Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Reflections on Being "Born Again"

Born again. Have you ever been born again? Are you a born again Christian? Thanks to evangelical Christianity, this phrase has become a common part of American lingo. In 2005, Barna found that 45% of Americans classify themselves as "born again Christians." I'm sure that statistic has changed in recent years, but it remains quite astonishing that three years ago, almost 50% of the US population applied the phrase "born again" to their Christian faith.

So, what does "born again" mean, anyway? The Greek phrase translated "born again" is gennao anothen. It is interesting that despite its ubiquitous usage in evangelicalism as a metaphor for salvation, the phrase appears in only a few times in the New Testament and all of them in John 3:

"Now a certain man, a Pharisee named Nicodemus, who was a member of the Jewish ruling council, came to Jesus at night and said to him, 'Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs that you do unless God is with him.' Jesus replied, 'I tell you the solemn truth, unless a person is gennao anothen, he cannot see the kingdom of God.' Nicodemus said to him, 'How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter his mother’s womb and be born a second time, can he?' Jesus answered, 'I tell you the solemn truth, unless a person is born of water and spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be amazed that I said to you, You must all be gennao anothen. The wind blows wherever it will, and you hear the sound it makes, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.'" - John 3:1-8 (NET)

Gennao is a fairly common word in the New Testament for birth, fathering, or conception. It can be used in a literal sense or in a metaphorical sense, neither of which is altogether unique in the Bible. But, the addition of the word anothen, which is used only 13 times in the NT, makes the phrase something quite special. Anothen has a double meaning, either "again" or "from above," which John purposefully plays on throughout his Gospel (see 3:3, 7; 3:31; 19;11, 23). Despite the fact that most English translations choose to translate gennao anothen, "born again," it is almost certain that the meaning intended in John 3 is "born from above."

As we read in John 3, Nicodemus apparently thought Jesus was speaking of literally being born again, or a second time. This explains his incredulous reply: “How can a man be born when he is old? He can’t enter his mother’s womb a second time and be born, can he?” We know from study of John's Gospel that the author uses the technique of the “misunderstood question” often to bring out a particularly important point. That is to say, Jesus says something, which is misunderstood by the hearer, which then gives Jesus the opportunity to explain more fully and in more detail what he really meant.

I bring all this up because I have had opportunity in recent weeks to think more deeply about the metaphor of being "born from above." As I said previously, despite its common usage, "born again" is truly a special idea, unique to John's Gospel. I never want to make the mistake of assuming I understand a biblical concept, especially one that Jesus declares to be so important: "I tell you the solemn truth, unless a person is born from above, he cannot see the kingdom of God."

So, let's consider the metaphor new birth--being born from above. It may be strange at first to consider it this way, but I would submit to you that this metaphor is a very earthy and feminine metaphor for salvation. Think about it. Birth--a natural, physical female process that has been occurring in various ways and circumstances for thousands of years.

How do I know that this was on Jesus' mind when he used the birth metaphor? I think Jesus explicitly references the physical birth process in vv. 5-6, when he speaks of the necessity of being "born of water," as well as "flesh" giving birth to "flesh."

Many commentators would argue that the "water" spoken of here is the water of baptism or even the water of the Spirit. I would say, however, that the rite of baptism is never paired with "birth" anywhere else in Scripture and such a reference would introduce an alien concept to the passage. Also, a reference to the "water of the Spirit" would be redundant in the context, for that would have Jesus saying, "You must be born of Spirit and Spirit."

I think it is more likely that Jesus is making a reference to the physical "water" of birth, the amniotic fluid which is released from every woman's body at the time of delivery. The meaning of Jesus' statement in v. 5 would be that every person must be born of woman and of the Spirit in order to enter the Kingdom of God. This makes sense in light of the fact that Nicodemus brings up the physical process of birth himself, asking the question, "How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter his mother’s womb and be born a second time, can he?"

Now, of course, Jesus' point is that this physical, human birth is not enough in order to see the Kingdom of God. But, he sets the stage for the metaphor of new birth with a reference to physical birth, a uniquely female function (the last time I checked!).

