Dr. W. A. Criswell
11-9-86 10:50 a.m.
This is the pastor bringing the message. It is an exposition of a part of the third chapter of the Gospel of John. Let us turn to John, and we are going to read out loud together verses 5 through 12 in chapter 3. The Gospel of John, the fourth Gospel; John, chapter 3, reading verses 5 through 12; now, together:
Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto ye, Except a man be 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.
Marvel not that I said unto thee, You must be born again.
The wind blowest where it listest, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is everyone that is born of the Spirit.
Nicodemus answered and said unto Him, How can these things be?
Jesus answered and said unto him, Art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not these things?
Verily, verily, I say unto thee, We speak that We do know, and testify that We have seen; and you receive not Our witness.
If I have told you earthly things, and you believe not, how shall you believe, if I tell you of heavenly things?
All of this arose over Nicodemus, a master in Israel [John 3:10], staggering before the avowal of our Lord that we have to be reborn to enter the kingdom of God [John 3:3]. Nicodemus had answered in verse 4: “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” [John 4:4].
And Jesus replying to him concerning rebirth, said to him, “If I have told you,” and it’s translated “earthly things,” epigeia. Ge, g-e is the Greek word for “earth” [John 3:12]. Graphō is the Greek word for “write.” So, “geography” is the writing down of all the topographical features of the earth. “So if I have told you of epigeia, things that happen all around us,” demonstrable, observable, “If I have told you of these things” – such as a man being born again – “if I have told you these things that are before your eyes, and you stagger at them, what would you do if I told you,” and then, He uses the same kind of nomenclature, epouranios – epigeia, things upon the earth; epouranios, things up there in heaven, things that pertain to the glory of the presence of God?
“Things upon the earth” [John 3:12] and that part of it we’re going to discuss in these brief moments this morning hour. The marvelous, demonstrable, daily, miraculous, hand of God in rebirth – the fact of it is undeniable. Every springtime, we have an epigeia – upon the earth, rebirth, regeneration. Those dead trees come to life. They bloom and flower and leaf – the red bud, the dogwood, the blossoming peach, and pear and apple. It’s a miracle. And those dead seed: they look like little rocks to me – inert, hard.
In the days of the Second World War, the president of the United States made an appeal that everybody raise a “victory garden.” So, being a loyal and patriotic citizen, I sought to plant a victory garden. There was a little spot, back there at the back of the parsonage, and I plowed it up, dug it up, shoveled it up. And along the fence, I planted speckled butter beans. Speckled butter beans: those little old seeds looked like speckled rocks – hard, inert, dig – and I planted them along the fence.
And an amazing thing – up came life and living. And it grew up to the top of the fence and began to wave in the breeze, those speckled butter beans. So I got me a wire mesh, and I put them along the top of the fence. And those speckled butter beans grew up to the top of the wire mesh and waved in the breeze. So, I some chicken wire and I put it on the top of the wire mesh, way up there and those speckled butter beans grew up, started waving in the breeze. So, I got me a tall ladder, and I strung string from the top of the chicken wire to the top of the trees, there in the back. And those speckled butter beans grew up and up and up to the top of the trees and began waving in the breeze. I could not believe my eyes. Can you imagine such a thing happening from dead rocks, speckled butter beans – hard like a pebble? That is the power of God, demonstrable upon the earth; birth, rebirth, life. There is something in nature – all nature. We’re a part of it – there’s something in all God’s creation that has in it an upwardness, a pull, a heavenwardness. It’s just in all of life.
There was a Louisiana farmer that in the fall time caught a big mallard duck and put a string around him and tied him to a stake in the pond. And all winter long, down there south Louisiana, that mallard duck swam around on that pond. In the springtime, those great mallards soared up into the sky with their eyes and neck and wings pointed northward. They flew over that pond and, evidently, saw that mallard down there swimming on the water, and they circled around and called. And that mallard lifted up his head and his ears and heard that call and made a great lunge against that string and was pulled down. They continued to circle and to call from the sky. And that mallard duck made a great lunge and broke the string and soared up into the heavens, to join those who were called of God onward and outward and northward. That’s God.
That’s what the Lord says: “If I tell you epigeia” – things that are here on this earth, demonstrable – “what would you do if I were to tell you things epouranios – up there in heaven?” [John 3:12]. Now, that applies to us. We are also a part of God’s creative hand: the possibility and the fact of birth and rebirth – physical, intellectual, spiritual, physical.
