Thursday, September 11, 2008

Born Again or from Above?

From an upcoming unnamed project, copyright 2008 by Bert Gary

It's strange but true that in John 3:3 Jesus did not say you must be "born again," though that is certainly what almost everyone seems to think. He said you must be "born from above." That's different. Nicodemus, the man with whom Jesus was speaking, misunderstood Jesus' meaning. Nicodemus thought Jesus had meant "born again," but Jesus corrected him.

John 3:3-7   Jesus answered him, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above." 4 Nicodemus said to him, "How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother's womb and be born?" 5 Jesus answered, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, 'You must be born from above.'

Before you freak out let me explain. There are two facts you need to know. First, the Greek word for "above" can also sometimes mean "again." That word is anothen {pronounced an'-o-then}. John tells us that Jesus meant anothen/above, but Nicodemus misheard it as anothen/again. That fact leads me to the second. Nicodemus' misunderstanding of what Jesus meant is an example of a much repeated theme in John's Gospel. Jesus means one thing and those to whom he's speaking hear another. Here are some examples:

John 2:18-21   The Jews (the Judean Temple Authorities) then said to him, "What sign can you show us for doing this?" 19 Jesus answered them, "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up." 20 The Jews then said, "This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?" 21 But he was speaking of the temple of his body.

By the term "temple" they assumed that Jesus spoke of a building. He was speaking of his body. Jesus is the one from above who speaks from above. But, as Fred Craddock has often noted, Jesus' listeners have "earthbound ears." They listen from below. The word he used was "temple." They hear building. He meant body.

John 4:9-14   The Samaritan woman said to him, "How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?" (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) 10 Jesus answered her, "If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, 'Give me a drink,' you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water." 11 The woman said to him, "Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep."

The word was "water." She heard H2O. He meant internal spiritual Life.

John 4:31-34   Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, "Rabbi, eat something." 32 But he said to them, "I have food to eat that you do not know about." 33 So the disciples said to one another, "Surely no one has brought him something to eat?" 34 Jesus said to them, "My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work."

Even his own disciples misunderstood his meaning. The word was "food." They heard lunch. He meant spiritual nourishment.

John 6:32-35   Then Jesus said to them, "Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. 33 For the bread of God is that which1 comes down from heaven and gives life to the world." 34 They said to him, "Sir, give us this bread always." 35 Jesus said to them, "I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.

The word was "bread." They heard baked loaves. Jesus meant himself.

John 6:51-52   I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh." 52 The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, "How can this man give us his flesh to eat?"

The word was "flesh." They heard human tissue. He meant his sacrifice become a sacrament.

John 7:2-8   Now the Jewish festival of Booths was near. 3 So his brothers said to him, "Leave here and go to Judea so that your disciples also may see the works you are doing; 4 for no one who wants to be widely known acts in secret. If you do these things, show yourself to the world." 5 (For not even his brothers believed in him.) 6 Jesus said to them, "My time has not yet come, but your time is always here. 7 The world cannot hate you, but it hates me because I testify against it that its works are evil. 8 Go to the festival yourselves. I am not going to this festival, for my time has not yet fully come."

The word was "time." They heard him not planning at this time to go to Jerusalem for the Festival of Booths. He meant his time (or hour) for sacrifice on the cross at the Passover Festival in Jerusalem had not yet come.

John 7:34-35   You will search for me, but you will not find me; and where I am, you cannot come." 35 The Jews said to one another, "Where does this man intend to go that we will not find him? Does he intend to go to the Dispersion among the Greeks and teach the Greeks?"

He said he was "going away." They heard this as his intention to travel abroad. He meant his return to his Father via his death, resurrection, and ascension.

John 8:18-19   I testify on my own behalf, and the Father who sent me testifies on my behalf." 19 Then they said to him, "Where is your Father?" Jesus answered, "You know neither me nor my Father. If you knew me, you would know my Father also."

