Mark: So one of the things that was confusing to me before I was a Christian, and honestly, even after accepting Jesus Christ as my Savior, was this idea of being born again. If you’re not part of the Christian community, it honestly just sounds weird, you know? I know what being born is. How are you born again? Biologically, that doesn’t make any sense. Non-Christians have no frame of reference for that. And I think even as a new Christian, it just sounds weird. I’ve gotten used to it over time. But if you’re talking to brand new Christians, how would you describe it in a way that might make sense to them?
Tim: Well, you’re in good company, anybody that thinks that, because that’s exactly what the expert in Judaism and expert in the law, and ruler named Nicodemus thought when this came up. This is one of the more famous passages in the Scripture from John 3. The story is really fascinating because this guy was a Pharisee, which meant he was like a seminary graduate in some modern analogy. He’s this guy named Nicodemus and he came to Jesus at night. So this is an open guy that apparently is like, “I think you’re on the right track, and I don’t wanna do this openly at this point in time, I’m not sure yet, but I think you’re on the right track and I’m seeking.” I think this is early in Jesus’s three-year ministry, I’d say like the first year or so. At this point, I don’t think he’s chosen His disciples. So, I think Jesus is actually asking Nicodemus to be a disciple here. And what Jesus does to disciples is he’s always hard on them, I don’t know if you noticed that. He’s always asking them questions they can’t answer and challenging them in ways that they can’t understand why. Why did he want you do that? Like any great coach, you’re pressing your players to get better, and that’s why they signed up for him. So this guy comes and he says, “We know you’re a teacher from God because you can’t do these signs unless God’s with you.” That’s a confession of faith, right? I know you’re from God. And Jesus says, “Unless somebody’s born again, he can’t see the Kingdom of God.” So this guy says, “I know you’re of God.” And Jesus’s answer is, “Well, you actually can’t see that unless you’re born again.” And Nicodemus is like, “What?”
Joey: I crawl back into my mother’s womb?
T: “What are you talking about?” Yeah, “Do I crawl back in my mother’s womb? What are you even talking about?” And Jesus’s response is, “You’re a teacher in Israel and you don’t understand this?” It’s a pretty bizarre interaction. Like, “You should have known this all along.” So this is not something new, that is part of what Jesus is doing. And then he explains it, “If you want to see the kingdom of God, you have to be born twice. First, of water. So, what is that talking about? Physical birth.
M: Actual birth.
T: So, you know the baby is coming when the water breaks.
T: So, “First of water, then of the spirit.” And then Jesus explains it as “you can see the wind.” By the way, spirit is pneuma in Greek, and it’s ruach in Hebrew. And ruach can be translated as spirit or wind. Pneuma can be translated as spirit or wind. If you have a pneumatic valve, that’s one that’s controlled by air, so the pneuma is from a Greek root. So wind and spirit are the same word, it just depends on the context, what we’re talking about. And what do they have in common? You can’t see them, but you can see their influence and impact. The trees are blowing, that’s the wind. Well, how do you know? You can’t see the wind. Because I can see the trees blowing. And Jesus’s point is, “I can tell if you can see the Kingdom of God by your life.”
Changing from the Inside
T: Because the Spirit changes you from the inside. And I think the reason why–I’m guessing now, if we talk to Jesus about “Well, why was Nicodemus supposed to see that?”–would be because of verses like, “I will write my law on your heart. I will give you a new covenant and write my law in your heart.” You should have been expecting this, that you’re going to have a new covenant, a law in your heart, a circumcision of the heart, that’s the same as a new birth, it’s a starting over again, a fresh approach to life. He should have been expecting that.
J: Yeah, I think the narrative that Jesus talks about is about the kingdom of God, which is what people are looking for, they’re looking for a Messiah. But we’re looking for it in the wrong way. Some of the disciples, obviously and especially Judas, the one who betrayed Him, are looking for Jesus to kind of rise up and literally slay all of his enemies and establish a new government in his name that conquers the world, and the way that we think about things happening.
T: To be fair though, all the disciples thought that.
J: All of them did, yeah. Judas just–
T: That’s why they all freaked out after he died.
