In the summer of 1974 I had a life-changing conversation. I say this because prior to that conversation I had been struggling with what to do with my life. I’d just finished my sophomore year of college and had changed my major twice but neither subject seemed right and left me wandering around without the sense of fulfillment I longed for. Then in the midst of my aimlessness, I accepted a part-time job as minister of music at a little church in Greenhill, Alabama, and I began to feel like God might be calling me into vocational ministry, but I resisted that particular calling. I wasn’t sure I wanted to follow in my father’s stress-filled footsteps.
And—I have to stop and say—being that age—and not knowing what you want to do with your life is a horrible feeling—so if you have a college-aged child who is wrestling with that issue, be patient…be compassionate with them. Pray with them and help them find the answers.
That was my dad’s tactic. When I got home that summer he patiently heard me out and then suggested that one thing that might help me resolve all this would be to meet with a man named James Alcock. And, I think that was a wise thing for my dad to suggest because I needed an unbiased outside perspective.
Now, just so you know, James Alcock was the 1970’s version of our own Bill Archer—in that he served as the music missionary for the BCMD. I knew James Alcock—or “Mr. Alcock” as I referred to him—and I admired him a great deal so I took my dad’s advice and made an appointment. James was at Camp Wo-Me-To at the time leading a week of music camp. This is the camp in the hills north of Baltimore operated by the WMU…and James encouraged me to drive up and meet with him there. So I did…and when I pulled up in my 1968 Mustang he was standing in front of the snack bar waiting. We grabbed a couple cold sodas and walked down to the chapel and sat in two rocking chairs on the front porch that looks out over the valley. I found a picture on the Internet of the chapel. Here it is. We talked on this porch a long time.
I had all kinds of questions which was okay because he was full of wisdom and he patiently helped me sort things out. Before I left, we prayed together—and when I drove home, I did so with a smile on my face and a special joy in my heart…because I knew without a doubt that God had called me to work full-time in His church.
Well, I’ll never forget that conversation—because my life has not been the same since. I’ve served in churches part-time and full-time for the past 36 years—years that have FLOWN by—which makes sense because as they say, “time flies when you’re having fun.” And I’ve had more than “fun.” I’ve experienced an incredible depth of fulfillment. I can’t imagine what my life would be like if I hadn’t surrendered to God’s call—and I don’t think I would have done so if it hadn’t been for that conversation with James Alcock in the summer of 1974.
Well—can you think of a similar life-changing conversation in your own life?
- Perhaps it was a talk you had with a parent or mentor that helped you to zero in on the career…that “good work God had prepared in advance for YOU to do….”
- …or the time you talked to that someone who led you to faith in Jesus.
- Maybe the conversation that comes to mind was a job interview that brought you to the area you now call home…the place your children grew up.
Or—you remember the conversation you had with your spouse that led to your marriage—but do you know what I’m talking about?
Can anyone think of a life-changing conversation? I would be very interested to hear all your stories so e-mail them to me!
I bring all this up because our text for today is the record of one such life-changing conversation—involving a man named Nicodemus. And the thing that made his conversation special was the fact that he wasn’t talking with another human. No—Nicodemus’ conversation was with Jesus Christ Himself—God in the flesh. Take your Bibles and turn to John 3 and follow along as I read verses 1-17.
1 – Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council.
2 – He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know You are a teacher Who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs You are doing if God were not with him.”
3 – In reply Jesus declared,“I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.”
4 -“How can a man be born when he is old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born!”
5 – Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit.
6 – Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.
7 – You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’
8 – The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
9 – “How can this be?” Nicodemus asked.
10 – “You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things?
11 – I tell you the truth, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony.
12 – I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things?
13 – No one has ever gone into heaven except the One Who came from heaven—the Son of Man.
14 -Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up,
15 – that everyone who believes in Him may have eternal life.
16 – “For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.
17 – For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through Him.”
Okay—before we look at this life-changing conversation let’s do a little background study.
So, who exactly was this NICODEMUS?
