I wonder what is it that gives you your identity? Work? Family? Income? Possessions? The Community we belong to? The Movement we have thrown ourselves behind in the hope of saving the world. We want to belong, to be respected and to have influence that the world recognises. Thus, we climb the mounds of success that our culture points us to. Yet, we will find ourselves every climbing and never reaching the promised places of influence and belonging.
We all look to people who, by the standards of culture, seem to have it all, today that might be a celebrity who has fame, wealth, public influence through their social media or the role we all dream of. Every Culture has mountains to climb for success, and those people who get them up we admire or resent do not matter if we were thinking about today or two thousand years ago. Every culture has frameworks by which to know our standing and to judge the success of others off; Jesus lived in a very religious culture, one dominated by the outward appearance of righteousness and purity. Furthermore, civil status was mostly defined by your family line – the purity of your blood.
Today, we find ourselves with Jesus as he encounters someone who, in the eyes of their time and culture, would have had it all; yet, in his approach to Jesus, we realise that he has nothing. By the standards of his context and culture, Nicodemus was someone you would want to know to drop into conversation that you had coffee with during the week. He was the elite of the elite: a Pharisee (meaning he was of a good family line), a civil leader in Jerusalem (meaning he had power and influence), and he was the teacher of Israel (meaning he was well educated and people looked to him).
In the eyes of his culture Nicodemus was respected by all and envied by all. Yet, when we meet him, you would think he was on the run, fearful for his life, or a no one as he comes to Jesus under cover of darkness. We are challenged today by Nicodemus to consider our living and in what we put our trust in? Then to ponder, are we willing to take the costly step required to know the fullness of life as gifted through Grace by God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit?
SEEKING LIGHT IN THE DARKNESS (1-2)
John loves to play on imagery in his Gospel to add to the point he is making. Here is Nicodemus schooled in the ways of Gods and skilled in the word of God. He was meant to be someone schooled in the light and Grace of God, who then could recognise it: yet, John presents him as one who prefers the darkness. Hence, he approaches the Son of God, the light of life under cover of darkness.
Nicodemus should have recognised the Messiah of God instantly in the world; he should have been one who rejoiced in being in the presence of Jesus and sought to bring people to him. Instead, we have him cowering under cover of darkness, more fearful of what the world might think rather than in the knowledge of what God might think. He clearly sees something about Jesus as he recognises him as one who has come from God, and that his authority must be of God because of the signs he was doing, yet, what he has not realised is that he stands before God incarnate – Jesus the second person of the Trinity. He is one seeking Light in the Darkness; the question is will he see the light and hope of God?
BORN AGAIN IN A NEW FAMILY (3-4)
Jesus responds to Nicodemus praise and seeking by telling him that to see the Kingdom of God, one must be born again! A strange image that startles Nicodemus, who probably had some preconceived idea of what he thought would have to be required to know the things of heaven – being born again would not have been. Nicodemus was someone schooled in the religious thought of the day; he knew God and thought he would have to know the way to God. Thus, he probably came to Jesus expecting his understanding of God to be affirmed and commended. Instead, he is confronted with truths about the nature of God and the way to God, truths that caused him to think again.
The point was to shock, unsettle Nicodemus comfortable view of God and what it means to know him. Hence, this Trinity Sunday, we find ourselves looking at one of the few Passages in all of the four Gospels where Jesus talks about the Trinity. Nicodemus, as a religious leader, thinks that he knows God and what it is to know God; moreover, he thinks he understands who Jesus is and what he has come to do. In a moment, Jesus confronts all of that and calls Nicodemus to question his understanding of the Nature of God, the Way to God and the way of God. Here, amid this discussion of rebirth, we see one of the few times in the Gospels where Jesus explicitly references God the Father, Himself as the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Why? Because the gift of Salvation to the world is an Act of God enacted in different stages by each person of the trinity to challenge Nicodemus understanding of God and because God’s gift of Salvation to a sinful world involves all three persons of the Trinity. As one commentator noted: “God plays the symphony of our salvation in three movements. Each of these movements is associated with and facilitated by a different Person of the Trinity.”1
A SPIRITUAL REBIRTH (5-8)
Nicodemus is perplexed and confused as he ponders how a person can be born again; the problem? Surely birth is only a one-time occurrence. For Nicodemus – and most of us – there was only one birth. Hence, Nicodemus asked almost rhetorically: “How can a man be born when he is old?…Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born!”
The man schooled in the ways of God has seemingly never grasped the way that God works, a way that does not conform to human exception or logic but rather transforms it. Thus, he seeks to understand the spiritual reality of salvation with worldly thinking. In response to his confusion, Jesus informs him that this is not a literal rebirth but a Spiritual rebirth. To know God is to be reborn by God through water and the Holy Spirit of God (6). This new birth is entering into a new reality made possible by the word and work of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Those who find this rebirth find a new spiritual reality made possible by the work of God Holy Spirit in them who sustains them for the life of the Kingdom.
