Text: John 3:1-17
This Sunday brings to a close what is called the “Festival” half of the Church Year. This means that in the first half of the Church year, we have all the sweet festivals like Christmas, Epiphany, Easter, Pentecost, and Holy Trinity. After today we don’t really have anything super special until we, as Lutherans, celebrate the Reformation in October. During the first half of the Church year we generally follow a chronological series of events in Christ’s life. But during the second half, the non-festival half, our Sundays are organized by theme.
Today is Trinity Sunday, a Sunday where the Church has historically set aside time to specifically treat the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. Traditionally, congregations recite the Athanasian Creed this one Sunday of the year. But of course, for us, every Sunday is a Trinity Sunday. We begin each service in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Our hymns and prayers address all three persons of the Trinity. Just last week, the sermon mentioned the Holy Spirit over thirty times. This thinking is what led German Christians to be stubborn when Pope John XXII declared this Sunday Trinity Sunday in 1332 and keep the original Gospel reading, instead of switching to Matthew 28.
The original Gospel reading for this Sunday, the first after Pentecost, is from John 3. This gives us an opportunity to speak about another area of Christian doctrine that remains a mystery to many people. In the Gospel reading Jesus teaches Nicodemus about the necessity of rebirth. Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”1 But what is this being, “born again?” Why is it necessary, what is it, and how does it happen?
“You must be born again,” is really a slight mistranslation. I know that there is a footnote in my Bible that says the word, ἄνωθεν, is ambiguous and could also mean “from above.” Given the context, we would wager that that is the correct translation; Jesus said, “Unless one is born from above he cannot see the kingdom of God.”2 But Nicodemus didn’t understand. He thought that Jesus meant that one must be physically born again. And so Nicodemus scoffed at the idea of an old man returning to his mother’s womb to be born a second time.
Though Jesus is not saying that one must be physically born out of their mother’s womb again, He is saying that rebirth is necessary. In fact He makes it a fourfold oath. He uses the word, “truly,” four times. Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born from above he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Then clarifies what He means, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”3
Jesus is dreadfully serious. Unless one is born from above, not only can he not enter the kingdom of heaven, but He can’t even see it. How true that is. Unless one is born again of water and the Spirit, they can neither enter nor see the kingdom of God. And so the world misunderstands the Gospel. Instead of looking to Christ for forgiveness and renewal, many claim from Christ affirmation for behavior they are already dead-set in. The necessity of rebirth is underscored by Jesus’ words, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.”4
All things that are born in the natural way are tainted by the corruption of sin. Even the inmost desires of our hearts and minds are devoid of righteousness. Like Nicodemus, our natural inclination is to come to Jesus in the dark, clinging to our own good works and morality as proof of our goodness. But minds set on works and our own worthiness are minds set on the flesh, which St. Paul, says are “hostile to God.” For minds set on the flesh cannot please God.5 Therefore Jesus knocks Nicodemus and us on our butts: “You must be born again.”
But what does that mean, “You must be born from above?” Jesus explains in verses 14-15 of our text, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”6 To be born again, from above, means to have faith. But lest we rest on our laurels and say, “I have faith, therefore I am reborn,” and stop there, we must say that to be reborn is to have a living and active faith. When you are physically born, you have a will, an understanding, and a desire to act. Thus it is also with the spiritual rebirth. We are given a new understanding, a new will, and new desires to act according to God’s Word.
Before rebirth, we were all by nature children of wrath. Our thoughts were evil, our actions were evil. Even our good works were a stench to God. But the rebirth and renewal of the Holy Spirit, being again, is having faith. By faith we are made children of grace. Jesus says this faith, this rebirth is necessary for salvation. He says, “Unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of heaven.” So far we’ve seen the necessity of rebirth, and that to be born again means to have faith in the Son of Man who was lifted up for our trespasses; But how are we born again?
We are not born again by our own actions. It’s not your decision or prayer that makes you reborn, but it is solely the work of the Triune God. Thus Jesus says, “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.”7 This also what James says when he writes, “Of [God’s] own will He brought us forth by the word of truth.”8
Article V of the Augsburg Confession, one of the documents that makes us Lutheran Christians, paints exactly where rebirth, where faith, comes from. It says, “So that we may obtain this faith, the ministry of teaching the Gospel and administering the Sacraments was instituted. Through the Word and Sacraments, as through instruments, the Holy Spirit is given. He works faith, when and where it pleases God, in those who hear the good news…This happens not through our own merits, but for Christ’s sake.”9
To be reborn, to be born from above, means to receive the gift of faith. Without a living faith, one can neither see the kingdom of God nor enter it. So that we may receive this faith, Christ instituted the preaching of the Gospel and the Sacraments. Through these things the Holy Spirit is given. The Holy Spirit works faith in us to believe in God the Father who created all things and still takes care of them. The Holy Spirit works faith in us through preaching and the Sacraments to believe that Jesus is the Son of God who suffered and died as payment for our sins. And, the Holy Spirit calls us through the Word to believe that He is the divine Comforter who is with us in all afflictions and assures us of the grace that we have in Christ.
Jesus said with utmost seriousness, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. These are serious words, and like Nicodemus, we can be left in bewilderment by them. The biggest question that comes away from these words is, what if I don’t feel reborn? The answer: believe. Believe in Jesus Christ, who was lifted up on the cross as payment for your sins, and you will be saved. Pray that the Lord would continue to beat back the old sinful nature in you. Continue to hear God’s Word preached and receive Jesus’ precious Body and Blood for the forgiveness of your sins. By these things, Word and Sacrament, the Holy Spirit works in faith in you and causes you to be born from above, so that you already live in the Kingdom of God here in time and will always live there, in heaven.
1 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Jn 3:3.
2 Jn. 3:3.
3 Jn. 3:6.
4 Jn. 3:6.
5 Rom. 8:7-8.
6 Jn. 3:14–15.
7 Jn. 3:8.
8 James 1:18.
9 Paul Timothy McCain, ed., Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2005), 33.