J: Right, But one of the things that is so beautiful and mysterious about Jesus is that he’s saying, “I’m establishing that kingdom, but it’s not circumstantial about what’s happening in the world, it’s about the orientation of your heart.” The Bible also has this great verse that talks about “coming into the life that is truly life.” So this idea of being born again, I think, is about just reorienting ourselves towards the Kingdom of God. Jesus has this great interaction at the end of which, he shows a Roman coin with Caesar’s imprint on it and says, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s.” And I think what he’s trying to say there is, “Pick a kingdom you’re going to serve.” And that goes all the way back to the Old Testament, “Choose this day whom you’re going to serve.” So I think this born again language is that language of orienting ourselves towards the life of the kingdom of God, towards reality as God describes it and towards obedience towards what Jesus is calling us to for our own self-betterment. So, even in the Bible, people hear this and they’re like, “How do I be born again? That doesn’t make any sense.” But part of that is the journey that we’re on of Jesus coming to us, just challenging our parameters and asking us to rethink and reorient what we think about in terms of life, in terms of power. Life isn’t just existence, it’s not just breathing. Life is living in abundance and living well. There’s a difference between surviving and living, and I think that’s part of what Jesus came to do.
The Serpents in the Wilderness
T: And it’s important, in this same passage, Jesus speaks about how to be born again. Then he speaks about the consequences of that, and I think he uses this analogy for a very deliberate reason that we can talk about. So first, how to be born again is through faith. And he uses this illustration of “as Moses lifted the serpent in the wilderness,” so that is a story that Nicodemus would have known very well. The children of Israel come out of Egypt, they’re on their way to the Promised Land and snakes start biting them, venomous snakes, and they’re dying in droves. And they pray for help and God tells Moses to have Aaron, who was a metal smith, forge a bronze snake and lift it up on a pole and whoever will look at that will not die. So he lifts it up and anybody that looked didn’t die of the snake. Now they died of something else later on, but they didn’t die of the snake bites. So, enough faith to look, so Jesus uses that example “as the serpent was lifted in the wilderness,” and Nicodemus automatically knows what he was talking about, so the son of man must be lifted up. Now, Son of Man is a term that Jesus uses of himself, and we could go into it, but basically, it can be used in two different ways–one is just human and the other is the head human. And he’s actually using it both ways, So, the Son of Man will be lifted up. Well what was he was he lifted up on?
M: A cross.
Enough Faith to Look
T: A cross. But it’s the same thing, enough faith to look. So what have we been bitten with?
T: Sin. So if you just have enough faith to say, “I don’t want to die spiritually of sin,” you’re physically okay. “I don’t want to die spiritually of sin.”
M: So I’m willing to look at Jesus on the cross.
T: Would you help me? That’s it, that’s all the faith that’s required. And then you’re born again. Now, how many times have you been born physically?
M: Once, that I know of.
T: Have you ever met anyone that doubted whether they had been born physically?
T: No, it doesn’t make sense. Right. And so I think the reason why Jesus used that phrase, this analogy, is because he does the birthing. And how much did you have to do with your physical birth, like, did you plan it? Did anyone ask your permission?
M: Nothing to do with it. It happens to you.
T: Yeah, it just happens to you. It was given to you. Right? Well, it’s the same thing with the spiritual birth, you have enough faith to believe. Everything is given to you at that point. It’s received. It’s not earned, it’s not accomplished, it’s received.
M: And your point is, only once.
T: You’re born once.
M: Once it’s done it’s done.
T: Once it’s done, it’s done. Then the question is, what kind of life are you going to have? So you have the gift of life. When you’re born, you have the gift of life. Did that determine your life?
M: Of course not.
T: You have the gift of life. Now the question is, what is your life experience going to be and who is that up to?
M: That’s up to me.
Eternal Life and Our Responsibility
T: That’s up to you. So you received the gift of physical life, now who you become is a matter of what you decide. That’s exactly the same in the spiritual walk–we receive, and now we have eternal life, we’re in God’s family no matter what, because he gave it to us. You can’t undo your genes, even if you hated your parents–I know you don’t, you love your parents–but if you just said, “I just don’t want these genes,” you’re stuck with them.
T: It’s the same thing, now we’re in God’s family. But the question is, “What kind of life are you going to have? So you have the gift of life beyond what you could possibly imagine, the phrase is aiónia zoí in Greek, translated in English as “eternal life.” Abundant life, the maximum amount of life it’s life, it’s life experience that it’s talking about.
J: Which, it’s not just quantitative, it’s qualitative.
T: It’s mostly qualitative.
J: We talk about eternal life. You might hear that term too, and you think of just living on the timeline forever, but the eternal is actually a qualitative term as much as anything else.
