Life of Christ 28
Arguably, the most famous phrase in all the Bible is 'born again'. Arguably, perhaps the most famous verse in all the Bible is John 3.16. Both of them are found in the context of one conversation, and understanding why Jesus uttered those immortal words is both instructive and helpful. Read on, then, if you would like to receive that instruction and help.
The last time we saw Jesus He had just begun His public ministry. Leaving Nazareth an anonymous carpenter, He had traveled to Judea to be baptized by John the Baptist, endure forty days of fasting, resist the devil's temptations, and gather His first disciples. He then returned to Galilee, and launched His ministry by turning water into wine in Cana. Almost immediately, He returns to Judea for the Passover, and upon entering the Temple He sends the moneychangers and cattle merchants heading for the hills. At this point, while still in Judea for Passover, Scripture tells us that He did several unnamed miracles, and that these miracles caused people to believe on Him (John 2.23).
These miracles, and the cleansing of the Temple itself, brought Him attention not just from the common people, but also from Israel's religious leadership. The Sanhedrin, the seventy one men, mostly Pharisees, who met in the Hall of Hewn Stone, and led Israel under the direction of the High Priest, would most certainly have sat up and taken notice. After all, one of their designated responsibilities was to investigate reports of miraculous events, and so to determine and declare whether they were authentic or fake. It would be this background, then, that provoked Nicodemus, a member of the Sanhedrin, to come to Jesus.
As a Pharisee, Nicodemus would have expected Jewish people to go to Heaven on the basis of 'the merits of the fathers.' This phrase, found often in the rabbinic writings of Jesus' day, implied that since the Jewish people were directly descended from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob they were already guaranteed direct access to Heaven. Jesus denied this. He explained that parents can only transmit the nature they are, and that since each parent is a sinner then each child is a sinner. What is sinful cannot possibly enter the kingdom of Heaven, so in order to enter the kingdom one needed a nature transmitted from a sinless parent. God is the only one sinless, and thus each Jew needed to be 'born again', a second time, this time with God as His parent, in order to have the merit of the Father (John 3.3-7).
Obviously, Nicodemus didn't understand the necessity of the new birth, and Jesus actually got rather upset with him about this (John 3.8-9). Jesus got angry because this was precisely the problem with the state of Israel's religion at the time. It had ceased to be a matter of the heart, one that begins by a lost sinner coming humbly to God for salvation, and had rather become a matter of ethnicity first. This was only aggravated by the fact that the obedience God was actually after was clouded by a great host of external man-made rules. If anybody should have known the reality of how to be spiritually related to Jehovah, first by salvation and secondly by living right from the heart, it should be someone in Israel's religious leadership. Nicodemus was an integral part of that leadership, and he didn't have so much as a clue.
In order to help explain this, Jesus gives Nicodemus an example from the Old Testament that pointed toward the necessity of being forgiven directly for sin through the mercy of God by faith. This illustration, found originally in Numbers 21, was about a rebellious Israel suffering the just punishment of their sin from God, and dying in great multitudes via being snake bit as a result. God, of course, doesn't want all of His people to die, and in His mercy He instructs Moses to make the brass image of a snake and hoist it on a pole in the middle of the camp. Each Jew bitten would then be faced with the choice of whether to show faith in Jehovah's mercy by simply looking at that pole, or to die a slow and agonizing death in his rebellion.
It is in this context that Jesus says, 'For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life' (John 3.16). The Pharisees, like the hyper-Calvinists of our day, did not believe that God loved the entire world. They believed He only loved the righteous, and that He bitterly hated the sinner. Jesus here emphatically tells Nicodemus the exact opposite, that God loves the entire world. Jesus then goes on to boldly claim to be God's Son, and the way to eternal life itself, and that faith in Him is all that is necessary for that eternal life.
Wow. What a series of staggering statements, and all in one sentence! It is my belief that Nicodemus there and then became a believer in the claims of Jesus Christ. How many since have come to believe as a result of that same conversation? Without exaggeration, millions. With all my heart, I hope that you are one of those millions.
I have been reading the Bible for thirty five years, and paying close attention while reading it for twenty six of those years. I attended nineteen years of formal education, all of it in a decidedly spiritual environment. In addition, for the last seventeen years I have had the high and holy privilege of standing before a group of God's people and preaching the Word of God as their pastor. With all of the scriptural study implied in this paragraph it is understandable to me that there are some areas of the Bible that are difficult for us to grasp. After all, it is a book written by God Himself. There are some things in it that are not clear, and I'm not afraid to say that. But, whatever we do, let us not allow salvation to be one of those! Let us be clear on it – 'ye must be born again'. Let us emphasize it in our churches and in our families – 'ye must be born again'. Yes, let us emphasize it very much, for on an understanding and belief in this hangs all things.
Truly, 'ye must be born again.'