Was Jesus Born Again?

Does Jesus experience himself that spiritual awakening that he describes in John 3?

In his conversation with Nicodemus (John 3:1-21), Jesus talks about the necessity of a new spiritual birth if we are to see and enter into the kingdom of God. Is Jesus speaking from personal experience? A close reading of the opening chapters of the Gospel of John might suggest he is.

When Jesus describes this spiritual birth to Nicodemus, he says:

Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’(John 3:5-7)

Jesus mysteriously talks about this spiritual birth coming from water and Spirit. There has been much debate about what Jesus is talking about? Some read water as referring to our natural birth as creatures of flesh. Other read water as referring to baptism. Which is it?

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The Baptism of Jesus, by Piero della Fancesca, 15th century.

I find myself wondering if we should not read these words of Jesus in the context of John, chapter 1. Chapter 1 contains John’s account of Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist.

Jesus’ Baptism

What all the accounts of Jesus’ baptism bear witness to* is that it was at the moment when John baptized Jesus in the River Jordan that the heavens opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus as a dove. Notice in these accounts the close link between baptism in water and the gift of the Spirit. One seems to trigger the other.

In my last posting (Born Again: What Does Jesus Mean?), I interpret the spiritual birth that Jesus describes in his conversation with Nicodemus as a kind of spiritual awakening or transformation of consciousness that allows a person to perceive and live within the kingship of God. If this is the proper understanding of the new birth Jesus is describing to Nicodemus, then I would ask: Is this not exactly what Jesus experienced in his own baptism?

The accounts of Jesus’ baptism emphasize that this was the moment when Jesus received the gift of the Holy Spirit. His baptism also marked the moment when Jesus launched his public ministry. It was a ministry characterized by powerful acts in the Spirit.

The synoptic gospel writers (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) also note that Jesus’ message was one that proclaimed that the kingdom of God had drawn near. It was on the doorstep. This implies that Jesus had a discerning insight into the movements of God in history. He perceived something that others did not.

The gospel accounts therefore suggest that his baptism marked a momentous transition in Jesus’ life. Luke’s account of the 12-year-old boy Jesus in the temple (Luke 2:41-51) suggests that Jesus had an acute spiritual sensitivity even in his childhood. He already acknowledged God as his father. But he, like any human being, awaited a moment of spiritual transformation in order to see the nearness of the kingship of God and to work powerfully in harmony with that kingship.

If the born-again experience is a transformation in consciousness (as I contend in my previous posting), then the gospel accounts of Jesus’ baptism suggest that that was exactly what happened to him. They talk of his seeing the heavens opened, of seeing the Spirit visibly descend upon him, and hearing the direct voice of God. In that respect what Jesus experienced calls to mind what the apostle Paul experienced in his Damascus road experience (see Acts 9:1-9).**

Born Again: A Necessary Transformation Because of Our Humanity

If this is a correct understanding of Jesus’ baptism, then it suggests that the born-again experience is not so much a remedy for sin, but a necessary transition for human beings as creatures of nature to rise to a higher level of existence where they as creatures of nature are also creatures infused with the divine life and power of God in the form of the Holy Spirit.

This has always been an idea embedded in much Eastern Orthodox theology in its doctrine of divinization. Salvation in this doctrine has always been about more than redemption from sin. It has been about human beings being raised to share in the divine life. All this is summarized in the Orthodox proclamation that God became human (in the incarnation of Jesus) so that human beings can become divine.

It is standard Christian proclamation that Jesus was sinless. So Jesus would not need to be born again as a remedy for sin. But if Jesus was truly human (as orthodox belief has always asserted), then he too would need to experience that birth from above–that spiritual awakening–that raises humans from a purely natural and material existence to that unity with the divine that has always been God’s salvific purpose.

I recognize that what I am proposing is a bold reinterpretation of Jesus’ baptism. I am fully prepared to admit that I might be very wrong. But I also contend there is much more depth to John 1 and John 3 than we have customarily seen.

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* For the accounts of Jesus’ baptism, see Matthew 3:13-17, Mark 1:9-11, Luke 3:21-22, and John 1:29-34.

** It is also important to note in the account of Paul’s experience the close link between baptism and his spiritual transformation. This is one further reason why I think we must interpret the word water in the phrase of water and Spirit in John 3:5 as referring to baptism, not to natural birth. In Christian sacramental theology baptism does confer a new spiritual birth. Baptism marks the initiation into life lived under the kingship of God, but it does not confer spiritual maturity. One must grow into that maturity through a life lived as a spiritual journey into greater and greater spiritual wholeness.

