I call this “Nick Revisited” simply because parts of this passage are sooooo well known. In fact, they are so well known, we and our congregants may not really hear the words unless we slam on the brakes and intone them in a new way. Some of these words may be so familiar that we don’t even notice what they’re really saying, what they mean for us. So, let’s dive into this passage and see what we can learn as we visit again with Nicodemus and Jesus, and hear the words John has recorded.
v.1-14 – Born Again
There is a lot here in this passage, so in the interest of time, I’m just going to focus on the theme of the conversation—you must be born again. We rarely find this curious metaphor elsewhere in Scripture (see I Peter 1:3,23). Even so, many of our Baptist friends use this phrase almost exclusively today when talking about the conversion experience. “Have you been born again?” Some of our Pentecostal brethren take this talk of being born again to refer to baptism...and the talk of ‘water’ and ‘Spirit’ (v.5) to mean a baptism of water and a baptism of Spirit. However, Jesus clarifies immediately and removes all questions—“born of the flesh” and “born of the Spirit.” Jesus is talking about our first, natural, out-of-the-womb birth and a Spiritual birth.
This talk of rebirth is wonderful! We often pine for a ‘do-over’ in our lives. We often think about that moment, that day we’d like to live over because we said or did something we wish we could undo. Well, the rebirth is about as close to that as we’re going to get! God offers us the opportunity to start life over, to experience a re-birth...and that is good news. In my own experience, I’m convinced that rebirth, in a sense, can happen over and over and over. My congregation hears me say often, “Our God is a God of second chances.” (This works well in our Latino culture where many have come from Mexico. There, if someone fails a test or even the final exam, the expectation is that there will be ‘una segunda oportunidad’—a second opportunity, a second chance. So, “Nuestro Dios es un Dios de segunda oportunidades.” )
There’s enough ‘Good News’ right there—we could stop this sermon here!
v. 15, 16 – Believe
Believe. This comes from the Greek word pisteu. Whenever I come to this word anywhere in Scripture, I take time to remind our people that this is not ‘belief’ as we understand it in our Western culture. For us, to believe is to offer intellectual assent to something, to recognize its truth or reality. I believe there is a mountain in the Himalayas called ‘Everest.’ Belief—pisteu—for the Greek-speaking, New Testament world was much more than mere intellectual assent. Belief for the writers and early readers of the NT was an assent that led to action. Belief in something impacted their behavior. Ask your congregation how many of them believe avoiding meat and eating veggies is good for them, for their health. Most will raise their hands. Ask how many have acted on that belief, and the showing may be a bit different. Biblical belief—by definition—leads to action. To ‘believe in Him’ results in a change of behavior.
Now, why is that? Well, that same word pisteu actually translates in at least three ways in our New Testament. Every time we see the words belief, trust and faith, we are seeing pisteu or some variant. To believe is to trust, to have faith in. That’s a bit more than simply recognizing the truth of something! So, if we believe in Jesus, besides acknowledging his reality, we are trusting in him—in what he says, does and call us to; we are placing our faith and confidence in who he is and what he says.
I’m reminded of the tight-rope walker, Blondin, who crossed the river above Niagara Falls. Legend has it that after crossing once, he asked, “Who believes I can cross with a person on my back?” A lot of hands went up. “Who will volunteer?” No one stepped forward. This is NOT belief in the Biblical sense! (Later, he did cross with his manager on his back.) How many times do people say, “Yes, I believe in Jesus!” but really never step forward, never change their lives or allow Jesus to change their lives?
v.18-21 – Our Actions Reveal Us
After affirming that God’s intentions clearly are salvation rather than judgment, John wraps things up talking about how we live—doing evil or practicing the truth. What we truly believe is revealed in what we do or don’t do. That’s fairly simple. We can talk social justice, but if we do nothing, it’s just talk. We can talk faith-sharing and evangelism, but if we do nothing, it’s just talk. We can talk church and mission and faith and trust, but if we don’t go, don’t give, don’t talk...it’ll say much more about our true beliefs than the words coming out of our mouths.
But wait! There’s good news: You can be born again! Today is a good day for a second chance, no?
(Go HERE to read my intro to this series.)