Don’t Wonder at the Saying, “You Must Be Born Again”

Being born of the Spirit is being awakened to a reality that is greater than the physical reality we presently know

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.

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Born Again: the Paradigm Shift

Being born again is the ultimate light bulb moment, and everything changes and is illuminated by it.

Depositphotos Image ID: 26594615 Copyright: west

I listened recently to a talk given by Tim Keller who has a way of reducing “mysterious” ideas to plain English like few are able to do. In this talk, he tackled the Christian concept of being “born again”. People who walk in some Christian circles may take for granted what it means to be “born again” (or maybe not!), but anyone who grew up outside the evangelical influence may have very little idea what it means.

“Born again” is a buzz word to be sure. It is used ubiquitously to mean a certain “brand” of Christian, sometimes, or even a certain political persuasion, which is really a bastardization of the meaning of the phrase. The phrase has its roots in a particular passage of Scripture and is meant to convey the idea of a paradigm shift of sorts.

It is often assumed to mean a religious experience accompanied by emotions and religious fervor, but that really isn’t quite what the phrase originally meant, or even what it really means at its essence. Being born again might be accompanied by emotions and religious fervor, but not always. I think of CS Lewis, who I would consider a “born again Christian”, when I say that “being born again” isn’t always accompanied by high, religious emotions:

 “You must picture me alone in that room at Magdalene, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England” (Surprised By Joy, ch. 14, p. 266).

Indeed, CS Lewis is not alone in finding the doorway to Christianity being rather more of a cross than a resurrection. Of course, the cross always precedes the resurrection.

Aside from the idea that being born again is primarily an emotional experience, people often think of it as signing onto a set of morally rigid religious principles. The words from CS Lewis might tend to support that idea, but that would be wrong as well. In fact, it really couldn’t be any further from the truth.

Continue reading “Born Again: the Paradigm Shift”