by Jason Micheli
Numbers 21, John 3 (click to see Scripture text)
I realize we’re still getting to know one another, so it may come as a shock to some of you to learn that I tend to be contrary by nature.
Case in point:
Towards the end of my first semester at the University of Virginia, my freshman year, I was invited one Saturday night by my friend, Ben, to attend a Christmas party hosted by Campus Crusade for Christ.
Back then, I was still new in my faith. I’d only become a Christian a year or so earlier. Like a lot of new converts, I thought I had all the answers, but also didn’t know what I didn’t know.
As their former name implies, Campus Crusade was an aggressively evangelistic organization, and even that is putting it mildly.
Of course, I didn’t know that when I accepted the invitation.
An organization like Campus Crusade probably seemed so tame to Ben, having grown up in the mountains of Southwest Virginia, he hadn’t bothered to prepare me for this “party.”
Now I shouldn’t have to tell you that the word “party,” to a college student, conjures particular images and elicits very specific expectations— none of which were matched by the gathering Ben took me to that Saturday night.
In fact, in all my years of college and graduate school, this was the only party where a den mother asked me to take my shoes off at the front door.
As we walked through the cold darkness of the night on a thin layer of snow, to a neighborhood just off campus, we came to a short driveway to a small ranch home.
I could see through the big bay window in the living room a glimpse of the evening that lay ahead of me.
At first, I thought we must be at the wrong house.
This must be a Mary Kay or Tupperware party.
Maybe a bridge club going on.
Ben assured me it was the right address.
When Ben knocked on the door, this skinny guy with a soul patch under his lip and a guitar slung across his back answered the door.
When Ben introduced me, the guy— the student pastor— shook my hand with disproportionate enthusiasm and said, “Jason, yeah, Jason- Acts 17.7.”
And I replied, “What?”
This must have been his secret Christian greeting.
And because I didn’t know what he was talking about, because I didn’t even know my name was in the Bible, and because I didn’t reciprocate with “Michael, yeah, archangel of the Lord, Daniel 12.1,” he gave me a sad, pathetic sort of look and ushered me inside.
But first, his wife asked me to take off my shoes.
Everyone else must have drank the Kool-Aid before I arrived, because I didn’t fit in and couldn’t understand how people seemed to be enjoying themselves.
Once we were inside, Ben abandoned me.
He mingled around the house while I stood near the dining table in my threadbare socks eating chocolate covered pretzels and looking at my calculator watch between bites.
You can imagine how much my mood improved when Mike, the campus pastor, asked us all to circle up in the family room for a sing-along.
I ended up sitting shoulder to shoulder on a sofa with two other people.
On my left was a girl who began every sentence with “The Lord just put it on my heart to ________”, and who looked at me like I was as crazy as I thought she was.
On my right, with his arm resting uncomfortably behind me, was a 50-something man who worked in the dining hall.
He had a long, scraggly beard and was wearing a Star Trek sweatshirt.
Earlier, over chocolate covered pretzels, he asked me if I thought the incarnation was a violation of the Prime Directive.
“I’m sorry. I don’t watch Star Trek,” I lied.
We sang songs whose words I vaguely knew and whose tunes seemed unseasonably fast-paced.
Mike, the pastor, strummed his guitar and led us in a breathy, earnest voice while his wife accompanied him on a small plastic keyboard on her lap.
When the singing was over, Mike, assuming a serious tone of voice, asked us to open up our Bibles.
I felt like the music had stopped and I was the one without a chair.
Not only was I the only person who had failed to bring a Bible with them, I hadn’t a clue where a Bible reader could buy a carrying case for their Bible.
“You didn’t bring a Bible with you?” Mike asked chagrined.
“Uh, I’m a Methodist.”
And, to my surprise, everyone nodded like this was a perfectly reasonable explanation.
“Luke, chapter two,” Mike said.
Everyone but me read along as Mike read aloud, “In the days of King Herod…”
After he finished the reading, Mike started in on his Campus Crusade for Christ mandated “talk.”
“The promise of the Gospel,” he began, “is that God gives himself in Christ for the sin of the world— for your sins and my sins— but…” he said, “you have to do your part, too.”
“At Christmas God gives Christ to you, on the Cross Christ gives himself for you, but it’s not complete until you give yourself to Christ, too.”
And everyone around the room nodded their heads.
