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New Beginnings: On Being Born Again

January 20, 2008

John 3:1-17

One of the most outstanding buildings in London is St. Paul’s Cathedral, which was built by Sir Christopher Wren. Hanging inside that cathedral is a painting of Jesus by Holman Hunt. The painting depicts Jesus standing at a door, holding a lantern in one hand. His other hand is positioned in a fist, as if he is knocking at the door. In the surface of the door is a small grill, an opening so that whoever is behind the door can see the person standing outside. Inside that opening is nothing but darkness.

If you really look at the painting’s details, you see what a masterpiece it is. I looked carefully and saw for the first time something I had never seen in any of the copies of this painting: a heart. The door makes one arch of the heart, and the illumination from Jesus makes the other arch of the heart. The entangling vines and thistles have been cleared away from the door so that the outline of that heart is visible. The original painting is hanging in a chapel at Oxford. The artist himself, Hunt, painted a second print so that more people would be able to see it. He painted it on commission near the end of his life. Royalty has worshipped at St. Paul’s Cathedral through the years. In fact, Prince Charles and Princess Diana were married there. Many people go there primarily to see Hunt’s painting.

Your first reaction to my reference to the painting might be, “Oh, yes. I recognize the artist. I have seen that painting before. I know what that scene is supposed to be. I know the meaning behind the painting.”

Gourmet food is wasted on some people. They really do not appreciate food that has been seasoned very carefully, food that has a delicate blend of flavors. Going into a restaurant that has a highly reputable chef is not necessary for them. They just want to chow down because they are hungry. A meal of pinto beans with a little onion is just fine with them. Adding some Tabasco sauce will make almost anything better. These people just want to eat. They just want someone to cook.

My grandfather loved the music of the banjo. Uncle Billy Cannon from the midlands of Tennessee was one of his favorite musicians. He also liked to listen to Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. One day, somebody invited him to a concert of Handel’s Messiah at Converse College. My grandfather sat through that performance at Twichell Auditorium, listening and standing for the “Hallelujah Chorus.” Afterwards, when somebody asked how he liked the performance, he replied, “You know, it would only take about a third of the time if they would quit repeating themselves.” The masterpiece of Handel was somewhat wasted on my grandfather. He never had a course in music appreciation, and the music of the banjo was fine for him.

Some people enjoy gospel lite, a message that is “less filling but tastes great.” They do not want to be bothered with the details. They really do not want to understand the nuances of Scripture. They may say, “Just give me the old time religion. Do not make me think. That old time religion is good enough for me.” They may take that same attitude about John 3. “Oh, yes. That chapter is about being born again. I know all about that. I have heard many sermons about being born again.” If we approach John 3 with that attitude, we respond in the same way Nicodemus did, overlooking some details, some nuances. We will fail to see the magnificence of this passage. You are certainly going to miss the beauty and the poignancy of the encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus.

Something about this itinerant rabbi from Galilee attracted Nicodemus. He came to Jesus, not from a desire to learn but perhaps out of curiosity. Nicodemus came to Jesus with many preconceived ideas. His first words were, “Rabbi, we know…” His encounter with Jesus surprised him.

You, like I, have heard many, many sermons on this passage. We know all about “being born again.” I heard the phrase “born again” used numerous times yesterday as the news media reported on the primary in South Carolina. One commentator used the phrase to describe people in the Upstate. He said, “This is the Bible Belt, you know. Huckabee will play well there among those born again Christians.” The phrase itself has become a cliché that probably takes on more of a political meaning than it does a theological meaning.

A very good Greek word, anōthen, is sometimes translated “again.” Though many translations use the term “born again,” the Scripture passage this morning read, “born from above.” Anōthen has a variety of meanings: “being born the second time,” “being born again,” and “being born from above.” In this encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus, all of these interpretations are important.

I invite you to clear your mind and put aside your preconceptions about John 3. Understand that we stand before a masterpiece. The Gospel of John is one of the most difficult gospels to read if you read it word-for-word. If you look only for the meaning of particular phrases, you will miss the sweep of this gospel. This particular gospel has probably led to the conversion of more people than any other part of the Scriptures. The Gospel of John has changed their lives. It is the first book that gets translated into a new language because a person can get the full sweep of what is happening in the lives of people Jesus encounters, people who needed a fresh start, a new beginning.

