You may have heard the joke about the young preacher who went up to a farmer who was working out in his field. He was concerned about this farmer’s spiritual well-being, and so he asked the man, “Are you laboring in the vineyard of the Lord?” The farmer didn’t even look up. He just said, “No. these are soybeans.”
The preacher said, “You don’t understand. Are you a Christian?” The farmer said, “Nope, my name is Jones. You must be looking for Jim Christian. He lives a mile south of here.”
The preacher tried again and he asked the farmer, “Are you lost?” He said, “No, I’ve lived here all my life.” Getting a little frustrated, the preacher asked, “Are you prepared for the resurrection?”
Well, that caught the farmer’s attention and he asked, “When’s it gonna be?” The preacher thought he was finally making some headway and so he said, “It could be today, tomorrow, or the next day.” The farmer said, “Well, don’t mention it to my wife. She don’t get out much and she’s gonna want to go all three days.”
Now, I share that story with you because it feels like there’s something similar going on in John chapter 3 in a conversation that Jesus had with Nicodemus. Jesus is talking about one thing on a spiritual level, and Nicodemus only seems to be able to interpret it in a very literal way.
Watch this video and you’ll see what I mean. If you’d like to follow along in your Bibles, turn to John chapter 3, beginning with verse 1.
Now, I don’t know if it comes across this way to you, but it feels to me like most of this conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus seems to go all over the place. Nicodemus starts talking about one thing and then Jesus starts talking about something else and then it just sorta jumps around.
And you’ve probably had some conversations like that. Where you went in expecting to talk about one thing, but the person you’re talking to keeps going off on tangents that have nothing to do with what you said. Or maybe they jump from one topic to another, until you almost forgot what you came to talk about in the first place.
I wonder if that’s how Nicodemus felt that night, talking with Jesus. He came in with good intentions. He didn’t come to argue, he didn’t come to pick a fight with Jesus. He was trying to learn more about this man who was turning water into wine and turning over tables in the temple. He even told Jesus,“No one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” (John 3:2).
But before Nicodemus could even finish saying hello, Jesus took over the conversation and started to go places that Nicodemus never intended to go. Jesus started talking about being born again, born of the water and the Spirit. And how people who are born of the Spirit are like the wind — you don’t know where it comes from or where it’s going.
And Nicodemus just couldn’t seem to keep up with this conversation. And I don’t judge him for that. Because I’ve been a Christian a long time. I’m a minister. I went to school to learn how to understand the Bible. And even I have a hard time keeping up with this conversation. And here’s Nicodemus, who didn’t have the benefit of knowing all the things that we know. He had no idea what it means to be born again. Or to be born of the water and the Spirit.
And so, Nicodemus asked Jesus to slow down a bit. He said in verse 9, “How can these things be?” He’s basically saying, “Jesus, I’m having trouble keeping up with you. I’m a little confused. Make it simple for the dumb guy.”
Have you ever had a moment like that when you’re reading the Bible? Or maybe while you’re listening to a sermon? Where you felt like the Bible or the preacher was saying something; and maybe you could even tell that it was something important — but you just had a hard time following along? I think that’s what was going on with Nicodemus.
And the interesting thing is that Jesus absolutely, positively refused to dumb anything down for Nicodemus. In fact, here’s what he said in verse 12, “If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?” Which was basically Jesus’ way of saying: “If you don’t understand, I’m not going to explain it for you.”
We talk a lot in the church about being seeker-sensitive, and trying to meet people where they are in their understanding and help them to grow. But, the truth is, when you read the gospels, and especially the gospel of John, you’ll find that most of the time Jesus wasn’t very “seeker-sensitive.”
Do you remember, a few weeks ago, the first question that Jesus asked his disciples? It was: “What are you looking for?”
And I said in that lesson that I believe that Jesus is still asking each of us the same question – “What are you looking for?” But here’s the thing. None of Jesus’ disciples ever got a quick, easy answer. They didn’t come to Jesus with a question or a problem, and have Jesus immediately give them a solution tha6t they could take home with them that day that would fix everything.
Jesus didn’t give them a list of spiritual disciplines; or a daily Bible reading plan; or a best-selling book that would answer all their questions. Jesus doesn’t work like that. Faith doesn’t work like that. Jesus didn’t come to give us a handy set of life-hacks. He came to give us life, and that means we have to actually live with him and in him and through him.
And if you remember that lesson from a few weeks back, when Jesus asked his disciples, “What are you looking for?”, they wanted to know where he was staying, so they could come to be with him. So, Jesus said, “Come and see.” Jesus invited them to come abide with him. And he promised that he would abide with them.
And so, for the next three years or so, those disciples went wherever Jesus went. They saw what he was doing, and they saw how he was doing it. They stayed with him, and just filled their lives with Jesus. And along the way, they found what they were looking for, more or less. And I say more or less, because sometimes they realized that they were looking for the wrong things. And sometimes they found things they weren’t even looking for, even though those were things they desperately needed.
