For those of you who have witnessed a birth, it is an incredible experience. If you have ever experienced the birth of a family member or your own child, there is nothing like it. I am blessed to have witnessed the birth of both of my children. These were incredibly meaningful events that I will never forget. These were events that forever changed every aspect of my life.
When we talk about birth, everyone can relate to it. If you are reading this post, it is because at some point you were born. We know what being born means. Many are aware of all the details that have to be just right for life to begin, there is so much that goes on and must take place in order for the birth to one day take place. Birth is also a traumatic experience, it causes a lot of stress and discomfort, it changes everything. But we face it, oftentimes gladly, because of all the possibilities, because of all the promises of what lies ahead. You could say it is for the joy that is set before us (Hebrews 12:2) that we go through with it.
When we are born we have no say in who our parents will be, or where we will be born, or into what conditions we will be born. We have no say in who our blood relatives are. Also, birth happens only once. You don't get a chance to do it again.
Or, what if you could? What if there was a way you could be born again? New life, new family, new identity. This time, you would get to chose your family. Would you be interested in a new birth? Would you be interested in having the old you die, and be forgotten and begin a new life?
The Bible has a few things to say about this.
John 3:16 is likely one of the most popular and well known passages of Scriptures among Christians. Many can quote it from memory, it is so beautiful, it deserves to be memorized and quoted. But how many of us are familiar with its context?
What was Jesus talking about when He uttered these famous words?
Who was Jesus talking to?
Let's take a look at John 3
Nicodemus was a Pharisee, a member of a Jewish sect of the intertestamental period noted for strict observance of rites and ceremonies of the written law and for insistence on the validity of their own oral traditions concerning the law. He was also a member of the Sanhedrin, the supreme council and tribunal of the Jews during postexilic times headed by a High Priest and having religious, civil, and criminal jurisdiction. When John identifies Nicodemus as a ruler of the Jews, it is worthwhile noting here that when John mentions "the Jews" in his gospel, he often means the religious leaders who opposed Jesus. Nicodemus is introduced as being a member of the elite who oppose Jesus (John 7:48).
Nicodemus approaches Jesus by night. From what John says about Nicodemus (how he ultimately came out of darkness into the light, and how he moved from secret discipleship to true and complete discipleship [John 3:2,21, 7:50-52, 19:39-42]) we get the picture of a man who was deeply sincere in his quest for truth, but seems afraid to be seen. It could also be that he wanted to have a quiet and uninterrupted conversation with Jesus, but most seem to believe that fear was the main motivation for meeting at night.
“Rabbi, we know that You are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.” (Nicodemus, John 3:2b emphasis mine)
Jesus and Nicodemus have an interesting conversation regarding what someone "can" or "cannot" do.
“Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (Jesus, John 3:3b emphasis mine)
Jesus highlights that what no one can do is enter the kingdom without rebirth. Jesus wants to teach Nicodemus, is that no one can do anything of the Spirit by means of the flesh (John 15:5). This story contrasts a teacher of Israel who fails to comprehend heavenly realities (John 3:10) and the Teacher from God Who reveals them (John 3:2).
Nicodemus identifies Jesus as coming from God. Jesus responds to Nicodemus' observation by calling him to an even greater level of recognition. Jesus is summoning Nicodemus to a greater depth of insight. Ultimately, there is a community that is regenerated through Jesus.
"But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name: 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)
Playing with words
The bible writers, at times, fashion the text in careful and specific ways hat can only be fully appreciated when we look at the original language. Whenever a text is translated, some details and nuances are lost. The main idea carries through clearly but an understanding of the original text yields wonderful insights.
We notice play on words especially in the writings of John. For example, the word "again" in John 3:3 is anōthen which can be translated as "from above", or "anew, over again."
So Jesus said to Nicodemus that "unless one is born again/from above he cannot see the kingdom of God." The question becomes which one did Jesus mean? The answer could very well be "yes."
On John 3:4 we read Nicodemus' response. He interprets Jesus' use of anothem to mean "again."
