Inside the classic Voyage of the Dawn Treader we find, what is in my opinion, the second greatest piece of Biblical imagery in the entire Narnian mythology. A young boy named Eustace becomes an ugly scaly dragon as a consequence for being selfish and stubborn. The reader feels somewhat happy this happens to him because he has been such a nuisance to the voyage. Eustace repentantly realizes his mistake and desperately wants to become a boy again, so he tries and tries to tear into and rip off his dragon skin. There’s just one problem, he can’t get his dragon skin off no matter how hard he tries. The deeper he tries to go into his dragon scales, the more pain he feels. After hours of self-determining effort on Eustace’s part, Aslan comes to his aid and leads him to a well to bathe in. But since he’s a dragon he cannot enter the well. Eustace realizes his skin must come off first. Eustace tries again to painfully tear through the layers of dragon skin and gets farther this time but still sees that he cannot do it on his own. To which Aslan says, “You’ll have to let me undress you.” Listen as I read how Eustace described the event.

 “I was so afraid of his claws, I can tell you, but I was pretty nearly desperate now. So I just lay flat down on my back and let him do it. The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off. You know – if you’ve ever picked the scab off a sore place. It hurts like billy-oh but it is fun to see it coming away…Well, he peeled the beastly stuff right off – just as I thought I’d done myself the other three times, only they hadn’t hurt – and there it was lying on the grass: only ever so much thicker, and darker, and more knobbly looking than the others had been. And there was I as smooth and soft…then he caught hold of me – I didn’t like that much for I was very tender underneath now that I had no skin on – and threw me into the water. It smarted like anything but only for a moment. After that it became perfectly delicious and as soon as I started swimming and splashing I found that all the pain had gone from my arm. And then I saw why. I’d turned into a boy again…After a bit the lion took me out and dressed me…with his paws…in new clothes.” Lewis then comments within his own story saying, “It would be nice, and fairly true, to say that ‘from that time forth Eustace was a different boy.’ To be strictly accurate, he began to be a different boy. He had relapses. There were still many days when he could be very tiresome. But…the cure had begun.”[1]

I begin with Lewis’ account of the undragoning of Eustace this morning because in our text we find Jesus introducing a similar but greater reality, the reality of being ‘born again.’ Follow along as I read our text for this morning, John 3:1-8.

 

Four items to note in these eight verses:

1) An Evening Meeting (v1-2)

2) The New Birth and Sight (v3-4)

3) The New Birth and the Spirit (v5-6)

4) The New Birth and the Wind (v7-8)

 

An Evening Meeting (v1-2)

In these opening verses we meet Nicodemus. He was a Pharisee which meant he was part of the most strict, severe, and rigid religious sects of his day. This isn’t our first run in with a Pharisee in John’s gospel, recall that earlier we ran into a group of messengers sent by the Pharisee’s in 1:24. John says Nicodemus was also a “ruler of the Jews” which means he was a member of the governing body over all Jewish people, the Sanhedrin. This is something similar a senator in our government today.[2] Being highly educated, a skilled theologian, a respected member of his community, a Jew among Jews, Nicodemus was no simpleton. v2 says he came at night to see Jesus. Many have speculated as to why he came at night but we really don’t know for sure. He could’ve wanted the other members of the Sanhedrin to be unaware of this meeting. He could’ve wanted to meet with Jesus at a time when He wouldn’t be busy. The darkness of the night could’ve even been descriptive of the darkness and blindness within his own heart. We don’t know why he came at night, and since John isn’t concerned with telling us we shouldn’t give ourselves to speculation.

Once he arrived he greets Jesus by respectfully calling him ‘Rabbi’ saying that a few of them (notice he says ‘we’ not ‘I’ in v2?) know that He is from God due to His signs and miracles. Even though John has only recorded one miracle from Jesus so far in his account, the water turned to wine at the Wedding in Cana, we learn from this that Jesus had done more miracles and from all these signs He had grabbed the attention of a few within the highest echelon of Jewish leadership. So could it be that here in John 3 we see these religious elites send one of their own to do some further investigation? Perhaps.