“In order to get saved, you’ve got to get born again,” Mike said, closing his Bible.
And for several long minutes, people around the room shared stories about the time they got saved— down to the date and the place and the crisis that occasioned it.
“What about you?” Mike asked me, “I’m sorry I forgot your name…you—the one who didn’t bring a Bible.”
“Me?” I asked and looked around, wishing I could be debating the Prime Directive.
“Well, I got baptized…”
And he shook his head, “But when did you get born again?”
“I started going to church against my will not that long ago,” I said. “And, I don’t know, I just suddenly realized one day that I trusted in Jesus.”
“I’m sorry, Jason, but that’s not good enough and, well, there’s eternal consequences to consider.”
And that’s right about the point when the contrarian in me came out.
“Excuse me?” I said, “Not good enough?”
He nodded in a patronizing way and explained, “In order to get saved, you’ve got to get born again. You’ve got to make a decision for Christ. You’ve got to invite Jesus into your heart to be your personal Lord and Savior.”
Little did this soul-patched pastor know, he was stepping with a recent Virginia State forensic-and-debate champion.
“Tell me, Mike,” I said. “You called it the promise of the Gospel.”
And he nodded his head, thinking he had me.
“But if there’s a condition, if there’s something I’ve got to do for it to be true for me, doesn’t that turn the promise into a demand?”
Ben blushed as red as the pastor’s wife’s corduroy dress.
“I mean— if you’re saved, because you give your heart to Jesus (and not saved until you do), doesn’t that mean you’re saving yourself, Mike? Not Jesus?”
The pastor’s wife was biting her lip, and where I had spent the first thirty minutes of the evening wondering how I could escape, she was now clearly wondering how she could get me out of her house.
NO ONE SEEMED TO APPRECIATE THE BUDDING THEOLOGIAN IN THEIR MIDST!
No one except for the bearded fifty-year old with the Star Trek shirt who said, “Dude, that’s deep,” which didn’t exactly help my case.
In fact, the girl sitting next to me had placed her large KJV Bible in the crack of the sofa cushions, erecting a barrier between us and making clear that she was not with me.
Still, I’ve always had thick skin, so I pressed into the point.
“Think about it, Mike,” I said. “If salvation isn’t real until my decision activates it, then isn’t my faith just another work? Isn’t salvation something I’ve earned for myself then?”
“Jesus says it plainly,” Mike rebutted, stroking his soul-patch. “No one can see the Kingdom of God without being born again.”
“But isn’t it odd,” I said, starting to enjoy myself in a sado-masochistic sort of way, “to turn that verse into a requirement— something we must do, get born again— when the whole point of an image like being born is that it’s passive? I mean, I don’t know about you, Mike, but I didn’t contribute a single thing to my birth. In fact, my mom had to have a C-section my head was so big.”
“Sounds like you’ve still got a pretty big head,” Mike did not say to himself.
As if on cue, Ben summoned a fake “hahahahaha” from somewhere in his belly and nervously suggested we sing another song.
Mercifully, Mike swung his guitar around like Church Berry, said “Amen,” and started another song.
“I’ve seen the signs you do,” Nicodemus says to Jesus. “Tell me, who are you?”
And oddly, Jesus answers with that verse which tightens the sphincter of every good, liberal United Methodist: “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the Kingdom of God without being born again.”
Apparently, Nicodemus knows what he doesn’t know.
Nicodemus must suspect his faith is somehow inadequate and lacking; otherwise, Nicodemus— a Pharisee, a member of the Sanhedrin even— would not take the great risk of coming to Jesus under the cover of darkness.
Sure, it’s only chapter three, but here in John’s Gospel, Jesus has just thrown his temple tantrum and already he’s made himself public enemy Number One.
But Jesus, in typical Jesus fashion, doesn’t do anything at all to mitigate whatever spiritual crisis has led Nicodemus to Jesus.
Jesus doesn’t bother to comfort Nicodemus or reassure Nicodemus or do anything to relieve whatever existential tension has brought Nicodemus to Jesus.
Notice how Jesus tightens the screws.
Jesus doesn’t do what United Methodist pastors are trained to do.
Jesus doesn’t let Nicodemus off the hook with some blessed assurance like, “It’s okay. Don’t worry, Nicodemus, be happy. God loves you.”
Jesus doesn’t offer Nicodemus a non-anxious presence and say, “Your faith is fine just as it is, Nicodemus. We’re all on a journey. There are many paths to my Father.”
