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Author:Dr. Wes Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania
 Tasmania, Australia
 
Title:Christ teaches the vital necessity of new birth for one and all
Text:John 3:1-8 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Our Salvation
 
Preached:2016
Added:2016-12-21
 

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Psalm 92:1,2,6,7

Psalm 143:1,4,5,6 (after the law)

Psalm 104:1,7,8

Hymn 49

Hymn 36

Scripture reading:  Ezekiel 36:22-28

Text: John 3:1-8

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.


Beloved congregation of our Saviour Jesus,

Ries Jansen was a hunter of men.  Though he was Dutch, he worked with the German Nazis during the Second World War.  Ries Jansen was what they call a Nazi collaborator.  As you may remember, the Nazis invaded the Netherlands in 1940 and occupied it until Canadian soldiers liberated the country in 1945.  During the time of the occupation, the Nazis relied on collaborators like Ries Jansen to maintain their rule of terror. 

Ries Jansen worked with the Nazis in hunting down people working for the Underground.  The Underground was a resistance movement.  Because of Ries Jansen, many soldiers of the Dutch Underground were caught and killed by the Nazis.  He was good at what he did.  As a result, he was greatly feared and hated by many Dutch people.

After the war was over, Jansen was arrested by the Dutch government and put on trial for war crimes.  He was found guilty and sentenced to death by firing squad.  A mother of one of his victims read about his death sentence in the newspaper.  She was a Christian.  Even though Jansen had caused her so much heartbreak, she felt compassion for him.  She sent him a Bible and a strongly worded letter in which she presented the gospel to him and urged him to repent before it was too late. 

Sometime before he faced the firing squad, one of the most notorious Dutch war criminals repented of his sins and believed in Jesus Christ.  The day before he died, an evangelist came to visit with him and heard his testimony.  The evangelist read Scripture with him and prayed with him.  The next morning, the evangelist went with Jansen to the forest clearing where he would be executed.  Jansen was blindfolded and tied to a post.  His last words were spoken loudly for all to hear, “Lord Jesus, through the blindfold I see you, nailed to the cross for my sins.  Yes, Lord Jesus, I come.”  Then the shots rang out.

Throughout history there are many dramatic conversion stories like that of Ries Jansen.  Many times an evil wicked person turns to Jesus Christ, leaving everyone around astounded at the change.  How does that miraculous change happen?  How does someone go from being a wicked Nazi collaborator to being a child of God through Jesus?  The answer begins with God giving the person a new heart.  Scripture speaks in different ways about this initial change:  regeneration is one way, being born again is another way, and new creation is still another way. 

Whatever way we speak about it, it is clear that there is no hope of salvation without that change.  Unless God gives you a new heart, you cannot turn from your sins, believe in Christ and be saved.  These truths are before us this morning from the Gospel According to John.  We’re looking at this crucial passage in which Nicodemus comes to Jesus, one teacher to another.  But it’s Nicodemus who gets schooled.  Jesus teaches him and us about the vital necessity of the new birth which brings one to eternal life.          

So I preach to you God’s Word  as we see how Christ teaches the vital necessity of new birth for one and all. 

We’ll see the remarkable:

  1. Confession of a Pharisee
  2. Claim of Christ
  3. Confusion that resulted
  4. Clarification

Our Lord Jesus had come to Jerusalem for the Passover.  While he was there, he cleaned up the Temple.  According to our passage and the one before, Jesus also did other signs in Jerusalem.  He had performed miracles of healing, for example.  In the last part of chapter 2, we’re told that this led to many “believing” in his name.  However, this was not a true, saving faith in him.  Consequently, he held himself back from them.  Because Christ knew what was really going on in their hearts, he did not entrust himself to them.  He did not give to them the full revelation of who he was and what he’d come to do.  Chapter 2 ends with the words, “for he himself knew what was in man.”  Jesus has the power to look into the souls of people and see what’s there, whether there’s faith or not.  “…He himself knew what was in man.”

