Born Again: What Does Jesus Mean?

Close reading Jesus’ dialogue with Nicodemus challenges a customary interpretation.

No New Testament text has held a more prominent place in my childhood religious upbringing than John 3:1-21. It recounts a conversation Jesus holds with a Jewish religious leader named Nicodemus.

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A high Celtic cross at Iona Abbey, Scotland.

What my childhood churches latched onto in this dialogue was what Jesus says in verse 3. (It was always read in the King James Version.)

Jesus answered, and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.

Jesus then repeats what he says in an expanded way in verse 5:

Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.

 These two verses became the proof texts for the constantly repeated claim that unless a person was born again, no one could hope to enter into heaven when one died. This conviction gave punch to many an evangelistic appeal.

Furthermore, the born-again experience was understood as denoting a conversion experience where one confessed one’s sins and accepted Jesus as one’s Lord and Savior. Only if one had undergone such a conversion could one be assured that one would be saved at the Last Judgment.

It was generally assumed that this conversion experience would also be dramatically emotional. It would provide an intense sense of relief from guilt followed by a deep assurance of peace. The words of hymnody often described the experience best: Once I was lost, but now am found, was blind, but now I see.

This kind of preaching troubled me as a youth. I had not experienced any such dramatic conversion. Did that mean I was not born again? Such questioning triggered many fears.

As a result, I have long wrestled with this text. Did my religious upbrining understand John 3:1-21 correctly? There is an element of mystery about the words Jesus speak. Could Jesus mean something different from the customary interpretation I was taught as a child?

From my wrestling with this text, I have come to believe that the customary interpretation is a shallow understanding of Jesus’ message. There is much, much more to what he is saying.

Paying Close Attention to the Words

A close reading of the text demands that we give acute attention to the exact words Jesus uses. For example, his comments concern seeing or entering the kingdom of God.* The customary interpretation assumes this phrase means heaven, the place where God, the angels, and saints live.

But that is not the primary meaning of kingdom of God in the New Testament. The English phrase translates the Greek words basileia tou theou. Basileia does not denote the land or state ruled over by a king. Rather it refers to the king’s authority or power as king. A more correct translation would be kingship. That is why many modern English translations render it reign of God.

In the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13) kingdom of God is linked to God’s will being done on earth as in heaven. This parallelism is important to understanding the terminology. God’s kingdom is the reality of living harmoniously within God’s will. Certainly God’s will is fully realized in heaven. But Jesus’ message** is that the time has arrived when that will is going to be fully realized on earth as well.

The import of Jesus’ words is not about the prospect of going to heaven when one dies, but the prospect of living under God’s kingship here and now.

The next two words I note is that Jesus talks about seeing and entering the kingdom of God. Seeing is about perceiving. How can we perceive the kingship of God at work in the world and in our own lives here and now?

The general assumption of humanity is that as we look at the affairs (the often chaotic affairs) of the world in which we live, we see no evidence of God being present or at work. Rather everything usually looks out of control. How can Jesus say otherwise?

When Jesus talks about entering the kingship of God, he is talking about how we can truly experience that we are living under the beneficent rule and providence of God. How can we come to live in submissive harmony with the will of God?

Ambiguous Word

The answer Jesus gives to both questions is that we must be born anothen. Anothen is a Greek adverb that can mean both 1) again, and 2) from above. Because it can have both meanings, it is an ambiguous word. Jesus may use it because he intends both meanings. There must be a new beginning to life, but it is a new beginning coming from divine rather than human initiative.

That becomes clear from the context. Nicodemus assumes anothen means again. So he asks how a grown man can enter his mother’s womb and be born again. He assumes anothen has one and only meaning.

But verse 5 demonstrates that Jesus understands anothenprimarily as meaning from above. He does this by saying a man must be born of water and the Spirit. We are clearly dealing with a kind of spiritual birth or beginning. That becomes even clearer as Jesus then goes on to talk about the invisible wind blowing where it will. The Greek word for wind (pneuma) is also the Greek word for spirit. The critical term anothen has a dual meaning, but the spiritual meaning is primary in this discourse.

So to summarize Jesus’ statements, if one is to perceive the kingship of God in the world and to live harmoniously within it, one must undergo a spiritual initiation analogous to a natural birth.