I had a brilliant genetics teacher; eugenics and genetics. And I remember, one time, his saying that all of us bear the chromosomes and the genes of all of our ancestors, and it’s in birth and rebirth, it’s in the mitotic process of the division of chromosomes and genes, that we continue. He said that in all the earth, the whole human family, you could place in a thimble all of those inheritable characteristics of birth, and we have them – the same ones that Adam and Eve had. They began in God’s creative process in Adam and Eve, our first parents [Genesis 1:26-28; 2:20-23]. And those cells, those chromosomes and genes, divided and divided and divided and continued to divide. And you have them in you, the same ones as were in Adam and in Eve.
And he said, “The Sierra Nevada Mountains lose four inches every thousand years. They are worn down. But, the human family continues on by birth and rebirth and rebirth.” I thought of that, standing at the rim of the Grand Canyon, one mile above the bottom of the river. And that Colorado River runs through basalt, solid basalt, about 180 feet deep in it. And those geologists say that those great basalt rocks down there once were mountains 16,000 feet high. But, they’ve been worn down, and are buried, a mile beneath the upward formation of the canyon itself – those basalt mountains 16,000 feet high, worn out, buried a mile beneath the debris. Yet, we’re standing there alive; we – birth, rebirth, rebirth – physical rebirth.
I thought of that standing at the Roman Forum in the Imperial City: those ruins, marble columns, temples, built centuries and centuries and centuries ago. And as I looked at those stones, disintegrating and in disarray, I saw children playing upon them. We, continuing, continuing beyond the mountains and beyond the marble of the strata of the earth: the miracle of birth and rebirth, born again and again; things epigeia, upon the earth, things that you see all the time [John 3:12].
I want to take time to speak of the intellectual rebirth that is possible to the human mind. And right now I haven’t time to speak of the spiritual rebirth that is possible in human life. May I rather continue in the discussion of all life and, all living is conditioned by birth? Its destiny is determined by birth, not by all of the circumstances that you can place surrounding it. It is determined by birth.
We do not enter the kingdom of God by instruction or education. We enter the kingdom of God by birth. It is not by civic amelioration or social change that we become a part of the family of God. We are born into the family of God.
That is so poignantly demonstrated in Nicodemus himself. If Nicodemus had been a murderer or an insurrectionist or a violent robber or terrorist, I could sort of understand, humanly speaking, why Jesus would say to him, “You have to be born again to enter the kingdom of God” [John 3:3]. But, Nicodemus is the opposite of that. Nicodemus is the “Hebrew of the Hebrews.” He’s a doctor of the law. As touching righteousness and ritual ceremonial goodness, he is “a Pharisees of the Pharisees.” Yet the Lord says to him, “You cannot enter the kingdom of God unless you are reborn” [John 3:3]. It is not by inheritance. It is not by training. It’s not by education. It’s not by amelioration. You are born into the kingdom of God.
When I look at that epigeia upon the earth [John 3:12], that’s demonstrable; I can see that – see it all around me. God makes things. And how they are born determines their destiny. And if they are changed, they must be reborn, regenerated, remade. A mole cannot soar into the face of the sun like the eagle. He’d have to be reborn, remade. The eagle cannot burrow like the mole. He’d have to be reborn, remade. A tortoise, a terrapin, cannot run like an antelope. He’d have to be remade. An antelope cannot attack with the viciousness and power of a lion or a jaguar or a wolf. He’d have to be remade. You cannot harness a great whale to pull a plow. He’d have to be remade. The oxen cannot live in the depths of the sea. He has to be remade. And that power to regenerate and remake is a prerogative of God alone. He alone can do it. And He does.
You have never seen a butterfly but that it is a demonstrable exposition of the ableness of God to remake, regenerate, reborn. A caterpillar has a life of its own. It is a species in itself. All of the training and education and direction in God’s creation could not change that caterpillar. It has to be reborn. It has to be regenerated. And it is. God does that. Epigeia – a demonstrable fact that you observe upon the earth [John 3:12]; that same ableness of the omnipotent power of God to remake and reborn in the earth is demonstrable in our spiritual human lives. You see it everywhere.
