For the longest time, the church has misused the term “born-again”. Evangelical Christians have long used that term to refer to the conversion experience, probably because it appears a couple of times in John 3 in close proximity to Jesus’ famous words in verse 16 (“For God so love the world…”). If John 3:16 is the ultimate summation and crown of the Gospel, then obviously being “born again” must refer to a person’s conversion to Christianity.
Such an understanding of being “born again” actually undermines and misapprehends the whole process of spiritual formation – it assumes that conversion is a “once-off” event rather than a process worked out over time.
Don’t get me wrong: some people do have sudden conversion experiences. The Saul-to-Paul-Damascus-Road thing comes to mind. But then what about the journey that Paul undertakes (including a period in obscurity) before he finally becomes a great spiritual powerhouse and influencer? That takes time!
I, for one, could not tell you when I became a Christian. It just kind of grew on me. I started going to church and over time, integrated into the Christian community and learnt more about God and started to put my trust in Him. Over two decades later, I still haven’t arrived. And so when people ask me when I became a Christian, I can point to a date written in my bible, but I’m pretty sure that wasn’t the real date I became a Christian. To be honest, there wasn’t a moment; it was more like a process.
I think that’s why the early church spoke of Christianity as “the Way”. You start going on the Way, and you continue on the Way. This is better than seeing conversion as a “line” of decision that you must cross. What if you start believing in Jesus but haven’t yet “confessed with your mouth”? Are you still saved? What is the formula?
So, I think the idea of being “born again” as a conversion experience is way too simplistic.
Last Sunday at Faith Community Church, Peter Tsukahira preached a mindblowing message about “Change” which gave me a completely new perspective on John 3.
He said that traditionally we look at Nicodemus as a confused old man who was too embarrassed to approach Jesus publicly, so he came to Jesus in the dead of the night so that no one could see him.
Actually, in the context of the passage, Nicodemus was shown to be a powerful man. Verse 1 says that he is a Pharisee and a “member of the Jewish council”. At the time, the Sanhedrin was delegated power by the Romans to rule over Jerusalem. The main ruling party was the Sadducees. The Pharisees could be considered the opposition, so in today’s parlance, Nicodemus was a powerful member of the opposition party.
And Nicodemus’ approach to Jesus wasn’t to satisfy some niggling religious curiosity. He addresses Jesus in verse 2, saying “Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come fro God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him.” At this time Jesus was already popular with the crowds, so what Nicodemus was doing was actually buttering up Jesus so that he could broker a deal with Him. He was saying “we could work together and shift the balance of power”.
Instead, Jesus tells Nicodemus, “no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again”.
This statement takes Nicodemus by surprise. What Jesus was in effect saying to Nicodemus was that if the kingdom of God was to be realised, it would take a different mindset. Nicodemus wanted to see the kingdom of God as a political force and institution – perhaps together the Pharisees and Jesus could overthrow the Sadducees and who knows, even the Romans – but Jesus was saying that Nicodemus needed to adopt a new paradigm because everything was going to change: the temple, the priesthood, the nation. But it wouldn’t be a political phenomenon – it would begin in the hearts of people.
So, according to Peter Tsukahira, to be born again means to “start over”. To be “born again” is an entry point to a life of unpredictable change; to be carried by the wind of the Spirit which blows wherever it pleases.
God is always doing something new, and we need to jump into the flow of those new things.
Tsukahira makes this observation about the 24 elders constantly and repeatedly bowing before the Lamb in Revelations 5. They surround the throne, gazing at God. And every moment for eternity, as they look at God, they see something new and even more magnificent, and it causes them to again throw themselves down in adoration. Therefore, to be in the presence of God is to experience continuous change.
That day, Nicodemus, having encountered the presence of Jesus, started on a new journey. It culminated In John 19, where we see Nicodemus at Jesus’ tomb. He had brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes to anoint Jesus’ body. In the end, Nicodemus worshipped!
And this is why I say that a lot of Christians are no longer born again. They might have been once. But they have gotten comfortable with their Christian walk. They are content with more of the same and more of the old. Churches love the comfort of tried and true familiarity, rather than the faith adventure of risk-taking and forging new ground. The wind of the Spirit is blowing, God is doing new things, and yet, we are not prepared to take new steps of faith to keep in step with Him.
As we encounter God’s presence over and over, may we always see something new and more magnificent than before and be prepared to start over as He leads.