Well, as you can see in verse 1, the first thing John tells us is that he was a PHARISEE. In Jesus’ day, the Pharisees never numbered more than 6,000—so they were a SELECT group of people in the Jewish nation—a select group that took the LAW of God very seriously. In fact, each Pharisee took a solemn vow before three witnesses that he would devote every moment of his life to obeying the ten commandments. These commandment-loving guys formed the middle-class of that day. They controlled the synagogues. I think of them as the conservatives of 1st century Judaism. In fact, I have to say that I agree with Philip Yancey who writes: “Given the choices, [Pharisees, Saducees, Zealots,] I would probably have been a Pharisee” if I had lived back then. I say this because even though they tended toward legalism, they loved God’s law and emphasized righteous living.
Now—of course they had their flaws. As I said, they were law lovers who could be severely lacking in grace, which is why the Gospels record that they were constant CRITICS of Jesus. This is why we hear that word, “Pharisee” and immediately think, “Those were the bad guys.” but they weren’t all bad. There were GOOD Pharisees.
- One example is Gamaliel who taught Paul and who defended Peter in Acts 5.
- Another is Paul himself—AFTER his conversion of course.
- A third example is Nicodemus—and apparently he wasn’t alone because when he came to Jesus he said, “WE know You are a teacher come from God…”
So Nicodemus was one of the good guys. He was a Pharisee who possessed all their VIRTUES and few, if any, of their vices. He was basically a very Godly man who believed the Scriptures.
But there is more that John tells us about Nicodemus.
Verse 1 also says he was “a member of the ruling council….” which meant he was a member of the Sanhedrin, a special group of Pharisees. Think of it as the Jewish senate—the SELECT of the SELECT. We also know that Nicodemus was a WEALTHY man…because in John 19:39 we read that it was he who brought “a mixture of myrrh and aloes about an hundred pounds weight” to anoint and embalm Jesus’ body after His crucifixion. Only the very rich could have afforded this.
By the way, Nicodemus appears twice more in the fourth Gospel: at the feast of the Tabernacles in chapter seven, where he defends Jesus before the rest of the Sanhedrin saying, “Does our law judge a man without first giving him a hearing and learning what he does?” As I said he also appears at Jesus’ tomb—and I think it speaks highly of Nicodemus that he would openly support Jesus by providing the burial spices when Jesus’ own disciples had fled. His action that first Good Friday shows us that he was a brave man with great integrity.
In short, I think you and I would have liked Nicodemus for he was a cultured, intelligent man of high moral character. Let me put it this way. He was as close to being a “good person” as one could ever hope for. But with all these PLUSES—there was something MISSING in his life. There was a God-shaped hole in Nicodemus’ heart…and this is why he came to Jesus. You see, in spite of his wealth and position…in spite of his education…he still hungered for more. He longed for a vital, personal experience with the living God Whose Scriptures he knew so well. Nicodemus wanted the assurance of citizenship in the kingdom of God.
He was not unlike people in our day and age who are GOOD people…MORAL people…who have everything this world has to offer…but they still find themselves wanting. You see, whether we acknowledge it or not we all have an inborn yearning for fellowship with God—but our SIN gets in the way and inside I think we all know that.
I remember reading an article in TIME magazine years ago that told of this event—an event that was described as the most HOLY DAY in all history…perhaps the largest religious event to occur in the history of mankind. The article said that ten million people gathered at one time in this religious observance. You see, a Nirvana sect of Hinduism in India believed that on that particular day, January 26, 1977, there was a configuration of the sun, the moon, and the stars all locked into place as they were at the time of creation—something which they believed made this the most “holy” day that had ever happened. So, they gathered…the poorest and the most humble from all the little villages, making their journey to the banks of the Ganges River—ten million that day—and part of 50 million that came during the week—but 10 million at one time.
At exactly the same moment, 2:30AM, they started walking into the chilly waters of that river. All those pilgrims then folded their arms and faced eastward and then began to pray and immerse themselves in the muddy waters of the Ganges to “wash away their sins…” believing that somehow in this act of piety and devotion they could get rid of their sins and find acceptance with the Creator.
Well, as I inferred, this reminds us that all people are like NICODEMUS in that they have an instinctive knowledge of their sin…sin that it blocks them from the fellowship with God that they so desperately need. So, Nicodemus, this hungry-hearted man, came to speak with Jesus and I want you to note something. Look at verse 1 and tell me, what is the very FIRST word? Right! It is the word “NOW” or “BUT” and this is an important word because it tells us something significant about Nicodemus. You see, “Now” or “But” is what is known as “a disjuncted conjunction.” Listen up because you might end up on that show where you have to prove you’re smarter than a 5th grader!A disjuncted conjunction is used to highlight A CONTRAST OF IDEAS between that which went before and that which comes after. So, look at that which went before—specifically verses 23-25 in chapter 2 where it says, “While Jesus was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many people saw the miraculous signs He was doing and believed in His name. But Jesus would not entrust Himself to them, for He knew all men. He knew what was in their hearts.”
