Seward United Methodist Church
Wednesday, January 19, 2022
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Born From Above

Romans 8:12-17 and John 3:1-17

Nicodemus only shows up in the Gospel of John, and he only appears three times. Once is his first encounter with Jesus in chapter three. The second time is when he tries to defend Jesus to the other Pharisees in chapter seven. And the last time is when he helps to bury Jesus in chapter 19.

What do we know about him? We know he was wealthy, educated, respected, and powerful. He was a member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish high council, their highest authority. And we know he was a Pharisee, part of a group respected for their piety, but also a group that mostly rejected Jesus. Nicodemus is able to see past their prejudices. He says to Jesus, “God has sent you. The miraculous signs prove it.”

Nicodemus seeks out Jesus at night. Now is that because he is afraid of what others will think of him? Maybe. But that’s not necessarily the case. Nighttime was also the preferred time for studying and discussing the Scriptures because then you would not be interrupted.

Jesus says to him, “Unless you are born ANOTHEN,” that’s the Greek word here, “you can’t see the Kingdom of God.”

There are several related concepts in this text: Born ANOTHEN, Kingdom of God, eternal life. First of all, what is the Kingdom of God? The Kingdom of God is the return of God’s rightful reign over the earth. It is for the benefit of God’s people. And it is both a now and not yet reality. It has already begun in the hearts of God’s people, as it says in Luke 17:21, “The Kingdom of God is already among you.” But the Kingdom of God will not be fulfilled until Christ returns in glory and the dead are raised.

To enter the Kingdom of God, a person must be born ANOTHEN. There are two meanings to the word ANOTHEN. It can mean “again,” but it can also mean “from above,” which was a roundabout way of saying “from God.”

Nicodemus takes it in the first way. It makes Nicodemus seem kind of dense, doesn’t it? Like, wait a minute, I thought this guy was highly educate in the Scriptures? But maybe rather than thinking “Nicodemus isn’t so bright,” we should read it in kind of a wistful, forlorn way. “If only it were possible! If only a person could start all over with all the knowledge and experience that have been gained the hard way!” That does sound nice, doesn’t it!

But clearly, Jesus meant ANOTHEN in the second way, meaning born from above, from God. It’s not just a new start; it’s a new orientation of life. To be born from above means that we do not rely on our own power but on the power of God.

We heard earlier from Romans 8. In Romans 8, Paul contrasts two ways of living: By the flesh or by the Spirit. To live by the flesh is to rely on your own power, your own wisdom, and your own efforts. To live by the Spirit is to rely on the power of God and the wisdom of God.

“Those who are led by the Spirit are children of God.” Literally in Greek, it reads “sons of God.” They are “adopted into God’s family.” The reason why it says sons instead of children is cultural. In Roman culture, only sons were adopted. And only sons received an inheritance. But what’s really neat about that picture of adoption is that in Roman culture, an adopted son was considered to be a completely new person. As if the person they were before they were adopted completely ceased to exist and a completely new person came about at that moment. They lost all their rights in their former family. They could no longer receive an inheritance from that first family. If they owed money, the debt was canceled. If they had committed a crime, the charges were dropped. And they gained the full rights of a son in their new family, including a guaranteed share of the inheritance.

Today we usually like to change the language to make it more modern. It sounds sexist now to talk about everyone becoming sons of God. And there’s a legitimate point there. But I think it’s important to understand the full picture of what that image means for us. In Christ, we are new people. We are born again from God. We have ceased to be slaves. The charges against us have been dropped. Our debts have been forgiven. In Christ, we are new people.

The Jewish people had a similar understanding when a Gentile converted to Judaism. They talked about that person becoming a “newborn child.” So Nicodemus should have been able to understand the picture here, but he couldn’t because he couldn’t conceive of himself converting. In his mind, he was already a “chosen” person.

But Jesus says, “No one can enter the Kingdom unless they are born of water and the Spirit.” Now Bible scholars don’t agree about how this should be understood. On one hand, Jesus might be talking about two births, one natural and one from God. “Born of water” could refer to the woman’s water breaking before a child is born. But

more likely, I think, both refer to the new birth. The water is the water of baptism, which was an act of conversion.

I think that’s the case because this passage echoes Ezekiel 36: God says, “Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean. Your filth will be washed away, and you will no longer worship idols. And I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit in you. I will take out your stony, stubborn heart and give you a tender, responsive heart. And I will put my Spirit in you so that you will follow my decrees and be careful to obey my regulations.”

That is one of the best texts of the Old Testament to foreshadow the new birth, the regeneration, Jesus proclaims. Human beings can only produce other human beings. Only God’s Spirit can give new life from God. It’s not enough for us to know more or to try harder to be a good person. There must be a fundamental change in our nature, a regeneration that only God can bring about.

Do you know anyone who has been born again? You can probably think of someone you know whose life after Christ is dramatically different from their life before Christ. It’s often easier to recognize that change in other people, but hopefully, other people see it in us as well!

“You can’t see the wind, but you can hear it.” Wind recalls the next chapter of the prophet Ezekiel, chapter 37 and the vision of the valley of dry bones. In both Greek and Hebrew, the same word means both wind and spirit. We can’t see the work of God’s Spirit in a person’s life, but we can see the results. We see the results in changed words, changed attitudes, and changed behaviors.

The source of this change in our lives is the death and resurrection of Jesus. In verse 15, Jesus talks about himself being lifted up. And that’s a word play, looking back to his statement that you must be born “from above.” The change God brings about in our lives has its origins in the love of God revealed in Jesus and his death and resurrection. That love makes new life possible. I’m reminded of the words of the hymn, “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.” “Love so amazing, so divine, demands my life, my soul, my all.”

One of the things I think we should see in John’s Gospel is how he presents the gospel as a new beginning. You can’t read the first verses of John’s Gospel without being reminded of Genesis chapter one. John 1:12-13 says, “To all who accept him, he

gives the right to become children of God. They are reborn. Not a physical birth, but a rebirth that comes from God.”

If John’s Gospel depicts salvation in the terms of Genesis, then Romans 8 depicts it in the terms of Exodus. We are set free from slavery. We are led by the Spirit of God, just as Israel was led by the pillar of fire in the desert. We become God’s own people, and as such, we receive an inheritance, eternal life in the New Creation.

Of course, we know it’s not over yet. We have not yet come into our inheritance. We’re still “in the wilderness.” In Scripture, wilderness is usually portrayed as a place of preparation. We are being made ready for our eternal inheritance. We’re not there yet, but we know where we are going. The Spirit leads us forward. And the same Spirit that raised Christ from the dead lives in us, so we do not live in fear.

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