Unless One Is Born of Water and Spirit

In which I attempt to clarify what I mean by being “born from above”

Wow–Jack, author of Intregrity blog made several comments back‐to‐back in response to my earlier posting about baptism.

I’ll have to wait to address his lengthier comment, but I’ll tackle his shorter question right now: To make my question more explicit: what I don’t understand is how you reconcile this “physical birth” interpretation in the context of Jesus stating the conditions of entry into the Kingdom. Are you suggesting that it read as, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is physically born and spiritually born, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” Doesn’t seem odd to cite physical birth — something we all have experienced by the virtue of our existence — as a condition to entry into Heaven? Doesn’t that interpretation render the “of water” part of the phrase a moot point? After all, who hasn’t been physically born?

Thanks–I was worried that I wasn’t clear enough in my previous posting. I now know that I was positively muddy!

Here’s the flow of conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus in the NET Bible translation of John 3.5–7:

Jesus replied, I tell you the solemn truth, unless a person is born from above [anothen], he cannot see the kingdom of God.

In this snippet of dialog, Jesus explains the whole shebang: you must be born from above. The word anothen is ambigious in Greek. In this context, it might either mean “from above” or “again”. Recent scholarly translations come down on the side of “from above,” which makes the most sense of the conversation (NET and NRSV are two of the translations: check them out).

Nicodemus said to him, How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter his mothers womb and be born a second time, can he?

Nicodemus doesn’t understand what Jesus is saying. Being born from above doesn’t make any sense to him, but neither does being born again. Evidently, he thinks being born again is the more likely meaning, so he asks Jesus the above question based on that mistaken understanding.

Why would Nicodemus assume that Jesus was talking about physical birth? Because Nicodemus thought his own physical birth was salvific. Nicodemus was trusting in his status as a biological member of God’s chosen peole to assure him of citizenship in God’s Kingdom.

Jesus answered, “I tell you the solemn truth, unless a person is born of water and spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be amazed that I said to you, ‘You must all be born from above.’ ” (John 3.3–7, NET Bible)

Jesus is now trying to help Nicodemus understand his real point–that everyone must be born from above. To that end, he draws a contrast between the physical birth that Nicodemus thinks Jesus is talking about and the spiritual birth that Jesus is driving at.

What evidence is there for this point of view?

1) It makes sense of the flow of conversation. Jesus talks about spiritual birth, Nicodemus thinks he’s talking about physical birth, so Jesus bridges from physical birth back to spiritual birth.

2) “Born of water” is clearly a metaphor for something. Physical birth is the topic being discussed when the metaphor is used, and the metaphor fits.

3) The parallelism in the text itself. The unclear term “born of water” is in parallel construction with “born of flesh”. Using the clear to interpret the unclear, we see that “born of water” means the same thing as “born of flesh.” In other words, being born.

4) It does justice to Nicodemus’ likely frame of mind. Nicodemus thought he was guaranteed access to the Kingdom of God based purely on the accident of his birth as a Jewish person.

I hope that helps.

There are other interpretations out there: just do a search on Google for “born from above.”

A Visit From Paula’s Parents

A brief summary of a visit from Paula’s parents.

paula_parents.jpgWe just dropped Paula’s parents off at the airport. I hope they have a good, safe trip back. I also hope nothing gets confiscated–Paula’s mom had some cuticle scissors taken on the way in!

In case you’re wondering, it was a pleasant visit. We went to San Jose, San Francisco, Big Basin (where we saw some truly impressive redwoods), and Santa Cruz. Woohoo!

Mentioning San Jose reminds me: I recently discovered that San Jose is actually larger than San Francisco (both in terms of land mass and population). It’s the third largest city in the state–following Los Angeles and San Diego–and the eleventh largest in America.

That really threw me for a loop. My whole life I’ve thought there were two big cities in California: Los Angeles and San Francisco. Once again, my Gen X geographic illiteracy races to the fore!

Thoughts on Baptism and Following Jesus

In which I discourse on why we need to be “born from above” instead of “born again.”

This post is part of an ongoing dialog I’m having with Sean Gallagher at his Bene Diction blog. Right now we’re discussing what it means to follow Jesus, and the current subtopic is how baptism relates to that. This post will be concise because of the blog medium, so please let me know if anything is unclear.

Sean believes that one becomes a Christian upon being baptized. In his own words,

As a Catholic, I believe that a follower of Jesus is one who is born of water and Spirit (Jn 3:5), that is, one who has been baptized… Once a person has been baptized, at any age, this ability is never taken away… even if a person totally refuses to work with that grace [of baptism], that person is still a follower of Jesus.

Wow. It took us exactly one round of replies to get to core Catholic/Protestant differences.

One of the crucial texts here is John 3.3–7:

Jesus replied, I tell you the solemn truth, unless a person is born from above, he cannot see the kingdom of God. Nicodemus said to him, How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter his mothers womb and be born a second time, can he? Jesus answered, “I tell you the solemn truth, unless a person is born of water and spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be amazed that I said to you, ‘You must all be born from above.’ ” (John 3.3–7, NET Bible)

In this passage, Jesus tells Nicodemus that everyone must be born anothen. The word anothen is ambigious in Greek. It can either mean “again” or “from above.”

Nicodemus thinks Jesus is saying “you must be born again” (hence his question, “How can a man be reborn? He can’t enter his mother’s womb again, can he?”) Nicodemus has misunderstood Jesus, and that is the context for what follows!

Jesus answers, “No, I’m not telling you to be born twice in a physical sense. You have to be both physically born [born of water] and spiritually born [born from above]. What is produced by flesh is flesh, but what is produced by Spirit is spirit.” (please note the use of parallelism here–it’s essential for interpreting the passage properly: ‘flesh’ parallels ‘water’ and ‘from above’ parallels ‘spirit’.)

In other words, neither person is discussing baptism. Jesus says that we are given physical life in our first birth (a birth of water), and that now we must have spiritual life planted in us (a birth of spirit). He goes on to explain exactly what that means later in the same conversation:

“For this is the way God loved the world: he gave his one and only Son that everyone who believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world should be saved through him. The one who believes in him is not condemned. The one who does not believe has been condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the one and only Son of God.” (John 3.16–18, NET Bible)

In other words, we are made alive spiritually by placing our faith in Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

I’m sure there are other references that Sean takes to support salvific baptism, and I’m eager to dialog about them. I’m also curious to see what people think about the “born again/born from above” interpretative issue. I find that the wording is one of those sacred cows in the evangelical world even though it’s an untenable translation.

P.S. The NET Bible is one of my favorite translations, but I can’t find a way to directly link to a reference them. Hence my links are to the NIV at http://bible.gospelcom.net even though I quote from the NET Bible! If you know how to link directly to a NET Bible reference (a specific chapter and verse), please let me know!