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What does it mean to be born again? John 3:3-18

Updated on April 30, 2014

Nicholas leaned back and stared at the ceiling. He thought over the events of the last couple of months and wished he could start over. Of course, he knew it was pointless. He had been here before. It was always the same. Every time he was released Nick swore it would be different. He would tell himself that this time he had learned his lesson. This time he would make the right choices, keep his nose clean, get a job, and be a responsible citizen. It never lasted long. It was just too easy to get in trouble. One day he would pass an old friend on the street, need a little extra cash, or just get bored. Then one thing would lead to another and before he knew it, he was back in the slammer again. This time he had really messed up and he was going to be here for awhile. Nicholas was ok with that, he deserved his sentence.

His mind went back to the crime scene. It seemed unreal. The unexpected had happened and it had cost the life of his best friend. He could still see her look at him, eyes wide in unbelief. Those eyes haunted him every night since. She didn't even want to be there. Nick wondered why he was so determined to have her along. He thought it would be fun, pictured them as Bonnie and Clyde. He guessed it was his own idea of romance. Some romantic he was. Sobs caught in his throat as grief overwhelmed him. The guilt was unbearable. Despair set in, it was hopeless; could anyone really ever change? Perhaps it was his destiny to be a screw up. Maybe he should have never been born. Start over? Who was he kidding? It would just end the same. There was no hope for a new life for him, he’d just mess it up again. It didn’t make any difference anyway; even if he ever got out, this time he would be alone.

Nicholas reached over and picked up the book the chaplain had left. Some do-gooder had dropped off a box of Bibles and the chaplain had brought him one. Nick laughed to himself; he must look pretty desperate. The Chap was a good man, but what did he think a dusty old book would do for Nick? Sure, he had seen some prisoners read the Bibles and start acting like they had turned a new leaf; but it was usually just an act to get out quicker. Nick already had all the second chances he was going to get. He shouldn’t even waste his time. Of course, it wasn’t like he had anything better to do. Maybe reading would keep his mind off his pitiful life, keep those haunting eyes out of his head. Nick opened the book to the spot Chap had bookmarked, John, chapter 3. A name caught his attention, Nichodemus. What a funny name! Nick wondered if they shared the same nickname. It was a strange conversation Nichodemus was having with the man named Jesus. He had heard about Jesus, he didn’t really know who he was other than a swear word. Maybe he was a teacher or something. He read the words on the page. Jesus – “I tell you the truth; no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.” Born again? That was an interesting idea. Nicholas wondered if he could go back and be born again, to start over from the very beginning. Would he be able to be a different person? He chuckled at Nicodemus’ response, Nicodemus – “How can a man be born when he is old? Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born!” It was a good question. It was impossible to be born again, just like it was impossible to change. It almost seemed like nonsense, the kind of thing he would laugh at; instead, his curiosity grew. He found himself mildly interested. Was it possible to start over? He read on…

Jesus – “I tell you the truth; no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying “You must be born again.” The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”

Nicodemus – “How can this be?”

Jesus – “You are Israel’s teacher and do you not understand these things? I tell you the truth, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven-the Son of Man.”

That sounded like a bunch of gobblygook. He was glad Nicodemus didn’t understand Jesus. That man was probably a lot smarter than he was. It made Nick feel better about his own confusion. Maybe he would ask Chap about it. Not that he was going to become religious or anything. He just wanted to find out what this man was talking about. He wanted to understand a little more than he was willing to admit.

The next time the chaplain came by, Nick demanded an explanation. The chaplain explained that everyone was born once. That was what it meant when it said we are born of water and the flesh gives birth to flesh. Then the chaplain told Nicolas that he could also choose to be born of the spirit. That sounded kind of weird to Nick. Was he talking about his ghost or something? No, Chap explained, the spirit was the Holy Spirit. He was like the wind. We can’t see him, but when someone is born of the spirit, you can see the evidence of the Holy Spirit in their lives. “What kind of evidence?” asked Nick. He didn’t want to join a cult or go around playing a harp all day, but he still wanted to satisfy his curiosity. He had done nothing but wonder what this meant since he read it. He needed to find out so he could stop thinking about it.

