Born from Above
The Gospel of John is unique. It contains whole dialogues of Jesus that do not appear in Matthew, Mark,, or Luke. Today we have, perhaps, the most profound one of these dialogues:
There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” ()
In this one dialogue, we have the essence of the Gospel. Jesus tells Nicodemus that to enter the kingdom of God we must be born from above. Jesus was referring to rebirth through baptism by the Spirit of God.
This confuses Nicodemus. How can someone be born again he asked? Jesus responded with a question:
Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? (John 3:10)
This question may seem surprising to ask Nicodemus. “Being born from above” was not a familiar concept being discussed among the Jewish leaders of the day. Nonetheless, it was not foreign to Messianic prophecy in the Old Testament:
I will give them one heart and put a new spirit within them; I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, so that they may follow my statutes and keep my ordinances and obey them. Then they shall be my people, and I will be their God. (Ezekiel 11:19-20)
A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you, and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances. (Ezekiel 36:26-27
But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. (Jeremiah 31:33)
These prophecies foretold a new covenant that God would be making with Israel. The covenant was not entirely new because it was contained within the old covenant. Abraham’s faith established the old covenant and foretold the new one. Reading from Genesis:
The Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. (Genesis 12:1-4)
Abraham obeyed God, not knowing where he was going. How difficult would it be for most of us to leave the comfort of our homes and set out to parts unknown? Moreover, for Abraham to become a great nation he needed an heir. This required great faith and trust in God. God promised him a son but Abraham and his wife were too old for this to happen naturally. It could only happen by a supernatural act of God.
The covenant God made with Israel was based on the faith of Abraham. His faith was further tested by God when God asked him to sacrifice his only son Isaac. This was an ultimate test of faith that Abraham was prepared to follow. As we know, God provided, at the last minute, a sacrificial lamb to replace Isaac. We wonder how Abraham managed such a test of faith.
This extraordinary faith foretold the new covenant that God would make with Israel. Abraham believed that Isaac would be his heir because God promised it. He, therefore, believed that God would produce a lamb:
Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” And the two of them walked on together. (Genesis 22:7-8)
God did not nullify the old covenant. The old covenant required a sacrifice for sin. God fulfilled that requirement himself by sending Jesus, the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, to take our place. He did what we could not do. We could not live sinlessly.
Jesus said a curious thing:
“Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist, yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.
John the Baptist was greater than Moses or even Elijah. How could he be considered the least? That is because Jesus had not yet gone to the cross. The new covenant was established at the cross. Only then could the lamb of God take away the sins of the world.
We begin our new birth at the cross. That is just the beginning. We must lay down our old sinful self there.
Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. Our baptism is important, but so is the Holy Spirit working in our lives. The Apostle Paul wrote:
Therefore we were buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we also might walk in newness of life. (Romans 6:4)
We must put ourselves in God’s hands. Only be can perform the birth from above. How he does that must be entirely left up to him. Jesus told Nicodemus:
The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit. (John 3:8)
Are we willing to allow God to perfect us as only he can do? Then we must be willing to die to our will and follow his will for our lives. Jesus said:
If any wish to come after me, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it. (Luke 9:23-24)