“Born Again, Born from Above, Born of Water and the Spirit” (John 3:1-17)

Second Sunday in Lent
March 5, 2023

“Born Again, Born from Above, Born of Water and the Spirit” (John 3:1-17)

As most of you know, I’ve got a big birthday coming up this week, a milestone birthday, on March 7. But I have an even more important birthday coming up later this year, on September 10. Because it was on that date that I was “Born Again, Born from Above, Born of Water and the Spirit.”

Let me explain. I was born physically on March 7, 1953. That was my birthday according to the flesh. But I was born spiritually on September 10 of that same year. That was my birthday according to the Spirit. That was the day I was baptized. And that’s my more important birthday, because unless you are born again, born from above, born of water and the Spirit, you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.

So says Jesus in our text, the Holy Gospel from John chapter 3: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” To be able to see and to enter the kingdom of God is the best thing that can happen to you. And that is the “re-birthday” present you receive when you are baptized.

John 3 opens with the visit of Nicodemus to Jesus at night. Nicodemus was a prominent religious leader of the Jews, and he comes to Jesus at night. Perhaps it would not look good for him to be seen with this controversial figure Jesus in public. But Nicodemus is curious, so he comes anyway, even if it’s a bit risky. He wants to find out more.

“Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” Jesus has been doing some remarkable things, like turning water into wine at Cana and other signs as well, healings and so forth. And Nicodemus acknowledges that Jesus must have some sort of authority from God. But for now Nicodemus can only recognize Jesus as a rabbi, a teacher. He does not yet see what those divine signs are pointing to.

This is why Jesus responds: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus does not see, he does not recognize, Jesus himself as the one who brings the kingdom of God into our midst. He will need to see that reality about Jesus if he is to see and know the truth about the kingdom of God.

Same with everybody. It all comes down to “Who is this Jesus fellow?” People may say some nice things about Jesus, that he was a prophet, that he was a good moral teacher, that he was a fine example of holding up under unjust suffering, and so on, and so on. But none of those evaluations goes far enough. Like Nicodemus, we need to have our eyes opened to see the full truth about Jesus.

“Unless one is born again”: That phrase in the Greek could also be translated as “unless one is born from above.” “Born again,” “born from above”: Either translation works. Jesus is saying that this second birth he’s talking about is not simply another earthly birth. No, you need a heavenly birth, one that comes from God. God has to do it. You can’t do it. Look, you didn’t even decide your earthly birth. You didn’t “decide” to be born. How can you decide your heavenly birth? You can’t. In fact, you were dead in your trespasses and sins. Only God can bring you to life.

Your coming to faith in Christ is not your own doing; it is the gift of God. It even says as much in John chapter 1, about those who believe in Christ: “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” “Born of God,” “born from above,” “born again”: That’s the birth that you need.

But Nicodemus doesn’t get it yet. He thinks Jesus is talking in riddles: “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” It sounds ridiculous to Nicodemus.

So Jesus presses home the point: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” Whoa! Now Jesus adds another dimension to what he means by being “born again.” He equates it to being “born of water and the Spirit.” And note, these are not two different acts, like being “born of water” is one thing and being “born of the Spirit” is something else. No, there are some who think that, but they need to look at the Greek a little more closely. Because there is one preposition “of” that governs both of the two nouns, “water” and “the Spirit.” It’s being “born of water and the Spirit” together, in one divine act of God.

Hmm, where else in the Bible do we see water and the Spirit joined together like this? Well, to start with, in the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth. “The Spirit of God was hovering over the waters,” when God spoke creation into existence.

And that same combination of water and the Spirit and the Word happens when God calls a new creation into existence. In Paul’s letter to Titus we read: “[God] saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior.” “The washing of regeneration”: “Washing” is a water word; it happens when water is applied to someone. “Regeneration” is a fancy way to say “rebirth,” being born again. And “renewal of the Holy Spirit” means the Spirit is making someone a new creation.

Now let’s put on our thinking caps and think about where and when all that happened together in your life: the washing of water with the Word, the Spirit, new birth. . . . Hey, I see lots of light bulbs appearing over your heads! Yes, that’s right: In your baptism!

In Holy Baptism, God has given you the new birth you need to enter his kingdom. To be baptized is to be born again, born from above, born of water and the Spirit. Through this blessed sacrament, God has raised you up from death to life. God has washed away your sins. He has made you his children. He has given you faith in Christ your Savior. He has sealed you with the Holy Spirit. You are a new creation in Christ!

You and I need this new birth of water and the Spirit. Otherwise, we could rise no higher than our natural birth, and that would surely be a dead end. As Jesus says: “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’”

According to our natural birth in the flesh, we are born sinners, doomed to die. We have inherited the original sin nature passed down from our parents. Like Adam and Eve, who were driven out from the garden, so we would not be able to enter the kingdom of God. God needs to intervene in our lives if that is going to change!

And so thank God that he has! “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” Listen, God has had mercy on us poor sinners, and he sent Christ Jesus to do the job we could not do. Jesus died the sacrificial death that pays for all of our sins. Jesus was lifted up on the cross, so that everyone who looks to him in faith will be rescued from eternal death and raised to everlasting life. This is for you!

And then all the gifts that Jesus won for you on the cross–forgiveness, life, resurrection, eternal salvation–all these blood-bought gifts are delivered to you in and through the gospel of Christ. God the Holy Spirit did this work on you and in you in Holy Baptism.

“How can these things be?” That was Nicodemus’s question. And it’s our question too: How can this baptismal washing with water do such great things? The “how” is because of who God is. He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. And the “how” is because of what God’s mighty, creative, powerful Word does. His Word is efficacious; it does what it says. His Word delivers what it promises. And when God attaches his creative Word to the water of Baptism, a miracle happens: Dead sinners are raised to new and eternal life. The Holy Spirit works saving faith in our hearts. Brothers and sisters in Christ, praise God that you and I have been born again, born from above, born of water and the Spirit!

Published in: on March 4, 2023 at 3:38 pm  Leave a Comment  
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