And it’s the same for us. For you and me, and us living our lives together as a church. We all come to Jesus searching. Needy. Longing. Looking. And Jesus really does want to know what we’re looking for. But the answers he gives us, and the ways he shows us, aren’t usually the easy answers or the easy ways.
Rather, Jesus invites us to come to him. To see God’s truth and God’s wisdom and God’s love in him. And to abide with him. To stay with him through the good times and the bad times. The fun times and the sad times. The sunny days and the cloudy days. From the mountaintops of faith, when we feel God’s presence in every bit of our being; to the valley of the shadow of death, when we feel absolutely God-forsaken.
And Jesus promises to abide with us through all of that. Because he’s already lived every moment of it. That’s the reason the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, as John put it in chapter 1. So that, through Jesus, God could know what it feels like to live in our skin, with our hurts and hungers and fears.
“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” wasn’t a quick fix. It was God becoming a human so that God could experience it all with us, among us, as one of us.
And I think one of the hardest things for me as a preacher and one of most frustrating things is knowing – or at least hoping – that every week when I stand before you, there are a lot of you who are coming here hungering and thirsting for something. And the reason this is frustrating is because our culture has shaped us so that we want something we can have right now. We have been trained to expect the preacher to be an expert in serving up a quick, easily-digestible lesson with simple applications we can take home with us and change our lives today. But that’s not usually how the Bible works. That’s not how Jesus works.
Let me give you an example. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus’ main form of teaching is through parables. Interesting stories that Jesus used to tell deep and important truths about who God is and what God does. And a lot of us believe that the purpose of the parables was to make everything clear and easy to understand.
But that’s not what Jesus said. In Mark 4, Jesus’ disciples asked him why he taught in parables, and listen to what he said. This may blow your minds. He said, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables, so that ‘they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven.’” (Mark 4:11-12)
Jesus said that his parables were as likely to confuse people as they were to answer their questions. They’re more like riddles you have to figure out than sermon illustrations that explain everything.
But, we live in a fast-food culture, and sometimes that culture makes its way into the church. We want a spiritual meal, but we want it served up fast. And so, we expect the preacher to give us an answer to all the problems we’re facing in 25 minutes or less.
But Jesus didn’t serve fast food. He offers us slow food. Nourishing food, yes. Delicious food. Beautiful food. But food you really have to sit down and chew on.
Listen to what Psalm 1:2 says. The Psalmist praises those who meditate on God’s words day and night. In his translation, The Message, Eugene Peterson translates it this way: “You thrill to God’s Word, you chew on Scripture day and night.”
Peterson said that meditating over scripture is like a dog chewing on a bone. And I’m sure you’ve seen that. That dog isn’t going to have an easy time with that bone. But he keeps gnawing at it, trying to get everything he can out of it. That’s what Jesus offers us. When we come to scripture, we’re like dogs gnawing on bones.
Jesus doesn’t give us fast-food meals. Rather, he calls us to come, see, and abide. Listen to what Jesus said in Revelation 3.20, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.”
Jesus isn’t interested in giving you three simple life-hacks. Jesus wants to develop a deep, abiding friendship with you. He wants a place at your table. And he wants to make a place for you at God’s table.
And that brings us back to Nicodemus, and our story this morning. Because Jesus isn’t going to give Nicodemus something easy to understand. Rather, he’s going to give him something to chew on.
Verse 1 tells us, “Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews.”
Nicodemus was one of the great spiritual leaders of the Jewish people. He was, first of all, a Pharisee—someone who knew the entire Old Testament virtually by heart. He made it his goal every day to observe the law of Moses in great detail. Later, in verse 10, Jesus will say that Nicodemus was “the teacher of Israel”. He was also a ruler, one of the 70 men on the Sanhedrin, a group that had jurisdiction over all the religious affairs of Israel. This was a very important man.
In verse 2, “This man came to Jesus by night.”
Some people believe that Nicodemus came at night because he was afraid. Afraid of what his colleagues might say if he was seen with Jesus.
And that may be the case, but I think it’s more likely that Nicodemus came at night simply because that was a quiet time, especially if you worked all day long. It was a time he could get Jesus alone for a private conversation.
In verse 2, Nicodemus says, “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.” Sometimes the Pharisees would say something like that to try to butter Jesus up and then spring a trap on him, but I don’t think that’s what’s going on here. I think Nicodemus was honest. I think he sincerely felt this way.
We need to remember that not all the Pharisees were hard-hearted and opposed to Jesus. Nicodemus and some of his colleagues had concluded from listening and watching that Jesus was “a teacher come from God”— in other words, he was a prophet. They recognized that the miracles Jesus did proved that he was God’s messenger.
But, before, Nicodemus could say anything else, and before he could ask any questions, Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (John 3:3).
