Be Born Again

   From that time Jesus began to preach and say, "Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand." And walking by the Sea of Galilee, He saw two brothers, Peter and Andrew, his brother, casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen.

   And He said to them, "Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men."

    Mather 4:17-19

   To one man, Nicodemus, does Scripture ever record that Jesus said, "You must be born again." No one should discount Nicodemus. We read his story in John 3, where he comes to Jesus by night. Some refer to Nicodemus as a slippery kind of fellow because he comes by night to Jesus but Nicodemus works during the day. The point of his night visit is he takes his own time to come to Jesus and comes as soon as he can come.

   Jesus tells this one man, Nicodemus, in John 3, "You must be born again. This time you must be born not of water and flesh but of blood and spirit. If you are not born again, you shall not see the Kingdom of God." To no one else does Jesus ever make this statement.

   Now, granted, the "born again" statement of Jesus to Nicodemus comes in reply to Nicodemus’s initiative, "We know you are a man sent of God for no one could do what you do except God be with him" (John 3:2). Much of what comes after, John 3:3-21, is a policy statement of the Christ concerning His mission and the required human response.

   For instance, Jesus speaks in the collective when He says "…unless one is born again…", assuredly emphasizing the need for all who hear to make a choice about Him. His intended goal is simple; hearers will put behind them what they know of religion to that moment to enter with Him into an experience so radical, it is like a new birth.

   Evangelicals, like me, perhaps like you, are so caught by the image of radical new birth, we make it the be-all, end-all of our salvation theology. Yes, we do. Our point of interruption salvation theology forces some incredible theological gymnastics on us. We may have to refer to someone who falls away immediately as "born again but born backsliding." We may feel like the worst liar when we say to someone, "Just make this momentary commitment, pray this prayer with me and you are good forever."

   On the other hand, while Jesus talks to one man about the principle of new birth, He consistently talks to other men (and women) about following Him. In His vision and mission statements in Matthew 4:17 (vision) and 4:19 (mission), Jesus sandwiches a call for repentance and a call for discipleship around a particular call to two fellows, Peter and Andrew, to whom He never seems to address (at least for the recorded word) the phrase, "You must be born again."

   Yes, you are absolutely right. Jesus has prior contact with Andrew and Peter recorded in other Gospel writers. In fact, Jesus does a lot of contacting of a lot of people. He does not seem to decide easily about followers. He seems to build relationships with potential follower/learners. He seems to call specific persons to the faith in a language they are able to understand. His method seems to be "Identify, Recruit, Train, Empower."

   The Gospel writer John gives us some broad leeway here. He writes this long, theological, non-Synoptic treatise and then, at the end, writes, "This is a record of some of the things done by Jesus, the Christ. I suppose if I tried to write down all Jesus did, it would fill all the books of all the libraries of all the world" (John 21:25). The other writers seem to give us much the same latitude but, preacher, you have the same problem I do with reading things into the text as facts not in evidence.

   Why did Jesus not say to all, every time, "You must be born again?"

   What Jesus does do, does say, does model over and again is "Follow Me." When He is remaking religion, Jesus says over and again, "Come with me."

   To become a Christian may be punctiliar (happens at a point). To live as a Christian is linear (running both ways into infinity; that fearful Ephesians 1 passage again).

   When He teaches cost counting, Jesus, the Christ emphasizes following. He couches his language in family relationships first (Luke 14:26), as though to say, "You have to love Me so much the other loves in your life look hate in comparison."

   Then He speaks in purely religious language, the tongue of the New Covenant, when He tells His hearers to take up their own cross and follow Him. Jesus’s death is purely religious. To follow Him from life into death into life after death is a purely religious act.

   I know, I know, I know. When Jesus prophesies the Day of Judgement, He paints a chilling picture of persons who believe they are going into Heaven because they are religious, only to discover they are excluded, while others are surprised to life when they discover they are acceptable to God because they "fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, housed the stranger, clothed the naked, visited the sick (with healing), shared the burden of the prisoner" (Matthew 25:31-46).

   Is the warning here a caution against letting religion make us religious but not good, or kind, or merciful, or hospitable? Is religion for its own sake a curse, while transforming religion is a blessing? The hungry child scarcely cares why one feeds him but is there any good for the soul of the feeder if her heart is still hard?

   If we are to go off with Jesus and fish for people we ought to understand it means doing the things Jesus does. So, what does He do?

   Jesus heals. When He preaches His first sermon, when He talks to John the Baptizer’s followers, Jesus emphasizes a part of His mighty work is the repeated miracle of physical healing. He does not fear to touch a leper or a dead body. Both are taboo. Jesus casts off His cultural moorings when He heals the leper, raises the dead and allows unclean women to touch Him.

   Healing miracles continue into the rapture of the Church at Pentecost and beyond, at the inception of the Church in the Book of Acts. By the end of the Book of Acts, certainly by the end of the first Christian century, we do not read much about physical healings. We still pray for healing in our churches because the suffering of flesh and blood touches us all.