No, Jesus sticks his thumb in whatever ache Nicodemus is nursing and raises the stakes absolutely, “If you want to see the Kingdom of God, Nicodemus, you must be born again.”
Oh, and FYI, he’s not just talking to Nicodemus.
Jesus dials it up to DEFCON ETERNAL for all of us, because that “you” in “You must be born again,” is plural.
I know that the last thing you United Methodists want is to be considered among those kind of Christians, but, like it or not, we are swept up in that you.
It’s, “You all must be born anothen if you want to see the Kingdom of God.”
No loopholes for raking your neighbor’s yard or never missing a Sunday service.
That you— it’s all of us.
“You all must be born again.”
And Nicodemus, he’s a Pharisee.
He’s super religious, so he responds— like we religious types always respond— with what he’s supposed to do.
“How do I do that, Jesus…?
And then Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You all must be born again.”
Pay attention to the verbs Jesus uses on Nicodemus in verses three and five.
The verbs are what makes this passage that’s normally bad news for Christians like us good news for everybody.
Unless you all are born again, Jesus says, you will never see the Kingdom and you will never enter the Kingdom of God.
When it comes to God and God’s Kingdom, on our own, we’re powerless.
We are born— naturally— spiritually blind and spiritually paralyzed.
Whatever Jesus means by you being born again, he’s not talking about something you do.
The dead don’t make decisions.
I waited until we walked to the end of pastor Mike’s driveway before I said to Ben, “Well gosh, that was an awesome party.”
And Ben laughed, “I don’t see what difference it makes.”
“Difference? It makes all the difference in the world. People like him turn that verse about being born again into a threshold you must cross— you’ve got to do it a certain way, pray a particular prayer— otherwise you’re not a genuine, real-deal Christian.”
Ben didn’t say anything else until we’d walked back onto campus, crossing the footbridge over Emmett Street when Ben said:
“Still, even if it’s a passive image— like with your mom and the C-section— you can still point to a date when it happened, right?
You can still name the time and the place when you were born. Shouldn’t you have to be able do that for when you were born again. Shouldn’t you be able to see when and where you got born again?”
Like I said, I had the trophies to prove it. I was a debate champ.
So, I knew when I’d been bested.
Let me make it plain—Being born again is not “making a decision for Jesus Christ.” The dead don’t make decisions. We are born anothen. Again. Or, the Greek can also be translated from above. It’s top down. You’ve got nothing to do it.
You don’t come to Jesus to get born again— corpses can’t get up and go anymore— Jesus must come to us and deliver us.
We get so hung up on what Jesus says to Nicodemus in the dark of night that we close our eyes to what John tries to show us.
Just think about how John begins his Gospel, not with a nativity story but with an intentional echo of the Book of Genesis, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. All things came into being through Him and not one thing came into being without Him.”
In other words, this Gospel of Jesus Christ, says John, is about the arrival of a New Creation. And next, right here, Jesus tells Nicodemus and you all, that in order to see the Kingdom of God you’re going to have to become a new creation, too.
By water and the spirit.
To Good Friday, the sixth day of the week, the day of that first week in Genesis when God declares, “Behold, mankind made in our image.”
And what does John show you?
Jesus, beaten and flogged and spat upon, wearing a crown of thorns twisted into his scalp and arrayed with a purple robe, next to Pontius Pilate.
And what does Pilate say?
“Behold, the man.”
And later, on that sixth day, as Jesus dies on a cross, what does John show you?
Jesus giving up his spirit, commending his Holy Spirit.
And then, John shows you Jesus’ executioners, attempting to hasten his death they spear Jesus in his side, and what does John show you?
Water rushing out of Jesus’ wounded side. Water pouring out onto those executioners and betraying bystanders, pouring out— in other words— onto sinful humanity.
Water and the spirit, the sixth day.
And then Saturday, the seventh day of the week, the day of that first week in Genesis when God rests in the Garden from his creative work- what does John show you?
Jesus being laid to rest in a garden tomb.
Then Easter, the first day of the week.
And having been raised from the grave, John shows you a tear-stained Mary mistaking Jesus, as naked and unashamed as Adam before the Fall, for the what?
For the gardener, what Adam was always intended to be.
Later that Easter day, John shows you the disciples hiding behind locked doors.
