Yesterday at church, my pastor preached about John 3, in which Jesus tells the Jewish religious leader Nicodemus that he must be born again.
My pastor made the point that Jesus was not an evangelical Christian doing altar calls, but was a Jew, and so my pastor sought to place Jesus’ teaching about being born again within a Jewish context. My pastor concluded that being born again was essentially the same as repentance. Why didn’t Nicodemus understand this, when Judaism, too, had a teaching of repentance? My pastor attributed Nicodemus’ misunderstandings to his misplaced expectations: Jesus and Nicodemus, at that time, were on a different page and were talking past each other.
I was intrigued by my pastor’s goal here. It somewhat fits into my goal in the sermon that I will be delivering next week: to interpret the New Covenant in light of the story of Israel in the Hebrew Bible. Whether or not I agree with my pastor at this point, I do not know. I think that the concept of being born again in John 3 relates to more than repentance and includes a belief in Jesus, God’s only-begotten son, whom God sent into the world. There are themes in John 3 that overlap with the Hebrew Bible, however, particularly the Book of Ezekiel: Jesus talks about being born of water and of spirit, and Ezekiel 36:25 says that God will sprinkle clean water on the Israelites and cleanse them of their filthiness and idolatry, Ezekiel 36:27 says that God will put God’s spirit within the Israelites that will motivate them to obey God’s laws, and Ezekiel 37 depicts God resurrecting Israel with spirit, or breath, which could be a kind of rebirth. Do we see the concept of being born from above in the Hebrew Bible, since being born from above is one way to translate the phrase that is often translated as “born again”? Not explicitly, as far as I know, and yet Israel was considered to be a son of God (Ezekiel 4:22), and perhaps Israel was believed to regain that sonship, in a sense, when God forgave her. See here for rabbinic references to being born anew (when Gentiles convert to Judaism, when people get married, etc.), although many of the references are much later than the New Testament.
At the same time, Jesus’ focus in John 3 is not just on Israel: it is on the world. God so loved the world. Jesus came to save, not condemn, the world.
A reason that the pastor’s point intrigued me is that I was wondering if there is another way to interpret John 3, than to say that those who do not believe in Jesus are condemned already and will go to hell. Don’t get me wrong: my pastor believes that Jesus is the only way to salvation. But I was wondering if some of his points could be developed in the direction of another interpretation of John 3. Repentance. Jews can repent without believing in Jesus, right?
Still, I have to come back to Jesus’ statement in John 3 that those who do not believe are condemned already. Does that apply to non-Christians today? It can, perhaps, depending on how much light they have and how much they know. In the first century, Jesus did miracles as a sign that God had sent him, and Jesus said in John 15:24: ” If I had not done among them the works which none other man did, they had not had sin” (KJV), implying that the first century Jews’ witnessing of Jesus’ signs and wonders made them accountable before God to believe in Jesus. Can we say that those who have not seen those kinds of signs and wonders are accountable? Well, there are still miracles among Christians nowadays, and I guess that it is between people and God how they choose to respond to them: explain them away, repent and believe, point to miracles in non-Christian religions, etc. They and God know whether they are trying to avoid having to be responsible to God.