The world in which we live is hostile to God and Christianity. Does that sound extreme? In fact, Jesus said that this would be the way things would be, and it is becoming more obvious as time goes by. This is not the cry of a martyr, or someone who feels persecuted and misunderstood: it is just a fact of life as we know it. In the past, people were less willing to admit their feelings, were prepared to go along to church and pay lip service, because, otherwise, they risked social isolation, career-ending condemnation, and a host of other penalties.
For better or for worse, and I think it is for better, there is far less of that hypocritical playacting now. One result of this change has been an increase in criticism, by the world, of Christians and their ways in general. And this has shown itself in a somewhat cynical use of words and phrases which Christians tend to use a lot. “Evangelical”, and “born again” are two of the terms which have become rather hackneyed and cliched, but which have deep and important significance nonetheless.
These days, you can be a born-again vegetarian, a born-again Conservative, even a born-again atheist: none of which have anything to do with spirituality, or Christianity. The phrase has come to mean someone who has rediscovered an interest, or been “converted” to a political or social position. This has also discouraged Christians from using the term, either about themselves, or in relation to its original use by Jesus. Yes, it really does come straight from Jesus, speaking to a Jewish leader one night, as recorded by John.
Nicodemus recognised that Jesus was, as he said, “a teacher who has come from God”. The reply Jesus gave him was a surprise: “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” Nicodemus took this literally, and asked the obvious question: “How can someone be born when they are old? Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!” Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ 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.” [John 3.3-8]
This term, then, is really important, no matter how it has been disparaged and abused. “You must be born again”: not a suggestion, or a piece of advice, a real requirement, a necessary step in seeing, and entering, the Kingdom of God. Nor was Jesus only referring to Nicodemus. The second time he says it, he uses the plural form of “you”: ‘You must be born again.’ The early Christians experienced that new birth, as Peter celebrated: “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade.” [1 Peter 2.3-4]
There are two vital things to note here. The first is that, as Jesus pointed out: “Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit”. You don’t inherit Christianity, the new birth, from your parents: as someone once said, that would make you God’s grandchildren, the children of his children. We must be born again of God in order to be his children and enter the Kingdom. There is a belief around that we are all children of God, but John denies that too: “Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God”. [John 1.12-13]
The second vital thing here is that those who have been born again know that they have been born again. This is not something that slips in quietly, without you noticing. Peter, in that quote, says that Christians have a living hope, they know they have an inheritance with Jesus through his death and resurrection. They know, they do not just accept theoretically, not a vague hoping for the best, but a real living hope, a certainty. As Jesus said, they hear the sound of the wind (the Holy Spirit): they may not be able to fully explain it in words, but it is real indeed: “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”.
All believers should have this hope in them, this awareness that they are no longer what they were, they have been born from above and have an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. That is the first stage in Christian life, eternal life beginning now. There is much more for them to learn and grow into, but the first, vital, essential step, without which there is no life, is simply this: You must be born again. It is a term, and a truth, that transcends any cynicism or abuse.