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By Rev Charles Seet

Preached at / Published Life BPC 10:45 am service, 2007-07-01

Text: John 3:1-15

I would like to begin this message by asking you a question: If someone were to ask you today to explain to him what it means to be born again, would you be able to give a reasonably correct answer? I hope you will be able to do so, because it defines what a true Christian is, and your answer will also help to clear up much of the confusion that has come to be associated with the term 'born again.' 

Since the 1960s and 1970s the phrase 'born again' became very commonly used. After the late former US president Jimmy Carter boldly proclaimed that he was a born-again Christian during his presidential campaign, it became the 'in' thing for many celebrities to follow suit (e.g. Dan Peek, Bob Dylan, Donna Summer, Little Richard, Johnny Cash and even the heavy metal rock musician Alice Cooper). Since then, a 'born again' culture evolved and the term now came to mean 'showing a new and passionate enthusiasm for some particular cause, activity or lifestyle.' E.g. a person can become a born again vegetarian. 

Besides this, there are other ways in which the term 'born again' is wrongly defined. Roman Catholics are taught that they are born again when they go through the sacrament of water baptism. Hence if you were to ask any of them whether they are born again - the reply you will probably get is, 'Yes, I was born again in baptism.' That is of course far from the biblical truth. Then there are some who teach that the new birth only takes place at the resurrection - when Jesus returns and Christians receive their new spiritual bodies. By this strange definition, no one has been born again thus far!

To the vast majority of people, the term 'born again' simply means 'to make or renew one's commitment to Jesus Christ' or 'a spiritual or moral reformation determined and effected by oneself at a point of crisis in life.' Some equate the term 'born again' with an emotionally uplifting and intense conversion experience. With so many different definitions, it is now true that the term 'born again' means different things to different people. 

Now the words 'born again' originated from the mouth of our Lord Jesus. And the key passage that provides us with its right meaning is the third chapter of John. This is where we must look in order to understand the meaning of being born-again and to be able to explain it correctly to anyone. Let us first look at the background of this passage, which comes from the last 3 verses of the previous chapter: John 2:23-25 'Now when he was in Jerusalem at the passover, in the feast day, many believed in his name, when they saw the miracles which he did. But Jesus did not commit himself unto them, because he knew all men, And needed not that any should testify of man: for he knew what was in man.'

You may remember that in last week's message we learned from these verses that when people saw the many miracles which Jesus did in Jerusalem they believed in His name. But their faith in His name was merely a professing faith and not a possessing faith. Because of this Jesus did not entrust Himself to them. But now as we come to chapter 3 of John's Gospel we see Him in a personal encounter with a man who, like the rest, had believed in His name because of the miracles he saw. But Jesus did commit Himself to him, because He could see that he was sincerely seeking the truth. He could also see the need of this man's heart, and as the Great Physician, Jesus prescribed exactly what he needed. Let us turn our Bibles now to John 3 and read verses 1 to 15 (Read).

I. The Need of All Sinners for the New Birth (vv.1-3)

In this passage we are introduced to Nicodemus. He described in v.1 as 'a man of the Pharisees and a ruler of the Jews.' The Pharisees were well-known for their strict and legalistic observance of the laws of Moses. For example, they made many rules on Sabbath-keeping in order to maintain it as a day of rest. But they often became so caught up with their fine rules and external regulations that they neglected the weightier matters of God's Law - the inward matters of the heart. Many Pharisees developed a 'holier-than-thou' fault-finding attitude and some even tried to trap Jesus with their questions. This is why Jesus rebuked them and called them hypocrites and whitewashed tombs (Matthew 23:37)!

Nicodemus was a Pharisee. Like them, he would have placed much value on keeping the Law and on all the external forms of piety and purity. But unlike the rest of the Pharisees, Nicodemus was not narrow-minded or hypocritical. And he was not attempting to use flattery when he came to Jesus and said, 'Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him' (v.2). Nicodemus came with a sincere desire to learn from Jesus, because he was personally convinced that Jesus was sent by God. Now, some Bible commentaries have suggested that he came to Jesus by night rather than by day because he did not want anyone to know that he had been with Him. But according to Jewish history it was actually quite normal for rabbis like Nicodemus to visit other rabbis at night because they considered the hours of the night to be the best time to have theological discussions without being disturbed. 