The word was "Father." They heard earthly male parent. He meant God.

John 8:23-25   He said to them, "You are from below, I am from above; you are of this world, I am not of this world. 24 I told you that you would die in your sins, for you will die in your sins unless you believe that I am he."1 25 They said to him, "Who are you?" Jesus said to them, "Why do I speak to you at all?

The words were "I am." He told them exactly who he was, and yet they immediately asked him who he was. They hadn't heard him at all. By "I am" he meant that he is God. God said his name was "I am" in Exodus 3:14 (God said to Moses, "I AM WHO I AM." He said further, "Thus you shall say to the Israelites, 'I AM has sent me to you.'")

John 8:31-33   Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, "If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; 32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free." 33 They answered him, "We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, 'You will be made free'?"

The word was "free." They thought he meant literal freedom from slavery. He meant freedom from slavery to sin. How quickly these children of Abraham forgot that they were in fact slaves in Egypt. Remember the exodus? Slavery and deliverance from Egypt is the Jewish people's defining event. It's their very identity. Not only do they not understand that Jesus meant slavery to sin, but they've forgotten that they were slaves and that it was God who saved them. Deuteronomy 5:15 says, "Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt . . ." (See also Deuteronomy 15:15, 16:12, 24:18, 24:22) They have failed to remember. They've forgotten where they came from. They don't know who they are, and worse, they don't know that they don't know who they are. How can these people figure out who Jesus is when they don't even know who they, themselves, are?

John 9:39-41   Jesus said, "I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind." 40 Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, "Surely we are not blind, are we?" 41 Jesus said to them, "If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, 'We see,' your sin remains."

The word was "blind." His opponents heard lack of eyesight. Jesus meant spiritual darkness. The beginning of spiritual sight is recognizing that you are spiritually blind.

John 11:11-14   After saying this, he told them, "Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him." 12 The disciples said to him, "Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right." 13 Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. 14 Then Jesus told them plainly, "Lazarus is dead."

The word is "asleep." The disciples heard snoozing. He meant dead.

John 11:23-25a   Jesus said to her, "Your brother will rise again." 24 Martha said to him, "I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day." 25 Jesus said to her, "I am the resurrection and the life."

The words are "rise" and "resurrection." Martha heard him referencing resurrection to life on judgment day. He meant rising, resurrection, and Life are in him and are him.

John 14:1-6   "Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. 2 In my Father's house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? 3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. 4 And you know the way to the place where I am going."1 5 Thomas said to him, "Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?" 6 Jesus said to him, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life."

The word is "way." They thought he meant map directions. He meant himself. The first Christians were called followers of The Way. (Acts 9:2, 18:25-26, 19:9, 19:23, 24:14, 24:22) He is the Way in Life and in Life beyond death.

OK, you see this obvious pattern of misunderstanding Jesus in the 4th Gospel. The pattern is in John 3:3 as well. The word was "above." Nicodemus misheard Jesus saying physical rebirth, which he explains to Jesus is impossible. Jesus corrects him. He repeats that he means born from above, that is, according to Jesus, spiritual birth—birth, not rebirth. Listen to this honest exchange:

John 3:7-10   Do not be astonished that I said to you, 'You must be born from above.' 8 The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit." 9 Nicodemus said to him, "How can these things be?" 10 Jesus answered him, "Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?

The Greek word for spirit is pneuma {pronounced pnyoo'-mah}. Guess what the word for wind is? That's right. It's pneuma.

Jesus is clearly telling Nicodemus that a spiritually born person is like the wind. He's free. He's responsive and released like the wind/spirit. It's not about rules, he tells the legal minded Pharisee; it's about ruwach. Yes, the Hebrew word for wind and spirit is also the same. It's ruwach {pronounced roo'-akh}.

Genesis 1:1-2   In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 2 the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind (or spirit) from God swept over the face of the waters.

