Jesus and an Intellectual
23Now while he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many people saw the miraculous signs he was doing and believed in his name. 24But Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all men. 25He did not need man's testimony about man, for he knew what was in a man.
1Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council. 2He came to Jesus at night and said, "Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him."
3In reply Jesus declared, "I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again."
4"How can a man be born when he is old?" Nicodemus asked. "Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother's womb to be born!"
5Jesus answered, "I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. 6Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. 7You should not be surprised at my saying, 'You must be born again.' 8The 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."
9"How can this be?" Nicodemus asked.
10"You are Israel's teacher," said Jesus, "and do you not understand these things? 11I 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. 12I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? 13No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man. 14Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.
The soul winning of our Lord is not something I’m anxious to preach about. I would instead have us just study and view together a subject I am sure concerns us all, this matter of being an effective witness for Christ. Tonight we are going to look at the encounter our Lord had with an intellectual, as to what this teaches us concerning the encounters that we have had – and will have, I am sure – with those who are intellectuals in our own day.
I’d like to begin by reading in the gospel of John, the second chapter verse 23:
Now when Jesus was in Jerusalem at the Passover feast, many believed in His name when they saw the signs which He did. But Jesus did not trust Himself unto them because He knew all men and needed no one to bear witness of man, for He Himself knew what was in man.
Now there’s the secret of the uncanny ability our Lord demonstrated to go to the heart of any individual problem that came before Him. It wasn’t that He knew everything about everyone; it wasn’t that He was drawing upon His omnisciency, as a member of the godhead here. But He knew what was in man, He knew man. And because He knew man, He also knew men, and so, all the little ways by which we continually manifest what we are. Jesus was able to interpret, as He heard their words and saw their gestures, the small, trivial indications that are part of every person’s life. He knew how to interpret them correctly, because He knew what was in man. This is the secret of our Lord’s soul winning. The more we know man the better we will know men.
In our Bibles we have a chapter break right at this point, but this is one of those places where the chapter division obscures a wonderful truth. The next verse in my Revised Standard Version from which I am reading is the word “now” – “Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus” – here I really think the translation should begin with the word “but.” If you read that last sentence again, it tells us,
Jesus did not trust Himself to the pharisees because He knew all men, and needed no one to bear witness of man, for He Himself knew what was in man. But there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to Him: “Rabbi we know you are a teacher come from God for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.”
Now here is one of the men who Jesus knew, and he came to Jesus by night, and we have this tremendous story of Jesus and Nicodemus. I’m going to take a look with you first at Nicodemus. Perhaps you wonder why I called this man an intellectual, because most frequently when this story is preached, Nicodemus is regarded as a religious man. This story shows our Lord’s treatment of an unregenerate, religious man. And of course this is true. Nicodemus was a religious leader. He was, as Jesus Himself said a little later to him, "the master of Israel,” that is, one of the prominent teachers of the Jews. He was a prodigy. He was raised in that strictest of the Jewish sects that included also Saul of Tarsus, and was a rigid exponent of the literal meaning of the law and every aspect of it.
But this is not really what was troubling Nicodemus, or the problem that caused this man to seek out Jesus. It wasn’t a religious problem that brought him, it was simply intellectual curiosity, and I think if we read this carefully we can see this. Here is a man who could not explain Jesus. He had been listening to Him. He had heard some of His messages. He had perhaps even seen some of His works, His miracles. But he couldn’t explain it. Somehow here was a man who didn’t fit the usual categories into which Nicodemus was accustomed to placing men.
His curiosity is aroused by this, until he comes by night – not because he’s afraid, I don’t think, but because he simply desires a private interview. And he comes on a scientific investigation. He is out to discover the evidence that he lacks in order to possibly categorize Jesus.
I think all this is evident, in his opening words to our Lord when he says to Him:
“Rabbi,” (that’s a term of respect) “we know that you are a teacher come from God because no one can do these things which you do unless God is with him.”
That’s a very honest statement, and it reflects this man’s opinion of Jesus. He’s simply, honestly stating what he thinks: “I think you’re a teacher,” he says. “And a man sent from God,” that is, a prophet. I never read this without being very sure that Nicodemus meant to go on, and say something else. This was only the introduction. What Nicodemus says is simply laying the groundwork for what he intended to say, but he never gets a chance.
