Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, unless you are born again, you cannot see the Kingdom of God.” “What do you mean?” exclaimed Nicodemus. “How can an old man go back into his mother’s womb and be born again?” Jesus replied, “I assure you, no one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit.” (John 3:3-5 NLT)
The third chapter of John is a veritable treasure trove of Christian doctrine related to salvation, mission, sacraments and the nature of the church. As I have grown older, however, one word of this passage has sounded the loudest in my ear: old.
How can a man be born when he is old? That’s the way the King James version puts it.
We usually make fun of Nicodemus. He was too stupid to understand Jesus, when Jesus said, “You must be born again.”
“What do You mean?” exclaimed Nicodemus. “How can an old man go back into his mother’s womb and be born again?” (John 3:4 NLT)
How can a man be born when he is old? Or a woman?
Nicodemus was thinking about biology! Or was he?
“Born again” is one of those phrases that means different things to different people. If you survey a hundred people and ask, “What does it mean to be born again,” you might get a hundred different opinions. I would venture to say that 0% would say anything about crawling back up into your mother’s tummy so that she can give birth to you a second time. Well, perhaps I’m being overly optimistic. Some of the people Jay Leno quizzes on the streets of Los Angeles might be that clueless.
But Nicodemus wasn’t just any man on the street. He was, we are told, a Pharisee – a bible scholar – and a member of the ruling council – a senior leader in the political and religious community. Certainly he had heard religious metaphors before.
Moreover, Nicodemus almost certainly knew something that you may not, and it has to do with how Gentiles became Jews.
In the ancient Roman world, there were a number of Gentiles who were attracted to Judaism because of its monotheistic beliefs and ethical standards. Gentiles who wanted to convert to Judaism underwent a period of instruction, repentance, prayer and exorcism leading up to a ritual washing called “proselyte baptism.” “Proselyte” means to “draw near” and it is not a bad word. It described the people of the nations who drew near to the God of Israel, and it was a good thing.
While we tend to think of circumcision as the sign of the covenant with Abraham, it only applied to men. Both men and women converts, however, were baptized. The ritual of baptism played an immensely important role in conversion. The newly baptized had their sins forgiven. They were set free from the power of Satan, who evil one who had such a powerful influence in the Gentile world. And they were adopted into membership in the family of God; they became members of God’s covenant people.
As the rabbis talked about this process, they used language that is familiar to us. Gentiles baptized into Israel were “born again.” They were brand new people, like newborn children.
Could Jesus have been suggesting that to enter the kingdom of God, the children of Abraham needed the same kind of repentance, cleansing and change of life that Gentile converts to Judaism needed?
That’s exactly what John the Baptist was proclaiming out in the desert. The kingdom is coming. Repent and be washed of your sins. Humble yourself before God, just like those coming to Judaism for the first time. Don’t think that having Abraham as your father is the answer.
Stupidity or Skepticism
No one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born again. With all of his education and experience, how could Nicodemus have no idea of what Jesus was really talking about?
What if Nicodemus’ problem wasn’t that he didn’t understand Jesus, but that he didn’t think what Jesus was talking about was possible? Maybe Nicodemus wasn’t stupid; Maybe was skeptical.
Nicodemus was a bible scholar and a Pharisee. He understood symbolic ways of talking about spiritual realities. He also knew – if he was courageous enough to look clearly – how flawed the pharisaic system was. The Pharisees set out to make all of life dedicated to God, a most admirable goal. Yet how easy it was to become self-centered even in the guise of dedicating oneself to God.
He was also a member of the Jerusalem ruling council. He saw the same things that most people in positions of power and authority see: corruption, vice, abuse of power, the same old thing under every new ruler and so-called savior.
Nicodemus had, I think, an Ecclesiastes attitude. Do you know the little book of Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament? It’s one of those books that make you say, “That’s in the Bible?” Here’s a little taste of how it begins:
“Everything is meaningless,” says the Teacher, “completely meaningless!” What do people get for all their hard work under the sun? Generations come and generations go, but the earth never changes. The sun rises and the sun sets, then hurries around to rise again. The wind blows south, and then turns north. Around and around it goes, blowing in circles. Rivers run into the sea, but the sea is never full. Then the water returns again to the rivers and flows out again to the sea. Everything is wearisome beyond description. No matter how much we see, we are never satisfied. No matter how much we hear, we are not content. History merely repeats itself. It has all been done before. Nothing under the sun is truly new. Sometimes people say, “Here is something new!” But actually it is old; nothing is ever truly new. We don’t remember what happened in the past, and in future generations, no one will remember what we are doing now. I, the Teacher, was king of Israel, and I lived in Jerusalem. I devoted myself to search for understanding and to explore by wisdom everything being done under heaven. I soon discovered that God has dealt a tragic existence to the human race. I observed everything going on under the sun, and really, it is all meaningless–like chasing the wind. What is wrong cannot be made right. What is missing cannot be recovered.