In other words, Jesus knew that these people were only excited by His miracles. He knew they were not ready to put their trust in Him and that as soon as the miracles stopped they’d in essence “change churches.” They’d quit following Him when the going got tough. Then in verse one we have our disjuncted conjunction. John writes, “NOW or BUT…there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus.” In other words, John was saying that Nicodemus was different than those other guys. He was attracted by Jesus’ miracles but he was a sincere seeker. Nicodemus wasn’t just interested in the miracles—but the Being behind them. He knew only God could do the kinds of things Jesus did so Nicodemus came to Jesus in the hopes that He could help satisfy His hunger for God. Well, Jesus could see the sincerity of Nicodemus’ heart so He agreed to this life-changing interview.
John tells us this interview took place at NIGHT—and all kinds of theories have been offered as to why. Some have said Nicodemus came at night so as to SPY on Jesus. Others say he came under cover of darkness to avoid being seen by his peers. But I don’t think either of these theories hold water. I believe Nicodemus came at night for the same reason that we have so many night meetings here at Redland. Like most Montgomery County-ites, both Nicodemus and Jesus had busy, non-stop schedules and night was the only time they would have been free to talk uninterrupted…it was the only time Nicodemus could have enough time to have his questions answered.
Okay—look at Nicodemus’ statement in verse 2 and tell me. How does he address Jesus? Right! He shows him the respect of calling Him“Rabbi.” This Pharisee broke ranks with his critical peers and acknowledged Jesus as a teacher, in spite of His lack of earthly credentials. Look at the full statement. Nicodemus said:
“Rabbi, we know You are a teacher Who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs You are doing if God were not with him.”
Now—I know there’s no question mark at the end of verse 2 but as I said Jesus knew that Nicodemus’ had a questioning heart. He knew that this Pharisee—this expert in God’s law—Jesus knew he yearned to understand how he could move from knowing ABOUT God…to KNOWING God. He knew that Nicodemus was a man of deep religious hunger but profound spiritual blindness. So, in response to his statement Jesus told Him two things—things we all must know if we want to know God personally and become a part of His work in this world.
(1) First, He said that salvation is found in SPIRITUAL birth rather than PHYSICAL birth.
Look at verses 3-6. Jesus says: “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.” “How can a man be born when he is old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born!” Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.”
In other words, Jesus was saying, “Nicodemus, it is not your physical birth—that gets you into Heaven. Flesh only gives birth to flesh.” Nicodemus needed to hear this because—like most Jews of His day—he had put all his confidence in his flesh. He thought that as one born of Jewish lineage, he was already in the kingdom of God. Don’t get me wrong, he would have been very familiar with the concept of NEW BIRTH—but he would have thought this requirement only applied to Gentiles who converted to Judaism—not him. After all, he had been born one of the water of a Jewish womb. This automatically made him one of God’s chosen people. Plus—he was more than your typical everyday Jew. He was a Pharisee and on top of that a member of the Sanhedrin. So he would have thought that if anyone had an “automatic in” to God’s kingdom, it would have been him. And Jesus was saying, “No—Nicodemus. Physical birth doesn’t do it. You need another birth— a SPIRITUAL one. To know God, you must be born of God.”
