By Phil Bradshaw
Taken from St John's Parish Magazine - Spring 2023
I was looking ahead in the lectionary when I noticed the passage that contains this text. It’s long been a key text for the Evangelical movement, but it’s now turned into a badge of the ‘religious right’, particularly in the USA.
Perhaps for that reason we don’t hear it preached on much today, which is a pity because it has a special importance in understanding Jesus. Just recently we were thinking about the ‘wisdom’ way of understanding human existence as ‘earthly’ or ‘heavenly’. Jesus uses ‘new birth’ to describe the transition from one state to the other.
Jesus is no revivalist preacher; the idea of rebirth refers to that transition, not to some ‘mountain top’ experience. It comes up specifically in relation to Nicodemus, but its meaning is brought out mainly in references to John the Baptist.
Both the earthly and the heavenly states have various degrees, so it’s possible to use words such as ‘greatest’ or ‘least’ in connection with them. The highest level attainable in the earthly state does not, according to Jesus, reach the level of ‘least’ in the kingdom of heaven or the heavenly state. John the Baptist knew this. He was not ‘born again.’ He says, ‘He that is of the earth (i.e. himself) is of the earth and of the earth he speaks.’ Jesus, on the other hand, is ‘from above’ and is ‘above all.’
John the Baptist preached a knowledge or truth that could lead a person to a change of mind (repentance), but he did not preach rebirth. His inner state is described in parable language by what he wore and ate, i.e. what he clothed his mind with and what ideas he nourished himself with. So for example he ate wild honey, meaning that he could only understand new truth in terms of the old.
It's in direct reference to John and his disciples that Jesus teaches about not patching an old garment with new cloth, or putting new wine into old skins. We can’t take in Jesus’ new truth with all the prejudices and attitudes, both racial and personal, and all the illusions and viewpoints that life has formed in us. Nor can the new teaching simply be added or tacked on to the old. The two viewpoints will simply not agree – witness the criticism of Jesus’ disciples: ‘John’s disciples fast. Yours don’t.’
For us, the transition from one state to the other is marked by baptism. But that doesn’t mean we are automatically steered by heavenly influence. It’s hard for us to realise that even Jesus was not born perfect. He had to learn things, and he could be tempted. Jesus’ temptations were not outside him; they were in him, in his thoughts and feelings and desires. They were present right to the end of his life.
In other words, just like us.
And he spoke of the need to be born again (or born ‘from above’). Whatever that meant for him, for us it means we build on his foundation. We learn to see things through his eyes. We learn by being tested.
To be born from above is a vision for a life to be lived, not a slogan of identity.