Introducing Nicodemus to the “born again” concept.

by K.W. Leslie, 15 April

Jesus and Nicodemus meet, and talk theology.

John 2.23 – 3.10

The bible didn’t originally come in chapters, y’know. Cardinal Stephen Langton is usually credited with dividing it up that way in the late 1100s.

They do come in handy when we wanna find stuff, but some of the divisions get in the way of the story. When people dive straight into John 3, they often totally miss the verses which came right before. And they’re kinda important.

John 2.23 - 3.2 KWL
23 When Jesus was in Jerusalem at Passover for the feast,
many believed in his name, having seen the miraculous signs he did.
24 But Jesus himself didn’t believe them. He knew them all.
He had no need for anyone to testify about these people. He knows what’s in people.
3.1 A person named Nicodemus, a Judean senator, was sent by the Pharisees.
2 Nicodemus came one night to speak to Jesus, and told him,
“Rabbi, we’ve known you were sent from God as a teacher.
When God isn’t with them, nobody’s able to do these miraculous signs you do.”

Because of the signs Jesus showed people, he got really popular, and they claimed to believe in him. But he didn’t believe in them. He knew exactly how petty we humans can be. Love you one day, turn on you the next. Shout hosanna when you triumphantly enter Jerusalem; shout “Crucify him!” five days later.

Hence when Nicodemus told him, “Rabbi, we’ve known you were sent from God as a teacher,” Jesus knew better than to consider this an official endorsement by the Pharisees. Maybe Nicodemus believed this. Maybe not. Jesus needed to feel him out a little more.

This is why, when we read further in John 3, we notice Jesus is prodding Nicodemus, going a little over his head. It’s profound stuff; it’s many Christians’ very favorite part of the bible. But when someone isn’t pursuing God, doesn’t accept Jesus as the absolute authority on God’s will, John 3 confuses and irritates them to no end. I suspect that was Jesus’s intent.

Who’s this Nicodemus person?

This fellow Nicodemus is only ever mentioned in John. After the bible was compiled, plenty of Christian myths were invented about him; mostly guesswork or rubbish. There’s a Naqdimón ben Gorión in the Talmud, but it’s not the same guy. So we’re not talking a famous rabbi or scholar or anything.

He has a Greek name. Nikódimos means “people’s victory.” Doesn’t make him a Grecian Jew though. Lots of Jews back then had Greek names… like Philip, Andrew, Stephen, Paul. I have a Scottish name, but my Scottish ancestry has been really watered down by Irish and Germans and Swedes and other Europeans who sunburn easily. All the name means is Nicodemus’s parents liked the name. Or named him for a friend instead of a bible character.

He was a Pharisee. I’ve already discussed how Pharisees were the devout Jews, as opposed to the Jews who never bothered with temple or synagogue. Jesus tangled with ’em for this very reason: He taught in temple and synagogue. That’s who’d be there. They knew their bible like he did (though not as well). They followed the Law too (though again, not as well—and with way too many loopholes for Jesus’s taste). When Jesus critiqued Pharisees, it’s cause he expected better of them. Exactly like he expects better of us Christians.

He was a senator, an árchon ton Judaíon/“leader of Judea,” which meant he was on the Judean senate. Senators weren’t elected, as they are now; senate was a class, and Nicodemus’s family was important and wealthy enough to be in this class. But in order to actually sit in senate you had to know the Law, and since Jesus called Nicodemus Israel’s teacher Jn 3.10 he must’ve known enough Law to speak authoritatively on it.

And lastly he was a coward, ’cause he came to visit Jesus at night.

We can argue, and some have, that Nicodemus was a busy guy (as was Jesus) and the only time he could spare was at night. But remember the context: Jesus didn’t trust his fans. Jn 2.24 Nicodemus simply proves why Jesus didn’t trust his fans. If he liked and approved of Jesus, he never shared it publicly. His fellow Pharisees later comment, “None of the senators nor Pharisees believe in [Jesus],” Jn 7.48 even though Nicodemus was standing right there. Jn 7.50 Nobody knew what Nicodemus thought of Jesus. And if it weren’t for John, no one ever would.

In Matthew, Jesus declares he’ll stand up for those who publicly stand up for him—and reject those who publicly dismiss him. Mt 10.32-33 He wants open followers, not people who hide our allegiances. But Nicodemus kept his faith private, and sad to say, I see no real evidence in John he changed his attitude. Even burying Jesus Jn 19.39 doesn’t count; if you hung someone for a crime you had to bury ’em before sundown, ’cause it was the Law. Dt 21.22-23 I hope he repented, but I dunno.