Salvation a work of the Trinity
We are saved by nothing else than faith in response to what Jesus has done, not our bloodline, our doctrine, or our possessions – faith. Faith is itself a spiritual reality made possible by God’s work, a spiritual reality that confronts a material world. Trinity Sunday is unique in the church calendar because every other Sunday (Pentecost, Christmas, Easter) represent an event in the work of God in the world. Still, today we are called to think about a concept. It is not today that we suddenly preach about the trinity because we did not think about it all year; no, every Sunday, our preaching is Trinitarian in nature because our God is three persons in one. But this Sunday, we marvel in the mystery of God the trinity and the gift he offers us. What is that gift? It is the gift of Salvation offered to all who are called and respond in faith! Salvation is a gift and work of God triune. Hence in our passage, Jesus refers to all three persons of the Trinity because Salvation was offered by God triune and made possible through the work of each person of the Trinity. It was God the Father who so loved the world drowning in sin that he was unwilling to let it die and sent his Son.
God the Son who came not to condemn the world but to save it (John 3:16-17) Jesus as God in human flesh who enables us to know God and by his faithfulness redeems our unfaithfulness. Jesus reveals God the Father and points to God the Spirit as he walked and taught the things of God on earth, empowered by God the Holy Spirit. Like the serpent that Moses lifted up in the wilderness (14) to save Gods people from their sin (Numbers 21:4-9), Jesus was lifted up to the Cross to expose the sinfulness of humanity and pay its price: making a possible relationship with God.
Those who respond to Jesus in Faith are reborn not of natural means, but spiritual means – it is the Holy Spirit of God – the third person of the trinity – who enacts and sustains this rebirth in us. Jesus points to this reality as he declared: “The Spirit gives birth to the Spirit” and that those born anew Spiritual will know the Freedom of the Spirits birth (7,8). Why are we looking at John 3:1-17 on Trinity Sunday? Because in its verses, we are reminded that Salvation is a gift of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit made possible by an act of each in us who respond through faith. As one commentator notes: “The Holy Spirit birthing God’s children; the Father begetting and sending the Son and the Son testifying to the Father and the Spirit.”
HOW CAN THIS BE? (9-15)
What a gift and what a mystery! Such a mystery that Nicodemus cannot get his head around it even though he has been schooled in the word of God and should understand the way of God. Yet, he cannot fathom the mysteries of God as he ponders: “How Can This Be?” Jesus responds to what feels like both a lament and a question reveals something about the state of Nicodemus (and every person) before God and what is required to know God fully.
The Limited Mind of the World (10-12)
His response to Nicodemus clarifies the issue; he has been speaking of heavenly things. Jesus has been speaking of what he has seen and known, yet, Nicodemus has struggled to comprehend them. Jesus is not speaking about some Philosophical concept but about real things that he has done and seen, and Nicodemus cannot comprehend them. Thus Jesus ponders:
“But if you don’t believe me when I tell you about earthly things, how can you possibly believe if I tell you about heavenly things?”2
What is the problem? Nicodemus is trying to understand Spiritual things with a mindset of the flesh. To come to know the gift of Salvation made possible by God triune, we must come not with a mind of the world, framed by material things. No, we must come with the renewed mind of Heaven that sees God at work and understand that how God works is nothing like the world. To know, understand and revel in this gift of Salvation, we must know the freeing mind of the Spirit, itself a gift of God.
Freedom in the Spirit (13-15)
These Things of which Jesus speaks are not of this earth; they are things of heaven. How can one speak of such things by either going and seeing or coming from? In Jesus, we have one who not only comes from heaven but created, sustains and rules it: thus, he can speak of these things. Furthermore, we have one who knows our flesh, yet, not our curse of sin; thus, we can make the wonders of heaven known to all who look to him.
This is the imagery of Moses lifting up the snake in the wilderness, a foretelling of the Cross of Calvary where Jesus would be lifted up for our sins. Yet, also a foretelling of the result of that lifting up – a new birth. Just as in the wilderness wanderings, the Sins of Gods people were forgiven through faith for all who looked to the snake, so will all who look to Christ in faith come to known God. To look to Christ and see what he has done is to know the Love of God the Father and the rebirth and freedom of the Holy Spirit in us.
THE SAVING WORK OF GOD THE FATHER, SON, AND HOLY SPIRIT (16-17)
There is no better-known verse in all of Scripture than John 3:16: “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. A verse that captures the fullness of salvation offered through faith to all who Look to Christ, Trust in God, and live in the life in the power of the Spirit. The motivation for all God does in the world is love; his motivation to see us reborn in the Holy Spirit is love.
