March 5, 2023
John’s Gospel is built around short stories of Jesus’ interactions with people, and I think one of the most important of those is his encounter with Nicodemus. It’s a key story for illustrating John’s presentation of the gospel. But it’s also a little bit tricky, replete with difficult phrases and word plays. It’s not an easy passage and not one where Bible scholars find agreement about how to interpret everything.
It happens after dark. Some have seen this as a sign that Nicodemus is afraid to be seen with Jesus. But probably not. This was early in Jesus’ ministry, before opposition to him really coalesced among the religious elites. Evening was just the best time to sit down and talk about matters of faith, after the day’s work was done. Plus, the mention of darkness at the beginning will set up the contrast of darkness and light at the end of the story, which we didn’t read all the way to the end this morning.
Nicodemus is a prominent Pharisee, but he is also very sincere in his search for God and the truth. He knows Jesus must be of God for him to do the miraculous signs he has been doing.
Jesus says, “You cannot see the Kingdom of God unless you are born again.” But, that’s not the only way this passage can be read. The Greek word used here is ANOTHEN, and it can mean “again,” but it can also mean “from above,” meaning from God. Hebrew people at this time often used circumlocutions when they spoke about God. From above, from heaven, for example, both meant from God.
Nicodemus seems to take it in the first way, born again, which was a way of talking about conversion. A Gentile who converted to Judaism was called a “newborn child.” And Nicodemus can’t conceive of conversion because he was born Jewish. How could he possibly be born again? He’s already Jewish!
It is possible that Nicodemus’ question is meant to be a wistful sentiment. “If only a person could be born again. If only a person could start all over have the chance to do things rightly from the start.” That may be what he is saying. Or maybe he’s just really, really literal. How could a person be born again? It’s impossible to know exactly how to take his question.
But it seems pretty clear Jesus meant for it to be taken in the second way, meaning “born from above, born from God.” This ties the story back to John chapter 1. In John 1:12-13, John, describing the work of Christ, says, “To all who believe in him and receive him, he gives the right to become children of God. They are reborn. Not a physical birth, but a rebirth that comes from God.”
We talked about this idea last Sunday in Romans chapter 5, where Paul compares Adam to Christ. We are all children of Adam by our natural birth. And as such, we are born with a rebellious nature, we are born with sin in our hearts. We need a transformation. We need regeneration, a new beginning that comes from God. The Pharisaical model of righteousness was all built on human effort. They would say we need perspiration; we need to work harder. Jesus says we need transformation. We need a change in our nature that only God can do. We must be born again as children of God.
“We can only enter the Kingdom of God by being born of water and the Spirit.” Alternatively, this could be read as “water that is the Spirit.” Is Jesus describing one event or two? Born of water could refer to natural human childbirth, the “water” of the womb. Or it could refer to the water of baptism, which would mean conversion. Even Nicodemus must “convert.” He can’t rely on his ancestry because before he was a child of Abraham, he was a child of rebellious Adam. Or the language of water could be used to describe the work of the Holy Spirit, who cleanses us from the stain of sin and transforms us to live a new life as children of God.
However it should best be read, the message remains the same. We need something only God can do. Jesus fulfills the promise God made centuries earlier through the prophet Ezekiel. God declares in Ezekiel 36, “I will give you a new heart with new and right desires, and I will put a new spirit in you. I will take out your stony heart of sin and give you a new and obedient heart.”
This is what we need: Fundamental transformation, a change of heart. We don’t need new ideas or more effort. We need a new life that comes from God. We must become children of God.
It’s a mystery how this happens, Jesus says. It’s like the wind. The phrase “sound of the wind” can also be translated as “voice of the Spirit,” by the way. Yet another difficult phrase to translate.
It’s a mystery how God can change people. But it’s a wonderful mystery. I’m sure we can all think of people we have known or heard about who have experienced marvelous transformations because of their new life in Christ. If we are still trying the Pharisaical methods of better ideas and more effort, it’s time to stop trying. It’s time to surrender ourselves to God and ask him to change our hearts. But God can’t change a heart that doesn’t want to change. We must be willing to yield to Christ as Lord to see what he can do as our Savior.