Of course it’s always dangerous to try to supply the lapses of Scripture, and perhaps it’s dangerous to try to figure out what Nicodemus said. But judging from his approach it seems very likely that what he intended to say was to ask a question. He meant to go on. What he was saying is:
Yes, I know that you are a teacher and you’re a prophet. This I can accept. I know all about teachers and prophets, I know the scriptures. And I know that God sends men from time to time who are prophets, and you’re one of them. But why do you talk so differently from the rest of the prophets? And why do you claim such strange things for yourself? And how do you intend to usher in the promised kingdom by this process?
Undoubtedly this is something, at least, of what Nicodemus is thinking, and what he intended to ask, and why he came to Jesus, because his curiosity is aroused.
Now we can’t read this account of Nicodemus and our Lord without being aware that here is a man who had a great, personal need, of which he is totally unaware. Here is a man who is a prominent religious leader, but he is a man of the flesh, unregenerate, unsaved. He’s totally unconscious of his need, and it isn’t a hunger for righteousness that brings him to Christ. It isn’t a desire to have that personal emptiness of his life met. It’s simply that he’s intent upon solving an intellectual problem, of which Jesus is part. And he wants to get some more information in order that he might analyze and explain this man to himself.
Now this is always the problem of the intellectual. An intellectual is a man who has trained himself not to leap to conclusions. He’s a man who rules out all leaps of faith, and is very highly suspicious of any intuitive knowledge. He refuses to commit himself until he has understood thoroughly the process that is before him. For the intellectual there’s never any room for mystery – he doesn’t think mysteries exist. They are for him always just something that is not quite understood. The intellectual is primarily a man who is convinced that the ordinary human intelligence, properly employed and used to gather in all the salient facts, can analyze and sift things out, and put them into a proper structure. Human intelligence can explain everything that needs explaining. Now this was this man Nicodemus.
I think of our friend Dr. Gerhard Dirks, the inventor of the hard disk drive, who is something of an intellectual himself. Someone told me that Dr. Dirks has an IQ of 212 degrees, or whatever it is. (That’s the boiling point, isn’t it?) This makes him somewhat of an intellectual. I remember last summer in one of our meetings at his home, he said, “You know, the problem with we intellectuals is that we are never content to simply enjoy the result of something. We have to understand how it works.”
He said, “You know, a child can go up to a television set and turn it on, and adjust the dials a little bit, and sit down and enjoy the program. But an intellectual can’t. That is if he’s never seen a television set before. He immediately has to move around behind, and remove the back, and see what makes the thing work. He will never enjoy the program until he has understood the process by which it happens.” You see, this is always the problem of an intellectual – he insists on understanding the process. Often, despite the tremendous strides that have been made by intellectuals who follow this process, nevertheless they often get so intent on the process that they lose sight of the end.
I remember in seminary we had a young man who was a classmate of mine, who was an intellectual. He had a very brilliant mind, and he was studying for the ministry in a theological seminary. He carried around a little pocket slide rule that he had stuffed into his shirt pocket. Whenever any kind of problem was presented, theological or otherwise, out would come the slide rule, and he’d go to work on it. By use of his slide rule, he actually divided up the entire Bible into 365 sections, of exactly the same length, for his Bible reading. Whenever he finished the prescribed section, he’d close the book, no matter if it was in the middle of a story or not.
He was continually interested in working out details. They challenged him. He was constantly seeking to understand processes, but as a result he quite frequently lost sight of the practical aspect of the matter at hand, and would end up instead in a rather ludicrous position. I remember on one occasion, a number of us who studied with him in the upper reaches of the library – up in what we called “the seventh heaven” – decided to confer a degree upon him. All in fun we got together one night and surprised him. We made a little paper diploma, and with appropriate ceremonies we presented it to him. It was my privilege to confer upon him the degree of MM, Master of Minutiae. This was his problem, that of an intellectual.
This is also the problem, by the way, that produces what we call the absent-minded professor. An absent-minded professor is simply an intellectual who is so intent on solving the problems of life, that the practice of life throws him completely. This why he is always winding the cat, and putting the clock out, and these kinds of things. He will drive downtown and forget his car, and walk home, because he’s so intent on intellectual pursuits that he forgets the basics of life.
This was the problem with this man Nicodemus. He was convinced that if he had enough information he could explain Jesus. He was sure that there could ultimately be no mystery about the kingdom of God. Once all the facts were known it could all be explained. And so, like most intellectuals who struggle in this area, he had no need for faith, and he was convinced that knowledge saved and knowledge set free. In that part, the intellectual is right – knowledge does set free. But what he fails to see is that there are various forms of knowledge, and some cannot be appropriated by anything other than a step of faith. This is what this intellectual did not see.