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The Authoritative Voice of Jesus

What must it have been like to hear Jesus speak?

Recently I began re-reading the gospel of Mark. We don’t get far into the gospel before Mark recounts Jesus calling his first disciples, Simon and Andrew and James and John.

Mark’s account (Mark 1:16-20) is terse. Jesus encounters both sets of brothers along the shore of the Sea of Galilee. All are fishermen. Jesus calls them to follow him, saying “I will make you become fishers of men.” In both cases, Mark says, the brothers leave their nets (and James and John their father) and start to follow Jesus.

Mark says they do this immediately. That detail is likely to arouse curiosity for most readers. Why would these four men abandon everything to follow Jesus upon their first encounter with Jesus–and do so immediately? Had they had some prior contact with Jesus? (The gospel of John suggests that Andrew may have had.)

Mark gives no explanation. He seems unconcerned with the question. His purpose in telling the story is to set it up as a paradigm for Christian discipleship. Here is the essence of discipleship. But Mark may give a subtle answer to our question if we are careful to read between his lines.

Manifesting Authority

In the story that immediately follows (Mark 1:21-28), Mark tells of Jesus’ first healing miracle. In a synagogue in Capernaum, he encounters a man with an unclean spirit. The spirit challenges Jesus. Jesus casts it out to the amazement of the congregation. They comment to themselves, “What is this? A new teaching! With authority he commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.”

As a prelude to the miracle, Mark says that Jesus was teaching in the synagogue. The congregation is astonished with his teaching, because “he taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes.” Mark bookends the miracle with public comments about the authority with which Jesus speaks and acts. This places great emphasis on the sense of authority that people perceive when they are around Jesus.

The fact that these allusions to the authoritative impact of Jesus’ voice and presence follow immediately upon the story of the disciples’ call may suggest an answer to why Simon, Andrew, James, and John respond immediately. When Jesus issues his call, he does so with an authority that leaves the four men no other option but to respond immediately.

If that is the case, then hearing the voice of Jesus directly addressing them must have been a profoundly moving experience. Which triggers my curiosity. What was it about Jesus’ voice that conveyed that sense of authority, an authority that commanded a life-changing response? Was there a special quality to the sound of Jesus’ voice?

Mark does not satisfy my curiosity, nor does any other gospel writer. Yet they bear witness to that sense of authority that Jesus conveyed to those he taught and those he called. It seems to have left an imprint on everyone he met, even his enemies. They castigated him for not staying within the lines of accepted religious discourse as hallowed by scribal tradition. He seemed to take a stance authoritatively above it.

The Sources of Jesus’ Sense of Authority

Where did that quality of authority come from? If we stay within the confines of Mark’s gospel alone, Mark must have seen it coming from Jesus being anointed with the Holy Spirit at the time of his baptism by John the Baptist (Mark 1:9-11). We cannot know what that experience was like for Jesus. But it must have been a deeply transforming experience, comparable to the transforming experience of enlightenment that the Buddha experienced under the Bodhi tree. In both cases, Jesus and Siddhartha Gautama were never the same.

One source of Jesus’ authority therefore must be that profoundly transforming spiritual experience (as it was for the Buddha as well). For those of us who have never experienced such a profoundly soul-shaking experience, we can never fully appreciate how utterly transforming such experiences must be. The apostle Paul would be able to, as would also the medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas. But for the rest of us, most of us know the reality and power of such experiences by the effect it has on people’s lives afterwards.

This experience of Jesus at his baptism must have also transformed Jesus by solidifying his resolve and commitment to seek first the kingship of God above all other things. His life therefore became a perfect realization of what he taught in the Sermon on the Mount: “But seek first his [God’s] kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well” (Matthew 6:33). Jesus could live fully in the present moment because he trusted in the loving kingship of his Father.

That fact about Jesus must also have contributed to the sense of authority that people sensed when they heard Jesus teach. He lived what he preached. There was no inconsistency between what he said and what he did. The authority of his teaching therefore drew some of its power from the integrity of the life he lived. That integrity was sealed by his death.

Talk about authority is generally distasteful for many Americans today. The spirit of our age is anti-authoritarian. We are suspicious of authority, and for good reason. When authority is misused and abused, we have good reason for distrusting it. But if we are to understand the mindset of the New Testament, we must come to re-appreciate the legitimate role of authority. The earliest Christian confession is Jesus is Lord. The one we revere is more than a persuasive teacher. He is also one who authoritatively calls: Follow me.