This was the attitude he brought with him to that nighttime meeting with Jesus. And Jesus, willing to meet him where he was, figuring his words didn’t fall on deaf ears, taught him he needed to be born again.

Still, our takeaway is that Jesus doesn’t count shadow Christians as real followers. Those people who insist “My faith is private”: Well duh; everybody’s faith is private. (If it’s only practiced in public, we call it hypocrisy.) But if by “private” you mean it’s a secret between you and God: Your faith is cowardly, and Jesus has little use for it. You don’t hide your light under a bushel. Mt 5.15 You let others see your good works, and in so doing point ’em to the Father. Mt 5.16

You must be born again.

“Born again” has become a Christianese cliché, a phrase we use to mean we came to Jesus. “I’ve been born again” means “I accepted Jesus as my personal savior”—in other words, I now believed he individually saved me from sin and death and hell. Now, whether we follow him as Lord is a whole other deal. ’Cause you’ve seen how some “born-agains” behave.

Was that what Jesus meant in the following passage? Nah. Read, and I’ll explain.

John 3.3-10 KWL
3 In reply Jesus told him, “Amen amen, I promise you:
When anyone’s not re-generated, they can’t see God’s kingdom.”
4 Nicodemus told him, “How can an old man be generated?
They can’t enter their mother’s womb to be generated a second time.”
5 Jesus answered, “Amen amen, I promise you:
When anyone’s not generated by ‘water’ and Spirit, they can’t go into God’s kingdom.
6 What’s generated by flesh is flesh. What’s generated by the Spirit is spirit.
7 Don’t be confused by my telling you, ‘It’s necessary for you to be re-generated.’
8 The Spirit breathes where he wants. You hear his voice, but don’t know how he comes and goes.
Likewise with everything generated by the Spirit.”
9 In reply Nicodemus told him, “How are these people able to be generated?”
10 In reply Jesus told him, “You’re Israel’s teacher, and you don’t already know this?”

I know; I stuck with “generate” as my translation of gennáo/“birth, beget, bring forth.” Which turns “born again” into “re-generated,” which sounds more like Doctor Who than the King James Version. I’ve got a point to it though. Bear with me.

I know; some bibles put in their footnotes, “Or ‘born from above.’” Certain Christians like that wording ’cause it sounds more spiritual, immaterial, mystical, out-of-this-world… instead of real-world. Okay, why not. But if it’s so otherworldly it doesn’t affect the real world any, you’re doing it wrong. Literally ánothen means “from the top,” which means much as it does in music: Take it from the top, the beginning, the start. Again.

Born tends to imply created, made from scratch. That’s what some Christians claim: We had a spiritual component missing before we became born again. Calvinists like to teach our spirits were dead; we had ’em at birth, but they were stillborn, and being born again means now they’re alive. Problem is, that idea contradicts James 2.26—if our body has a dead spirit, shouldn’t we be all-the-way dead, instead of just spiritually dead?

But being born again doesn’t mean something was made. It means we’re remade: We were broken and now we’re fixed. We weren’t working, and now we are.

Christians assume we’re gonna see God’s kingdom. So if Jesus said we gotta first be born again, that must’ve happened to us, right? We’ve been born again. Now the only debate is when we got born again: Was it when we accepted Jesus as savior? Was it at the beginning of time, when God decided who was his and who wasn’t? Ep 1.4 Was it at baptism, ’cause Jesus mentioned being “generated by ‘water’,” Jn 3.5 and baptism represents the start of our Christian life? When’s it happen?

Well, Jesus didn’t say. So Christians make ourselves nuts in guessing. Some of us even require others to believe our guesses, which is wrong. Because a lot of these guesses declare, “This is what you have to do to be born again.” As if we birth ourselves.

I didn’t have any say in my birth. My parents wanted kids, so they made me. Neither my birth nor my family was up to me. I love them, but I didn’t choose them. And it’s the same deal with getting born again. Wasn’t my idea; it was totally the Holy Spirit’s. He wanted me, so he got me. If I think it’s in any way my idea, I’ve obviously got the wrong idea about how birth works. Plus there’s this passage:

John 1.11-13 KWL
11 He came to his own people, and his own people don’t accept him;
12 of those who do accept him, those who put faith in his name,
he gives them power to become God’s children.
13 Not by blood, nor bodily will, nor a man’s will, but generated by God.

We aren’t made God’s kids by our will. It’s his. Only his.

Wait, what about free will? Oh, it’s in there; read John 1.12 again. He came to us, and some of us accepted him. He initiated a relationship with us beforehand. And then God—and only God; this is the only part of our relationship which is unilateral—made us his children. Then he re-generates us. ’Cause we don’t have the power to do that. Not even close.

