In his book, An Anthropologist on Mars, neurologist Oliver Sacks tells about Virgil, a man who had been blind from early childhood. When he was 50, Virgil underwent surgery and was given the gift of sight. But having the physical capacity for sight is not the same as seeing.
Virgil’s first experiences with sight were confusing. He was able to make out colours and movements, but arranging them into a coherent picture was more difficult. Over time he learned to identify various objects, but his habits – his behaviours – were still those of a blind man. Dr. Sacks asserts, “One must die as a blind person to be born again as a seeing person. It is the interim, the limbo . . . that is so terrible.”
To truly see Jesus and his truth means more than observing what He did or said, it means a change of identity.
My dear friends in the Lord Jesus Christ, you might remember that we said when we began this series from the book of John: the themes we pick up in the first 18 verses are fleshed out further into the Gospel. In 1:13 we heard that those who believe in Christ are …
children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God. (John 1:13, NIV)
Chapter 3, as we heard it this morning explains this birth.
A new birth is an absolute necessity
During an ad break I flicked through the TV Channels and saw a short bit of a silly movie. It just happened that a father and his son was on a wild chase, through the streets of a quite neighbourhood. The father warned his driving son to be careful, because “… this is the Bible belt, Son. These people are born again; they have guns.”
The perception is that you have Christians, and then you have born-again Christians. The first group is seen as the normal, church-going Christians, while the second makes up a weird, sub-group of Christians.
Nothing can be further removed for the Bible. There is only one group of Christians: those who are born again. There is nothing weird about them, and if there is, they themselves do not understand the Bible.
Three times in our chapter Jesus pointed to the indispensable need for the spiritual birth, or the birth from above. It is impossible to see the kingdom of God without this birth, and without this birth one cannot enter the kingdom of God.
Our previous moderator-general, the Rev David Jones, tells about his conversion. He grew up in a nominal Christian home. His church, in his words, was dead and the minister was probably not a true Christian. When a visiting minister preached from John 3 and pointed out the necessity to be born again, young David (who at that stage made it out for himself that he is an atheist) understood he needs something which only the Holy Spirit could give. He prayed and asked God to give him a new birth. God answered his prayer, called him into ministry, and through him called many to come to Christ to be saved.
To be born again is an absolute necessity. One cannot see the kingdom, or enter it without being born again. The fact that the Jews, Christ’s own people did not believe in Him (John 1:10-11), was due to the fact that they were Jews by human birth; they were spiritually blind. The Bible is clear: only those born of God have their eyes opened to see, and when they are enabled to see, they can enter the kingdom.
Nicodemus, although he was the teacher of Israel, couldn’t and didn’t understand this. He thought of being born twice physically; Christ corrected his thinking by saying, “Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.”
In the beginning Nicodemus said to Christ,
“We know that 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.”
Well, he thought he knew enough about Christ, but he didn’t. What he completely missed was that Jesus was not only a teacher, but He was God with the father from all eternity. What he further didn’t understand was the work of the Holy Spirit who gives new birth.
What we need to understand what our Lord means with, “You must be born again.” He did not give Nicodemus a command to go and get born again; He purely made a statement of fact. After that our Lord followed the statement with teaching.
The Holy Spirit opens one’s eyes to see, and gives understanding to believe
Even from the first few verses of the Bible we know that the Holy Spirit actions are metaphorically described as a blowing, life-giving wind. The difference between mankind and the animals is the breath of God when He breathed life into Adam, whom He made out of dust, who then became a living being.
Adam and Eve chose to rebel against God, and death entered into this world. They remained physically alive for a while, but spiritually they became slaves to sin and its effects.
John introduces to us God’s recreation through his Son, Jesus Christ, whom He sent into this world to become the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world.
Ezekiel 37 tells of a valley of dead bones – a picture of the state of rebellious Israel. There was no life. Ezekiel was commanded to prophesy to the dead bones. These dead bones had to hear the Word of God (37:4). Then the Lord said,
This is what the Sovereign Lord says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. (Ezekiel 37:5, NIV)
The Word of God is the instrument through which God works to call the spiritually dead to life. By the preaching of the Word the Holy Spirit works – He never works apart from the Word, which He breathed. In the previous chapter of Ezekiel the work of Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit is very closely connected. Christ is pictured as the One who brought about a new covenant between God and his people. His blood, instead of the blood of sacrificial animals, purifies. The picture is that of water which cleans. The text reads,
I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. (Ezekiel 36:25–27, NIV)
From spiritual deadness life flows. It happens as a work of the Holy Spirit who uses his own inspired Word; the teaching of this Word is about Christ, the One who takes our sins away by his death and resurrection.
