Saturday, October 9, 2010

the new birth: a primer

First, I need to vent. I just spent over an hour at McDonald's writing a post for this blog. When I went to "publish" it, I was no longer connected to the internet. Aaarrrggghhh!!! And that post was so eloquent, witty, deep, profound and relevant. You'll just have to take my word for it. It was probably the single most significant piece of writing you would have ever read in your life. Now you will have to settle for this one instead.

With apologies to former members of New Hope Church of Middleton (you may have heard the opening scenario):

Have you ever taken your children to a family reunion, or to a birthday party, or to some other important family gathering, only to have them behave in ways that make you wish you had never come in the first place? Or make you wish you had left them at home? When you were a child, did you ever behave at one of these gatherings in ways that made your parents pull you aside and warn through grinding teeth, bulbous eyes and popping veins "as soon as I get you home . . ."?  I personally have not been there, but I've heard stories . . . So, why did you take your children home at the end of the event? Why did your parents take you home after you behaved like the child of Beelzebub? These are questions I pondered (and related) as the reality of God's grace was dawning on me. This brings us to John 3 where Jesus is talking with Nicodemus about being "born again," or "being born from above." And the meaning of these verses tells us a lot about God's love for us in spite of our behavior.

I won't go into a lengthy discussion of the background of John 3 (I did that in the lost post--ask questions if you want more background or clarification). But most of John 3 is Jesus' response to a non-question by Nicodemus. Nicodemus greets Jesus and declares that he (and other Pharisees) knew that Jesus had come from God because no one could do what he was doing without God. Jesus stopped him and told him that he needed to be born again to enter the kingdom of God. That phrase "born again" had two possible meanings. Nicodemus responded to Jesus as if he meant "rebirth," and asked "how can a man be born when he is old? . . ." Jesus answered with an allusion to Ezekiel 36:25-27, "unless you are born of water and the Spirit, you cannot enter the Kingdom of God." (In a later post, I will address how baptism fits in here.) There are two things that must be noted here that Nicodemus would have understood--but that we don't immediately understand in 21st century America.

First, the kingdom of God is not referring to "Heaven." Rather it is referring to the "rule" of God. It is the thing that all sincere Jews (especially sincere Pharisees) were longing to see. It was the Day of the Lord proclaimed by the prophets. It was the day when God would come and make things right on earth. He would bring justice and deliver his people, and bring down the evil oppressors. All men would bow to God's rule. That is what Jesus was talking about, and that is what Nicodemus would have understood Jesus to have meant. Jesus was telling Nicodemus unless you are "born again," you are not under God's rule. God is not your king unless he has birthed you.

Second, the phrase that Jesus used was to be understood as "born from above" (or from God), and that is what Jesus was clarifying when he told Nicodemus he needed to be "born of water and the Spirit" in verse 5. The point was that this birth was to originate with God--not with human parents. And this birth was what Ezekiel (and others) had promised. It was the time when God would cleanse his people with water (used metaphorically--as I said, I will address that in another post) and transform them by his Spirit. The key here is that it was all God's doing. The one being born is passive throughout the process. God births us because he wants to--because he loves us. We do nothing to earn it or to cause it to happen.

This brings us back to the scenario we started with--poorly behaving children and why we take them home with us at the end of the day. Our children had no choice in whether to be born or not. They did nothing to make it happen (That is what happens in the new birth--birth from above.). And just as importantly, our children don't remain our children because they behave. They remain our children because they are our children. And we take them home after a long trip, not because they behaved, and not because they sufficiently repented (although we may feel like leaving them behind until they've made things right), but because they are our children. Period. And I trust that at the end of the day, God will take me home because I am his child--not because I am good (I am in big trouble otherwise). John 3 gives us this kind of assurance. The new birth is God's idea, and it is he that performs it. As a result we now are his children. Now is come salvation (Rev. 12:10). There is therefore now no condemnation (Romans 8:1). "Beloved, now are we the sons of God . . ." (1 John 3:2). There is a point in time, a moment, a now, in which we become his children. We are new creations--all things have become new (2 Corinthians 5:17). And it is all God's doing. John 3 declares it.

If you are like me, you know that there are times when you are just awful at this parenting thing. We make big mistakes, and we lose control sometimes. Yet we love our children and care for them anyway. Why do we live our lives as though God's love for us is less than that--as though what he did on Calvary means so little and has such little power in our lives? John 3 declares God's paternity over our lives (no DNA test needed). We can trust him to love us and care for us, and to take us home at the end of the day--because he is our Father, and we are his children. Period.

There is a lot to discuss in John 3, but I hope this has helped you a little to trust in God's love for you. You don't have to be good to remain in his family. For me, that is motivation to strive to please him, to be good--not because I will be disinherited if I'm not good (that is man's way), but because he loves me in spite of my rebellion and misbehaving. That is grace.That is the message of John 3, of the new birth.


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  2. Good Article Jon. I agree. Many have a misunderstanding of what it means to be BORN AGAIN. And the misunderstanding starts by thinking that when Jesus stated in John 3:5 "Ye must be born again", that he was stating that we must do something. NO, the statement made by Jesus, "Ye must be born again" was a statement clarifying what He must do in us! Jesus intentionally made no mention of Nicodemus having any responsibility of becoming born again. In fact, he said the opposite, "Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to Spirit." It is GOD who regenerates our heart.

    Regeneration, although essential, cannot be achieved by human effort. God alone does it; it is not a joint effort. Repentance and faith are the result of the new birth, not the cause. Nicodemus found the Lord's words perplexing because they revealed how helpless and dependent he was on the mercy of God.

    Also, I do not believe that being born of "water" is speaking of baptism either. But that's another topic.

  3. Great reminder of what it really means to be a "child of God"

  4. I like the child analogy...never thought of it quite like that before, but now as a new mom I can see it! Mine is still a baby, which made me take the analogy even further; we are like helpless babies before God (my husband had a powerful encounter with God through reading Ezekiel 16...check it out, it's amazing). Babies, as we know, cannot do anything to serve themselves, they are utterly helpless and totally dependent upon somebody to take care of all their needs. And God remembers that "we are dust"...he knows our frame. Very awe inspiring.