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Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council. He 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.” In reply Jesus declared, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.” (John 3:1-3)
The first time I remember hearing the phrase "born again" was in relation to Darryl Strawberry, the former Mets and Yankees star. I recall reading that Strawberry had become a "born again Christian," and while I wasn't quite sure what that meant, it was obvious that he seemed to have found religion.
The phrase “born again” carries with it all kinds of baggage in this day and age. When someone asks if you are one of those “born again Christians,” there is usually some assumptions about what that means. But a brief look back at the origin of the term, found in Jesus’ conversation with a religious leader named Nicodemus, will shed some important light on what this term really means.
When you read carefully through the stories of Jesus’ life, you can’t help but notice that he uses all kinds of word pictures, metaphors, and stories in order to connect people to God in a way that was unique to their experience. Jesus would use farming metaphors to illustrate the kingdom of God, talk about a lost son returning home to communicate the love of the Father, or use wedding imagery to explain heaven. His conversation with Nicodemus is no different. We are told that Nicodemus was a member of the Jewish ruling council. As a leader in Israel, he undoubtedly believed that he was right with God because he was a descendant of Abraham, one of the people of God. How could Jesus convince him that being born a Jew would not save him?
When Nicodemus offers Jesus a compliment for his miraculous signs, Jesus does not use farming, parenting, or wedding imagery in order to help Nicodemus understand his spiritual state. Instead, he undermines Nicodemus’ confidence in his heritage by telling him that he needs to be born again. Naturally, Nicodemus is confused, and asks him how it would be possible to enter his mother’s womb a second time. But Jesus tells him that he has missed the point. The hard truth is that Nicodemus’ physical birth counts for nothing – he must be born again by the Spirit of God. In other words, he must confess that he can not achieve a right relationship with God on the basis of his heritage, his good works, or anything else, but must trust in Jesus for his salvation from sin and for eternal life.
I believe we would be wise to learn from Jesus’ creativity as we share our faith and proclaim the gospel message. Telling someone that they must be born again is wise if the person to whom we are speaking believes that they are right with God because of their heritage. For instance, children who are born to Christian parents, or adults who have grown up in the church, may think that they are good with God simply because of their physical birth or because they attend church. I believe they need to hear Jesus’ words about the necessity of being born again by the Spirit of God. Others, however, who may have little to no connection with Christianity or the church, may need to hear other messages that help them to see the relevance of God to their situation (such as the Father’s love and grace for his prodigal son).
Jesus did not use a one-size-fits-all message for his listeners. I encourage you to do the same, to listen to where people are coming from and draw upon the creativity of Jesus in order to connect them to the gospel.
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