What does being “born again” mean? How does it work? Being born a first time seems like enough of a miracle – how can a second time be any better? And, if being born again is absolutely necessary, do you get to have another baby shower when it happens?
Or, maybe another belly button?
Jesus tells Nicodemus, a curious Pharisee who comes to Jesus during the night, that “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born again. . . You must be born again.” Two verses later Jesus clarifies a bit by saying, “No one can enter the Kingdom of heaven without being born of water and the Spirit” – if you call that clarification.
The alarming thing for someone intent on getting into the Kingdom is that not only is ‘being born again’ an unclear and vague thing, but there are some translations of the Bible (including the NRSV) that don’t say “You must be born again,” but rather “You must be born from above.”
So, now what do we do?
Do we need to be born again, or born from above?
The interesting thing is that the Greek word that some versions of the Bible translate as “again” and others “from above” actually means both things.
It’s like the English word “orange.” It can mean either the fruit or the color.
We’re not the only ones to get confused though, because the double meaning of anothen seems to confuse Nicodemus too. Nicodemus, after hearing that he must be “born anothen” can’t understand how a person, who has already been born of his mother, can pass through her womb again. It’s impossible, and it just doesn’t make sense.
Actually, this is the point.
Of course it doesn’t make sense, because what Jesus is telling him is that he has to be spiritually born of the heavens, born of God, born from above. It’s the only way that one can enter the Kingdom of Heaven.
But, let’s take a moment to step back and see what we’ve come up with.
Is the command to be “born from above” any clearer than being “born again”? How exactly do you get born from above, or born of the heavens? Do you have to sign something? Do you have to raise your right hand and make some sort of legal statement? Maybe get it notarized? Is it something that happens to you without you knowing it? And, even if you’ve done it, or it’s been done to you, how would you even know?
Really, when you get down to it, it doesn’t matter how you translate the Greek work anothen, if you don’t get what Jesus is really talking about. It could be translated “born again,” “born from above,” or “born from the underbelly of a giraffe.” If we don’t understand the basic principle that Jesus is trying to get Nicodemus, and us, to understand, we’re still in the dark.
And that’s when the prime understanding of salvation in the Gospel of John comes into play, beginning with the 14th verse of chapter 3:
And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. ‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.
Jesus seems to pivot in his argument here and while doing so he shifts from using the image of new birth from above, and highlights the centrality of belief/ faith. Being born again/ above is intrinsically tied to believing in the Son of Man/ Son of God.
In the Gospel of John the primacy of faith/ belief shows up again and again as the prerequisite for eternal life. We see this link of belief and salvation in numerous places in John:
Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever disobeys the Son will not see life, but must endure God’s wrath. 3:36
Very, truly I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgment, but has passed from death to life. 5:24
Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him who he has sent.” 6:29
This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day. 6:40
Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. 6:47
Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. 11:25-26
And we see Jesus plead with his followers to believe in him in several other teachings where he doesn’t explicitly say that they will gain eternal life in return, but does teach that it’s of ultimate importance.
In short, Jesus compels those who follow him to believe in him, believe in God the Father who sent him, and believe in the works and commandments that he gives them.
Belief/ faith is that foundational.
I think it’s important that here in the Gospel of John, Jesus launches out on his teaching on the preeminence of faith with a discussion on birth, again and above. If these passages tell us anything about this new birth they tell us that it is a radical change, because birth is a radical change. This isn’t like moving across state lines, or bleaching your hair.
This is serious stuff.
New birth is at least as much of a change as we underwent when we left life in our mother’s womb and began a new life in this big bright world. But, of course, the difference here is being born from our human mother’s womb and the womb of God, which is a change with infinite repercussions.
Entering into the Kingdom of Heaven requires a new way of life, with new priorities, new responsibilities, and a new way of looking at the world and the things that go on here. Being children of God Almighty, the creator of all that is, seen and unseen, and the source of all life, light, and holiness, is an awesome status to behold. In short, being born from above is a whole new ball game.
This blog posting is a edited excerpt from the forthcoming book, “going to hell, getting saved, and what Jesus actually says,” by Rick Morley.