A couple of stories in the Gospel of John illustrate the dichotomy of the natural world and the spiritual world. These are two of the most iconic stories in the New Testament, and they happened in close proximity in time to each other: the story of the Samaritan woman at the well, and the story of Nicodemus.
In this blog post, I want to focus on the encounter of Jesus with and Nicodemus, the Pharisee. Nicodemus was a religious leader of some prominence in the community. Many religious leaders of the time felt threatened by Jesus, but not Nicodemus.
He sought Jesus out to ask him some questions, going to Jesus at night, which suggests that his visit might not have been viewed favorably by his fellow Pharisees. He acknowledged the “credentials” Jesus demonstrated, the miracles that he had done, indicating an openness to what Jesus would say. Without waiting for a question, Jesus initiated the following dialogue:
“Jesus answered him, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?'”(John 3:1-4 ESV)
I think was an honest question. The context suggests that Nicodemus wasn’t challenging what Jesus said. He just wasn’t following.
We see by his approach to Jesus that he was open, but he didn’t understand what Jesus was getting at. “What was Jesus trying to say?”
It’s ironic, perhaps, that some Christians who say they take the Bible literally, don’t recognize the ubiquitous use of figurative (non-literal) language and ideas in the Bible. We can’t approach Scripture in a wooden way and hope to understand the depth of it.
If you have wondered what it means to be born again, let’s take a look at what Jesus said to Nicodemus and how Paul applies those concepts after the death and resurrection of Jesus. But first, Jesus continued:
“[U]nless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.'”John 3:5-6
Jesus obviously didn’t mean that a man must re-enter his mother’s womb and be physically born again. He also doesn’t literally mean that man must be born of water, like out of a lake or something. He does seem to be saying literally, though, that man must be born (again) of Spirit or he cannot enter the kingdom of God, so let’s dig into it and try to flesh out what he means.
Jesus literally meant that there is a spiritual reality into which one must be “born” (initiated) that is different than the physical world into which we have been born. We have to make a shift from the physical to the spiritual – a paradigm shift of sorts – and this spiritual world is as real (likely more real) than the physical world that we know.
These words bring to my mind the very beginning: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” (Gen. 1:1) The world as we know it didn’t exist before God created it. We perceive the reality of creation (and God) by faith because we weren’t there, and we can’t prove it.
We know, though, that we (human beings) didn’t create the world. Some people who don’t want to admit the possibility of something transcending the world might try to insist that the world created itself or that it always existed. We also know (today), however, that the world as we know it didn’t always exist. It came into existence in an event that we now somewhat inaccurately call the Big Bang.
We are accustomed to this physical universe. We are part of it. We are from dust to dust. Though the universe didn’t always exist, it is all we really know. We take it for granted, and we don’t easily grasp that something might exist beyond it.
If the world (space/time and matter) didn’t always exist, shouldn’t we wonder what caused it to come into being?
We can perceive, by faith, that some initial force – a force with agency (the ability to initiate things) – caused the process of the world (space/time and matter) to begin. “By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.” (Heb. 11:30)
When Jesus told Nicodemus, “You must be born again…”, Jesus was trying to get Nicodemus to look at the world in a different way, to see that there is a spiritual world overlaying, underlaying, permeating into, through and beyond this physical world.
In fact, this physical world is only the surface. It’s only a shadow. The spiritual world that God inhabits existed before the physical world. The physical world sprang from the spiritual, and, while the physical world may be subject to decay and destruction, the spiritual world is not.
Jesus said, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will not pass away” (Matt. 24:35), so Paul said, “This world in its present form is passing away….” (1 Cor. 7:31) Paul also perceived that the world has been “subjected to futility” and “decay” (Romans 8:20-21 ESV) on purpose by God.
Paul says the creation “waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God” (Rom. 8:19), and we are the “firstfruits of the Spirit” … wait[ing] eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies”. (Rom. 8:23)
Paul says, “[T]he world “was subjected to futility … in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption….” (Rom. 8:20-21) Why was it subjected to futility in hope? Is God not able to make the world perfect? God doesn’t have to hope; He could just make it so!
Why did God bind the world to corruption? What purpose could that possibly serve?
“The creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God” (Rom 9:21), because God intends “the creation … will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” (Rom. 9:21) The fate of the creation, of the world, is intertwined with our own fate.
God created a world that is subject to futility, decay and corruption in hope that we would become the firstruits of the Spirit and participate in the transformation of the world He created. God subjected the world to futility, decay and corruption to invite us into His creative process and become participants in it.
The first step in that process is being born again. Jesus told Nicodemus, “That which is flesh is flesh” (dust to dust); and “that which is spirit is spirit”. (John 3:6) For us to enter into God’s purpose in creating us and the world, we must perceive the spiritual reality and willingly participate in His purpose.
God created the natural world out of nothing (nothing physical). For God, the spiritual came first, then the natural (the physical), but for us, the natural, physical reality comes first; then the spiritual. “But it is not the spiritual that is first but the natural, and then the spiritual. The first man was from the earth, a man of dust….” (1 Cor. 15:46-47)
We were born from dust and to dust we shall return (Ecc. 3:20), unless we are born again, born of the Spirit. “[F]lesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable…. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality.” (1 Cor. 15:50, 53)
We can’t do this by ourselves. Which one of us chose to be born to our mothers? As Nicodemus asked Jesus, how can a man re-enter his mother’s womb and be born again? (Much less be born again of the Spirit – something which is, to people made of dust, incomprehensible.
“But to all who did receive him [Jesus], who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.”John 1:12-13
God extends His promise to us through Jesus, allowing us the right to participate, willingly, in what God has planned for us. We do this by receiving Jesus.
Thus, Jesus followed his statement to Nicodemus, that he must be born again to see the kingdom of heaven, with this famous statement:
“[God] gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”John 3:16-17
Believing in Jesus, receiving him, is how we are born again. This is why Paul said, “[I]if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.” (2 Cor. 5:17)
Jesus is the firstfruit of the firstfruits. He gave his life like an acorn falling to the ground and “dying”, and from the acorn grows the oak tree. Jesus is that first seed, and we are branches.
“But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep….
But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ….
What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And what you sow is not the body that is to be, but a bare kernel….
But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body….
So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body.1 Cor. 15, 20, 23, 36-38, 42-44
And having received (accepted) Jesus, we follow him.
“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.”Mark 8:34-35
The new life we are given when we receive Jesus is, in effect, exchanged for the life we have in this world. We fall to the ground like a bare seed (following the example of Jesus) and die to the life we have in this world in order to be raised to the new life, the seed of which we are given when we receive Jesus (believe and accept him) and are born again.
This reality, being born of the Spirit, is greater than the physical reality into which we are born in our bodies just as God, who created all that is seen from the unseen, is greater than the physical creation.