What do you think of when you hear the words “born again?” For me, I can’t help but think of Ned Flanders, the uptight religious neighbor of Homer Simpson. An all-around nice guy, but someone whose religious views and narrow moral code are a constant annoyance.
But who needs to be born again? We might think of those who come from a shady background who need to “see the light.” It’s certainly not for the educated, or the sophisticated. And it’s certainly not a need for people like Ned Flanders. If you’ve grown up in church, there’s a possibility that you think you’ve got the Jesus thing figured out. You grew up in Youth Group. You go to church every week. You listen to Hillsong in the car. You even attend a small group. What else is there?
Let’s meet Nicodemus.
John 3:1-21 Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. 2 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 these signs that you do unless God is with him.”
Remember how earlier Jesus had basically started a small riot in the Temple? It was a public way of saying: “The Messiah is now here.” The religious leaders wouldn’t have missed this—and certainly not one so prominent as Nicodemus, “a ruler of the Jews.” So it’s understandable that Nicodemus would come under cover of darkness—why risk his reputation by being seen talking to this rabble-rouser?
3 Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” 4 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?” 5 Jesus answered, “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 had spent the better part of his life serving the Temple. Yet he fails to grasp what Jesus is saying. Jesus isn’t offering another religious program to attend. He’s proclaiming radical spiritual renewal: being “born again.”
Do you see the irony? The Temple was the one place where you’d expect to experience the presence of God. Yet for Nicodemus, the Temple was what he used to hide from God. And we live in the same danger. It’s very easy to get caught up in church activity and the “busyness” of our faith—and miss the radically transforming power of Jesus. In fact, in many ways it’s easier to hide from God in church than in a brothel(!). In the latter, it’s easy to know that you’re far from God. But in Church, you can hide from God while looking like a pillar in your community—a man of great respect. But inside you are dying. You have all the religious language, but none of the spiritual intimacy.
9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? 11 Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
Nicodemus is still baffled. So Jesus does what He does best: He tells Him a story. In the film V for Vendetta, an police inspector is trying to unravel a massive governmental conspiracy. As his search nears its end, he meets with an unnamed informant. “I believe you have some information for me,” he says. “No, inspector,” the informant replies. “You have all the information already. All the facts are inside your head. What you want—what you really need—is a story.” Nicodemus didn’t need another sermon. He was one of the smartest men in Israel. No; what he needed was a story. He needed some way of organizing the separate pieces into a cohesive whole.
Jesus tells him the story of the snakes in the desert. Israel, during their years of wandering, was afflicted by a plague of poisonous snakes. To deepen their trust in Him, God tells their leader Moses to craft a bronze snake and attach it to his staff. If you were bitten, you had only to look at this raised staff and be cured. Do you understand what Jesus is saying? He’s saying there’s something wrong with each of us—something poisonous inside our hearts—that no amount of religious duty can cure. John goes on to editorialize this very point:
16 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. 20 For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. 21 But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.”
Our hearts are darkened. Poisonous. The great tragedy is that men like Nicodemus had become numb to this fact because their lives were so clearly defined through religious observance. But Jesus says: That’s not good enough. You need to be born again. Into the darkness of man’s heart, God speaks a wisdom unsearchable, a love unthinkable, a grace incalculable, and a mercy unending. When Jesus is exalted in His death and resurrection, the poison is drawn from the wounds of our soul, and into those same wounds Jesus pours the water of His Spirit.
Are you like Nicodemus? Have you been active in church activities your whole life, but have no true experience of the gospel? Don’t let moments like this one pass you by. Today could be your day to experience God up close.