   In Jesus’s walk on earth, the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame dance, the gospel is preached to the poor (thought to be poor because of some religious failure). After Jesus, miracle healings seem to occur for a time in coincidence with the faithful delivery of good news at great personal risk/expense on the part of the church.

   The healings may taper off but the preaching of the gospel to the poor continues, as Jesus wills. However, God never seems to get tired of healing. He seems intent on easing human suffering.

   So, maybe my friend, Biff Carlock, a scientist who develops a means to quickly identify damaged tissue and so rush medicine directly to the spot most in need of it is more doing the work of God than Benny Hinn, who makes himself rich off fatuous "healings."

   If one intends to be a Christian, following Jesus, the Christ, to imitate Him in His Social Justice Ministry (feed the hungry, sate the thirsty, heal the sick, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, visit the prisoner) is inevitable. Mercy flows the heart where mercy remakes the heart. Good works are empty of good for the soul if done from social or religious expectation only. Works from a new-made heart benefit Earth and Heaven.

   So, be out there. Feed, give water, welcome, clothe, visit, love, not as a religious requirement but out of the love and mercy you feel from God. Do not let religion keep you from virtue.

   If one intends to follow Jesus, the Christ, to His death and so into His life, there is a purely religious tact to take as well. What so? What is it, why is there any need, can’t we just be good to each other?

   Well, no, not if we intend to do good in Jesus’s name.

   The death of Jesus is purely religious. No hungry eat because He dies, no thirsty drink, no sick get healed. His death is religious.

   He calls His own death the foundation of the New Covenant in His body and blood. He submits to death, agonizing death, humiliating, naked, death on a Cross as the single most important icon of His ministry. For all time, Christian churches will be adorned with Crosses, not mangers, or loaves of bread, or piles of salt or a smiling, happy Anglo-Saxon with flowing blond hair standing guard over a flock of sheep.

   No, the Cross is the iconic event. Put your cursor on that icon and click. The whole vast program opens up for you to see, to explore, to use.

   It is a purely religious icon. If He does not die as He says to establish a New Covenant in His body and blood, He is just a sad fellow with some good stories who let things get out of hand and got Himself killed.

   We do not enough to follow Him into some empty religion. We do not enough if we follow Him merely into some empty religious rite. Even to act right just to act right doesn’t fulfill the soul. To know Jesus in the glory of His resurrection it is first necessary to stop with Him by way of the Cross, to know the fellowship of His suffering.

   So, the question we ask in reality, or ought to ask so that we do not mislead is this, "Do you see what it will cost you to get in single file behind Him and go do His stuff?"

   Richard Dawkins, the "Free Thinker," brilliant scientist who helped map the human genome, a sixth level agnostic (by his own words), tending toward a seventh level agnostic, writes in more than one spot that he (and other Free Thinkers) do not believe their lives are lessened in any way by their rejection of the sacred (religious).

   Of course not. They don’t know what they are missing.

   Immediate change. The kind of strength and health one gets from a blood transfusion in this place made more vitally strong and healthy by a transfusion of sinless blood.

   Abundant life. The kind of insight you get when you turn a light in a dark room but in this case made brighter by the difusion of eternal light.

   Everlasting purpose. The kind of direction you get when you follow Someone Who Knows the Way but in this space made clearer by the infusion of personal God.

   There is an end in sight. He who keeps along to the end of all will find He has been being saved all along the way.    


1 thought on “Be Born Again”

  1. Rick, this is a great post that, with your usual eloquence, expresses several ideas I have also developed as I read and re-read the Gospel accounts. More and more I find myself retreating from a tightly wound theological framework to which we are to give mental assent, and turning toward a relationship we are called to live out as we follow Him.
    As for the ‘sheep and goats’ passage in Matt. 25, have you ever considered that it may be speaking of how the Lord will deal with those who never hear the gospel, yet live out its ethical demands? It is, after all, talking about the ‘ethnes’ – the Gentile nations. Those who are invited to share in the Lord’s Kingdom are completely surprised at His generosity…”When did we see you…?” To me that suggests the sort of person Paul references in Romans 2:14-16, a Gentile who has the law ‘written in their heart’ even though they have never heard of Christ.
    Your suggestion that we make too much out of the Lord’s instruction to Nicodemus to be born again tracks with what I have observed about our use of John 14:6. The popular interpretation inserts a couple of words. Jesus said “I am the way and the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father except through Me.” Popular interpretation adds “personal faith in” between the ‘through’ and the ‘Me’.
    Now is that the usual way that the sacrifice of Christ is applied to an individual? Absolutely! Is it the only way? Who are we to say? We are called to preach the Good News and leave it to the Holy Spirit to draw people to Christ. And if the Lord chooses to apply His blood to someone on the backside of the earth who, like the people in Matthew 25, served Him unawares, then bless God!
    Thanks for laying open your heart through these Advent meditations.

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