Hence, John goes on in verse 17 to further that imagery, the Son did not come to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. The Cross was an act of Love and a move of salvation by God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit for all who might respond to it. Martin Luther calls this two-verse “The Gospel in Brief.”
It is in this Gospel brief we both rest and challenges ourselves today: It is out of Love that God desires for us to be reborn and live for Jesus; it was out of love that God sent Jesus into the world to bring eternal life (16), and it out of love the Holy Spirit moves like the wind it the world bringing freedom to all who live in Him. Finally, it is out of love that Jesus calls for us to be born again, and through love, this is made possible as God calls his children to himself.
The challenge today is, have we responded to it through faith? Are we those who give our lives to God because of what Christ has done and seek to live in the power of the Holy Spirit, or like Nicodemus at this moment, do we find ourselves pondering: “How can this be?”
REBORN TO LIVE RENEWD LIVES IN THE SPIRIT (CONCLUSION)
Jesus goes on to challenge the man coming in the darkness about the light of Christ, summing up that light has come into the world, but humanity prefers to live in darkness (20). Furthermore, that people actively avoid the light because it exposes the folly of their acts and ways. Yet, Jesus finishes with a truth and a challenge: “But anyone who lives by the truth comes to light, so that his works may be shown to be accomplished by God.”3
Are We Reborn
The summary of Jesus challenges to Nicodemus is that are two roads to walk to in this life: Darkness, the way of that flesh that leads to death; Light, the way of the truth through which we know God and show his works to the world. The question is, which path are we on?
Nicodemus was confronted by the reality of rebirth because it called into question everything he knew and trusted! Nicodemus was born into the right family; in the eyes of his culture, his bloodline secured his righteousness before God. Then throw into the mix that he was a “ruler of the Jews,” and teaching of some standing – he was someone who had it all in the eyes of the world, and in the eyes of the world, he was someone that God would beckon into his Kingdom.
Yet, when he asked ‘Rabbi’ Jesus what was required to enter into the Kingdom of God, he was meet not with affirmation but confrontation. The Language and imagery he used were a challenge directly to Nicodemus’ heart’s idols, the things he was trusting to save him rather than God. It was a call to forsake everything of the world and to trust in God above all else: today, the language and challenges of rebirth are no less different, we might be 2000 years on from this conversation, and we may not look to our family line or religious status, but we are still building our identity in things other than Jesus, so let’s stop, and consider where we are trusting to save us and make sure its Jesus. Let us make sure we have been born again into the Kingdom of God; Jared Kirks sums up the challenge perfectly:
“Jesus used the language of being born again because in that day and time almost everything about your identity was determined by your birth. Your ethnicity, your religion, your occupation, your economic status—everything about you—was determined by your natural birth. However, according to Jesus, if you want to perceive the kingdom of God in this world, (to have an awakening to where you see it everywhere) you need to be born again.4
The challenge for us to consider is not just that we Known Jesus, but have we been born again into his family by forsaking all the lies of the world and trusting in the Saving Work of God the Father, through God the Son, sustained by God the Holy Spirit? If so, what are we doing to do about it?
Rebirth as a Gift of Grace
Often, you hear preachers challenging people to respond to the good news of Jesus and calling for them to come to the front of the church, receive prayer, and choose to be born again. Yet, when you think about the reality of birth, it surely leads one to ponder is there much choice in it? Considering that there is only a 15-25% of pregnancy for those trying for children, even if you look at some of the numbers for a person existing, the odds given are 1 in 10 to 2,685,00 – in summary, its not very likely.5 Yes the world is full of 6 billion people, but the birth of one is unique, a miracle; hence why parents celebrate when a child is born. When we consider this challenge of rebirth to Nicodemus to understand the miracle of natural birth, it makes it all the starker. Jesus is saying: “You want to enter the Kingdom of God? Then you need a miracle!” with the inference that there is little Nicodemus or any human can do, as SB Johnson notes: “we should attend to the fact that being ‘born again/from above’ is an image that suggests that we have little choice in the matter.” So what is Jesus getting at when he challenges Nicodemus to be born again, to set aside the idols of comfort he has built for himself; what is Jesus challenging us all to consider at this moment if we need to be born again and we cannot choose it for ourselves, as Johnson further notes ” ironically, many Christians treat the question, “Are you born again?” as if it involves making a decision for God.” Jesus is not asking Nicodemus to choose to be born again, yes, faith requires something from each of us who follow Jesus, but just as there is nothing we can do to add to the Grace we receive through the Cross, so too there is nothing we can do to receive Faith. As Forgiveness and Grace and miraculous gifts from God, so too is Faith, Johnson concludes by reminding us that babies “do not decide to be born. Indeed, the central feature of this textual image seems to preclude our active role in the process. Instead, God is the primary player in this passage.”6 To be born again is a privilege that God affords to his Children, a privilege that we did not earn and one that we must never forget, to receive it truly is to respond to it as we gratefully set aside the idols of this world and receive the joy of Christ, and in this world, we chose to live out our new life in the Power of the Holy Spirit so that Christ is exalted and glory is given to God the Father. Rebirth is a gift of God, which leads to new life and citizenship under the Kingship of Jesus, and new life received leads to new Living for Jesus; thus, the final challenge – How are we living in this world?
