Thursday, October 27, 2011

Born Again

Jesus talks with Nicodemus

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? No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life (John 3:1-15).

Lets take a look at this well-known passage from John 3 after having read a portion of the book of Ezekiel:

"I will sprinkle clean water on you and you shall be clean from all your uncleanness, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules," (Ezekiel 36:25-27).

Why did Nicodemus come to Jesus at night? Who is the "we" of whom he speaks? What are the signs he references? Is Nicodemus, a believer?

Nicodemus came to Jesus at night, probably because he was afraid. Jesus is fresh off of changing water into wine at the wedding feast at Cana, and completing his one-man riot at the Temple (John 2). The second incident in particular - the cleansing of the temple - would be good cause for someone like Nicodemus, a Pharisee, a member of the Council, to be afraid of meeting Jesus in public. The members of the Council, called the Sanhedrin, already believed that Jesus was exerting authority that he did not have. As Jesus ministry progresses, we will see that John the Baptist, Jesus, and his disciples become marginalized and outcast from the religious establishment. For John the Baptist this marginalization culminates with his beheading. For Jesus, it leads to his passion and death on the cross. The “we” Nicodemus references is most likely the Sanhedrin. As evidenced by Jesus further conversation with Nicodemus, he's probably not a believer. Coming to visit Jesus, and investigation into Jesus based on his signs, could possibly be an indication that the Holy Spirit was here, making him into a new creation. That is known only to the Lord for certain.

Jesus does not seem to acknowledge Nicodemus's statement in his response to Nicodemus. Why does Jesus answer Nicodemus in the way that he does?

The Pharisees believed in order to live as Israel had in the days of Moses and David, the Jews need to separate themselves from the Gentiles. The Pharisees taught that the Jews had to return to a strict observance of Mosaic Law[1]. To that end, over hundreds of years, the Jews had developed a long list of traditions and rituals, and superimposed these things on top of the Mosaic Law. To begin with, these traditions and rituals were meant to assist the Jews in keeping the law. In actuality, however, they became, of greater importance than the Mosaic Law[2], and also a heavy burden. Another example of this is found in Matthew 12, were Jesus and his disciples are chided by the Pharisees for "breaking the Law" by plucking heads of grain as they walked through the field on the Sabbath.[3] The Law of Moses forbade all forms of work on the Sabbath, including harvesting of grain,[4] which is what the Pharisees were accusing Jesus and his disciples are doing. Jesus' answer to the Pharisees is that they should not prioritize the details of the Sabbath law, and especially their own man-made rules, over Mercy. The keeping of these traditions and minute details became a source of pride among the Pharisees; Jesus called them on this when he says that they are like whitewashed tombs.[5] Therefore, it is not surprising that Jesus stresses the importance of a spiritual rebirth, rather than a righteousness that comes by observing the law and the traditions of the Pharisees, in his answer to Nicodemus.

What does "born again" mean?

"Born again" is a metaphor of salvation. It alludes to the transformation of a human being from an unregenerate sinner into a new spiritual being – an adopted, forgiven, son (or daughter) of God[6]. Just as natural human life comes from natural human birth, spiritual life must come from spiritual birth. As children of our original parents, Adam and Eve, we have inherited their corrupt, sinful human nature[7]. From the time we are born we are spiritually dead, and require a "new birth.”[8] This is what Jesus is telling Nicodemus about. When Nicodemus doesn’t understand (or pretends not to understand) Jesus elaborates slightly. He says, “…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.”[9] Without spiritual rebirth, we remain dead in our transgressions[10].

Is Jesus referring to Baptism in verses 3-7?

In light of the fact that we spent much of chapter one with John the Baptist, who was preparing the way for Jesus by baptizing, and that St. John also reports Jesus, following his conversation with Nicodemus, went with his disciples into the countryside where they were also baptizing[11], I think a good case can be made that Jesus is referring to Baptism in John 3:3-8. The new spiritual birth is something we cannot bring about ourselves[12]. Just as a corpse is not able to bring itself back to physical life, so those who are spiritually dead also cannot revive themselves from spiritual death. This spiritual resurrection is effected by God, through his means, by the power of the Holy Spirit.