What we see then is that there was nothing negative about the motives and intentions of Nicodemus. But Jesus, the omniscient Lord who knows all men, knew everything that was in his heart - his concerns, his convictions, what was lacking in hi,m and what was needed. And so, before Nicodemus could ask Him any question, He gave him the answer: 'Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God' (v.3).

These were not the words that Nicodemus had expected to hear. Why did the Lord answer him in this rather solemn and sharp manner? Perhaps it was to remove from his mind any thought that he could see the kingdom of God by any means other than the new birth. As a Pharisee, Nicodemus probably assumed that being born a Jew, a descendant of Abraham, already granted him favoured status in God's sight. He might also have assumed that the knowledge of the Law of Moses he had acquired as a religious teacher of Israel would certainly earn him some approval from God, and that his meticulous observance of the laws of Moses would obviously not go unrewarded by God. 

But whatever hopes Nicodemus had entertained of seeing the kingdom of God through any of these means were shattered by this unequivocal statement from Jesus, 'Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.' Dear friends, this statement must also shatter whatever hopes anyone may have of seeking salvation without being born again. You may have been born and raised in a very good Christian home - but that will not save you. You may have been baptized in a Bible-believing church by the most godly pastor - but that will not save you. You may have attended worship services faithfully for many years - but that will not save you. You may have done many good works and helped many people - but that will not save you. You may have donated large sums of money to charity and to the Lord's work - but that will not save you. 

If you have been looking to any of these things to save you from eternal death and hell, listen to what Jesus said here once again: 'Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.' Please let it be impressed in your minds that this statement ought to be taken seriously by every living soul. And there is really nothing more important in life than to be born again. As Jesus emphasised so strongly in v.7 'Ye must be born again!' Let us therefore listen carefully now as we seek to understand it well. There are four things we need to know about the new birth.

II. The Teaching of Jesus on the New Birth (vv.3-10)

A. Born Anew

Firstly, to be 'born again' is to be born anew. It results in a new life. We all know that birth marks the beginning of life. Therefore to be born again is to begin a new life in Christ, with new principles, new affections and new aims in life. Paul describes it in Romans 6:4 as 'walking in newness of life' and he says that 'if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.' (2 Corinthians 5:17). Dearly beloved it is good for you to reflect on this, regarding your life. Have all things become new in your life since the day you turned to Jesus Christ, or are they still the same as before? Do you still love the things that you loved before? If you are walking in newness of life your values in life will be different. You will be more concerned with the things of God than the things of the world, and with things that are eternal, rather than with things that are temporal, and with things that are above, rather than with things that are on the earth. 

Perhaps you may be wondering why such a change is necessary in a Christian. Why must all things become new when a person is saved? It is because the old nature we had is incompatible with God's kingdom. It is depraved and defiled by sin and it is therefore unfit for the holiness and righteousness of the Kingdom of God. Now, there are some who realize their need to change in order to see God's Kingdom, but they attempt to change themselves by making new resolutions. But no amount of moral resolve or self-reformation will help. These are merely a superficial renovation of one's life because the old sinful heart of stone has not been dealt with yet. God's Word in Ezekiel says that this heart of stone must be replaced with a heart of flesh (Eze 11:19; 36:26). This is the same thing as being born again. It is therefore important that you ask yourself: Are you born again?

In any large church there may be some members who had made a superficial profession of faith, and everyone assumes that they are saved. But it is soon noticed that they have a real persistent problem with certain sins in their life. They keep falling back into those same sins again and again, despite all efforts to counsel them. There is no real change in them. What they really need is the inward change that will give them the ability to overcome their sin and walk in newness of life. Perhaps there may be someone here who is like that. Examine yourself and ask: Do you still find that you are helplessly under the power of sin? Is your life still being controlled by sin? Are you truly born again? Let us go on now to the second thing we need to know about the new birth: to be born again is to be:

B. Born from Above

This comes from the original Greek words for 'born again' which can also be translated as 'born from above.' It means that the new birth is not of human or earthly origin. It has a heavenly origin and comes from God above. This was stated plainly in John 1:12,13 'But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name: Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.' (cf. 1 Peter 1:3)

Since the new birth comes from God, no one can make himself born again. It is just like physical birth: You had no part at all in deciding when, how or where your birth took place. And when the time came for you to be born into this world you could not say, 'Hey, please stop! I don't want to come out. I want to stay here until I am ready to be born.' You were rudely expelled out into the world to begin your life whether you liked it or not.

