In the Christian faith, we have this weird phrase that no one really understands. We say that people must be born again or be saved. There are a couple of questions that usually come up when we are speaking to someone who isn’t familiar with Christian lingo, or Christianeze. The first is this, “What am I being saved from, or why do I need to be saved?” People in the western world don’t really see themselves as being constantly in danger and people in general today don’t really fear the prospect of Hell. The second is that being born again just sounds really bizarre in our current context because our culture is so materialistic in nature. People aren’t usually thinking on a spiritual level and when they are, many times it is this weird hyper-spiritualism.

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As we arrive in John 3, we are going to discover exactly what it means to be born again or to experience a second birth. John is going to equate the idea with our being brought into the light from darkness. If Christ is the light, as we discovered previously, then all of our deeds are exposed by Christ who is the light. The reality is that everyone’s deeds will one day be exposed by Christ, either voluntarily on this earth or involuntarily at the judgment. (Revelation 20). If Christ is the light, the implication for our lives is radical because our lives are lived in the light and governed by the light. As I examine popular Christianity today, I find that most people who say that they live for Christ actually still live in the darkness, hiding their sinfulness, their talents, their prejudices, their feelings, their thoughts, and even their beliefs.

What do we insinuate, though, when we claim Christ, yet live in the darkness? What does it mean to actually live with Christ as our Lord and our King? What does it mean to live in the light, which is in Christ?

John 3:1-21 (HCSB)

There was a man from the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Him at night and said, “ Rabbi, we know that You have come from God as a teacher, for no one could perform these signs You do unless God were with him.”

Jesus replied, “ I assure you: Unless someone is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

“But how can anyone be born when he is old?” Nicodemus asked Him. “Can he enter his mother’s womb a second time and be born?”

Jesus answered, “I assure you: Unless someone is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. Whatever is born of the flesh is flesh, and whatever is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be amazed that I told you that you must be born again. The wind blows where it pleases, and you hear its sound, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”

“How can these things be?” asked Nicodemus.

“Are you a teacher of Israel and don’t know these things?” Jesus replied. “I assure you: We speak what We know and We testify to what We have seen, but you do not accept Our testimony. If I have told you about things that happen on earth and you don’t believe, how will you believe if I tell you about things of heaven? No one has ascended into heaven except the One who descended from heaven — the Son of Man. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in Him will have eternal life.

“For God loved the world in this way: He gave His One and Only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send His Son into the world that He might condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. Anyone who believes in Him is not condemned, but anyone who does not believe is already condemned, because he has not believed in the name of the One and Only Son of God.

“This, then, is the judgment: The light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil. For everyone who practices wicked things hates the light and avoids it, so that his deeds may not be exposed. But anyone who lives by the truth comes to the light, so that his works may be shown to be accomplished by God.”

Origin of the second birth

Nicodemus comes to Jesus and admits to Jesus that Jesus must be who He claims to be. This is surprising because Nicodemus is a Pharisee and a teacher. The Pharisees are the group of Jews that are notorious for opposing Jesus throughout the Gospels. They try to trap Him by asking Him impossible questions. They call for His crucifixion. They try to have Him stoned. They try to dissuade the people regarding Jesus’ role as the Messiah. Because Nicodemus is moving against the grain of the Pharisaical order, he approaches Jesus under the cover of night (under the cover of physical darkness). Scripture isn’t clear on why Nicodemus went by night, but I imagine it is because he didn’t want his group to know that he was going to receive genuine teaching from Jesus. After all, they constantly persecuted both Jesus and all of His followers. What would Nicodemus have to endure if he was found seeking guidance from this man, whom many of the other Pharisees saw as a false teacher and a blasphemer? It would not be good for Nicodemus!

Nicodemus comes under the cover of darkness and Jesus initiates a conversation about being born again. Nicodemus does not understand, and so Jesus explains to him. According to Christ, to be born again is to be born specifically of water and of the Spirit. Jesus continues to describe this process in verses 14 and 15, “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in Him will have eternal life.”