I had breakfast this last Friday with such a man. We had an interesting time together. As some of you know, I meet on Friday mornings with a number of men who are interested in discovering for themselves what the Scripture has to say about Jesus Christ, and who He was. We’ve had some marvelous times together in the book of Romans. The other day one of our men happened to read in the local newspaper a letter to the editor from a man who was remarking that churches were not reaching thinking people today. His comments had interested one of our men, and so he invited him to come to our breakfast group. And last Friday morning he was there!
He was an engaging, interesting fellow and he gave us a rather learned presentation on the difference between an authoritarian mind and a scientific mind. He had it all worked out on parallel columns on a paper. It was evident as we listened and read, that to his mind, at least, the authoritarian mind is one which simply accepts everything by blind faith, while the scientific mind is one which investigates and is open. A scientific thinker is ready to change his mind when new evidence is presented. It wasn’t difficult to see that, in his conclusion, he felt that all those that believe the Bible belong in the authoritarian group, while those who rejected the Bible were ones with a scientific mind. We had a discussion with him on this matter. For him there was no room for mystery left.
Now this was the problem of Nicodemus as he came to meet Jesus. And what did our Lord do? How did He handle this man? This is what is fascinating about this account. We read that Jesus “answered him.” ”Answered” him? But Nicodemus had asked no question. Clearly Jesus is “answering” that unasked question which Nicodemus didn’t get to. Our Lord had interrupted Nicodemus; he hadn’t even let him finish. Jesus had cut right across all of the human thinking, all the religious philosophy, all the limited vision of this intellectual, with these words: “Truly, truly I say to you, unless one is born anew he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
Let me stop there a minute. To what other person in the New Testament did Jesus ever say, “you must be born again?” Can you answer that? (Now don’t hesitate to speak up!) Not to anybody. Isn’t that strange? For most of us, when we go on the path of winning someone, this is almost the first thing to say. We say it to everyone. “You must be born again.” But our Lord only said it to one man, that we have any record of.
Now I don’t mean by that to imply that Jesus is suggesting that all men do not need to be born again. What I simply mean by that is that this is not always the right method of approach for everyone. Our Lord reached people by other ways as well, but for this man, this intellectual, he staggers him, he shocks him with this drastic, radical, revolutionary statement that only once a man is born again can he then see the Kingdom of God.
In effect, Jesus Is saying: “Nicodemus, you are thinking of me as a teacher and as a prophet, and that I can solve by knowledge all the problems of the nation, and deliver them from the power of the world. But a teacher and a prophet is not your basic need. You need more than this. You need a new life. You need a new birth. You need to be made into a new man, into a new creation, or you can never even see the Kingdom of God that you are so concerned with.”
Now this must have been a staggering thought for Nicodemus. I don’t think it had ever occurred to this man before that he needed to be changed before he could enter into the Kingdom of God. I think he had taken it for granted all of his life, not because he was proud, but simply because he was unconscious entirely of the nature of the kingdom of God, and of his own personal need in this respect. And so I think, almost in honest confusion, he blurts out: “How can a man be born when he’s old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?”
Now this is a very honest question. I think it’s one, had we been there, that we would have asked ourselves. What Nicodemus is saying is: “Lord you are saying something to me that I do not understand. How can this be? How can this happen? What is the process by which this takes place? I am convinced enough that you are a man of authority and of knowledge, a teacher and a prophet, to give some very real credence to what you say, but how does it happen? How? What is the process? The only life I know is the physical life. Surely you don’t mean that we have to start it all over again, and go back through the gynecological processes, back into the mother’s womb and start over?”
Now notice our Lord’s answer. You see what Jesus has done is that He’s pulled the rug out from under this intellectual. Jesus has staggered him by making him aware that he doesn’t know what he thinks he knows, by showing him that the concept of the kingdom of God is a totally different thing than anything that he ever had in mind. And it leaves Nicodemus utterly at a loss.
Now the Lord comes to the answer of Nicomedus’ question, and tells Nicodemus three specific things. First, in answer to Nicodemus’ question, “how can a man be born again?”, He explains briefly the process. Second, he declares again the utter necessity of the new birth, in answer to the second part of Nicodemus’ question, “can a man enter again into his mother’s womb?” And third, he reveals that, though men can know the process, and can understand the necessity, yet there’s still much about the new birth they will never understand. There is a mystery there, and one must be content to accept the mystery.
