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Jun 03, 2012

Spiritual Birth Certificates

Passage: John 3:1-21

Preacher: John Repsold

Series: Life to the Full

Category: New Testament

Keywords: birth, born again, works, faith, belief, religious life


Jesus has no problem dealing with religious and non-religious people alike. This chapter brings us face to face with what God does and what we can't do to to experience spiritual life through spiritual birth. It also has strong implications for how Christians are to live in simple belief in Christ for the duration of their life.


Spiritual Birth Certificate

John 3:1-21

June 3, 2012


Video:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4m_dP2n-5W8


There is one experience I can safely say we’ve all shared in life:  BIRTH.  Birth determines SO many things. 

  • Genetically it will determine what disease you may develop, whether you’ll be sort or tall, skinny or hefty, red-haired, brunet, blond, fair or dark complexion, and hundreds of other physical factors. 
  • Who you were born to determined WHERE you lived for many years of your life. 
  • It determined WHO you would share the most formative years of your life with, WHAT you would experience, the siblings you would laugh and fight with, the houses you would live in, the schools you would go to. 

WHO you are born to will have the biggest impact on more factors in your life than just about anything. 

      Maybe that’s why the older we get the more we either tend to blame or brag about our parents.  J  SO much of life is influenced by who brought us into this world. 

      Today we’re in a passage about birth and the impact it has on every one of us, whether negatively or positively.  Jesus is talking with a spiritual “doctor” who seems to have missed the lecture and rotation on spiritual obstetrics.  But he’s a guy who had plenty to be proud of.


CONNECT:  So to get this going here today, I’d like to ask you to share with a couple of people around you 1 or 2 things your parents did or were that makes you proud of them.  Some of you may be thinking, “I can’t name a single thing I think my parents did right.”  Well, work hard.  Try and come up with something they did well.  And if you can’t, then come up with 2

 things you wish you could have been proud about your parents. 


Scripture Reading:  John 3:1-21


Background:  Jesus is doing a lot of miracles in Jerusalem during the annual Passover Feast (where more devout Jews came to worship at the temple than any other time of the year). 

Result:  lots of people “believed” (2:23) in him. 


But not all “belief” is created equal…as we shall see in just a moment.  In fact, at the end of chapter 2, John makes the comment that Jesus didn’t build his life or work upon how people were responding to him at any given moment.  Unlike you and me, he did what he did completely independent of how people responded to it. His work was not based upon crowd appeal.  (Amazing how the church has gotten that wrong over the years!) 


In John 3, John introduces us to a fellow who’s going to pop up a couple more times before this book is out. 

Name:  Nicodemus (“Nic” by his friends?)

Resume credentials (3:1-2):  Pretty impressive. 

  • A Pharisee:  Pharisees were not the aristocrats of the day but rather the sort of “middle class”, usually businessmen like merchants and traders. 
  • They were the most popular political/religious group in Israel during Jesus’ time.  In fact, they were “the other party” from the Sadducees.  The Sadducees were the ones in charge of the Temple.  So when Jesus drove out the money changers and animal sellers we heard about last week in chapter 2, the Pharisees were probably the first people to applaud. 
  • Pharisees were deeply concerned with practice of the religious law more than “correct theology.”  This is why they developed unbelievably strict and minute oral traditions about how the written law was to be obeyed. 

For example, the law of the Sabbath said that it was to be a day of rest in which no one was to do any work.  So the Pharisees set about drawing fine lines about what work was.  For instance, a woman was told that she must not look into a mirror on the Sabbath because she might see a gray hair and be tempted to pull it out, which would be working!  (Any women here today not look in a mirror??? J  It’s obvious that many of us at least didn’t succumb to the temptation to pull out gray hairs! J

  • In general, Pharisees were not that far from many of us who want to be careful not to play “fast and loose” with God’s laws.  In order not to abuse God’s grace, we tend to get real conservative about what we think is acceptable behavior in our homes, by our children, in our culture, in our churches or in public life.  I’m not talking about the clear things in God’s word described as right or wrong; I’m talking about the world of things outside of what is clearly stated as sin that God gives us freedom on.  Pharisees were not the liberals of the day; they were the conservatives!


