Born Again: Jesus and Nicodemus (part two)
1,187 words 4 min 44 sec
Our subject is, what does it mean to be born again, born from above, born of God? The answer, according to Jesus, is to be born of the Spirit.
Nicodemus understood the importance of ritual immersion (baptism). It was wide-spread, commonly done, especially by the Pharisees for ritual purity. It was done in a variety of settings. For example, a woman after her monthly menstrual period would undergo ritual immersion. It was done repeatedly for priests; even vessels could be ritually immersed in a mikveh, a ritual immersion pool.
Everyone going up into the Temple precincts entered into ritual immersion pools. Many large private homes on the Western hill opposite the Temple Mount, owned by the Sadducees and the Herodians, had ritual immersion pools in their homes, which would be used daily. And as I said before, the very highest level of purity was for those pools to be filled with living waters (mayim hayim).
The large stone waterpots referenced in John chapter two at the wedding in Cana could have contained water for ritual immersion. Though preferable, it did not have to be living waters. Perhaps Yeshua chose those waters of purification to turn into wine to bless the bride, anticipating a kind of messianic banquet.
Here is the most foundational and relevant way to understand Yeshua's encounter with Nicodemus. Unlike today, in the first century, there was an intense missionary impulse in Judaism "you travel across sea and land to make a single convert." The ethical monotheism of Judaism was very appealing in a pagan society, and so many, called 'God-fearers, would regularly attend and support local synagogues.
They ceased worshipping other gods. They embraced belief in the One God and kept his ethical commandments. You could say they were in kind of a transition phase. They are no longer purely pagans, but they are not yet proselytes either. Becoming a proselyte was a very demanding, very costly thing; calling for a radical change in one's life.
The full conversion required three things: circumcision, a sacrifice at the Temple, and baptism. When a gentile underwent the ritual of proselyte conversion, it was said of him that he achieved social and legal standing as a Jew. He died to his former paternity and his past sins. Even his legal issues were no longer relevant because he died to that old way of life in the waters of ritual immersion.
The proselyte would be circumcised—the sign of the covenant given to Abraham—and sacrifice would be offered at the Temple. When he entered into ritual immersion, he emerged from the waters as an Israelite, said to be born again. He died as a gentile and underwent a new birth. His old man had perished. You can see the parallels and metaphors Paul draws on in his writings.
Listen to the Jewish Talmud, "When a proselyte comes up after his immersion, he is reckoned to be an Israelite in all respects. One who has become a proselyte is like a child newly born." (Pesach 92a) Within this context, baptism in water (ritual immersion) was viewed as a decisive act that legally transformed you from a pagan into membership in the people of God.
It is important to note that that baptism, however, was not seen as the source of spiritual renewal or transformation. It is a legal, not spiritual conversion. The spiritual change will occur now as you walk in obedience to the Torah, as you study the scriptures and engage in all the religious life of corporate Israel.
This cultural background helps us understand the challenge for Nicodemus. When Yeshua says to this respected teacher, "You must be born of water and of the Spirit," among other things, he is challenging the esteemed sage to become, in effect, a proselyte to his kingdom movement. No wonder Nicodemus is befuddled.
His first response is just at the physical level, that of natural birth rather than the play on words, born again/born from above. How can this Israelite be born from above? Nicodemus is already a son of Abraham. He is a godly Pharisee that knows the scriptures, walks in the light of the commandments, and serves as a teacher in Israel.
Now, this young, miracle-working rabbi is saying to him, "you must become like a proselyte if you are going to be a newborn child in my kingdom." In other words, it has to be a work of God, a baptism in his Spirit. Imagine how challenging it was for him, given the circumstances, to think he needed a spiritual rebirth.
Jesus' words, "born of water and the Spirit," have caused a lot of confusion and controversy in Christianity through the centuries. What exactly did he mean? The Hebraic context of the setting can add important understanding to the discussion.
What we see is that for Jesus, it is the outpoured and indwelling Holy Spirit who purifies us, not the ritual waters of immersion. Indeed, as we have seen elsewhere, he—like the prophets of old—uses water as a depiction of the Spirit. In the dialogue with Nicodemus, Jesus is using baptism in water as a metaphor for the Spirit.
Jesus is speaking of at least two things:
First, he is alluding to the role of proselyte ritual immersion so familiar to this godly Jewish man. He is contrasting the Pharisaic traditions of Nicodemus with the new thing happening in his messianic movement. In terms of the kingdom, Spirit takes precedence over ritual immersion. Water's relevance is as a sign of the greater reality, the purifying, regenerating work of God's Holy Spirit.
For Jesus, water in this John 3 context is the image for the Spirit, not the medium in which the sacrament is conveyed. That is entirely consistent with the Jewish understanding of proselyte baptism. Remember our study of John 7:37-38? When Jesus speaks of those who thirst and come, believe and drink of the living water he provides, it is a picture of the Spirit coming at his glorification.
Second, not only does Jesus use water as an allusion to proselyte baptism, he is using water as a synonym for the Spirit. In effect, they are two distinct expressions saying the same thing with water emphasizing, among other things, the Spirit's work of purification. The use of Spirit and power together, which no doubt you are familiar with, is a similar example.
This is consistent with the end of Jesus' discussion in John 3 when he says, "You must be born of the Spirit." Earlier, he says the water and the Spirit, but here at the conclusion of the conversation in verse 8, he says plainly, "You must be born of the Spirit."
There is more to say on the subject, but that is enough for now. We dare not lose sight of the big picture ourselves. The challenge to Nicodemus is the challenge to us all. For Jesus, being born from above is a newness of life that comes through the Holy Spirit. And that is a gift from God received by faith available, thanks to the crucified and resurrected Jesus.