You may have been born in a Christian home, and you may have been instructed and gone to a Christian school, gone to a Christian college. None of those things make you a Christian. That which is born of the flesh, your natural birth, all that gives to you is flesh.
And flesh of that sort is powerless to enter into the kingdom of God. One of the most famous conversations recorded for us in the Bible is the conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus at night in John chapter 3. And what they discussed is of vital importance for each and every one of us. I'm glad you're joining us for this Sunday edition of Renewing Your Mind as we hear select sermons this month from the preaching ministry of R.C. Sproul. Today's sermon is from John's Gospel with a focus on John chapter 3, which means that today only you can also request the hardcover edition of Dr. Sproul's commentary on John for your donation of any amount at renewingyourmind.org. So what did Jesus mean when He told Nicodemus that people needed to be born again? And is it proper for us to ever call ourselves born-again Christians?
Well, here's R.C. Sproul with a sermon on the rebirth. Our Scripture this morning is taken from the third chapter of the Gospel according to St. John, beginning at verse 1, reading through verse 17. There was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews, and this man came to Jesus by night and said to him, Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do the signs that you do unless God is with him. Jesus answered and said to him, most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. Nicodemus said to him, how can a man be born when he is old?
Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born? Jesus answered, most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh. That which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, you must be born again.
The wind blows where it wishes, you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit. Nicodemus answered and said to him, how can these things be? Jesus answered and said to him, are you the teacher of Israel and do not know these things?
Most assuredly, I say to you, we speak what we know, testify what we have seen, and you do not receive our witness. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven, but He who came down from heaven, that is the Son of Man who is in heaven. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life. For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved. He who has ears to hear the Word of God, let them hear.
Let us pray. Father, as we ponder the significance of this meeting between Nicodemus and Jesus and the meaning of our Lord's teaching to Him, surely we require your help. We need the very Spirit of which He spoke to Nicodemus to grasp the depths and the riches of this declaration. So condescend, O Lord, to help us in this hour. For we ask it in Jesus' name.
Amen. I said to Vesta this morning, I don't know how many times I've preached on this chapter in John, and I said to her, I hope for the first time I'll do something right with this text. Because I find it is one of the most difficult texts in all of the New Testament to deal with adequately. I remember the first time I read it in my maiden reading of the New Testament as a brand new Christian. And as I read it, I was astonished that Nicodemus didn't understand what Jesus was talking about as I read this text as a brand new Christian. I said, I know exactly what Jesus is talking about here.
That's just what has happened to me. I've had a new birth, a new life. I've come alive to the things of God. Why can't this teacher of the Jews understand it? So the next year as a college student, I signed up for a whole course in the Gospel of John. And after the course started in the first couple of weeks, our professor became ill, had to have surgery, and could not complete teaching the course. He brought in a man in his eighties who had been an internationally famous theologian in the first twenty-five years of the twentieth century. And he taught and gave an examination that included a question on John 3. I said, oh boy, I know what this means.
I got a C on that paper because I didn't begin to understand what was contained in this discussion. And so I still struggle with it. There is so much to be found in it. But I think it's important for us to see that there's a carryover between the last verse of chapter 2 and the introduction of chapter 3. Chapter 2 ends with these words, But Jesus did not commit himself to them, because he knew all men. And he had no need that anyone should testify of man, for he knew what was in man. And what follows now in John's narrative coming from the life of Jesus are a series of encounters that Jesus has with various people like Nicodemus, the woman at the well, and so on.
And in each of these meetings, we see Jesus piercing the hearts of those with whom he speaks and indicating that he knows what's going on in their lives. And so chapter 3 begins with this introduction of Nicodemus. There was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. Not all of the Pharisees were elevated to membership in the Sanhedrin, which was the ruling body of the Jewish people.
This would be akin to a senator in the United States Senate. This is a man of very high authority in the government of the affairs of the Jewish people who is also skilled as a theologian, or at least he's supposed to be. And we're told that he came to Jesus by night. John doesn't tell us why he came at night. Maybe he was too busy during the day, or maybe, as many guess, he was a little bit embarrassed about being seen publicly with this Jesus who was gaining some kind of a reputation, which was basically negative among the Pharisees and the rulers of the Jews. So maybe Nicodemus was seeking the cover of darkness and hoping for a clandestine meeting with Jesus so that he could interrogate him in private. But for whatever reason, John tells us he comes at night, and he says to Jesus, 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. Notice the words.
We know. At this point, Nicodemus is not using the imperial plural or the editorial we, but rather he is speaking not only for himself, but at least for some other members of that ruling body of the Jews, some other Pharisees. He's speaking in a perspective of collegiality. He is saying, Jesus, we know that you're a bona fide, authentic teacher, that you deserve the title, Rabbi, and we are prepared to welcome you into our club, as it were. Now notice that in this opening statement, he said, we know something about you.
