Born From Above
Published Jan. 17, 2012 @ 8:39 p.m.
Let us continue with our discussion of John. In chapter 3 of John Jesus makes a statement that we don’t always fully understand. The scene opens with Nicodemus coming to Jesus by night. We are told that Nicodemus is one of the “chiefs” or rulers of the Jews. Though the Jewish authorities are generally portrayed as being clueless and close minded towards Jesus, Nicodemus is seen as one who is truly seeking the truth.
After Nicodemus addresses Jesus with some flattery Jesus gets right to the point and says “I tell you the truth, no man can see the Kingdom of God unless he be born ἄνωθεν. This Greek term has a sphere of meaning which includes “from above” and “again.” John is making a play on words. Nicodemus chooses to hear “again.” Because Nicodemus’s question, “How can a man be born a second time…?” immediately follows Jesus’ statement all of our English translations interpret the word like Nicodemus does and they read “born again.” Otherwise, the conversation doesn’t really make sense in English.
But Jesus doesn’t say “You must be born again.” Jesus says, “You must be born from above.” Jesus makes this clear as He replies to Nicodemus, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” The change in meaning is subtle but of tremendous import.
Most people interpret “be born of water” to refer to water baptism. In the New Testament water baptism is always linked to repentance. This is the Palestinian Jew coming out in the sources. We now know that water baptism as a means of purification was practiced in more than one Jewish cult setting in the 1st Century AD. Even today we generally think of water baptism as being washed clean of our sins. For many people this is where we stop and for this reason we miss much of the New Testament.
Many church people I know are guilty of thinking of “being born again” as being a new start in life. As far as that goes it is correct but it simply doesn’t go far enough. The problem is that when we emphasize being born again we tend to place far too much importance on the power of our own will. We think that what we need to do is to just act better. We exaggerate the importance of moral behavior. There is nothing wrong with moral behavior but it doesn’t bring life and it doesn’t bring us into the Kingdom of God.
Birth from above means we don’t just get a new life; we get a totally different life. Life born from above is life generated not by our attempts to be good but by the Holy Spirit creating the image of Jesus Christ within us. We don’t just get to start life over with a clean slate. The slate has been completely changed with new properties and new powers. It is God who transforms us, not our own wills, and all we need to do is to be surrendered to God.
What is important is not what we do but who we are. Yes, who we are will change what we do but the question is not morality but rather identity. We are the children of God born in His image. May we all be born from above!