In the same way, if you are truly born again you must thank God that He was the One who had worked in you 'both to will and to do of His good pleasure' (Philippians 2:13). It is God who loved you and sought you to be His child long before you ever knew Him. God had already planned and determined every detail of your salvation right down to the very hour, minute and second of your new birth. And after your new birth took place you were then able to respond to His grace out of your own free will. You were drawn irresistibly to Jesus Christ (John 6:44) and you willingly received Him as your Saviour and Lord. Perhaps you may then ask, 'If a sinner is not the one who decides to be born again, then what should he do? Should he do absolutely nothing but wait passively for his time to come and for God to act upon him?' No, because we must realize that God uses means of grace to accomplish His work of salvation, and we are responsible to respond to those means. This brings us to the 3rd thing we need to know about the new birth: To be born again is to be:

C. Born of Water

This is stated in v.5 where Jesus says, 'Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.' The word 'water' here is not to be understood literally, but spiritually. And though there are several different ways of interpreting what water means here, the best meaning to take is that it is a reference to the Word of God. 

There are a few passages of Scripture that confirm this: Ephesians 5:25-26 'Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it; That he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word' It is clear that water is used here to represent the Word of God. This is because like water, the Word has a cleansing effect on those who read it or hear it preached to them (cf. John 15:3 'Now ye are clean through the word which I have spoken unto you.'). 

Another verse is 1 Peter 1:23 'Being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God, which liveth and abideth for ever.' This verse shows that the new birth can only take place by the Word of God. The Word is the divine sword that God uses to pierce the hearts of sinners to convict them of sin (Acts 2:37). The Word is the divine key that He uses to open their hearts to receive Christ (Acts 16:14). It is also the divine seed that is sown by the sower which will take root in hearts that have been prepared to receive them. Therefore if you were to ask what you can do in the process of your new birth, the answer is this: Get as much exposure to the Word of life as you can and respond to it in faith, for 'faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God.' (Romans 10:17). 

Now, the interplay between human responsibility and divine sovereignty in the new birth is really interesting. But it remains a divine mystery that no man can fathom. And ultimately it is the Spirit of God who converts the sinner. This brings us to the 4th thing that we need to know about the new birth. To be born again is to be:

D. Born of the Spirit

This comes from the second thing that is mentioned in v.5 which is 'born of the Spirit.' The Spirit of God is the One who works intimately within the sinner to effect the new birth in Him. And although no one can see Him working visibly, one can tell that He has been working through the results that are produced. One illustration of this can be found in the wind (v.8) 'The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.'

Most of the time, when the Gospel is preached to a large crowd and a call to salvation is issued, a few souls will respond. This result of the Spirit's work may be likened to a gentle breeze. But there are times when the Holy Spirit's power comes like a mighty gale-force whirlwind sweeping droves of sinners into God's kingdom. It may last for a few days or even a few weeks. This is what we call times of Revival. It is amazing to read accounts of revival which describe how churches are packed with people, Bibles are sold out and liquor shops and bars are closed down for lack of business during such rare manifestations of the Holy Spirit's power. 

Some people claim that revivals like these can be planned and organised by man, and all we need to do is to fulfill the right conditions to have a revival. But those who do this usually resort to using crowd psychology and stirring music to artificially create a 'revival.' While we may pray for a revival to take place, so that souls will be spontaneously saved in great numbers, the fact remains that we cannot tell when or where the Spirit of God will move to do it. When revival comes, it comes! But in the mean time, we can prepare ourselves spiritually to be ready for the day when it will come by praying and faithfully preaching the Word of God.

Now from all we have learnt about the new birth from John chapter 3, we can now correctly define it: It is the change of heart which is wrought by the Spirit of God using the Word, which enables the sinner to repent of his sins and savingly believe in Jesus Christ. The apostle Paul tells us that those who are not born again have a major handicap: They cannot understand the things of God. According to 1 Corinthians 2:14 'But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.'