Nicodemus was a member of the “Jewish ruling council” according to vs. 1.  This would have been the political body of the Jews, the Sanhedrin.  The closest thing to our experience would be a Supreme Court Justice…who also was a member of the U.S. Senate…sort of a double-power base. 

  • These were often the scholarly/genius types from among the Pharisees, the “ivy league graduates” of Jerusalem. 
  • They had authority over Jewish civil law…as well as final say over interpretations of the religious law. 
  • There were only 71 of them. 
  • Probably elected for life…therefore older.
  • Probably also wealthy. 

      The long and short of it—Nic was smart, he was seasoned, he was conservative, he was politically powerful and he was extremely religious and careful about what he did and how he acted in every conceivable corner of his life.  Had Time Magazine been around, he could well have been “Man of the Year” at some time in his life.  He might well have been a leader in a conservative party in America these days.  Nic was a guy many of us would have really liked and respected.  And we would have felt very honored if his Press Secretary had called and asked for a meeting with us. 


Of course, if you know the Gospels, you know that Jesus reserved some of his toughest words for the Pharisees.  Jesus despised their legalistic tendencies and the burdens that put on people.  (Check out Mt. 23 if you have any doubts.)

But look at the kind of man Nic was.  He doesn’t seem to be like most of his buddies in the Sanhedrin.  He’s even got a pretty good set of “beliefs” about Jesus. 

  • He addresses him respectfully in vs. 2 as “Rabbi” which means “teacher”.  That’s a pretty significant statement coming from a man who certainly considered himself one of the most competent “teachers” in Israel and being directed at a man who was not part of any rabbinical group or training school or Pharisee club.  A bit like Einstein calling you or me “Professor” or “Dr.”
  • Nic affirms that Jesus is “a teacher who has come from God.”  That’s a heck of a lot better than most of the Pharisees did (according to Mt. 9:34 & 12:24) when they attributed his power to drive out demons and heal people to Beelzebub, the prince of demons!  Not Nic.  He clearly states his belief that 1.) what Jesus was doing was miraculous, and 2.) his power to do it didn’t come from “the dark side” but rather God Almighty. 
  • Nic was a whole lot more generous and gracious than a few Christians I’ve met in my day.  To the other Pharisees, he probably looked like he was not being conservative enough.  In fact, he gets in trouble with the bulk of the Pharisees in John 7:50ff when he advocated hearing Jesus out rather than arresting him.  They “dissed” Nic with a regional slam at where they thought Jesus was from.  “Are you from Galilee, too?  Look into it, and you will find that a prophet does not come out of Galilee.” (Jn. 7:52).


APP:  How generous would you be if a new move of God came along in your lifetime?  Would you feel threatened by it and need to “demonize” it?  Or would you do “due diligence” by listening, studying God’s word and seeing if it just might really be God at work?  

      God seems to always be doing things like this.  There are always new people God wants to use in new and fresh ways to advance His kingdom.  Of course, Jesus is in a class and category all by himself.  As John points out over and over again, he wasn’t just some new prophet or teacher.  He was God in human flesh, incarnate.  He was the Messiah, the Christ, the Promised One, the Only Begotten of God the Father, full of grace and truth. 

      Pastors need to be careful not to shut down or sideline younger men God may be raising up to lead his church…their church!  Any of us involved in kingdom ministry in any capacity can tend to get very territorial about ministry.  I’ve seen it happen over and over again in churches.  Some of the best servants of Christ forget that any ministry assignment for any of us is only temporary.  The failure to “let go” and make room for fresh servants of God in the church is one of the biggest reasons churches decline and die.  Please, if you see me doing this, somebody slap me! J


Back to John 3:3ff.