Now—to fully understand this phrase, “BORN AGAIN,” we need to go back to the Greek because there are two words that can be translated “again.” One is “palin” and refers to the simple repetition of an act. And just so you don’t misunderstand, this “palin” has nothing to do with the “SARAH” from Alaska. The other Greek word for “again” is the one John uses and it is “anothen.” “Anothen” refers to much more than the simple repetition of the act. “Anothen” literally means “again…from above” so Jesus was saying Nicodemus needed a new birth that was supernatural—one that had its origin in God Himself. Only then could He come to know God and become a part of what God was doing. Before we become to critical of Nicodemus, let’s admit that many people even in our day and age make the same basic faulty assumption that he did. There are tons of people today that still think being a Christian has something to do with physical birth—they think they have the same sort of “in” Nicodemus was banking on. Let me put it this way. Many people believe the word “Christian” is more of an ADJECTIVE than it is a NOUN. They think they are bound for Heaven because they were born in a Christian home or had Christian parents. And they are all wrong. A Christian is someone who has been born again by asking Jesus to forgive their sins and COME INTO their heart and life—as LORD. That “coming in” is the NEW BIRTH that Jesus is talking about here. You see, when we put our faith in Jesus, God’s Holy Spirit comes inside of us and “REBIRTHS” us. Then, as we submit to His will, He begins to make us into new—more Christlike people. If you are a Christian—if you’ve made that decision—then you know what I’m talking about because when we make that all important decision and put our faith in Jesus, we gain a new power and presence in our lives. We are changed in such a way that can only be described as rebirth or re-creation. We are forgiven of the past and armed by the Spirit of God for the future.
So—to get back to our GREEK lesson—being “born AGAIN” is an “anothen” thing, not a “palin” thing. It’s a BIRTH FROM ABOVE that empowers us to live as God wants. Here’s an illustration: Suppose I wanted to learn to play the wonderful song that our own Bill Archer wrote for this sermon series, “My Provider.” I told Bill I’d been humming it all week which proves it’s a great song! Well, if I were to get Bill’s sheet music and try to peck out the melody on my own—well, that would be “PALIN.” I would simply sit be playing Bill’s song AGAIN. But if I were to play it in the “ANOTHEN sense” — well, then I would have to have Bill Archer actually come inside of me and play it. I’d have to be BORN AGAIN this time with Bill inside me playing his song through me. I know that sounds strange—and you know, the NEW BIRTH is strange. It’s a strange, unexplainable, wonderful thing. It’s God coming inside of us—living through us. It’s a new birth that leads us from knowing ABOUT God—to KNOWING God personally.
So Jesus was saying, “Nicodemus, your physical birth is not enough so forget about all that. You need to be BORN AGAIN from above. You need to be brought to life by the SPIRIT OF GOD.” In short, Nicodemus would have to come to the same understanding that another Pharisee came to—a Pharisee named Paul…who realized that his assumptions about his physical birth were all wrong. Listen to Paul’s words from Philippians 3:3-9 where he writes, “These days I put no confidence in the flesh—though I myself have reasons for such confidence. If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless. But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of KNOWING Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all these things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith….”
So, Paul learned that his PHYSICAL birth was worthless when it came to His relationship with God. Only his RE-BIRTH—his SPIRITUAL birth gave him the fellowship with God that he longed for—and Nicodemus would have to come to the same conclusion. By the way, the phrase “born ‘anothen’” or “rebirth” runs through all the New Testament.
- Peter speaks of the God who has “BEGOTTEN” or “BIRTHED” us into a living hope in 1st Peter 1:3.
- 1st Peter 1:22-23 says we are “BORN AGAIN” not of corruptible seed but of incorruptible.
- James 1:18 speaks of God “BEGETTING” or “BIRTHING” us with the Word of truth.
- The Letter to Titus speaks of the “washing of regeneration or rebirth”…Titus 3:5.
- In Romans 6:1-22, Paul speaks of the Christian “dying with Christ and rising to new life” or new birth.
- He also speaks of those who come into the Christian faith as “babes in Christ” (1st Corinthians 3:1-2).
- 2nd Corinthians 5:17 says if any one is in Christ it is as if he had been created all over again.
So, all over the New Testament is the idea of REBIRTH or RE-CREATION from above. Well, Nicodemus heard all this—but his logical mind just couldn’t grasp it. As Warren Weirsbe says, “Nicodemus came at night and he was still in the dark.” So this hungry-hearted Pharisee said, “Jesus, I just don’t understand. How can this be?” And in His response, our Lord gave both Nicodemus and us a second thing we need to understand in order for us to satisfy our hunger to know God. He said that:
(2) Salvation is not something we EXPLAIN as much as it is something we EXPERIENCE.
Jesus said that coming to know God personally is not so much LOGIC and REASONING as it is a simple step of faith. I think Jesus lovingly chuckled as he spoke in verse 5-8 and said in effect,
“NICODEMUS, you are a wise man, but even you know there are things in life we don’t have to explain to experience. For example can you explain this breeze that is moving through these trees? Where does it come from? Where does it go? It touches your cheek and rustles your robes…you cannot explain it or understand it but that does not keep you from experiencing it. It’s the same with the new birth. You don’t have to explain it to experience it.”
