In modern Christendom the most famed passage of Scripture with regard to the concept of being “born again” is John 3:1-15. This passage is the wonderful story of Nicodemus the Pharisee who encounters Christ at night and then poses a question which has traveled down the corridors of history for the last 2,000 years.
“1 Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. 2 He came to Jesus at night and said, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.’ 3 Jesus replied, ‘Very truly I tell you, no one can see [enter] the kingdom of God unless they are born again.’ 4 ‘How can someone be born when they are old?’ Nicodemus asked. ‘Surely, they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!’ 5 Jesus answered, ‘Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. 6 Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. 7 You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So, it is with everyone born of the Spirit.’” – John 3:1-8 NIV
The above has led millions to of people to perceive new believers as nothing more than newborn babes. They’re innocent and helpless and incapable of caring for themselves, much less, serving others. However, the more exact meaning of the phrase “born again,” is “born from above.” Jesus connected this birth not with the mother’s womb, but with the Spirit of God descending from heaven and moving with power!
The way that we’ve applied the wrong metaphors in the wrong places has led us to some wrong conclusions. When we are born of flesh and blood, we are helpless and dependent on others even for our survival. This is not the case when we are born of the Holy Spirit!
When Christ says, “unless they are born of water…” (verse 5) and then in verse six says, “that which is born of the flesh is flesh,” He is referencing physical birth. Period. It is that simple!
When He says “born…of Spirit” (verse 5) and “but the Spirit gives birth to spirit,” He is giving reference to the initial time the Spirit of God takes residence in a person’s body upon our conversion. This is also quite simple!
He is contrasting a physical birth with a spiritual birth when He says, 5 “born of water and the Spirit,” and the same in verse 6, “Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to the spirit.” We do not need to complicate it by referencing “water” with baptism (Matthew 3:11), or the “washing of regeneration” referenced in Titus 3:5 as some of my favorite Bible teachers do.
When Nicodemus mistakenly concludes that Christ was calling him to reenter his mother’s womb a second time, we see Christ press harder and add clarification with the simple contrast that flesh gives birth to flesh and Spirit gives birth to spirit. He then starts to teach what it means to be “born from above,” which also means, “born again.”
Jesus contrasts the Spiritual rebirth with the wind… not the womb!
In most of Christianity this metaphor has been used to emphasize the helplessness, and the dependence of a new Christian, the incapacity to grasp truth, and the need for so-called “milk,” and not solid food. This concept has probably gone a long way in creating the “seeker” concept, which is rightly defined as those people who are genuinely looking for God or Christ. Many have wrongly concluded, however, that they need some type of adjusted message which cannot be too difficult for them to understand or obey. Who decides what is palatable and what is an appropriate Scripture is a subjective call. We have pretty much associated this person with the Church nursery. Because of our selective theology and sensitive message, we have kept them in the isolated, closed, and artificial system tenderly nurturing them. This does a huge disservice to them and can actually prove to be detrimental to their faith.
When I was pastoring, I used to tell many Christian women that their husbands were like a strong lacrosse balls. They were not as delicate as they thought and if you dropped them, guess what? They would bounce back! I saw that the wives tendency was to over-protect their husbands because they were so afraid that they might choose not to believe or attend church. Many pastors today are also overprotective. They want to keep people in the pews, not offend, and say just enough to keep the men around. Interestingly, however, I found just the opposite to be true. I received the most kick-back from women. Men responded to the challenge of following our strong Lord! In fact, in one service I released all the women about halfway through the service and gathered the men together and asked them for a commitment to be strong and courageous leaders with their wives, kids, and in the workplace. I asked them to demonstrate their intentions by stepping over an imaginary line and only asked them to do so if they were willing to be obedient in the call of living into godly manhood. THE RESPONSE WAS STAGGERINGLY POSITIVE!
With regard to men, when the Church stresses the nursery, it results in a bunch of feminized, sheepish men who fade to the background in the larger church community. Spend some time watching the men and women in your church groups. The women typically influence and control, while the men sit back. Obviously, this is not true in every church or situation, but in the American Church at large it is predominant.
The irony, however, is when I connected with men in their places of work, I discovered a different side to them. When faced with the day-to-day challenges of the marketplace and broader culture, they tended to step up! In hindsight, one of the best things I did as a pastor was to visit over 85% of the men in the congregation in the places they worked. At that time, in the first few years of the church, our attendance was about 400-500 people. I kept doing this, with a reduced percentage, as the church grew into the thousands.
In the workplace, the men were far more masculine, demonstrated by taking initiative, being strong and determined, loyal, brave, confident and even competitive. I never pampered men when I was a pastor and, as a result, many women would say to me, “I don’t understand it, but my husband really likes to come to this Church, and they love to listen to you teach.” Why? I feel it is because I saw them as men of strength, and I trusted their keen insight in the things of God. After meeting them personally, our bond was stronger when we’d see each other at church. As a result, they felt comfortable and emboldened in the atmosphere of our church.
This misunderstanding of John 3 has contributed to the devastating domestication of new believers. It goes along with the long infiltration of what I call, “the tenderizing”of the American Church, starting with the Great Awakenings, in which the predominate audience and participants were women. Pastors made a crucial mistake in focusing and addressing the more receptive women in the congregations with softer truths that would relate to them. For an intriguing synopsis of the Two Great Awakenings and their impact on modern Christendom, take a look at Nancy Pearcey’s outstanding book, Total Truth pages 325-348.
