New Life

Being “Born Again,” in the broad spectrum of Christian lingo, loses power in our catchphrase culture, with “Jesus is my Homeboy,” bumper sticker Christianity. (For the record: yes, Jesus is your “homeboy,” but of course to leave his identity at that does injustice to the man, his life and his Gospel.)

To most people, being born again means getting a fresh start at something. It means experiencing some moment of revelation and clarity that redirects life from old mistakes to new opportunities. Being reborn in a world of cheap grace is a nice way to sound deeply spiritual while stating that, essentially, something didn’t quite work out and now it’s about time to push the all too convenient “reset” button. However, although the idea of being born again does involve the restarting of a plan gone wrong, the process of spiritual rebirth, according to the scripture, is much more complex.

This reflection series will take us through the Bible to discover that being reborn requires five separate things from us in order to reveal the fruits of rebirth. Each Thursday, we’ll examine what, in order to be reborn, we cannot center our lives around:

  • Things (1 Kings 18)
  • Trouble (Psalm 102)
  • People (Isaiah 20)
  • Our Success (John 3)
  • Blind Faith (1 Corinthians 15)

 

Things (1 Kings 18)

In the story of 1 Kings 18 we find the showdown of showdowns, worthy of a schoolyard or reality TV show. The prophet Elijah courageously opposes Queen Jezebel, King Ahab and their systematic annihilation of God’s prophets. At this time Israel is completely consumed by Baal worship. 450 Baal prophets on one side and Elijah alone on the other, but with the power of the living God behind him. All throughout the generations of Israel’s walk with God, we see them easily distracted and destroyed by numerous false gods, in a tradition that we continue today.  Why?

Why, when for so many years and in so many different ways they clearly experienced the living God come in power to rescue and provide for them, would they ever seek anything aside from Yahweh?  For ourselves today, why do we need or depend upon anything more than the power of God in our lives?

In the worship of these lesser gods, we can retain ultimate control over our lives in a way that is impossible when serving the God of Israel. While God said to love him alone, without reservation, these other gods fit nicely into a system of “religion” where works and blessings could be quantified. The more you did for them, whether it be Baal or Molech, the more you could feel like you had freedom to do what you wanted. In Yahweh, it was a free will that chose to do his will without question, because of the understanding that he had already done enough to begin with. Following “Yahweh” was living a life that existed for and because of him.

1 Kings 18 culminates in a showdown where Elijah proposes a contest. Each side, Baal’s prophets and Elijah, would call upon their respective gods. The god who responded to the pleas of the believers would be the true and only God of Israel. After hours worshiping Baal, which involved slashing and cutting themselves to garner a response, the priests of Baal heard nothing but the silence of a god that was simply not there.

Elijah then prepared his petition to God. Two important things preceded his prayer, things that speak to us about being born again. First, he built a new altar, entirely separate from the Baal worshipers. Secondly, he used twelve stones to symbolize the twelve tribes of Israel’s forefathers on which to build the altar.

The Altar

The new altar is significant because rebirth in the Spirit can be founded on nothing except God the Father who, through grace and love, has provided for the rebirth in the first place. Being reborn means starting new, set apart from any old life or way of living, rooted in the God who never changes.  In being reborn, everything about our new life is different from the old; however, absolutely nothing is different about the God providing said rebirth. New life means new results and new outcomes, and for the reborn believer, the result of rebirth is demonstrated by the fruit of the Spirit Paul describes in Galatians 5: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

This new, fruitful life, which fosters continued growth throughout a lifetime, must submit to the regeneration of the spirit of Jesus Christ reborn in us. Trying to produce these fruits while using the strengths and desires of the “old life” is like two people pulling on opposing sides of a wishbone on Thanksgiving Day. At some point, the bone breaks. Trying to offer sacrifice to God on an old altar is starting from a corrupt foundation.

The Stones

Elijah’s choice to use twelve stones for the altar is striking because Elijah acknowledges the original path from which so many of these prophets and people have strayed so far.

How can we relate this step to our process of being reborn? What we can connect to is the motivation behind Elijah’s decision to use these stones as symbols. He does this to bring the hearts of those around him back to the God who was, is and will always be. Elijah is pointing the assembled people of Israel to their God, who never left them and never forsook them. In our lives, we tend to say things like, “Where are you now God?” However, through the process of being reborn, we discover that God actually never left. God was always there.

