For many Christians, John 3:16 (italicized in the reading below) is the central theme of the Christian faith. It is how we define our values and activities and we grow up knowing exactly what the verses are about. In a gentle but firm way that verse is all the ammunition we need to explain both the problem and the solution.
Of course evangelicals read these words differently than most other Christians do. In typical fashion the problem and solution are simple and obvious: we are all sinners and we need to be fixed or ‘born again’ (saved from hell, for heaven) and there is a formula for that.
However, Christians from most Catholic, Orthodox and mainline churches would understand the meaning a bit differently and that is where things get awkward to most inquiring minds.
Even more importantly, many Christians who would profess to being born again can also be cranky, legalistic, mean, unhappy. (If you have never witnessed this, just take my word for it.) So what’s with that?
For me, this story gradually began to read differently during my young adult years as I began to look more closely at my faith. The story surrounding John 3:16 took on a deeper, warmer meaning.
To remind you, the story begins with a man named Nicodemus who was a notable religious leader. Probably because of the stigma of such a meeting, he goes to see Jesus after dark during a less conspicuous time. In spite of his extreme religiosity, it feels like Nicodemus is here with Jesus because he knows that something is not adding up inside his deepest thoughts; in his gut. In spite of being an obedient follower of God, something is wrong with the system he’s been taught and something is wrong inside himself.
Read the story again, carefully:
There was a man named Nicodemus, a Jewish religious leader who was a Pharisee. After dark one evening, he came to speak with Jesus. “Rabbi,” he said, “we all know that God has sent you to teach us. Your miraculous signs are evidence that God is with you.”
Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, unless you are born again, you cannot see the Kingdom of God.”
“What do you mean?” exclaimed Nicodemus. “How can an old man go back into his mother’s womb and be born again?”
Jesus replied, “I assure you, no one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit. Humans can reproduce only human life, but the Holy Spirit gives birth to spiritual life. So don’t be surprised when I say, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it wants. Just as you can hear the wind but can’t tell where it comes from or where it is going, so you can’t explain how people are born of the Spirit.”
“How are these things possible?” Nicodemus asked.
Jesus replied, “You are a respected Jewish teacher, and yet you don’t understand these things? I assure you, we tell you what we know and have seen, and yet you won’t believe our testimony. But if you don’t believe me when I tell you about earthly things, how can you possibly believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ever gone to heaven and returned. But the Son of Man has come down from heaven. And as Moses lifted up the bronze snake on a pole in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life.
“For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. God sent his Son into the world not to judge the world, but to save the world through him. – John 3:1-17 (NLT)
Notice that Nicodemus doesn’t initially ask a question – his hope is simply to access the fascinating teaching that has been witnessed by crowds of people.
He isn’t looking for forgiveness, he is looking for fullness.
Jesus then brings up his favourite subject – the Kingdom of God – and says that the only way to access it is to be born again. Nicodemus is naturally confused, as any of us would be, and needs to ask what this means more specifically because it sounds like he might have to involve his mother…
Well, what does it mean to be born again? Could it happen at a particular time and place like in a church service? Could. Might it be some sort of transaction initiated by a particular prayer? Might. Is it a miraculous emotional release when we feel clean and forgiven by God? Maybe for some.
It didn’t happen in any of those ways for me.
Here’s the problem: when we think of born again as a moment in time when we get fixed, we tend to think of it as something we do. Of course nobody really comes to faith in a moment – we might identify with that moment but the process begins long before and will continue long after.
But read it again: nothing in the above verses suggest that Jesus is talking about traditional conversion as evangelicals understand it. Jesus wasn’t asking Nicodemus to join a church or ‘become a Christian’ or ‘get saved’ as it used to be described, but rather he was inviting him to something higher – participation in the living activity of God.
To be ‘born from above’ means that we are moved mysteriously by God’s Spirit so we begin to approach life with spiritual eyes rather than with human eyes. That of course, changes everything. It means we begin to understand that life is lived here but doesn’t come from us. Rather it is from far beyond us; somewhere wonderful and holy.
Jesus said somewhere else that we can only enter the Kingdom if we become like children. Beautiful simplicity – learning and experiencing a spiritual life with wide-eyed trust in our good Father.
You know what? At the risk of being excommunicated I am going to suggest that Jesus is not much for altar prayers or guilt-laden sermons or revival methodology. Born again isn’t a transaction, it is a beautiful way to walk in step with the Spirit of God.
I personally didn’t become born again out of fear and it wan’t in a church service praying a particular prayer. Like Nicodemus I came to Jesus through a process of quietly, secretly opening myself to him and learning from him. I didn’t realize I was born again until well after I was born again.
Hmm… this isn’t about fear or death. It’s about new life. It’s about God loving the world so much that he gave his Son to us.
Come to think of it, this famous story is pretty central to our faith.