Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?”
I’m not a math person. On occasion, someone who does not know this about me will attempt to convey some sort of mathematical concept to me. Although I may grasp on some level what they’re trying to say, the reality is that my mental framework is such that I will struggle to fully understand because I operate from a place of limited mathematical knowledge. I see the numbers, hear the words they speak, but my mind is not set up in such a way as to fully grasp the concepts.
Nicodemus, although seeing and hearing, does not yet have a mental framework within which to comfortably place what Jesus is teaching. Jesus is clearly bringing a new idea into play here, something which the religious leaders have never before proposed. “Born again”? How does that even work? It’s easy for modern readers, who have grown up hearing Jesus’ words, to associate some sort of simple meaning with what Christ says here; but what if we were hearing these words for the first time? How would our minds struggle to adjust in order to process this new information?
And yet, do we understand this correctly even now? How many times has the phrase “born again” been filtered through our own cultural lenses?
Contextually, to be “born again” is to be adopted into the family of God, to loose the binding of the flesh which once held us captive to sin and instead to take on the new nature of Christ – to be, at our core, of the Spirit rather than of the flesh. To enter the kingdom of heaven, Jesus says, this is required of us all. In order to experience the Spirit, we must be a people reborn of the Spirit. In order to understand heavenly things, we must be fully oriented toward the One who rules over the heavenly realms.
Jesus uses the image of being reborn to demonstrate how fully this transformation must be. It is not a mere reorientation of the mind, but a total and complete rebirth which changes everything. Paul seems to have understood this as such a radical transformation as to result in an entirely different being in the Christ follower. As he wrote to the Corinthians, Paul asked, “You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere humans?” (1 Cor 3:3). Paul then goes on to repeat himself, asking if, in practicing these things, the Corinthian believers are acting like “mere human beings?” (3:4).
To Paul – and, apparently, to Christ – those who are “born again” are not simply adopting a fancy way of declaring their Christianity; they are something entirely new, more than human and yet less than the glorified ones which we will someday become. But problems arise when those who are born again choose their former ways, when those who have been reborn choose to act like mere human beings. We cannot do so because what we once were, we are no longer. We are the sons and daughters of the King. We are the recipients of the extraordinary spiritual blessings of our Father. We are those whose natures have changed by the work of the Spirit of God within us. We are born again.
In the moments of wrestling with temptation or feeling anger toward another, it is easy for me to forget that I have been given a new nature, a new orientation in Christ Jesus. Today, Lord, please show me the heart You have given me by the Spirit at work within me. Let me embrace this rebirth with which You have blessed me. Let me flee from the former ways and pursue righteousness, justice, and peace. Thank You for the mercy which You have shown me, and cultivate Christlikeness within me today and every day.