Reminds me of a story I heard of a Christian farmer witnessing to his unsaved neighbor. The neighbor said, “I don’t believe in this new birth! I don’t believe in anything I can’t reason out!” The Christian farmer replied, “Well, look around my barnyard. You can see that I have geese and sheep and pigs and cows on this farm. THEY ALL EAT GRAIN…but on the geese it comes out FEATHERS and on the sheep it comes out WOOL and on the hogs it comes out BRISTLES and on the cows it comes out HAIR. Can you explain that?” The neighbor replied, “No, I can’t understand it….but I guess I will have to believe it because I know it is true.” It is the same way with God. We do not reason our way to Him. We do not become a child of God by the process of explaining Him and then believing. No—we simply take the “leap of faith”—believing that God is—that He is real…that He has the power to touch and change our lives. On this side of eternity we can’t explain how this happens…but in faith, we act on what God’s Word says. And when we do, something happens that TRANSFORMS us.
The great evangelist of the early 20th century Harry Ironsides was once challenged to a public debate by an agnostic—who wanted to debate with him about the claims of the Christian faith. Ironsides agreed to the debate on one condition. He said the agnostic would have to bring with him an alcoholic who had turned to the agnostic philosophy and found the power to beat his addiction….or a prostitute who had read about the agnostic way of thinking, embraced it and then turned from her wasted life. Ironsides said that for his part, he would bring to the debate 100 people from similar backgrounds—people who had been born again by putting their faith in Jesus…and who in that BIRTH FROM ABOVE had found the power to turn from their sins. The agnostic rescinded his challenge to debate—and I think this was wise—because only the new birth that Jesus offers can truly change us.
It’s not something you can logically explain—but it happens and countless billions of people down through the ages would testify to this truth. Do you know someone who has experienced the life-change that faith in Jesus makes possible? Do you know someone who has been born again? How about you? How many of you have experienced what you can’t explain—the life-changing power of the rebirth?
Well, at this point in their conversation Nicodemus did not understand—even with the wind illustration so Jesus went on to pull from the Hebrew Scriptures and draw an analogy from them. Our Lord referred to something that would be very familiar to Nicodemus’ Pharisee-trained mind—and incident in Hebrew history…the time when God’s chosen people were in the desert on their way to the promised land., complaining and regretting that they had ever left Egypt. To bring them back to their sense of dependence on Him, God punished them by sending a plague of deadly poisonous snakes. The people repented and cried for mercy and God instructed Moses to make an image of a serpent and hold it up in the center of camp. He said that whoever would look on it would be healed and saved. God didn’t EXPLAIN how looking at this bronze serpent would cleanse their blood of the vipers’ poison. He didn’t draw illustrations of how their gaze would repair the damage the venom had caused to their bodies.
He just asked them to have the FAITH necessary to believe that looking would do the trick and it did. Look at verses 14-16 where our Lord says, “Nicodemus, just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in Him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever LOOKS TO HIM…believes in Him…shall not perish but have eternal life.”
I won’t take the time to show a clip this morning—but the movie you’ll see in SS in two weeks does a powerful job of illustrating how this statement “clicked” in Nicodemus’ mind…when he stood at the foot of the cross a few years later, LOOKING UP at Jesus.
It’s the same for us today—whoever IN FAITH looks to Jesus will be saved and re-born. They’ll have that God-shaped hole in their soul filled—by GOD HIMSELF as He comes into their heart and life.
As we come to the conclusion of our service this morning let me ask, “Is God trying to have a life-changing conversation with you this morning?” Perhaps He’s saying to a Christian this morning, “You need to deepen your relationship with Me. You need more time in My Word—more time in prayer. You aren’t experiencing an abundant life because you aren’t letting me live in and through you.” God may be telling some of you that you need to come down the aisle this morning and ask to join this church. And some of you may be on the bring of that conversation that will change not just this life but the next…as God’s Spirit tugs on your heart and invites you to accept the forgiveness of sin that Jesus made possible…drawing you into relationship with Him.
Let the PEACE OF CHRIST rule in your hearts
since as members of one body you were called to peace.