PULPIT TODAY SERMONS
Robert D. Pace
JESUS, NICODEMUS, AND
WHAT IT MEANS TO BE BORN AGAIN
I want to talk to you about one of the most intriguing, yet barely mentioned, men of the New Testament—Nicodemus. He appears three times, with his debut being here in John 3, during a nocturnal visit with Jesus. His last appearance is in John 19, where he prepares the crucified body of Jesus for its burial. Let’s begin by reading our text found in:
Nicodemus is the man that Jesus sovereignly chose to expound on the necessity of regeneration. There are two parts in the plan of salvation: God’s part and our part.
Our part involves confessing our sins, believing on Christ, and repenting. And just to be sure about repentance, it involves turning away from the ways of the world and embracing the lifestyle revealed in the Bible. This is our part in the plan of salvation.
But there is also God’s part in the plan of salvation. And God’s part involves birthing us into his family and kingdom. This process is called the New Birth, or being Born Again. The theological word for this is, regeneration. The reason I want to talk about this concept is because, according to Jesus, it’s impossible to enter Heaven unless you’re Born Again.
This is perhaps the most important conversation recorded in the New Testament. That’s because it deals with our eternal destiny. And there is nothing more important than where we spend eternity!
There is a reason Jesus specifically chose Nicodemus to introduce the concept of being Born Again. And I assure you that he was divinely selected for this purpose! Since this is the case, I want to share some little known facts about Nicodemus:
The second century historian Josephus reports that Nicodemus was among the three wealthiest men of Jerusalem. How he gained his wealth we don’t know, but this alone puts him into a select group of people.
But the Bible also notes that Nicodemus was a Pharisee. The word, Pharisee means “separated one.” All Pharisees made a solemn oath to observe every detail of Scribal Law. The ancient OT scribes had counted the commands that Moses recorded in the Torah and found 613 commands! All Pharisees pledged to observe each of the 613 commands of Moses! Additionally, historical records show that this posh assembly never exceeded 6000 members. With the Israeli nation numbering about three million people during the first century, then these Pharisees were a limited and prestigious assemblage. In fact, it equates to 0.2% of the Jewish population!
But besides Nicodemus’s affluence and dedication to the Scriptures, the Bible lauds Nicodemus as being a Hebrew aristocrat. We understand this when it describes him as being a “ruler of the Jews” (John 3:1). This meant he was one of 70 elite men that served on the Sanhedrin Court. Perhaps you have heard of this assemblage, but for those that haven’t, the Sanhedrin was the highest court of justice that governed Israel.
You could compare the Sanhedrin to being a combination of a US Senator and a Supreme Court Justice. Can you imagine visiting Washington DC, and meeting your US Senator and a Supreme Court Justice at the same time? Well, had you lived in the first century, this is what meeting Nicodemus would have been like—he occupied both positions simultaneously!
Now here’s where Nicodemus gets profoundly interesting. Many Jewish Rabbis had memorized, word-for-word, the first five books of the Bible. But beyond that, some Rabbis had memorized the entire Old Testament! They were thoroughly familiar with its contents. It is not implausible that Nicodemus was a scholar that had memorized the entire 39-books of the Old Testament!
(Summary) So here is what we know about Nicodemus: he was aristocratic, thoroughly religious, incredibly brilliant, exceedingly wealthy, and highly respected. That’s an impressive pedigree! With these attributes, Nicodemus had every reason to be haughty and condescending. But amazingly enough, his motives for meeting with Jesus appear sincere. And that’s surprising when you consider that he mingled with those that were the primary opponents of Jesus—those that crucified him!
So as night fell and darkness covered the city, Nicodemus began his trek toward “the light of the world.” It was the moment when this man of the Word would encounter the very Word—Jesus.
(Transition) With that said, let’s investigate this conversation.
What is Regeneration?
I find it interesting that Nicodemus seems to have preplanned his meeting with an opening statement that was laced with platitudes for Christ. But notice how quickly Jesus cut through the formalities and directed the discussion straight to the issue. Let’s reread verses two and three:
Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” (3) Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.
Do you realize that Christ’s response here is the heart of the Gospel? “Unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” There can be no arguments here! God’s requirement for entering his kingdom demands being Born Again!
But what does it mean to be Born Again/regenerated? This is what Nicodemus wanted to know. So he asks in verse four: “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” The concept of regeneration totally baffled Nicodemus.
(Definition) In Jesus day, regeneration had three meanings. It meant, “to be born anew”; “to be born from above”; and, “to be born a second time.” If you are wondering which of the three meanings Jesus inferred, he meant all three! He wanted Nicodemus to know he had to be “born anew”; “born a second time” and “born from above” in order to enter the kingdom of God. It was a one-in-the-same experience.
(Transition) But there’s something more I want you to know about being Born Again, or regenerated.
Regeneration is fully of God!
Each time the New Testament mentions regeneration, it always connects it to God. That’s the grand truth of being Born Again! It is an experience that is beyond the human realm and enacted only by the Lord from above. What this means is, you and I have nothing to contribute to the act of regeneration!
You may have confessed your sins to God, but this is not the New Birth.
You may have repented and discontinued some old habits, but repentance is not being Born Again.
You might have exhibited great remorse for your sins and cried a million tears, but contrition isn’t being Born Again.
