He told me about the car accident he had suffered a few weeks back. The light turned red, the car in front of him stopped, he stopped, but the car behind him didn’t. No one was seriously injured, but there were still medical bills to be paid and letters threatening to sue for damages. His problems didn’t stop there. He hadn’t been able to work full time now as he recovered from the accident and his regular bills were piling up. He’d loaned out money to his family over the years, but now no help was to be found.
He then lamented about his mother, how she had driven away any woman he brought home and how she robbed him of so many years of life when he decided to live with her and his father to care for them in their old age. Now he was alone, asking what’s the point and if there was some kind of a reset button or a way to go back in time. Jokingly he asked, “Is reincarnation a real thing?” His comment made his point. Life was hard and he wished he could be born again.
Nicodemus was not this man. He was very happy with his life, he was a Pharisee and ruler of the Jewish people. Very likely he had a family and no money problems to speak of. He was proud of his family heritage, as a Pharisee he was a descendent of God’s people Israel. He didn’t believe in reincarnation, nor did he have to believe in it. He was confident that he had lived a good life, so good in fact that God himself would be pleased and allow him to live with him in heaven. Life was good for Nicodemus, until he heard about Jesus.
Jesus’ teachings had an impact on Nicodemus. In the gospel lesson for today from John 3, we can see that Nicodemus was curious about this new teacher, Jesus. This Jesus seemed to have a special connection with God; he was able to do miracles and heal people. Nicodemus wondered who this Jesus really was and his curiosity got the best of him one evening. He went under the cover of darkness, so as not to be seen by anyone, to talk with Jesus.
He said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”
Nicodemus doesn’t want to let on that he his nervous about talking with Jesus. He wanted to make sure Jesus knew he was an intelligent man, not one of the masses so easily swayed to believe in him. He lets Jesus know that he and the other Pharisees have him figured out. They were the ones in charge of the spiritual things of Israel, so of course they would be the ones to recognize Jesus as coming from God. Jesus isn’t fooled by Nicodemus, instead he gets right at the heart of what Nicodemus should have done in the presence of the Savior. Jesus responded to Nicodemus as if he had asked what Jesus could tell him about God.
Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”
Nicodemus was stunned at Jesus reply. Jesus got right to the point. Nicodemus, I know things about God and his kingdom that you don’t. If you want to know more about God and see what his kingdom is all about, then you need to listen to me. I did not come into this world to reestablish the earthly kingdom of Israel. I have come to save the world and establish spiritual Israel. The Israel of believers who will by being born again become a part of the kingdom of God.
Nicodemus was completely clueless to what Jesus was talking about asking,
“How can someone be born when they are old?”
“Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”
Jesus great love shows through in his patience as he responds to Nicodemus question that completely missed the point of what Jesus was talking about. So, Jesus goes on to explain what he means by the kingdom of God and being born again.
Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit.
Jesus was referring to baptism. Nicodemus knew about John the Baptist and his baptism of repentance he had been performing and preaching about at the Jordan River. This is what Jesus was referring to when he said, “no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit.”
Being born again then is not a decision made by a person to become a part of the kingdom of God, but something God does through baptism to create faith in our hearts, to create a new spirit inside of us that is now a member of the kingdom of God. Jesus uses the term born again to emphasize now we play no role at all in becoming a part of the kingdom of God because when someone is born, they have no control over what is going on. When a baby is born, it does nothing. Its mother pushes, someone catches the child and then the child is given to the mother. So, it is with baptism, God works through water and his Word, in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, to create faith.
It is also clear that Jesus is referring to baptism because in John chapter 1, John was already baptizing people. He was doing this to set up Jesus to tell people what God actually does through baptism. When John was baptizing on the Jordan River, he said,
“Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is the one I meant when I said, ‘A man who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him, but the reason I came baptizing with water was that he might be revealed to Israel.”
Referring to the fact that John was about six months older than Jesus, so he was after him in age, but Jesus being the eternal God, makes him before John. John was baptizing so that Jesus would be revealed to Israel and this is how he was revealed.