Now chapter 3 begins with a particular man.  The general truth found at the end of chapter 2 gets applied to a specific man in chapter 3.  That specific man was a Pharisee named Nicodemus.  The Holy Spirit is very specific about the identity of this man and for a reason.  Nicodemus is not just a regular Jew.  He’s a Pharisee.  He’s part of the religious establishment, an influential leader and ruler of the Jews.  The Pharisees were known to be orthodox in following biblical teaching, certainly much more so than the Sadducees.  However, the emphasis of the Pharisees was on earning your place with God by your obedience.  They said that you could expect to go to heaven when you died if you were doing your best to obey God’s laws.  By God’s laws, they not only meant what was actually written in what we call the Old Testament, but also in the Jewish traditions that had been built on what was written.  For the Pharisees, it was all about following religious requirements on the outside.  That’s what Nicodemus thought too.

Nicodemus came to Jesus, says verse 2.  We’re not told what his motivations were.  Perhaps he was intrigued by what he’d been hearing and seeing from Jesus.  Perhaps he had been sent by the other Pharisees of the Sanhedrin to investigate Jesus.  Those are two possibilities, but we can only guess because Scripture doesn’t say. 

We’re also not told why he came by night.  There’s been speculation about that too.  Possibly he was afraid of being seen with Jesus.  That would especially be the case if he was there on his own initiative.  But it could also be that he came at night because that was a quieter time to have a one-on-one conversation with Jesus.  This detail could also be included because of the fact that it fits with Nicodemus’ spiritual condition.  Back in chapter 1, the Holy Spirit reminds us that Jesus is the light that shines in the darkness.  Here comes Nicodemus and the time of his coming reflects the state of his heart.  Jesus is about to shine some light into the night of his soul. 

But first comes the remarkable confession of this Pharisee.  He addresses Jesus as a fellow Rabbi – he shows him proper respect, even though Jesus does come from Galilee and has no formal religious training.  He and his fellow Pharisees have seen the signs that Jesus has done.  Again, this is not only the cleansing of the Temple, but also the healings, and other miracles.  All of that has left a distinct impression on the Pharisees.  They know that these things could not be done by just anyone.  “We know that you are a teacher come from God…”  In other words, we know that you are someone special, someone different, someone with divine approval.  He acknowledges at the end of verse 2 that God is with Jesus. 

That confession is noteworthy.  It tells us two things.  It tells us that Nicodemus and the other Pharisees knew in their hearts that Jesus was on a divine mission.  That doesn’t mean that they knew that he was the Messiah, or that he was divine.  But they knew that he had a calling from God.  Even though later on they say that he is affiliated with Satan, in their hearts they know different.  There’s a conflict between their words and what they know to be true in their hearts.  That illustrates what Paul writes later in Romans 1.  In Romans 1, Paul says that all unbelievers know that God is there and he will judge, but they suppress this truth in unrighteousness.  They don’t want to openly acknowledge it.  But here, in his quiet nighttime meeting with Jesus, Nicodemus does admit it.  The truth comes out. 

The other thing we learn in verse 2 is that what Nicodemus says here is not enough.  It’s not enough to admit that Jesus is a teacher come from God.  It’s not enough to say that Jesus is on God’s side.  That’s not saving faith.  It’s on the right track, but the person who says that is not yet where they need to be.  We know that because of the way Jesus responds to Nicodemus’ confession.  He doesn’t say, “Oh good, you’re where you need to be now.”  No, instead, he goes deeper and illustrates that Nicodemus still needs something vitally necessary.  For people today too, including us, it’s not enough to just say that Jesus is a great teacher.  Brothers and sisters, it’s not enough to acknowledge some truths about him.  It’s not enough to say that you have respect for him.  You can say all those things and, like Nicodemus, still be in the dark.  Something more is needed.  We have to go further and listen to how Christ responds.

His response begins in verse 3.  It’s worth noting that the Holy Spirit says that “Jesus answered him…”  Normally, an answer comes to a question.  There’s no question in verse 2.  You could say that Jesus is simply responding, but in light of the end of chapter 2, there’s something more going on.  Jesus knows what is in Nicodemus.  He knows how a Pharisee thinks and that’s what brings on his words in verse 3.  He knows that a Pharisee thinks he’s going to enter the kingdom of heaven through being an obedient law-keeper. As long as a Pharisee ticks all the right boxes, he thinks he’s going to have eternal life in God’s presence.  A Pharisee like Nicodemus thinks that his accomplishments are going to get him into heaven.  God will see the good he’s done and reward him with eternal life.  This delusion is what lives in the heart of a Pharisee and Jesus knew it and he responded accordingly.  He’s not answering a question, but answering a heart that has it all wrong. 