Each of these acts—confession, repentance, and contrition—are things humans do in the plan of salvation. But remember, there are two parts in this process: Our part and God’s part. God cannot do your part and you cannot do God’s part. And God’s part involves the act of regeneration, which involves birthing you into his family!
The Need for Regeneration
I want to explain why regeneration is necessary. And the explanation begins with the story of Creation. Take a moment to imagine how the Lord formed Adam from the dust of the ground. He created his head, chest, torso, legs, and all the vascular and circulatory intricacies. As King David said, we are “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14).
Here is Adam, lying perfectly fashioned in the Garden of Eden, but God has one last action before Adam is complete. The Lord must enliven Adam! After all of this wondrous, creative undertaking, Genesis 2:7 says, “God … breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.” That’s the moment Adam lived.
But Adam’s awareness also elicited a solemn warning from God. The Lord said, ‘Adam you can partake of everything in the garden except one tree. If you partake of that forbidden tree you will die’ (Gen. 2:17).
And that’s what happened. Adam’s disobedience introduced sin and death. In fact, the consequences were so severe that Adam’s sin knocked the life out of his spirit! It didn’t matter that Adam’s lungs were inhaling and exhaling and his heart was circulating oxygen into his bloodstream. The part of Adam that claimed unhindered access to God was dead!
(Insight) This is why the New Birth is necessary! Regeneration is when the Spirit of God touches your dead spirit and divinely enlivens it. It raises your spirit—the real you—back to life!
Now do you see why our repentance, contrition, and being a better person are important, but still not enough? Our dead spirit remains dead! That means our greatest need is a personal resurrection. This is why Jesus told Nicodemus, “You must be born again!” What about you? Have you been born a second time? Has the Holy Spirit raised the real you back to life?
(Transition) Let’s get back to the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus because Jesus is about to really puzzle him. Notice verses 5—7:
Christ Confounds “The Teacher of Israel”
Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” (6) That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. (7) Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ (8) The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit. “Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” (10) Jesus answered him, [This is important] “Are you not . . . [a] teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?”
I have a question: How could Jesus hold Nicodemus culpable for not knowing about the New Birth? How could this supreme Professor of Old Testament Studies be bereft of this doctrine of regeneration? Doesn’t Christ’s question hint that the Old Testament does reference it? The answer is, Yes! Otherwise, Christ wouldn’t have indicted Nicodemus for his ignorance.
But let’s look even closer at Christ’s question to Nicodemus. When I read Christ’s statement, I substituted one small word. Jesus didn’t actually say to Nicodemus, “Are you . . . [a] teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?” In fact, such a statement would have insulted Nicodemus. What Jesus literally said was, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?”
Imagine that! Nicodemus was “the teacher of Israel”! He was the ultimate professor of Jewish Theology. In fact, this title, “The Teacher of Israel,” could indicate he was the final authority of interpreting the Scriptures for the Pharisees and the Sanhedrin. So now it makes sense that Jesus would hold Nicodemus accountable for not knowing about regeneration. From an earthly perspective, he was the ultimate adjudicator of Scripture!
But again, where is there even a faint reference to regeneration in the Old Testament? If you search for the Hebrew word regeneration you can’t find it! However, its concept is foretold there. Would you like to know where the New Birth is found in the OT?
Regeneration in the Old Testament
The OT has several passages that point to the transformation of our inner nature:
Let’s begin with Isaiah 57:15, which says: “I live in a high and holy place, but also with the one who is contrite and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite.”
Next there is Ezekiel 11:19 that says, “I will give them singleness of heart and put a new spirit within them; I will remove their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh.”
Then Ezekiel 18:31 says, “Rid yourselves of all the offenses you have committed, and get a new heart and a new spirit. Why will you die, people of Israel?”
Ezekiel 36:25—26 says, “I will also sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean. I will cleanse you from all your impurities and all your idols. (26) I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will remove your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.”
Ezekiel 37:14 says, “I will put my Spirit in you and you will live” [NIV].
All these Scriptures refer to regeneration—a transformation of the true you! It’s so transformative, as Ezekiel says, that God removes the old and gives you a brand new heart and spirit.
You see, regeneration is more than making bad people into good people. Regeneration reclaims the breath of God that Adam lost. And that means, it takes dead people and raises them back to life!
It turns our sinful appetites into appetites for righteousness.
It produces a heart that seeks to please God.
It creates spiritual hunger to know God’s Word.
It brings forth love for others.
That’s what being Born Again does for a person.
(Transition) As I conclude, I want to disclose one final insight regarding why God chose Nicodemus to explain regeneration. And it directly relates to Nicodemus’s name.
Throughout the Bible, God uses a person’s name to divulge a deeper insight into the story that’s being told. Nicodemus is one of those characters whose name adds meaning to the discussion of regeneration.
From the Greek, his name can be divided into two parts: Nico and Demos. The first part of his name, Nico, means “Champion; Victor; overcomer.” (It is not coincidental that the English word Nike is a derivative of the Greek word, Nico!) But the second part of his name is also interesting. Demos means, “of the masses.” Thus, when combined, Nico and Demos, results in this: “Champion of the Masses/people.”
Now we understand why Jesus selected Nicodemus to explain regeneration. Nicodemus represents you, me, and everyone at our superlative best still standing in need of salvation. Nicodemus—the “Champion of the masses”— leads the way in showing us that regardless of our affluence, esteem, or accolades no one gets to Heaven without the Spirit’s work of regeneration!Robert D Pace