New Birth as Spiritual Awakening

What is this new birth? I have come to believe it is a form of spiritual awakening by which a person gains the capability of perceiving God’s kingship in the world and living within it. This awakening involves a transformation in consciousness. It places within a person a kind of spiritual sense organ that allows one to perceive and enter into the world of the divine spirit.

What am I talking about? Let me turn to another analogy to explain. We now know that radio waves fill the atmosphere. They did so even before human beings came to discover them. But human beings could not tap into those radio waves and use them for communication until we developed the instruments to transmit and receive radio waves.

God’s kingship is a reality in the universe. But we do not perceive it and we do not come to live harmoniously within it until we receive the spiritual sense organ for such perception. That sense organ is the Holy Spirit dwelling within us.

The Spirit is a gift, a gift from God, not our achievement. Entering into the realm of God’s kingship is always a gift. That is the significance of using anothen with the meaning from above.

Jesus’ words also suggest that that gift has a beginning point. It is analogous to a birth. But Jesus’ words do not imply how that initiation happens, except for the ambiguous phrase of water and the Spirit(more on that in my next blog posting). Nor does the initiation confer spiritual maturity. The initiation launches us on the spiritual journey, but we must go deep into that journey to attain spiritual maturity.

So what do I end up with as I read this passage? I hear Jesus saying that in order to enter into life under the kingship of God we must be lifted up into a spiritual plane. That lifting up does not abolish our life in the flesh, but adds a more profound spiritual reality to our life. The gospel writer John will call that spiritual life eternal life.

Does what I have written mean that I’ve plumbed the mystery of this text? No. It remains a mysterious text. But that mystery also cautions me to be careful in how I read it. It will always evade a simple understanding.

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* Interestingly, these two verses are the only two places in the Gospel of John that the gospel writer uses the phrase kingdom of God. This phrase is used profusely in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, but except for these two verses, it is found nowhere else on the lips of Jesus in John.

** Mark 1:15summarizes Jesus’ preaching as: The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe the gospe

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The Secret Code to the Kingdom of God

We find the key to understanding the Kingdom of God in an unexpected place.

Jesus was a great teacher. That is one of his salient characteristics that the New Testament gospels portray for us. We are told his teaching astounded his audiences, in part by its wisdom and in part by the authority with which he taught. It still does for us today.

His teaching also puzzled people. He said peculiar things, things that were not common sense. And he taught many times by telling short stories. We call them parables. What did these parables mean? Sometimes they struck his audience–and us today–as riddles. They must be told in a secret code. What is the key that unlocks that code?

That’s the first impression we may get when we read Mark’s account of Jesus’ teaching in chapter 4 of his gospel. Mark begins his account by telling one parable that Jesus spoke to the listening crowd.

It told about a farmer planting seed. The seed fell upon various kinds of soil. On three of the soils the seed did not thrive. Only on the fourth did the seed sprout, grow, and produce a rich harvest. Jesus ends with the admonition, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”

His disciples don’t understand the parable; they ask Jesus to explain it. He gives his parable an allegorical interpretation. The seed is the word of the gospel. And the four soils are different kinds of people who receive this gospel word. Only one group really absorbs the word and lets it transform their lives.

Must We Have a Secret Code to Understand Jesus’ Teaching?

This interpretation seems to hint that there is indeed a secret code to understanding Jesus’ parables. Our fears are confirmed, we think, when we hear what Jesus says just before he launches into his interpretation:

To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables in order that ‘they may indeed look, but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand; so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.’ [Mark 4:11-12]

Jesus seems to be asserting that there is indeed a secret code to understanding his parables. And it is secret so people will not understand his teaching, but remain trapped in their sinful ways.

This statement has troubled almost everyone who reads Mark’s gospel. It seems the exact opposite to what we think is the motivation of Jesus in teaching. Jesus comes across as a mischievous teacher, not one concerned with clear communication.

It also seems as if Jesus constitutes his disciples into an elite group who alone understand the true meaning of his teaching. Ancient Gnosticism made hay out of this. When they taught that Jesus was a savior, they had in mind that Jesus taught a secret esoteric knowledge that only the spiritually enlightened understood. Everyone else was left with distracting and ultimately useless religious practices.

Decoding the Secret

There has been much scholarly ink spilled on Jesus’ phrase “the secret of the kingdom of God.” What is it? I would like to offer my personal answer.

I propose that “the secret of the kingdom of God” is not some elitist, esoteric knowledge, but is something much simpler. The secret is the person of Jesus himself.

