My initiation into parenthood came suddenly one hot November afternoon.
All had gone well with my wife’s pregnancy and we had both been looking forward to this blessed event for nine long months. Without warning her waters broke, heralding the impending birth of our firstborn. Nobody had ever forewarned me that the sac of amniotic fluid that had nursed our son in his mother’s womb for so long would burst like this.
“Time to go,” she said calmly, leaving me in a state of panic.
Jesus had a penchant for taking earthy occasions such as this to illustrate some of His most signifi cant spiritual lessons.
The Gospel of John records an occasion when a theology scholar visited Jesus late one night. This man was noted for his piety. He had taken an open vow before 10 other people that he would keep the laws of God perfectly for the rest of his life. Moreover, he was a politician of the highest rank in his country and, as such, was a very significant person in Jewish society.
He had obviously been watching Jesus from a distance and was amazed at the miraculous signs he had seen Jesus perform and the knowledge of Scripture this uneducated carpenter had applied so wisely. He realised that despite his own extensive education he could still learn a lot from this apparent nobody. And so he approached Jesus privately, in the cloak of night.
He chose circumstances that would not embarrass him before his colleagues, who were deeply prejudiced against this itinerant Galilean.
Addressing Him as “Rabbi,” which means, “teacher,” the scholar-cumpolitician revealed the bottom line and basic aim of his interview. He wanted more knowledge and understanding of Scripture, and to learn the secrets of Jesus’ powerful ministry.
Jesus intentionally ignored his request and instead replied, “I tell you the truth, no-one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again” (John 3:3). That answer irritated the erudite academic. Far from being ignorant of what Jesus was saying, he realised that even with all his study of Scripture, in Jesus’ eyes he was still at the same level as a despised Gentile who had no awareness of—or desire for—the kingdom of God. Jews, in a derogatory manner, had called Gentiles goyim, which is the Hebrew word for “dogs.” If a Gentile wanted to convert to Judaism, he was required to undergo baptism and, by implication, hadn’t really begun to live.
Sarcastically, this scholar responded, “How can a man be born when he is old? Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born!” Jesus responded in those immortal words, “I tell you the truth, no-one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit” (John 3:5, 6). He was using the image of human birth to illustrate the necessity of initiation into the kingdom of God, a voluntary submission to the rule of God in a person’s faith and life. Just as human babies are born through “water,” Christians are likewise born from above through water. Jesus is referring here to the practice of baptism, to become totally immersed in water to mark the beginning of a new spiritual experience and orientation of their lives. the birth of the human spirit Like any ritual, baptism can be just an empty form if it is devoid of the spiritual reality it symbolises. That is why Jesus said it was not enough to be immersed in water only. In order to be truly effective, the outward ceremony had to also be accompanied by a “birth” of the human spirit, accomplished through the agency of the Holy Spirit.
The implications of this are enormous.
It assumes that before this moment, the human spirit is actually dead to the things of God and His kingdom. Paul, describing the condition of members of the church at Ephesus before they had become Christians, endorsed this reality. “As for you,” he says, “you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world” (Ephesians 2:1, 2a).
The apostle is not saying here that the human spirit has no life at all before becoming a Christian. Many things, including music and nature, stir its passions. But he is unquestionably saying that it is dead to the things of God. In fact, the only spiritual power that does control the human spirit until that time, he says, is “of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient” (Ephesians 2:2b).
That is scary to contemplate in its ultimate consequences. However, in His great mercy, God does not leave us there. In His providence, He allows us to hear, in one way or another, the story of the birth, life, death, resurrection and intercession of Jesus for us. As this happens the Spirit Himself speaks to our human spirit (see Romans 8:14- 16) and calls us to life. God makes us “alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions” (Ephesians 2:5).
There is an intangible quality of life in the words of Jesus. When Jesus—the Word of God (see John 1:1-3)—spoke at the creation of the world, that which previously had not existed came into being ex-nihilo—from nothing. Toward the end of His earthly ministry, Jesus spoke over the body of Lazarus that had been dead for three days, and those words penetrated the ears of the dead.
Life pulsed through his veins once more. In a similar way, “you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation” (Ephesians 1:13).
The New Testament throbs with this new life from the Spirit. Not only is the Spirit the author of that life, He takes up permanent residence in the human spirit. In Jesus’ words, He lives “in” us as well as “with” us (see John 14:17).
“Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession” (Ephesians 1:13, 14).
That Spirit brings with Him all that is needed to live a Christian life. He enables the Christian, newly born from above, to experience assurance of salvation, to hear His voice in guidance, to understand Scripture, to grow in grace through the Spirit’s fruit of love, and to be effective in various types of ministry for Jesus through uniquely bestowed Spirit gifts.
Fifty days after the crucifixion of Jesus, the inhabitants of Jerusalem came under a deep conviction of guilt from their role in His death. Peter’s response to them is significant not only for them but for every Christian to follow: “Repent and be baptised, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call” (Acts 2:38, 39).
This is the ultimate heritage and defining element of being born from above accompanied by baptism. It is the fulfilment of Jesus’ loud cry toward the end of His ministry, “‘Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him.’ By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive” (John 7:38, 39).