And what is it that they know? We know that you are a teacher sent from God, or you wouldn't be able to do the signs that you have been doing. Now this is a theological affirmation as well as a personal affirmation about the identity of Jesus.
And let me say, this first statement of Nicodemus is one that is right on the money theologically. He evidences that at this point at least, he is sound in his thinking. That is in terms of the first thing that he says. It goes downhill after this. Everything else he says later is messed up.
But at this point at least, he is sound. And let me just speak to it for just a quick second. We know that you're a teacher sent from God.
How do we know it? Because we know you wouldn't be able to do these signs that you are doing. And notice it's plural signs indicating that Jesus had done other miracles besides the miracle at Canaan that we've already looked at between the interval of his miracle working there and this encounter with Nicodemus now.
So plural. We know you're performing miracles. And we know you couldn't do that unless you were a teacher sent from God. Now if Nicodemus were alive today, this affirmation, this theological affirmation would place him in a minority of about three percent of Christians who would agree with him. Because almost the whole Christian church believes that Satan can perform miracles because the Bible warns against lying signs and wonders that are performed through the power of Satan. We also know that not all of Nicodemus' colleagues agreed with his assessment at this point because they later charged Jesus with performing his miracles through the power of Satan, which was an unsound judgment. This is bad theology by the Pharisees, bad theology in the church today. The function of miracles, one of the chief functions of miracles in the New Testament according to the apostolic testimony is that by miracles, agents of revelation, prophets and apostles are authenticated by God. And that is the credential by which God attests that these people are speaking His Word is confirmed by the wonders and the miracles that they perform.
In fact, the New Testament appeals to that as proof of the authenticity of the apostolic Word. Which proof, let me ask you to think for a moment, would be completely invalid if non-agents of revelation could perform these works? All you can say is that, well, we know that you're sent either from God or from the devil.
No, Nicodemus is sound, even as Jesus said elsewhere, believe me for my work, say, if you can't believe what I say. Because God does not authenticate or attest demons or false prophets. Satan can perform incredibly clever tricks.
They're lying signs and wonders. Not that they are true signs and wonders in a lying cause, but they are phony signs and phony wonders because Satan is not God. Satan cannot bring something out of nothing. Satan cannot bring life out of death. Satan cannot do the things that only God can do.
And the kind of miracles that Jesus is performing gets the attention of a man who is astute like Nicodemus and he says, wait a minute. I don't know that you're the Messiah. I don't know that you're the Son of God.
I don't know that, but I know this. You're sent from God because you couldn't do the things that you're doing unless God were with you. That was a sound judgment. And you notice Jesus' response. What does he say? Gee, I really appreciate that.
I'm glad that you noticed and that you're welcoming into your club and you're giving this kind of affirmation to me. Jesus doesn't need so much to say thank you very much. Remember, he knows what's in man, and he knew what was in Nicodemus. And in Jesus' characteristic way, he goes straight to the heart of the issue. Jesus was sent by the Father, and he was not sent to the diplomatic corps. Jesus was not trained and skilled as a diplomat.
He wasn't interested in diplomacy. He was interested in truth and in redemption. And so he goes right to the center of the matter with Nicodemus, and he says, most assuredly, I don't like that translation. What's it say?
Here's what it says. Amen. Amen. Truly, truly, I say to you. Now the translator is trying to get the flavor of that when he says most assuredly, most certainly, because that's what amen amen means. But it even means more than that. It's more than most assuredly.
It's multi-maximal most assuredly. It's as assuredly as it could ever be when Jesus introduces a declaration by these words, amen, amen, I say unto you. And so, he says, mark this carefully, Nicodemus. What I'm telling you is the unvarnished truth, and here is what he says. Unless one, anyone, any person is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. Now remember that when Jesus comes onto the scene in this earthly ministry, he comes announcing the radical breakthrough of what? Repent, falling after the same message of John the Baptist, repent for the kingdom of God is at hand. And in Jewish literature, the kingdom of God refers in the final analysis to heaven, to the abode where the reign of God is made manifest, and only those who are members of the family of God, only those who are members of the invisible church, only those who are truly converted, those who are truly in Christ will ever see the kingdom of God.
Everyone else will miss it. And so Jesus says, mark this, truly, truly, I say unto you, unless, and as I've labored this point of many times with you, that word unless ought to get your antennae up when you see it in the New Testament because it signals the coming of a necessary condition, a sine qua non, something has to happen before some desired consequence will follow. And in this case, the desired consequence is seeing the kingdom of God, and Jesus is saying, Nicodemus, unless something happens, nobody's going to see the kingdom. Now there's a question about exactly how Jesus says this because of the word that is used here. It could be translated, unless a person is born from above rather than born again. But the significance and the meaning is the same either way because Jesus is obviously referring that everybody's born from below. We all have a natural biological birth. But Jesus said, in addition to our natural birth, there has to be something more before we ever see the kingdom of God, and that is a supernatural birth. And so in this discussion, Jesus is saying that it is a necessary condition to participate in the kingdom of God that a person be supernaturally born from above, born by the Holy Ghost.