Jesus doesn’t seem to even hear the complements.  He knows that what Nic believes about him, the demons he is casting out also “believe” that of him.  That “belief” isn’t going to be enough to get Nic to 1st base.  So Jesus pitches a “curve ball” at him, one which goes right past him for a strike.

Jn. 3:3—“I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.” 


What’s born again all about?

We’ve heard this phrase “born again” so much that it has basically lost it’s meaning. 

  • Conoco Corp. claims it is “born again” on global warming.
  • Most Hindus don’t have much difficulty in claiming that they’ve been “born again”…over and over and over again! 
  • MSNBC had an article on “born again virgins”—people who are “revirginizing” their not-so-virgin past experiences.
  • A new study from Duke University Medical Center examined the hippocampus region of the brain and found that Protestants who did not have a "born again" experience had significantly more gray matter than either those who reported a life-changing religious experience, Catholics, or unaffiliated older adults.
  • Norman Lear who started People for the American Way has also launched an on-line Born Again America project that seeks to counter conservative Christian political groups.
  • The term “born again” has been used to recycle everything from books to electronics all across the country.  There’s “Born Again Technologies” in Tennessee, a “Born Again Resale & Consignment” in Lewiston, ID and a “Born Again Used Books” in Colorado Springs, CO.   


As surprised as some of us might be by these applications of our beloved term “born again”, I still don’t think we’re as shocked as Nic was when Jesus told him he’d have to undergo that procedure in order to even “see the kingdom of God.”  Even cloning doesn’t get the same “person” back into the belly. 


It’s really hard to come up with an equally shocking type of metaphor today.  Maybe we could try…

  • “You must change your race in order to see God.”
  • “You must become a midget in order to experience God.”
  • “You must morph into…an angel…in order to….”


Can anyone in this room do any of those things???  (Good to see we’re all sane here today!) 

Jesus’ point?  YOU CAN’T DO IT…BUT GOD DOES!


Now that Jesus has Nic’s attention, he begins to explain what kind of “born again” experience he has to have.  3:5-8


The explanation doesn’t help much.  The last words John records from Nic are the same thing lots of shocked husbands have said when their wives told them they were expecting:  “How can this be?” J

John has picked up a metaphor here that he had introduced back in 1:12-13 when he talked about how anyone could “become children of God.”  He clarified there that it was not by “natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.” 


That helps us understand what Jesus is talking about here in John 3:5-6. 

What does it mean to be born “of water and the Spirit”???

Nobody has problems with the meaning of “born of the Spirit.”  It’s pretty clear that John is talking about something the Holy Spirit does totally apart from any human plan or program. 


“Born of water…” has several options:

  • Physical birth
  • Water = the word of God (Eph. 5:26—Christ loved the church and cleansed her “by the washing with water through the word….”)
  • Water = repentance (signified by baptism). 
    • Some would say “Chr. baptism”, but that’s pretty hard to get out of this since there was no such thing as “Chr. baptism” until the church was born in the book of acts years later Acts. 
    • This would refer to the significance of John the Baptist’s baptism of people, i.e. repentance, a recognition of sin and turning from it as John the Baptist called for.  Luke 7:29-30 would support this idea (“All the people, even the tax collectors, when they heard Jesus’ words, acknowledged that God’s way was right, because they had been baptized by John.  But the Pharisees and experts in the law rejected God’s purpose for themselves, because they had not been baptized by John.”)


However you slice and dice this verse, everybody agrees about one thing:  this “born again” experience that Jesus is talking about is a work of the Holy Spirit of God, not us.  Nowhere in this discussion is there any human effort or work in this “born again” thing.  Did you hear me??? Nowhere in this discussion is there any human effort or work in this “born again” thing. 

      Jesus’ metaphor is perfect here:  birth is not about the work of the baby; it’s all about the parents, no?

  • Anyone here have a hand in your own conception? 
  • Make a reservation for when and where you would be born?
  • About who were your parents?
  • Interview siblings before you selected your family?

