Soren Kierkegaard, the noted Danish theologian once said: “God creates out of nothing. You may say, that’s wonderful. But He does what is still more wonderful: He makes saints out of sinners.[i]
No person ever became a Christian apart from the work of the Holy Spirit. The reason is that the natural mind is hostile to God, but when God’s Spirit begins to work in the hearts and minds of people, something spiritual and supernatural happens within people.
Here is how the apostle Paul describes it in the book of Romans.
Those who live according to the flesh [sinful nature] have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires.
The mind of governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace.
The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so [This explains rebellion in the heart of man. The sinful mind is hostile to God, and will not submit to God’s word.]
Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God.
You, however, are not in the realm of the flesh but are in the realm of the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ.[ii]
One expression we use to explain the spiritual transformation in people’s lives is conversion. Too often, we focus on the human side of conversion, the person responding to the call of God. But conversion begins as a work of God. This is what the apostle Paul pointed out in Romans. Our natural state is hostile to God and it takes the Holy Spirit influencing, challenging, and guiding our lives.
Briefly, I want to explain how we enter the kingdom of God. One of the great stories from the New Testament that explains the work of the Holy Spirit in conversion is found in John’s gospel. A religious leader came to Jesus by night in order to gain a private audience with him. In Nicodemus’ encounter with Christ, we find three elements in an encounter with God that explains how we enter God’s kingdom.
THE FIRST ELEMENT IN THE ENCOUNTER IS THE INQUIRY OF A SEARCHING HEART
Something draws our curiosity or arouses our interest in spiritual things. One of the great miracles is to witness a changed life. Nicodemus was a member of the religious sect in Israel, known as the Pharisees. Pharisees were noted for their zeal for the oral traditions of the elders, and their scrupulous observance of purity laws. However, many of them were more concerned with outward obedience, but were blinded to the real condition of their hearts. Here we have the story of a Pharisee who, being a leader in the Sanhedrin, wondered who Jesus was.
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 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.’[iii]
Something about Jesus drew Nicodemus’s curiosity. It seemed to him that Jesus must be sent by God because of the nature of the miracles that Jesus was doing. His words imply that he had carefully examined what Jesus was doing and had rightly concluded that only a heaven-sent person could perform such miracles. These miracles as he put it were signs pointing people to God.
Nicodemus may have been deficient in comprehension, but at least he was not blinded by prejudice, like those religious leaders whose reaction to the words and works of Jesus was to put them down to demonic activity. Even if he did not grasp the significance of the signs, he recognized by their character that they could not be done except by the power of God. …although Jesus did not belong to one of the acknowledged schools of sacred learning, this leading teacher in Israel saluted him as an equal with the title ‘Rabbi’- which was a mark of respect…[iv]
John, in describing the interview, gives a detail that has intrigued people. Nicodemus coming to Jesus by night creates a sense of uncertainty as to the reason. D. A. Carson relates a possible theological purpose.
The best clue lies in John’s use of ‘night’ elsewhere: in each instance (3:2; 9:4; 11:10; 13:30) the word is either used metaphorically for moral and spiritual darkness, or, if it refers to night-time hours, it bears the same moral and spiritual symbolism. Doubtless Nicodemus approached Jesus at night, but his own ‘night’ was blacker than he knew.[v]
What is implied in Nicodemus’ opening words is that his approach may have represented some others who were also curious about Jesus as he states, ‘we know you are a teacher.’ Who were these people? Probably other people in his social circle. They are, in a sense, wondering who Jesus is. D. A. Carson explains the implied question.
Formally, Nicodemus has not yet asked anything, though the implied question seems to be something like, ‘Who are you, then? We know you are a teacher from God, but are you more? Are you a prophet? Are you the Messiah?[vi]
What is fascinating about this encounter is Jesus’ response to Nicodemus’ greeting, which is the second element in the encounter.
THE SECOND ELEMENT IN THE ENCOUNTER IS THE SHOCKING RESPONSE BY AN INSIGHTFUL SAVIOR
Jesus does not wait for Nicodemus’ direct question. Knowing the hearts of men, Jesus addresses Nicodemus’ greatest need and ours. Jesus addresses the core issue of each life. It was a response that literally shocked this religious leader.