“How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born? (Nicodemus, John 3:4)
Most readers of John's gospel would have understood Jesus to mean "from above." Many of us expect Jesus to be talking about a spiritual reality, for Him to be talking about birth from God. How is it then that Nicodemus interpreted Jesus to mean a physical second birth? Especially since such a feat was clearly physically impossible?
Jesus patiently explains His point further.
“Most assuredly, I say to you, unless 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. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (Jesus, John 3:5-8)
I imagine that Nicodemus must have looked shocked, since Jesus says "Do not marvel..." Why did Nicodemus struggle so much with the notion of a new birth or a birth from above?
Before we get to that, here's one more note on the words of Jesus.
Playing with words
Once again we have a play on words with what Jesus is saying to Nicodemus. Jesus tells him,
"The wind (pneuma) blows (pneō) where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit (pneuma).” (John 3:8)
The Greek word "pneuma" can be used to refer to the Holy Spirit, or the vital principal by which the body is animated (sometimes translated as "soul"), the wind itself, or the breath of nostrils or mouth. I half-expect Nicodemus to ask next "How can someone be born of wind?"
Jesus uses the wind to illustrate the work of the Holy Spirit.
Nicodemus still "does not understand" what Jesus is talking about.
"How can these things be?" (Nicodemus, John 3:9)
Now it is Jesus' turn to be "surprised."
“Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not know these things?
I believe Jesus means to say, "C'mon Nicodemus, you should know this."
Jesus goes on deeper exposition of His mission (John 3:9-21) highlighting some of the key themes that will be further developed throughout The Gospel According to John. But we will stop here for now.
I believe that Nicodemus struggled not with theological content of Jesus' message but rather by its implications. Nicodemus was not confused by the notion of baptism as a new birth and as a spiritual experience (birth from above) but rather by Jesus' implication that he, a Pharisee and a ruler of the Jews, would need to go through this experience.
Nicodemus was a good person, probably better than most people alive in the world at that time. He lived by the strictest possible religious rules. He sincerely tried his best to follow all of God's commandments. He was dedicated and recognized for his piety, his zeal, and his knowledge. After all, he was a religious leader, a member of the elite! Yet Jesus told him there was no hope of eternal life for him unless he was born again/from above.
How important is this new birth?
Jesus Our Example
In some ways Jesus did not need to be baptized. He had no sins. He had come from the Father. I can understand why John the Baptist was unsure how to proceed regarding Jesus. Jesus then explains to John that he must baptize Jesus in order to fulfill all righteousness. Jesus was baptized in order to be our example. If Jesus felt it was necessary to be baptized, even though He was sinless, how much more do we need baptism? Jesus did it in order to be our perfect example.
When the Holy Spirit is poured out on the apostles great things happen! Peter preaches an inspired and powerful sermon. Notice the reaction from his audience.
Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Men and brethren, what shall we do?”
Then Peter said to them, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. (Acts 2:37-38)
When the Holy Spirit moved and people felt the need to act, Peter tells them to repent and be baptized.
Some people are like Nicodemus, who feel like there is no need for a new birth. Other's are like Peter's audience, and are eager to make some changes. Some are perfectly content int heir lives and feel no need for God or salvation, even though they need it. Other's would love to get a second chance, to start over and have his old life forgotten.
On which group do you fall?
A Personal Choice
Maybe you have been experiencing the Holy Spirit stirring in your heart. Maybe you have already begun making some changes in your life. Maybe this post has stiffed some feelings deep within you.
Are you like those who heard Peter's sermon, wondering what you should do?
Have you experienced this invisible "wind" blowing in your life?
If you have not yet been baptized, what keeps you?
I would like to encourage you to not harden your heart but continue to follow as the Spirit leads. Find a local church, I have a special preference for the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and ask about baptism. There should be a preparation process in order for you to fully understand what this decision and commitment entail. I hope that you prayerfully move forward as God leads.
Feel free to comment on this post if you would like to learn more about baptism.
One resource I found especially helpful in preparing this post is Keener, Craig S. The Gospel of John: a Commentary. Vol. 1, Hendrickson Publishers, 2010.