I mentioned last week, we tend to think of all these New Testament figures and simply see the finished product and conclude that they always believed in Jesus and followed him, but that was clearly not the case. As Jesus would tell Nicodemus there was still one thing he had to do in his journey of coming to have faith in Jesus. To Nicodemus’s question,

Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” (John 3:3)

25 times in the Gospel of John, Jesus says, depending on which English language version of the Bible you are reading, the phrase, “Very truly” or “Truly, truly” or “I tell you the truth” or “Verily, verily” in the old King James Version. The phrase literally means, “I tell all of you the solemn truth”. Jesus would say it when announcing some teaching that would show his heavenly, unique authority. The Greek word is actually, “Amen” which we have translated into English as a declarative at the end of a statement which is true. “Amen!” Nicodemus needed to be born again, “born from above”, “born of the Spirit”, “born spiritually”, Jesus told him, if he really wanted to see God’s kingdom in his life. In other words, Nicodemus had to get off the fence and put his faith in Jesus. When he would do so, he would see God’s kingdom. Nicodemus didn’t get what Jesus was saying.

“How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!” (John 3:4)

Jesus was not talking about a physical rebirth, being physically born again. So,

Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit.” (John 3:5)

A person can neither “see” nor “enter” into the kingdom of God unless they have undergone two births: of water, the physical birth through a mother, and, of the Spirit, the Spiritual birth that our heavenly Father will take us through when we decide to do so.

“Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’” (John 3:6,7)

Contrary to what some Christians incorrectly believe, Jesus’ referring to being “born of water” cannot refer to Christian baptism, as that concept would have been meaningless to Nicodemus at this point in salvation history. But Jesus felt that Nicodemus, being a religious leader, should have understood more than he did at that point. So, Jesus illustrates his teaching from nature, and specifically from the wind. None of us doubt the reality of the wind though we can’t see it. However, we can feel it and observe its effects. That is what Jesus tells him.

“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.” (John 3:8)

We can hear the wind even though it is invisible and mysterious. We accept its reality. Likewise, we must accept the reality of being born again by the Spirit, a word which, by the way, means “wind” in Hebrew, a fact that Nicodemus would surely have known.

“How can this be?” Nicodemus asked. (John 3:9)

So, those are the last recorded words of Nicodemus in this conversation, but we know from two passages later in the Gospel of John that Nicodemus did come to believe. First, in chapter 7, he argued against the Sanhedrin putting Jesus on trial in a kangaroo court, and then, in chapter 19, he and another Pharisee, Joseph of Arimathea, bravely went to the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate to ask permission to take Jesus’ dead body off the cross and bury it in the family tomb of Joseph of Arimathea. As things would turn out, Christian theologians like to say, Jesus simply “borrowed” Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb for three days and then gave it back to him, for after his resurrection the tomb was empty, once again. In any case, Nicodemus came to faith later but at this point was still not understanding.

“You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still, you people do not accept our testimony. I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? (John 3:10-12)

Jesus knew how difficult it would be for Nicodemus and unlikely it would be for a Pharisee to become a follower of him. The “earthly things” Jesus mentioned referred to physical birth whereas the “heavenly things” mentioned was in reference to being “born again”, or “born from above”, a “heavenly” thing. Being born physically has a full-stop period after it but being born again has a question mark after it. Humans would need to be born again, to submit to God the Spirit, to see and enter into the kingdom of God. This would be a big shock to Nicodemus’ life and belief system so Jesus decided to try to help him understand by referencing a time in the Old Testament when the people were similarly shocked into believing. The event is found in Numbers 21, when Moses was leading the Israelite people from Egypt to Canaan, and towards the Promised Land. The people had been regularly complaining about their living conditions and having to eat manna, that “heavenly thing”, that heavenly food that God daily provided for them but this time, God was so fed up with their complaining that he acted.

They traveled from Mount Hor along the route to the Red Sea, to go around Edom. But the people grew impatient on the way; they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!” Then the Lord sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you. Pray that the Lord will take the snakes away from us.” So, Moses prayed for the people. The Lord said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” So, Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived. (Numbers 21:4-9)

Canadian scholar and psychologist Jordan Peterson, who, like all of us, at one time did not believe but has come to faith by looking at the signs pointing to Jesus and by his claiming to be the “King of Kings”. Along the way, Jordan Peterson has been doing video series and lectures from the Old Testament, particularly about Moses and the Israelites in the Sinai Desert. Radio host Joe Rogan, who is a non-believer but who seems to be moving to faith in Christ, asked Jordan Peterson about what he was teaching, in particular, asking in a mocking way about this episode of the bronzed snake. Peterson answered Rogan’s question: “This is one of those impossibly weird stories. This is either insane or it’s true because those are the only options. Moses leads his people out of the tyranny of Egypt. But, weirdly enough, they don’t go to the Promised Land; they go into the desert. Why? Well, we are all prisoners of our own tyrannical misconceptions and misperceptions, psychologically and socially. So, let’s say we free ourselves from those. So, then, we’re nowhere. At least we were guided in that tyranny. That’s why people have a nostalgia for tyranny, and they would think, “At least we had enough to eat then. At least we knew who we were back then.” Out of the tyrant’s grasp and into the desert.