This New Adam comes to them from the garden grave, and like a mighty, rushing wind, he breathes on them. “Receive the Holy Spirit,” he says to them.
Water, Spirit, Wind blowing where the Spirit wills, the first day.
He breathes on them.
Just as God in the first garden takes the adamah, the soil of the earth, breathes into it the breath of life and brings forth Adam, brings forth life, this New Adam takes the grime of these disciples’ fear and failure, their sin and sorrow, and he breathes upon them the Holy Spirit, the breath of life.
They’re made new again.
And on that same first day, John shows you Jesus telling these disciples for the very first time, in his Gospel, that his Father in Heaven, is their Father, too. They’re now the Father’s children in their own right.
The Father’s Kingdom is theirs to enter and inherit.
What Jesus says to Nicodemus here in the night is true.
The cosmically inclusive love God is exclusive through Jesus Christ.
You must be born again.
And yes, we are incorporated in that “you.”
You must be born again, Bill.
You must be born again, Bob.
Barbara, you must be born again.
Every last one of you— you’ve got be born from above, the Gospel says.
But what the Gospel shows, what the Gospel wants you to see, is that you have been.
You’ve been delivered.
Just as all of us were dead through Adam’s trespass, the Bible says, much more surely has the grace of God through Jesus Christ abounded for all, Paul says. The death he died he died to Sin, once for all, so you all can consider yourselves dead to Sin and alive to God, consider yourselves anothened. Being born again— it comes to you on God’s terms not your own.
Back in college, a newly minted convert, I had a lot of answers, but I didn’t know what I didn’t know.
Turns out, my friend was right that dark winter night.
You should be able to name the day.
So, if someone ever asks you if you’ve been born again, then- like Venkman tells Ray- next time, “You say YES.” Say yes.
And give them the particulars, the where, and the when.
Tell them you were born again— you got saved— sometime between Good Friday and Resurrection morning, the year— 33 AD, on a hill outside of Jerusalem.
You got born again not when you chose Jesus Christ (Have you been watching the Impeachment Trial? Our choices aren’t trustworthy enough to stake a sandwich on let alone eternity.) but because God chose you in Jesus Christ.
In Jesus Christ, God chose you from before time for all time.
And by the doing and dying and rising of Jesus Christ, like a Mother, God delivered you from slavery to Sin and Death into newness of life— eternal life.
There’s alot of Bible Belt baggage that comes with this verse about being born again so if you haven’t been tracking with anything today, pay attention right here.
Alot of Christians turn this passage of the Gospel into the Law.
Into a demand you must fulfill, an expectation you must meet, into an ought that only accuses.
In order to be born again, you’ve got to make a decision. You’ve got to invite him into your heart in this way. You’ve got to pray this prayer. You’ve got to clean up your act and you have got do these things.
Alot of Christians turn this Gospel into the Law.
Jesus doesn’t say anything about any steps or conditions or techniques.
There’s no earning or deserving.
There’s not even any adverbs like sincerely or contritely or genuinely.
Jesus doesn’t say a word about anything you need to take on or give up.
Your delivery is one-sided, God-sided.
And the only thing more impossibly miraculous is the means by which you access it. All you have to do— no, all you can do— is simply trust that it is so.
As Jesus says to Nicodemus, “God loved the world so much that he gave his One and Only Son so that every single individual who simply trusts into him would even now have eternal life.”
That’s good news. But that doesn’t loosen the screws Jesus tightened down on Nicodemus because in the end you’re left with the same choice Jesus leaves for Nicodemus. You can either believe OR not believe. There’s no other other way.
When the Canaanite king of Arad, who lived in the Negev, heard that Israel was coming along the road to Atharim, he attacked the Israelites and captured some of them. 2 Then Israel made this vow to the Lord: “If you will deliver these people into our hands, we will totally destroy their cities.” 3 The Lord listened to Israel’s plea and gave the Canaanites over to them. They completely destroyed them and their towns; so the place was named Hormah.
The Bronze Snake
4 They traveled from Mount Hor along the route to the Red Sea, to go around Edom. But the people grew impatient on the way; 5 they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!”
6 Then the Lord sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died. 7 The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you. Pray that the Lord will take the snakes away from us.” So Moses prayed for the people.
8 The Lord said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” 9 So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived.