The New Birth and Sight (v3-4)

Jesus doesn’t respond with gratitude for Nicodemus’ respectful words, which opens up the possibility that they weren’t words of respect, maybe they were words of political posturing. Whatever kind of words they were, remember John 2:25. Jesus knows what’s in all men, so He knows what Nicodemus needs to hear so He says in v3, “Truly, truly I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus then, countless millions through history, and we today just learned that the new birth is absolutely necessary if we’re to see the Kingdom. Recall Jesus had come announcing the inauguration of the Kingdom of God. “The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God is at hand, repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). Here with Nicodemus Jesus says only those who are born again, or born from above, will be able to see the Kingdom of God. So see something here Jesus is saying about natural man apart from the grace of God. In our lost condition we’re unable to see, we’re blind to the beauty of Christ. Unless the Spirit opens the eyes to see the glory of the gospel.

This phrase ‘born again’ in the original Greek is written in the aorist passive tense which means that being born again is a one time action completed in the past, and that those who experience being born again are entirely passive in the process. Meaning that it is something that happens to them, not something they of their own power produce. This parallels what Paul tells us in Ephesians 2. When God saved us and made us alive with Christ we were…what? Dead in our sins. And because we were dead we couldn’t do anything to save ourselves. So too in the new birth Jesus is saying that we are passive in it. God is the One who must open our eyes to see the His Kingdom. No man can do this on his own. Now it’s not wrong to think you had a part to play in your salvation, but let the truth of this text rearrange your opinion of the part you played in it. Yes you had a part, you did the sinning and God did the saving.[3] So see a truth that will put a song in your soul. Natural man cannot open his or her own eyes to see the Kingdom of God, and our eyes must be opened, we must be born again if we’re to see the Kingdom. If you’ve had your eyes opened by God, if you see the glory and grandeur of Jesus in the gospel you have been a recipient of the free and sovereign grace of God. Even though you were dead in sin He chased you down, and as the spring sun melts away cold winter snow, so too God’s grace has warmed and softened your stony heart.

Nicodemus is clearly struggling to understand this. He believes Jesus is speaking of something of a ‘gynecological miracle’[4] in v4 saying, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” This questions brings us to our third point today…

The New Birth and the Spirit (v5-6)

As Jesus cut straight to the chase in v3 right after Nicodemus’ opening words in v2, so Jesus does this again in v5-6 right after Nicodemus’ question in v4. He doesn’t respond to Nicodemus’ question, He simply continues to expand on the new birth saying in v5, “Truly, truly I say to you, unless one is born of water and spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” I must say there is a difficulty with this text, not so much with the idea of being born by the Spirit – we know what that means, that it must be the Holy Spirit who regenerates or makes us alive, and Jesus will even expand on the Spirit’s work in the new birth again in v6-8. The difficulty comes when John says in order to enter the kingdom we must be born of water. Unless we’re born of water we’ll never enter the Kingdom of God. One option is that this is referring to baptism. Which would mean one must be baptized and made alive by the Spirit in order to enter the Kingdom. We must reject this right away though. Because baptism, though important, does not save and is not required for salvation. Think of the thief on the cross to whom Jesus says, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” His entire Christian life was just a few moments, he never got baptized, and Jesus promised him that that very day He would be with Him in paradise. Baptism, being the sign of the covenant is incredibly important, but it does not save us and isn’t required for salvation.