ALL that was a “work” of your parents.  Even the birthing process didn’t require you or me to “work” at anything.  In case you’re wondering, ask your mother! J


So it is with the “born again” experience of becoming a part of God’s family.  The “work” is done by God.

      That is very significant, particularly the more “religious” a person you think you are.  Take Nicodemus.

       Jesus seems to be going out of his way to make Nic realize that NOTHING he has done as one of the most outstanding citizens in all Israel puts him in the running for being “born again.”   In vs. 10 Jesus takes a poke at all his years of learning and intellectual intelligence when he chastises Nic for not grasping this spiritual truth that has to do with spiritual realities here on earth…”earthly”.  (It’s a good reminder to all of us that we’ve already got our hands plenty full trying to grasp, accept or believe what we need to here on earth about spiritual issues without trying to figure out and embrace stuff that concerns the future kingdom in heaven.  Practical theology shouldn’t give us time for speculative theology.) 


But there is ONE non-work issue that comes through loud and clear over and over again as “our part” (if you want to call it that) in the “born again” experience.  It is…belief (vss. 15, 16, 18).  Just to make sure we don’t miss it, John (and Jesus) repeat the term 5 times in this passage.

It’s not a nebulous belief. 

      It’s not a complicated belief. 

            It’s not a difficult belief. 

It’s clear, concise, focused, specific and relational. 

It’s belief IN ONE THING:  JESUS!

ILL:  What’s the difference in the kind of belief Jesus is talking about and the kind of belief we usually think of when we say, “I believe in so-and-so”???

  • The difference between me saying, “I believe in the Zags!” and saying, “I believe in my wife, Sandy!” 
  • It’s the difference between saying, “I believe in democracy” and saying “I believe in being a committed husband and father.” 

One is a concept I applaud.  The other is a relationship I’ll live and die for!


Just WHAT is this kind of “belief” we’re talking about that cooperates with God’s work of the Spirit?  Jesus gives the answer in 3:14-16.


This statement necessarily takes us back to an Old Testemant story found in Numbers 21:4-9. When the Israelites in the desert had to take a detour around Edom, the “grew impatient on the way; they spoke against God and against Moses” and complained about the food and water that God was supplying them every day.

Then the Lord sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died. 7 The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you. Pray that the Lord will take the snakes away from us.” So Moses prayed for the people.

The Lord said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, he lived.


  • What produced death among the Israelites?  Sin—spoke against God and his representative, Moses. 
  • What was the cure?  For Moses to put a symbol of God’s judgment on a pole where everyone could see it...and take the only required action for healing…a look in FAITH!  They didn’t make the snake or pole, Moses did…one who had not sinned as the people had.  They didn’t get to determine the ground rules for healing.  God did. 
  • Did it matter whether the person bit was the best, most loving, most right-living, most religious man or woman on the block?  No.  Sin was killing them all, regardless of their morality or religiosity or list of good works.
  • What happened if you didn’t believe what God had told Moses to do and didn’t think it would cure you?  You died! 
  • Why did God make this the requirement for healing?  (Because lack of faith in God was turning them away from Him.  This was a very strong inducement to reengage with faith in what God said.)


To a man who had spent his whole life trying to get and stay in God’s good graces through keeping an unbelievable amount of rules, this had to be a terrible blow.  Jesus was telling him that it wasn’t his rule-keeping and very conservative living that was what was needed to have eternal life. It had only to do with “belief” in the Son of Man, God’s “one and only Son”, Jesus himself. 


That’s where every person in this world finds themselves when it comes to being born again.  All the best effort in the world don’t do it.  But there is only One life and One death that did and can do what is needed for the rebirth of every human soul…who simply believes.



  • Have you truly come to that place in life with Jesus where you realize that ALL your best efforts are not the same as being “born again”? 
  • Have you ever come to that place in life where you know the only cure for this deadly bite of sin in our lives is to look in faith to the Son of God lifted up on that pole, the cross?  That is the “belief” that leads to the “new birth” by the Spirit. 
  • Prayer of confession, repentance and faith in Jesus Christ.