Which must have been very confusing to Nicodemus. As a man who had a thorough knowledge of the Old Testament and who was talking with a rabbi, Nicodemus was probably scrambling in his mind to think of a cross-reference somewhere in the Old Testament scriptures. Where do the scriptures talk about being born again? But he would have come up empty, because the Old Testament never used a phrase like that.
In fact, if this had been a finish-the-sentence exercise—”No one can see the kingdom of God unless ________”—Nicodemus’s answer most certainly would have been, “Unless he is circumcised (that is, he’s Jewish) and he obeys the law of Moses.”
But “no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again”? Where did that come from? If you were a Jew who obeyed God’s law, what other birthright did you need? Now I think Nicodemus was actually trying to learn from Jesus because he doesn’t get defensive and ask the obvious question, which was this: “Why would I need to be born another time? I was born right the first time.”
What he does ask in verse 4 is actually a much deeper question. “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” (John 3:4)
And I don’t think Nicodemus was trying to be silly. What he thought he understood Jesus to say was the only hope of entering God’s kingdom was to be born biologically into a different family, and, of course, that’s impossible.
And this whole idea of being born again would have made no sense at all to the Jews because, as I said, they were very confident in their first birth. And they took great pride in being born as a Jew.
And so, Jesus explained to Nicodemus what he meant by a second birth, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 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.’” (John 3:5-7). That gives us some new information — to be “born again” means to be “born of the water and the Spirit”.
If I were describing my first birth, I might say that I was born of Hurtis and Joyce Smith. I have their DNA. That’s where I get my identity. But Jesus said that we need to be born of the water and the Spirit. Those are the two elements that help provide our spiritual identity.
Now, this “water and spirit” language may sound a bit mysterious to us, but it shouldn’t have to Nicodemus. In fact, in verse 10, Jesus said to him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?” In other words, “Nicodemus, why is this not clear to someone with your training and understanding of the scriptures?” Here’s why he expected Nicodemus to understand.
Look with me to Ezekiel chapter 36. More than 500 years before the Word became flesh, God told Israel that he would eventually restore them as his people. In fact, the day was coming when God would show the holiness of his great name not only to Israel, but to all the nations.
And God said he would accomplish that through two things. In Ezekiel 36:25, God said, “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you.” There’s the water. God will cleanse sinful people with water.
Nicodemus was well aware of John the Baptist and his ministry. He came “preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” (Mark 1:4). We’re told that all of the Jews went out to the Jordan River to be baptized by him. God’s cleansing was all over the news! So, the water portion was already in place.
But then in Ezekiel 36, beginning with verse 26, God said, “And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.” (Ezekiel 36:26-27). God says the day is coming when I will put my Spirit within you.
And so, I think Jesus was saying to Nicodemus, “You ought to be able to recognize what I’m talking about when I say you must be born of the water and the spirit! You’ve studied Ezekiel.” To be born of the water and the Spirit means that God washes us clean of the sins we have committed, and then he gives us a new heart as he fills us with his Spirit.
The Holy Spirit was the one thing that was lacking in John’s baptism. His baptism was for the forgiveness of sins, but it didn’t give God’s Spirit. That didn’t happen until Acts 2, where Peter said in verse 38 that everyone needs to repent and be baptized, not only for the forgiveness of their sins, but so that they may receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
It is that combination of water and Spirit that brings us into the kingdom of God, forgiving us of our sins and giving us a fresh start. And today, we have the opportunity to be born of the water and the Spirit. We sometimes tend to emphasize the water while neglecting the Spirit, but Jesus talked with Nicodemus more about the Spirit than he did the water. Both of those elements are critical.
In John 3:8, Jesus said, “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” And I think what Jesus meant by that is this – none of us can see the wind, but we can see the effects of the wind. We see the flags waving and the branches stirring. In the same way, you can’t see this Spirit that God puts inside of you. But you can see the effects. You can see the changed life. You can see the fruit of the Spirit coming out – love, joy, peace, and so on.
As Paul said to the disciples in Acts 19, it’s not enough that you have the water; you need the Spirit as well.
A few verses after this, we find one of the most important verses in all the Bible. It’s probably the one verse that people recognize more than any other – John 3:16, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
It’s starts with God, a God who loved. A love so great that it was willing to give the most precious thing in the world to him – His Son. And a love so wide that it didn’t just reach out to the good people, but to the whole world.
But his love requires a response – we have to believe in him. This isn’t just a believing with your mind that something is true. Think about when you love someone—your spouse or your child or your best friend. And you tell them, “I believe in you.” It’s about trust. It’s about loyalty. It’s about relationship. You’re telling them, “I’m willing to stand by you even through the hard, painful times because you love me and I love you.” That’s what John means when he talks about believing.
And those who have that kind of relationship with God will not perish, but have eternal life. In John’s gospel, eternal life isn’t “going to heaven.” It’s not something we get only after we die. We experience it now. As soon as you’re born again of the water and the Spirit. Baptism, that’s the water part. But water doesn’t give you a new life — that’s the Spirit part.
As Paul said in 2 Corinthians 5:17, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.”