T: And it starts when you get the new birth, but then its quality depends on your choices. The presence of it is given, but now the experience of it is up to you. And that’s the good news, “Whoever believes would not perish, but have eternal life.” But John says at the end of his Gospel, “I’ve written these things, I could have filled up all the books in the world. I wrote these things for two reasons, that you might believe that He’s the Messiah”–so that’s how you get enough faith to look on the cross and you get a new birth and that believing you have life in his name–so that’s walking in belief and experiencing life. So it’s both. Interesting, that’s one of the few places in the Bible that says that. Most of the Bible is written presuming that you’re already in the family, it’s written to the family, presuming you’re in the family.
M: So that specifically aimed at new Christians.
T: Yes, John is one of the unique places in the Bible that’s actually aimed at, “here’s how you get into the family.” But then also what you do once you’re in. What do you do with the stewardship, what do you do with this gift? He does both. The vast majority of the Bible is written to people who presume to be in the family.
M: So I have a related question, which is about baptism. So you become a new Christian, lots of people will tell you, “Okay, you’ve made that decision. Now, you need to be baptized.” Obviously, there are different forms of baptism. Talk about what baptism is. Do you need to be baptized to be born again? What role does baptism play in the faith?
T: First, this would be worthwhile to know. Baptism is a transliteration, which means that the translators could not agree on what it meant, so they just invented a new word and the Greek word is baptismos, so they just used baptism. So there’s a baptism of Moses, there’s a baptism of the Spirit, there’s a baptism of fire, there are all different kinds of baptism, so baptism is not a technical term. It means to be subsumed. That’s what baptism means– to be subsumed. You could be subsumed by standing under a waterfall, you can be subsumed by being dunked underwater, you can be subsumed by being completely engulfed in a team, it just means to be subsumed in something. And so, first thing, what does baptism mean? Well, which one? That would be the proper first question–which one?
M: My answer would be that I have no idea.
T: Well, yeah. So then, there’s a lot of different kinds of baptism. The baptism of Moses was when they walked through the Red Sea. They were subsumed then, there was no turning back.
M: Right, all in.
T: They’re all in. That’s what it is, it’s all in. The baptism of the Holy Spirit is, when you have enough faith to look, the Holy Spirit comes and takes up residence. It’s all in. It’s a filling. It’s like a water cup, you fill it up and it’s all in. It’s all filled up. In fact, Romans 8 says, “If you ever have any doubts, whether you’re a believer or not, have you ever wondered? Well, that probably means you’re believer.” Because if you hear a voice, if there’s a voice inside telling you “Abba, Father,” if you hear that voice, you’re a believer. If you need some evidence, if faith isn’t enough, that’s there too. And that’s the Spirit speaking. If you feel a tussle, that’s because the Spirit is asking you, “Hey, do you wanna go life or death?” and the flesh is telling you to go death. That tussle is evidence that you’re in God’s family. So that’s another baptism. Now, you probably meant water baptism–
T: That’s what most believers think when you ask that question, because that’s the one that’s been emphasized. But what I hope I’ve done is already unmasked the mistique associated with that particular baptism. And that particular baptism has two different manifestations–one was the Old Testament sort. The Jews got baptized like we go to Rosas for lunch, they got baptized every time you turn around. If you go to the temple in Jerusalem today, they’ve uncovered a bunch of the baptisms, they call them mikvas in Hebrew, I think that’s a Hebrew term. Do you know?
M: No, I don’t. So there’s ceremonial baths.
T: Yeah, they would go in before they went up to the temple.
M: They would be cleansed.
T: They would be cleansed. If you go to the high priest’s home, he had one in his house because he got to be cleaned so much. You go to Qumran, which was like a monastery for, a Jewish monastery, and one of the main things they did in the monasteries was write the Bible out. They’d hand copy it and when they got to the word “God,” they would put their quill down and go get a baptism, and then write God and then go rebaptize.
M: That’s some slow writing.
T: Yeah, yeah, really slow. They got baptized all the time. And then along comes John the Baptist, still part of this Old Testament thing, and his baptism was a new kind, which was for repentance. And he’s like, “Don’t come get baptized unless you’re going to change your heart, because I’m getting you to change your heart.” Which is, again, part of the “You’re a teacher in Israel, and you don’t know this?” It’s from the inside out. The whole biblical orientation is inside out. Serve, then rule. Inside flows to outside. It’s all the way through the Bible and what we want to do is get it back the other way around, right? So I’ll finally get to believers’ baptism, what you’re thinking of.
