(John 3: 1-17)
Nothing scares a person more than when someone comes up to them and tells them that they’ve been “saved” or are “born again” and can they share their story. It’s like, what do your do? Try not to make eye contact, look at your watch and tell them you have an important meeting you are late for, or pretend you have a call on your cellphone that turns out to be an emergency? Or you hear that knock at the door, look out only to see two nicely dressed people with literature in their hands. Great! I already know all about Jesus, thank you very much. Or do you?
Try being locked in a jail cell with one sometime. Back when I was practicing criminal defense, I got a fax from the court to which I worked as a public defender regarding my appointment to defend someone who was currently being held in the county jail. He had been indicted on three counts of Vehicular Homicide and two counts of Vehicular Assault. According to the Probable Cause Affidavit, he had been driving while intoxicated when he attempted to pass in a no-passing zone hitting one car head on and running another car off the road, killing three people, including his girlfriend, an injuring the two people in the car he ran off the road. I pulled up his booking photo and saw an extremely angry young man glaring back at the camera. I had a bad feeling about this case and dreaded our first meeting when I was sure he would vent all over me and claim it was not his fault and that he was being treated unfairly.
When I went down to the jail to meet him and talk about his case, I met someone completely different from what I expected. I didn’t see any anger in his eyes, and he appeared calm and relaxed. He sat down and told me there wouldn’t be any trial because he was guilty and that my job was to get him the best possible plea bargain in exchange for his not going to trial and making the surviving family members relive an unimaginable pain. He then told me he had found Jesus in jail and wanted to give me his personal testimony. So, I listened as he told me his life story. It wasn’t one filled with pain and hardship. He grew up in the church, a fundamentalist one, had a good job, no criminal record, and a great girlfriend who he had planned on marrying. His only problem was that he would drink a case of beer every day after work and he was a mean drunk, someone I would not want to know. He was not the type of person you would want to be anywhere near. He had been born again in jail, was at peace with God, and was ready to accept his punishment. Afterall, he had killed three innocent people, what more could they do to him? We pled the case for twenty years in prison and after spending thirteen years behind bars he was miraculously paroled. We corresponded during those years he was locked up and it was his faith that got him through with a remarkably early release. We’ve since lost contact.
And this is where we find ourselves in our scripture reading for today. Jesus has just told Nicodemus that in order for him to receive eternal life, he must be born again, born of the Spirit. Nicodemus is an interesting character and holds a place of honor in the New Testament. In our introduction to Nicodemus, we learn that he is a Pharisee and a member of the ruling council, the Sanhedrin. Later in John 7: 50-52, Nicodemus sort of comes to Jesus’ defense when the Pharisees were discussing what should be done about Jesus, and in John 19: 39, 40; we are told that Nicodemus accompanies Joseph of Arimathea to claim Jesus’ body after the crucifixion and that they prepared the body for burial. Somebody you will want to meet and talk to once you get to heaven. He was born again and knew Jesus. Wouldn’t you like to hear his testimony?
In any event, Nicodemus came to Jesus one night to ask him some questions. He came under the cover of darkness because he feared what the other Pharisees would think and say if they found out he had met privately with Jesus. The Pharisees weren’t interested in having a dialogue with Jesus. They had already tried that, and it didn’t work. Jesus seemed intent on upsetting their status quo and, after all, they were Pharisees and who was this country rabbi to tell them about how to relate to the God of Abraham? Nicodemus starts out by asking; Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God. This in itself is quite an admission as he says “we” meaning that Jesus has been a topic of conversation among the Pharisees and that they recognize that he is a “teacher who has come from God,” An acknowledgement that Jesus is more than some ordinary street preacher. As a Pharisee and a member of the Sanhedrin, Nicodemus knows the Torah and he has been studying Jesus for quite some time as everything Jesus does and says seems to be checking off Messianic boxes. Could there be something to this Jesus? Jesus answered him; Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above. This really confused Nicodemus who asked; How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born? He’s not trying to debate Jesus or back him into a corner like the other Pharisees. Nicodemus was searching, and he believed that Jesus had some answers or, perhaps, a perspective not recognized by the Pharisees or conventional Jewish thinking. He came to Jesus with an open mind and heart wanting to be taught the truth about God. Jesus answered; Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit. Poor Nicodemus, he’s trying to understand but he just can’t get his head around it. Jesus remarks that Nicodemus as a teacher of Israel, should get it, but doesn’t understand it. Jesus then patiently takes the time to explain it to him. He points out that they’ve been testifying about it and that they, the Pharisees, have not received their testimony. Jesus says that if they cannot believe the earthly things he has told them, how can they believe the heavenly things?
Jesus then gets right to it and pretty much gives his own personal testimony when he says; For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. The only way he could have made it any plainer is if he just came right out and told Nicodemus that he was the Messiah. And, because Nicodemus tried to defend Jesus before the ruling council and went with Joseph of Arimathea to claim Jesus’ body, we can rest assured that he was born again.
Jesus revealed to Nicodemus that the kingdom would come to the whole world, not just the Jews, and that he wouldn’t be a part of it unless he was born again. Jesus is telling us that the kingdom is personal, not national or ethnic, and its entrance requirements are repentance and spiritual rebirth. Just like my client in jail. Nicodemus, like many of us, grew up in the church and, hopefully, had that institutional knowledge of God. Nicodemus had the book smarts but lacked the practical application until somebody, Jesus in this case, took the time to sit him down and explain it to him. Even John Wesley, the founder of our Methodist denomination, had his doubts and times of despair, yet had his heart “strangely warmed” on May 24, 1738, when it all clicked and fell into place. His “aha” moment.
Jesus was explaining the importance of a spiritual rebirth, saying that people don’t enter the kingdom by living a better life, like Nicodemus or you or me, but by being spiritually reborn. The gift of the Holy Spirit is Jesus’ spiritual presence among mankind, and through our rebirth we have the power of the Holy Spirit available to us to show us how to lead a life worthy of our redemption. But when we don’t know Christ, we make choices as though this life is all we have. In reality, this life in Christ is just the introduction to eternity. By receiving this new life by faith, we begin to evaluate all that happens from an eternal perspective, connecting the dots.
To “believe” is more than an intellectual agreement that Jesus is God. It means to put our trust and confidence in Him that He alone can save us. It is to put Christ in charge of our present plans and eternal destiny. Believing is both trusting his words as reliable and relying on Him for the power to change.
If you have never trusted Christ, won’t you connect the dots, and let the promise of an everlasting life be yours, and believe in Him who gave his life so that the world might be saved through him.
Please pray with me.
Oh, what a blessed assurance we have that Jesus is ours. The new life we live in Him is but a foretaste of the divine glory to come. Through his sacrifice, we were purchased by God and are heirs to a salvation having been born of his Spirit and washed in His blood. Through our submission, all is at rest. We live with our Savior, happy and blest as we watch and wait, looking above, filled with his goodness, lost in his love. This is our story, this is our song, as we praise our Savior all the day long. In Jesus’ name, we pray, Amen.