Summary: Is "born again" ab outdated term?
You Must Be Born Again
The term “born again” seems to be well known. It is so well known that it has become timeworn. Celebrities like Bob Dylan went through a “born again” phase. But is this even a proper translation of the Greek? Should we, as many suggest, retire the term and find some other way to describe the process of becoming a Christian. Let us take a look into the passage in John which uses this term. Please open your Bible to John 3.
The first thing we have to determine is who Nicodemus was. John shows him to be a well-regarded Pharisee whose name comes from the Greek “Nikos” which means victor and “Demos” which means “people.” Perhaps “The People’s Champion” is a good translation. The name itself does appear in Jewish literature, but there does not seem to be any knowledge of this particular Nicodemus outside the Gospel of John. This should not necessarily be a problem as records of the period are sketchy. It might be a pseudonym or nickname of someone. This well-known Rabbi in his context was interested in Jesus and came to him.
The next mystery to be answered is “When did Nicodemus come to Jesus?” By this I mean more than that he came at night. Was this early in Jesus’ ministry or late. As important as time is in the Gospel of John, it mat not always be linear. The answer to this question depends on whether one sees the Temple cleansing in the second chapter of John as being a separate and earlier one than the one recorded in the other Gospels, which occurred in the last week of Jesus’ earthly life. This is not easy to determine. Could John be juxtaposing the first sign of the turning of the water into wine to the late sign of cleansing the Temple. Or is this chronological. This drives the question on when Jesus met Nicodemus.
By the time Nicodemus, He is already a well known Rabbi. One wonders if this was early in His ministry whether he would have gotten the reputation other than his cleansing of the Temple. But if we look at Nicodemus in the Gospel of John, there appears to a progression from seeker to faith. He appears in chapter 11 as someone who at least wanted Jesus to get a fair hearing to a man who was publicly willing to shame himself to take a dead body off a cross. So I tend to think that both the cleansing of the Temple in John was an earlier cleansing, and that the meeting was also earlier in Jesus’ career.
John likes to use metaphors and binaries in His gospel. One of the binaries is that of light and darkness. So when it says that Nicodemus came by night, it may well mean more than, it just happened to be nighttime. It seems to indicate that Nicodemus, for all his reputation about the Scripture, was really in the spiritual dark and would soon demonstrate this. Also, it seems that Nicodemus was looking for more than a pleasant conversation with Jesus on spiritual matters in which the evening would provide a relaxed time to carry out this conversation. For all he had learned, Nicodemus knew that something was not right with him. Also he knew there must be more about Jesus than just being a fellow Rabbi.
We don’t know if anyone else came with Nicodemus or not, but Nicodemus uses the plural “We know” and Jesus uses the plural when He says “Ye must be born again.” But the darkness would keep them from the scrutiny of other Pharisees who were hostile to Jesus. Perhaps Nicodemus did not want his reputation to be destroyed by being seen with talking with such a controversial rabbi.
Nicodemus starts by addressing Jesus in reverential terms. There are several emphasis markers in the Greek which show this. “From God,” for example” is emphatically placed. This might be a flattery trap, but it seems this was a sincere enquiry. Nicodemus had seen the signs and miracles which Jesus had done. The report of them had gone out through the land. He was not willing to consign Jesus’ miracles to the Spirit of Beelzebub as some other Jewish leaders had done. Only God could have done them This is why the enquire seems both honest and personal.
Jesus gives an answer that seems off the wall and catches Nicodemus by complete surprise. He begins with the characteristic “Amen” Jesus uses when making a solemn pronouncement. In John, it is even the stronger double “Amen.” Usually the word was used to certify the truth of a statement just made. In Jesus’ case it is used before the statement. Also it is used by Jesus Himself rather than someone else affirming the truth of a statement someone else made. So Jesus uses the third person pronoun “someone” here. “Unless someone is born again, he is not able to see the Kingdom of God.” Jesus’ use of indirect language is similar to His doing so in the Sermon on the Mount which starts with “Blessed are those” statements. But at the end, Jesus makes a sharp and confrontational shift when He says: “blessed are YOU when you are persecuted.” Jesus would soon get confrontational with Nicodemus when He says “YOU” must be born again.”