Yet whether it's pneuma or ruwach, the spirit/wind is boundless and uncontrolled. So are those who are born from above, born of the wind, born by the spirit. Nicodemus is honest in his response. He says he just doesn't get it. He literally asks Jesus, "How can this be?" He has been trained up all his life in a tradition that emphasizes the law as the way to God. There are dos and don'ts. There are procedures. There are structures. There are steps. No wonder he's confused by Jesus' insistence that to be spiritual is to be released!

John 3:8   The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit."

You want to be spiritually alive? Jesus says be like the wind. Let go. Let go of yourself. Let yourself go.

John insists that in Jesus' Life, death, resurrection, and ascension, the human race was given his anointing in the Holy Spirit/breath/wind, and this is birth from above.

Poor Nicodemus' head must have been spinning. He came to Jesus in darkness (Take that how you will. He literally came by night. Did he come at night so as not to be seen in public with the controversial rabbi? Or did he come in the darkness of his ignorance and unbelief?) to examine and evaluate the theology of the Galilean rabbi. On his mind was his search for clear evidence and logical proof of the truth of Jesus' message. This effort of course was without risk or cost. He had merely come to find a Jewish theological niche in which to place Jesus. All he had to do was peg him. That's why Nicodemus grew frustrated. He couldn't find a slot for Jesus. How can you put the wind in a box?

As Nicodemus sought to pin down Jesus' theology and come to a reasoned conclusion, Jesus spoke of being uncontrolled, uncharted, and uncalculated like the wind. The story contrasts two approaches to living. Nicodemus approaches "Life" like it's a problem to be solved. Jesus offers "Life" as an adventure to be lived. Nicodemus seeks certainty and control. Jesus offers vulnerability and danger. Jesus invites Nicodemus to forget his footing and enter the frontier of deep desire. (Wild at Heart by Eldredge)

Jesus had the nerve to ask Nicodemus to discover what is, not what can be if . . . . This was Nicodemus' krisis (judgment crisis). Do I go on like I've been going trying to please God and earn heaven, or do I dare a Life of radical freedom from religious striving? Do I trust the "I am" of Jesus or the darkness of my own "I am not"?

Jesus not in so many words is asking Nicodemus to consider this moment in his life, this thin slice of the space/time loaf, this singular now-ness frozen this very second. Then Jesus, again not in so many words, is asking Nicodemus to consider that this frozen moment is this all there is. Where he is right now, that's the best it's going to get for him. This moment is his eternity. If so, Nicodemus, are you in? Is this as good as it gets? Are you content with this self-striving, self-justifying, never satisfying slice of space/time? If so, have a nice forever, Jesus implies. If not, Nicodemus, then follow me and Live free.

That's what Jesus meant by born from above. Be born of the anointing of God's Holy Spirit/breath/wind. Live for the mystery of unpredictability. Embrace adventure as the theme of a Life of faith. Follow the impulse of Life. Trust the wind. Risk the rapids. Get lost. Get free. Get blown away!

Nicodemus doesn't seem offended by what Jesus is saying. He's just having trouble wrapping his head around it. Maybe his heart is singing at the possibility that Jesus is right, but this wind stuff just hasn't yet convinced his brain. Whatever the case, Jesus tells the Pharisee that if he wants to see the kingdom of heaven right here and right now, he must be a feather on a breeze. Kingdom living is taking off on a wing and a prayer.

Are you still not convinced that Jesus meant "born from above" instead of "born again"? Well, the only thing I can add here in the way of supporting evidence is to show you the footnotes following "anothen" (above/again) in several major English translations of the Bible.

ESV John 3:3   Jesus answered him, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again1 he cannot see the kingdom of God." [1 Or from above; the Greek is purposely ambiguous and can mean both again and from above; also verse 7]

NAB John 3:3 Jesus answered and said to him, "Amen, amen, I say to you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born 1 from above." [anothen; From above: the Greek adverb anothen means both "from above" and "again." Jesus means "from above" (see John 3:31) but Nicodemus misunderstands it as "again." This misunderstanding serves as a springboard for further instruction.]