We turn our backs. We refuse to acknowledge him. We seek and serve other gods who will give us our own way. In being reborn we might learn new things about God and his presence in our lives, however, it is important to acknowledge that the God we are learning new things about is far from “new.” He has always been.

Read Psalm 102

When someone is suffering, a typical recommendation is to read the Psalms. While this is an excellent idea that I completely endorse, we first have to realize that most Psalms are separated into two parts.

The primary reason we tend to recommend the Psalms in times of trouble is the “hopeful” sections. It’s great to be able to read how others before us have also suffered and endured pain like our own. However, without the hopeful conclusion at the end of many Psalms, all we are left with are groups of people sharing pain together, which is not that encouraging.

As I read Psalm 102, I wish I knew more about the anonymous psalmist, the “afflicted person” who is struggling and in despair. Why? What happened? What brought this man down to such depths that he feared the absence of God more than anything else?

While this question captivates my attention, yet more astonishing is the eventual turnaround in his spirit. The final two-thirds of the Psalm are nothing but praise for God. Not only that, but this writer is so confident in his hope of a new world with people who will worship and commune with God in new and wonderful ways.

This man didn’t have the Psalms!  Nor did he have the encouraging words of the apostles, and even more, he didn’t have Jesus and the Gospels!  Yet, he believed with his entire being in “the Gospel,” the “the good news.”

Psalm 102 is the prayer of a person in trouble, without a solution or happy ending, without the rich fulfillment of prophecy that would come in the ensuing centuries. Yet we, with our plethora of Bibles and Bible resources, tend to so easily let ourselves be overcome with despair and trouble to the extent that the mere mention of hope in a better future gets our eyes rolling. Many hallmarks emerge from a born again spirit and, while all are important, none amount to much without joy and hope. How often are Bible studies, church services or prayers marked with somber silence and not joyful laughter? Do we run into the future that God has prepared for us with feet like the deer? Do we fly into the unknowable future with wings like eagles?

Whether we do or do not, this man apparently did. And he managed this without the foretaste of the Kingdom of God delivered in full by the Son himself.

As Paul writes in Romans 5:3-5, the process of discipleship starts with suffering, but always ends in hope. And hope never disappoints. Hope brought this man out of the darkness. A person born again by the Spirit has taken hold of the Son and his Gospel never to let go.  Troubles only have the ability to control our lives if we ignore the One who offers us a way out.  Living without the joy of salvation and the hope of heaven leaves us futilely wrestling with our troubles.  When we are born again, we know that trouble will come, but will never be a match for the hope we have found in Jesus.

Read Isaiah 20

In the book of Isaiah, chapter 20, Israel was starting to realize that by this point in the story, their footing as a nation in the face of encroaching powers was less than stable. So, like most people facing trouble, their first instinct was to find something to hold onto.  In this case, Israel was looking to grab onto Egypt, although God, through a naked and barefoot Isaiah, was clearly advising against such loyalties.

The conclusion to this story was that by putting their security in an apparently strong and trustworthy ally rather than in God, Israel ultimately sealed their upcoming invasion by Babylon and Assyria.  But does this passage teach us not to trust people? No.

Trust in people is at the heart of our relationships.  Because we were created in the image of God, trust is at the heart of our relationship with him. Trusting people is not the issue. The issue is that, when we entirely locate our hopes and security in people, the countdown for disappointment and pain has already begun.

We put our hope in people because we believe, for some outlandish and irrational reason, that these particular individuals are not like us when it comes to trouble.  We believe that they are better.  We believe that they are different. Unlike us, they seem successful and strong. Unlike us, they always seem to have a plan B. Unlike us, they never seem troubled by anything. Their glass is not only half full, but will never be depleted.

Of course, the reality is that this is not the case. These “superhero” figures in our lives are far from superhuman. These are simply humans. Just like us. And just like us, they experience hardship and moments of uncertainty, and are capable of experiencing pain as well as inflicting it, just as we are.

People will be there for you, but then they won’t. People will love you, but then they won’t. People will understand you, and then they won’t. People have limitations. And when we put our hopes and security entirely in people, these limitations will be unveiled in disappointing and hurtful ways.