So, what's the point? I don't think we appreciate the fact that Jesus uses a very earthy, messy metaphor to describe the way human beings are birthed into the Kingdom of God. He equates being "born from above" with being "born of the Spirit" (v. 8). In this word picture, the Spirit of God is a maternal figure giving birth to new believers in God's Kingdom.

Feminine metaphors are few and far between in the Bible, so I think it is important that we pay attention when God chooses to use one to describe himself and his ways. What does it mean that we must be birthed into the Kingdom of God by the Spirit of God? If we unpack that image and compare it to the experience of physical birth, I think we can appreciate the metaphor of new birth in a fresh and exciting way.

When a baby is born, gestation has been in process for many months. Nutrients have been flowing from mother to child, growing the baby from a being the size of a blueberry to a 6-10 pound human. Then, in the best case scenario, when the time is right, the baby is brought into a bright, loud, and cold new world. As we all know, this process is not easy, sometimes dangerous, and it doesn't look pretty, either.

But, when all is done, a good mother will then become the primary means of the baby's adjustment to life in the "outside world." As new sounds, sights, and experiences assault the child, the mother will guide them through the process of growth--feeding, clothing, comforting, and caring for them until they begin tentative steps toward independence.

In a similar way, when a new believer is born of the Spirit, a sort of spiritual gestation has been occurring for some time. God's Spirit has prepared the heart, mind, and soul of the person for new birth through a variety of possible "nutrients": the word of God, the people of God, and much more. This process of growth is what brings the new believer "across the line" of unbelief to belief. Still, like physical birth, it is almost always a messy process, one that is unique for every person and fraught with spiritual dangers.

There is no doubt that, upon entering the Kingdom of God, the new believer is like a baby absorbing all the new sensations of the "real world." They see and hear things they've never seen or heard before. They learn to recognize their family's voices and to discern between things that help or harm their person. Like a baby, the new believer is entirely dependent upon its "mother," God's Spirit, for survival, and it will take the care of other humans to assist with their growth and socialization, as well. And, the Spirt, like any good mother, guides the new believer through their new life, helping to provide the spiritual nourishment, comfort, and care they desperately need.

While I don't have the time or space to say much more than this, I think there are plenty of other observations about this unique metaphor that make up good "food for thought" for all of us. For example, it appears that being "born from above," is a process, not something that happens instantaneously. Also, being "born from above," is a truly messy endeavor, one fraught with difficulties and, yes, even ugliness. Being "born from above," is something under the power of the one doing the birthing: the Spirit of God. And, being "born from above," shows that God is not "above" using earthy, feminine metaphors to describe the mysteries of the Kingdom.


traveller said...

These are excellent thoughts. I wonder whether Jesus used this feminine metaphor to make a contrasting point to Nicodemus, who thought his being a Jewish male Pharisee made him special to God? Nice, tidy, masculine....

UnderMidnight said...

a contract verb the first thing on monday morning!
what is this thing you have done?!

Joel said...

I've also always thought that Jesus was referencing and contrasting physical and spiritual birth. I like your assesment of the analogy -it's messy, it's a process- though I'm not sure I agree that feminine imagry requires our extra attention here since I don't think he is trying to say anything about himself regarding gender or anything about gender itself. Rather, with 'masculine' and 'feminine' analogies, I think he (God) simply takes something we are familiar with and compares it with something that we are unfamiliar with, in order to help us understand.

Though the 'born again' phrase is unique to John's gospel, the idea of being born of God also seems to come up in his first epistle quite a lot: 2.29; 3.9; 4.7; 5.1; 5.4; and 5.18. There also seems to be talk of water, spirit, and blood in 5.8. And, interestingly enough, though it isn't the same greek phrase, Peter also says, "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead..." (1Peter 1.3).

Thanks for your post. I enjoy reading it!

Emily Hunter McGowin said...

Hey Joel,

I agree with your assessment. I wasn't meaning to suggest that the "born from above" imagery requires extra attention. Only that it is rarely pointed out that birth is a uniquely female experience.

