Timanthes of Cythnus was an ancient Greek painter in the 4th century BC who studied under a respected art teacher. After several years, the teacher’s efforts seemed to have paid off when Timanthes painted an exquisite work of art. Unfortunately, the student became so enraptured with the painting that he spent days gazing at it and gave up painting anything else.
So, one morning when he arrived to admire his work, he was shocked to find it blotted out with paint. Angry, Timanthes ran to his teacher to protest, at once, his teacher admitted he had destroyed the painting. “I did it for your own good. That painting was retarding your progress. Start again and see if you can do better.”
Timanthes sulked and complained but eventually took his teacher’s advice and later produced ‘Sacrifice of Iphigenia’, which is regarded as one of the finest paintings of antiquity. Playing on his own emotions of grief, Timanthes rendered a painting that depicted the anguish, sadness and sorrow of those about to witness a man being put to death by stoning.
While none of his original paintings have survived, a painting that incorporates his original work exists and is on display in Naples. His work is known through the writing of Pliny, who speaks of the artists’ great skill at depicting emotions like no other in his day. An insight brought on, only when he had to start over again.
Over the years, I have heard people talking about wanting to make a brand-new start. After High School, some of my friends moved to New York or California so they could make a clean break and start all over. They said they wanted to be in a place where no one knew their past.
Personally, I have never enjoyed the process of moving and having to re-establish my identification; switch mailing addresses, getting a new driver’s license, finding a new bank, ect.
Plus, it isn’t always easy to build new relationships from scratch. I suppose it would be ok if I were an extrovert, but I am not. So, going off the grid to get a new start seems radical to me.
Maybe it is the frustration and the desire to resist change that is most difficult for me. Take for instance, Cindy and I played the game ‘Trouble’ the other day. When the other player lands on your exact spot, they send your peg back to the home base. After making really good progress, only to start over again is frustrating.
In the movie “Up in the Air”, George Clooney plays a professional corporate downsizing expert named Ryan. Ryan and his partner are hired by big companies to come in and fire employees. It is also their job to help those being let go, to see the bright side of the situation.
As you may imagine, it would be a terrible difficult job. But Ryan was good at identifying factors that may make things easier. For instance, on one application he sees that Bob, left his job as a chef to work for a big company. So he asks, “What made you leave your dream job to work for a big company?”
“A large paycheck”, Bob answers. Then Ryan asked him, “But did it make you happy?”
He continues, “A lot of people take jobs that make them miserable, all for the money.
Maybe it is time for a re-start. Maybe it is time to pursue that dream that you left behind.” Bob thinks about it, then nods his head. Maybe this could be, for him, a chance to start over again.
I have to think that Nicodemus was more like me when it comes to change. In fact, experts tell us that only 2 out of 10 people see opportunity in starting over 8 out of ten prefer things to stay the same. Most people avoid drastic change in life. Yet Nicodemus must have seen something special in Jesus.
Our story takes place in John Chapter 3. Verse one begins, “Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. And he came to Jesus at night.” There is a lot of information here for us to break down. First, Nicodemus is called a Pharisee. They were a select group of men, never more than 6,000, who had taken a sincere vow before three witnesses, that they would devote every moment of their entire lives to studying and obeying the Ten Commandments, as a way of pleasing God.
It also says that Nicodemus was a member of the Sanhedrin, a council of 70 plus the High Priest, charged with the oversight and defense of their faith. So, it was his job to help the council provide guidance for the people in matters pertaining to God, worship and to challenge any who would seek to lead the nation astray.
Nicodemus was an expert in the law, a scribe, and a teacher. If you had a question, he was the final word, as to the truth of the word of Torah. Finally, just for one last bit of insight, Nicodemus in Greek means “Conqueror of the people”.
Next the Gospel of John says, “He came to visit Jesus at night.” There are several reasons why he might have made this late-night journey;
First, maybe he was afraid to identify himself with Jesus. Some might assume that be being seen with Jesus would mean he was endorsing him or his teachings. Something he was not ready to do.
Second, some scholars point out, that a late-night visit may not be a friendly visit. Legitimate conversations were to be held in the light of day, in their culture. Was this meant to be a challenge?
Third, others point out that the visit seemed to be prompted by Nicodemus’ curiosity. He had certainly heard about Jesus and now he wanted to see things for himself. The truth may actually be found in all three theories, as we will see when we look at this encounter.
Nicodemus speaks first, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miracles you are doing if God were not with him.” (John 3:2)
In this sentence, Nicodemus is speaking for more than himself, he said ‘WE’. We know that you are a teacher. Rabbi means great scholar or teacher. In particular, one who has come from God. Then he adds, “For no one could perform miracles or signs as you are doing unless God was with him.”
This may be his own interpretation because other Pharisees questioned or refuted Jesus’ relationship with God. And so, there seems to be an opening for Jesus to explain himself, instead he changes the subject. He quickly shifts from his role as a miracle worker to the Kingdom of God.
Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.” Why the sudden change of focus? What is happening here is; that Jesus is taking the focus off himself and turning it back on Nicodemus.
Nicodemus was saying, “We know that you are a great teacher when we saw your miracles.” Jesus is saying, “You are blind. You cannot see the work of the Kingdom of God, because you are not born of the spirit.” Clearly this upset Nicodemus, when we hear his reply,
“How can a man ‘be born’ when he is old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely he cannot enter a second-time into their mother’s womb to be born!” Can you hear the sarcasm and anger? Some interpret this as if Nicodemus is confused by Jesus, but he is not. He is clearly upset. I will explain more in a minute. First, I want to deal with this topic, the kingdom of God.
Pharisees believed that when God gave us the 10 Commandments, His work was done. God gave us the Commandments and now it was our job to keep them. In essence, our salvation was in our hands. And they were experts at proclaiming and obeying the laws.
Jesus was saying that all your education, all that you have done since birth is not enough; you still need the work of the Kingdom of God, by way of the Spirit of God. But they believed that our destiny was pre-determined at birth and it could not be changed. This must have blown the mind of Nicodemus! To be re-born by the Spirit was a radical new concept.
Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are 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.” (John 3:5-8)
Again, there are several questions that arise here. The first is what does it mean to be born of water and the spirit? The second is what does it mean to be born again. And finally, what is the work of the Spirit here?
Many faiths interpret this passage as meaning we must be baptized by water, but that is not what Jesus is getting at here. Many people get baptized but it may not change their heart. That is because Baptism is an outward sign, that God is doing in inward regeneration. The change comes from God, not us. We do not get to heaven by our baptism.
In fact, scripture itself likens Baptism closer to death then birth. Colossians 2:12 reads, “Having been buried with him in baptism, we are raised with him through the power of faith in God, who raised him from the dead.”
In the Torah, water indicated cleansing and purifying. (2 Kings 5:13) So, by water and the spirit meant, we must be cleansed and transformed by a spiritual re-birth that was quite literally, out of our own hands. And the only way that happens is if we come humbly and seeking the will of God.
The second question is, “What does it mean to be born again?” (John 3:3) A better interpretation would be, what does it mean to be born again from above. That is what it means in the Hebrew language.
As you might have guessed, this harkens back to what John the Baptist said about Jesus in Luke 3:16, “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
‘By fire and the spirit’ or ‘by water and the spirit’ is about a deeper cleansing of the soul. That is what Jesus brings by his death and resurrection that takes away the sin of the world. And it is fulfilled in the coming of the Holy Spirit.
Finally, what then is the work of the Spirit? Surely, this must have been the hardest thing for Nicodemus to grasp. Even though the Spirit had been with God since the beginning, he was almost invisible; like the wind that blows where it will. And the fulness of the Spirit would not come, until Jesus ascended to heaven. The work of the Spirit brings us transformation and insight into the ways of God.
Naturally, “Nicodemus’ reply is, “How can this be?” (John 3:9) “You are Israel’s teacher”, said Jesus, “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?” (John 3:10-12)
Nicodemus was supposed to know the Torah inside and out. How could he miss that God was the creator in Genesis and that God can also re-create if he so chooses? It is not up to any person to limit the work of God. (they underestimated Him)
Jesus continued to teach Nicodemus, but we never see what the impact was on him at that time. Did he leave highly offended? Did he finally believe? All we know is that later, he shows up with Joseph of Arimathea to prepare Jesus’ body for burial. (John 19:39-40)
Did Nicodemus ever hear Jesus teach, “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven?” (Matthew 18:3)
One last thought about being born again from above or become like a child. While a baby is a new creation, a baby is not fully mature. To become born from above, then implies, that we will spend the rest of our lives discovering and developing what it means to be in the will of the Father. Each day as we pray, read scripture, and worship; we move closer to God and we mature as his beloved children. Our faith is a journey, not a destination. That is why being born again shouldn’t simply become a box we check off. And it shouldn’t be something we say to belittle others who do not know Jesus as Savior.
I want to end with this short story, one that is humorous but also enlightening. Listen,
An angry newspaper subscriber stormed into a reporter’s office and demanded an apology because he had been mistakenly put in the obituaries section of the paper. The reporter said, ”I never write retractions, but what I will do tomorrow is list you in the new birth column and give you a brand-new start.”
So, I want to ask you this morning, “Are you born again from above? You should know it by the fruits of the spirit, which are; Do you love Jesus with your whole heart, and are you pursuing the things of God? Do you love others as God has loved you and do you forgive?
John Wesley said, “That the New Birth is that great change which God works in the soul when he brings it into life, when he raises us from the death of sin to the life of righteousness; that is the power of His Grace”.
Let us pray, as we start this new year…Amen.