Jesus replied, ‘Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.’[vii]
A couple points of clarity will help us understand just how shocking this statement was to Nicodemus. First, the Jewish people felt that God’s kingdom would only come at the last day or the end of time. Also, as a nation, most believed that as God’s covenant people they were part of God’s kingdom. Nicodemus, then is wondering exactly what Jesus means.
Predominant religious thought in Jesus’ day affirmed that all Jews would be admitted to that kingdom apart from those guilty of deliberate apostasy or extraordinary wickedness (e.g. Mishnah Sanhedrin 10:1). But here was Jesus telling Nicodemus, a respected and conscientious member not only of Israel by of the Sanhedrin, that he cannot enter the kingdom unless he is born again.[viii]
In other words, neither his Jewish lineage nor his religious activities were the means of securing God’s kingdom. If this is true, Nicodemus then wonders, how can someone be a part of God’s kingdom? What does Jesus mean by this statement that one must be ‘born again?’
‘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!’[ix]
Jesus bluntly answered his question before he could ask it, asserting that without a complete change, comparable only to rebirth, the natural man could not enter the spiritual kingdom. ‘Cannot’ implies incapability rather than prohibition. The natural man is not arbitrarily debarred from the kingdom. He is inherently incapable of apprehending it, just as a blind man cannot enjoy a sunset. God’s mysteries are not the heritage of the learned, the moral, or the religious simply because of learning, morality, or religion; they are the heritage of the spiritually transformed.[x]
It is not about being religious or moral, but being transformed by God’s Spirit. One of the great examples of this is found in the life of John Wesley. Wesley grew up in a pastor’s home, and eventually studied for the ministry, with a group of young men who gathered together, known as the ‘Holy Club’ and practiced the spiritual disciplines.
Here they sought to reinforce faith through scriptural study and of measuring the quality of holiness of each member’s life. The Holy Club did more than think and pray. They went to the prisons to bring salvation to prisoners. Although they were ridiculed by their fellow Oxfordians, from their small ranks came towering men of the age. [Later, both John and his brother, Charles went to America as missionaries to the indigenous people in Georgia.] …It was through that trip that John came into contact with a small band of Moravians on the voyage over to the colony. These men and women fearlessly sang hymns during dreadful storms at sea while he despaired. He wanted to know the faith they seemed to have. In 1737 he returned to England.
It is to John Wesley’s credit that he could be critical enough of himself to stop now that he was an experienced minister to examine his lack of faith. Peter Boehler, a Moravian, gave him the key – to preach faith until he had it, and then he would preach faith. So it came about that John Wesley dwelled on faith until on Wednesday, May 24, 1738, at the well-known Aldersgate meeting, he had a conversion, a deep and unmistakable experience of faith. His ‘heart was strangely warmed.’ Then his real work began in earnest.[xi]
What Jesus said took Nicodemus by surprise. Nicodemus was certainly aware of the idea of starting over again. Many non-Jewish people had become Jewish proselytes.
A proselyte in effect entered on a new life in thus assuming the yoke of the kingdom of heaven. The proselyte, it was said, is like a new-born child. Such a person might fittingly be described as ‘born from above’ or ‘born anew’.
…On this occasion, had Jesus been talking of proselytes from paganism, Nicodemus would have understood him well enough; but it would have appeared that his enigmatic [strange, mysterious] words were intended to apply to Nicodemus himself. But in what sense?[xii]
What does Jesus mean when he is talking about being born again, especially to a person who saw himself as part of God’s covenant? This statement confused Nicodemus. Nicodemus was a moral man, a religious man. He was well acquainted with the law of God and knew much about God, but the problem was that he did not know God personally.
Over the years, I have met people like Nicodemus; wonderful people who thought they were Christians. People like Ralph and Ethlyn Folstad, who thought they were Christians, had served on a Christian church board for years. They were people who had a serving, generous heart.