I looked at the verse in Peter and considered whether or not it should be considered in my reflections. I determined that because it was a different term, I would leave it out. But, it remains another version of the "born again" concept in the NT.

As for 1 John, I should have been more careful to talk about the references to being "born of God." I think it is likely this phraseology is a development of the "born from above" concept in John's Gospel (assuming 1 John was written later, of course). But, that's really just a theory.

Thanks for your thoughts, Joel. You always have good things to say.

Grace and peace,


Joel said...

Thanks for your quick response! Sorry if I misunderstood above.

Love to you and Ron,


Anonymous said...

Simply amazing, Emily. Really good stuff. Thank you.

-Brandon Harris

Anonymous said...

If being born again is a process, at what point are you saved? Is it maybe when you come to understand that Christ's death was for your sins? Or maybe when you have surrendered control completely to the Holy Spirit...?

Bob Cleveland said...


The story of Nicodemus and Jesus is one of my favorites. I think Jesus' reference to birth has many ramifications. IMO the principal one is that when you are born, referring to the moment of your birth, it's an irreversible process. I don't think we can decide to go back and be what we were, before we were born Spiritually, any more than a baby can ever decide to revert to being the two components from which the fetus grows.

My take is gestation is not part of the birth itself, but is analogous in this case to the planting and watering God uses to bring about the increase.

Also, although the baby, in its development, does send signals to the mother as to its stages of development, it's the mother's body which institutes and completes the process. That's evidenced, to me, by the fact that some mothers deliver before the baby is ready, and some must be induced when the baby is ready when mommy isn't.

Those are the things that strike me, and Nicodemus' response is typical of a generation, today, which has been raised on the thought that God is all about filling some "God-shaped hole" in man, rather than our being shaped by God, to fill a place in the Body of Christ.

Gozreht said...

Good input. I will keep reading more of your ideas.

Anonymous said...

What's up with all the penis-envy? Every post seems to be oiled with some kind of female gender issue.

I would think if odd if a guy were to perdominate his writings with male domination issues every time they wrote.

But it's your blog, and it does make me not want to come.

Emily Hunter McGowin said...


It seems you've been on a reading-spree of my blog lately. Thanks for noticing and taking the time to comment. I would have sent this note via email, but you've chosen to comment anonymously, allowing me no private vehicle to respond. So, this is it.

Unfortunately, all of what you've had to say has been sarcastic and unhelpful, with no real attempt to discuss the issues I've raised, or those raised by anyone else in the comment thread. Perhaps you think they're not worth discussing. I'm sorry if that is the case.

You will find that this comment is the only one of yours that I've allowed to be posted. Typically, I have no issue publishing the words of those who strongly disagree with me. Even those whose words I find more than a little offensive. Also, I don't like anonymous comments, but I like to give the benefit of the doubt when there is something substantive being offered. Sadly, this has not been the case with yours. And, since I get to moderate my blog when the post is more than a few weeks old, I've chosen to leave your unhelpful words out of the conversation. I think I'm sparing myself and my readers. You are the first person I've ever "censored."

I see that you have a lot of opinions about how I should be "doing theology"--mostly that I should "get off" the women's issues. That's very interesting. My calling to theology has nothing to do with your preferences--your likes or dislikes. And, my choice to be a part of the SBC community (at present), has nothing to do with you, either.

If you don't like what I'm saying, if you think I'm a "whiner," if you think I'm "bitching," if you think I'm doing "tampon theology," with a bad case of "penis envy," then I urge you to stop reading my blog, and certainly to stop commenting. I have no desire to read what you have to say and I am certain that my readers, even those who strongly disagree with me, would feel the same way.

In the mean time, I pray you learn a little something about class, kindness, and disagreeing agreeably.

Grace and peace,


UnderMidnight said...

go away...and learn how to spell.

Mary Burleson said...

I like your writings. You're challenging, thorough, and fair. I come here often to see what you're reading and to enjoy some of your movie reviews. Thanks for blogging.

And, your response to Anonymous was great! You go, girl! I'm so encouraged by strong, educated, and intelligent writing women. You're at the top of my list.