Jesus describes two different births. First, we are born into the flesh by our biological parents. This fleshly birth brings us into existence, but there is something missing according to the very words of Christ. There is a second part of this birth that only comes as a result of true and genuine belief. Jesus referred to a story in the book of Numbers (21:4-9) where the Israelites had sinned against God and so God had punished them by sending poisonous snakes. The Israelites began dying because they lived in darkness. When they came into the light and repented, begging for help, God had Moses erect an image of a snake. The people could look at it, remember God, and be healed of the poison.

This is a picture of the second birth. Just like this, in this world, those who choose to live in the darkness and never come into the light, which is Christ, will perish and will be condemned forever. In order to be brought into the light and to be born again, we must look to Christ and only Christ because it is only Christ who was raised up on a cross in the manner that the snake was raised up in the wilderness; only Christ was raised up on the cross for the purpose of eternal healing.

So, we are born again when we truly believe in Christ. We cannot become unborn once we are born. That would be nonsensical. There is no way that we can lose eternal life if God has given it. Jesus also states that the second birth takes place by water and by the Spirit. What?

Jews used water regularly in their purification rituals. Nicodemus, being a Jew, would have understood this. The second birth purifies the person on an eternal level. We can take absolute comfort in the fact that all of our impurities are forgiven and we are justified before God on a personal level. This does not mean that we do not still struggle with sin. It does mean that God has justified us eternally and our sin can no longer keep us from Him. This is one of the reasons we practice believer’s baptism: to symbolize this purification after the genuine receiving of Christ. Baptism means absolutely nothing, then, if it is received apart from this purification.

Secondly, this new birth that Jesus refers to is a birth by the Spirit. This could either mean a spiritual birth or a birth powered by the presence of the Holy Spirit. I think it is going to be both, we saw John employ this type of language in chapter 1. We are both made spiritually whole and the Holy Spirit begins to guide us in the light so that we are not stuck in the darkness that John mentions.

When we genuinely trust in Christ we are purified, made whole, and guided in the light. This is the holistic nature of salvation. We do receive an eternity with Christ, yes. What I find, though, is that Scripture is much more targeted toward our life on this earth in this current age. It is why John defines eternal life according to these three things and not toward some eschatological eternal bliss. This ought be taken into account even when we read through John’s book of Revelation. John was not concerned so much with the future as he was the present. It really is about us being purified and justified now, brought into the light now, and being guided by the Holy Spirit now. While we have a promise for the eternal age, we must be focused and determined in this life according to Scripture.

Result of the second birth

Jesus goes on to describe to Nicodemus that this second birth brings about very real results in this life. The first of which is the eternal life that He has already described. As Jesus describes these results, we learn something very important about God in verses 16-19:

“For God loved the world in this way: He gave His One and Only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send His Son into the world that He might condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. Anyone who believes in Him is not condemned, but anyone who does not believe is already condemned, because he has not believed in the name of the One and Only Son of God.

This, then, is the judgment: The light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil.”

God loves us in such a way that He offers us eternal life and gives us a chance to make our own decision as to whether or not we will accept His offer. Everyone who believes in Christ is not condemned. Everyone who does not is condemned. God honors our choice. The judgment is this: have we stayed away from the light, or have we trusted in Christ to bring us into the light?

Effects of the second birth

We remember, then, that the light helps us to see, but also makes us seen. The light reveals all of our imperfections, impurities, and sins. When we choose Christ, we become an open book. We make ourselves vulnerable. In fact, Jesus makes this statement, “…everyone who practices wicked things hates the light and avoids it, so that his deeds may not be exposed. But anyone who lives by the truth comes to the light, so that his works may be shown to be accomplished by God” (v. 20-21).

Those who practice evil hate the light, hate Christ, hate God’s ministry of salvation, and hate the church because they fear that their deeds will be exposed. This is the reason we find that most people in the western world avoid church altogether. We like our privacy. We fight for our privacy. We don’t know how to deal with criticism. We don’t know how to voice our concerns well. We content ourselves with holding everything in. We don’t share our thoughts and opinions because we are afraid that, if we are wrong, it will be exposed and we will look foolish. We are afraid that our sins will be revealed and we will be exposed as less holy or pious than we have pretended to be. We want to force the world to see things our way because we love the darkness and don’t even want to know if we are not correct. We see this in the social and political movements of our day when it comes to issues like abortion and the marriage equality. We witness this darkness in the church regarding issues concerning personal preference and even some traditions.