Jesus–his life, his actions, his death, his resurrection–is in fact the secret that opens up our understanding of what the kingdom of God is. His teaching plays an important role in that, but not the most important role. It is his life and character that offer the secret key to our understanding.

As we read further into Mark’s gospel, we discover that for Jesus, the kingdom of God [and his mission in it] is not about fear or coercion or even awe-inspiring spectacle. It is not about domination. It is about doing the will of God and about compassionate service.

If Jesus gives us one secret key to understanding the kingdom of God, then I find it in chapter 10 of Mark. There his disciples James and John come to him asking that they can sit on his right hand and left when Jesus comes in his glory.

Jesus responds that they do not know what they are asking. Because when he comes in his glory, he will not be a king like those rulers among the Gentiles that they see all around them in the ancient world. His kingship is about service. And he ends with these weighty words: For the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. [Mark 10:45]

These words are the key to understanding Jesus’ understanding of his mission…and his understanding of the kingdom of God. They are the key to the code.

They are also the interpretative key to understanding Jesus’ life. For in the end what reveals the kingdom of God is not primarily Jesus’ teaching. It is the life he lives and the death he accepts. What the resurrection does is to provide divine confirmation that this pattern of living truly reveals what the kingdom of God is. Understanding this pattern becomes the true enlightenment.

The Hard Work of Achieving Enlightenment

But this enlightenment does not come quickly for most of us. It requires a serious engagement with the gospel. As we persist in seeking to understand the kingdom of God, then over time we will grow in our enlightened understanding.

This, I suggest, is the import of another strange thing Jesus says later in chapter 4 of Mark. He says: Take heed what you hear; the measure you give will be the measure you get, and still more will be given you. For to him who has will more be given; and from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away. [Mark 4:24-25]

If we continue to struggle with the gospel, if we persist in our meditation upon its words, turning them over in our minds and seeking to open them up, then insight will come. But if we have no time for this serious work, then we are in danger. The insight we already have may slip away and be lost.

When Jacob confronts and wrestles with the angel at the ford of the Jabbok (Genesis 32), his persistence in not letting go finally leads to his blessing. In a similar way, I contend, our commitment to the hard work of listening and wrestling with the gospel becomes the key that opens the door into spiritual insight.

When we reach that enlightenment, we discover that the kingdom of God is truly not about being served, about garnering domination and honor, but about extending our lives out into compassionate service to others. That is the secret that the pattern of Jesus’ life and death reveals to us.

The Oddest Image for God in the Bible

Bible text: Isaiah 31:4-5

In my personal Bible reading, I’ve recently been working my way through the first portion of the prophet Isaiah (Chapters 1-39). A few days ago, I encountered what struck me as the oddest image for God that I’ve ever found in the Bible.

The image is found in Isaiah 31:4. There God compares himself to a lion that has seized a lamb from the flock and now stands guard over his prey against all the threats of the shepherds that try to frighten him away. They raise a horrible ruckus of noise and shouting. But the lion does not run away or back off.

The text reads like this:

For thus the LORD said to me,

            As a lion or a young lion growls over its prey,

                        and—when a band of shepherds is called out against it—

            is not terrified by their shouting

                        or daunted at their noise,

            so the LORD of hosts will come down

                        to fight upon Mount Zion and upon its hill.

            Like birds hovering overhead, so the LORD of hosts

                        will protect Jerusalem;

            he will protect and deliver it,

                        he will spare and rescue it.

Comparing God to a lion is not odd in Scripture. In Job 10:16, Job compares God to a lion, who relentlessly hunts him down. In Hosea 5:14, God speaks as if he is a lion who will destroy the people of Ephraim. The metaphor of the lion is again applied to God in Hosea 11:10 and 13:7-8.

And in the New Testament, we have the famous image in Revelation 5:5 where Christ is called the Lion of Judah. C.S. Lewis has good Scriptural precedent for choosing the image of a lion as his image for Christ in his Narnia Chronicles.

But the thrust of most of the Old Testament passages is use of the image of a lion to refer to God coming in judgment upon his people. Like a lion, God will rend and devastate his people for their faithlessness.

What I find so odd about the Isaiah passage is its use of the image of a lion growling over its prey as an image for God’s protectiveness and commitment to his people Israel. God is so resolute that he will not be moved to abandon his people no matter how fearsome the enemies that attack him.