John the Baptist understood what Christ was saying and spoke of this distinction in Luke 3:16 when he declared, “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” – Luke 3:16
When we are born again (born from above) we are dropped not into a maternity ward, but into the rugged and sometimes even caustic environment of the world. Our birthplace is less of the church nursery and more of an indifferent culture and an ideological battlefield. Maybe the first words a person who swears his allegiance to Christ ought to hear are not, “welcome in,” but “go and obey.” Think how that would change the trajectory and the ethos (characteristic spirit) of Christianity if this was said over and over again at invitations to follow Christ.
The metaphor of “fire” is all the more supportive of the vigorousness of what it means to be born from above. Generally, fire is unpredictable, dangerous, and perhaps even out of control. The verse below is staggering:
“The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So, it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” – John 3:8 NIV
Christ was saying when a person is “born from above” the Holy Spirit is there to create a dynamism that promotes vigorous activity and progress. God steers us through His Spirit to accomplish kingdom purposes and to adopt His passions. His desire is not to conform us, but to transform us. Not to make us compliant, but to make us bold. His intent is never to domesticate us, but to liberate us.
Because over the years we have misunderstood this concept, we have millions of domesticated Christians. How sad.
Erwin McManus in his book, The Barbarian Way, says this about John the Baptist.
“If he (John the Baptist) lived today, he would be medicated and diagnosed bipolar. He would be one more certified lunatic. And that’s just what would happen if the church were in charge of his diagnosis. Most of us would think that John was out of his mind.” Page 64, 65.
One of the most disheartening things I have observed is that the “more mature” Christians have a tendency to calm down or squelch the new
Spirit led Christ-follower. Sometimes this is immediate but give a person a year or two in the Church and in many cases, they will be domesticated ☹.
From this passage, many Bible teachers substitute salvation for the Kingdom of God. In John 3, Christ is talking about entering the Kingdom of God, which is the rule and reign of our King in us (Luke 17:21); through us exercising power to bring about righteous effects (Matthew 12:28) and then eventually our reign with Him when He physically reigns on earth for 1,000 years (Luke 1:33; 1 Corinthians 15:24; Revelation 20:4b; 21:4).
To enter one must become like a dependent child on His Savior, but we are also entering into a spiritual realm of followership of that Savior. This was Christ’s primary message: “repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand,” (Matthew 4:17), and “follow me and I will make you fishers of men” (Matthew 4:19).
Repeatedly, however, church leaders give prominence to how to enter into salvation by saying things like: “you are saved by grace alone, there is nothing you can do to earn your salvation,” “Jesus takes you where you are so you do not need to do a thing,” “just accept Him”, “pray this prayer,” “raise your hand if you prayed this prayer,” and on and on. These are incomplete statements which promote very little vigor or fire when it comes to doing the King’s bidding.
Here are a number of alternative suggestions that would confirm the biblical principle of being born from above prior to a person making a commitment to follow Christ.
If you chose to Follow Christ today, here is what you can expect:
• The Spirit of God will take up residence in your life.
• You will sense a new moral value system with a renewed conscience.
• You will be convicted of sins you have done and are doing. Don’t run from that conviction. Repent, turn from your sin. Agree with Christ that you have sinned and ask Him to forgive you. He will! Thank him everyday for forgiving you.
• If you chose to surrender to Christ and receive Him into your life, the Holy Spirit will take residence in you. The Spirit of God will lead you into steps of obedience and doing the right.
• Hang on— this is where it gets fun! ☺ You will be empowered by Him to speak up about your new faith in Christ.
You will desire to read His word and you will read it as a matter of conscience…meaning you will be motivated to obey it!
Your appetite for doing what is right and holy will increase.
The more you learn from Word of God the more the Holy Spirit has to work with. Remember, the more you know the more you will see. Congratulations!
Expect some kick back because of your choice. Not everyone will be pleased about your decision in becoming a Christ-follower. That is okay, you will survive and thrive!
Find strong Christ-followers and stay connected with them.
You are about to embark on experiencing the rule and reign of Christ in you and through you! The Bible calls this the Kingdom of God. You will enter it today by placing your trust in Christ to save you from your sins and to empower you to live a holy life as you honor Christ. Let’s pray!
Can a young Christian follow the Holy Spirit? Of course, he can!
Can a young Christian obey Christ’s teaching? Absolutely!
Do young Christ-followers have fire and enthusiasm in their newfound faith—Hello… that is a given! Do newly birthed Christians have the ability to evangelize others outside of the cocoon of the protective/nurturing church environment? Yes, they seem to have more desire to share their faith than most aged Christians.
Remember…Jesus framed salvation first not as friendship but as followership
We describe salvation in terms like fellowship, companionship and friendship. Jesus Christ describes the Kingdom of God in terms like obedience (Matthew 19:17, 21), saluting the King— the story of the centurion, (Matthew 8:5-13), taking up your cross (Mark 8:34), not looking back after making a commitment (Luke 9:62), and many more such challenging statements.
What do we do with this knowledge?
1. Expect more from each other with regard to taking steps of brave faith! The Holy Spirit is in us— He will empower us (Acts 1:8) and He will lead us (Galatians 5:25).
2. Teach other Christians as you walk through life about the rich story of what it means to be born from above.
3. When you see fellow Christ-followers obey God’s Word, celebrate this reality by telling others, and by asking them to communicate their experience with others inside and outside the walls of the church.
Following Christ with you!