Jesus said, "No-one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again." But what doesit mean to be "born again"? When I began my ministry, an unchurched person would have a clue what the phrase means. Since then the phrase has appeared in a popular song ("Don't you know in you I'm born again?" The original reference was not to God or Jesus), has become a sloppy nickname for the charismatic movement, operating as a synonym for "happy clappy", despite the fact that more traditional evangelical groups arguably use the phrase more. And it can be used - perversely - to describe any kind of religious fanatic (including Muslims, Hindus, and even atheists!). It can even be used to describe people who have developed new-found enthusiasms for fashion clothing, popular music, food, or books! But none of this helps us to understand what the phrase means and how it came to be coined. Just about all other uses of this phrase relate back to this passage from John's Gospel. So what does the phrase mean here?
To begin with, we need to understand that we have got the phrase wrong from the start. The phrase is properly translated "born from above". The Greek word can be used in both ways, but the meaning "from above"is more usual, and there is another simpler word which could have been used if "again" had been meant. Some scholars suggest Jesus was being ambiguous and had both meanings in mind. It is not unusual for Jesus, especially in John's gospel, to be ambiguous, but en so the passage as a whole makes it clear that the meaning "from above" is the lead idea, even if the other meaning is meant to be understood as well. So what does it mean to be "Born from Above". 3 things:
1. A heavenly ancestor
Family history is enormously popular these days. The advent of the internet and of ancestry.com has made the whole process easier and made it practical for a greater range of people. TV programmes such as BBC's "Who Do You Think You Are?" attract huge audiences who are anxious to know just what skeletons or what important personages lie in the family tree of familiar celebrities. Some have vile criminals in their ancestry, while others have royalty. Imagine the boost it could give to you confidence to know you were descended from a king! Some participants in that show received just such news: others received news that may have been less welcome. I suspect I would feature in the latter camp. My sister-in-law has done our family history. A number of miners, a number of sickle-makers, the odd one born the wrong side of the blanket, but nobody remotely royal. An American Staton (there are lots of us over there!) compiled a Book of Statons - in which I appeared at an old address - and he came up with a coat of arms. But I have no idea where he got it from , or if I am authorised to bear it!
But because all of us who believe in Jesus are "born from above", it means all of us have the King of Kings and Lord of Lords in our heavenly family tree! This means we are all royalty! We can all hold our heads high! We are born into a new life, a new kind of existence, and into a new family - the family of God. When people ask us where we come from, we can say, "heaven", and when they ask us who we are, we can say, "a child of God", which is far more important than our human family. When Jesus was teaching, members of his human family came to drag him away because they feared he was going mad. They told him, "Your mother and bothers are outside". Jesus replied, "Whoever does the will of my father in heaven is my father, brother, sister, mother." We are born from above. We have a heavenly ancestor and a heavenly family.
2. A heavenly sign
Jesus says, " no-one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the spirit." But what does it mean to be baptised by water? It refers, of course, to baptism. Other possible emanings have been suggested, but all of them appear a little contrived and artificial. At the time the gospel was written anybody who entered upon a new life in Christ was baptised. At the time of Nicodemus' visit, Jesus himself and most of his early disciples had been baptised by John. John tells us in the next chapter that Jesus, or at least his disciples, were already baptising people in the Jordan. Jesus assumes that anyone who would enter upon the new life he offers would also want to make that public and concrete by undergoing baptism with water. We needn't get into arguments about what age baptismal candidates should be, or how much water should be used and whether it should be done by sprinkling or immersion. The fact that neither Jesus, nor Paul, nor any other NT writer gives us no instructions on the point, and that Acts does not give us a clear account of a baptism taking place, suggests that the actual form and practice was not of primary importance to early Christians. The fact that most of the New Testament writers mention baptism as the normal means of entry into Christian life and that the give high status to it, shows that being baptised was very important indeed. But exactly how it was done was of lesser significance. The questions which have historically divided the church so much did not even occur to them. The early church appeared to value doctrinal and moral principles very highly, but matters of practice less so. Like most movements in their early stages of growth, its organisation was a little messy, and we 21st century Christians should resist the temptation to sort it out for them. But being born from above was not just something God did to someone without their knowledge and co-operation. The person entering upon new life in Christ needed to make a response, to say, "I believe. Iwant to start a new life with Jesus", and to mark that commitment with baptism.
We have made all this complicated in the centuries since. When some persecuted Christians anted to close the Church's doors to those who had given in under torture and wished to demand that they be baptised again, the Church made it clear that baptism was once for all. To have done anything else would have been to divide the church into numerous factions. When infant baptism became the norm, people who had come to a personal faith in later years then found that they could no longer mark their commitment with the sign that God had ordained, because that sign had already been given. So we have confirmation, renewal of vows, and other rites of commitment so people who believe themselves to be starting a new life with Christ can make that commitment public and concrete. And that, rather than the form of the act, is what matters to God. So being "born from above" means entering a heavenly family and gaining a heavenly ancestor,; it means making a commitment by means of a public ceremony; and it means entering upon life with a new power
3. A heavenly power
Jesus says, " no-one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the spirit." A new baby spends most of its early years acquiring new abilities and new powers. If we are entering upon a new life with Jesus, we cannot manage on the power, strength, and resources we have in ourselves. We need new power from God. He gives us that power through his Holy Spirit. The Spirit comes to live and work in us,to take control of our lives and live through us. And the Spirit will make us such different people that others will look at us askance. They won't know what to make of us, any more than they can make sense of the vagaries of the wind. The Spirit will inspire us to do things we never thought of before (and that no-one else imagined we would do either!), and will give us the power to turn the world around upside down in Jesus' name. We will show people how it is possible to live life God's way, loving him and each other, and how it is not necessary to conform to the worlds ways of doing things. God will use us to do great things and to bring many others to faith in him
So let us approach Jesus, coming out of our darkness as Nicodemus did to his glorious life. Let us believe in him and give our lives to him, that he may give us that new life which will give us a new heavenly family and a new heavenly power, marked by the heavenly sign of public commitment and baptism.