By Barbara Kugle
Special to The PREVIEW
Have you ever read a book on how to be born?
You may have read something on how to be born again, but if you have, that notion is just as ridiculous. We have no control over how, when, where, or to whom we are born. It is the same with rebirth, or regeneration. The first is an act of creation through the will of human agents, and the other an act of re-creation through the power of the Holy Spirit.
Sadly, the term, “born again,” has been tossed about, muddied and mauled like a dog’s favorite ball. In its truest sense, it’s hardly recognizable these days. I overheard a woman talking on the phone once, “Oh, you know So-and-So; she’s one of those…like, born again types.” This was followed by a slight laugh. To my ears, the comment didn’t sound malicious, just meant as additional information about the individual being discussed.
To get an idea of what Jesus was talking about when He said, “You must be born again,” let’s listen into the discussion between Nicodemus and the Lord in John 3:1-10. Notice, as you read, that Jesus repeats the term several times, and never once gives any how-to steps on the process.
First, who was Nicodemus? He was a moral, religious man, a Pharisee (having to do with Jewish religious law), as well as a member of the Sanhedrin, the ruling council on civil law. Pharisees were the chief teachers of the Jews, an elite group of Old Testament scholars, the holiest of all persons holier-than-thou. Nicodemus may have been the chief teacher, because Jesus referred to him as the teacher of Israel. The Pharisees were supposed to be ministers to the people, but they were isolationist, and the ultimate hypocrite. Jesus condemned them in no uncertain terms, calling them “sons of hell,” “blind guides,” “snakes,” and “vipers.” He said they were like whitewashed tombs, beautiful on the outside, but full of dead men’s bones on the inside. Woe! (Matthew 23)
I don’t know why Nicodemus sought Jesus at night, speculations being numerous, but none contribute to Jesus’ teaching on rebirth. Israel’s chief teacher acknowledged that Jesus was a greater teacher than himself, for there had not been a prophet in Israel for 400 years who could do the miracles Jesus was doing. Standing next to Jesus, Nicodemus had to have realized he, himself, was a phony and a hypocrite. Perhaps that is why Jesus ignored Nicodemus’ initial comment and went straight to the cry of this man’s heart.
“In reply Jesus declared, ‘I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.’ (John 3:3 NIV)
This was an astonishing statement for Nicodemus to hear. Jesus had just read his mind! Not his lips, but the cry of his heart. Israel’s teacher had reached the pinnacle of his own religion, and he was about as righteous — in his mind — as any man can be. But his religion had given him nothing but rules and more rules that were impossible to keep. Nicodemus had no peace. He had no assurance about where he would spend eternity. He came to Jesus afraid and worried.
Note that Jesus did not say, “Nicodemus, you must be born again.” Instead, He said everyone must be born again if they are to go to heaven. Jesus is not yet reaching out to Nicodemus on a personal level. An individual must see his or her own depravity to draw a conclusion about their personal spiritual condition. While Nicodemus feared eternal judgment, he may not have been ready to admit his own sinful state. However, Nicodemus is familiar with scriptural analogies and parables, and he immediately understood how Jesus was using this one. He knew no one could return to his mother’s womb to be born again in the flesh, so what was Jesus trying to tell him? The words born again in the Greek means, “born from above.” Nicodemus understands the analogy perfectly. Returning to his mother’s womb to be born again, makes about as much sense as being born again from above. If that’s true, it didn’t jive with his theology, and he is incredulous. Had his religion deceived him? It’s like he is saying to Jesus, “You’ve got to be kidding. I spent my whole life working hard to earn my own salvation, and now you’re telling me I did it all for nothing?”
Jesus gives him a hint: “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit.” Nicodemus doesn’t have to think too hard about this one. Remember, he is very familiar with Old Testament Scripture. The Levitical law is all about washing and cleanliness before God. The words my mother used to preach, “cleanliness is next to Godliness,” came from Leviticus, not in those words, but certainly the idea is clear.
Nicodemus has read Ezekiel’s book many times, perhaps even memorized much of it. Certainly, when he heard the term “water and spirit,” this passage came to mind. “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols.I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.You will live in the land I gave your forefathers; you will be my people, and I will be your God. I will save you from all your uncleanness.” (Ezekiel 36:25 NIV) Notice the repetition, “I will.” The washing and the renewing is an act of God, not by the will of the recipient, but God’s will. (See also Ezekiel 11:17; Psalm 5)
“Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit, “gives birth to spirit.” Flesh and Spirit would also have been familiar terms for Nicodemus to consider in this context. In Genesis 6:3,5 the Lord warned man before the great flood came, “My Spirit will not contend with … man forever, for he is mortal (or corrupt) … The Lord saw how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time.” This concept is very simple to understand. The flesh, or the sinful, corrupt nature of man, can only give birth to more of the same. Only the Spirit can give birth to a new spirit, a new life, and create a new creature out of the old.
Apparently, the Pharisees had forgotten their own depravity declared by God in the Scriptures. Did Isaiah 64:6 pop into Nicodemus’ mind at this time? “All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away. No one calls on your name or strives to lay hold of you.” How about Jeremiah 17:9? “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?”
Finally, Jesus said, “You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” This is another analogy even a child can understand. We have no control over the wind. There is not a book in the world that can teach us how to stop or send the wind elsewhere. It goes where it pleases. Likewise, the rebirth of man’s spirit is an act of God. It is by His grace alone that we can be made new in the spirit. Still Nicodemus doesn’t get it. “How can this be?” he asks, to which Jesus replies, “You are Israel’s teacher, and do you not understand these things?”
What is the rest of Nicodemus’ story? Did he ever get it? If we cannot be born again by our own volition, then how is it possible for us to be saved? The answer is so simple you’ll fall out of your chair when you hear it.
Tune in next time for the rest of the story.
Read Barbara Kugle’s blog at www.heartscryblog.wordpress.com.
Send your faith articles to firstname.lastname@example.org 500 to 800 words.