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John 3:1-17

March 10, 2014

This is one of the most famous passages in the Bible. From it we receive the image of being “born again,” and we receive the best known one-sentence summary of the Christian message (John 3:16). Although this passage is well-trod, and seemingly nothing new can be said about it, I have recently discovered new riches here.

The concept of being “born again” (or “born from above”–the Greek can be translated either way) baffles Nicodemus. He asks, “How can these things be?” Jesus seems to mock him when he answers, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” We have been mocking Nicodemus ever since. Children who grow up in the church roll their eyes at Nicodemus’s ignorance, and they shoot their hands in the air so they can say, “This is easy to understand, Nicodemus! If you believe in Jesus you’re born again and you go to heaven to live forever!” Case closed.

This however is a childish understanding of being born again. Nicodemus is quite right to be puzzled. If we were wiser, we would be more puzzled too.

Jesus says to Nicodemus, “Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” What is Jesus’ point? That being born again is a mystery! We can no more understand how it happens, when it happens, or where it will take us, than we can predict or see the wind. (Of course, today we know a lot more about wind than ancient people did!) Jesus’ point seems to be that the process of being born anew, from above, is not something we control or fully understand. It is not a memorized formula or repeating an orthodox creed. As one person asked me recently, “How much control did you have over your physical birth? Then what makes us think we control our spiritual birth?”

Being born from above (or “again”) is only partially in our hands, and we do not control the process, nor do we fully understand it. Being born from above is the ongoing, mysterious process of spiritual maturation, of growing out of self-centeredness into God-centeredness. This happens in a variety of ways through a variety of means. Sometimes we think it has happened and we proudly proclaim, “I am born again!” only to discover later that we have deceived ourselves. We are not born again by saying, “I believe Jesus is the Son of God,” or by repeating a particular prayer. We are born again through experiences of grace, through responses of gratitude and trust, and through the nurturing of a community that shares these experiences and responses. And the process is never fully completed in our lifetime.

Verses 13-17 focus on Jesus as the one through whom this new birth takes place. This is because in Jesus we see and experience grace in all its fullness. Jesus represents the epitome of God’s grace in the universe; and, in a sense, all experiences of God’s grace (no matter where they happen) are a reflection of and come through the eternal Word that was made flesh in Jesus.

This passage wants to make it clear that the mission of Jesus is not to bring condemnation to the world. The world is already condemned, it is already broken, it is already on its path of self-destruction. Jesus is here to change the course of history. Verse 16 says that “everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” The word “believe” does not mean intellectual belief; it does not mean holding to certain doctrines about Jesus. The Greek word has the connotation of “trust,” as when we say we “believe in” someone whom we trust and rely on. The point is not to hold certain beliefs about Jesus; the point is to trust in and follow Jesus. And what does it mean to trust in Jesus? It means to model our lives on his, to trust in God and live for God, to love others as we love ourselves–even to the point of self-sacrifice. This is a kind of re-birth with a new center, and we enter into real life, abundant life, that begins now. “Eternal life” does not refer primarily to life after death in heaven; it refers primarily to a new life that begins now and does not end even in death.

Those who truly trust in Christ have begun a new life “from above.” This does not mean, though, that only those who have known Jesus and come to God specifically through Jesus have entered into this new life. Anyone who loves is born of God and knows God, for God is love (1 John 4:7-8). And anyone who truly loves has received that capacity to love through God’s love. “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). And anyone who has received God’s love has received it through the eternal Word through whom all was made. The self-giving sacrifice of Love, embodied by Jesus on the cross, is timeless and woven into the fabric of the universe. As C.S. Lewis says, the New Testament proclaims that all who are saved are saved through Christ; but we do not know that all who are saved through Christ know that it is Christ who saved them.

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