Today, as we study this gospel, I want us to look at four questions: Who was Nicodemus? What is significant about the fact that Nicodemus came to Jesus at night? What do the terms “born from above” and “born again” mean? What difference does it make?

Who was Nicodemus? He was a man of prominence, a man of great importance, who served as one of the rulers of the people of Israel. Archon was the Greek word for ruler. He was also a member of the Sanhedrin, a religious court somewhat like the Jewish Supreme Court. The seventy men who were a part of the Sanhedrin were selected because of their wisdom, their experience. They were charged with the responsibility of making important religious decisions for the people of Israel. They were selected so that the two religious sects – the Sadducees and the Pharisees – had equal representation.

Nicodemus was a Pharisee, a word that means, “the separated ones.” The 6,000 Pharisees were like a brotherhood. They had testified before at least two witnesses that they intended to live according to the law, in strict obedience to the law. The Pharisees were supposed to be experts in Jewish law and very committed to the observance of the law.

The law for the Pharisees was the Torah. The first five books of the Tanach are the same as the first five books of our Bible, but arranged a little differently. The Pharisees had studied the Torah and committed themselves to it. They felt that source was God’s perfect law, that nothing should be added and nothing removed. They also believed that God’s perfect law had to be understood in great depth.

The Pharisees had one commentary called the Mishnah, which explained and interpreted Jewish law in detail. It took, for example, the teaching about remembering the Sabbath day and keeping it holy. Just so people would understand exactly, the Mishna discusses that law’s meaning, taking twenty-four chapters to do so. Realizing some years later that everything could not be included in the Mishna, Jewish leaders wrote the Talmud. It further explains the meaning of the law “Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy” in an additional 165 pages.

I want to give you just a few examples about how detailed the Jewish code of law became. It is noteworthy that the Sanhedrin had all kinds of ways of re-defining the law so that they could get around its inconveniences but still be in strict obedience to the law. It was a violation of the law to tie a knot often used by camel drivers or fishermen on the Sabbath. It was fine for a woman to tie the knot in her girdle, so some knots were OK and some knots were not’s. How did this work in practical Jewish life? Suppose you needed to draw water from a well on the Sabbath, using a bucket. A person could not tie a rope to the bucket handle, using a camel driver’s knot or fisherman’s knot. It was acceptable, though, to tie the strap of the wife’s girdle to the bucket in order to lower the bucket into the well.

Consider several other examples. A burden was defined as anything that weighed more than one dried fig. You could carry just enough oil to cook what amounts to one pancake on the Sabbath but no more. You could work around this law if, on Friday before the Sabbath, you took some food and put it somewhere else, that you could declare was an extension of your home. You could use whatever food was there on the Sabbath day without violating the law. A person could walk only a thousand yards on the Sabbath. However, if the person surrounded the house with a perimeter of rope a thousand yards out, then the thousand yards allowable by law extended a thousand yards beyond the rope. Consider one additional example. If a rock wall fell on a person on the Sabbath, enough rocks could be removed to see whether that person was a Jew or a Gentile. The stones were left until the Sabbath was over if the person was a Gentile. The stones were removed if the person was a Jew.

Nicodemus, an expert in the law and a very devout man, came to Jesus at night. Why? Many people have asked this question. Did he come at night because he was being cautious? Was he afraid that someone might see him? Did he come at night because, according to the Pharisees, nighttime was the best time to study? They often held their theological discussions at night. Did he know he could have some private time with Jesus? I do not think anyone knows the answer for sure, but I do know great symbolism exists in the fact that Nicodemus came at night. For all of his learning, Nicodemus was in the dark. He came to Jesus, who is the light of the world.

Through the years, great devotional thinkers have pondered this passage, thinking about what it means to come in darkness and to encounter the light, the light of the world. St. John of the Cross, who went through what he called the “dark night of the soul,” considers this passage, as did Dag Hammarskjöld, the Secretary-General of the United Nations. In the 1950’s, Hammarskjöld kept a spiritual journal later translated and called Markings. More recently, Kathleen Norris, in her book Amazing Grace, talks about this very passage and how she came back to God. She said she felt that she had pretty much misplaced God in her life but that God had not forgotten her.

