1st May 2004
The third chapter of John's Gospel is one of the most familiar passages in the whole of the bible, with verse 16 appearing all over the world in car stickers and on banners at football matches. As with all such passages, the danger for us is overfamiliarity. When Jesus says ``Eat my flesh and drink my blood'' (John 6:54), we tend to brush it aside, thinking, ``That's about communion'', and not recognise the enormous effect it would have had on his listeners. In the same way, we are liable to overlook the significance of the phrase ``born again'' because it's so familiar, and we already ``know'', or think we do, what it means.
In Matthew 18:3, Jesus says ``Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.'' I think one of the meanings of this is that we need to be ready to learn, to look at things with a sense of wonder, and to cast off any idea we have of already knowing it all. That's what we need to do with this familiar chaper. C. J. Mahaney says, ``If you go into this passage thinking, `We already know this', then yes: that is as well as you will ever know it.'' Let's not fall into that trap.
In this session, we want to answer three important questions:
... but we might find that we only have time for the first.
Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, ``Rabbi, we know 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.''
In reply Jesus declared, ``I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again. ''
``How can a man be born when he is old?'' Nicodemus asked. ``Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother's womb to be born!''
Jesus answered, ``I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, `You must be born again.' ''— John 3:1-7
This passage illustrates just about the only way in which politicians resemble Jesus: they, like him, rarely answer the questions people ask them. Here we see Nicodemus, a recognised intellectual with high social status, coming to Jesus and wanting to talk about his teaching and miracles. But Jesus doesn't seem to be interested: instead, he cuts right across Nicodemus's questions and addresses what is for us, as well as him, the root issue: our identity in God (or outside him).
Jesus' words ``You must be born again'' would have come as a total shock to Nicodemus. His response is perfectly sensible: ``How can a man be born when he is old? Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother's womb to be born!'' No indeed. You can only be born once in your life - but what Jesus is offering is literally a whole new life. In Romans 6:4, Paul writes: ``We were [...] buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.''
Why do we need this new life when we already have the old one? For at least two reasons: first, because the current life is limited in time - to seventy years or so; and second, because is limited in scope - to this present world. Paul writes emphatically, ``I declare to you, brothers, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God'' (1 Corinthians 15:50). And that, until we are born again, is what we are. Only our spirit can inherit the kingdom, and that means that we need the life of the spirit.
(For this reason, I prefer the phrase that Jesus uses in verse 5, ``born of the Spirit'', to ``born again''. It's more explicit about the nature of the second birth; and of course it's not had its meaning so diluted by telvangelists and lazy journalists.)
It's very hard to find helpful analogies for this, because the situation is so complex and so specific to humans. But here is the best that I can do. The seed of a plant has a certain kind of life: it is a living thing. But it nevertheless needs the new birth of germination (it ``falls to the ground and dies'' - John 12:24) in order to live the full life it was made for. And a caterpillar is alive, but needs to take on a ``new life'' to become a butterfly. In the somewhat same way, the life we now live is only a pale shadow of the full life that God intended and still intends for us. Paul writes that ``[we who are] perishable must clothe [ourselves] with the imperishable, and [we who are] mortal with immortality.'' (1 Corinthians 15:53)
Looking back to the earliest parts of the bible, it is clear that we were created to be creatures of both flesh and spirit: God created us along with the animals, and we share their ``flesh'' nature; but we are also created ``in God's own image'' (Genesis 1:27), that is, being creatures of spirit. [When the New Testament talks about ``flesh'' in this way, it does not just mean physical bodies, but everything that is part of our worldly nature, including the intellect and emotions.]
C. S. Lewis speculates that the reason demons find humans loathsome is precisely because we alone, in all of creation, have both flesh and spirit. God the Father, the angels and the demons including Satan are all spirit beings, and the animals are flesh. We alone were created with both natures. This is part of why the incarnation is such an awesome thing, and why Christmas should be shocking: Christ literally ``took on flesh'', or ``made himself in human likeness'' (Philippians 2:7), so that he, like us, had both the fleshly and the spiritual nature.
But although we are created to have this dual nature, we are born as creatures of flesh (in the biblical sense of that word, which includes the mind and emotions). We do have a spiritual element, which separates us from the animals - everyone is in a sense made in God's image, and to some tiny degree reflects his glory - but the spiritual element of us is ``dead'' (Ephesians 2:1). Yes, dead. Not just incomplete, or immature, or sick, but dead. What is the cure for not being alive? There is only one: a thing that is not alive can only become alive by being born! Our spirit needs to be born, just as our flesh was born.
(You may ask why, if God created us to have the dual flesh/spirit nature, we are born with our spirits ``dead''. The answer is complex, and is really another sermon for another time, but it hinges on original sin. See Romans 5:12-21 and commentaries.)
