Sunday, October 18, 2009

Growing Pains

1Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council. 2He came to Jesus at night and said, "Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him."

3In reply Jesus declared, "I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.a]"

4"How can a man be born when he is old?" Nicodemus asked. "Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother's womb to be born!"

5Jesus answered, "I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. 6Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. 7You should not be surprised at my saying, 'You must be born again.' 8The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit." (John 3:1-8)

For years I thought Nicodemus simply mistook Jesus for speaking of a literal rebirth. Sure enough, Jesus did say cryptic things like, "You need to eat my flesh and drink my blood." (See John 6:51-56.) How could he not expect people to misunderstand him? But Nicodemus was no idiot; of course he knew no one could climb back in the womb. Jesus knew this too.* Was Nico asking something different? Was he instead acknowledging the great difficulty of a grown man changing his ways? Perhaps this is implied when he asks not, "How can a person be born a second time?" but rather, "How can a [grown] man be born when he is old?"

This made me think: If we're reborn by the Spirit into the new creation** and the kingdom of God, then that means we must, like little babes, relearn how to live. As babies acquire knowledge which shapes their worldview, values, and loves, so too must all who trust in Christ. As Switchfoot sang, there's "a new way to be human" which every Christian must learn. And that's tough, because it means we never really knew how to live in the first place. Being "born of water" means cleansing out the old self, washing away its dirt, even burial in a death-dealing flood. The entire you, at your very core, needs to be killed and reborn. And being born into a life of the Spirit, not of the flesh, means learning wisdom and life and worship according to God's terms, not our own natural ways to which we've grown accustomed. Jesus' resurrection by the Spirit brought about a "new world order" which we must learn to live by.

When I began to get serious about my relationship with Olivia, especially now that we're married, I realized how much of my old ways had to go. I had no idea what measure of independence I lived in until I had to start giving it up to consider her needs as well! Sometimes I don't want to change. Learning new ways is hard. It betrays our comfort and confidence, humbles us when we think we are wise, and crosses the grain of our natural selfishness. Maybe that's why Jesus said we had to receive the kingdom like little children, not like grown adults. And maybe that's why so few, as Nicodemus confessed, give serious attention to following Jesus. I think a lot of professing Christians are like a number of my students. They give little to no effort to their schoolwork because at least that way (in their self-defending logic) when they receive a poor grade, it's because they didn't try, not because they tried and were found wanting. Following Jesus does that to us: it exposes us as failing sinners in need of rescue and grace. (See John 3:19-21.)

But we are not left hopeless. This new birth is "from above" according to God's free will and grace (John 3:8). For those of us willing to admit our need, God's grace toward us in Christ exceeds our sinfulness, and there is mercy to cover every mar (Romans 5:20-21; 1 John 1:5-10). Jesus took the final exam for us and passed with an A+++++. Neither are we left alone. In our baptismal calling to repent and learn a new life we are given Christ's own Spirit, who himself cleanses out our old life and fits us for life in God's kingdom. We have dwelling within us the very power which raised our Lord from the dead, animating and renewing us as well. For us who believe, the power of the old self has already been broken, and we're no longer in slavery to sin (Romans 6:1-14). Will we submit to Christ the Lord and allow that power to work within us to teach us how to live, to teach us true wisdom, and to make us not just washed up, nice people, but entirely new people?


*We see here that this rebirth of which Jesus speaks is a human impossibility. He meant no less. It had to be a work of God. No human conceives himself in the womb, develops himself, or initiates his birth by his own actions and decisions.

**Notice that Jesus water-and-Spirit talk, while predominantly a reference to Ezekiel 36:25-27, echoes the creation account in which "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. . . . And the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters" (Genesis 1:1, 2). Jesus is speaking of a new creation that God's Spirit brings about and in which believers participate.


Halfmom said...

well said - I must confess with the meeting this week and the grant submission week leading up to it, I hadn't thought that deeply about the passage - thanks for writing it out!

preacherman said...

Great post brother!

Gene Brode said...

For me, this passage solidifies my belief in the doctrine of unconditional election. How could anyone choose the new birth when it is the Spirit who causes that very new birth?

Just stumbled onto your blog and hope to find some good stuff here. I'm originally from NOVA, so I'm excited to meet a reformed brother from Virginia!