This was the kind of state that Nicodemus was in during his encounter with Christ. And he became painfully aware that despite all his years of learning in rabbinic schools and teaching from the Scriptures he could not comprehend the spiritual truths that Jesus was talking about. When Jesus told Him about the the new birth, he mistakenly thought that it was a physical one. And even after Jesus had explained to him that it is a spiritual birth, he still asked the question, 'How can these things be?' (v.9)

Those were the last words uttered by Nicodemus in this chapter, and it would seem that he remained in an unregenerate state. But thankfully, this is not the end of his story. In John 7:50 Nicodemus spoke up for Jesus to his fellow Pharisees when they showed prejudice against Him. And in John 19:39 we are told that he brought a large amount of myrrh and aloes to embalm the body of Christ before laying it in the garden tomb. From these we know that Nicodemus must have experienced the new birth later on and that as a result of this he finally understood spiritual things and lived his life for Christ.

Dearly beloved if you are born again, you too can understand spiritual things, and even heavenly things which you were not able to understand or accept before. It is like having the lights turned on in a dark room. And you will discover that Christ becomes more glorious and precious to you. And so we end this message by considering:

III. The Glory of Jesus Revealed through the New Birth (vv.11-15)

Let us read v.12 'If I have told you earthly things, and ye believe not, how shall ye believe, if I tell you of heavenly things?' The only way we shall believe when we are told of heavenly things is to be born again! Now the interesting thing is that most of these heavenly things are actually about Christ Himself! When they are spiritually discerned, they show us what a glorious Saviour we have. If we are born again we will not only understand and accept these things! We will fully embrace them, delight in them and love them. But without the new birth, these things will only evoke the same response that Nicodemus gave in v.9 when he was still in his unregenerate state 'How can these things be?' Without the new birth we will not receive the witness of Christ and the apostles (v.11). Let us consider some of the heavenly things that the new birth enables us to believe:

Verse 13 'And no man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven.' Jesus is the Son of Man who came down from heaven, and yet He still remained in heaven. Some would ask: How can Christ retain His deity and continue to uphold all things in the universe by the word of His power (Hebrews 1:3) while He lived on earth as a man? This is a glorious mystery that can only be accepted and understood with God-given faith. Only those who are born again have such faith.

The 2nd heavenly thing that the new birth enables us to believe is that Jesus saved sinners through being lifted up on the cross of Calvary. The new birth unlocks our understanding of the account in Numbers 21:5-9 concerning the brazen serpent which Moses lifted up in the wilderness to heal anyone who was bitten by a serpent. (v.14) 'And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up.' Some may ask, How can a serpent which is a symbol of evil represent Christ? Because the serpent represented the sins of the Israelites which caused them to suffer and die from their deadly venom. 2 Corinthians 5:21 tells us that Jesus was made 'to be sin for us, who knew no sin.' According to Romans 8:3 Jesus took the likeness of our sinful flesh and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh. Once again, those who are not born again may find it hard to believe this. 

Finally v.15 of our text gives us the 3rd heavenly thing 'That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.' Without being born again, this truth would not be readily accepted because of the offending word, 'whosoever.' To the unregenerate Nicodemus it would be unthinkable that anyone who is not a Jew can have eternal life. Those who are not born again will also find it hard to accept this heavenly thing: That anyone - even the most hardcore criminal who has committed the worst crimes but who finally repents and believes in Christ - will not perish but have eternal life. But the born-again Christian will sing this with joy: 'The vilest offender who truly believes that moment from Jesus a pardon receives!'

There are many other heavenly things in the Bible that reveal how glorious our Lord Jesus is. But please remember this: Only those who are born again will receive them, believe them, love them and embrace them fully! To you who are born again, Jesus is your glorious, matchless Redeemer and Friend, the lily of the valley and the fairest of ten thousand to your soul!

Vision & Mission

 

To build a united church family that is committed to making disciples through Salvation, Sanctification and Service, to the glory of God.

Verse for the Week

October 15 & 22 - The Cost of Discipleship

For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it. Matthew 16:25