What’s the significance for many of us who have been saved, born again, for perhaps decades now?  Is this a truth that really only transforms the beginning of our journey with God? 

Paul writes very clearly to two different city-churches about how the way we began and were “born again” should have a decided impact on the way we live out our life in Christ every day. 

  • Col. 2:6--So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him…
  • Gal. 3:3-5—3)Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort? 4) Have you suffered so much for nothing—if it really was for nothing? 5) Does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you because you observe the law, or because you believe what you heard?”


Some of us, while claiming we are “saved” or “born again” by simple faith in Jesus, have really taken a sharp right turn after deciding to follow Jesus.  We give mental assent to being saved by faith but spend virtually every day of life in Christ on this earth trying to develop a “personal spiritual resume” or “Christian pedigree” that we think makes us more acceptable to God.  Paul asks, “Where is the Holy Spirit in all that?”

      I wonder how much of our lack of joy and happiness as Christ-following Christians is really due to a “Nicodemus complex”—the deep-seated sense that I must DO much more than I have been able to do up to the present in order to really get God to smile upon me??? The work of the Spirit…even miracles among us…doesn’t come by keeping a bunch of rules.  It comes by “believing what we’ve heard” in a way that causes us to simply act in belief on God, not ourselves.

      Failure to do that will lead to a performance-based relationship with God.  And we probably won’t even let God be the judge of the “performance.”  We’ll reserve that right for ourselves.

ILL:  As a young musician, I hated anything but flawless performances…which almost always meant I was never content with just enjoying a solo for the joy of playing and making music.  If there was a certain (personally arbitrary) level of mistakes in a performance, I wanted to go hide in a dark room.  I didn’t want to hear from anyone, not even those I know loved me apart from what I could do in music.  I had never come to grips with the fact that perfection is not the goal of music; beauty and joy and expression is. 

      My particular practice routine often meant that I would practice from about 4-6 in the afternoon, while Mom was cooking dinner and Dad was finishing up work.  I can’t tell you the number of times I remember my dad arriving home, coming up the back steps from the garage, setting down his briefcase by the closet door, taking off his hat and coat, going in the kitchen to kiss my mother…and then coming out the dining room door and taking a seat in one of the 2 large chairs by the window at the other end of the living room.  There he would sit, often in semi-darkness, just watching me…practice!  Sometimes it would bug me.  Why would anyone want to listen to practicing?  Especially on a stringed instrument…when it was a looooong way from perfect! 

      Over and over he would do that…and then compliment me…and then go about his business.  It was as if he really DID enjoy listening to my attempts at making music.  His face showed it.  There was always that kind, admiring smile on it. 

      I could never really understand that…until…

…I became a father…with kids who practice, play and perform instruments and sports…in less-than-perfect ways.  J  And I know now the joy it brings to my Father’s heart to just hear the heart-felt attempts of his children. 


APP:  What is it that you are trying to DO to achieve what you think is a certain standard of performance that will make you truly pleasing or acceptable to God? 

Looking to Jesus…looking to the cross with the Son of God hanging there just for you…is not something that should stop after you’ve been “born again”.  It’s something that should fill our vision and give peace to our hearts every single day. 


This section ends with John 3:16-21 (READ).  It is clear that there is no middle ground.  Either you believe in God’s son and “have eternal life” or you “do not believe” and “stand condemned already” because of that choice of not believing.  That “belief” or “unbelief” becomes the watershed issue determining the kind of life we will live from there on out—whether a life that does evil and tries to hide its sin from everyone and everything OR a life that doesn’t have to hide because “what…has [been] done has been done through God” (Jn. 3:21).  That’s a life born of and lived in the Spirit of God. 


APP:  Jesus certainly cared that even the most religious of people in his day understood that spiritual birth was as essential to life forever with God as physical birth is to life here on earth.  How committed are we to helping everyone we meet understand that simple truth?