In August of 2010, Judy Rivers of Logan, Alabama went to her local bank to open a new account. As the clerk input Rivers’ personal information, everything seemed to be going smoothly, but then the woman behind the desk stopped abruptly and frowned.
“That’s odd,” she said. “There seems to be an issue regarding your Social Security number.” With a skeptical glance, the employee rose and disappeared in the back room. Several minutes later, Rivers was greeted by the bank’s branch manager. With a folded sheet of paper in hand, the manager said, “Ma’am, your Social Security number was deactivated in 2008…due to your death.”
It turns out that Judy Rivers is just one of approximately 12,000 U.S. citizens per year who are accidentally declared dead by the Social Security Administration due to “keystroke errors.” In 2011, the Office of the Inspector General conducted an audit of the Death Master File, a computer database file made available by the Social Security Administration. The audit revealed that from May 2007 to April 2010, over 36,000 people had been erroneously added to the master file, making them legally dead. Without an active Social Security number, these individuals found that they were unable to make financial transactions, secure jobs, file taxes, or even visit the doctor. Worst of all, individuals like Judy Rivers had to endure the nightmare of trying to convince the U.S. government that they were NOT, in fact, deceased.
Judy Rivers needed to be “born again” — at least in the eyes of the United States Government. Today, as we continue our Daring Faith series, we will be looking at the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, an exchange centered on the idea of being “born again” – but not in the Judy Rivers sense of the term. When Jesus speaks of being born again, He’s talking about being “born from above.”
Read John 3:1-21
Nicodemus comes to Jesus in darkness, at night. This is no insignificant detail, for as with much of John’s Gospel, this encounter points to the conflict between light and darkness, truth and evil. Darkness bookends this teaching: Nicodemus comes to Jesus under cloak of darkness and John closes this section by saying, Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. (John 3:19)
We often have a hard time leaving the darkness and stepping out into the light. We can fool ourselves into thinking that the darkness provides anonymity, an element of secrecy. What is revealed in the light is easier to conceal in darkness. I suspect this is the reason Nicodemus, a Pharisee, approaches Jesus at night for a clandestine Bible study. It’s easy to imagine that Nicodemus’s fellow Pharisees might not look too favorably on this particular meeting.
In John’s Gospel, there’s usually a deeper meaning. In this Gospel, darkness is equated with spiritual blindness. As a Pharisee, Nicodemus would’ve been considered one of the religious elite. He has spiritual credentials in spades. He’s steeped in the world of book, chapter, and verse. If there’s a travel ball team for Bible bowl, he’s on it. But in this encounter with Jesus, Nicodemus comes across as one with spiritual blindness.
Jesus says, “No one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” And Nicodemus scratches his head. He doesn’t get it. Because he’s a literalist, he struggles to understand the mechanics of this teaching. He says, How can a man be born when he is old? And Jesus needles him a little: You are Israel’s teacher and do you not understand these things? Literally, the Greek reads, You are the teacher of Israel, further evidence of Nicodemus’s spiritual pedigree…but also an indictment re: his blindness!
This is really a pretty provocative story. Jesus implies that Nicodemus – a Pharisee and THE teacher of Israel – is spiritually blind. Jesus tells Nicodemus that unless he is born again, he won’t see the kingdom of God. And if you’re not seeing the kingdom of God, you’re not really seeing at all. For all of his religious pedigree, for all of his knowledge of the scriptures, and despite his status as THE teacher in Israel, Nicodemus is still spiritually blind.
I’m sympathetic toward Nicodemus; I’m a recovering Nicodemus myself. At times I find it difficult to leave the darkness and step out into the light. I know firsthand that it’s possible to be steeped in the world of book, chapter, and verse and still miss the point. I was captain of the Bible Bowl team, too – but there are plenty of times when, like Nicodemus, I’m spiritually blind as well.
We can relate to Nicodemus because we all need the same thing: we need to be born again.
In this text, the phrase “born again” can also be translated as “born from above.” According to biblical language experts, both translations are valid. And both phrases help with our understanding. To be born again is to be born above, to receive the new birth that only God can provide.
In January, we spoke at length about what it means for us to be a new creation. And all of that comes to bear here in John 3. Jesus says, I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. The initial moment of rebirth – baptism – is a birth of both water and Spirit. Water is a central theme in John’s Gospel; this is one of 20 references to water in the story John is telling. Do you think it’s possible that all of those references are somehow interrelated? In the waters of baptism, the Spirit breathes new life into our bodies as our old self is crucified with Christ. Baptism is not just a death; it is a place of new life. In baptism, we are born above. So the daring question for the unbaptized is, “Would you be born again, born from above, born of water and Spirit?”
Renewal and rebirth begins with baptism but it certainly doesn’t end there. Our need for renewal is constant. We are perpetually reminded that we need to refocus on the cross. In one sense, our weekly observance of communion is a “rebirth” as we experience the renewal of this covenant by partaking the Lord’s Supper. So the daring question for the baptized is, “Would you be born again again? Would you be born above yet again as you reflect on the cross, as you live out the new Spirit-filled life brought about by your baptism?”
I read about a preacher who officiated his own son’s wedding. Early on in the ceremony, he told the bride and groom, “Your parents have prayed from the moment of your birth for that right person to come along to be your husband or wife. Your parents have been trying to help you become the kind of person who would find that right person.” And then he said, “But your true identity does not have anything to do with who you were born to, or where you were born, or when you were born. Your true identity has to do with when you were born again. (As we said last week, one word makes all the difference!) When you said yes to God, that changed everything.”
To be born again is to say yes to God. And that one word – YES – makes all the difference. Just like a good marriage can be characterized as a commitment to “live out your vows” in the years and decades that follow the marriage ceremony, following Jesus can similarly be understood as a commitment to “live out your baptism” long after the baptismal clothes have dried off. To be born again is to say yes to God, both in the baptistery and in the day-in, day-out life of discipleship that follows. Let me remind you of the words of Jesus we discussed last month: If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me, (Luke 9:23). Saying YES to God is that daily exercise of self-denial and cross-bearing, a process that leads us to perpetual spiritual rebirth.
The Nicodemus story is the context for the most well known verse in the Bible, John 3:16: For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. Given the context of John 3, it is fair to say that to be born again is to experience eternal life. One interesting note though: in the final phrase of the verse (have eternal life), the word “have” is a present tense verb. John doesn’t say that whoever believes will have eternal life in some future heavenly state. No, he says that eternal life is possible NOW, in the present! The verse literally reads, that whoever believes in him should not be perishing but may be having eternal life. As we said last month, new creation is a present reality.
To be born again is to experience eternal life NOW!