It was perhaps one of the most unusual meetings recorded in the Gospels. Nicodemus was a “ruler of the Jews” and a member of the prestigious Sanhedrin. Yet despite his devout life and intense study of the Scriptures, the Pharisee knew something was missing. There had to be more. Nicodemus would certainly have been aware that rumors would spread rapidly if he were spotted standing in line, waiting to consult with the traveling Rabbi, Jesus. His colleagues might have been scandalized, or even angered at him for demeaning his high office in such a public way. Surely it would be humiliating to admit to a stranger that despite all of his religious activities and rituals, he had not found peace or contentment.
So Nicodemus took an unusual approach. He came to Jesus at night. Perhaps he sought to flatter Jesus at first, or to break the ice by stating: “Rabbi, we know that You are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him” (John 3:2). Jesus, however, was never one to mince words. He always spoke the truth, with grace. In response to His nocturnal visitor, Jesus declared: “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3).
Of course, this commenced a breathtaking discourse that has resulted in countless millions of people over the years being born again, especially as they heard John 3:16. However, as I was reading these familiar words recently, I was struck by something simple, yet easily overlooked.
In verse six, Jesus declared: “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” This truth appears self-evident, but it has enormous implications. What Jesus was saying was this:
When the flesh gives birth to something, it has all the characteristics of the flesh. The apostle Paul described the “flesh” this way: “For the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary to one another, so that you do not do the things that you wish . . . Now the works of the flesh are evident, which are: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies, envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries, and the like . . .” (Galatians 5:17, 19-21). And this miserable list is not exhaustive!
Conversely, the fruit of the Spirit is: “love, joy, peace, long-suffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22).
Whatever is birthed out of the “flesh” will reflect the characteristics of the flesh. That which is begun by the Spirit’s activity, will bear a resemblance to the Spirit. This helps me to understand something I have often witnessed. For example, a church goes through a nasty split where a dissenting group angrily leaves the church and goes half a block down the street to start another congregation. Was it born of Spirit or flesh? More than likely, the flesh. There was anger, dissension, and hatred present that are all characteristics of the flesh. And, when the flesh produces something, its offspring take on its characteristics. Have you ever known a church that suffered chronic division, or adultery, or pastoral dismissals? If so, it was probably birthed out of the flesh. Other churches go from decade to decade in harmony and unity. These undoubtedly were birthed by the Spirit.
I know of ministries that were birthed out of pride or ambition rather than out of the Holy Spirit’s leading. The result was that they were plagued with the results that come from the flesh. I know church leaders who seem to be constantly embroiled in conflict. I have even heard the ludicrous claim: “He had so many people angry at him he must have been doing SOMETHING right!” All too often such contentious people have merely been operating out of the flesh. Even in business, we can launch new endeavors out of the flesh, rather than by the Holy Spirit’s guidance. It is easy to tell who gave birth to new programs, or businesses, or churches, or endeavors. Examine their fruit. Does it look like the flesh or the Spirit? It matters not what your intentions were! If you began something out of the flesh, don’t waste your breath promising to give God the glory for the results! He will have none of it.
In light of this truth I have asked myself: what has motivated the initiatives that have proceeded from my life? Has the Spirit guided me to make certain efforts? Has God led me to try new things? What have the results been? Likewise, have I attempted some things, even good things, but done it out of the flesh? If so, could that explain why they seem plagued with division or other sins?
Take an inventory of what your life has produced. Then ask yourself the important question: How much of what my life has been a part of has come from the flesh, and how much has been initiated by the Holy Spirit? Life is too precious to invest it in things that do not last.