IIIM Magazine Online, Volume 3, Number 25, June 25 to July 1, 2001

A Sermon on John 3:1-21

by Rev. Russell B. Smith

Johnny liked his Jack Daniels. Every Saturday night he'd polish off a fifth and howl at the moon. But Johnny was a born-again Christian, and one Sunday morning he was in the back of his church when he heard the preacher make the call for repentance and the altar call. Sure enough, Johnny came down the aisle, tears streaming down his face, crying out, "Fill me Lord! Fill me Jesus!" The next Saturday night he tied on another one. Sunday the preacher started the altar call, and here comes Johnny, "Fill me Jesus! Oh, fill me!" Another Saturday night, another fifth of Jack Daniels. The next Sunday, like clockwork, here comes Johnny, "Fill me Lord! Fill me Jesus! Oh, fill me!" And from the balcony a voice cried out, "Don't do it Lord, he's got a leak!"

What is being born again all about? Is it about coming down the aisle while we sing all 800 verses of Just as I Am? Is it about having a profound emotional experience? Is it about repeating a prayer? In today's passage, John introduces the concept of being born again: new birth. This is the culmination of a smaller section within the larger Gospel that focuses on Christ making all things new.

Last week's passage focused on Christ as the new temple. We saw that Christ expressed a concern that the nations not be hindered in coming to worship him, but also that they worship on God's terms, not their own. All this was done in the context of a confrontation that caught people's attention. This week, we have the famous late-night encounter between Nicodemus and Jesus. By placing the passage here, we see that Jesus' dramatic actions and miracles have caught the attention and respect of some of the Jewish leadership. We see that chapter 3 focuses on the central theme of the Gospel of John: belief in Christ. Today we will see that belief in Christ demands new birth through the inner work of the Holy Spirit, and it also requires the outer work of response to the Holy Spirit.

The passage as a whole divides into two main sections: the conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus (John 3:1-15), and the apostle John's comment on the conversation (John 3:16-21). Looking at the first, section we see Nicodemus coming to Jesus by night. He comes in secret so that no one will know what he's doing. His words in verse 2 are telling: by calling Jesus "Rabbi," he confers great respect, treating Jesus as a peer. Nicodemus was a member of the Sanhedrin, the council of 70 that provided spiritual leadership to Israel. At that time they were also a powerful political entity that essentially ruled Judea, the southern province of Israel that included Jerusalem. The prestige held by Nicodemus was like a combination of a Roman Catholic Cardinal and a US Senator all rolled into one — he had both spiritual and political authority. He was a man who commanded respect and who was probably used to being respected. So his words here convey a great deal of respect, and he indicates that he is prepared to accept Jesus as a prophet. We can't tell if his motives are personal or political, so I won't venture to guess. We can say, though, that he was stirred enough by Christ to initiate this encounter.

That's why Jesus' response is so puzzling. He doesn't even seem to respond to Nicodemus' statement. For some clarity on this, we need to look back to John 2:23-25. The people believed only after they saw signs, and Jesus didn't entrust himself to them because he knew what was in man. What is in humanity? Self-deception, self-serving interests, pride, the desire to place ourselves at the center of our life rather than place God at the center. The theological term is sin — not just sins that are individual acts violating God's law, but sin which stains and corrupts our whole nature. In Romans 3:9-18, Paul gives us a catalog of quotes establishing the fact of the corrupt human nature from the Scriptures of the Old Testament. That's what was in man that Jesus saw so clearly. That's what was in Nicodemus, despite his greatness and prestige. That's what is in you and in me.

So Jesus responds to Nicodemus by telling him that one must be born again. One needs a new birth, with a spirit oriented away from sin and toward God. When Nicodemus doesn't understand, Jesus clarifies, saying that one must be born of the Spirit. When Nicodemus still doesn't get it, Jesus gets even more straightforward, telling Nicodemus his identity and what he must do. He must believe in the Son of Man, namely Jesus, in order to get this new birth.

Look at verses 13-15. The reference to Moses comes from Numbers 21. In that chapter, the Israelites were wandering in the desert after leaving Egypt. They were tired and grouchy and complaining about God leading them out there. So, God sent a plague of poisonous serpents that harassed them and bit them. Many people died. As a result, the Israelites repented of their complaining and called out to Moses for help. Then God told Moses to raise a bronze serpent on a pole — whoever would look at it would be saved from the snake bite. Jesus uses that historical image to convey to Nicodemus the coming of the cross. Just as the Israelites had to focus their attention on a symbol of their sin that was lifted up for them to see, so do we have to focus our attention on Jesus who was lifted up on the cross, who became sin and died that we might live.