32 Then John gave this testimony: “I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him. that is Jesus 33 And I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’ 34 I have seen and I testify that this is God’s Chosen One.”
Jesus answer to Nicodemus then was not something foreign, but something that had been right in front of him. And the same is true for us. When we talk about what being born again truly means and what baptism means, the first three chapters of John’s gospel clearly show what it is. It is the way God makes us a part of his kingdom. God’s kingdom is not a physical kingdom, but it is all the people who believe in Jesus. Jesus wanted Nicodemus to realize he could not trust in his good life or his ancestry as a Jew to get into heaven. Entrance into the Kingdom of heaven, to becoming a believer, does not depend on us, but on God doing it for us. And that is the most comforting message of all, it is the gospel, the good news because God is faithful, love and unchanging. So, when he says he is going to do something, it is as good as done because God always keeps his word.
Jesus continued to point out to Nicodemus how he was blinded by this world and sin. And point out that he was in desperate need of what Jesus had come to do for him and faith in Jesus.
6 Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. 7 You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
Again, Jesus points out that this being born again, this coming to faith and becoming a part of the kingdom of God is not a visible thing. Just like you can’t see the air, but you hear it. So it is with the Holy Spirit working faith. You cannot see it, but you can hear the Word of God and hear the confessing of faith in Jesus as the Savior someone gives.
But Nicodemus still did not understand.
9 “How can this be?” Nicodemus asked.
At this point, Jesus drives home the law to Nicodemus and his complete lack of understanding the whole point of the Old Testament. Nicodemus was an expert in the Old Testament, a Pharisee, but he did not believe in all the prophesies of a Savior.
10 “You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? 11 Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. 12 I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things?
Jesus had only referred to things Nicodemus would have seen and known about. Baptism, which John was doing, and the fact that heaven opened and the Father spoke from heaven proclaiming Jesus as his Son. And to being born again as a picture for how God is the one who creates faith in our hearts, that entering the Kingdom of God and believing is not something that we do, but something God does, it is something as passive as a baby being born.
Jesus also knew that Nicodemus would have known passages of Scripture like this one from Ezekiel 36. Here the prophet Ezekiel is talking to the people of Judah who had been taken captive into exile in Babylon. God’s message through the prophet Ezekiel was this:
“‘For I will take you out of the nations; I will gather you from all the countries and bring you back into your own land. 25 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. 26 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. 27 And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. 28 Then you will live in the land I gave your ancestors; you will be my people, and I will be your God.
Throughout these verses, God refers to how He is the one who creates faith. God cleans us with water, God washes away our impurities and idols, God gives us a new heart and a new spirit, God takes out our unbelieving and dead heart of stone and gives us a living and believing heart of flesh, He puts his Spirit in us and as a new creation, a believer, a person filled with God’s spirit and love, we are then able to follow his law, follow it not to earn heaven, but to reflect our heart of thanks and love, and finally God does this to bring us home to heaven, yes God brought a remnant of Israel back to their physical homeland, but all so that God would keep his promise that Jesus, the Savior, would be born from the line of David, from the tribe of Judah, as he had promised.
Jesus’ message to Nicodemus is the same message he has for you and me. You cannot trust in yourself to get to heaven, you cannot live a good enough life, you cannot put your hope in the things and relationships of this world because they will fail you. This past week, Monday, a mom punished her son by taking away his cell phone. She left the room and when she came back, her son had a gun pointed at his head and he said this is what you get for taking away my phone. Then he shot himself and later died at Lake Pointe hospital.
When the things of this world become all that we have, we are left without hope. The young boy was so upset to lose his phone, he shot himself. The mother was only disciplining her son and is now left with a sadness that cannot be captured with words. Those who were with the boy as he passed away in the hospital are left with the hopelessness and death of this fallen world. And as we hear stories like this in our own life and bring to mind our own struggles we confess that we are hopeless without God.