There are many in the church who are like Nicodemus, who, even by the time Jesus was murdered, still remained hidden in the darkness and had not spoken about Christ for fear of his own life (John 7, 19). When a Jew, and even a Pharisee, came to follow Christ genuinely, we see the the outpouring of that faith in Paul, who, unlike Nicodemus, was outspoken and was persecuted by many Jews because he lived in the light (Acts 9 and following). There is a stark contrast between Nicodemus and the apostle Paul.

On the other end of the spectrum, we see Jesus actually declare that those who live by the truth will actually step into the light so that their works may be revealed; not for the purpose of condemnation, but so their good works might be revealed to have been accomplished by God. This light is a light of redemption, not of condemnation. Still we must live as men and women who are exposed to the light.

It is astounding that Nicodemus comes to Jesus under the cover of night, and Jesus responds by telling him that he must be exposed to the light. Our faith is not and cannot be a private matter. In fact, if we live for Christ, not one iota of our life can be a private matter. It’s like Jesus is insinuating to Nicodemus that there are no secret believers. If we want to live in the light and according to this second birth, we must live out loud for Christ. If we are quiet regarding the object of our faith (Jesus), then we have chosen to live in the darkness away from Christ. We have chosen to keep ourselves hidden. There are no secret believers.

Nik Ripkin, in his book, The Insanity of God, describes his missionary experiences.1 He went to Somalia and met believers there who worshipped God in spite of the threat of death. When they took communion, the fact that the bread represented the body of Christ being broken was relatable. They lived for Christ, knowing that at any moment they could be crucified just as Christ was crucified. Their Christianity was crucifixion: a daily sacrifice in the face of death to share the Gospel. There are no secret believers. In Somalia, while Nik Ripkin was there and shortly after his communion with these Somali believers, an entire generation of believers was slaughtered, including the men he had communion with, because they lived for Christ. Because they lived according to the light, those in darkness feared them. There are no secret believers. Some believers have to hide. If we truly love Christ, we will not keep it a secret because we live lives that are exposed to both God and to the world.

Here, then, is the effect. Those who know Christ and have been brought into the light will be vocal about Christ. If we stay silent, if we are not evangelists, if we choose not to share the Gospel, we choose darkness because we hate the light. If we hate the light, then we ought to question as to whether or not we actually know Christ, who is the light. This means Christ alone is our motivation for sharing the Gospel. It is not the degree of lostness and it is not us trying to fill our church. Christ can be the only motivation because Christ is the only light by which we can live well.

In the same manner, if we keep genuine concerns to ourselves and don’t share them with gentleness and respect, we choose darkness. If we forsake meeting together with other believers or choose not to live in the context of Biblical Christian community, we have chosen darkness.

Living in the light means we are exposed no matter the cost for the purpose of our good deeds being revealed as from God’s work in us and through us. It is not about condemnation, but redemption. All of the sudden, a verse like John 3:16 comes into light. If God loved us in such a way that He gave His only begotten Son, surely we could resolve to live according to the light that came through His only begotten Son. Let us live in the light as individuals and as a church, and not in the darkness. If we live in the darkness, how will we ever please God, who is the light. Let us go and tell everyone we meet about what Christ has done! Let us not keep genuine concerns to ourselves, but address those concerns in a Biblical manner. Let us put our comfort and our mere preferences aside so that we can see and be seen in Christ’s light. Let us be, here and now, all of us, the greatest evangelists that the world has ever seen. Let there be light through us in the darkness.

This being said, I will leave you with this:

What good is a light bulb that has expired?

Or a candle with no wick?

Or a campfire with no wood?

Can a grill without a flame cook?

Or an oven without a pilot bake?

Or a heater without a lamp warm?

What good is a Christian without evangelism?

Can a believer without the good news on the tip of his tongue actually believe?

One of my greatest concerns in the church today is that we have fooled ourselves into thinking that we have Christ, when we actually only have ourselves. We prove that we only have ourselves when we do not take up the mission of Christ, both as a church and throughout our lives. Let us move from the darkness and into the light.

1Ripken, Nik, and Gregg Lewis. The insanity of God: a true story of faith resurrected. Nashville, TN: B & H Publishing Group, 2013.

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