For each of us there are big issues to be faced in life. It may be career choices or lack of employment, marriage (or not), family conflicts, and so forth. These may make great demands of us and at times seem overwhelming. One issue is bigger than all of these because it has to do with the meaning of life itself – it deals with the question ‘How can I be right with God?’ In John 3 we meet a man who had definite ideas on the subject, but when he met Jesus his ideas were stood on their head. Consider John 3:1-16 Are you born again?
1. A puzzled man
Nicodemus was an important man in the community – ‘a member of the Jewish ruling council’. He was a Pharisee, one of the religious experts, devoted to the study of the Scriptures and an instructor of others (v10). The Pharisees were thought of as the most holy of men, who knew all the laws God had given and had added many of their own. They believed that by keeping the law they were living lives that satisfied God. These are the people described in Luke 18:9 as ‘certain ones who trusted in themselves that they were righteous’. Pharisees were convinced that their good works were sufficient for salvation. There are many today thinking like this. Though admitting they are not perfect, they hope that effort and good works will outweigh their failings and satisfy God. Note that Nicodemus is puzzled by Jesus and his miracles. He must satisfy his curiosity, despite the risks.
2. A new start
Jesus has an amazing response: ‘no-one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again (or ‘from above’)’ (v3). He goes right to the heart of the spiritual need of Nicodemus – his law-keeping and good works cannot gain him entry to ‘the kingdom of God’, membership of the people of God. What he really needs is a fundamental change in his whole life, so radical that it can be described as a new birth. The Bible makes clear to us our natural spiritual condition – ‘dead in your transgressions and sins’ (Ephesians 2:1). Our efforts at good works do not begin to make up for our sins and even the effort to earn salvation is sinful (Isaiah 64:6). This is a change that only God can effect – a birth by the Holy Spirit who works like cleansing water (v5). We need to recognise our need and pray for God’s working.
3. A great gift
The passage stresses what God has done to save sinners. We must be made alive, but how is sin to be dealt with? A holy God cannot ignore it. The answer is in v16 ‘gave his one and only Son’. It is the work of Jesus that deals with our sin. At the cross he willingly took the sin and guilt of his people, bearing their punishment. As Isaiah 53:5 tells us, ‘he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities’ (see also 2 Corinthians 5:21). That was the reason for the coming of the Son of God into the world. The gift of Jesus and the salvation he gives have to be received by us. It is not enough merely to know about it. The promise is to ‘whoever believes in him’ – repenting and trusting our whole life to him. Such commitment is the first sign that the new birth has taken place. We receive from him ‘eternal life’, life in fellowship with God, a present possession (John 5:24), living for evermore.