How can we be born of the Spirit? Well, being born physically requires a physical process - one involving uteruses and other highly technical equipment. Fortunately for the baby, someone else does most of the work. In the same way, being born spiritually requires a spiritual process. It is no good going through physical, intellectual or emotional processes in the hope of attaining spiritual birth. Those things can help to bring you to the point of birth, but they cannot give birth: Jesus says that ``the Spirit gives birth to spirit'' (v6). Fortunately for the new Christian, someone else does most of the work.
I am sure we all understand that Jesus opened the way for us by his death and resurrection. That is by far the bulk of the work. But then, what is the work that remains for us to do? Only one thing, as Jesus himself explains (John 6:29): ``The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.''
How can something as simple and undemanding as belief bring about something as important as birth? It is because belief in this sense is a spiritual act. It is more than intellectual assent, or emotional involvement, but a placing of trust in Christ alone. It is a matter of saying ``into your hands I commit my spirit'' (Luke 23:46). In effect, we place ourselves ``in Christ'' - a phrase that crops up in 42 separate chapters of the New Testament.
In 2 Corinthians 5:17, Paul writes ``If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation''. Paul means something very specific and literal by the phrase ``a new creation'': a new life, a spiritual life, has been created, where once we were dead.
The same phrase is used in Galatians 6:15: ``Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is a new creation.'' Here, Paul explicitly spells out that what happens to our flesh is of no importance compared with the new life of the spirit.
So becoming a Christian is in fact a single specific act at which time a momentous spiritual event - a birth - takes place. Many of us, me included, can't put a finger on one particular moment, and say ``That's when I responded to God's call''. But then we can't remember our physical birth either! Whether or not we know when it was, there was one particular moment when we, being creatures of flesh, were born of the spirit.
Once we understand that we have a dual nature - flesh and spirit - lots of bible passages make more sense. Our thinking will become clearer when we understand which passages are talking about exclusively spiritual matters. Here we will look briefly at spiritual understanding, praying in the spirit, and using spiritual weapons.
We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit who is from God, that we may understand what God has freely given us. This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words.
The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned.— 1 Corinthians, 2:12-14
Jesus says that ``the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things'' (### reference). The Holy Spirit teaches us truth from God not only by illuminating things to our minds, but also by speaking directly to our spirits. There's a difference between understanding something with the mind and grasping it with the spirit, and Paul says that some things can only be spiritually discerned - so that someone who has not been born of the spirit can't understand them, no matter how hard he studies.
If I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful. So what shall I do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my mind; I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my mind.— 1 Corinthians 14:14-15
We return to last week's subject of praying in tongues. Paul here argues that when he prays in tongues, his spirit is fruitful even though his mind is not; but that his mind is fruitful (and presumably his spirit too) when he prays in his own language. His conclusion is that both kinds of prayer are valuable.
Though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God.— 2 Corinthians 10:3-5a
Finally we come to one of the most crucial passages in the New Testament. Paul argues that, in order to achieve spiritual goals such as the demolition of demonic strongholds, we must use spiritual weapons. We have no alternative: no other approach can possibly work, as no other approach addresses the issue. The things we can do that have an obvious spiritual dimension include prayer, fasting, worship and forgiving. These are the things that can overcome spiritual opposition: we can't expect to achieve that by ``waging war as the world does''.
In the end, there is no purpose in our having good meetings if it's just to have good meetings: the reason they're there is to provide a setting for the power of God to come and transform us. `` `Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit', says the LORD Almighty'' (Zechariah 4:6)
We know this - but too often we behave as though we don't: as though the keys to building a big, strong, healthy church are things like carefully argued preaching, well-designed publicity and meticulously rehearsed music. These are are all good things, but unless the power of God is in them, they can't give rise to anything more than a well-attended social club or charitable society.
Understanding that there is now a spiritual dimension to our lives, we need to concentrate our efforts where they can be most effective: on prayer, worship, keeping our relationships clear by forgiving whenever necessary. This is just pragmatic good sense. In closing, here is what the missionary J. O. Fraser had to say about the value and importance of prayer:
We often speak of [prayer] as being of vital importance. I want to prove that I believe this in actual fact by giving my first and best energies to it, as God may lead. I feel like a businessman who perceives that a certain line of goods pays better than any other in his store, and who purposes making it his chief investment; who, in fact sees an inexhaustible supply and an almost unlimited demand for a profitable article and intends to go in for it more than for anything else.
Now that is pragmatic!
Yeah ... Like we can fit that into a couple of minutes at the end. See the section expounding the phrase ``We have been justified'' in my notes on Romans 5.
If you're reading a paper copy of this document, the soft-copy can be found at www.miketaylor.org.uk/xian/john-3.html