Nicodemus was a powerful religious leader. He was a member of the Sanhedrin, very successful monetarily speaking, and well educated. Yet his soul felt a longing for something more. Although he was physically alive, spiritually he was without life. His mind was open, but he was not a part of the kingdom of God. Something was missing, so he went to visit Jesus at night with his questions and desires. Jesus said to him directly, “Unless you are born again, you can’t enter the kingdom of heaven.” Unless you’re born of the spirit, you cannot be a part of God’s kingdom.
Now it is true that God, because of His infinite capacities, is always a mystery greater than our ability to understand. Likewise, Jesus’ words to Nicodemus are a mystery. We don’t understand how to be born again or where the power comes from, for we have no capacity to give ourselves new life.
Now when we hear these words Ð a person must be born again, born of the Spirit Ð the danger exists to think that we must have a certain spiritual experience in order to be among the saved and to legitimize the vitality of our faith life.
The second danger might be to take our own spiritual encounter with God, our own spiritual journey of faith or language of faith, and project it as normative for all people. Also to become a judge of others who aren’t just like us. That is not right and it isn’t helpful. We all have a universal need for the Spirit to give birth for us to enter the kingdom of God.
Jesus uses the analogy of birth, which is interesting. Psychologists tell us we might deep in our subconscious remember it, but do you really remember the day of your birth? Weren’t we totally passive? We had no power to conceive life or come forth from the womb. It was all the power of our mother’s body bearing down to bring us into this world. Life is God’s gift.
So it is easy to understand Nicodemus’ bewilderment when he asked Jesus, “How can I be born a second time? Am I supposed to get back in my mommy’s womb to be born?” Yet, Jesus is trying to differentiate for Nicodemus and us the difference between physical and spiritual life, between being in the kingdom of God and the kingdom of this world. He is talking about a spiritual dimension.
Let’s realize that the power for birth into the kingdom of God is all God’s action not ours. Missionary Don Richardson in a book he wrote entitled, Peace Child, told of his mission endeavors in the country of Papua New Guinea. He struggled to find the right language or imagery to convey the gospel to the primitive natives living in the jungles. The people were warring so much that they became weary of the fighting, the blood-shed, the killing, the death, and the loss. So the leadership of tribes proposed to enter into a peace covenant. They mutually decided that to seal the covenant, a young couple of their tribe would offer their newborn son to the enemy tribe or the adversarial tribe to raise as their own. Thus, the child embodied the agreement of peace between the peoples.
The Scriptures tell of God giving the best He had to give Ð His Son Jesus Christ Ð to us that He would become the Prince of Peace, the Peace Child who reconciles sinners everywhere of every age to our heavenly Father. II Corinthians 15 tells us “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself.” In Ephesians 2, it says, “Jesus is our peace who breaks down the barrier of the dividing wall and unites us all to a relationship with God.” By the blood of Jesus we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Romans 5 says, “Justified by faith, we have peace with God in Jesus’ name.”
Jesus also uses the analogy of the wind. We can’t see the wind, but we see how it works, how it moves, how it impacts our created world. Human beings all through history have found creative ways to harness the wind’s power Ð raising sails on majestic ocean sailing ships or constructing wind turbines to utilize the power and turn it into electricity.
We prepare to receive a power outside ourselves from the wind and transition it to our benefit. So it says in John one, “Jesus came to his own people but his own people didn’t receive him. But as many as received him, to them God gave the power to become the children of God who were born not of the flesh or of the will of man, but who are born by the will of God.” So we, like receiving the wind, receive Jesus.
Jesus also used the image of being lifted as the Son of Man as the one we look to. He compared it to Moses and the people journeying through the wilderness. They were in a state of rebellion and grumbling and unbelief, and so God sent a plague. God, then, instructed Moses to put a snake up on the pedestal on a pole that the people may realize their sin and their powerlessness, and turn to that bronze serpent so God could heal them and forgive them, and they would be well.
Jesus says that is His life. He came to hang suspended between heaven and earth on the cross. We can be spiritually graced by God by simply looking at Jesus on the cross.