And let me just say this quickly. Back during the Jimmy Carter administration, our president announced to the public that he was a born-again Christian. Then Chuck Colson became born again and wrote a book by the title Born Again, sold two or three million copies. And all of a sudden, the phrase born again became part of the nomenclature of our culture. And people called themselves born-again Christians, a kind of stuttering because the phrase born-again Christian is, in reality, a redundancy. That's like describing an unmarried bachelor or a three-sided triangle.
All triangles are three-sided, and all bachelors are unmarried. The simple reality is this, that everyone who's truly a Christian is born again. There aren't any other kinds. There's no such thing as a non-born-again and unregenerate Christian. There are plenty of unregenerate church members. There are plenty of unregenerate people professing to be Christian. But you can't be in Christ unless you're a regenerate person.
And if you are regenerate, by the same token, you're a Christian. So it gives us a distinction without a difference. Now, of course, the reason for that in our culture is the same reason when Francis Schaeffer used to talk about true truth.
It sounded like he was stuttering. What he was getting at is that there are people out there who have a subjectivistic view of truth. And when he was talking about truth, he was talking about objective truth that corresponds to objective reality, what he called true truth.
And that's because of our weakness that people have to stutter in order to get their point across. And that's what has happened in our culture when people say, well, I'm a born-again Christian. They mean by that, I really am a converted person. I'm not just professing faith.
I'm not just a member of a church. But I have experienced the supernatural transformation of my soul, and I have been brought from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light. And that's what it means to be regenerate. And so Jesus says to him, unless you were born from above, you cannot see the kingdom of God. Now Nicodemus says to him, what? How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born? Now, again, Nicodemus is a doctor of the church. He's not stupid.
He's not unskilled and not uneducated, and yet he asks a question that is as crass as a man can be. How much more insulting can he be to Jesus when he says, what are you talking about? Are you suggesting that a man has to enter a second time in his mother's womb to be born?
What a ridiculous idea that is. And this response of Nicodemus just reeks of cynicism. Jesus says again, amen, amen. Truly I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he can't enter the kingdom of God.
Now he changes a little bit differently. Not only does he say you have to be reborn, born from above. Now he talks about entering the kingdom rather than seeing the kingdom.
He can't even see it, let alone enter it, but now he's talking about actually becoming a part of the kingdom of God. And Jesus says you can't do that unless you're born of the water and of the Spirit. Oh, dear people, how I wish I knew what Jesus meant when he says this, but I don't.
I've struggled with this text for 40 years and then some. What does he mean by the water and the Spirit? I know what he means by the reference to the Spirit. He's talking about being born from above, born by the power of the Holy Spirit.
What's the significance of the water? Some people see in this text an oblique reference to baptism in that what Jesus is saying is you have to be baptized in water and regenerated by the Holy Ghost in order to come into my kingdom. But there's no reason in the world why Jesus would expect a teacher of Israel to understand that. I think we have to look to the Old Testament use of water and this combination of the term water and Spirit to the Old Testament to understand what Jesus is getting at. In the Old Testament, prophets, particularly in the book of Ezekiel, for the valley of the dry bones, for the death of the souls of Israel to be renewed, two things had to happen. They had to be purified, and they had to be resurrected by the power of God. And so the two things I hear, and I think I'm right, but I could be wrong here, but I think what Jesus is saying is Nicodemus, everybody out there who's unregenerate is impure and spiritually dead. And as long as you're impure and spiritually dead, you'll never enter into the kingdom of God. And so to enter into the kingdom of God, you have to be purified and you have to be raised from spiritual death. You have to be quickened by the power of the Holy Ghost, and you have to be cleansed by the power of the Holy Ghost. Water and Spirit, that's the way those images are used in Jewish conversation. Jesus knows he's talking to a teacher of the Jews.
That's my assumption of what he's trying to communicate, but don't take that to the bank. I could be wrong, although it's certainly true that no one who has not been purified by God and raised from spiritual death will ever enter into the kingdom of God. Then he says to Nicodemus, that which is born of the flesh is flesh. That which is born of the Spirit is Spirit. Now I don't know how many people I've met in my life who believe that they were born Christians. Nobody in this room was born a Christian.
The flesh does not produce redemption. This was a common error that Jewish people made. We're the descendants of Abraham. They thought that just because they were Jews and biologically their heritage was in Abraham, that therefore they were going to enter into heaven and that they were numbered among the people of God. And the New Testament teachers as well as the Old Testament prophets had to teach the people that error.
