Absolutely one of the strangest conversations to occur anywhere in the gospels takes place between Jesus and the inquiring Nicodemus in the third chapter of John. Of course, at least one of its verses (or at least its Stephanus Pagination verse number) has become nationally famous as an attendee at almost all televised American sporting events (3:16).
The language of being “born again” has passed into American Evangelical popular parlance for probably the last 200 years or more and has become synonymous with a certain form of politics, with an aberrant doctrine, and with almost everything other than this most peculiar of conversations. This is to say, it is a verse that has lost all of its context. For Christ did not say this at an evangelism crusade, nor did he shout it out in coliseums across the Roman Empire. He said it in this very odd conversation in John’s gospel.
There was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews: The same came to Jesus by night, and said unto him, Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him. Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. Nicodemus saith unto him, How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb, and be born? Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again. The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit. Nicodemus answered and said unto him, How can these things be? Jesus answered and said unto him, Art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not these things? Verily, verily, I say unto thee, We speak that we do know, and testify that we have seen; and ye receive not our witness. If I have told you earthly things, and ye believe not, how shall ye believe, if I tell you of heavenly things? And no man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved. He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For every one that doeth evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved. But he that doeth truth cometh to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest, that they are wrought in God. After these things came Jesus and his disciples into the land of Judaea; and there he tarried with them, and baptized.
A short note on the organization of John’s gospel. Just as it was used for catechesis, so it seems to have been laid out for just such a purpose. There is the Prologue, then we begin a series of stories, all of which have water as a central element. Each of them offers insight in the mystery of Baptism (not coincidentally). Following this are a number of “bread” stories, which, interstingly have a Eucharistic character. After that begins St. John’s passion narrative, leading up to Christ’s arrest, crucifixion and resurrection.
However, the third chapter is quite clear in its reference to Baptism. To Nicodemus, Christ says, “You must be born of water and the Spirit.” The Church has always seen this as a reference to Holy Baptism. Removing the notion of “born again” from the context of Holy Baptism is a fairly late notion in Christianity, popularized by the various “Awakenings” of the 18th and 19th centuries.
Orthodoxy would in no way seek to eliminate the reality of our experience of God – indeed we are to know God experientially. But the particular “conversion” experiences associated with frontier revivals, and today rather standardized by Evangelicals, is not historically the Christian Church’s understanding of the third chapter of John. There is no doubt that we receive something real and true in Holy Baptism. We are buried with Christ and born anew, “from above.” Our life has changed and is now centered in the Crucified and Resurrected Christ. He Himself is now our life.
But divorcing this from Holy Baptism has tended to denigrate the meaning of that holy mystery and to make it little more than act “act of obedience.” Holy Baptism is one of the great “Mysteries” or Sacraments of the Church. In Holy Baptism we are united to Christ in His death and raised (from the waters) in the likeness of His resurrection. We are given the Holy Spirit and are initiated into the life of the Kingdom of God.
As St. Paul would say, “We are dead to sin but alive to Christ.” This is the great truth of Holy Baptism. Our life now has a new source. We no longer live “according to the flesh,” but following Christ we are enabled to live in union with Him, triumphing over sin and death in our own lives.
It is all too true that we have set our sights very low as the centuries have gone on, and sometimes settle for Baptism being little more than the formal admission of ourselves or our children to Holy Communion. The early Church expected a person’s life to change following Baptism. It was serious enough that a major sin following Baptism, such as adultery or theft, could result in being re-enrolled with the Catechumens and foregoing communion for as much as 20 years (if you were not contrite and repentant). That, in my opinion, is a very high expectation.
We should expect a new life in Christ. We should expect such a new life on a day to day basis. If my life is constantly falling into serious sin, I need serious help.
We indeed are born again (or anew – the Greek is purposefully ambivalent) in Holy Baptism. God is our Father. Thus we are bold to say, “Our Father….”
Finally, notice that Christ centers His conversation on light and darkness. Everyone who loves the light will come to Him. Those who hate the light and love darkness will turn away from Him, condemning themselves. This is and should be for us one of the major touchstones of our daily examination of our lives. Do I love the light or do I love darkness? Do I run to Christ or do I run from Him. Do I do that which I feel I need to hide from God?
These are deep indications (wanting darkness) of the need for repentance. God help us to run to Him and cling to His mercies. Save us from the darkness that grows about us!