Now notice what Jesus said,
Jesus answered, "Truly, truly I say to you unless one is 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. Do not marvel that I said to you that you must be born anew. The wind blows where it will and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
Jesus explains to Nicodemus that the Kingdom is gained only by new birth, and that new birth cannot come except a man be born of water and of the Spirit.
Now unfortunately, in reading our Bibles many, many people forget that the Orientals love to deal in figurative language. Theirs is a very exact language, but we need to be constantly bearing in mind that often their words are written figuratively. This is one of the problems that people have with this passage. In fact, all the way through the gospel of John, people had problems with our Lord’s figurative language. In the previous chapter, you remember, He had said to the Jews: “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” And what did they think Jesus meant? Brick and mortar. They said, “well, it took forty-six years for this temple to be built, and you’re going to raise it up in three days? So John’s gospel explains that he spoke of the temple of his body; he was using a figurative term.
In the next chapter, chapter four, our Lord said to the woman at the well: “If you knew who it is that is speaking to you, you’d have asked of Him and He would have given you living water.” And what did she think he meant? Plumbing! She said, “Why, Lord, I have to come to the well and draw. How are you going to arrange that I have living water, so I don’t have to come here to the well and draw?” But of course Jesus is speaking of the Water of Life, which is described all the way through the Gospel of John.
Now here, when He says, “Except the man be born of water and of the Spirit,” many people read this word “water” and all they can think of is “baptism.” This always reminds me of those people who go around, you know, with witching wands, looking for water. Whenever there is water under the ground, supposedly the wand begins to twitch, and to slightly turns down. Some people read their Bibles that way. Wherever it says, “water,” down goes their wand that says “baptism!” Now, here this is not that kind of water; this is a symbol. Both the “water” and the “Spirit” are meant to be symbols. In fact, I am convinced that this passage should properly be translated, “Truly I say to you, unless one is born of water and the wind, he cannot enter into the Kingdom of God.” -- Water and wind.
Most of you know that I understand the Greek word for wind and spirit to be the same word, “pneuma.” We fill our tires with pneuma. That’s not spirit, is it? No, it’s wind in our pneumatic tire! And this is the word he uses here: The water and the wind – two symbols. Jesus doesn’t explain these to Nicodemus; I don’t think he needed to, for Nicodemus knew what Jesus meant. The water is a symbol of the Word of God, it’s a cleansing agent. Nicodemus, knowing the Scriptures, would have known that verse in Psalm 119: “Where with all shall a young man cleanse his way? By taking heed thereto according to thy word.” The word “water” was used as a symbol of the cleansing effect of the Word of God in the Old Testament. So Jesus didn’t need to explain these, but He said this is the way – the water and the wind.
Then in verses 6 and 7 He declares the absolute necessity of this: “Do not marvel that this which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is Spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘you must be born anew.’” This is in answer, of course, to Nicomedus’ question, “Can a man enter his mother’s womb again?” In effect, Jesus is saying, “If you could, it wouldn’t do you any good. You’d be just the same as you were before. That which is born of the flesh is always flesh, and no matter what you do, it remains flesh. And flesh cannot enter the Kingdom of God.”
In other words, in our condition as we are when we are born into this natural human life, we cannot enter into the Kingdom of God. No man is able to. Why not? Well, because our lives are flesh-centered, and flesh-comforted and flesh-controlled. What is the philosophy of the flesh? I think we can answer that in a few burning words from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Our Lord asked, “What shall we eat? What shall we drink? Where with all shall we be clothed?” That’s what the flesh thinks of, isn’t it? “How shall we spend our time until it’s time to think about what shall we eat, and what shall we drink, and wherewith all shall we be clothed?” And that’s the whole of the flesh.
You can amplify that to include all the night clubs and all the entertainment media, all the highly cultured engagements and programs of our day, or all the finest restaurants. These are but the fleeting concerns of the flesh: What shall I eat? What shall I wear? Wherewith all shall I be clothed? And what shall I drink? And so on … it all is spent without any knowledge of God, without any love of God, without obedience to God.
This is why a man has to be born again. Something must happen to change our life from being flesh-centered to being Spirit-centered, God-centered. Instead of continually thinking about ourself and the needs of the body in all of its manifestations, and how to satisfy it, life needs to be changed. This doesn’t mean we need to reform, or become more religious, or give up something, or turn over a new leaf, or try harder, because it would still be flesh. You can baptize the flesh, chastise it, disguise it, advertise it, civilize it, pasteurize it; it’s still the flesh. Nothing changes.
