Dear Brothers and Sisters,
I am looking at this thing called being ‘born again’ today. It raised a few questions in church, so if you have any questions or comments then please post them. Hope you enjoy it and take something away from it. And please do consider something called ‘Walk through the Bible’ if you see it offered in your own churches or visit there web site www. Bible.org.uk
You will not be disappointed.
Sermon No 57
Born Again: A Spiritual Necessity
A sermon preached by Roger Laing (Parish Evangelist) on Sunday 12th march 2017 at the 8am and 6pm Eucharist Services at St. Paulinus Church, Crayford, Kent. (Based on John 3;1-17)
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing to you O LORD (Psalm 19:14)
A question? ‘What makes a someone a Christian?’ You will hear many answers to the question and the sort of answers you might get are: –
‘I’m a Christian because I go to church’
‘I’m a Christian because I am a good person’
‘I’m a Christian because I treat everyone fairly’
‘I’m a Christian because I read the bible’
And so, the answers go on, and maybe you might recognise yourselves saying such answers, I don’t know? Now none of those answers are incorrect by the way, but in themselves they are not complete.
Today’s sermon is really about having a look at this question and getting to the heart of how we can become Christians, and to do this we are looking at the gospel reading from John that we heard a moment ago.
Now yesterday I attended what I thought was an absolutely fantastic day of learning, which was hosted by our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters over the road as part of a ‘Churches together in Crayford’ initiative, as we took part in a ‘Walk through the Bible’.
Now I haven’t time this morning to tell you all about the day, but basically it took us through the structure and the history of the New Testament from the gospels right through to Revelation, and if you have never done such a day, I would certainly recommend that you do, because it not only brings the bible to life, but it simplifies the more detailed aspects of the stories in a way that can be remembered more easily than just simply reading it as a normal book .
Now as we looked at the Gospel of John during the day we were reminded that the main thrust of John’s gospel was that he was seeking to transform people’s lives and his message was one of an evangelistic nature one, so ‘that you may believe…. And that… you may have life’ (John 20:31)And this was his theme.
John was a man that wrote a gospel not just for a specific audience, but he was aiming to speak to All People and was presenting to the reader the message that Jesus was in-fact the Son of God. And this is important to remember because in those early days of spreading the good news, what was needed was a message that could change people’s lives…. Completely.
And as we read the gospel of John we will see that John’s tone throughout the gospel is one of a more spiritual nature, at least in comparison to that of say Luke which is predominantly historical, or maybe Matthew which is more prophetically focused.
So, as it is a gospel of a deeper spiritual emphasis it is little wonder that we find passages that look at matters spiritual.
Now one such passage that has spirituality at its heart, is what we heard this morning and includes what is reputed to be probably the most famous verse in the bible, that is, ‘For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life’ (John 3:16) and I am sure you may have at some time heard that famous quote?
But what I want to focus on this morning is the earlier story before Jesus speaks those words, where John gives an account of a meeting between a man called Nicodemus and Jesus, because this meeting is absolutely crucial in being able to answer that first question that I posed which is, ‘What makes someone a Christian?’
Now to understand why this meeting ever took place, we need to first look at a bit of historical and cultural stuff to see why this man Nicodemus is the man needed to meet Jesus in the first place?
And by the way, did you know that Nicodemus was the first Irishman mentioned in the bible ….‘Nick O’Demus’!! Ok it was a something I stole from yesterday!
Nicodemus was a Pharisee, a learned man of the Jewish Scriptures and a member of the Sanhedrin, a kind of supreme court of the day, as far as the Jews were concerned at least. And this Sanhedrin had all the powers associated with a governmental body including the power of arrest, the power to place people on trial and the power to make its own laws.
Now because the Roman Empire was the occupying force at the time of Jesus, there was some clear tensions between the two powers, as Rome sought to limit any revolt by allowing the Sanhedrin to govern its people, but ultimately it was Rome that had control, as we find out later, as Jesus’ death was sanctioned by the Roman Procurator, Pontius Pilate.
For the Jews were not able to sanction capital punishment themselves under Roman law. (although this strangely enough may have happened before and after as described by Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 20.9.1 referring to a specific period in 62 AD)
But nevertheless, Nicodemus who was a respected man went to talk to Jesus to find out exactly what He was about and whether there was any truth in the claims in what he and the council had heard about Him?
So Nicodemus visited Jesus in the evening, possibly because he wanted to avoid being seen with such a controversial preacher, or maybe he just thought he may have more time with him in order to ask the questions that he wanted to ask?
Now clearly Nicodemus had heard about the miracles Jesus had been performing, just like most of the local population would have heard, for news travels fast in small areas…. As we know!
And the Jews were an expectant race in any case. After-all their scriptures had foretold a Messiah was to come, and because they had been suppressed for some years now by the Romans, they were eagerly waiting for freedom from their Roman occupiers, and wanted their land returned to them as they had had for a short period after the Maccabean Revolt some hundred and fifty years earlier (166BC.)
So, the question on the mind of Nicodemus was this, was Jesus the Messiah that had been sent by God to set them free once again? Or was He just simply another teacher of God that potentially could upset the delicate balance of power between Rome and the Jews?
Now Nicodemus did not dispute that Jesus was a man of God. In-fact the first thing that Nicodemus says to Jesus is, ‘We know you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with You’ (v2)
But the statement that Nicodemus is given by Jesus in answer to his opening remark is something that then throws Nicodemus into bewilderment, because Jesus replies ‘Unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God’ (v3) And then goes on subsequently to talk about being born of water and the Spirit (v5) and other such things.
