Last week, we saw Nicodemus secretly meet Jesus by night – he was still in the dark as to who Jesus was, but he was intrigued. Jesus told him he needed to be born again from above – to be born of water and Spirit. In other words, he needed the “new heart” that Ezekiel spoke about long before hand – the Spirit of God that would move people to obey him from the heart, rather than from external constraints like the Law.
How can we be born again?
But how does that work, exactly? We don’t know, because we’re not God. As Jesus says:
John 3:8 The wind blows wherever it pleases…
By the way, there’s a bit of a Greek pun going on in the background of this verse, as the word for wind – pneuma – is also the word for spirit:
John 3:8 The wind/Spirit 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 wind/Spirit.”
A sailor at the dock was once asked by a small boy to explain the wind. The sailor replied: ‘I can’t explain it. But I know how to hoist a sail.’ At one level, being ‘born again’ or ‘born from above’ is a divine mystery. We can’t explain it. It’s an act of God. But we can know how to experience it, and that’s what Jesus talks about a few verses later.
John 3:14-15 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.
Again, we have a reference to the Old Testament, this time to the book of Numbers. Israel were wandering in the desert and having their standard whinge to Moses about the way things were going. Kind of like a church, really. Then God sends some poisonous snakes among them – kind of like… No, that’s unfair. And the snakes killed quite a number. When the people repented, Moses prayed to God to take away the snakes. So God told Moses:
Numbers 21:8-9 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, he lived.
Have you ever stopped to think about how bizarre that is? I mean, you don’t tell a group of soldiers who’ve been shot in battle ‘hang on a sec, let me make a bronze rifle for you to look at and you’ll be fine’; you don’t walk into a ward full of lung cancer patients holding up a bronze cigarette; so why make a bronze snake to cure people of snake bite?
Except it wasn’t the snake that did the healing; it was God. The Israelites didn’t have to know how it all worked. God simply told them that was how they’d be healed. All they needed to do was take God at his word; to look up in faith and acknowledge the way of salvation he had provided.
In a few short years, something else equally bizarre was going to occur. The son of God would be lifted up on a cross. Somehow that would bring forgiveness – that would bring spiritual healing – to those who looked to him in faith.
The somehow would be pieced together after the fact, through the understanding the Holy Spirit would bring in the writing of the rest of the New Testament. The somehow involves Jesus’ taking our sin upon himself, paying the penalty in our place. The somehow involves righteousness being credited to us, even though we don’t deserve it. And the somehow involves Jesus’ resurrection bringing us new life – the power to resist sin and live the way God intended. All that would be explained later.
But the simplicity of God’s solution remains: the son would be lifted up. All we have to do is stop looking to ourselves to be spiritually healed, and trust God to do it.
Nicodemus didn’t have to know how the ‘born again’ bit was going to work; he didn’t have to explain the wind – all he had to do was know how to hoist a sail. All he had to do was believe – trust in Jesus as the son of God.
John 3:16-18 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 he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.
To think about
Have you done this? Have you ‘hoisted your sail’ to catch the wind? Are you born again from above?
This isn’t a lightweight question. In fact, this is the whole point of this passage as it relates to us. No matter how long we have been following Jesus, we need to make sure we’ve thought about this question and answered it honestly.
Nicodemus was an upright, religious man who knew his Bible well. But he wasn’t born again. He was still stuck in the trap of trying to do it himself; of trying to earn God’s favour. Jesus’ aim throughout this entire conversation was to free him from that misconception; and point to the way of salvation that he would soon bring about. A free gift from God, not a set of rules and regulations to obey.
What about you? Have you honestly come to the point of acknowledging that you can’t be acceptable to God on your own? Have you asked God for that cleansing; that new heart that only he can give?
It’s a great tragedy when someone dies without ever hearing the message of Jesus. But let me tell you that it’s just as tragic when someone sits in a church like mine or a church like yours all their life – hearing the gospel message time and time again – but like Nicodemus, they’re still in the dark, practising religion rather than being given the gift of rebirth.
Don’t let that be you. Being a good person won’t save you. Turning up to church won’t save you. Teaching Sunday School or leading a bible study group won’t save you. Going to theological college and writing academic essays about the Bible won’t save you.
The only way to be right with God – to be transformed into the person he created us to be – the only way is to be born again from above. To look to the Son lifted high on the cross, and trust that he alone can save us; can change us; can give us a new heart and a new spirit within.
By the way it seems that Nicodemus eventually understood. He appears again near the end of John’s gospel – this time not at night, but in the daytime. He’s taken his first step into the light and seems less afraid to be identified with Jesus – he takes a risk in helping to bury Jesus’ body:
John 19:38-39 Later, Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for the body of Jesus. Now Joseph was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly because he feared the Jews. With Pilate’s permission, he came and took the body away. He was accompanied by Nicodemus, the man who earlier had visited Jesus at night. Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds.
Maybe it was the sight of the Son of Man being lifted up – like the bronze snake in the desert – that did it for Nicodemus. He finally ‘got’ what Jesus was on about. And looking up at Jesus he decided to hoist his sail and let the spirit of God take him where it willed. He stepped into the light.