Like so much else in the Bible and the important matters that Jesus talks about, being “born again” may be a metaphor … though a metaphor that is essential to the Christian testament, indeed to the Christian experience.
If I were creating a college curriculum for Christians, I might call my foundational course “Christianity 101: Being Born Again.”
Unfortunately, the term has been given a bad rap and held hostage by evangelical, fundamentalist and conservative Christians; so we tend to cringe a bit, preferring to stay away from talking about it.
But we need to.
Conservative Christians have had a near monopoly on what many people refer to as “born again language” and culture … populated by terms like fallen, sinner, altar calls, and saved … to reciting a string of words as a given formula. You know what I’m talking about:
“Heavenly Father, have mercy on me, a sinner. I believe in you and that your word is true. I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of the living God and that he died on the cross so that I may now have forgiveness for my sins and eternal life. I know that without you in my heart my life is meaningless.” Next, we add a bunch of our particular brand of dogma and doctrine. And then we say: “I give you my life and ask you to take full control from this moment on; I pray this in the name of Jesus Christ.”
In Charismatic and Pentecostal circles, being born again is further complicated to mean receiving the gifts of the Spirit … especially as evidenced by speaking in tongues, if not being “slain in the Spirit.”
In addition, most of us have known at least one person who was born again in a remarkably unattractive way—practicing a rigid kind of religious righteousness, judgmentalism, and imposing strict boundaries between an “in-group” of acceptable Christians and all others.
I remember some of the churches I attended in my earlier years as a Christian, where certain places of worship were referred to positively, passionately, as “believing” churches, while most mainstream churches were summarily dismissed as not valid to be called Christian.
And yet, there is something special about being born again.
Rightly understood, being born again is a fulfilling and comprehensive notion, one that we – and all – need to reclaim.
The theme of the story about Nicodemus and Jesus from the third chapter of John’s gospel is rich in metaphor and symbolism. We’ll focus on verses 3-7 because they explain why being born again or born anew is so vitally important:
“In reply, Jesus declared, ‘I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again … no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is 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 idea of being born again of the Spirit is not new, nor did it end with these words of Jesus. One of my own personal favorites is the prophecy found in Jeremiah 31:
31 “The days are coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah … 33 “This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,” declares the LORD. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. 34 No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the LORD,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the LORD. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”
Later, in I Peter 1:3, we read:
“Blessed be the LORD God who has invited us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”
But, let’s return to Nicodemus: a Pharisee who had dedicated his life to keeping the rules and regulations of the Old Covenant, a man totally committed to serving God in the only ways that seemed right to him.
Not only was Nicodemus a Pharisee, he was also a member of the Sanhedrin, the ruling body or supreme court of the Jews at the time.
So, what on earth was someone like Nicodemus doing coming to Jesus? Was he out to trap Jesus into saying something controversial? Was he gathering evidence?
No, I don’t think so …
Nicodemus came in the dark, looking for light. There’s one of our metaphors! He starts the conversation with a compliment: “Teacher,” he says to Jesus, “we all know that God has sent you to teach us. Your miraculous signs are proof enough that God is with you.”
But Jesus brushes aside the compliment to get to the heart of his message: It’s not external signs that are important, he tells Nicodemus; it’s what happens inside a person’s heart … and that has to be such a profound change that it can only be described as being “born again.”
These two Greek words can be translated three different ways. And they have been, in different translations of the Bible where, in some versions, the words are “born again,” in others, “born anew,” and yet in others, “born from above.” What’s more, all three are valid! It’s one of those concepts that can’t be contained accurately in English and retain its full meaning.
What is its full meaning? The words mean a radical and complete change … it can mean “again,” in the sense of a second or third or fourth time … and it can mean “from above,” and therefore from God.
When we try to bring all these meanings together, to get a sense of what Jesus was trying to say to Nicodemus, we essentially have Jesus saying that there is a fundamental change that happens to someone who experiences and enters into the Kingdom of God. Something happens deep inside, in the soul, in the heart of that person, which can only be described as being reborn … and there’s nothing of self in this because it comes from the grace and power of God.