Chap’s next words caused Nicholas to laugh. “The evidence of a changed life” Chap said as calmly as if he were ordering a burger. Nick became skeptical. He was afraid to hope. He desperately wished his life were different. But he had tried everything, and just kept ending up back here, each time worse off than the time before. “Nobody can really change,” he said. “At least not permanently, trust me, I tried and it just can’t be done.” The chaplain smiled.

“You’re right” he said. “No one can change by themselves; they need to be born of the spirit. Then the Holy Spirit will change them.” Chap got out his Bible and turned to another page. He read “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new person. The old has gone, the new has come! All this is from God,” 2 Corinthians 5:17,18a. Chap turned the pages again and read, “You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.” (Ephesians 4:22-24) Chap explained that putting away the old self and turning away from it was called repentance. “Well that solves it” thought Nick. “If this new life is from God, it won’t be for me. There is no way God will give me this new life after everything I’ve done, even if I don't want to go back.” He told Chap that he would never be worthy of this new life, no matter how good it sounded. Besides, he didn’t understand how to be born of the Spirit or how to be in Christ like the Bible said you had to be. Chap just laughed and told him to keep reading. Back in John they read the next verse.

Jesus- “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.”

Chap told Nick the story of Moses and the bronze snake. Apparently God’s people were driving God crazy with their whining and complaining out in the desert and God sent poisonous snakes to bite them. When they started dying, they said they were sorry. God had their leader, Moses make a snake and put it on a pole. Then anyone who looked at the snake, lived. The chaplain explained that the snake on the pole was a picture of Jesus. He said that Jesus was giving Nichodemus a glimpse into the future. Jesus was going to be killed and lifted up on a cross for all to see. Then anyone who wanted this new life had only to look to him and believe that He could give it to them.

Chap just wasn’t getting it, thought Nicholas. He doesn’t know what a terrible person I am. How can he say that all I have to do is believe that Jesus will give me a new life and he will? Who is this Jesus anyway? Why would he do such a thing? Nick was beginning to think that this was more than some ancient teacher. He asked Chap who this Jesus was anyway. The chaplain told him that Jesus was the Son of God. He pointed to the next verse. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” Love? There was no way God loved Nicholas. He started to tell the chaplain some of the things he had done but the man stopped him and directed him to the next verse.

Jesus – “For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.”

Now here was something that was hard to understand. It sounded like it didn’t matter what Nick had done. Jesus didn’t come to condemn him, but save him. Save him from what, Jail? Save him from his miserable life? As Nick thought through these words the Chaplain began to explain. He told Nick that everybody was evil and deserved to die for the things they did wrong, he called them sins. Apparently it was impossible for anyone to be good enough for God. Even the religious people sinned and needed to be forgiven. The chaplain told him that God loved him very much and wanted to give him a new life, but his sins kept him from the ability to know God. That is why Jesus died, to take the punishment for our sins. All Nick needed to do was to look to Jesus; realize that he was a sinner who deserved to die for his sins; and believe that Jesus’ sacrifice was enough to forgive him and give him a new life. He explained that repenting of our sins meant being sorry and wanting to turn away from them. The chaplain assured him that Jesus didn’t stay dead, after three days in the grave; Jesus rose from the dead and was seen by many people. He is still alive in heaven today. If Nick chose this new life, it would be his spiritual birth. He would then be able to have a friendship with the God who made him and loved him. He could be born again and become a new person.

It was almost too much to hope for. Nick took his Bible back to his cell. Over and over again, he read the words of hope that would finally change his life.

See how the woman at the well illustrates the next part of Jesus' conversation with Nicodemus as she goes from darkness to light.


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