The other way to talk about it is to simply ask Jesus to come in. Jesus tells us in Revelation 3:20, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in.” We simply invite Jesus into our hearts and lives asking God to do for us what He has promised.
Anne Graham Lotz, in her book, Just give me Jesus, tells the story of her father Billy Graham, the famous evangelist. Billy Graham was seated at a welcoming dinner in his honor attended by civic, business, religious, and political leaders in an Eastern nation. They had invited him to hold a series of evangelistic meetings. The man seated next to next to him was the Archbishop of the dominant religion in that country. During the course of the dinner conversation Graham asked the Archbishop when he’d become a Christian. The man’s eyes glistened with the emotion. He put down his fork and then proceeded to tell Billy Graham his spiritual story.
He had been installed as the Bishop in his church and was invited to give a lecture in a prominent theological school in Chicago. He accepted the invitation and found himself in the heart of the Windy City one afternoon.
In an effort to do some sightseeing, he boarded a Chicago bus. No sooner had he taken his seat when a long finger tapped him on the shoulder. He turned to look into the full, round, beautiful, ebony face of an obviously poor woman seated behind him. In a wonderfully rich voice, she asked, “Mister, has you been born again?”
He frowned, thinking for sure he’d misunderstood her question since English was his second language. With polite reserve he asked, “Excuse me?”
The deep rolling voice repeated, “I says, ÔHas you been born again?'”
The Archbishop stiffened his back, straightened his shoulders, and replied with the greatest dignity, “Madam, I am the Archbishop of the church in my country. I’m here to give a lecture at a theological seminary.”
Just then the bus rolled to a stop and the woman rose to get off. She looked at this proud, religious man dressed in his flowing robes bearing the bejeweled insignia of his office and persisted bluntly, “Mister, that isn’t what I asked you. I asked you, ÔHas you been born again?'” Then she turned and walked off the bus and out of his life. “But,” the Archbishop told Graham, “her words rang in his ears and burned in his soul. He went back to his hotel room, found the Gideon Bible in the dresser drawer, opened to the Gospel of John and read the familiar story of Nicodemus.” With increasing clarity and conviction, the Archbishop knew that, even with all his religious training, devotion, service, and recognition, he’d never been born again. So he slipped down on his knees, and that night, in a Chicago hotel room thousands of miles from his home, God heard his heart’s cry and Jesus entered his heart.
What a marvelous story of the power of God to honor our simple prayer to receive Jesus to come in! Being born again into the kingdom of God is a mystery. I think of Luther’s special Christmas hymn where lyrics say “O, holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us we pray. Cast out our sin and enter in be born in us today.” When the Virgin Mary, in Luke chapter 1 was visited by Gabriel and told she would be the mother of our Lord. She asked, “How could this be?”
Gabriel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High God will overshadow you. Therefore the child, the Holy One, will be called the Son of God. For nothing is impossible with God.”
I love Mary’s faith response, which can be our prayer to be born again, born of the spirit, into the kingdom of God. “I am the Lord’s servant,” she said. “Let it be done for me just as you have said.” Mary’s heart was a welcome to the Holy Spirit of God to bring new life into her physical body. So we also do the same.
A few years ago, I saw a gripping picture on the front page of a Dallas, Texas newspaper. On the front was a woman. As you read the article, you learned it was a mother who, just a few days ago, had tragically lost her son in a car accident. The picture shows this woman with her head laying against the chest of a strange man she had met just moments before. Why would this woman lay her head on the chest of a stranger? Because that man was the recipient of her son’s donated heart. When she laid her head on the chest of that man, she heard the heartbeat of her son now giving life to this man.
So I ask you, if God in heaven were to lay His head on your chest, would He hear the heartbeat of His Son, Jesus? Have you been born again? Have you been born of the Spirit? It’s as simple as being receptive to the Holy Spirit’s power as He births new life in us. It’s as simple as looking to Jesus on the cross whose bloodshed promises to forgive our sin and grace our lives. It’s as simple as a prayer saying, “Into my heart, come into my heart, Lord Jesus.”
God will give us new life. He will birth us into His Kingdom. God will keep every promise for us.