In this passage of scripture about Israel’s loyalties, God was trying to shock them to the understanding that only he was enough to rely on. No other relationship and no other fellowship can compare.  He was showing them the wall of destruction towards which they were speeding in the hopes that they would turn back.

We were created to form relationships, to trust those relationships, to make friends and ask for help. But the ultimate relationship, the only one that can and should be trusted to the fullest extent, is the relationship between God and his people. Out of dust he created us for the pure and simple reason of fellowship, so that the love shared within the Trinity could be expressed beyond the triune relationship. Regardless of our behavior toward him, his love and patience led him to ultimately send his Son so that none would be lost.

Regardless of differences of testimony, everyone who has been born again experiences similar spiritual changes. This is because, while all things human and earthly pass away, one thing stays the same.  He is the only ally who will never fail you. He is the only father who will continue to provide for you. He is the only one who whose love is so enduring and pure. He is the only person so close to us that, in him, we never have to feel alone or misunderstood. He has always known us, and he always understands.

Read John 3

At the heart of every sin, since the original fall, is our inclination to look God in the face and say, “I know better. I can do it without you.” In the third chapter of John’s Gospel we have two individuals, and two differing approaches to Christ. The stories of both provide us direction and warning in becoming too aware of our knowledge and success, and how that relates to the process of spiritual rebirth.

Nicodemus

It is no secret that Nicodemus had a sincere interest in Jesus and continued to take an interest in Jesus even following the Crucifixion.  For a man to step onto the unpopular side of the line in the face of mounting criticism is commendable, and Nicodemus is honored by being included in the Gospel of John as the Pharisee quite unlike the rest. However, as one looks at this discourse between the Pharisee and Jesus, we see two things that we must become aware of when we look at being born again, in both his physical and spiritual approach to Jesus.

The first thing we see is that Nicodemus came to Jesus at night. This is not a trivial piece of information. In fact, it says volumes about what is going through Nicodemus’ mind. The word is “secrecy.” Nicodemus does not want to be seen conversing with Jesus. His interest in Jesus, although sincere and genuine, is still enslaved by the potential judgment of his fellow colleagues, were they to hear that he met, “the teacher.”  Likewise, as we approach the Gospel, it is easy to be concerned about how your new interest in life with Jesus will meet the ears of those close to you who, unlike you, have no interest in the Gospel.

Our place among friends, co-workers and family is important to all of us, and to do something that we know will jeopardize those delicate relationships is difficult, to say the least. In many ways, our identities are inextricably linked to these relationships, so to choose to do something that might threaten this bond or connection is like choosing to commit identity suicide.  To do something so risky as to threaten these bonds is like losing your life. This is serious business in which not many are willing to engage. This is where we see Nicodemus. Although his interest is enough to get him in front of Jesus, the fear of committing identity suicide is far too great, and so he seeks Jesus in the dark.

One of the many things that happens upon being “reborn” is an inner augmentation of perspective. The more one starts to see Jesus as “the way, the truth, the life” the more we start to see all other things in this world as “a way, a truth, a life.”  The larger Jesus gets in our hearts and minds, the smaller everything else gets. Or, to use his example, Jesus always refers to himself and his disciples by using the contrast of light and dark.  So, in the area of spiritual rebirth, the more one steps into the light with Jesus, the more one wants to remain in the light with him.

The second thing we see with Nicodemus is a mental and spiritual barrier preventing him from understanding Jesus’ explanation about being “born again.” Nicodemus has been trained so effectively in one train of thought that it seems nearly impossible for the logic of Jesus to find any room in his reasoning.  His mind was fixated on literal possibilities, while Jesus is speaking from a standpoint of Godly potential. But this aspect of rebirth is the most exciting part.

For most people, scripture is bland and two dimensional, and at times, life itself feels rather two-dimensional.  However, when we are born again, we encounter “the Counselor,” the Holy Spirit, who testifies to the truth Jesus spoke to Nicodemus. Upon his arrival in our lives, we move from two-dimensional perspectives into multidimensional realities with endless possibilities. To be born again is to become privy to the endless possibilities of God’s plans, wisdom and presence that, in a world where impossible is impossible, suddenly all things are possible through Christ.

