Lessons: Isaiah 6:1-7, Romans 11:33-36, John 3:1-17
Hymns: LSB 504, 93, 940, 768, 506
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
In today’s Gospel, Nicodemus, a Pharisee who was sincerely interested in the teachings of Jesus, visited our Lord under the cover of the night darkness to protect himself from the attacks of his fellow Pharisees. Jesus taught Nicodemus profound teachings, for that is the nature of theology. Certainly, it is also very profound to consider the Holy Trinity, as we did when confessing the Athanasian Creed.
Jesus told Nicodemus, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:6). The good Lutheran question is “What does that mean?” So, let’s work our way through this profound statement made by our Lord Jesus Christ—a declaration in which there is a distinction between the flesh and the spirit.
First, the flesh. Touch your side. Is it flesh? Absolutely. You have flesh. You are born of the flesh. Your mom and dad were of the flesh. They begat you—a child of the flesh. You are human, after all, and God created you to live in your body all your life.
So what does the Scripture say about your flesh? I’m going to warn you: our flesh doesn’t like what the Bible says about our flesh—but here it goes (for we need to hear all God’s teachings, even those uncomfortable teachings). In Romans 8:5-13, the Lord writes, “For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh… For to set the mind on the flesh is death… For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God… So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh you will die.” These are tough words. We do not like to think they apply to us. We want to say, “Nope, this isn’t me. I’m not of the flesh. I’m better than that. Get away from me you Word of God which makes me feel bad.
Instead of responding to God in anger over God’s truthful teaching, the Holy Spirit would have us listen, to acknowledge God’s Word as true, and to give assent to what the Scriptures teach. For we cannot appreciate—or even receive—the Gospel of Christ’s grace without first understanding our flesh and failure to keep God’s Law.
But the Scriptures has much more to say about the very flesh which we inherited from our parents. In Galatians 5:17-21, it is written, “For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do… Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.”
You cannot deny that you have this flesh. In fact, it is described as a body of death (Romans 7:24)—one that is outwardly wasting away (2 Cor. 4:16)—one that does not wish to do the things of God. As it is written in Romans 3:10-12, “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.”
And finally, hear these words from the Bible concerning our flesh: “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing” (Rom. 7:18-19).
None of us are exempt from these teachings. They apply to you, to me, to everyone. Jesus said it: we are born of the flesh. We know it is true from our own experience. And Jesus teaches that the flesh is in opposition to the spirit we need.
That is why we must be born again. Our flesh is not acceptable for our entrance into heaven. There is nothing we can do to gain salvation. We can’t even choose to be born again. We do not make some sort of believer’s prayer and ask Jesus to enter into our hearts in order to be born again. There is nothing in the Scriptures that say you must say some little prayer or make some altar call and then you’re born again.
The Scriptures teach something different on how we’re born again. When Jesus told Nicodemus that he had to be born again, Nicodemus responded with a question (John 3:4): “How can a man enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?”
Of course, no man can. That is part of our Lord’s point. Jesus was not talking about a physical rebirth; He was talking about a spiritual rebirth, which is also something that is impossible for man to do. Jesus explained how this rebirth happens when He said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:5-6).
At this Nicodemus responds by saying (John 3:9), “How can these things be?” How can this be possible? Jesus then replies, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen” (John 3:10-11). Jesus later adds, “Whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
When you come to the Christian faith, you have the Spirit of God. You do not need to ask God to enter your heart. If you want Him to enter your heart, it’s an indication that He’s already there. Unbelievers do not bother to ask God for His gifts.
That which is born of Spirit is spirit. What a treasure it is to be born of the Spirit! In Him you are regenerated so that you are a new person—covered in the forgiveness of Christ, walking in the newness of life, engaging in good works, rejoicing in the Lord.
When you are born of the Spirit, your sinful flesh no longer condemns you. The sins of your flesh are canceled out. You are no longer an enemy of God. You now seek after God. You now will to do that which is good.
After all, St. Paul writes in Galatians 5:22-23, “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.” And we also hear in Romans 8:1-10, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit… To set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace… You are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you… If Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you.”
In our Gospel today, Jesus speaks of being born of water and the Spirit. He is not speaking of two things—being born of water and being born of the Spirit—but Jesus is talking of one thing—being born of water and the Spirit. And what uses water? What regenerates? What washes? In what are you born again? You are born again in the waters of Holy Baptism. Just as the Spirit was present in Jesus’ own Baptism, so is the Spirit present to bless in our baptisms. To be born of water and the Spirit is to be baptized. To be baptized is to be forgiven and to receive the name of God—the Holy Trinity—the Father and Son and Holy Spirit.
In our baptisms, we are united with Christ into His death and resurrection. We are buried with Him through Baptism into death. And just as He is risen from the dead, we are raised in the newness of life. That is being born again! We died with Christ. We now live with Christ as Christians. As God’s children adopted into His family, we are born again.
Our new birth is the work of God. If it were our work, it would end in failure. God is not pleased with our flesh. But God is pleased with the work of Christ—that just as Moses raised up the serpent in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up (John 3:14). Jesus was nailed to the cross to pay for your sin. He bled and died the death you deserve so that you can be born again—so that you can live forever. Jesus’ sufferings and death and resurrection is the all-sufficient payment for your sin. God is pleased with this payment and credits it to you. This love of God is amazing, when you contrast His perfection and our flesh. He loves us, despite our sinful flesh.
So, your flesh does not save you. It has not been good enough and will never be good enough. When we accept this reality, we can stop claiming our own innocence, and claim Christ as our Advocate as Savior—the one who truly loves us.
For Jesus was good enough in your place. In fact, He was perfect. He made perfect satisfaction for your sins when He perfectly fulfilled the Law in your place and redeemed you by the shedding of His innocent blood at His crucifixion. The Spirit has worked in you. You are born again. You are saved. It is God’s gift and promise to you. Amen.
The peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus to life everlasting. Amen