Vol. 11 — No. 23 June 7, 1970
There was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews: The same came to Jesus by night, and said unto him, Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him. Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. Nicodemus saith unto him, How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb, and be born? Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again. The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit. Nicodemus answered and said unto him, How can these things be? Jesus answered and said unto him, Art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not these things? Verily, verily, I say unto thee, We speak that we do know, and testify that we have seen; and ye receive not our witness. If I have told you earthly things, and ye believe not, how shall ye believe, if I tell you of heavenly things? And no man hath ascended up to heaven; but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.
In Christ Jesus, who together with the Father and the Holy Spirit, we worship as the one true God, Fellow Redeemed:
On this Festival of the Holy Trinity we have confessed our faith that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are the one true God—even as we do on every other Sunday. He began our Worship Service with the solemn invocation: “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” All of you responded with a solemn confession of assent: the “Amen.” We have confessed our faith in the words of the Apostolic Creed: “I believe in God the Father,…And in Jesus Christ His only Son,…I believe in the Holy Ghost.” And once again we concluded that confession with another solemn “Amen,” that is to say, “Yes, indeed, this is the God we confess and to whom we look for full salvation, none other.” I have again greeted you from the pulpit with the Trinitarian blessing of the apostle: “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God the Father, and the communion of the Holy Ghost be with you all.” In our order of service we keep on confessing our faith in our God in varying ways because we know that unless we have and trust and confess the one, true God, our worship is in vain.
But we should realize that Holy Scriptures reveal our God in a less formal, more natural, almost casual manner. Think of this familiar Scripture reading which is our text. Nicodemus had come to Jesus at night. He had been impressed by the miracles that Jesus had been doing. The miracles were to Nicodemus signs from God that revealed Jesus to be more than just a common, ordinary man. He said to Jesus: “Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him.” In response Jesus spoke to him of “the kingdom of God.” Both Jesus and Nicodemus were standing on the same ground. They talked the same language. Both believed in God. Their conversation was not muddied by the possibilities of atheism or agnosticism, as such a conversation might be today. They both believed and accepted God—the Father. As their conversation continued, Jesus spoke of the Spirit. Nicodemus did not respond with a blank stare or with a question: “Now who is this?” The knowledge and acceptance of the Spirit of God was also common ground among the Jews in those days. Jesus continued by speaking of Himself. He referred to Himself in the term that Daniel had introduced to the Jews—“the Son of man.” He continued by speaking of God’s “only begotten Son.” This also caused no problem for Nicodemus. The Jews knew and accepted the Son as a person of the Godhead. The only question that troubled them was whether or not Jesus of Nazareth was that Person, the Son of God.
Let us observe how naturally, how self-evidently the Scripture speaks of the Godhead as consisting of the Father, Son, and Spirit. Let us also realize that at the time of Christ the Jews were Trinitarian, whereas now they have fallen into the Unitarian form of idolatry. Our text is not a dogmatic presentation of the doctrine of God. It is rather the report of an encounter of God with one man. In this encounter the person and work of the Holy Spirit play an important part. We would concentrate on this part of the encounter this morning. Let us observe that—
We have already mentioned this fact but would emphasize it more thoroughly because the Holy Spirit is so commonly and so widely ignored. We have noted on other occasions that when the deity of Christ is denied, the Holy Spirit simply falls by the wayside in the minds of men. The enemies of the Holy Trinity direct their attacks against Christ. If they can destroy Him in the minds of men, they have simultaneously destroyed the Spirit. But when God’s Son appeared on earth in the form of man, the Holy Spirit occupied an honored and accepted position in the thinking and worship and religious life of the people. In conversing with Nicodemus Jesus spoke of being born again “of the Spirit.” He continued by stating the truth that “that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” Nicodemus was fascinated—but not by the concept of the Spirit. He took that for granted. His problem was with the HOW of the Spirit’s working. Jesus compared it to the wind. We can’t see the wind. We can’t perceive the subtle changes in air pressure which cause the movement of air. But we don’t deny the wind for that reason. We can hear the wind when it rustles the leaves. We can feel it when it blows against us. We know there is wind. So with the working of the Spirit. We can’t observe the working of repentance and faith in a human heart. This is not something that can be reproduced in a laboratory. But we can see the result in human lives, and so we cannot deny the fact of rebirth or regeneration. In all of the conversation Nicodemus didn’t once question the reality of the Spirit. He knew the Spirit. He accepted Him. For the Holy Spirit was part of the religious knowledge and life of the people.