(Ecclesiastes 1:2-15 NLT)
Nicodemus was a senior leader in the political and religious community. He had been around. He had seen it all. Nothing ever changes. Nothing ever gets really fixed. Life is the way it is, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Why bother trying?
If you’ve been around any bureaucratic organization – in business, in the political world, or even in the church – you know what I mean. There is a tendency to become cynical.
Nicodemus questions “How can a person be born when he is old?” The “old” to which he refers is not strictly chronological. It’s “old” as in “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” As we grow older, we become more set in our ways. We realize how really hard it is to change. Of course, some twenty year olds are “older” than some sixty year olds in this respect.
How can a man be born when he is old? Or a woman?
“You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things?”
How could Nicodemus have forgotten the story of Abraham, whose call to leave home we also read about today in Genesis 12:1-4? [See Abraham’s Journey of Faith]
Leave the land where you live now, your relatives, and your father’ family, and go to the land that I will show you. I will make you into a great nation. I will bless you and make your name famous, and you will be a blessing to others.
That’s what God told Abraham when he called him to pack up his household and head 500 miles south toward Canaan, traveling by foot and living in tents.
And how old was Abraham God called him?
Abram was 75 years old when he departed from Haran.
Imagine doing this when you are 75 years old. At 75 you move into a retirement home, settle down and stay put. You don’t pack up everything you own to go camping for the rest of your life.
But the Bible simply reports that “Abram left, as the LORD had told him.” (Genesis 12:4) Abraham believed God and obeyed. God was doing something new. He was creating a new family for himself. He was going to save the world, and he asked Abraham to be a part of it. And Abraham said yes. It’s that simple.
Water and the Spirit
How can a man be born when he is old? Or a woman?
Does history equal destiny? Is it true that what has been always will be? Is it possible for God to change the direction of an individual life, a family or even a nation when it is old?
Surely Nicodemus knew the story of father Abraham. But maybe Nicodemus thought that was just something God did 2000 years before he was born. Could God still get through to people today? Could God still make a real change in people’s lives?
John the Baptist was out there in the desert saying that he could, and that he would. Jesus was saying the same thing, except that now Jesus added a new element to the equation.
I tell you the truth, unless a person is born of water and spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. (John 3:5)
Water and the spirit. The water part is easy to understand. It’s a reference to what John did, and to what Jesus did, and what the church is still doing: baptizing repentant people out of sin and into membership in God’s kingdom people, and teaching them to live in obedience to Christ’s teachings.
So on one hand you’ve got the person who wants to be a part of God’s kingdom. On the other hand and you’ve got – first, John the Baptist – and now, the church – helping them, praying for them, teaching them, encouraging them.
But it takes something else to make this all work. On the third hand (if I had a third hand), there’s the spirit of God: God at work in the church – God at work in the life of the believer.
We’re not left to ourselves to fix our lives or our world. God’s spirit is blowing throughout the world. God is at work in the power of the Holy Spirit, and where the spirit is, there is life.
Unless God is part of the equation, Nicodemus is probably right. Not much is going to really change in this world. People are stuck in their ways. But with God, even a 75 year old man can pack up his household and head for the Promised Land. Even a crusty old community leader can be born into God’s kingdom.
And let me say, brothers and sisters, that this truth doesn’t just apply to those who need to come to Jesus for the first time. The problem is that some people who belong to Jesus don’t expect him to do anything else now that they’ve come to him. This is exactly the wrong attitude. Baptism may be the end of the journey to Jesus; it is just the beginning of the journey with Jesus.
No matter where you are on the journey, God’s not done with you yet. The spirit who gives birth also gives growth. The spirit is there at the beginning of the journey, and the spirit is there through every step of the journey as well.
May the Holy Spirit open your eyes to see what God wants to do in your life, faith to believe it is possible, and courage to do what God requires.
Born from Above