by Doug Ward
OXFORD, OHIO-The term "born-again Christian" is heard frequently in our culture. However, what it means to be "born again" is less familiar. The term comes from a challenging New Testament passage that includes some puzzling phrases.
On March 4, 2018, New Testament scholar Ben Witherington III examined this passage, the third chapter of the Gospel of John, in a helpful sermon at Oxford Bible Fellowship. Witherington, the Amos Professor of New Testament for Doctoral Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky, has written commentaries on every book of the New Testament, and his expertise in both exegesis (biblical interpretation) and homiletics (preaching) was clearly evident in his sermon.
Witherington began by relating a story told by one of his colleagues at Asbury, Dr. Charles Killian. Killian recalled that as a teenager, he repeatedly responded to altar calls at revival meetings, coming forward to surrender his life to Jesus. He said that he was born again, and again, and again, and again, until he had stretch marks on his soul.
Killian's experience raises questions about the meaning of John 3. When Jesus said that "unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God" (John 3:5), was he talking about a certain experience one must have in order to be a Christian? Was he talking about what happens when a person accepts Christ and is baptized?
Nic at Night
John 3 describes a visit paid to Jesus by Nicodemus, a pious Jewish leader. Nicodemus came to Jesus at night (v. 2), presumably because he wanted to keep secret his interest in the controversial teacher.1 Witherington likes to refer to this episode as "Nic at Night."
Jesus emphasized to Nicodemus the necessity of being born again if one wanted to be part of the Kingdom of God (v. 3). Witherington asserted that at this point, when Jesus spoke of being "born of water," he was not referring to Christian baptism, a ritual practice that did not yet exist. He explained that the word "water" was used at that time to refer to things involved in creating a human life. For example, both semen and amniotic fluid were called water, and of course we still speak of a woman's "waters breaking" shortly before she gives birth. So to be "born of water" was to have a physical birth, to be "born of the flesh" (v. 6).
Jesus contrasted being "born of the flesh" with being "born again" or "born of the spirit." Witherington noted, as do English Bible translations, that the Greek word for "again", anothen, can mean either "again" or "from above." He believes that both meanings are in view in John 3. To be born again is to experience a sort of second birth, a spiritual rebirth, one not subject to human causation or manipulation. This second birth is a birth from God, carried out through the agency of the Holy Spirit.
Dr. Witherington stressed that there is nothing in John 3 about what kind of subjective experience the reborn person has as a result of this new birth. Jesus was not talking about our feelings or reaction to the experience. Instead, he was talking about the work of God in the life of the individual. It is God who does the "rebirthing," not us.
Change is Possible--And Necessary
Nicodemus expressed bewilderment at Jesus' words (v. 4). He knew that Jesus was not asking him to reenter his mother's womb and call for "womb service," so what was Jesus talking about?
Witherington observed that then, as now, most people are skeptical about the possibility of radical spiritual transformation in a person's life. "Can a leopard change his spots?" was an ancient saying (Jer 13:23). We might say, "You can't teach an old dog new tricks." He mentioned that a psychologist once told him that psychology does not believe in dramatic personality change, but only in amelioration of our worst tendencies through therapy.
The Bible, on the other hand, does teach that spiritual transformation is possible, so skepticism about such a change would not have been Nicodemus's problem. Indeed, the imagery of new birth was used to describe the conversion of a Gentile to Judaism.2 What would have puzzled Nicodemus, though, was the idea that faithful Israelites like him would be required to undergo such a transformation. Both Jesus and John the Baptist elsewhere received similar reactions to their calls for repentance (Luke 3:8; John 8:33). Witherington related that a Jewish friend had told him there was no need for faithful Jews, who do not believe in original sin, to have this type of spiritual rebirth.
Jesus, however, said otherwise, and he expected Nicodemus as a teacher of scripture to understand what he was talking about. In particular, the prophets had spoken of a future spiritual transformation of Israel on a number of occasions (Ezek 11:19-20; 36:24-27; 37:13-24; Jer 31:31-34).
How is this transformation carried out? Jesus told Nicodemus that the work of the Holy Spirit in a person is invisible, like the wind (v. 7). Witherington explained that Jesus employed a play on words in this verse. Both the Hebrew and Greek words for spirit (ruach and pneuma) have three meanings: breath, wind, and spirit. He commented that this kind of imagery reminds us of the Genesis account of the creation of Adam, where God "formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life" (Gen 2:7).
Witherington stated that we can know the work of the Spirit by its effects, seeing the way the Spirit changes a person. Israel's King Saul was "turned into another man" through the influence of the Spirit (1 Sam 10:6).
The most famous biblical transformation example is that of a later Saul, Saul of Tarsus. His story is told three times, in Acts 9, 22, and 26. Even in the case of Saul's dramatic confrontation with the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus, the change in Saul was a process rather than a single event. Saul was initially struck with a blindness that lasted for three days (Acts 9:9). Later he regained his sight, was baptized, and was filled with the Holy Spirit (vv. 17-18).
Dr. Witherington asserted that in John 3, Jesus was not talking about a certain kind of experience. Instead, he was talking about the action of God, which produces an outcome. The process can take differing amounts of time, and it may or may not be dramatic. In some cases, like that of scholar C.S. Lewis, conversion was a kind of surrender after a long struggle. Witherington noted that Lewis called himself "the most reluctant convert in all of Christendom."
Witherington said that the new birth process, like physical childbirth, can take differing amounts of time and can be easy or difficult. He related that once when he was traveling in Egypt, his train was stopped for a while. Looking out the window, he could see people picking bananas. One woman, who was clearly in the final stages of pregnancy, had to stop when her waters broke. But thereafter she quickly gave birth, and ten minutes later she was back picking bananas. Witherington had never heard of such a birth.
However the process occurs, all of us must change because we have all sinned (Rom 3:23; 6:23). Witherington added that no one can affirm Jesus is the risen Lord without the internal prompting of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 12:3).
The Meaning of John 3:16
One of the most-repeated verses in the Bible, John 3:16, occurs in the context of Jesus' conversation with Nicodemus. The preceding verses state that Jesus would be resurrected so that "whoever believes in him may have eternal life." Witherington commented that he prefers the translation "everlasting" to "eternal" in John 3:15-16 because a believer's life only stretches eternally into the future, rather than into both past and future as Jesus' life does.
Witherington then explained that when John 3:16 says, "For God so loved the world," it means, "For God loved the world in this manner", or "God loved the world as follows," rather than "God loved the world so much that". The statement is not about the depth of God's love, but about what he did to fix the human malaise.
He also observed that "the world" in John 3:16 means "the world of humanity organized against God." It is this fallen world that John 3:16 says God loved. John 3 implies that all of us, even the best of us, are lost. We have fallen and can't get up. Hearing this can hurt our pride, but it is true, for Nicodemus and all of us.
Witherington concluded by adding that John 3 does not describe a human self-help program. We cannot earn, worm, or learn our way into the Kingdom of God, he said. Transformation is produced by God alone, and we do not inherit it. God does not have grandchildren, only children, as Jesus explained to Nicodemus.
1Nicodemus would later speak in Jesus' defense (John 7:50) and help to give the crucified Jesus a proper burial (John 19:39-42).
2According to a famous rabbinic saying, a person who has become a proselyte is "like one newly born."
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On 02 Jul 2018, 18:13.