There was a man in the town in which I was once pastor. And he was a blasphemous, ungodly kind of an enemy to the Lord and the church and everything religious. Upon a day, his wife who was a sweet, tender Christian, devout servant of the blessed Jesus, she was seated there in their home, reading the Bible, the Word of God. And in one of those storms of fury, he went over to her and seized the Bible out of her hand. And with all of his strength, he threw it down at her feet and with a curse, stalked out of the room and of the house. As he did so, he heard her sobbing. And somehow, in the inexplicable hand and work and nature and gift of God – somehow, in hearing that dear wife sob, and in contrast to the blasphemous fury in his heart, he turned. That’s all the word metanoeō, metanoia – that’s all that it means, translated “repentance.” All it means is “turn.” He turned and came back and fell at her feet and asked how to be saved.
I baptized him. And he was one of the most remarkable men I ever knew – as though he were redeeming the time that he had spent in cursing God and denouncing the faith and hating the church and hating religion. It’s a remarkable thing. It is demonstrable. It is epigeia [John 3:12]. It’s upon this earth. You can see it everywhere. Its method is very plainly spelled out.
Jesus answered, “Verily, verily” – that’s a translation of amen, amen. Isn’t that a strange thing? In Hebrew, it’s amen. In Greek, it’s amen. In every language in the world, it’s amen. “Amen, amen, I say unto thee, except a man be born of water and of Spirit, he cannot enter in the kingdom of God” [John 3:5]. What is the method of our rebirth, our regeneration? It is “of water and of Spirit”; of water – which is a word and a sign and a symbol all through Holy Scripture for the Word of God; born of the Word of God.
In Ephesians 5:26, we are sanctified, we are cleansed with “the washing of water by the word.” In 1 Peter 1:23-25: “We are born again by the word of God, which liveth and abideth forever. And this is the word which by the gospel is preached unto you.” In James 1:18: “Of His own will begat He us by the word of God.” In John 15:3: “Now ye are clean through the word which I have spoken unto you.”
No man is ever born again apart from the Word of God, the preaching of the gospel. The apostle Paul wrote in Romans 10:
For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.
But how shall they call upon Him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher?
For faith cometh by hearing, and hearing the word of God.
[Romans 10:13-14, 17]
No man is ever born again – is ever saved, ever becomes a part of the family of God apart from the gospel message, the preaching of the Word, the hearing of the Word. It is a remarkable thing how a man can be. For years, he can hear and hear and hear and hear and hear. And then, one day, he hears. What has happened? He has heard and heard and heard and heard; then, one day, he hears. It’s an inexplicable demonstration of the power and presence of God in the human life; born of the word [1 Peter 1:23-25].
That is why – if I could parenthesize a moment – that is why it is vital that we send the missionary and ordain the preacher. There is no salvation apart from the preached message of Christ. We are saved by water, by the word. We are saved by the preaching of the gospel. “It pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe” [1 Corinthians 1:21]. Not that what is preached is foolish, but that the method chosen of God to introduce us into the kingdom is something that no one would ever have thought for. To us, it is foolishness, but to God it is the ordained channel by which we are introduced to the saving grace of Jesus.
Except a man be born of water, of the Word, of the cleansing power, the saving ableness of the gospel of Christ, we cannot be saved [John 3:5]. And born of the Spirit, born of the Spirit of God – In the [eleventh] chapter in the Book of Acts, Simon Peter is speaking to the household of the Gentile Cornelius, who’s a centurion in the Roman army. And as he speaks Simon Peter recounts the scene, the vision, when God said for Cornelius to send down to Joppa for one Simon who will come and tell him words “whereby thou and thy household may be saved” [Acts 11:13-14].
Do you see that? “He is going to tell you words whereby thou and thy household may be saved.” You are never saved apart from the Word of God, never, ever. “He will tell thee words, whereby thou and thy household may be saved.” Now, that’s Acts 11:14. Now, Acts 11:15, the next verse: “And while he was speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon them that heard.” We’re saved by water and by Spirit [John 3:5]. We’re saved by the word of God, and by the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit.
I want to take a leaf out of my life and illustrate that. And yet, when I do, I don’t want us to fall into the error and in the persuasion that, if I don’t have that experience, I’m not saved. Each one of us has a separate testimony. And it’s different. No one of us is introduced to Jesus alike. We all have found Him in our own separate, individual way. But, just illustrating this, the power of the Word and the converting, regenerating presence of the Holy Spirit; long time ago, when I was a young man, I was invited to preach through a conference for young people in the Adirondack mountains of the state of New York. I’d never been up there before. That is my first time ever to be introduced to anything such as they were having up there, conducting up there in that conference.