God the Holy Spirit creates faith in the hearts of mankind by the means of grace – Word and Sacrament[13]. In a way, these two things are really the opposite sides of the same coin. They all convey the message of the Gospel[14]. When a person hears the Word preached, the Holy Spirit uses that word to create faith in that person’s heart, by his own means. When a person is baptized the physical element of water, and the spiritual element of God’s message/promise of salvation through Christ, are delivered to that person, and the Holy Spirit, again, in his mysterious way, uses that word to create faith in that person’s heart. A sacrament, therefore, is God’s word, or pledge, joined to a physical element by his command, or promise. In addition to this means by which the Holy Spirit creates faith, the act of Baptism (and the Lord’s Supper) is also a public profession of a Christian’s faith, as well as the faith of all believers.

That is not to say that a person who is unbaptized cannot be saved. The thief crucified next to Jesus was assured by Our Lord himself of his salvation upon his cry of “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom[15].” It is only unbelief that condemns[16]. I think, though, that the Lord provided us with baptism and communion specifically as a present pledge of the gifts he has won for us on the cross. While those gifts belong to us here in time because of Christ, we will not fully enjoy or possess them until we are with Christ – until we die and go to heaven, or Christ returns[17].

If no one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, where are the dead now? What about Enoch[18]?

I have not a clue. I know that the prophet Daniel speaks of the multitudes that sleep in the dust of the earth, presumably referring to the dead[19]. This sure sounds like we spend the rest of time after our death in the grave, in a sort of sleep, slumbering until Jesus returns and raises us up. However, Jesus told the thief on the cross that he would be with him in paradise “today”[20]. The thief had spoken an indefinite “when”; Jesus responded with a definite “today”. These two things do seem to reconcile with each other. I tend to think of this issue in an unconventional sort of way. Settle in for a quick dose of “Josephology”.

When I got my wisdom teeth removed, they gave me some gas and knocked me out. From my perspective, the operation was over instantaneously. I went to sleep, and the next thing I knew, I was awake with a numb and swollen face. I had no idea that the operation had taken an hour and a half, and I had been blissfully unaware of anything happening to me during that time. I think that, when a person dies, they cease to maintain the same relationship with linear time that we are bound to while alive. What I mean is, when we are alive, as a condition of our nature, we are bound to exist only in linear time, and then in a one way (forward) line. At death, this relationship with time changes, and we stand outside of time. From the earthly “linear time” perspective, our souls may very well be slumbering in the dust, awaiting the Last Day. From the soul’s perspective, however, maybe it only seems like an instant, and the soul of the deceased person is in heaven “today” – just like someone undergoing anesthesia. As for Enoch…again, I’m stumped. I assumed that, when God “took” him, he took him to heaven.

Don’t mistake me for Walter Cronkite; I’m not saying that’s the way it is. I’m just thinking out loud (or, if you are reading this, on paper). In these difficult matters, we must simply pray for wisdom and understanding from God, give him glory and praise, and pass them over for the time being.

End Notes

[1] The Lutheran Study Bible, p. 1557; Josephus, Ant, 13:172, 288-98, 372-76; 18:12-15.

[2] Matthew 15:1-9.

[3] Matthew 12:1-8.

[4] Exodus 31:13-21; Deuteronomy 5:14.

[5] Matthew 23:27.

[6] 2 Corinthians 5:17; Romans 8:15

[7] Genesis 3; Romans 5:12

[8] Genesis 8:21; Psalm 51:5; Ephesians 2:1-3; 1 Corinthians 2:14; Romans 8:7.

[9] John 3:5-6.

[10] Ephesians 2:1-7.

[11] John 3:22

[12] Ephesians 2:8-9

[13] 1 Peter 1:23; Titus 3:5 (Baptism); John 20:22-23 (Absolution); Matthew 26:27-28 (The Lord’s Supper).

[14] Romans 10:17.

[15] Luke 23:39-43.

[16] Mark 16:16.

[17] Romans 6:3-4.

[18] Genesis 5:24.

[19] Daniel 12:2.

[20] Luke 23:45.