Like all of us, Nicodemus was a man who saw the need for change – and wanted to change – but he couldn’t change himself. It’s a problem that has plagued humanity from the earliest pages of the Bible. Nicodemus came to Jesus knowing that there was something lacking in his life. Jesus saw the root of the problem and told him what was needed. It was too radical for Nicodemus, so he clutched at straws: “I just don’t understand how it works,” he seems to say.
Here Jesus does what he often does: He takes pictures from everyday life and uses them to open people’s eyes to the truth. I’ve referred to pictures like this, before, as metaphors.
“See the wind,” Jesus says to Nicodemus. “You’ve seen trees flattened by it, or leaves blown by its gusts. You may not understand the physics of what you see, but the effects are plain to see. It’s like that with the Spirit, too. You may not know how it works, but the effects are plain to see in lives that have been changed.”
Today, Jesus may have referred to television, a computer, or the Internet instead of the wind. Do most of us know how they work? Probably not. Do we understand the technology behind their incredible power? No, we don’t. But that doesn’t matter … because the effects of what television, computers, and the Internet do are so obvious.
We may not understand the full implications of Jesus’ words when he talks about flesh giving birth to flesh and the Spirit giving birth to spirit … but we can see the effect of this spiritual rebirth in the lives of Christians who have experienced it!
One commentator explained it this way: “The unanswerable argument for Christianity is the Christian life.” A changed life. A life focused from the inside out rather than the outside in.
Children instinctively accept their relationship to God because they haven’t been conditioned by society’s rules, norms, and expectations. As we grow conditioned to seek popularity, achievement, affluence, authority, in the world, we’re increasingly controlled by society, living from the outside in rather than by the Spirit of God from the inside out. We’re increasingly separated from God as our self-concern, our self-preoccupation, intensifies. It’s what I think of as “the fall.”
Jesus concludes his conversation with Nicodemus with a warning: “I’ve tried to make things simple for you to understand,” says Jesus. “I’ve spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how, then, will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? If you can’t see what I’m getting at from your everyday life, how in the world are you ever going to understand the deeper, spiritual things?”
Alas, Nicodemus just doesn’t get it. He’s a literalist. “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”
Nicodemus is still clueless.
The point of this classic text is clear: What Nicodemus needs is a spiritual rebirth, an internal rebirth, a personal transformation. It’s what we all need. Because, at the heart of the Gospel, is the mystery of God’s compelling grace, love, and redemption.
There’s a very serious message here, I believe, for us: Faith isn’t something you can understand by discussion, argument, reading or listening to sermons … it’s something that has to be experienced.
To be born again, born anew, or born from above aren’t alien concepts that belong to the “happy-clappy” brigade of Pentecostals. No, no, no! This is fundamental change, a metamorphosis, a continuing transformation in our lives, a constant reformation of dying to the self that the world tells us we are, and being resurrected into the spiritual person that God has created us to be: in relationship to our Creator and all of creation.
To be born again means dying to an old way of being and being born into a new way of being … dying to an old identity and being born into a new one centered in the sacred.
It’s a process, not a formula … a continuing cycle that we need to go through again and again, rather than saying the words of the “Sinner’s Prayer” and being done with it.
Being born again is the road of return from our spiritual exile, the way to recover our true selves, the path to beginning to live our lives God’s way rather than ours, the exodus from our individual and collective selfishness to the freedom from that bondage.
Most importantly, being born again is intentional; although we can’t make it happen, we can help it along. That’s why so many sermons about being born again often end with an altar call, an invitation to realize our limitations, turn from our evil ways, and to ask God to take over by acknowledging Jesus as the way we want to live.
No, I’m not going to do that. But I am going to ask you to bow your heads as I end this message with a prayer:
Our God and Creator, all the riches of life in your Kingdom are ours if we will but open up our lives, our hearts, our minds, and our souls to the new life that you would have us live. Open our hearts to the need for renewal and rebirth.