We’ve heard this passage before. Usually, we make fun of pitiful, stupid, old Nicodemus. Jesus used the metaphor of birth to describe a spiritual reality: “born again” can also be translated “born from above.” Nicodemus, we think, was too dense to figure out what Jesus was talking about. Could Nicodemus really only think in wooden, literal terms? Was Nicodemus speaking literally when he asked, “How can anyone be born when he is old? Can he enter his mother’s womb a second time and be born?” Is it possible that Nicodemus understood at least something of what Jesus meant, but found it hard to believe?
Nicodemus was a Pharisee, a bible scholar. He was also a member of the ruling Jewish council. He came to Jesus at night, when Jesus would be alone and unhurried. Perhaps he was afraid to be seen with Jesus. Or perhaps he had heard Jesus speak to the crowds (he calls Jesus “rabbi”) and seen the miracles that Jesus had performed. Maybe he just needed to get closer and find out some things for himself. Perhaps Jesus had planted the seeds that hinted that things could be new again, and Nicodemus had to dig deeper, something that could only be done one on one.
Nicodemus says to Jesus, “Rabbi, teacher, we know you are from God. No one could do the things you do unless God were with him.” I’ve heard that you are a teacher, and what I’ve heard intrigues me. I’ve also heard that you work miracles, and the possibility that God can fix things that seem unfixable has somehow touched a longing within me.
Jesus’ reply is abrupt. “No one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.” I’m not just here to do magic tricks. I’m not just here to start interesting discussions of religious matters. What I’m here to do, says Jesus, is usher in a complete change in the universe. And no one can enter that changed universe unless they are changed themselves.
Nicodemus asked how this could happen when a man was old. Can he enter his mother’s womb a second time? Was Nicodemus just dense? I don’t think so. I hear sarcasm and disbelief in his question.
Nicodemus was a bible scholar and a Pharisee. He understood symbolic ways of talking about spiritual realities. He also knew – if he was courageous enough to look clearly – how flawed the pharisaic system was. The Pharisees set out to make all of life dedicated to God. Yet how easy it was to become self centered even in the guise of religion.
He was also a member of the Jewish ruling council. He saw the same things that most people in positions of power and authority see: corruption, vice, abuse of power, the same old thing under every new ruler and so called savior.
Nicodemus questions “How can a person be born when he is old?” The “old” to which he refers is not strictly chronological. It’s “old” as in “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” As we grow older, we become more set in our ways. We realize how really hard it is to change. Of course, some twenty year olds are “older” than some sixty year olds in this respect.
It appears to me that Jesus heard Nicodemus’ remarks in the same way. Jesus responds, “Are you a teacher of Israel and don’t know these things?” (John 3:10). Jesus seems to think that Nicodemus ought to have understood that Jesus was speaking in metaphors.
More than a new start
Perhaps Nicodemus was thinking of the new birth simply as a new start. It would be nice to start over, wouldn’t it? It’s one thing to start over. It’s another thing to be born from above. Starting over can mean making the same mistakes, falling into the same habits, having the same limitations.
Nicodemus is thinking too small. The new birth is more than a new start; it’s a new creation. According to Bishop Copeland, the New Birth is “not a new look, but a new life; not a new beginning, but a new being.”
What this really means is that Jesus is offering us more than a clean slate, an opportunity to start over. Being a Christian is more than being forgiven and then going on as best you can.
Birth is the beginning of life
Some things you can’t do for yourself. You can’t give birth to yourself, for one thing. When Jesus talks about us being born again, he means that something has to happen to us that we can’t do for ourselves.
Being a Christian means being God’s new creation. You can’t do that for yourself. It means being a child of God. You can’t do that for yourself. It means having the Spirit of God in you. You can’t do that for yourself. It means living forever. You can’t do that for yourself. It means being forgiven and set right with God. You can’t do that for yourself. It means having a new nature within, a power at work within you that is really changing you for the better. You can’t do that for yourself, either. It means knowing the truth about the world. It means peace and joy and contentment, even in the midst of pain. None of these things can you gain for your yourself by your own power, any more than you could give birth to yourself.