This is a passage rich in meaning, and we could explore the details for hours. But the key thing I want you to get out of this section today is the connection between the work of Christ on the cross, which we just saw foreshadowed in verses 13-15, and the new birth that the Holy Spirit brings us. Look at the imperatives in this passage: "you must be born anew" (v. 7); and "so must the Son of man be lifted up" (v. 14). Not only must you be reborn, but it will not happen without the work of Christ on the cross. In other words, the only hope we have for reorienting ourselves away from junk — selfishness, pride, greed, hatred, malice, etc. — is what Jesus Christ has done on the cross.

So Christ's death, resurrection, and ascension into glory have opened the possibility of new birth. We've talked over the past several weeks about how Christ makes all things new — he renews relationship, cleanliness, hope. All of this renewal finds its root right here in the new birth, which brings us back to our initial question: What is this new birth? It is a Spirit-led turning from reliance upon ourselves to reliance upon the grace that Christ extends to us. The new birth is that radical change of perspective from self-service to God-service. It's like that joke you don't understand at first, but then two hours later, through no effort of your own, you get it and you laugh yourself silly. It's like looking at one of those magic-eye three-dimensional paintings, straining and straining your eyes and suddenly, mysteriously, through no effort of your own, indeed despite your best efforts, you see. The image becomes clear. This spiritual new birth is the great distinctive of Christianity.

So many times I hear people say that all religions are different paths up the same mountain, or that the differences among religions are all superficial — they all basically say the same thing. I couldn't disagree more. Each world religion has its own definition of and solution to the problem that humanity faces. If the problem is that we need to purify ourselves from bad karma over the course of successive reincarnations, then I suggest you try Hinduism. If the problem is the illusion of personal existence and the solution is abandoning this illusion, then I suggest you try Buddhism. If however, our problem is that we are impure people standing before a pure and holy God, then and only then should we look to Christianity. As the great contemporary defender of the faith Ravi Zacharias points out, world religions are only similar in superficial ways, but at their core they are all very different.

Only Christianity has this understanding of the new birth, the spiritual rebirth that is initiated not by some ritual that manipulates the Holy Spirit, but by the Holy Spirit himself, like the wind blowing where it will, working within us to bring us to belief in the death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ.

Being born again isn't about feeling in love with God all the time. Being born again isn't about doing everything the Bible asks of you. Being born again isn't about knowing the four spiritual laws and saying the sinner's prayer. Being born again is about recognizing our state of helplessness, and letting the Holy Spirit lift our eyes to the Cross.

So we see that in order to believe in Christ we must have Holy Spirit working within us. However, belief in Christ also requires an outer work of obedience. After we turn from ourselves, the Holy Spirit draws us closer to Christ. Look at verses 16-21. This section is John's commentary on the scene we just saw between Nicodemus and Jesus. Verse 16 is famous as the bumper-sticker summation of the Christian faith. Some day, I'll have to come back and do a sermon on that verse alone, but not today.

The key point in verses 16-18 is the truth that belief in Christ leads to salvation. Now look at verse 19: men loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. Contrast that with verses 20-21: people who do evil deeds hate the light while people who do right come to the light. Inseparably tied up with belief are the actions that we do. When one undergoes the rebirth initiated by the Spirit, one's actions necessarily change. Christianity is not just a mental thing. It is not simply intellectual assent to a list of rights and wrongs. Rather, it is a progressive personal commitment to the very personal Triune God who created us, who redeemed us, and who gives us the rebirth. Thus, the inward work of the Holy Spirit necessarily results in an outward set of actions characterized by moving closer to God.

Primarily, this means obedience to what God commands. John spells this out more clearly in chapter 5 of his first epistle: "For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome" (1 John 5:3). And how do we know God's commandments unless we know his Word? Deuteronomy 6:4-9 spells out this connection in great detail, and the same idea permeates the whole Bible. Psalm 1 gives us the poetic picture of the difference between the person running from God and the person running to God. Obedience and immersion in God's Word are how the lovers of God draw closer to gaze on his face.

So we've seen that the new birth, made possible by the work of Christ, requires the inward work of the Holy Spirit orienting us to believe in Christ. Also, we've seen that this belief leads us to obedience that draws us ever closer to God.

So my question is: Do you have that orientation? Has the Holy Spirit grabbed you by the shirt and turned you toward God? Is worship just a weekly routine? A social club? Or is it where you come to meet your maker? If you're not sure, talk to your pastor. If your church doesn't preach the gospel, call the pastor of a church that does. If the Holy Spirit is working on you, then in the name of Jesus Christ I bid you to go to him. Amen.