T: That is to demonstrate “I’m all in” publicly. And in many times, in the Western church, that meant severe persecution. And it’s still the case around the world, in many places. And it’s a public identification of “I’m all in. I want people to know I’m all in.”
J: One of the great joys of my life has been to officiate some weddings. And one of the things that surprises people when I officiate their wedding is that there are very few things that we have to do in this thing. Basically, I’ve gotta sign the certificate at the end.
J: But that’s about it. The rest of it, you can write your own vows, you can take the traditional vows, there are some options. And I remember from my own wedding, it kinda hit me like, “This is largely ceremonial because I’m already married to Kylie in a spiritual, emotional sense.”
T: A commitment.
J: That has happened, this is a kind of recognition that has happened. And so I think in the same sort of way with baptism. We get bogged down in some of the details, and there are plenty of people who would disagree with what I’m saying, and they may be right. But I think we get bogged down in the details of how to do it, right? Really what it is is, all these arguments of “Are you fully immersed?”, “Are you sprinkled?”, all these different debates, to me, they’re largely unimportant. The point is, they’re apublic acknowledgement of what you have submitted to in your heart.
T: In the Old Testament, a lot of the law is God offering a treaty to Israel, and the people say, “Yes, we will obey.” So, “Alright, we have a deal, right? I offered, you agreed, we have a deal.” Covenant, a contract. And a lot of that covenant is the people saying, “I will follow,” and that’s sort of what the baptism is. It’s a covenant of “I’m making a public line in the sand here that I’ve decided to follow Jesus.” It’s really more for us. It’s more for us to say, “I’m all in.”
J: And the key with everything, you know, I can say my wedding vows to Kylie but then go on and continue to have relationships with other people and I can live whatever life I want to afterwards in the same sort of way that you can be dunked underwater and still the live the same life.
M: And not be all in.
J: Yeah, and not be all in. The key is your heart, and that’s so much of what the Bible is about and what Jesus is saying here. This is about your heart. You can do these things and you can be baptized by the water, but the key is your heart.
M: So I would say the wrap up lesson there is not to get taken in by the symbolism. You’re either all in or you’re not. It’s good to do it if you want to do it. It’s a great public expression. It’s a wonderful way to express your faith in community. I’ve been to a lot of mass baptisms at churches where people are telling their stories and what they’re going through and it’s a wonderful thing. But that’s not THE thing. The thing is inside, it’s being all in.
T: Ceremonies are always expressions of something deeper, but the public expression is important because you’re making a declaration.
T: We tend to follow where our treasure is and where our heart is. When I make a financial commitment, my heart follows. And this is a public commitment, so your heart will follow.
J: Yeah, it’s funny you say that. On a very micro-level, we talk about goals, SMART goals. And we talk about how if you just have a goal in mind the percentage that you’re going to achieve it is pretty low. But if you write it down, just the physical act of doing something connected to it, it increases almost double. And then if you tell somebody out loud, “This is my goal,” you’re even more likely to achieve that goal.
T: I think it’s like 80% or something.
J: It gets way up there, so it’s the same sort of thing.
Believe, Confess, Do
M: I know when I first made my decision for Christ, telling everybody was a big deal. I wanted everybody around me to know for that reason, because that was my commitment.
T: I would say that’s a form of baptism, it’s a form of all in because you’re now confessing. And that’s actually Deuteronomy 30, “Believe, confess, do.”
M: Yeah. I would say as people are thinking about all these terms, it’s all important, it’s good to know this stuff, the ritual is important, it’s good to do this stuff, but the bottom line is, it’s in your heart. And that’s what we’re talking about when we’re talking about giving your life to the Lord. It’s what happens inside. It’s the Holy Spirit inside of you. It’s that internal transformation.
T: Inside flowing outside. That’s the point. Inside flowing outside. If you keep it inside or if there’s a clash between the two, you’re just going to make yourself really miserable.
J: So when we talk about born again, what we’re really talking about is an awakening of your heart.
T: And actually a new person, you actually have a new person inside. From the sense of the Fall–we were falling from ourselves, our internal harmony crashed which is why we self-rationalize–in a sense, when you’re born again, the clash is worse, because now you have a new person in there clashing with the old person. There’s a sense in which the conflict escalates, but the good news is that you can come away from this thing that brings death and walk in life.