I’m in the thick of the end of semester and stacks of papers are awaiting my attention. The spring sunshine is beckoning me to my garden. I don’t have time to write a new post but the new life of spring is a good time to repost an article I wrote many years ago about an experience I had around this same time of year.
“Born again” is one of the most often used phrases in recent Christian experience in North America. We’ve heard it ad nauseum in sermons and songs. “Are you a born again Christian?” “Ye must be born again.” And the list goes on.
Is being “born again” about a particular event that determines our eternal destiny? Is it some sort of measuring stick so we can differentiate between those who are “born again” and those who are not? Is being “born again” about saying the sinner’s prayer, going forward at altar calls, signing decision cards, slipping up my hand with all eyes closed?
Is this really what Jesus was talking about? I have a sneaking suspicion Jesus might have been a lot more mysterious than we would like to think.
“Born again” is actually not a common term in the Bible. The most familiar text is from the Gospel of John where Jesus tells the religious teacher, Nicodemus, “you must be born again” (John 3:1-8).
The Greek word ANOTHEN in verse three is usually translated “again” but it has a double meaning and also means “born from above.” In context, “born from above” is a better translation. Nicodemus misunderstands Jesus’ use of the word as “born again” and thus replies, “I cannot enter again into my mother’s womb…” (John 3:4). Then Jesus corrects him by saying, “no, I mean born from above, by the Spirit of God.”
This correction of a misunderstanding is a common literary device used by the writer of the Gospel of John. A person misunderstands a term and then Jesus gives the correct, and usually deeper, meaning. It’s used again with well water and living water in chapter four and physical blindness and spiritual blindness in chapter nine.
It is interesting how most English translations get it wrong just as Nicodemus gets it wrong. But this is a spiritual birth Jesus is talking about. The birth from above, Jesus says, is like water and wind; the two most powerful forces of nature. Water and wind illustrate this one mysterious spiritual movement. Water is cooling, cleansing, refreshing and nourishing. Wind, breath and Spirit all come from the same Greek word PNEUMA. The wind is mysterious, you can’t see it or predict its next move, the results can be seen, but how it happens can’t be explained.
We have trivialized “born again” to be a certain formulaic human experience, when it cannot be labeled or boxed. You can’t box the wind! If you try it becomes merely stagnant air! The point of this imagery is that this “birth” is entirely different from what the religious teacher perceived, or maybe also what we as modern church people perceive.
I love the way Eugene Peterson says it in The Message:
“So don’t be surprised when I tell you that you have to be born from above, out of this world, so to speak. You know well enough how the wind blows this way and that. You hear it rustling through the trees but you have no idea where it comes from or where it is headed next. That’s the way it is with everyone born from above by the wind of God, the Spirit of God.”
Many years ago during an interview for a ministry position we were discussing my theology of conversion at length and I was trying to make a point that maybe it was more of a mysterious process than a prescribed event. One of the interviewers, weary of the discussion and wanting to resolve the issue, said in exasperation, “surely you must remember a date when you were born again.” After a slight pause, and with a smile and a twinkle in my eye I said, “Yes, last Thursday” (And in fact I had had a significant “epiphany” moment on that day). Needless to say, I didn’t get the job!
New birth is not so much about an experience we have had in the past or need to have in the future. It is kind of like the wind, hard to contain and label- “now I’ve got it!” The Greek word for new, as in “Behold, I make all things new,” is KAINOS. This word does not refer to a point in time but rather a quality of living, a freshness of being.
The new birth is not so much about a prescribed particular punctiliar experience that happens on a specific date in time. It is primarily about a way of living, a quality of being. A way of living that is always in anticipation of what might be around life’s next corner, a way of being that is sparkly-eyed expectant of what the Spirit Wind might surprise us with.