What does it mean to be ‘born again’? What is a born again Christian?
Now you might have a pretty clear idea of the concept. But for the vast majority of people in the world – they don’t get it! When those who aren’t use the label ‘born again’ it’s mostly in a negative sense. It’s come to be synonymous with ‘fundamentalist’, ‘fanatical’, and ‘self-righteous’. Which is kind of ironic, since the phrase ‘born again’ comes from the passage we’re looking at this week, in John chapter three. And in this passage, Jesus is talking to someone who was a member of one of the most fundamentalist, fanatical and self-righteous religious sects around – and he told him that he wasn’t born again!
But the fact remains that most of the world associates the term ‘born again Christian’ with being an extremist. Fanatical about converting others to Christianity. A holier-than-thou attitude. Perhaps even a little bit brainwashed. Yet what does it really mean?
Given the popularity of the term ‘born again’, you might be surprised to know that it only occurs a handful of times in the Bible: Titus 3:5 speaks of the ‘washing of rebirth’; 1 Pet 1:23 tells us that we have been ‘born again’ into an eternal existence by God’s word; and here in John ch 3 Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be ‘born again’. It’s not even a consistent expression in the original Greek, since different Greek words are used each time. Yet it’s become one of the most widely used phrases in Christianity. And I’d guess that many of you reading this would be happy to identify yourself as a ‘born again Christian’. But what does it mean?
We’ll get to that later. For now, we need to meet the other main character in the story – Nicodemus. (I’ll assume you’ve already met Jesus.)
In John 3, the phrase ‘born again’ is found on the lips of Jesus. And he says it to a guy called Nicodemus, who comes to visit him. Now Nicodemus functions as a significant character at this point in John’s gospel; he comes to Jesus as a kind of representative of two groups of people.
For starters, John tells us that he’s a member of the Pharisees – a group of religious leaders and teachers who were known for their strict, fanatical obedience to the letter of God’s law. In fact, they’d even invented a whole range of their own laws that were designed to stop them getting anywhere near breaking God’s laws. Their name, ‘Pharisee’, means ‘separate’. That is, they tried to separate themselves from the average person through their much higher standard of holiness. They took God seriously about being set apart as God’s chosen and holy people. Commendable motives – except for the fact that it quickly degenerated into idolatry of the law; into religiously observing external rules and regulations, rather than having a changed heart. They became self-righteous and superior about their own achievement. They believed that their works somehow contributed to their status of being favoured by God. And Nicodemus was one of their leaders.
But Nicodemus also functions as a representative of another group of people. A group of people mentioned right at the end of chapter 2, yesterday. Jesus had been astounding everyone with his miracles, and it had started making people curious. They believed he was from God, although they hadn’t yet grasped that he was God; and they weren’t yet ready for the life-change that faith in Jesus requires.
Have a listen to how John describes the situation:
John 2:23-25 ‘Now while he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many people saw the miraculous signs he was doing and believed in his name. But Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all men. He did not need man’s testimony about man, for he knew what was in a man.’
That is, Jesus was rightly wary of them. Even though they responded positively towards him, they didn’t ‘get’ what it was all about. They probably thought of him as a worker of miracles; a possible political leader who would rid them of Roman rule; and so wisely, Jesus didn’t ‘entrust himself to them’. He didn’t allow the crowd to push him towards an earthly kingship, when he had a radically different idea in mind. Jesus knew that they were still in the dark about who he really was.
And John gives us a hint that Nicodemus was one such person. If we read across the chapter break, it makes it pretty clear:
John 2:25 – 3:2a ‘He did not need man’s testimony about man, for he knew what was in a man. Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night’
Jesus knew what was in ‘a man’ who only believed in Jesus as a miracle worker, not as the unique son of God; ‘a man’ such as Nicodemus. And to make it clear, John notes that he came ‘at night’. Now there were some good reasons for Nicodemus to come at night: for a start, many Pharisees had day-jobs, since they weren’t priests; so night time was their usual time for prayer, studying the Scriptures, and just Phariseeing around doing whatever it was Pharisees did. And secondly, it’s clear from a later incident recorded in John chapter 7 that Nicodemus didn’t yet want to be identified openly as a follower of Jesus. That’s why he came at night. In secret.
But the night-time reference is also theologically significant in John’s gospel. Throughout his gospel – and his letters – John uses the image of darkness to symbolise ignorance and unbelief, in contrast to the light of faith. In his introduction to the gospel, John describes Jesus as ‘the light’ which was coming into the world, and says:
John 1:5 The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.
By recording that his visit was at night, John is hinting that Nicodemus is not just physically in the dark, but spiritually as well. He may well be on his way toward the light, but he’s not there yet. We see this in Nicodemus’ opening statement:
John 3:2 He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him.”
He’s just like the crowds in the previous chapter. He saw the miraculous signs and was interested. But he still had no idea who he was dealing with. And Jesus – who, as it was just said, ‘knows what is in a man’, sees right through Nicodemus. And he gives a rather jarring reply:
John 3:3 In reply Jesus declared, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.”
What does Jesus mean?
We’ll look at that tomorrow.