Now as we know, Nicodemus was an educated and respected Jewish scholar but he couldn’t get this. It was this aspect of being ‘born again’ that he couldn’t understand to what Jesus was referring, after -all he questions Jesus about being reborn physically as though somehow this might be possible.
But this should come as no surprise really, because the Jews were wrapped up in external matters of Law and rituals, and what they were outwardly expected to be and do.
Nicodemus had missed the point, Jesus was talking about being transformed from the inside by the Holy Spirit. Now of course, it is possible that Nicodemus was fully aware that it was not possible to re-enter the mother’s womb and had stated this obvious fact just to get a fuller answer to his statement, but the fact remains Nicodemus had not understood the statement fully and needed further explanation.
Nicodemus and the rest of the Jews were yes of course expecting a Messiah, but they expected the Messiah to lead them into battle against Rome, not to free their hearts from sin, which was what Jesus was about.
Jesus came to set them free from the slavery of sin and Nicodemus couldn’t see it! Even though he was talking to his own God incarnate face to face.
Now there has been for some years been some modern confusion to this whole thing about being ‘born again’ and I can only guess that it might not have been spoken of frequently in the church, I don’t really know?
But the Word of God is the ‘same yesterday, today and forever’ (Hebrews 13:8), so what Jesus said to Nicodemus is as true then as it is today. We all have to be born again, ‘born of water and the Spirit’ (v5)
We cannot simply say we are Christians because we go to church, or because we read the bible etc. Being a Christian or follower of Christ is more than that, and we must recognise that to truly follow Jesus, we have to be ‘born again’ spiritually from the inside.
I remember when I first became a Christian in 1995 following what I can only describe as a ‘Damascus Road’ experience and when I took those first tentative steps in the following days and weeks in telling others that I was now a Christian, I recall there were several people that asked me, whether I was one of those ‘born again’ Christians?
Now they didn’t ask me this because they had a theological understanding of the story of Nicodemus and Jesus, that is for sure. They had asked me because for whatever reason, the phrase being ‘born again’ was associated with being a member of some whacky sect or cult, for many who were becoming Christians around that same time were calling themselves ‘Born Again Christian’s, in some way trying to differentiate themselves from other mainstream church membership, and in those early days of ‘secularisation’ it had become more common place to identify modern converts to religion as almost mentally ill!
So I guess those asking may have been quite concerned about my sanity!!
And I remember that at the time I had several conversations about this subject and trying to explain, (once I had understood myself) that as true Christians we all had to be ‘born again’ and that it was not something new or different to what had ever been before.
Jesus tells us in that conversation with Nicodemus that we heard today that we are unable to see the kingdom of God, unless we are born of water and of Spirit.
Now this I guess was particularly frustrating for Jesus as a man too, for Jesus was of course fully God yet He was still fully man at the same time, (but that’s another sermon!) and I’m sure He would have felt just as frustrated as any man or woman would feel as He tried to explain to Nicodemus how eternal salvation could be found, especially as Jesus had spoken in the language that he would have been familiar.
For when Jesus spoke of being born of water, He was not just talking of being washed physically, but He was talking, as I alluded to earlier, of an internal purification, and Nicodemus, as an expert in the Law should have been familiar with this concept, because it is spoken of many times in the Old Testament including by the prophet Ezekiel, where he talks of the need for ‘spiritual cleansing (Ezekiel 36:24-27)
And this really emphasised the depth of the spiritual emptiness of the Jewish nation, when even one of its most eminent teachers could not recognise the true meaning and fulfilment of the scriptures they purported to know inside out! But of course, this is written elsewhere too. Proverbs 4:19 warns us that, ‘The way of the wicked is like darkness, they do not know what makes them stumble’ (Proverbs 4;19) and again this view is reinforced by Paul in Ephesians as he describes this lack of understanding as a ‘blindness of the heart’ (Ephesians 4:18)
Now we don’t know whether Nicodemus ever became a true follower of Christ, there is certainly evidence that by his very coming to meet with Jesus in the first place it showed a willingness to learn and be changed, we also know that he appeared again during the trial of Jesus following His arrest to offer some support towards His defence, and finally after the death of Jesus Nicodemus appears once more to provide embalming spices and assists his fellow Sanhedrin member, Joseph of Arimathea in preparing the body of Jesus for burial.
So, the likely hood is that at some point after that Nicodemus would have become a follower of Jesus but we cannot be sure.
But what we can be quite clear on, is that as followers of Christ today, we too must be born again of both water and of Spirit, we need our soul to be cleansed through the Spirit of God. So, if we feel that we are only Christians because we just come to church, or because we read the bible. Or any other such reason, and that we haven’t truly invited Jesus into our hearts, then maybe during this time of reflection through lent, then now might be a good time to do so?
Come to the altar of Jesus today and ask Him into your hearts to experience this ‘born again’ cleansing?
Being born again is something that we should think of as a natural part of our conversion to Christ. Being born again is something we need to do, we need to die to our sin, to our old selves and be reborn in Christ Jesus.
Brothers and sisters let us be proud to call ourselves Christians that are reborn of both water and of spirit and encourage others to do the same. Think and meditate on this meeting between Nicodemus and Jesus and let His spirit penetrate your hearts today.