It is cringe-worthy. I admit it. Being born again? It just sounds weird, not to mention the baggage associated with “Born Againers” in our society. My guess is that most people don’t know what it means to be born again. Or they believe born-againers are fundamentalistic, and therefore, mean, jugdmental and harsh.
But being born again is none of that. In fact, please read on, because what being born again really is just might surprise you.
Last week I started preaching through the book of the Bible called 1st Peter. It is actually a letter the Apostle Peter wrote to Christians around the Roman Empire in 1st Century AD when they were being persecuted. This past Sunday, we looked at 1 Peter 1:3-5.
In verse 3, Peter exclaims, “Praise be the God and father of our Lord Jesus Christ!” When you’re reading the Bible, you pretty much expect a phrase like this, right? “Praise God!” sounds like a really biblical thing to say because it is a really biblical thing to say. But why does Peter praise God? Is he bursting with praise, just because? Nope. He has a reason. There is something causing him to praise God.
Peter praises God for his great mercy. God, Peter says, does not give us what we deserve. As people who so often choose to rebel against God, whether in big ways or in tiny little ways, what we deserve is punishment of being separated from God.
But that’s where God’s mercy enters the scene. He could separate us from himself, but he chooses not to do that.
Instead, Peter says, God has mercy on us in that he has given us new birth!
New birth is a very Christianese sounding idea. Here’s the thing though, Peter and other Christians didn’t make it up. Jesus did. Peter is just using words that Jesus taught him. In John 3 we read the story when Jesus taught this.
Let me set the scene a bit. The religious establishment guys were constantly on Jesus’ case? They were called Pharisees, Sadducees and teachers of the Jewish law, and Jesus often had run-ins with these guys. The religious establishment guys were the power-brokers in the land of Israel. What they said was law. If you didn’t follow what they said, watch out. The problem is that they had stacked law upon law upon law so that it was incredibly difficult for the regular person to have any hope that they, the regular Joes, could truly enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus could not stand for that lie, and he undermined their false system every chance he could get. As you can imagine, the average Joes loved him for it, and the leaders hated him for it, and the leaders looked for ways to take Jesus down.
But not all of them. Some of the leaders were curious about this Jesus guy. They had never encountered someone with his gifts and abilities and teaching and miracles. As hard as they tried to defeat him, those miracles were hard to argue with. So at least one of the Pharisees was really intrigued by Jesus and knew he needed to meet with Jesus. But it had to be in secret, under cover of night. This Pharisee could not risk being found out by his Pharisee pals that he was going to talk with Jesus.
That is where John 3 picks up. Before you continue this post, read John 3:1-10 or so.
Did you read where Jesus says to Nicodemus the Pharisee in John 3 that no one can see the Kingdom of God, unless they are born again? That’s where the common Christian phrase “new birth” or “born again” comes from. Jesus himself!
Well, this confused Nicodemus greatly. Born again? You can’t be born again. It’s obvious, Jesus.
Frankly, it is almost silly to me that Nicodemus even brought that up in verse 4. It is so obvious that Jesus is speaking figuratively here. You almost want to shake your head at Nicodemus, like we do nowadays and say, “Really? Really?! You think he wants you to get back inside a womb?”
Of course not, Jesus explains, what he means is that you must be born of water (which is natural birth) and spirit (which is the new birth). Nicodemus is still confused, and in verse 10, I love how honest Jesus is. Can you imagine the twinkle in Jesus’ eye when he says, “You are Israel’s teacher, and do you not understand these things?”
That’s Jesus saying, “Come on, man, do I have to really spell it out for you? When I say you have to be born again, I’m not talking about taking you to the hospital so the surgeons can cram you back inside a womb!”
Look at verse 5 where Jesus explains what he means. The Spirit of God must change us! We must be born of the Spirit from the inside out. That is the “born again” that Jesus is talking about. But how are we born again by the Spirit?
Jesus goes on to say that it starts with believing in him. Look further down at verses 16-18. Being born again, means that we have a spiritual rebirth which starts by believing in Jesus, and a change takes place within us, a real change. This is symbolized in our practice of baptism. We go under the water to symbolize that we have died to our old selves, and we rise up out of the water to symbolize the spiritual rebirth, that we have new life in Christ.
Let me say something very important about belief. It is not intellectual or mental assent. Intellectual or mental assent is just saying, “Yeah, I believe that. I would say that is true.” But mental assent does not impact your life. Jesus is not looking for intellectual assent. Jesus is not interested in people just believing a fact about him. I have quoted our Bishop Bruce many times throughout the years, when he says, “Jesus doesn’t want believers.”
That phrase might sound ludicrous when you are reading John 3:16 (“whosever believes in him”). But Bishop Bruce is right on the money. Jesus doesn’t want us to just agree to factual data about him. He wants us to be his disciples. He wants belief to lead to action. How do we know this?
In James 2, we read that even the demons believe! In other words, you can believe the right things about Jesus, but not have been born again into the new life of Jesus. What Jesus wants, Bishop Bruce says, is disciples. A disciple believes and follows Jesus, learning from Jesus how to live out the principles and the way of the Kingdom of God right here and right now. A disciples actually changes. Jesus once taught “by their fruits you will know them.” You can tell who is reborn, because the new things of the Spirit flow out of their lives. The evidence of the Spirit changing us from the inside out is what is called the fruit of the Spirit. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, self-control. That’s what it means to have new birth.
And that is not so strange, is it?