We are accustomed to think of God as the good shepherd (see Psalm 23), who protects his people against the lions and bears of life. But we are not accustomed to think of the shepherds as images of evil, and God as so resolute in his care for his people that he is like a lion who cannot be frightened into abandoning his prey, even if the threats and noises are frightful.

I find the imagery in Isaiah 31:4 an odd inversion of our expectations. God may be flexible in his tactics. After all, he is dealing with an ever fickle and vacillating humanity. This opens a window for prayer. God can change in his tactics in response to the cries of his people.

But God is resolutely immovable in his eternal person and purposes. And one of his unchangeable qualities is his care and commitment to the world he has created. The coming of God’s kingdom may be delayed by all the twists and turns of human history. But it will come.

Equality in the Kingdom of God?

Scripture text:  Matthew 20:1-16

As bedtime reading, I’ve been reading recently a collection of letters written by the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. In a memorandum he wrote to Harry McPherson in May 1965, he wrote something that I have been chewing my mental cud on ever since:

American democracy is founded on the twin ideals of liberty and equality. Our education and general mindset does not much distinguish between these two ideals, but the fact is that they are distinct…Liberty has been the American middle-class ideal par excellence. It has enjoyed the utmost social prestige. Not so equality. Men who would carelessly give their lives for Liberty, are appalled by equality…Lincoln freed the slaves, but did not give them equality. Therefore we are still struggling with the issue. [Steven R. Wiesman, editor, Daniel Patrick Moynihan: A Portrait in Letters of an American Visionary, New York: Public Affairs, 2010, pages 103-104]

I confess that I like most Americans have tended to merge the ideals of liberty and equality in my own fuzzy mind. Moynihan has helped me see how different they are, and how they provoke very different political and social aims.

As I read Moynihan, I began to ask: How do these two ideals come into the New Testament picture of the Kingdom of God? Do they come into that picture at all? Or are we importing two secular ideals into a spiritual world?

In the Letter to the Galatians, we get Paul’s ringing proclamation of the great Christian ideal of spiritual liberty. “For freedom Christ has set us free,” cries out Paul. (Galatians 5:1) And middle-class American Christians will heartily endorse Paul here. It fits well with our own attachment to the virtue of freedom.

But there’s not always been easy Christian acceptance of the other Pauline proclamation that in Christ “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28) Here Paul asserts a spiritual equality in Christ. And the struggle over women’s ordination shows how hard it has been for some Christians to buy into this radical spiritual equality.

But what about economic or social equality? Is that a part of the New Testament picture of the Kingdom? Here’s where I’m haunted by the parable of the laborers in the vineyard that Jesus tells in Matthew 20. A farmer goes out into the village marketplace and hires laborers to help bring in his harvest. Laborers are hired all through the day. Some work eleven hours; others just one. But all are paid the same wage.

What a picture of radical equality! All receive the same reward. And most of us grumble. We like the laborers who worked the longest feel this is unfair.

We can understand the point of the parable as teaching about the generosity of God in sharing his saving grace with all people, both those who come to God early in their lives and those who come to God as their lives come to a close. Salvation is shared equally with all.

Yet…does that exhaust the point of Jesus’ parable? Could Jesus also be saying something pointedly about God’s kingdom being a way of life that assumes a radical social and economic equality among the children of God? It is after all told in Matthew as one of Jesus’ responses to the rich young ruler who goes away sorrowful when Jesus invites him to sell all he has and follow Jesus.

If such equality is a distinctive feature of Jesus’ understanding of the Kingdom of God, then we must say Christians in general (and not just middle-class American Christians) have had a very hard time accepting this ideal. Social and economic equality has been a rare feature of most Christian communities. It has been an important ideal in the monastic tradition. But even in monasticism, the record of implementation is decidedly mixed.

But if this ideal of equality is an inherent feature of the Kingdom in Jesus’ mind, then we begin to realize what a truly dramatic conversion of heart is demanded for entrance into the Kingdom and its mindset. It means those of us who do not undergo this radical conversion of heart in this life are likely to find entrance into the Kingdom in the next life a wrenching experience.

It also raises questions about what political, economic, and social policies Christians should throw their support behind. That should give us pause as we listen to the various options thrown out to us in the upcoming political campaigns.

I invite your own thoughts on this.