Brothers and sisters, God has not left us alone. He sent his Son Jesus.
Jesus continued to say to Nicodemus,
“No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man. 14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”
Nicodemus did not think he needed Jesus. He did not think he was like the man who had been in a car accident, who could not pay his bills, who was alone and wanted to press the reset button on his life, but Jesus reminded him that there was only one Savior. There was only one who came from heaven. And he came to this world to save all of us, to save all the hopeless, all sinners and all who face death.
Nicodemus knew what Jesus referred to when he said, “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness.” Jesus was referring to the time after the people of Israel had been freed from slavery in Egypt and Moses was leading them. God had delivered the people of Israel from their slavery, but soon after they left Egypt, the people stopped trusting in God and put their hope in themselves. To remind them he is the one who allowed them to be free, God sent poisonous snakes among the people, many were bitten and many were dying. In their distress, the people returned to their leader, Moses, and asked him to pray to God to take away the snakes. Moses prayed to God and God told him to make a bronze snake and put it up on a wooden pole. God told Moses that anyone who looked at the snake would be healed from their snake bites and live.
God kept his promise and all who looked to the bronze snake lived. Now the bronze snake had no power or medicinal properties to heal the people. It was their faith in God’s promise and God’s power that allowed them to be healed. Those who heard God’s Word and believed were allowed to live. While those who did not believe, died.
And so, it is with Nicodemus and all of us. We are saved because of God’s promise to save us by lifting up his Son on a wooden cross. Jesus came to this world as the Son of God. He came perfect, he had no sins, he did everything good and right according to what God says. He was completely opposite of all of us who are sinful people, who do things we regret, who live in a hopeless world and who don’t believe in God on our own.
Jesus was everything we were not and to save us he traded his perfect life for our sinful lives on the cross. Jesus sacrificed himself and died to give us life. He substituted his innocent life for our guilty lives and God accepted his trade. Jesus was far greater than the snake that was lifted up in the desert because it is not only faith in him that saves, but he is also the power that saves us. You and I can be confident in Jesus as our Savior because he not only died on the cross, but rose from the dead three days later.
You and I still face sin, death and sadness in this world, but we are no longer hopeless. Through our Savior Jesus we get to look forward to life with him in heaven. We get to look forward to a new life in heaven because God worked faith in our hearts through hearing his Word, by the power of the Holy Spirit working through his Word and working through the waters of our baptism. God did all of this for us, not because we deserved it, but because of his love:
16 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. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.
Jesus wanted Nicodemus, you and I, and all people to know that they are saved from their sins and have eternal life in heaven because he loves them. He loved us so much that he gave up his life to save us.
You can be sure that you may enter the kingdom of heaven because of Jesus’ sacrifice. This is the message that gives all who believe hope as we continue to live in this fallen world. Jesus’ love for us not only has good things waiting for us in heaven, but we are also blessed with God’s love as we wait to go home to heaven. Whatever terrible trials we live through, whatever dark thoughts cause us to be depressed and whatever is taken from us in this world, cannot change what we have through our Savior Jesus.
We are reminded again of what we have through Jesus and through our baptism in the words of our second lesson from 1 Peter chapter 3.
18 For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit. 19 After being made alive, he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits—20 to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, 21 and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22 who has gone into heaven and is at God’s right hand.
Jesus’ sacrifice was not only for those living during his time or for those who believe in him, but all people, even those who lived at the time of Noah and the flood. Jesus even died for the sins of those already dead and even of those in hell. Even, the people in hell are not there because God does not love them or because Jesus did not save them from their sins, but because they did not believe in Jesus.
Thank God that he put faith in your heart. Thank God that the Holy Spirit worked through his message of forgiveness through Jesus recorded in the words of the Bible. Thank God that he washed away all your sins through your baptism and pledged or promised that because you were washed by water and the spirit, you can stand before God sure that you are free from sin. Thank God for your Savior Jesus, through whom your sins are forgiven and though whom You may enter the Kingdom of God. Amen.