Jesus’ answer begins with “Truly, truly…”  In the original, it says, “Amen, amen.”  It means that Christ is not joking, not giving a funny riddle.  This is deadly serious.  It was for Nicodemus and it is for all of us here this morning too.  You have to take Jesus seriously.  He says, “Unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”  This is Christ’s remarkable claim.  We need to consider it carefully. 

Jesus is speaking about “seeing the kingdom of God.”  In verse 5, he uses a similar expression, “entering the kingdom of God.”  That’s a Jewish way of speaking about eternal life.  Seeing or entering the kingdom of God means experiencing the life that lasts forever in the presence of the King.  It means living under his rule forever and ever.  Jesus is speaking about salvation.  If you are going to be saved, something must happen. 

That something is being born again.   Look with me at the footnote at the bottom of the page in your ESV Bibles.  This is an important detail.  It says, “Or from above; the Greek is purposely ambiguous and can mean both again and from above; also verse 7.”  This is true.  The Greek word has a double-meaning here and the Holy Spirit has chosen it intentionally.  Traditionally, the translation is “born again,” but we have to recognize that it’s also saying, “born from above.”  I think you could even combine them, “born again from above.”  This expression is speaking about a new birth that comes from God.  To use more theological language, this is referring to initial regeneration.  It’s referring to what happens so that a person repents and believes in Jesus Christ for the first time. 

Here we need to pause and clarify a couple of matters.  What Christ is speaking about here is initial regeneration, being born again by God’s Spirit.  Now sometimes Reformed people talk about regeneration and being born again in a different way.  Sometimes we use those words to refer to sanctification.  Sanctification is the ongoing process of becoming holy.  So, sometimes Reformed believers speak about regeneration as that daily process.  However, that’s not what’s in view here.  It’s not as if Nicodemus was already a believer, and just needed to be regenerated every day in an ongoing process.  No, he needed that initial regeneration.  He had a heart that was dead and needed to be replaced with a living heart.  He had a nature dead in sin that needed to be replaced with a new nature.  Christ is speaking here about regeneration as something that happens to a person at a particular moment.  One moment the person is dead in sin, and then the next moment, that person is spiritually alive.  It’s not a process, but an event that Jesus is speaking about.

Loved ones, that event must be a reality for anyone to be a Christian.  You cannot take hold of Christ as your Saviour unless you’ve been born again, unless you’ve been regenerated.  Questions always arise from that.  One common question is:  do you have to be able to identify that moment when you were regenerated?  Some people can.  Others can’t and that’s okay.  Sometimes the time is a mystery.  But listen:  the Bible doesn’t insist that you have to be able to pin down a moment when you were born again.  But it does say that you do have to be born again. 

So the other question that might arise is:  how do you know if you have been regenerated, born again?  If we skip ahead to verse 8 for a moment, the answer is in the effect.  What results from regeneration?  The first and most important thing is faith in Jesus Christ.  Do you believe that he is your Saviour?  Do you believe that he’s your only hope for heaven?  Do you believe that he took your hell on the cross? Do you believe that he lived a perfect life of obedience in your place?  If you hold on to him and him only for your salvation, that’s the effect of regeneration in your life.  In his grace, God has given you a new heart so that you place your trust in Jesus.  You can know you’ve been regenerated when you truly believe in Jesus Christ. 

So Christ’s remarkable claim was that new birth from above is required for eternal life.  But that claim was met with remarkable confusion on the part of Nicodemus.  Here we’re in verse 4.  Nicodemus doesn’t understand, perhaps he doesn’t want to understand or can’t.  He hears “born again” and he thinks of natural birth.  Here he is, presumably an older man, and he’s imagining the ridiculous picture of an old man crawling back inside his mother’s womb to go through the birth process again.  What a silly idea!  “How can a man be born when he is old?”            

Was it a genuine question or was Nicodemus just being difficult?  It’s hard to say for sure.  But keep in mind that Christ is speaking to someone who doesn’t get it.  Why doesn’t he get it?  Because he’s in need of regeneration.  This illustrates what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1:14, “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for them are folly to him…”  Without being born again, unbelievers can’t truly grasp spiritual truths.  Their dead hearts and minds keep them from being able to understand these things on a deeper level.  Nicodemus hears about being born again and he confuses physical birth and spiritual birth.   What is Jesus talking about?