Why did it take the people 40 years to get out of the desert? Maybe it’s because it takes three generations to recover from tyranny (Peterson is not a biblical scholar so he doesn’t know what we know, but he is a psychologist so his insights into this are from that perspective and are very insightful). You’re in the desert. And, so, the Israelites start worshipping idols. They don’t have anything to orient themselves around anymore without those tyrants. So, they become fractious and start arguing with one another and they turn to false idols, so God sends poisonous snakes to bite them. The poisonous snakes are biting them and biting them and so they finally break down and go to Moses and say, “Look, please have a chat with God and ask Him to call off the snakes.” And Moses goes off to talk with God. God could have just called off the snakes. That is what we would have expected Him to do but that isn’t what happens. Instead, He says, “Go make an image of a snake in bronze and make an image of a stick like a staff, and put the image of the snake on the staff and put the staff into the ground and tell the Israelites to go look at the image of the snake and then the snakes won’t bite them, anymore.” Here is a doctrine from all fields of psychotherapy: look at what you are afraid of and you will be healed. Face your fears and you will be made whole. Voluntarily face what you are most afraid of and you will be set free. God doesn’t send away the snakes, He makes the people braver because that’s better than being made safe. Bravery is better than safety, it is a more reliable cure.”

Peterson moves on to talking about Jesus referring to the bronzed snake. “In the Gospel, Christ says that he has to be lifted up like the serpent in the desert. Christ is comparing himself to a snake on a stick. What can this possibly mean? You cannot write a more tragic story than the Passion story. Why? Because it is a story of the aggregation of everything that people are afraid of. There is no death more painful than crucifixion. That’s why the Romans invented it, to punish political miscreants, a slow, agonizing death by suffocation, and dehydration and exposure. That is pain!”

Referring to Jesus’ psychological pain, Peterson said, “Plus, you know what’s coming – that is part of the story – plus, one of your best friends betrayed you into it, plus, your people turned against you, plus, they are led by a tyrant who doubts truth, plus, you are a victim of the Roman Empire, plus, you are completely innocent, plus, everybody knows that, plus, they choose a criminal to be released from this experience instead of you even though they know he’s a criminal and they know you’re innocent, and you’re young and you’ve done no wrong and all you’ve done is help people.”

Peterson concludes by talking about us. “What do you see when you look up at the snake on the pole? You see Christ on the cross. Look harder. Look harder. Look harder. What do you see? The things you are most afraid of. Look harder. What do you see? You see Christ’s death and his resurrection. When you look far enough into the abyss, you see light. Well, that’s the story. That’s the connection between the bronzed snake and Jesus on the cross. When you look at Christ, you see life and are no longer afraid.”

It’s amazing for me, a person who has been on the journey of Christian faith for so long, to hear a person newly on the journey who can look at the signs and come to such an insightful conclusion.

Now, going back to Jesus’ words, though, here is what he had to say, and, again, as we have heard him do in the past, he refers to himself in the third person as the “Son of Man” that Daniel prophesied about and who would be the Messiah.

“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 wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.” (John 3:13-15)

The words “eternal life”, referring to what people get when they put their faith in Jesus, appear 17 times in John’s Gospel. He fervently hoped that a person, by looking at the signs which indicate who Jesus is, would come to believe in him and become his/Jesus’ follower.

Many people, myself included, on an aside believe that the words we just heard read in verse 15, were the final words uttered by Jesus in John 3. The rest of the chapter, as is commonly throughout John after Jesus has said or done something miraculous or significant, is John’s explanation or commentary upon what Jesus just said and did. So, based upon what has just happened and been said, here is John’s commentary to help us understand its significance:

For 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. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God. (John 3:16-21)

“God so loved the world”. His love is for everyone, all people, not just believers, and His love focuses on the cross and on His son who we gave for us. Will we look at the cross and believe? All who believe will experience right away and come to understand (often at a later time) the death of Christ on the cross providing us with escape from this life’s destruction into a life everlasting with God as well as relief from fear. God did not send His Son into the world for negative purposes – to condemn us – but for positive reason – to free the believer from slavery to Satan and from sin and to bring relief from fears, in order to provide them an abundant life in this world and to take them into the Promised Land of heaven in the next life. Just as the Israelites were freed from slavery in Egypt and ended up in the Promised Land, so are we freed from slavery to our preconceptions, misperceptions, deadly habits, and fears; and, given a life abundant in this world and eternal in the next. “I am the way, the truth, and the life”, Jesus would later say. “No one comes to the Father except through me.” Let us look at the cross, where, by doing so, we will find relief from our fears, and seeing the powerful sign pointing to Jesus’ resurrection that the cross is empty, and, in doing so, accept what is obviously true, and be born again. Now, John concludes this most meaningful of days with this simple phrase:

After this, Jesus and his disciples went out into the Judean countryside, where he spent some time with them, and baptized. (John 3:22)

Such an anticlimactic statement, but that is what life is like: exciting yet mundane, deep yet simple. But, as we look at the cross and are born again, we will experience the love of God fully. So, do so and you will be blessed.

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