You are a human because you were born a human. To be a child of God, you must be born a child of God. Flesh gives birth to flesh. Spirit gives birth to spirit. It’s our heart and lungs and circulatory system and nervous system that keep our physical bodies alive. It’s the presence of the spirit of God that keeps our spirits alive.
Birth is necessary for life. We see live people every day, and every one of them was born. The same goes for every Christian. That’s what Jesus is telling Nicodemus. Every person that is spiritually alive is that way because God did it. The mode of birth isn’t all that important. Just as a person can be born in a hospital or a bedroom, with a doctor a midwife or a fireman, etc., so God’s children may have varying modes and occasions of their spiritual birth.
Every one of you was born a human being. When you were conceived and given birth, it opened up the possibility for you to live a human life. We don’t always use that full potential. We can make friends. We can do great deeds. We can make amazing discoveries. We can enjoy the beauty and goodness of creation. We can have a family. Life is full of goodness, made possible by the fact that we were born into the human race.
When the Spirit of God is in you, it opens up the possibility of divine life. We don’t always live the divine life up to its full potential, but our spiritual birth opens us up to new possibilities for living.
Life is good .. spiritual life is even greater
Human life is conditioned by what has happened in the past, and the way things are now. The divine life is lived with the Spirit of God. Therefore, all things are possible. The ordinary limits don’t apply.
Human life is lived in the three dimensions of space and the one dimension of time, with five senses, with thought, will, imagination and emotion. All of these are part of the divine life, but there is a new dimension: the spiritual dimension.
Even the events of our normal lives take on new meaning and depth. We find God in our home, in our school, in the place where we work, in our hobbies, in the things we love and care about.
It is a great thing when a baby is born. All the family and friends look forward to the child’s life, to the things they will do and say. A lot happens after your physical birthday. Think of all the things that you would have missed if you hadn’t been born. Isn’t life great?
Likewise, God has a lot in store for his spiritual children. In fact, a lot of folks who thought human life wasn’t very good found out how great it could be when they became children of God. God rejoices at the spiritual adventure ahead for his child. Having spiritual life gives us a new family and a new purpose for living. Spiritual life is full of struggle, mystery, and challenge to be sure. That’s what Jesus called us to when he told us to take up our crosses and follow him. Whatever earthly struggles it entails, however, the spiritual life is the greatest life, because it is the truest life and the highest life.
Human beings grow after they are born. So do spiritual beings. There are great experiences in store for the children of God. There are also great changes in store as God’s Spirit works in us making us more like him.
All physical things are born, grow, and eventually grow old and die. For spiritual beings, there is a great transformation prepared for us one day. For us waits not death, but life eternal in a spiritual body. “Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” (I John 3:2) What we shall be is already promised in our new creation, just as the emergence of a butterfly is promised in the birth of a caterpillar.
How does it happen?
Nicodemus asks, “How can this be?” I hear a longing to believe in his voice.
How do we know we are truly God’s children and new creatures? How do we know that we have been given birth from above?
Christians look the same as other people. Often, we feel the same as others. Much of what we do is the same. Even the best of us has room to grow, in our understanding if not in our faith. Since the New Birth does not mean instant perfection, how do we know we’ve truly been born again?
Ultimately, the New Birth is a promise that you trust more than an experience that you feel. John says, “Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.” (John 1:12 13). The New Birth is not first of all a decision or an experience, but an act of God received by faith. Faith, in this instance, is trust. God takes the initiative. He comes to us. Those who willingly receive Christ into their lives are new creatures according to the promise of God. This understanding of the spiritual life removes all factors of merit or entitlement. It is all a gift.
Jesus compared the power of the new birth to the power of the wind. Have you ever tried to fly a kite? The wind blows here. The wind blows there. You cannot control it. Yet its power is real. We know that it’s there. The kite won’t fly without the wind.
The new birth is not something that we can control or make happen. It does not always happen in people the way we think it should. God likes to let us know that it always comes by his grace and power. And yet it does come to those who join themselves to Christ and receive it by faith. That is the promise of God.