In verses 5 to 8, Jesus clarifies further about this new birth that’s vitally necessary.  In verse 5, he begins again by making that solemn affirmation, “Truly, truly, I say to you….”  “Amen, amen.”  In other words, “Nicodemus, I’m not giving you funny riddles, this is totally serious.”  Then he says, “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”  These are the most debated words in our passage.  Scholars and commentators all basically agree on what it means to be born again.  But “born of water and the Spirit”?  Totally different case.  If we begin with the second part of that, “he cannot enter the kingdom of God,” that’s clearly referring again to eternal life, to salvation.  So Christ is speaking here about something that’s vitally necessary for anyone to attain eternal life. 

“Unless one is born of water and the Spirit…”  Why does Jesus introduce “water” here?  What is water referring to? 

One common explanation is that “water” is referring to natural birth, alluding perhaps to the breaking of the water when a baby is coming into the world.  So water is basically what we call amniotic fluid.  However, there are no ancient sources where we find birth referred to in this way.  Moreover, it would be obvious that someone would have to experience natural birth first before spiritual birth.  If that’s what it means, it’s redundant, it’s stating the obvious. 

Another explanation sometimes offered is that this is speaking about baptism.  “Water” means that people have to not only be regenerated, but also baptized.  But the institution of Christian baptism comes later, so that would be reading something back into the text.  It therefore seems highly unlikely that this is a reference to baptism.

Commentator D.A. Carson reminds us that there are three things that need to be remembered here when we try to understand these words.  First, this expression means something along the same lines as verse 3: being born again from above runs parallel to being born of water and the Spirit.  Second, the little word “of” is connected with both “water” and “the Spirit.”  That tells us that there’s a single thing in view here, not two things.  Finally, a little further Jesus goes at Nicodemus for not getting this.  He’s a teacher of the Scriptures and he should understand.  That strongly suggests that we should be looking to the Old Testament context to try and get this.

So if we look at the Old Testament, we find passages like what we read from Ezekiel 36.  There we find mention of both the Holy Spirit and water.  The work of the Holy Spirit is described in terms of what water does:  renewal and cleansing.  God promises, “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleanesses…”  Then he says, “I will give you a new heart and a new spirit I will put within you.  And I will remove the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.  And I will put my Spirit within you…”  That’s the language of regeneration in the Old Testament.  It’s that language that Jesus is using with Nicodemus to try and drive home his greatest need.  Being born of water and the Spirit is just another way of referring to initial regeneration, being born again from above.  It’s a way of speaking about the new birth that comes from God.  Without that new birth, no one comes to salvation – therefore, it’s vitally necessary.

In verse 6, Christ drives home the point further by saying that like begets like.  Sinful human nature produces sinful human nature.  But when the Spirit does his regenerating work, a new nature appears.  This is a nature which is living and spiritual, tied into God.

Then in verses 7 and 8, Christ takes a slightly different approach at addressing the confusion of Nicodemus.  He’s told him that he must be born again.  You’ll see a little footnote there in verse 7 with the word “you.”  The footnote tells us that the “you” here is plural.  Jesus is now not just speaking to Nicodemus, but to more – even to us.  You could translate, “You all must be born again.” 

That being born again is a mysterious thing, done by the Holy Spirit when he graciously chooses to do it.  That’s the point of the illustration in verse 8.  Christ compares the work of the Holy Spirit to the wind.  The wind appears to go wherever it wants.  It blows here and there, and you don’t know where it’s come from or where it’s going.  You can’t see the wind or predict it.  You can’t control it.  However, you can hear its sound and you can see its effects.  Things are the same with the Holy Spirit and his work of regeneration.  When he regenerates someone, when he brings them to spiritual life, you’re going to see an effect.  You’re going to see faith in Jesus Christ.  You’re going to see a turning from sin.  You’re going to see a love and delight to live in holiness.  Being born of the Spirit has an impact on a person’s life.  How it exactly happens is mysterious.  You can’t predict when it will happen with someone.  But when it does, it’s amazing and you praise God.  You praise God when you know it’s happened to you, you praise God when you see it happen with others. 

That brings us to consider what we do with the teaching of Christ here.  Years ago, there was a popular book entitled, “How to Be Born Again.”  The author gave the impression that there were steps you could follow to attain the new birth that Jesus spoke of here in John 3.  What we just considered in verse 8 shows that the author was wrong.  You cannot manipulate or control the Holy Spirit.  He will do his work of regeneration with someone when he pleases.  He is sovereign over this work.  You don’t cause yourself to be born and you don’t cause yourself to be born again.  You don’t do it.  This is something that happens to you.  You didn’t earn it.  It’s something that comes from grace, through the sovereign Spirit.    

