Jesus answered [Nicodemus], ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’ (Verse 3)
What is it to be a ‘born again Christian’? We’ve become very used to hearing the phrase. The first time I remember hearing it was in my early teens, when a friend at school who went to a Baptist church invited me to a youth event. As my friend Andy brought me into the hall, someone greeted me and said, ‘Am I shaking hands with a born-again Christian?’ I said, ‘Yes,’ because as far as I knew I was a Christian. As I did so, Andy looked on quizzically. Clearly he doubted me. I didn’t understand at the time why he should doubt that I was a Christian. In later years, I would understand that he was right to be uncertain.
In popular parlance, we think of the phrase ‘born again Christian’ in connection with some American Christians. The first time I heard ‘born again’ used in the public domain was, I think, when Jimmy Carter ran for President in 1976. He would say, ‘My name is Jimmy Carter and I am a born-again Christian.’
Or we think that ‘born again Christians’ are those Christians we disparagingly refer to as ‘happy clappy’. I am sad when we disparage other Christians in this way, but what does remain is a sense that you can have two or more kinds of Christian: born again Christians, and other Christians.
So people have come to think that ‘born again Christians’ are one kind of Christian. But Jesus doesn’t put it like that. Either you’re born again (born from above, born anew) or you can’t see the kingdom of God. If you are born again, you are a Christian. If you are a Christian, you are born again. It’s not about the style of Christianity, it’s about the substance.
So we’d better know from Jesus what the substance of being one of his followers is. To explore what Jesus tells us, let’s look at the conversation he has with Nicodemus.
Except it’s not a conventional conversation. Three times Nicodemus asks Jesus something, or makes a statement to which he is seeking a reply. And three times, Jesus doesn’t answer him but says something else. If you’ve ever been frustrated that Jesus hasn’t answered the questions you’ve asked, you’re in good company. But Jesus has to do this here with Nicodemus, because otherwise he won’t get him to see the most important truths about the life of faith.
So let’s look at the three exchanges here, and see what they open up for us about true faith, about what it truly means to be ‘born again’.
Religion or Revelation
Nicodemus is religious. He is a Pharisee, which means at the very least he was devout and serious about following the heart of his religion. He was also ‘a leader of the Jews’, so whatever exactly that was, he held a responsible position and was probably respected for his faith (verse 1).
Furthermore, we have certain stereotypes of Pharisees from the New Testament as being regular opponents of Jesus, but it doesn’t look like Nicodemus can be lumped in with that description. He comes to see Jesus ‘by night’ (verse 2). I think that means he knew other Pharisees didn’t like Jesus, but he sincerely wanted to find out more. However, because of opposition from colleagues he comes under cover of darkness to avoid detection.
Not only that, he’s done his homework.
‘Rabbi,’ [he says,] ‘we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.’ (Verse 2)
In other words, he’s been part of a Pharisees’ committee that has looked into the early ministry of Jesus, just as we read two chapters earlier that a deputation of priests and Levites came to investigate John the Baptist (1:19). He would have been at home in the Methodist Church: working parties, committees and endless meetings would have been familiar to him!
Faithful, respected, sincere and devoted: that’s Nicodemus. Just the kind of person you want to join your church. Isn’t it?
It’s not far from the upbringing I had. My sister and I were taken to church in the womb. Our parents were active members of our Methodist church. Dad was a steward and was the Circuit Manses Secretary. Mum sang in the choir and taught in the Sunday School. You could hardly go out in the street with Mum without her bumping into someone and saying, ‘Didn’t I teach you Sunday School?’ In fact, it was so ingrained that my sister once worked out that she and I were fifth generation, same congregation.
And you know what? I wasn’t a Christian. It took a church membership class where at the last meeting our minister took us through the confirmation service when something clicked. I realised that Christianity wasn’t simply about believing in God and being good. It was about the grace of God reaching out to us, and us receiving it through repentance from our sins, faith in Christ and a grateful commitment to follow him in the world. I believe the ‘something’ that ‘clicked’ was the work of the Holy Spirit.
And Nicodemus has to learn that all his sincere religious belief and work counts for nothing. Religion gets you nowhere, Jesus says. Put in all the human effort you like, it’s a dead end. You need to hear from Jesus by his Spirit. You need to hear that it’s his work, not yours, that makes you a disciple of Jesus. It’s not what you’ve done for him. It’s what he’s done for you. That’s where the Gospel starts. Nowhere else.