KJV John 3:3 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. {again: or, from above}

NAS John 3:3 Jesus answered and said to him, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born 1again, he cannot see the kingdom of God." [1 Or, from above]

NET John 3:3 Jesus replied,6 "I tell you the solemn truth,7 unless a person is born from above,8 he cannot see the kingdom of God." [8 The word anothen has a double meaning, either "again" (in which case it is synonymous with palin) or "from above" (BDAG 92 s.v. anothen). This is a favorite technique of the author of the Fourth Gospel, and it is lost in almost all translations at this point. John uses the word 5 times, in 3:3, 7; 3:31; 19:11 and 23. In the latter 3 cases the context makes clear that it means "from above." Here (3:3, 7) it could mean either, but the primary meaning intended by Jesus is "from above." Nicodemus apparently understood it the other way, which explains his reply, "How can a man be born when he is old? He can't enter his mother's womb a second time and be born, can he?" The author uses the technique of the "misunderstood question" often to bring out a particularly important point: Jesus says something which is misunderstood by the disciples or (as here) someone else, which then gives Jesus the opportunity to explain more fully and in more detail what he really meant. Or born again. The Greek word anothen can mean both "again" and "from above," giving rise to Nicodemus' misunderstanding about a second physical birth (v. 4).]

NIB 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." {Or born from above; also in verse 7}

NIV 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." {3 Or born from above; also in verse 7}

NLT John 3:3 Jesus replied, "I tell you the truth, unless you are born again,1 you cannot see the Kingdom of God." [1 Or born from above; also in 3:7.]

NRS John 3:3 Jesus answered him, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above."1 [1) Or born anew]

Do you realize the implication of this? The implication is that most of the Christian world has chosen the wording of Nicodemus over Jesus! The church has selected Nicodemus' misunderstanding rather than Jesus' correction. We've made the error of a Pharisee into perhaps the standard evangelical questions: Are you born again?

Are you shocked? So was I when I first saw it. Yet it's undeniable. Everyone who ever asked the question "Are you born again?" is following Nicodemus rather than Jesus!

Now that you know that Jesus was telling Nicodemus to be born of the spirit/breath/wind, you may be wondering what Christians over the centuries have meant by "born again." The error aside, what is meant by most Christians when they ask you whether you are born again?

I think it's safe to say that Christians concerned with your being a Born Again Christian—as if there is a difference between being just a plain old Christian and a Born Again Christian!—are talking about your conversion to Christianity or your salvation. Salvation in what sense? I think they mean it in the popular sense, not the biblical sense described above. Let me remind you of the difference between the popular sense and the biblical sense:

Here is the real difference between popular notions of salvation and biblical salvation. It's very commonly preached, taught, and written today that salvation "exists" only as a present possibility—that salvation occurs only by our own words and actions. It's widely believed today that we are saved only when we get it by sincere pleading. Then and only then are we saved if at all. Prior to the moment of our "sinner's prayer" we aren't saved, as the popularist scheme goes. The proponents of this self-effort at salvation say that Jesus didn't really save the world on the cross as the Bible says, but that he only made a provision whereby it is possible that we can get ourselves saved if we say the right Jesus "incantation" and if we really mean it . . . if . . . if . . . if!

So before you're born again, you aren't saved, as it is popularly believed. But there are two big problems with this. One, Nicodemus misheard Jesus saying "born again." And two, to claim that one is unsaved before one is born again denies the Bible's emphatic insistence that Jesus saved the world, all people, everyone. To deny that Jesus saved the world is to deny the good news itself!

When it comes to what the New Testament means by "saved," it's very much at variance with popular usage of the term among Christians. And when it comes to the terminology "born again," it's very much at variance with what Jesus said and meant in John 3.

And as that feather on the breeze named Forrest Gump was often heard to say, "That's all I've got to say about that."