It’s like trying to change some of our natural abilities. Some people are born with a wonderful singing voice, like our friend Don Johnson. I was born with a very poor singing voice, and no training seems to be able to help. I used to sing in a choir in church, until one day I missed it, and someone remarked that they’d wondered if we’d gotten the organ fixed. Nobody has ever said that my voice was very heavenly, but they did say it was rather unearthly. That’s the closest I’ve come to a compliment in that respect. And all the training in the world can’t give me a better voice. I just don’t have it, and neither does the flesh. It cannot please God.
As we’re born, naturally, no amount of knowledge, no amount of training or of education can change this self-centeredness, this flesh-centeredness of life. That’s why Jesus said to Nicodemus, “It ought to be obvious to you, marvel not. Don’t wonder at this.” If man is by nature flesh-centered, and blind to the things of God, if no amount of religious cultivation can change him, then his deepest need is obviously to be born again, to start over on another level. “Marvel not that I said unto thee you must be born again.”
I remember somebody once said to John Wesley: “Mr. Wesley why do you always talk about being born again whenever you preach? Why is it that wherever you go, you keep saying you must be born again?” And Wesley looked at him and said: “Because you must be born again.” There’s no other answer to this.
Now in verse 8, our Lord goes on to declare the mystery of the new birth.
The wind blows where it will and you hear the sound of it but you do not know whence it comes or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.
Here Jesus explains why he previously used the wind as a symbol for the Spirit – it’s because the wind has some unique characteristics – it blows wherever it wants to. Wind is sovereign in this respect, and so is the Spirit. No one directs the wind. Isn’t it amazing that with all the marvelous scientific progress that we’ve made in these last few decades, and with all that man has learned throughout the rolling centuries of time, we still don’t know how to direct the wind any better than we did centuries and centuries ago?
The wind is sovereign; it blows where it wants to. The wind is invisible. It’s unseen, yet it’s real. No one denies its existence, yet no one sees it. We see its effects, but we do not see the wind itself. So it is with the Spirit. The wind is inscrutable. Ultimately it defies our explanation. Oh, we think we know something about the weather, and as Mark Twain once put it, “Everyone talks about the weather, but no one does anything about it.” We try to, and we’re making a few feeble efforts in that respect, but we still do not know where the wind starts or where it will end.
But the winds are sovereign, invisible, and mysterious, and so it is with the Spirit. No one knows where the Spirit is going to be next. No one knows who He will be speaking to. It may be someone high or someone low, someone cultured or someone very simple, we don’t know. We can’t see Him, and though we can trace His actions, we can’t predict Him. There’s something mysterious about the work of the Spirit.
So, to this intellectual who believes that man can understand the whole process, and who is unwilling to commit himself until he understands that process, Jesus says, “Nicodemus, if you want to have a part in the Kingdom of God, you must be committed to something that will change you, and you will never be able to understand it.” Now that’s a tremendous challenge, isn’t it?
Here Nicodemus breaks in with his third question. In verse 9 we read,
Nicodemus said to him: Now, the first time, Nicodemus asked, “HOW can these things be?” … his emphasis was on the “how” – what’s the process? But now, this is a question of doubt … “CAN these things can be? How can it be this way?”
How can this be?
There’s a touch of irony in our Lord’s answer. Can you see the little smile playing about his lips as he says, “Nicodemus, are you THE Master in Israel, the teacher in Israel, and you don’t know these things?” You see, Jesus touches him right on the spot in which he takes the most pride, in his intellectual knowledge. He was a teacher – “THE” teacher, the original word said. “Art thou the teacher of Israel, and you don’t even understand these things?” And then Jesus truly, truly gives his own credentials for speaking so authoritatively.
Truly, truly I say to you, we speak of what we know and bear witness of what we have seen but you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven but He who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.
In other words, he’s saying:
I’m an eyewitness to what I am talking about. No man has ever ascended up into the heavens to bring back the answer that you’re seeking for, in answer to your question, but I came down for that purpose. No man has ever plumbed into the mysteries of God, no one has analyzed God’s workings with human life to the degree that he can answer the question you seek, but that’s what I came for. I came to unfold God’s mysteries, and to reveal His purposes. I know what I am talking about. I’m an eyewitness. Nicodemus, because you are not born again, you cannot understand what I am talking to you about. Why, I have even talked to you about earthly things, wind, water, fire, flesh, and so on, and you don’t even understand those things. How can I then explain to you about heavenly things?
