Aired on radio January 25, 1997 (Used with permission of The Voice of Prophecy, P O Box 55, Los Angeles, CA 90053)
Summary: To give God your life . . . when your life already appears worthless . . . well, that’s no big deal, is it? But when you have status, money, career, friends, maybe even connections, country club membership and professional dignities to maintain, getting radical with God poses some real risk.
The streets were dark as the robed figure made his way through the city of Jerusalem. This was not an ordinary citizen. He was the leading theologian of the day, and he was an influential politician. Just what was Nicodemus doing sneaking through the streets of Jerusalem at night? He was on his way to an interview with a popular, uncredentialed rabbi. But why should that have required secrecy? Other priests and religious scholars regularly visited Jesus to argue and debate with him. Why couldn’t Nicodemus visit Jesus in daylight like all these other religious personalities? If Nicodemus had been planning to conduct an investigation of Jesus, he could have approached Jesus any number of times quite openly. And no one would have raised an eyebrow. But Nicodemus was going to Jesus because of questions he had about himself.
The reason Nicodemus visited Jesus at night was that he had already moved beyond cold, professional analysis. Nicodemus was pursuing a hunger that lived deep in his heart. And that’s risky, especially when that hunger might take you away from the mainstream, away from ordinary, routine life—especially when you have the public visibility and social standing Nicodemus did.
Nicodemus had a lot to lose. And that’s precisely what connects so many of us to this story. If we were homeless, out of work, without family and friends, then there would be no great risk in a radical commitment to Jesus, in radical discipleship. To give God your life . . . when your life already appears worthless . . . well, that’s no big deal, is it? But when you have status, money, career, friends, maybe even connections, country club membership and professional dignities to maintain, getting radical with God poses some real risk.
Who are the Nicodemuses of today? A doctor at the peak of his career; a lawyer with a reputation for honesty, integrity and effectiveness; a theologian or minister at a respectable church—people with social status, people respected for their spiritual life, people who appear to have it all together. We often think of the phrase born again applied to people with really messed-up lives who experience a dramatic turn around—a drug addict who finds deliverance or a thief who becomes honest. But this is not the kind of person Jesus was talking to when He first introduced the idea of being born again. Let’s go to the beginning of the story. Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jew; this man came to Him by night (Jn 3:1, 2). Nicodemus belonged to the Pharisees. The Pharisees were the scripture-quoting, religious people of the day. They believed in miracles, in the resurrection of the dead, in angels. They worked really hard at keeping themselves pure. They didn’t want to be corrupted by the wickedness of the world or the creeping compromise among the people of God. The picture, then, is that Nicodemus is a leading member of society. Still he sneaks through the dark streets of Jerusalem for a private interview with Jesus of Nazareth.
Nicodemus begins his interview with kind words. Rabbi, we know that You have come from God as a teacher, for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him (Jn 3:2). Nicodemus was trying to be nice, to be generous. But Jesus avoids the social niceties and cuts right to the chase. He speaks directly to the hunger in Nicodemus’ heart—Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God (verse 3). Nicodemus didn’t need to refine his theological theories. He didn’t need to join a church. He didn’t have a collection of bad habits to get rid of. He didn’t have a great need to change his life style. As a Pharisee, he had already taken care of all that. What Nicodemus needed was a new relationship with God. He needed to be born again.
And right here is where this story connects with so many church-going people today—decent, upstanding people who have been members, even leaders in a church can be born again. Sometimes we are guilty of projecting the idea that the only way you can have a truly joyous, exciting experience with God is to first make a wreck of your life and then get converted. The story of Nicodemus proves otherwise. It took Nicodemus three years: The day Jesus died, Nicodemus publicly took his stand as a devotee of Jesus. He let himself go and accepted God’s gift of new birth.
Nicodemus appeared to have it all together. He was a good man. He was sincere. But he wanted something more. He craved a heartwarming connection with God. And that’s what Jesus offered.
Like the wind
I don’t want to deny that being born again offers hope for people with huge problems. But I want to emphasize that you don’t have to be spectacularly bad to receive the new birth Jesus offers you. When Jesus said to Nicodemus, You must be born again he identified the problem and prescribed a cure. Nicodemus asked, How can a person be born again? Jesus answered by referring to the wind. You can go down to the beach and watch the wind whip the waves. But you can’t see the wind. You can’t trace its path from point A to point B. There is some mystery about the process. What we can do is prepare for this new birth experience.
How do two people fall in love? It takes more than one encounter. They need to spend some time together. And it’s like that with being born again, too. A person must encounter God, must meet God. And it takes more than just one meeting. You have to spend some time with God, by listening to the gospel message, by reading the Bible, especially the gospels. You need to prepare yourself for the special visitation of the Holy Spirit. The most important human activity you can engage in is preparing to be born again. Getting acquainted with God, spending time with Him, is the indispensable human preparation for being born again.
The simplest statement of what it means to be born again is that you acquire new parents. We take our identities from our families. Mom and Dad determine who we are. We carry Dad’s name. From our parents we receive genetic material and varying degrees of cultural and social shaping. When we are born again, we move from seeing our primary identity rooted in our family of origin and take our primary identity from our loving heavenly Father. Our earthly parents are defective. Even if you come from a solid, intact home where Mom and Dad were pretty decent people, still, your home wasn’t perfect. Your parents weren’t perfect.
When we are born again, we move from organizing our lives around the strengths and weaknesses of our parents to organizing our lives around the perfection of God. Being born again means acquiring a new Father. The idea of being born of God is highlighted in the meaning of the word again in the phrase born again. The Greek word translated again means both again and from above. We must be born twice. The first birth merely gives us existence. I recognize that’s something pretty special, but this second birth, this birth from above, makes us children of God.
Have you been born again? Do you know the joy of coming home to the Father and being enveloped in his embrace? Will you join Nicodemus in his walk across town to see Jesus? Maybe that means going to church. Maybe that means getting out a Bible and reading the stories of Jesus. Maybe it means praying right now and asking God to give you His special gift of new birth. Ask Him to accept you as His son or daughter. And He will say, Yes. How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are (1 John 3:1).