Peter puts it this way,
… it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect. (1 Peter 1:18–19, NIV)
He then follows,
… you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God. For, “All people are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord endures forever.” And this is the word that was preached to you. (1 Peter 1:23–25, NIV)
This takes us back to a statement of Christ in our chapter of John,
“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, NIV)
This verse does not refer to water baptism, because the water of baptism does not wash away sin; only the blood of Christ can. If we listen to what Jesus says to his disciples in chapter 15 we begin to understand that this water is the work of the Spirit through the preaching of the Word. There Jesus says,
You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. (John 15:3, NIV)
Paul writes to Titus,
… when the kindness and the love of God our Saviour toward man appeared, not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Saviour, (Titus 3:4–6, NKJV)
The Contemporary English Version translates verse 5,
He saved us because of his mercy, and not because of any good things that we have done. God washed us by the power of the Holy Spirit. He gave us new birth and a fresh beginning. (Titus 3:5, CEV)
The work of the Spirit is closely connected to the Word of God which is about Jesus Christ and the salvation He freely gives by grace. This work of the Spirit is not dependant on us, and we cannot manipulate it;
Only God’s Spirit gives new life. The Spirit is like the wind that blows wherever it wants to. You can hear the wind, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it is going. (John 3:8, CEV)
The birth by the Spirit is possible through Jesus Christ through who God’s love is revealed
Our Lord makes this marvellous statement to Nicodemus,
No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man. (John 3:13, NIV)
Nicodemus thought Christ was just a teacher, but now he was being taught by the Son of Man. So, what ’s the connection of this statement of Christ with the previous about the Holy Spirit? The Spirit reveals the message of God through the preached Word, and that message is about the way God reconciled sinful man to Himself.
Our Lord refers to a day when the Israelites rebelled against God in the desert. This was rebellion in paradise all over again! God’s anger was aflamed and many died (sin and death goes hand-in-hand!). The people confessed their sins and God commanded Moses to fashion a bronze serpent and put it upon a pole. Those who looked at this snake lived.
Jesus applied this to Himself who became the One who took the sin of the world upon Himself. He was lifted up like the bronze serpent – whosoever put their believe in Him will have eternal life.
This brings us to the best loved verse in the Bible,
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. (John 3:16, NIV)
The “so” in this verse may refer back to that way the serpent was life to those who look at it. It can be translated as “in the same way, God loved the word that He gave his one and only Son …” But the “so” may also refer to the quality of the love of God – He gave his only Son.
My dear friend, do we comprehend the love of God? Not only are we spiritually dead and incapable of receiving Christ, we are rebels, kicking against the will of God and swinging the fist at our Creator. Yet, He loves us; He washes us clean in the blood of his son who took our sins upon Him; He gives us a new birth by his Holy Spirit through the Word of life – this is the Word we now listen to! It says God loves us, He loves you. It say He wants to exchange the rebellious heart with a new one, the dead spirit with a new one – one which is able to believe and receive Christ. This is to be born again? Are you born again? The Word does demand that you do the impossible; it’s just this: listen, there is a knock on your door.
Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me. (Revelation 3:20, NIV)
Are you born again? You will know. Listen to what the Bible says:
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 3:21, NIV)
In the beginning there is darkness. The Light of the world then appears. Those who receive Him, to them He has given the right to become children of God – those born of God’s Spirit.
A little girl was asked, “What is it like to be a Christian?”
The little girl replied, “It’s like being a pumpkin. God picks you up from the patch, brings you in, and washes all the dirt off you. Then He cuts open the top and scoops out all of the icky stuff. He removes the seeds of doubt, hate, greed, rebellion, etc. and then He carves you a smiling face and puts his light inside of you so that you can shine his light for all the world to see.
May He make us new and put the light of his Spirit in us to shine the woks of Christ to the world for his glory. Amen.
Sermon preached by Rev. D. Rudi Schwartz on Sunday 23 October 2016