John 3:1-17. This is the pericope, that group of paragraphs that seem to hang together that include the famous v. 16 ("...for God so loved the world..."). But for sure don't forget v. 17. "God sent his Son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through him." It's not hard to get so hung up on finger-pointing and Schadenfreude that the "no condemnation" part might elude us. Or "conveniently" elude us.
But the passage also contains the evangelist's take on what has fimiliarly become known to us as "born again" theology. We'll get to that in a minute. First, Nicodemus. Greek name. Literal meaning of the name is "victor over the people." Hmmmm.... What kind of Mom or Dad with a superiority complex hung that name on this kid? Visions of fanatical Little League parents who can't accept that their kid struck out and want to deck the umpire. After all, they named him Winner! Oh well... Everybody loves a winner. Sometimes.
However, Nicodemus seems to have been a quiet but influential leader among the Jews of Jerusalem. He was establishment. But he can't quite square what he thinks with what he sees. There's obviously some sort of God-thing going on with Jesus, but it doesn't fit with his understanding or his expectations.
Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night. Dangerous, first of all. Before the invention of electric lights, people were mighty superstitious about the dark. Muggers, thieves, bandits, shanghaiers lurking. Witches and demons'll getcha. Second, ol' Nick probably doesn't want his peers to see or to know he's actually visiting the heretic, Jesus. Third, light and seeing are such important themes in John's gospel that the symbolism cannot be overlooked. To come out of the darkness to Jesus the Light is to come from unseeing to seeing. In John's gospel that's a way of saying to come from unfaith to faith. "Victor over the people" comes out of the darkness to the Light.
Oddest conversation ever:
Nick: "No one can do the signs and wonders you do unless God is with him," etc.
Jesus: "Unless a person is born from above he cannot see the kingdom of God."
Nick is confounded by the birth metaphor, thinking, "My Mom's gonna have a tough time with that one!" How can one's mother give birth to a person for the second time?
"Ain't about physical birth," Jesus replies. "It's about having been given life from above, from outside of yourself. It's about being born of the water of Baptism and by the power of the Holy Spirit. 'Cuz without that, you can't even see what I'm talking about, can't even know God's different way of seeing and doing and being."
Ask someone to complete this sentence: He/she is a _______Christian. About 99.9% of the time the words "born again" will fill the blank. It's become so prevalent that it's now a popular idiom. He's a born-again environmentalist. She's a born-again vegetarian. Candidate X is a born-again conservative. Unfortunately, the words "born again" have become synonymous with fervor or extremism, my way or the highway. Seemingly more a hardening of the heart than a change of heart. I once was lost, but now I'm a bulldozer, etc. Too bad.
But what does the Greek text say?
I did a word study on that a few years back. Having been baptized at the ripe old age of 14 days back in January 1947 I couldn't point to one of these come-to-Jesus conversion moments in my life. That's not to say my faith journey was ever a smooth skate. More of a wrestling match, a leaving and returning.
But was I missing something? I had learned that my baptism was a "washing of regeneration and a renewing by the Holy Spirit", but I didn't have this conversion experience that the popular perception of being a Christ follower has promoted as being mandatory. So was I really a Christ follower? If I was, did I occupy some kind of second- or third-class status?
We can get so focused on an event or a kind of experience as being definitive or exhaustive that we lose track of the meaning of the whole works.
Back to that word study. I wondered about the different translations of the exchange between Jesus and Nicodemus. My KJV Bible said "born again". My RSV Bible said "born anew". My NRSV said "born from above". Why so different? Why all the confusion?
The answer? anothen. As opposed to palin. Those, of course, are words you've likely never heard. They are both Greek adverbs. Palin is the Greek adverb commonly translated "again", as in a repetition of something. It is used 141 times in the New Testament. Anothen is another Greek adverb used only 13 times in the entire Greek New Testament, three times in John 3 alone. Its rare uses and its emphatic contexts suggest special attention and a much more careful translation than "again". Two examples:
John 19:23. The soldiers who roll the dice for Jesus' garment to keep as a souvenir have decided not to divide it up into scraps because it was a garment that was woven anothen. In other words, it was woven wholly, seamlessly as a unit from the top down. To say that Jesus' garment was "woven again" would be a nonsensical statement.
Mark 15:38 and Matthew 27:51. At Jesus' death on the cross and along with other traumatic pehnomena, the veil in the temple was torn in two, torn anothen. In other words, it was torn from top to bottom, from end to end, ripped asunder. To say that it was "torn again" would be false and downright misleading. Had it been torn before?
So when Jesus tells Nicodemus that one must be born anothen, He is saying almost anything bigger than the idea of again-ness. Here's a list of translations nearly all of which would be far better than "again":
Born anew, wholly, completely, fully, seamlessly, totally, from end to end, from the top down, from above, from start to finish, from on high, from the outside, radically, altogether. Best translation I can think of that might invovle the word "again" would be a multiple redundancy such as "one-more-time-around-again-from-the-get-go-all-over".
In other words, it ain't about an instantaneous experience but a complete revolution. It ain't about an instant or even a lifetime but an eternity. It ain't about a moment in time but a reality that is out of time. It's something that comes from the outside in, from the top down. Wowsers!
Consider the impact of John 5:24 and John 11:25-26. Even death and life have been joined seamlessly in Christ? Resurrection is not just a resuscitation, not a burrowing out of a casket and concrete vault somehow? It's a present and eternal reality which makes death and dying meaningless? Something anothen going on with that... Wowsers!
That's the news with Nicodemus. The "born_____" stuff here is not about our action. It's not about being a superior or exclusive kind of Christian . There are no ranks, categories, classes, qualifiers or adjectives that have any Biblical basis for modifying the word Christian. None. Because it ain't about us. It's about what God is doing in Christ which is giving us life anothen. That's another way of describing the kingdom of God. (More info? Go back to the blog archives for the whole KoG series.)
Next time someone talks about being "born again", ask them what they know about the kingdom of God. If they give you a puzzled look, there's your open door to a deeper discussion. May wanna brush up on that yourself first. What exactly is the KoG doing in your life these days?
Here's another translation of being born anothen: born for the very first time.
Jesus came preaching and bringing in the kingdom of God. And it was good news.
That's, like, so totally anothen, dude! Wowsers!