Isn’t this amazing? This is what Paul says too, isn’t it? – “Now let the natural man receive not the things of the Spirit of God. Neither CAN he know them, because they are foolishness unto him.” It does look foolish to many – certainly many intellectuals – that we Christians say that, by believing a story of historical facts, much of which can even be verified, and by “receiving” a person, that our whole life can be changed, that the whole basis of our own knowledge is changed, and that we become different people. They shake their heads and say, “Ridiculous, absurd, I don’t understand it. I don’t believe it.”
But then Christ answered more of Nicodemus’ question. Jesus never leaves an honest question unanswered. Nicodemus had asked, “Tell me at least how can these things be?” And Jesus answered, “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.” Now Nicodemus could know all about the serpent in the wilderness. You know that story, written in Numbers 21, about how the poison serpents came in the camp and bit the Israelites. When at last they came to Moses and asked for relief, Moses went to the Lord. The Lord said, “Make them a brazen serpent out of brass, and put it on a pole (a ridiculous thing to do), and tell the people that when they are bitten by the snake, they are to look at that serpent and they will live.” That’s all, just a look. No treatment, just look, and they’ll live.
Now notice how this relates to what has been going on. Our Lord had previously said that the process of the new birth was brought about by believing the Word, symbolized by the water, and obeying the law of the Spirit, symbolized by the wind. Now He explains what that Word is: “The Son of Man must be lifted up,” he says. That is a description of the cross, and the Scripture tells us that the power of the cross is the power of God. So there will be a lifting up of Jesus on the cross, and in that lifting up, in that message, in what that means and what it stands for, is God’s word to those who are spiritually dead. When one believes that great mystery – that the Spirit of God, like the inscrutable, invisible wind, will enter the heart of one so believing, and will communicate to him the very life of God – he will possess eternal life, and he will be born again.
This last week on vacation I was down in Newport Beach, and a friend very kindly loaned me his sailboat, and I went sailing. I had quite a time getting the sails on, didn’t know which one was upside down or backwards or forwards, but I finally made it. And we got out on the ocean and were sailing along at a nice clip, when it became time to go back. And just as we turned around the wind died, for some unexplained reason in its sovereignty, and we were left becalmed. We could do nothing but wait for the wind to blow; that’s all. We had no other choice but to wait for the wind to blow. We didn’t know where it would come from or when it would come. We were not prepared to argue with it when it came. We didn’t even understand much about it. But we were prepared to obey it.
This is what Jesus was saying to this intellectual who asked how he can be born again. Jesus told him, simply obey the law of the Spirit, even though you don’t understand it. Hoist your sail. Believe in the mystery of that lifting up of Jesus. Trust yourself to Him, and the breath of God will begin to fill your soul. It will blow upon the sail of your life, silently, invisibly, quietly, but with power and force, and you’ll be born again.
It’s a great mystery, isn’t it? I don’t know how I was born again. It happened when I was a boy of some ten years of age. I can tell you the outward circumstances, but what happened I don’t know. Do you know, when you were born again, how it happened? How God began to take my flesh-centered life and make me hate the thing I once loved, and love the thing I once hated, I don’t know how. But He did it when I believed on Jesus.
If you’ve not yet begun this life in Christ, or if you’re dealing with someone who has not yet begun this new life, you can simply say to yourself or to them, “right where you are, without sign or sound, without a word to a friend or neighbor, you can obey the law of the Spirit, hoist the sail of your faith, believe in the lifting up of Jesus on the Cross, and you’ll be born again, to that wonderful filling of the soul by the breath, the wind, of God.”
Our Father, we’ve been dealing in the realm of mystery tonight. We confess our ignorance – how little we understand it, yet how true, how marvelous this mystery is. But all through these running twenty centuries, men and women, some of mighty intellect, most with very simple, child-like faith, have quietly believed in the lifting up – the mystery of the lifting up – of Jesus, and they’ve been born again. We thank you for it. We pray You will help us in dealing with others, that we may know how to bring them to this awareness of this marvelous change You alone bring in the human heart. In Christ’s name, Amen.
Message transcript and recording © /7/1963, 1995 by Ray Stedman Ministries, owner of sole copyright by assignment from the author. For permission to use this content, please review www.RayStedman.org/permissions. Subject to permissions policy, all rights reserved.