After raising three children, one of their married daughters had a real experience with Jesus, and challenged her parents. Nancy, their youngest daughter, said: ‘Mom and Dad, you think you’re Christians but you’re not.’ It cut to the heart. It rattled this couple, but they couldn’t get away from the remark. They had seen the changes in their daughter and son-in-law and realized that their commitment was to church not to Christ. They really did not know God in a personal way. Jesus was not real to them. They surrender their lives to Christ and to the work of the Holy Spirit and were wonderfully empowered by God.[xiii]
When translator Des Oatridge, working in Papua New Guinea, came to the words ‘born again’ in John’s Gospel, he asked his native co-translator to think of a good way to express it. The man explained this custom:
‘Sometimes a person goes wrong and will not listen to anybody. We all get together in the village and place that person in the midst of us. The elders talk to him for a long time. ‘You have gone wrong!’ they say. ‘All your thoughts, intentions, and values are wrong. Now you have to become a baby again and start to relearn everything right.’
It was the answer Des was looking for. The words of John 3:3 in Binumarien reads ‘No one can see the Kingdom of God unless he becomes like a baby again and relearns everything from God’s Word.[xiv]
To be born again is to be transformed in nature. Theologians talk about the work of the Holy Spirit changing a person’s nature as regeneration. A transformation of the heart of the person. This is what transpires at the new birth as described by the apostle Paul.
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come![xv]
Regeneration is the theological term describing this change of our nature. The sinful nature is being overshadowed by the divine nature. That is what the apostle Peter meant when he wrote in his second letter:
His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness.
Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.[xvi]
Elizabeth Sherrill in Journey into Rest, gives an insightful understanding of the work of the Holy Spirit in regeneration of our natures.
A sentence in one of the books [I was reading on osteoporosis prevention] struck me most: ‘Like all living tissue, bone is constantly being broken down and reformed.’ The words seemed to apply not only to our bodies but to the perpetual Christian emphasis on brokenness. Repent! Confess! Acknowledge your sinfulness! I grow tired of this continual retracing of steps, impatient for the beckoning road ahead. But it was the word living that leaped out at me. It is living tissue that is continually torn down and rebuilt. As long as my relationship to God is alive, this biological fact seems to suggest the tearing-down process will be part of it. The confession of sin, the admission of guilt, will go hand in hand with renewal. … There can be no growth without pruning, no rebirth without death.[xvii]
THE THIRD ELEMENT IN THE ENCOUNTER IS THE INTENTIONAL ACT OF FAITH TOWARD CHRIST
In other words, how do we acquire this new life? Jesus describes for Nicodemus the work of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of people transforming them. Conversion is a work of the Holy Spirit and is miraculous in nature. It is super ordinary. It comes from God.
Jesus answered, ‘Very truly I tell you, 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.[xviii]
To be born again speaks of a brand new beginning. The concept was not foreign to Nicodemus. Jewish teachers had a saying, ‘A proselyte who embraces Judaism is like a newborn child.’ It brings one into a brand new world. It gives an individual a brand new identity. But as Jesus pointed out, it is not a physical birth.
Jesus answers, ‘I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit.’ What did Jesus mean? To be born of water speaks of repentance. Repentance is a change of one’s mind about our relationship with God. It is an attitude change about God and the things that God loves and hates. Jesus was putting together the idea of spirit and water, possibly alluding to the words of “Ezekiel 36:25-27 where water and spirit come together so forcefully, the first to signify cleansing from impurity, and the second to depict the transformation of heart that will enable people to follow God wholly.”[xix]
To someone who felt that they were already in a right standing with God, and part of God’s covenant people, to be told that he needed to repent and have a transformed life-changing experience would strike at his personal pride.
If he was like some other Pharisees, he was too confident of the quality of his own obedience to think he needed much repentance (cf. Luke 7:30), let alone to have his whole life cleansed and his heart transformed, to be born again.[xx]
However, that is exactly what Jesus is telling him. Jesus was basically telling this religious person that religion will not get you into heaven. It takes a relationship with Jesus Christ.
You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again’.
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.[xxi]
Both the Hebrew word ruah and the Greek word pneuma can mean ‘breath’ or ‘wind’ as well as ‘spirit,’ though in the New Testament any meaning other than ‘Spirit’ is extremely rare.[xxii]
Before modern meteorology people did not understand how wind worked. The point being that we do not control the wind, but we do see its effects.