So what if you look at your heart and you say, “I don’t think I’m regenerated.  I don’t really believe in Jesus Christ and so I don’t think this has happened to me.  I don’t think the Holy Spirit has given me this new birth.”  What then?  If that’s you, then I would ask:  “Do you want this?  Do you want the new birth that’s vitally necessary so that you can enter the kingdom of heaven?”   Why wouldn’t you want it?  Why would anyone want the alternative?  If you want it, then you need to pray for it.  You can pray to God and ask him to give you a heart of flesh instead of a heart of stone.  You can pray and ask for the Holy Spirit to give you new birth so that you can take hold of Christ and live forever.  In fact, God calls you to do that, he wants everyone to do that.  Loved ones, if you can’t say for sure right now that you’re born again, then pray for it.  Pray urgently for it, because without it there’s no hope for heaven.

When it comes to our children, here too we need to make this a matter of prayer.  I’ve heard people say that all of our baptized children are regenerated, born again.  That view is called baptismal regeneration and it’s a serious error.  It is dead wrong.  Listen carefully:  you are not regenerated or born again just because you were baptized.  Baptism does not automatically grant regeneration to those who receive it.  If it did, then all who are baptized would inevitably believe and have the fruits of a holy life.  But we all know that’s not the case.  Sadly, sometimes our children grow up and they’re unbelievers.  They don’t accept the gospel promises God made to them in their baptism and they don’t aim to live a holy life.  They just don’t care.  If baptism regenerated, then you wouldn’t see that.  No, the Holy Spirit regenerates a person and when he does that work, a saving faith in Jesus inevitably follows.  A person takes hold of Christ and their life is changed.  It’s not a given that every baptized child will be born again.  So here’s what every parent needs to do regularly:  pray.  You disciple your children with the gospel promises, but you also need to pray.  Pray fervently and regularly that the Holy Spirit will do his work of regeneration in your children.  Pray that your children will all be born again.  This is one of the most important ways that you can and must pray for your children.  Pray for their regeneration!

Being born again is a remarkable thing.  Those who’ve been born again are different for it.  Regeneration is an amazing, miraculous change.  Our Canons of Dort put it well in chapter 3-4, article 12, “It is…clearly a supernatural, most powerful, and at the same time most delightful, marvellous, mysterious, and inexpressible work.  According to Scripture, inspired by the Author of this work, regeneration is not inferior in power to creation or the raising of the dead.”  You got that?  Being born again is just as amazing as creation or resurrection.  Who should we be amazed at?  God.  It’s his grace.  This is God’s work and he deserves all the praise and glory when we’ve experienced it and see it.  Because it’s God’s work, let’s also remember to pray for those who haven’t yet experienced it, whether our children or others.  AMEN.

Prayer:

Heavenly Father,

For the glorious work of regeneration we praise your Name.  Being born again from above, then believing in Jesus Christ, we give all the credit and glory to you.  We exalt your Holy Spirit for what he does in our hearts, giving them life, giving them faith and a desire to live for you.  What an amazing thing this is and for it we worship you.  We don’t deserve it, it’s all grace and for it we exalt your Name.  Father, this morning we pray for those who are not yet born again.  We think of any among us who are still in unbelief.  We pray that your Spirit would give them hearts of flesh and lead them to true faith in the Saviour.  We pray for all the children of this congregation.  We beg you Father, please let your Spirit do his sovereign work in all their hearts.  We pray that in due time we can see all of our children publicly and sincerely accepting the promises that were signed and sealed to them in baptism.  We pray that because we love them and we want to praise your Name as you show your mercy to them in Jesus.  But Father we also remember those among us who have family members who don’t show any signs of regeneration, for those who have rebelled against you and are living in unbelief.  We pray for those family members.  We again bring them before your throne and ask you to yet work in their hearts with your Spirit.  LORD God, we plead with you:  show mercy to those we love, and cause them to be born again.  We think of others that we love and care about too who are lost, whether friends or co-workers.  Father, we pray that we can witness your sovereign grace in their lives bringing them to salvation in Jesus.

 

                                                                              




* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

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