born again

The Life of God's New Age is Love

An important leader of the Pharisees named Nicodemus comes at night to visit Jesus.  They have a discussion about the kingdom of God and being born again. 

I wrote about this in a blog called “A Down To Earth Take On Baptism And Being Born Again” in which I seek to demystify the experience of being born again.  Certainly the Spirit of God is involved in the new birth, but it also has very down-to-earth implications.  In this blog I’ll be zeroing in on two verses in the story.  The first is John 3:16, of which I’ll made two observations.

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.  NRSV

Eternal life or everlasting life is often understood as a timeless, blissful existence in heaven, but N.T. Wright and others contest this popular understanding.  Jesus himself doesn’t define eternal life as a timeless heaven either, but as knowing he and his Father. (John 17:3)

Wright points out that many ancient Jews thought of time in “ages” or “eons”.  The “present age” was the time before the coming of the Messiah, and the “age to come” was the age that would begin when Messiah arrived.  Wright describes it this way:

The “age to come,” many ancient Jews believed, would arrive one day to bring God’s justice, peace, and healing to the world as it groaned and toiled within the “present age.” “ 1

With this in mind, Wright translates “eternal life” as “the life of God’s new age”.  This is important because it reorients Jesus’ discussion with Nicodemus to the here and now instead of the afterlife.  It is during the Messianic age, which began with the first advent of Jesus that the kingdom of God and being born again are concerned.  So, we can now say…

John 3: 16 is not a verse about going to heaven when you die; it is about living the life of God’s new age here and now through a change of citizenship and allegiance. 

Jesus never speaks of dual citizenship.  Being born again and baptism should affect a new citizenship in God’s kingdom with a change of allegiance from any particular political party of ruler to the Lordship of Jesus Christ.  This is why the confession “Jesus is Lord” became the basis for much persecution of the early church.  It was understood politically as a direct challenge to Caesar’s authority.  The early church did not partner with any earthly political movement.  Their total allegiance was to a different King and kingdom, which put them at odds with the nationalistic systems of their day. 

In this way, the first advent of Jesus can be understood as an apocalyptic event. It was the actual inauguration of the age to come.

The second observation about John 3:16 comes from James Alison.  He notes that the Greek adjective houtos that is translated as “so” in “for God so loved the world” more often means “in this manner”.2   This makes a considerable difference in how we understand John 3:16-17.  If houtos is translated as “so”, it functions to intensify God’s love, but if translated as “in this manner” it becomes descriptive of what God’s love does.  This means that it is what God actually did, not what we presume about how God felt about us that we should use to understand God and his love toward us.

So, if we combine the insights of N.T. Wright and James Alison, we could translate John 3:16 as follows:

For it was in this manner, you see, that God loved the world; he gave his only son so that everyone who believes in him should not be lost but should share in the life of God’s new age.

This gets us to the crux of why Jesus came.  God loved the world IN A PARTICULAR WAY, FOR A PARTICULAR PURPOSE.  And the purpose was that we should share in the life of God’s new age here and now!

NOT TO BIDE OUR TIME EITHER WAITING TO DIE, OR WAITING FOR THE 2ND COMING, BUT TO SHARE IN THE REVOLUTIONARY LIFE OF GOD’S NEW AGE HERE AND NOW!

The next verse describes the manner of God’s love, and it is mind-blowing!

After all, God didn’t send the son into the world to condemn the world, but so that the world could be saved by him.  John 3:17 KNT

It is in this manner that God loves the world – totally without judgment or condemnation.  This is a negative description of how God loves – a description of what God’s love is not like, and it is incredibly good news… 

God’s love contains no judgment or condemnation.  Let that sink in. 

The word “condemn” here is from the Greek word, “krino” which means: to separate, put asunder, pick out, select, choose, to esteem, to prefer, to be of an opinion, deem or condemn, to pronounce an opinion concerning right & wrong, to be judged, i.e. summoned to trial

We can now combine and amplify John 3:16-17 like this:

For it was in this manner, you see, that God loved the world; he gave his only son so that everyone who believes in him should not be lost but should share in the life of God’s new age.  After all, God didn’t send the son into the world to condemn, separate, put asunder, choose, prefer, to be of an opinion or to judge the world, but so that the world could be saved by him.

In other words, we should never use the threat of judgment or condemnation to get people saved, because Jesus didn’t use the threat of condemnation to save people.

And what exactly is Jesus “saving” people from here? The present evil age… not eternal torment in hell.

This is not a passage about heaven and hell!

It’s a passage about living in the life of God’s new age which began 2000 years ago and continues today.

God doesn’t pick and choose who can join in the life of God’s new age.

He loves everyone, and he doesn’t divide us or condemn us - we do that.

We divide ourselves.  We condemn and judge each other.

God doesn’t.  He invites all of us into the life of God’s new age now.

Sure, we can choose to remain in this present evil age if we want.

But God isn’t keeping us there.

We can choose to remain in this present evil age if we want.

God doesn’t condemn us for it.

He just calls us “lost” if we do.

It’s a loss of opportunity to participate in the life of God’s new age here and now.

This is really, really good news expressed in a negative way.  Jesus doesn't do judgment and condemnation, and if we choose through new birth and baptism to enter the life of God’s new age, we shouldn’t do judgment and condemnation either.

 

1 N.T. Wright, “How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels”

2 James Alison, “Broken Hearts and News Creations”

A Down-To-Earth Take On Baptism And Being Born Again

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Jesus said to Nicodemus, a Jewish religious leader, “I tell you the truth, unless you are born again, you cannot see the Kingdom of God.” (John 3:3)

Growing up in an Evangelical environment, I heard a lot about being born again.  It was typically associated with saying a prayer of repentance and “asking Jesus into your heart”.  After doing these things you were assured that you had been “saved”.  (Translation: “You will now go to heaven when you die.”)

