Jesus answered him, “I assure you and most solemnly say to you, unless a person is born again [reborn from above—spiritually transformed, renewed, sanctified], he cannot [ever] see and experience the kingdom of God.”
You can imagine Nicodemus scratching his head as he leaned in, and listened to Jesus the night they met up to chat. Nicodemus was one of the top religious leaders of the country, respected and admired by everyone who knew him. He was devoted to keeping a rigid set of religious rules to prove that he was worthy. That’s what his friends taught, and that’s the system he had known all his life.
But then Jesus rocked his world. Probably with a twinkle in His eye because He knew He was stretching Nicodemus’ mind, Jesus announced a revolutionary new way of relating to God. It wasn’t through all those rules and rituals Nicodemus had been following. This new way was through the Spirit of God transforming people’s hearts and making them alive as they’d never been before. It was so radical that Jesus called it being “born again.”
All of us long for a rich, full, meaningful life. God promises that kind of life as the result of experiencing His forgiveness and transformation. But some of us can’t accept the fact that it’s a gift. We still want to prove ourselves by following some set of rules, so we push Jesus’ offer away instead of gratefully accepting it.
Jesus is incredibly patient. Though Nicodemus didn’t seem to understand that night, he eventually grasped the fact that he could never follow enough rules to impress God. Something later, Nicodemus believed, and he was born again.
To be good in the eyes of the world is one thing. To be saved is another matter.
God doesn’t have any grandchildren.
E. Stanley Jones
It’s interesting to me that we keep coming back to the very same questions that were asked by the people to Jesus. Nicodemus asking Jesus what we’re the correct things to do to please God. The question of the rich young ruler who asked, “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” The question of the disciples, “What shall we do that we might work the works of God?” At the end of the day it comes down to the very same questions. We want to know what things we must do, what rituals we must practice and how should we practice them, and what rules should we keep so that we can please God and have eternal life with Him. If you ask this question to a hundred people you will get a hundred answers. We create church creeds, elaborate, clearly defined rituals, and rigid sets of rules and yet we find ourselves out of compliance more often than we might wish to admit. This was the challenge all the question askers faced. What ways can we find to somehow earn or contribute to our attaining eternal life? Jesus simplified it in every occasion. He said that we must accept that what He had done was sufficient and that our attempt to be righteous through our own efforts was at best like filthy rags.
What makes accepting the grace of God and the forgiveness of our sins so difficult is that it leaves us with nothing to boast about. We can’t feel superior to others when we understand that we are the children of God because of a gift and they are children of God because of the same gift and inspite of wanting to be the achiever we are no more capable of earning grace than anyone else. The astounding gift that God has given to us through Christ, the fact that it is truly free with no hidden clauses, and the fact that it is received by believing was hard for Nicodemus to accept since he had been taught all his life that a relationship with God was through his ability to keep the commandments and to rigidly practice the set rituals with absolutely no variation. Should we keep the commandments? Absolutely. Are there rituals that are important practices of faith? Absolutely. It’s not that these things aren’t important. As a matter of fact, Jesus Himself said, “I did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it.”
What Jesus is saying to Nicodemus and us is that the outward practice of the law and ritual by themselves isn’t sufficient. What everyone needs is not an external practice but an inward heart change. In another conversation with the Pharisees, Jesus explained that merely outwardly practicing the proper rituals and keeping the visible law was like being a sepulcher. While the external appearance was beautiful, inside was filled with death and decomposing corpses. Jesus taught that a relationship with God is a transformation, a transformation so radical that He called it being “born again.” Nicodemus asked a fair question. He wanted to know how it would be possible to start his life over. I’m sure as an old man, he was reflecting on those things he wished he could do over. Many of us look back on our past life and sometimes wish there was a rewind and replay button. Given Nicodemus’ training, I’m sure he was thinking that if he could redo his life, he would make better decisions. We do not know how many times he had gone to the temple, how many rituals he had done, how many times he had gone to the high priest to have a sacrifice offered for his sins. What we know is that he was aware that in spite of all his efforts something was still missing. He hears about Jesus, perhaps he was among the crowd when Jesus gave the Sermon on the Mount. He realized that what he really needed was an internal cleansing, to find the purity and wholeness again, and to be relieved from the guilt and shame of failure. He was no different than us. Isn’t that what we all crave? Can you imagine having a life without regret or guilt or shame?
So Jesus sat Nicodemus down and said to him, “Through Me you can start over. Through Me you can be cleansed. Through Me you can have life and life more abundantly. Through Me you can live again. Through Me you can have peace beyond measure. Through Me you will no longer practice rituals hoping that in some way if you get them perfected, you will qualify for acceptance into the kingdom of God. Through Me every ritual and act of worship will take on meaning for they will become an expression of the heart, the heart that has been cleansed and transformed by the Spirit. Through Me you will truly become a new creation and all you were will become lost in all you are in Me.”
And He offers the same to you and I. No more going through the motions, no more trying to please God with “dead works” but now a living relationship with a living God who lives inside us and is with us. No more existing but becoming alive to live life in a new way with a new perspective. And all of this is free to us because God so loved us that He picked up the tab. So won’t you today just come and sit at Jesus’ feet and let Him work the “new birth” in you? You truly can be “born again” with new peace and joy!
Dr. John Thompson