That is not the case. You may have been born in a Christian home. You may have been raised in a Christian home or reared in a Christian home, and you may have been instructed and gone to a Christian school, gone to a Christian college.
None of those things make you a Christian. That which is born of the flesh, your natural birth, all that gives to you is flesh. And flesh of that sort is powerless to enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the Spirit is spirit. And unless you were born of the Spirit of the living God, whatever you do in your flesh will avail nothing towards entering into the kingdom of God. And so now Jesus says to Nicodemus, do not marvel. Don't be surprised. Don't be astonished that I just said this to you, that I just said categorically that nobody's going to enter the kingdom unless they're born of the water and of the Spirit. Unless you're born from above, you're not going to make it.
Why are you surprised, Nicodemus? The wind blows where it wishes, you hear the sound of it, can't tell where it comes, where it goes. So is everyone who's born of the Spirit. Here he's making a play on the word pneuma in the Greek. It means the same thing as the word rua in Hebrew. It can mean wind or breath or spirit. And so Jesus plays with the word here.
He says you have to be born of the Spirit. And it's like the wind. The pneuma is like the pneuma. It blows wherever it wants. And the wind is powerful, but you can't see it. You can see the consequences of it. You can see the manifestation of its power.
But you don't know where it's coming from, where it's going. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit because spiritual rebirth is the work of God. When Paul speaks in Ephesians 2 about being quickened by the Holy Ghost while we're dead in sin and trespasses, he's talking about regeneration, which is a supernatural work. It is a work done from above by the immediate power of God. And it is something that only God can do. You cannot make yourself be reborn any more than Lazarus could have brought himself out of the tomb.
Just as you did not do anything for your natural birth except be born, so your rebirth is a matter of the mercy and grace of God. Again Nicodemus stays puzzled and he says to Jesus, how can these things be? And Jesus said to him, are you a teacher, are you the teacher of Israel? Do not know these things. It's like Jesus saying, how did you pass your orals?
How did you make it through graduate school? You don't know this. This is foundational to biblical truth. This is not some mystery religion that I'm just now giving you, some esoteric truth that only the Gnostics know or the Essenes over there in Qumran. I'm telling you something that any knowledgeable teacher of the Old Testament should have grasped a long time ago and should understand. You're a teacher, the teacher of Israel.
You don't understand these things? Certainly I say to you, we speak what we know, testify what we have seen, but you don't receive our witness. And if I told you earthly things and you don't believe it, how will you believe it if I tell you heavenly things?
No one has ascended to heaven, but He who came down, that is the Son of Man. Now, what he goes on to say here about lifting up the serpent in the wilderness, about God so loving the world, and the rest of the discourse, if you don't mind, I'm going to serialize. And let that for next Sunday, God willing, because it's enough to contemplate for this morning this incredible shock that Jesus gives to Nicodemus, which is just as shocking to the 20th century church, I'm afraid, as it was to Nicodemus in the first century, that there is an absolute requirement to enter into God's kingdom, and that is that you be changed by God, that God the Holy Spirit lets you out of prison, that God the Holy Spirit changes the disposition of your soul, because by nature you do not want God in your thinking. It is your normal fleshy makeup to flee from the presence of God and to have no affection for the biblical Christ, that the affection that you have in your heart today for Christ, if you have any at all, is because God the Holy Spirit, in His sweetness, in His power, and in His mercy and in His grace, has been to your funeral, has been to the cemetery of your soul, and has raised you from the dead, so that now you are alive to the things of Christ, and rejoice in the kingdom that He brought to bear.
We'll explore that more deeply, God willing, next week. Let's pray. Oh Father, we thank you for giving us life from above, for removing the scales from our eye where we were blind to Thy kingdom and see it now, where we had no desire to enter into that kingdom, and now we rush toward it as those who would take it by force if necessary, because we want nothing greater. We thank you for the water and the Spirit that you have poured out upon us, and that through Thy Spirit we can now say, Abba, Father. Thank you for that in Jesus' name.
Amen. And aren't we thankful for God's mercy and grace? It honestly leaves me speechless sometimes as I think about the sovereign mercy and grace in my life. Today's message on Renewing Your Mind was a sermon from R.C. Sproul that he preached as he served at St. Andrew's Chapel in Sanford, Florida. And these sermons mark the beginning of a project to produce a full-length commentary on John's Gospel. And this hardcover commentary is available for a donation of any amount at renewingyourmind.org. Use this resource as you prepare Bible studies or sermons or for devotional reading.
With Christmas just around the corner, perhaps you have someone in mind who would treasure this as a gift. Request yours today at renewingyourmind.org, and be quick as this offer ends at midnight and we won't be repeating it next week. Next time, R.C. Sproul will be preaching from Galatians, so be sure to join us next Sunday here on Renewing Your Mind. .
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