Nicodemus insisted on trying to understand HOW the Spirit did His work in human hearts. We today must be instructed again and again that it is necessary for the Spirit to do a work in our hearts. What is that work? It is this that the Holy Spirit—
Jesus responded to Nicodemus’ opening remarks by solemnly declaring the absolute necessity for Spiritual rebirth as the condition for seeing or experiencing the Kingdom of God. “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” As soon as people today hear the expression, “Kingdom of God,” all kinds of concepts come into their minds. My catechumens usually think of heaven, which is the final stage or development of the “Kingdom.” Many of the Reformed and also some Lutherans identify the “Kingdom” with the imagined millennial rule of Christ here on earth. The social gospel people think of the “Kingdom” as the establishment of a society governed by justice for all, mutual love and good will. All of these concepts of the “Kingdom” miss the point that the “Kingdom” is the Lordship of Christ in human hearts. But what does that mean? When Jesus Christ comes and establishes His rule, His Lordship, in a human heart, He takes over in that heart. He brings rescue from the guilt of sin. He saves from the dread power of death. He brings victory over Satan. He sets a person free from the smothering tyranny of self-love, self-interest, self-service, self-indulgence so that that person is free to love his God and his fellowman, serve his God and his fellowman. What Jesus said was that Christ cannot come and take over in a human heart and a human life without that person first experiencing a new birth. “Except a man be born again, he cannot see, that is, experience personally, the kingdom of God.”
Why is spiritual rebirth an absolutely necessary spiritual experience before the “Kingdom” can come to a person, before the Lord Jesus can establish His rule, His Lordship, in a human heart? Jesus gave a very simple answer: “That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” Man comes into this world “flesh of flesh.” That means more than that we just look like our parents, have human bodies, are mortal, and so on. It means also that we think, we feel, we will as our parents—just as every one born of flesh does. The condition of “flesh” is elsewhere described in the Scriptures as “being dead in trespasses and sin,” being at enmity with God, being incapable of understanding or grasping spiritual truths, being spiritually blind. The best aspirations of man: mother love, love of country, honor, love, justice still rise no higher than the level of “flesh.” It is not and cannot be spirit. A noble heathen is still flesh, governed entirely by flesh. He cannot keep the Law of God perfectly, He stubbornly believes that he both must and can bribe or satisfy God with his own good works. This is the way, and the only way, that flesh can think. Flesh is and ever remains an enemy of grace and faith in Christ Jesus. “That which is born of the flesh is flesh.” Because that is the condition of all men and women and children who enter this world as newborn infants, they must be born again. “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
But no man has the innate, natural spiritual power to generate in himself a spiritual rebirth. That is why Jesus added the words “of Spirit” the second time He made that statement for Nicodemus: “Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” The Spirit of God alone can give new birth or rebirth. Man can’t do this himself. “No man can say that Jesus Christ is Lord but by the Holy Ghost.” No one can make a decision for Christ without the Holy Ghost having first moved him by giving him new birth. No one joins the Holy Christian Church. People are added to the Church by the working of the Holy Spirit when He grants them the precious and priceless gift of rebirth.
This is the truth that the Jews at the time of Christ had lost. They still knew the Spirit, but they denied the necessity of His working upon human hearts. The scribes and Pharisees were quite sure that they had the innate spiritual power necessary to keep the Law of God and so justify themselves in the sight of God. They thought they could of their own strength come to God. They rejected as an insult the thought that they had to be drawn of the Spirit. So it is today. The Holy Spirit is the forgotten and rejected Person of the Trinity because even most people who call themselves Christians refuse to admit that they need the Spirit, that without His creative power they simply cannot come to Christ or be saved. The Spirit of God must and alone can spiritually condition a person for the Lordship of Christ.
That is His work. How does He achieve it? How does He work spiritual rebirth in a human heart? Jesus mentioned but one way. He—
Solemnly and assuredly Jesus repeated to Nicodemus the necessity of rebirth and the means that the Spirit uses to achieve it: “Verily, verily; I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” Jesus wasn’t speaking of just any kind of water, but of “water and Spirit.” There is only one such “water” that is connected with the Spirit, and that is the water of baptism.” The Spirit works through that water because the water of baptism is not simple, ordinary water used for drinking, cooking, cleaning, and the thousands of other usages that water is used for. It is different in this way that it is water connected with the Word of God. It is not the simple water, but the Word of God that is in and with the water that makes baptism a means by which the Spirit of God works regeneration in human hearts.
Baptism is more than an external rite that we are to do or have done as an act of obedience. Baptism is more than a mere symbol of grace that has been previously received. Baptism is a means by which the Spirit of God gives or seals the blessings of salvation that are ours in and through Christ Jesus. Baptism is a simply ceremony—the applying of water and the speaking of the Word: “I baptize thee in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” But baptism is a powerful ceremony because the Spirit is active in His work of creating new life. Because the Spirit works regeneration through baptism, Scripture proclaims: “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved.” “As many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” “Baptism doth also now save us.”
Thank God that the Person and work of the Holy Spirit, and the necessity thereof, are known and accepted among us. Come, Holy Ghost, dwell in our hearts and continue to work in our midst. Amen.
Ministry by Mail is a weekly publication of the Church of the Lutheran Confession. Subscription and staff information may be found online at www.clclutheran.org/ministrybymail.
All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the King James Version.