How is this relevant to the nature of the new birth? …with everyone born of the Spirit: they have their ‘origin and destiny in the unseen God.[xxiii]
When Nicodemus asked how this could come about, Jesus uses a familiar story to help him understand. First of all, Jesus told him a story in Israel’s history where the people were sinning against God and as a result were being bitten by poisonous snakes. In their desperation, they asked their leader Moses to pray for God’s help in the situation. While asking God for help, Moses was told to fashion a bronze snake in the likeness of the poisonous ones that were biting the people and causing so much death. As the people who were bitten by the snakes would look to the one made by Moses, they would live. It was really an act of faith on their part. And those that did look, lived (cf. John 3:14-15). Now Jesus tells Nicodemus how he can start over again. He could start all over from past mistakes. He could become a new person with a new identity. This would be an act of faith. Jesus would be lifted up on a cross and die for the sins of the world and that whoever looked to Him would have eternal life.
What motivated God to die for us in the person of Jesus? Why would He come to earth in order to be a sacrifice for our sin? He was motivated out of love for us.
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.[xxiv]
All of us long for intimacy with God. We all recognize the emptiness in our lives no matter how much we endeavor to fill it with other people or activities. That void will never be met apart from a vital relationship with God. For we are made in the image of God to relate to God on a personal level.
Nicodemus, like many men, sought to fill that void with achievements and personal accomplishments. By coming to Jesus, Nicodemus was challenged. Jesus knew what was missing in in Nicodemus’ and in each life. He needed to come to God on God’s terms which required him to trust him. Nicodemus would come to know God in a way he had never known him before. Rather than following religious activities, he was called to a person. Nicodemus was honest enough to admit something was still missing.
One night Hay Aitken preached to a large audience in Bristol, England, on the text, ‘You must be born again.’ There in the congregation was a brilliant young man named Horatio Bottomly. He listened intently. He heard the preacher at the end of the sermon call all who were there to trust in the grace of Christ and to commit their lives to Jesus Christ, and he knew the call was addressed to him, too. He was deeply moved, but he said, ‘Not now, I’ll run my own life.’ And he did.
He made a fortune and a name for himself as the champion of the people’s rights. He was a lawyer; he exposed swindlers and prosecuted criminals with great vigor. When Bottomly was 63 years of age, this one who had exposed the crimes of others was himself convicted of a crime and sentenced to seven years in prison.
While he was there, another man visited him and asked to pray with him. Bottomly said that would be fine, and in the course of the conversation, the other man told his story. He said, ‘Many years ago, I was in Bristol, and I heard a preacher, Hay Aitken, preach on the text: You must be born again. I was so deeply moved that I committed my life to Christ, and ever since then, Christ has been my all in all.’ Bottomly was silent for some time, and then he said, ‘I, too, heard that searching message. I, too, was deeply moved. I knew my need of Christ, but I rejected him.’ And then he said remorsefully, ‘A life without God is a wasted life.’[xxv]
[i] Soren Kierkegaard’s Journals, translation by Alexander Dru. Christianity Today, Vol. 30, no. 14.
[ii] Romans 8:5-9, The New International Version of the Bible, Zondervan, 2011.
[iii] John 3:1-2.
[iv] F. F. Bruce, The Gospel Of John, (Grand Rapids, Mi: William Eerdmans Publishing Co.,1983), 81-82.
[v] D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991), 186.
[vi] Ibid, 187.
[vii] John 3:3.
[viii] D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John, 189.
[ix] John 3:4.
[x] Merrill C. Tenney, John: The Gospel of Belief, (Grand Rapids, Mi: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1948), 86.
[xi] Christian History Magazine, Revival and Revolution, (Vol. 2, No. 1, 1983), 9.
[xii] F. F. Bruce, The Gospel of John, 82-83.
[xiii] Personal testimony of Ralph and Ethlyn Folstad.
[xiv] From In Other Words (Mar/Apr 1993). Christian Reader, Vol. 33, no. 6.
[xv] 2 Corinthians 5:17.
[xvi] 2 Peter 1:3-4.
[xvii] Elizabeth Sherrill in Journey into Rest. Christianity Today, Vol. 35, no. 7.
[xviii] John 3:5-6.
[xix] D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John, 195.
[xxi] John 3:7-8.
[xxii] D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John, 197.
[xxiii] Ibid, 198.
[xxiv] John 3:16.
[xxv] “Now is the Time,” Preaching Today, Tape No. 73.