I noticed however that lots of people who said the prayer struggled with believing and accepting that they were in fact, saved.  Some people had a kind of spiritual/mystical encounter that seemed to validate the experience for them, but lacking this, many questioned their salvation.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m all for repentance and salvation, but I don’t think this understanding of salvation is what Jesus was really talking about with Nicodemus at all. 

First - The Kingdom of God  

Lets establish that when Jesus talked about the Kingdom of God, or the Kingdom of Heaven as Matthew puts it, he wasn’t generally talking about a place you might or might not go after you die.  N.T. Wright (1) and others have shown convincingly that the Kingdom of God Jesus spoke so much about is the realm in which God has authority both on earth and in heaven.  Jesus said that it was “at hand”, and “among you”, and “within you”.  The Kingdom of God, then, is here and now, although many people (many Christians included) don’t live as if it is.  Its certainly not here in its fullness, but nevertheless, the Kingdom that Jesus is now ruling and reigning over is already here on earth, manifesting in people who submit to him.

Second – Being Born Again

When Jesus told Nicodemus that in order to see or enter the Kingdom of God he would need to be “born again”, what was Jesus getting at?  Well, what happens whenever a baby is born in any particular nation or kingdom?  That baby becomes a citizen of that nation by birth.  At birth the baby enters the kingdom he or she is born in, and when its little eyes open they see this same kingdom for the first time. Nicodemus was born a citizen of Israel.  He had entered and seen and become a citizen of Israel, yet Jesus tells him that he must be born again to see and enter the Kingdom of God.  This tells us that God’s Kingdom absolutely cannot be associated with any earthly nation or kingdom.

Every nation has its own constitution, customs and laws.  Every child grows up and learns to live according to these societal norms.  Typically, people remain citizens of the nation of their birth until they die, at which point their name is removed from the citizenship roles of that nation.  This leads me to a question. 

When does a follower of Jesus die?

Third – Baptism

Paul wrote, “Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”  (Romans 6:4)

According to Paul, when I as an American citizen was baptized, I died.  And when I came up from the water, I began a new life, in a new Kingdom, with an entirely new citizenship, and...

As a minister, when I baptize someone, I am functioning as a benevolent executioner. 

I am putting the person to death, in order that they might be set free from their earthly citizenship.  And when I lift them up out of the water, by the Spirit of God, they are raised from the dead into newness of life.

The last breath they take before I put them under the water is the last breath they take as a citizen of the kingdoms of this world, and the first breath they take when they come up out of the water is the breath of a newborn citizen in the Kingdom of God.  It’s like the first breath a baby takes after birth and they are… born again. (2)

Through death they are now set free from their prior citizenship, with its customs, constitution and laws. This is necessary for them to be able to see and enter God’s Kingdom.  (Their name may still be on the citizenship roles of the country of their first birth, but according to Paul, they have died to that so that they can begin walking in newness of life.)

Fourth – What Now?

After becoming a citizen of God’s Kingdom we must learn the ways of this Kingdom.  I propose the following analogy to the government of the United States.

In America, much of Christianity has capitulated to our national government as the means to living and being in the world.  I see more Christians getting very worked up over how to interpret the U.S. Constitution than I see seeking to live by the Sermon on the Mount.  If what I am proposing is correct, this is nothing short of idolatry. 

John writes, We know that we are God’s children, and that the whole world lies under the power of the evil one.” (1 John 5:19)  All worldly governments function under the power of the evil one.  If we were meant to consider ourselves as dual citizens (part American, part Christian) then baptism as dying makes no sense. (3)

No, as followers of Jesus we are to be born again as citizens of God’s Kingdom, subject to King Jesus and his constitution, bylaws and laws.  Unfortunately, for too long we’ve preferred to pass judgment on and amend the Sermon on the Mount rather than seeking to live by it as citizens of God’s Kingdom here and now.   

I’ll finish with a quote from Greg Boyd’s important book, The Myth Of A Christian Nation.  “Consider these questions: Did Jesus ever suggest by word or example that we should aspire to acquire, let alone take over, the power of Caesar?  Did Jesus spend any time and energy trying to improve, let alone dominate, the reigning government of his day?  Did he ever work to pass laws against the sinners he hung out with and ministered to?  Did he worry at all about ensuring that his rights and the religious rights of his followers were protected?  Does any author in the New Testament remotely hint that engaging in this sort of activity has anything to do with the kingdom of God?”

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(1) See Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church by N.T.Wright

(2) I’m not suggesting salvation by baptism here.  I’m suggesting that Jesus wasn’t even talking with Nicodemus about salvation, at least not salvation in the way Evangelicals generally conceive of it.  Jesus was talking with Nicodemus about seeing and entering the Kingdom of God on earth, i.e. submitting to God’s government as distinct from any earthly nation’s government.  I’m also not contesting the long-held understanding of baptism as identification with Christ’s death.

** See Leo Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God Is Within You

The Sermon on the Mount  (Matthew 5-7)

The Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-12)

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength.  Love your neighbor as yourself.  (Matthew 22:36-40)

 (3) Baptism, and infant baptism in particular became a means to becoming a citizen in many European countries. While this had some beneficial effects culturally, it is the inverse of what I believe Jesus and Paul were envisioning when speaking of new birth and baptism. https://www.firstthings.com/blogs/leithart/2007/02/baptism-and-citizenship