What does it mean to be “born from above?” How can a person be born from above? People have been puzzling over this for centuries. Do you have to say a special prayer? Call on the name of Jesus? Be baptized? Does it matter if you are baptized as a child or an adult? Do you have to take a class first? Like Nicodemus we all wonder just how this being “born from above” stuff works. The reason the answers are so difficult to grasp often comes down to a matter of perspective. It’s a problem that you can see mirrored in this painting by Salvadore Dali. It’s called The Christ of Saint John of the Cross. And when you look at it you notice something is a little off. The problem is perspective. It’s as if there are really two different paintings attached bottom to top. When you cover up the bottom half of the painting up (up to the bottom of the cross), then your perspective as a viewer is looking down on Jesus from above. Then when you cover the top half of the painting up (from the top of the cross to the bottom) your perspective changes. Now you’re looking outwards. You are looking across a landscape that is in front of you. But when you look at the painting as a whole your eye jumps back and forth between the two competing perspectives.
You may have experienced something similar if you have ever watched two people who are talking past one another. They both individually know what they are trying to say but at least one of them just doesn’t get what the other person is saying. That is probably the best explanation for this conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus that is recorded in John 3. In spite of Jesus’ best attempts to explain what it means to be born from above, Nick just doesn’t get it.
Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.”
Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born from above (the Greek here is often translated as “born again” but it can be translated either way…the same word is used in verse 7) he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?”
Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?”
Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” (John 3:1-15)
You can almost feel a little sorry for Nicodemus. He doesn’t come to Jesus with a complaint or a question. He compliments him. “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” And then Jesus opens this can of worms saying that, “No one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born from above.” Old Nick asks the obvious question. “How can a person be born a second time.” Jesus explains that it involves water and the Spirit; that flesh gives birth to flesh and the spirit gives birth to the spirit. And Nick just goes “Huh? How can this be?” He gets birth. It involves one man, one woman, and a nine month wait. That makes sense. Jesus’ talk about being born from above, just doesn’t.
The reason Nicodemus didn’t get it boils down to his perspective. And it’s a problem we all share. Perspective is defined as a particular way of regarding something or a point of view. Nick’s point of view was firmly anchored in this world that he can taste and smell and touch and see and hear. So when Jesus starts in on this “born from above” stuff he might as well be speaking a foreign language. Nick just doesn’t get it. Its literally over his head.
It’s like the bottom half of Dali’s painting. If you were cover up the cross at the top what do you see? You see a lake with the shore in the distance. Closer in you see three men. Three fishermen. They could be the disciples, Simon Peter, James or John. For that matter one of them could be Nicodemus and you and I. They’re just going about their business. Their perspective is firmly locked forward, just as yours as the viewers is. They are completely oblivious to what hangs just above them in the sky, just as Nicodemus was completely oblivious to Jesus’ explanation of statement that “No one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born from above.”
What hangs above them defies an easy rational explanation. When you cover up the bottom all you see the cross hanging in space. And it’s not your typical view of the cross. So often we are used to looking up at Jesus on the cross. Or we see him head on. But from this perspective you see Jesus as God the Father would have seen Jesus, as He looked down on His Son from above on that dark Friday. And it’s not just you or God looking down. Jesus, from the cross, looks down as well. His gaze is focused downward. His focus is on the world below. A world that doesn’t notice Him hanging above them.
We’ve been ignoring God for centuries. Jesus reminded Nicodemus of one of those times since it involved his ancestors. Long ago Israel had grumbled against God when they were in the wilderness. Despite all of the ways that God had taken care of them they complained. It wasn’t enough that He had rescued them from slavery. It wasn’t enough that He had systematically destroyed Egypt to do it. It wasn’t enough that He split the sea so they could walk through on dry ground. It wasn’t enough that God destroyed Pharaoh and his whole army for them. They wanted more. And when they didn’t get more fast enough, they complained. So God sent fiery serpents into their midst. When they began to die from the bites they cried out for God to save them. God instructed Moses to make a bronze serpent on a pole and to set it up in their midst. Anyone who looked up at the snake on the pole would be healed. But they weren’t saved because they looked up. They were saved because God looked down and placed the means of their salvation in their midst.
Jesus reminded Nicodemus of this earlier event as a last ditch effort to help Nicodemus understand how a person could be born from above. And it had nothing to do with a special prayer, or taking a class. Once more God was looking down on his people in their plight. Once more He was placing the means of their salvation in their midst. But this time it wouldn’t be a snake on a pole. This time it would be his Son on a cross. “For God so loved the world that He sent His only Son that whoever believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)
Here is why this is so important. It’s easy to make Nicodemus’ mistake. It’s easy to get caught up in this world that we experience with our senses; to have your point of view locked forward like the three fishermen in the painting. When that happens it affects more than simply your ability to understand what Jesus is saying here. When your perspective is locked on this world, then the worries of this life and your cares here will choke out what matters even more. You can wind up believing that your salvation isn’t going to come from God, but from somewhere else.
For example, sometimes we act as if we could just find a cure for cancer, a real cure, then everything will be OK. But if we find a way to cure cancer, and don’t get me wrong I hope we do, we still will not have stopped the thing that makes cancer so scary – Death. Or we can wind up thinking that if we can just clean up our world then we will be OK. If we could just stop polluting the air and the water and the ground; if we could stop the climate from changing, then we would be leaving the world a better place for our children. But even if we do all of that, we still will not have dealt with the spiritual pollution that lives within each of us and our children to whom we will leave this place. All of our best efforts at fixing ourselves or this world are just a chasing after the wind for all the good it does us eternally. But because our perspectives are so firmly locked on this place we don’t see what is hanging over our heads.
But if you’re born from above, then none your more frequent concerns and worries matter as much as you might be tempted to think. Reality is bigger than you can see or imagine. The only thing that can change any of us is an act of God. Similar to that snake on the pole, but on a much larger scale. None of us are saved because we looked up. You are born from above because God first looked down. And God reached down through his son to lift your eyes up so that you can see what you didn’t before: Jesus crucified for you. Salvation in your midst.
***Note on the translation***The choice of “born from above” over the more popular term “born again” was purposeful. The phrase “born from above” more accurately captures the truth of salvation. That our salvation comes from above. It comes from outside of ourselves. It is an act of God, not an act of our will. The phrase “born again” can mean all of that as well, but often it gets watered down to a simple decision that a person makes, or a prayer that they pray. But the great good news in Jesus is that we are saved by an act of God alone. We had no active role to play in our salvation. To God belongs all the glory!