When you think about Nicodemus coming at night to meet Jesus, did he suddenly come into the light? Was his experience like the one the Apostle Paul had when confronted with a sudden burst of light? Paul was transformed immediately. I do not see any evidence that Nicodemus experienced that type of conversion. I believe he had a gradual transformation similar to light dawning.

Have you ever gotten up way before dawn and watched how the sun rises? It is one of the most beautiful times of day. You begin to see the light, but it does not completely dispel the darkness. It happens gradually until finally you see a burst of light, just as the sun comes over the horizon. I believe that Nicodemus’ conversion was as if the light had dawned.

Nicodemus did not suddenly become a Christian, a believer in Jesus. In fact, if we look at Verses 19-21 toward the end of this passage, we read these words of Jesus to Nicodemus:

“Light has come into the world, but men love darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light and will not come into the light for fear that his deed will be exposed. Whoever lives by the truth comes into the light so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God.”

I do not know we can say exactly why he came to Jesus at night. There is certainly a depth of meaning to be explored there.

What does it mean to be “born again”? I hear people say, “I have a spiritual birthday. You must know when your spiritual birthday is. If you do not know the day you became a Christian, you probably are not really a Christian.” I disagree. I do not believe that is true. Some people know. I suppose the Apostle Paul knew. He could probably mark it down on a calendar and say, “I was born again on the day I was on the road to Damascus. This is when I had that sudden experience.”

Do you know what day you were conceived? Few of us know that information, yet the seed that became your life was planted that day. New birth can require a long gestation period. Human beings require nine months, and elephants require twenty-two months. Being born again can require a long gestation period. It does not happen suddenly for everyone. For some, it is a slow process, a creative process. I remember praying for a man for twenty-five years before he finally accepted Christ. I baptized a man right here at the age of ninety-three. Just a few months ago, I led a hospitalized man who was eighty-five years old to Christ. It does not happen suddenly for everyone. The seed is planted, and it grows until there is this new birth.

Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit” (John 3:5). Some people take that statement to mean baptism. I do not think so. We talk about a woman’s water breaking. Jesus goes on to say that there is a fleshly birth as well as a spiritual birth: “Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit” (John 3:6). The Greek word for spirit, pneuma, is also translated wind. You get this play on words with the use of spirit and wind here in this beautiful text. Jesus talks about the relationship between the spirit and the wind, using the very same word, pneuma. This is a very powerful force in human life. Think of pneuma and pneumatic hammer, an air hammer. Think of a pneumatic drill. The spirit is powerful, but unseen.

What difference does it make? Was Nicodemus born again? When he walked away from Jesus, still under the cover of darkness, he probably did not believe that Jesus was the Son of God. I am sure the seed had been planted though because in Chapter 19, Verse 39, we read that two members of the Sanhedrin – Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus -took the body of Jesus and gave it a decent burial. Nicodemus became a believer, and he anointed the body of the Lord Jesus with precious ointment. He received eternal life, not just life that goes on and on and on forever though I believe eternal life does go on forever. Eternal life has more to do with the quality of life than the quantity of life. It is not just more of the same. It is life that has been changed, life that has an eternal quality. You do not have to wait for death to have eternal life. It is the reason Jesus said, “I have come that they may have life, and have it more abundantly” (John 10:10).

The construction worker had lived a pretty hard life. He had been a rounder. Someone gave him the Gospel of John, which he picked up and started reading. One night, he knelt down beside his bed, asking the Lord Jesus to come into the door of his heart. Think back to Holman Hunter’s painting of Jesus standing outside, knocking. The door has no hardware on the outside. It has no latch. The door must be opened from the inside. This construction worker opened the door to his heart and received Christ.

His fellow workers saw him reading the Gospel of John at work and taunted him, “Surely you don’t believe that stuff. Do you believe that Jesus turned water to wine?”

The worker responded, “I don’t know about that, but I do know this. He can turn beer into groceries. He can change your life. He can change your life so that it makes a real difference in the lives of people you love.”

On the one hand, John is a simple gospel. On the other hand, it is a magnificent work. It is the work of God who loved the world so much that He sent Jesus who stands as the light of the world – with a lantern in one hand and his other hand raised, tapping, tapping, tapping on the door of your heart. If you have never accepted Christ, could I invite you to consider letting the Lord Jesus into your heart? Would you make a decision to receive him, open the door, and let him come into your life?

© 2008 Kirk H. Neely

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