And the man who led it said to me, “Now, this is the way we give an invitation. After you get through speaking, why, you tell them that, if anyone of them wants to give his heart to Jesus or to answer a call of God in his heart, to remain. Then, you pray a prayer of dismissal. You lead a benedictory prayer and dismiss them. Then after they all leave or after they are leaving, if one somebody wants to stay and talk to you, why, then, that will be your opportunity to lead him to the Lord.”
I’d never, ever done anything like that. And it was new to me. But this is what happened. I stood up there in that conference, before that large, very large group of young people, and I delivered my soul the best that I could, preaching the gospel of Jesus. Then after I got through my message, I said, “We’re going to have a prayer of benediction and you’re dismissed. And if one of you, any one of you, would like to talk to me about giving your heart to the Lord, why, you stay and we’ll meet together.”
So I spoke, I gave that invitation, I led the benediction, and then they all stood to walk out of the auditorium. Well, I stood there watching them. And being young people, you know, and the benediction having been said, why, they were leaving the auditorium by the hundreds, just leaving, as you would here today. And they were visiting with each other, and talking to one another, and laughing, and just having a good time together.
And I sat there. I mean I stood there and watched them leave. And right there, right there, leaving was a young fellow, a teenager. And suddenly, suddenly, while he was visiting, while he was talking, suddenly he bowed his head into uncontrollable tears and crying, and turned and came up to me and asked me how it was that he might be saved. That was such a poignant illustration of the power of the Holy Spirit in the human heart. It’s inexplicable. A man just going along, living his life, sometimes so blasphemous and worldly; and then, suddenly there comes a great regenerating power in his heart and he is changed. He is born again. He is somebody else.
There are some of you here today who could stand up and say, “Pastor, I know exactly how that feels. I also was marvelously and miraculously changed. I was born again, a new creation” [2 Corinthians 5:17]. And that is the prerogative of God. It is God who creates and who re-creates. He created this world out of nothing [Genesis 1:1]. He brought light out of darkness [Genesis 1:3] and life out of death [Ephesians 2:1-5]. And He is the one that recreates us. We are born anew. We are born into the kingdom of God. It is a work of the Lord [John 3:3-8]. All we do is proclaim His name like the choir sang;” Oh, what can be done! And the power in the name of the Lord!” We just lift up His name, and it is God who converts. And when we pray and wait upon the Lord, it is His hand that touches the heart. It is His Spirit that woos and makes appeal. And it is an answer to the ableness of the saving grace of God to which we reply and to whom we come.
And that is our invitation to your heart today. If the Lord has spoken to you and quickened your soul, to avow it, to proclaim it, to confess it, to make it known, welcome. You’re one of us. You belong to the family of God. Now, may we pray?
Our Lord, what a preciousness and what a privilege to name Thy name; to speak of Thy ableness to save, to convert, to change; oh, the wonder of the wonder of the miracle working hand of God in human life, demonstrable all around us, seen again and again. And our Lord, in Thy grace and goodness, let us see it this hour, this moment, a demonstration of the ableness of God to touch the human heart, to change the life, to bring to heaven to Jesus.
In just a moment when we stand to sing our appeal, to open your heart to the Lord, “The Lord has spoken to me, pastor, and here I stand.” Or to bring your family into the circle of this dear church, or to answer the call of the Spirit of God in your heart, make that decision now, with head bowed. Make it now. And in this moment when we stand to sing, on the first note of the first stanza, come and welcome. And dear Lord, thank You for the sweet harvest You give us this precious, soul-saving, life-changing, reborn-again hour, to the glory of Jesus and the praise of His name, amen. While we stand and while we sing, welcome, welcome.
A. Nicodemus staggers
at the miracle of new birth (John 3:4)
B. Jesus’ reply refers
to earthly and heavenly facts
II. The fact of miraculous rebirth is
B. In the heart of
C. In the human life of
III. The achievement a necessity
A. All living
conditioned by birth
B. Power to regenerate
and remake is a prerogative of God alone
IV. The method (John 3:5)
– a sign and symbol throughout Scripture for the Word of God (Ephesians 5:26, 1
Peter 1:23-25, James 1:18, John 15:3)
No man born again apart from gospel message, the Word (Romans 10:13-14, 17)
power of the Holy Spirit (Acts 11:14-15)