Reason or Spirit
All this talk about being born again (born from above) is befuddling to Nicodemus. He can’t get his head around it:
‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’ he asks (verse 4).
It doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t stand to reason. I don’t think he’s deliberately ridiculing Jesus, but he is saying that Jesus’ teaching makes no sense to him.
This is what happens when we privilege human reason over the work of the Spirit. There is an important place for human reason, and indeed Jesus elsewhere told us to love God with our minds. However, even the foolishness of God is wiser than our wisdom. And when we rely on our minds and our brains alone, we shall never discern the work of God and walk in the ways of Christ.
I’ve seen people do it, including in church circles. Often clever people, they ask all sorts of questions. They routinely criticise the preachers (not that we should be above criticism, mind). Unless they can intellectually justify something, they refuse to accept it. But the life of the Spirit doesn’t work like that, and I’ve seen such people make shipwreck of their lives, for all their brainpower. For it’s all very well using our minds, but even our thinking is fallen and sinful. Wernher von Braun, the greatest rocket scientist ever according to NASA, previously worked on inter-continental ballistic missiles for the USA and prior to that developed rockets such as the V2 for the Nazis.
Instead of limited and potentially sinful human intellect as our guide, Jesus calls us to follow the wild desert wind of the Holy Spirit. We must be born of water and the Spirit, he tells Nicodemus (verses 5-6). And just as you don’t know which way the wind blows, so it is with those born of the Spirit (verse 8). When we are born again, we don’t just pursue clinical logic, we submit to the Holy Spirit, who will take us into surprising places.
Being born again, then, is not just about the new birth. It is about the new life. A life empty of stale human prediction. A life where we ‘lean not on our own understanding’ but walk in obedience to the Holy Spirit, wherever we are led. Religion doesn’t understand that. Nor does reason. But the Spirit does.
Understanding or Faith
The last exchange, and Nicodemus still doesn’t get it: ‘How can these things be?’ he asks (verse 9).
Jesus replies, you still don’t understand –you, the teacher of Israel? If I talk about earthly things (birth, water and the wind), how will you ever believe in the things of heaven? (Verses 10-12) And he goes onto talk about that which most of all requires faith rather than human understanding: the Cross.
If you want to do everything by logic and understanding, you’ll never end up at the Cross. Yet Jesus knows it will be the central event in history. If you wanted good PR for a new religious movement in what we call the first century, you wouldn’t have picked the Cross. As Paul was to tell the Corinthians, it is foolishness to the Greeks and a scandal to Jews. Where is the fine-sounding rhetoric so beloved of Greeks at the Cross? Where is the wondrous miracle that conquers the enemies of God that Jews longed for?
Yet to those with faith in Christ, nothing speaks more eloquently than the agony of the Cross, where Christ dies in our place. And yes, it does conquer the enemies of God, as Jews would have hoped, but in a more radical way, dealing with the sin of the world by absorbing its cost, not lashing out.
And it’s as relevant today as it was two thousand years ago. The philosophers adored by the Greeks of the first century were the rock stars of their day. They were treated rather like the way our culture hangs on the words of celebrities. Those who are born again choose the wisdom of the Cross to guide their lives, not the vacuous pronouncements of the famous.
Likewise, those who are born again live at the Cross and are not persuaded that ‘might is right’. Killing abortion doctors – however evil abortion is – does not sit with life at the Cross. Nor do the recent statistics from America which showed church attendees as more likely to approve of torturing suspected terrorists. To be born again involves a commitment by faith to believe in the redeeming and transforming power of suffering love through Christ.
It’s not enough if we are born again to say that the Cross is where we find the forgiveness of sins – although we do. We must then allow Christ and his Cross to shape the way we live and speak.
We began by wondering what it means to be ‘born again’. Is it one particular style of Christian?
There is no evidence in Jesus’ teaching that this is the case. He applies the image of being born again to all who wish to be his followers. It is a challenging image.
For those who are born again reject the idea that religious devotion earns a ticket to heaven. Rather, we bow the knee and accept that God has done something for us in Christ. It isn’t about what we can offer. Is that us?
Those who are born again deny that we can proudly think our way to God. We depend, instead, on the work of the Spirit to reveal Christ and to lead our lives in unpredictable directions. Again – is that us?
Finally, those who are born again give short shrift to the empty example of the famous and the violent world of superior force. We find life at the Cross, and we continue to live at the Cross. Once more – is that us?
So: are we born again?