What then does water mean here? I think water refers to the washing or purification of the Holy Spirit in the new birth.[5] So when John says we must be born of water and Spirit Jesus intends us to learn that in the new birth the Holy Spirit (as Ezekiel 36:25 says) sprinkles us clean and purifies us of all our stains and then implants His new life within us. The result of this action of the Spirit in us, is entrance into the Kingdom. I think Jesus uses language like this with Nicodemus because being he was a Pharisee and many of the Pharisee’s rejected and frowned on the baptism of John the Baptist, which was a ritual of purification similar to what Jesus is speaking of here in v5.[6]

Jesus continues saying in v6, “That which is born of flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is Spirit.” Natural life produces natural life, but if there is to be spiritual life in us we must be born again. This was a lesson Nicodemus needed to hear. Most Jews of this time thought that because they were Abraham’s physical descendants they were guaranteed a place in the Kingdom of God. But physical descent does not produce spiritual life. Jesus’ Kingdom is a spiritual Kingdom and only those who’ve been made alive by the Spirit see that Kingdom and enter into it. This is a lesson we must be reminded of too. Is the Kingdom of God only for middle upper class white people? Is the Kingdom only for Americans? Is it only for those raised in a Christian home? Is it only for those who have been homeschooled or go to Christian schools and then onto Christian universities? No, social status, ethnicity, or education can’t bring you into the Kingdom. Only the Spirit of God brings you into the Kingdom. What is the Spirit’s work like?

The New Birth and the Wind (v7-8)

v7-8, “Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ 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.”

Jesus uses an analogy to drive His point home to Nicodemus. In Greek He uses the word ‘pnuema’ which can be translated breath, wind, or spirit. Most translations opt for wind but really any of these three words work in this context. We know the meaning He’s getting at. We can feel the Spirit, sense the Spirit, know the Spirit even, but we cannot see Him, and we don’t understand how He enters our hearts. Just as we cannot know these things, so too natural man cannot truly understand those who are born of and walk in step with the Spirit.

I want to linger on this a moment and apply this. Jesus is telling Nicodemus that he, being a natural man who has not yet experienced the grace of God the Holy Spirit making him alive, cannot truly understand those who are born of the Spirit. This means if you’re a Christian, you’ve experienced the new birth, and because the Spirit of God has cleansed you and made you new, your life should perplex the unbelievers you know. So ask yourself the questions, ‘Does my life look different than the world around me? Does it look like I value what they value? Am I thrilled about the same things as they? Is my marriage different than their marriages? Do I parent my kids the same way they parent theirs? Do I use my money, time, resources like they do?’ All these questions are helpful because they push one reality to the surface…the new birth changes everything. Which means, you cannot be born again and remain the same. The new birth gives you new values, new passions, new goals, new glories, new aspirations, and new desires which show the world around us that we are no longer what we once were. I wonder, would your life confuse Nicodemus? Or would he see you and completely understand what makes you tick?

Conclusion:

It is my hope and desire that for all of you, the gospel of Jesus Christ crucified, risen, and reigning for sinners is not a formal or external matter of Sunday morning religion, having no transformative power in you.[7] Perhaps you’re put off or embarrassed of claiming to be born again because of how negative the term is now thought of today. If this is you the message you need to hear today is clear – you must be born again.

If you have been born again, if you have been born from above, and felt the cleansing power of the Holy Spirit wash you and make new, the gospel of Jesus Christ crucified, risen, and reigning contains a rich sweetness in it. You truly do see God as a fount which brings every blessing to you as we sang of earlier. If this is you the message you need to hear today is also clear – dive deeper into the great work the Holy Spirit has done to you, swim in the ocean of the new birth and watch in wonder as God continues to wash away your corruption and bring you to deeper and deeper levels of joy in the gospel.

 

 

Citations:

[1] C.S. Lewis, Voyage of the Dawn Treader, The Chronicles of Narnia, page 473-476.

[2] R.C. Sproul, John, St. Andrews Expositional Commentary, page 34.

[3] H.B. Charles Jr. tweeted this last week on his twitter account.

[4] R. Kent Hughes, John: That You May Believe, Preaching the Word commentary series, page 79.

[5] Others who believe this are: John Calvin (Commentary on John 3:5), Kaspar Von Schwenckfeld (Corpus Schwenkfeldianorum) These previous sources are found in John: Reformation Commentary on Scripture, page 92-93. R.C. Sproul also holds and explains this view in John, St. Andrews Expositional Commentary, page 38-39.

[6] Leon Morris, John, NICNT, page 216.

[7] John Piper, Finally Alive, page 17-18.

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