Living Renewed Lives
A child is born to live; Parents do not give birth to children and then care for them forever – they raise them. Children are born to live in the world. So if we are born with a purpose, then by logic, our rebirth is not to idleness but to life. We are reborn through Christ to live renewed lives in the power of the Holy Spirt for the glory and honour of God. Our identity is no longer found in created things but the creator of things, no longer found in possessions, positions or family lines: we no longer seek to self in ourselves, but in Christ! Jared Kirk captures it purposefully as he writes “your fundamental identity no longer comes from the blood in your veins, but the blood in His veins.” Thus, our rebirth changes how we see ourselves, and also how we see the world around us, as Kirk follows “Your perception of your neighbours and your world comes from your adoption into God’s family. When this fundamental identity shift happens, you start to see God’s kingdom advancing everywhere.” Our rebirth reframes our view of self, the world and how we live in it – we are reborn with a renewed purpose in our lives. Furthermore, our rebirth is not limited to the spiritual aspect of our being. Still, it affects every aspect of our being, affecting who we are, how we see and interact with the world as we see and seek the Kingdom of God everywhere.
We must consider our living this day and ponder does it reflect our renewed lives or our old living? Are we allow God the Holy Spirit to affect every essence of our being to bring about the Kingdom of God through the fullness of our living, or are there areas that we still refuse to give over to the light? So let us not be idle; let us live out our renewed lives as the Holy Spirit works in us to shape how we see our communities, churches, and context’s as we are empowered to the work of God. Let us live renewed lives to renew the world around us, finding ways to serve and show the love of God wherever God has placed us, bringing the hope of the Gospel and the Grace of God to the places God has placed us to make known his Glory. This is our responsibility as individuals, and as churches, whether living socially distant lives or squeezed into city streets, we are reborn with the purpose of glorifying God in every area of our lives. So let’s get on with living the way God has called us to live!
A Picture of Spiritual Progression
After Nicodemus’ last section of the speech, when he ponders the logic of being born again, we never hear his voice again as he whimpers back into the shadows from which he came. He seems to be afraid of the Light of which he sought and more comfortable in the darkness, yet, hope is not lost as we get glimpses of the progression of one man progressing from darkness into light. Nicodemus seems to be reborn, as he firsts appear in John 7:50-52 to defend Jesus and his knowledge of the law publically in front of the Pharisees. Then John 19:39-42, at the seemingly worst moment in Jesus public ministry, when he has been crucified, and no one would logically want to be associated with him there again appears Nicodemus as he assists Joseph of Arimathea to take the Body of Jesus to form the Cross to the tomb. At the dark moment, Nicodemus chose to stand in the light. The sceptical Nicodemus provides us with an example of new birth and the work of God in our lives. Furthermore, he reminds us that the journey with Jesus takes time; it is not an instant birth into perfect obedience but often a slow birth into the wonder of Grace, through which we will stumble and toil, yet, by the power of the Holy Spirt keep on walking. Today, as we close with the image of Nicodemus progression, let us be encouraged in our own walk and trust that God is at work in us and through us for his glory. Additionally, let us also have hope for those in our lives for whom we are praying that they too will come to know the wonder of Grace and life with Jesus, and let us trust Gods timing in their lives, even if the progression is hard to see. Finally, the challenge for us to consider in the life, rebirth and example of Nicodemus is: are we willing to step out into the light and live courageous lives of faith through the work of Christ on the cross; wherever God has placed us; and, wherever the Spirit leads us so that the love of God might be shown and his works accomplished by God through us?
- https://www.crossway.org/articles/the-work-of-the-trinity-in-salvation/ ↩
- John 3:12 NLT ↩
- John 3:21 CSB ↩
- Kirk, Jared: City Faith: Jesus in Expensive, transit, secular places, 122 to 168, 2020 ↩
- https://www.businessinsider.com/infographic-the-odds-of-being-alive-2012-6?r=US&IR=T ↩
- Johnston, S. B. (2001). Trinity Sunday, Year B. In R. E. Van Harn (Ed.), The lectionary commentary: theological exegesis for Sunday’s texts, volume three (p. 497). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans. ↩