John the Baptist

The second character we read about in this selection of scripture is John the Baptist. In many ways, John is an excellent representation of the born again spirit. During his preaching years he gathered a large and adoring crowd of followers. We learn many things from the life of John the Baptist, but no trait is better exemplified by his life than humility.

John had every right, according to the world, to think that he was something special. He had every right to think that he had unparalleled authority and power to do whatever he desired. But his behavior shows us the opposite. The portrait we see of John the Baptist is a humble servant who looks at Jesus “the Christ” and says, “He must become greater, and I must become less.” Being reborn means arriving at a critical point of restructuring. The born again life gets restructured internally and externally. Internally, we realize that in the presence of God we are nothing. We realize that without God we are nothing. We realize that because he is everything, with him we can finally be something.

Upon being reborn we lose our right to the throne, because it is forever occupied by Christ. This not only gives us profound respect and admiration for God, but it provides increasing confidence in his voice and character, and reveals our temporal and shake-able selves.  Externally, we no longer expect our well-deserved and long overdue adulation from the world. We realize that, without the servant who suffered for us, we would be left with nothing real. Finally, we realize, in our awareness of our forgiven and sinful state, that our place among men is simply a sinner among sinners.  With this yoke of pride and superiority removed from our necks, we are then free to give of ourselves in a way that puts us on an increasingly solid footing with our Friend and Savior Jesus Christ. The opportunity to experience him becomes our life’s desire and, rather than clinging to our old identities, we come into a shared existence with Jesus that overpowers our lust for worldly praise.

Read 1 Corinthians 15

One of the most cited chapters of the entire New Testament is 1 Corinthians 15. It is THE chapter that draws the proverbial “line in the sand.” On one side, upon reading the Gospels, Paul shows that the person who accepts Jesus’ claims receives a restructured life with Christ residing in the center as king. On the opposite side, the one who rejects the claims of Jesus as “The Messiah,” God in human form, as a lie, must believe that none of what he did or ever said matters one bit.  In that case, one can live in this world without a single care about what the Bible says about one’s life, since the Bible is all one big and vicious lie.

However, the most important thing to remember about Chapter 15 is that Paul doesn’t simply say, “Believe or don’t believe, the choice is yours.” To the surprise of many critics of Christianity, Paul appeals to the reader’s reasoning and logic as a means to arrive at one of the two conclusions.

For many who oppose Christianity, faith in Jesus is blind, zombie-like faith, where Christians plug along bumping into walls every which way, because simply walking forward is what a “good Christian” is supposed to do.

Paul never preached or knew that kind of Christianity, and if he heard someone argue from that position, he would be appalled.  This is not the Christianity he was transformed by.  This is not the Christianity that he preached to the world.

Are there areas where we do need faith beyond our senses in order to believe every word of the Bible? Yes. Are there things in the Bible that we cannot explain? Yes. However, Paul is clear that belief in Jesus is neither of those things. Paul contested that the Gospel he preached to the church in Corinth contained stories and accounts that could be attested to and verified by people still living.  He cites stories that go beyond individual hallucination and self-created mythology. There is a seriousness of Paul’s tone regarding the Gospel he preached and the conclusions people ultimately arrive at.

At the beginning of my walk with Christ I felt like the “Jesus Scale” was so heavily weighted in the favor of myth and legend that I felt like nothing short of a miracle would shift any weight to the opposing side. However, the more I read the Gospels, the more I realized that it was taking more faith to not believe what I was reading.

Being “born again” in truth does not mean believing everything, simply because it’s right, nor does it mean that the way we carry ourselves in the knowledge of this truth is by an irrational blind faith, like that of an insane person. I believe that I am a sane man, with a good head on my shoulders. I understand the ups and downs in this world and I carry myself like any other respectably sane individual. However, my belief in the Gospel of Jesus Christ is something I have more trust and confidence in than anything in the world. Understandably, this strikes some people as a contradiction.

Being born of the Spirit doesn’t mean losing a grip on your senses or reality. Being born again means that the truth of the Gospel makes the most sense of all truths. The Spirit testifies to this truth when we are born again, and the way in which we testify thereafter is a testament to our rebirth in the Spirit.

Born Again