New Birth | John 3.3-8
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.” John 3:3-8 | ESV
And before Nicodemus, the Master Pharisee, could draw another breath and get to his point, Jesus interrupted, anticipating the question driving him – or at least the question that should have been driving him: “You can say this twice and mean it: You want to see God’s New World? It’s going to take a new birth – a total, top to bottom restart, reboot of your life – a new birth from above – and I’m not just talking about heathens; I’m talking everyone.”
Nicodemus sputters, not sure what to do with this: “What are you talking about? A new birth for an old man? How is this possible? This makes as much sense as saying I have to climb back into my mother’s womb and be born all over again!” Undaunted, Jesus repeated himself, “I said you could say it twice and mean it, so I’ll say it twice: No one steps into God’s New World without first experiencing a radical rebirth – a watery, spiritual passage to a new beginning.”
Jesus continued: “A physical birth produces a physical being and a spiritual birth produces a spiritual being, right? Don’t be so gobsmacked because I said, ‘You must experience a radical new birth from above’! This is elementary! Listen. *pause* That’s the sound of the wind blowing through these trees – you can hear it but it blows where it wants to, and you have no control over that – no idea where it’s coming from or where it might go next. That’s how it is with anyone experiencing this radical rebirth through the Wind of God blowing upon him.” MAV (Mike’s Authorized Version)
I was asked this week where this whole “baptism” thing came from – specifically it’s cultural or biblical origins. My answer: it has roots in both. Biblically, dipping in water springs from the practice of ceremonial washings abundantly referenced in Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. You become defiled through contact with a dead body, you dip, you wash your clothes, and you’re off limits till evening. You have some sort of bodily emission, you dip, you wash your clothes, and you’re off limits until evening. Et al. So synagogues had mikvehs (we would call them baptisteries) and the temple huge pools for just such cleansings. And if you’re a pagan wanting to convert? After the knife and circumcision, there was the mikveh and the washing that was seen as a new birth. I’ve heard that some baptize/dip Gentile proselytes seven times. It’s like seven watery contractions through which a Gentile ceases to be a Gentile, is “born again” and emerges from the watery womb of the mikveh with a new identity and a new name. What was so radical about John is that he was dipping Jews— making the quite shocking and radical statement that everyone is need of rebirth. And Jesus is being just as radical with Nicodemus as he interrupts him, anticipating his question – or at least the question he should have been asking. New birth, being born again, being born from above – none of this was imagery that should have been new to Nicodemus. It was just having that need placed at his own accomplished, spiritual feet. Rebirth is always for someone else, for some other poor, ignorant, unspiritual heathen, right? But Jesus confronts us all with a universally shared need. Rebirth. Reboot. Restart. Bottom to top, top to bottom. Moving from the element of water to wind, he would disabuse us quickly of any notion he’s authorizing or ordaining a formulaic new religious ritual required for rebirth and in so doing replacing one outward performance (circumcision) with another (baptism). This isn’t about ritual at all. It’s about birth. Beginning. Life. And even as creation itself emerged from the watery tohu ve-vohu of the Genesis primeval world, so do we, so must we, in our own journey. And there was, of course, also wind caressing the face of those waters in that Genesis story. And so the Wind blows on us, unbeckoned, unpredictable, untamable, breathing into our nostrils the breath of life. Nicodemus should have gotten this. The question is, do we?
As you contemplate Jesus’ remarks about new birth do you find yourself confused along with Nicodemus? Do you find yourself challenged, comforted, or what? Most importantly, have you experienced this new birth yourself? What did it look like for you?
Lord, give me the grace to release before you all rituals, all performance, all formulas. Blow upon me with your unpredictable Breath. Bring me into Life anew, afresh, this day. Through Christ.
For all of this week’s small group resources including this week’s DG video, check out the Vineyard website.