This the mistake many people make. We assume salvation is a one-sided affair. Pagans assume God’s taking everyone (except really evil people) to heaven… and we don’t actually have any say in the matter. Calvinists absolutely agree—although they believe God’s sending way more of us to hell than pagans do. And Pelagians—of which there are way too many in Evangelical Christianity.—assume we’re the ones with the say: We chose to be born again, or not. We choose God, we choose heaven, we choose re-generation.

Nope. God’s relational. He saved the world before we ever thought to ask him to, Jn 3.17 and offers us his kingdom, not as a reward for good behavior, Ep 2.8-9 but just ’cause. If you want it, and wanna follow him from now on, Ep 2.10 it’s yours. If you don’t… well, he’s graciously provided you an alternative. You’re really gonna hate it though.

But for those of us who accept him, who trust him, he’s gonna re-generate us. Yes, gonna. I’ve come to the conclusion when Jesus said gennithí ánothen/“might be generated again,” he was talking about resurrection.

1 Corinthians 15.47-50 KWL
47 The first human was made from earth, animal. The second human is the Lord, from heaven.
48 Those made from dirt are dirty. Those made from heaven are heavenly.
49 Just as we have the image of dirty humans,
we’ll also wear the image of heavenly humans.
50 Fellow Christians, I say flesh and blood aren’t able to inherit God’s kingdom.
Nor can decay inherit the indestructible.

When Jesus was resurrected, he was re-generated. He was born again. His original body was made of the same stuff ours is, and Genesis describes the first human as being made from dirt. Ge 2.7 But Jesus’s new body, his resurrected body, his re-generated body: It’s made out of heaven—whatever that means.

And if you’re not resurrected, you won’t inherit God’s kingdom. Decaying organic matter can’t inherit an indestructible kingdom. Only that which is entirely born of Spirit can receive it.

I know; you likely thought you were already born again, and that’s why you’re finding it so much easier to follow Jesus, obey the Father, do good deeds, hear his voice, and all that. Actually, all of that is because God put his Holy Spirit in you. He’s fixing your nature, making you fruitful, making you more like him than your average self-focused human. He’s re-generating that. But getting born again? That comes later.

Now, Pharisees believed in resurrection. So like Jesus said, Nicodemus should’ve understood all this already. Or at least some of it.

What Nicodemus needed to hear.

Nicodemus responded, “How can an old man be generated?” Jn 3.4 and various Christians interpret this to mean Nicodemus was a moron. After all, Jews grew up with a bible full of metaphors. (Ever read the Prophets? How ’bout Psalms?) Yet Jesus’s fairly simple metaphor seems to have made Nicodemus go “Born again wha? Der…” and sat there with his mouth open, like a kid who huffed too much spraypaint.

When I share Jesus with people (and other evangelists can back me up on this one) skeptical people will sometimes take a stab at humor: “Born again. You mean literally born again? Like climb back into my mother? That’d kill her.”

“You know,” I’ll point out, “you think you’re the first one to come up with that one. But the very first time Jesus taught about being born again, that’s the exact same response he got. ‘Like climb back into my mother?’ That’s a 2,000-year-old joke.”

Now, it’s also possible Nicodemus was reverting to an old Socratic teaching method. (Pharisees knew all about Plato and Socrates of Athens.) When students give an answer which uses too many metaphors and similes, feign ignorance and take ’em literally. It forces them to explain, in more concrete words, just what they mean. I do it myself sometimes.

But it’s also likely Nicodemus was a little weirded out by Jesus’s teaching. When he first greeted Jesus, he paid him a compliment. Jesus’s response wasn’t to compliment him back, but dive into instruction: “It’s necessary for you to be born again.” Jesus wanted Nicodemus saved. And all Nicodemus intended to do was mutually admire one another.

We need to remember this when we tell people they must be born again. Often they think they’re doing just fine. They’re good. Our telling them, “You lack one thing,” is poking them in a sensitive spot. They don’t wanna hear that. It feels like judgment. It’s not, but that’s how they feel.

So let’s clarify. I have to be born again. So do you; so do we all. Good people, bad people, anybody, everybody.

If they make fun, it’s likely ’cause they feel convicted. Which isn’t our job (despite what certain dark evangelists will insist); it’s the Holy Spirit’s job. And maybe he is convicting him at that time. But emphasize the fact we’re trying to share some good news: God does all the work of re-generating us. All we need do is trust him.

Some will rejoice to hear this. Others will reject it. Be patient. Listen to them. Pay attention to their mood. Explain yourself as best you can—as Jesus does in the next verses. And regardless of their response, show ’em love.