The Journey to Moab
10 The Israelites moved on and camped at Oboth. 11 Then they set out from Oboth and camped in Iye Abarim, in the wilderness that faces Moab toward the sunrise. 12 From there they moved on and camped in the Zered Valley. 13 They set out from there and camped alongside the Arnon, which is in the wilderness extending into Amorite territory. The Arnon is the border of Moab, between Moab and the Amorites. 14 That is why the Book of the Wars of the Lord says:
“. . . Zahab[d] in Suphah and the ravines,
the Arnon 15 and the slopes of the ravines
that lead to the settlement of Ar
and lie along the border of Moab.”
16 From there they continued on to Beer, the well where the Lord said to Moses, “Gather the people together and I will give them water.”
17 Then Israel sang this song:
“Spring up, O well!
Sing about it,
18 about the well that the princes dug,
that the nobles of the people sank—
the nobles with scepters and staffs.”
Then they went from the wilderness to Mattanah, 19 from Mattanah to Nahaliel, from Nahaliel to Bamoth, 20 and from Bamoth to the valley in Moab where the top of Pisgah overlooks the wasteland.
Defeat of Sihon and Og
21 Israel sent messengers to say to Sihon king of the Amorites:
22 “Let us pass through your country. We will not turn aside into any field or vineyard, or drink water from any well. We will travel along the King’s Highway until we have passed through your territory.”
23 But Sihon would not let Israel pass through his territory. He mustered his entire army and marched out into the wilderness against Israel. When he reached Jahaz, he fought with Israel. 24 Israel, however, put him to the sword and took over his land from the Arnon to the Jabbok, but only as far as the Ammonites, because their border was fortified. 25 Israel captured all the cities of the Amorites and occupied them, including Heshbon and all its surrounding settlements. 26 Heshbon was the city of Sihon king of the Amorites, who had fought against the former king of Moab and had taken from him all his land as far as the Arnon.
27 That is why the poets say:
“Come to Heshbon and let it be rebuilt;
let Sihon’s city be restored.
28 “Fire went out from Heshbon,
a blaze from the city of Sihon.
It consumed Ar of Moab,
the citizens of Arnon’s heights.
29 Woe to you, Moab!
You are destroyed, people of Chemosh!
He has given up his sons as fugitives
and his daughters as captives
to Sihon king of the Amorites.
30 “But we have overthrown them;
Heshbon’s dominion has been destroyed all the way to Dibon.
We have demolished them as far as Nophah,
which extends to Medeba.”
31 So Israel settled in the land of the Amorites.
32 After Moses had sent spies to Jazer, the Israelites captured its surrounding settlements and drove out the Amorites who were there. 33 Then they turned and went up along the road toward Bashan, and Og king of Bashan and his whole army marched out to meet them in battle at Edrei.
34 The Lord said to Moses, “Do not be afraid of him, for I have delivered him into your hands, along with his whole army and his land. Do to him what you did to Sihon king of the Amorites, who reigned in Heshbon.”
35 So they struck him down, together with his sons and his whole army, leaving them no survivors. And they took possession of his land.
Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. 2 He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”
3 Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”
4 “How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”
5 Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. 6 Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. 7 You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
9 “How can this be?” Nicodemus asked.
10 “You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? 11 Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. 12 I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? 13 No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man. 14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”
16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. 19 This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20 Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. 21 But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.
John Testifies Again About Jesus
22 After this, Jesus and his disciples went out into the Judean countryside, where he spent some time with them, and baptized. 23 Now John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim, because there was plenty of water, and people were coming and being baptized. 24 (This was before John was put in prison.) 25 An argument developed between some of John’s disciples and a certain Jew over the matter of ceremonial washing. 26 They came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, that man who was with you on the other side of the Jordan—the one you testified about—look, he is baptizing, and everyone is going to him.”
27 To this John replied, “A person can receive only what is given them from heaven. 28 You yourselves can testify that I said, ‘I am not the Messiah but am sent ahead of him.’ 29 The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete. 30 He must become greater; I must become less.”[h]
31 The one who comes from above is above all; the one who is from the earth belongs to the earth, and speaks as one from the earth. The one who comes from heaven is above all. 32 He testifies to what he has seen and heard, but no one accepts his testimony. 33 Whoever has accepted it has certified that God is truthful. 34 For the one whom God has sent speaks the words of God, for God gives the Spirit without limit. 35 The Father loves the Son and has placed everything in his hands. 36 Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on them.