John 3:1-17, Birth from Above

[March 16, 2014] Yesterday I did the funeral for a dear friend, Marian Parnow, born in 1919. “As for a human person—her days are like grass, she blooms like the wild flower; as soon as the wind blows she is gone, never to be seen there again. But YHWH’s faithful love for those who fear YHWH is from eternity and forever” (Psalm 103:15-17a). “For your new birth was not from any perishable seed but from imperishable seed, the living and enduring Word of God. For ‘all humanity is grass, and all its beauty like the wild flower’s. As the grass withers, the flower fades, but the Word of the Lord remains forever’ (Isaiah 40:6-8). And this Word is the Gospel that has been brought to you” (1 Peter 1:23-25).

This is an interesting passage from 1 Peter. The Word of Christ is the seed (spora) of new life that lives and endures within us. We are the ground on which it has been sown. Yet Peter is speaking not of horticulture but of birth, new birth (ana-gennaō), which he began to speak of in verse 3: “God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ …has given us a new birth (ana-gennaō) … through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” The Father has birthed us (into what is a new birth for us) from the seed of the Word (here, the Word is the Gospel, the story of Jesus) by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. Jesus rose from the dead as a newborn Child (John 16:21), with his humanity glorified (i.e., divinized): he, in this new form, becoming the Holy Spirit which he breathes into those who believe (2 Corinthians 3:17). The Father thus gives birth to us so that, as Peter goes on to say, “Like new-born babies all your longing should be for milk—the unadulterated spiritual (logikos) milk—which will help you to grow up to salvation, at any rate if “you have tasted that the Lord is good” (1 Peter 2:2-3). As new-born babies, born from the womb of God our Father, we drink from the Father’s teats. It seems to me that the Father is a Mother. She gives birth to us and takes us to her breasts.

For centuries Christians have spoken of us being the adopted children of the Father. Jesus is the only-begotten Son, and the rest of us are adopted. Yet that is not what we read. Certainly the Son is the only-begotten (John 1:18) and we are only begotten in Him; yet he is also the firstborn of many (Romans 8:29). The word translated “adoption” (huiothesia) does not mean what we imagine. It has to do with coming into our maturity and receiving our legal privileges as heirs: the transition from childhood to “sonship.” We seem to be trying to avoid the image of God being our Mother, perhaps because the word Father is always retained.

Yet our heavenly Father is intersexed (hermaphrodite), both male and female, both Father and Mother, even if the word Patēr is always used. The word patēr also means parent in an inclusive sense. (The word son is also retained because in the ancient world daughters did not have the privileges of sons. Yet spiritually, God’s daughters do. If we translate the word son as child, to be gender-inclusive, we lose the distinct sense that son has. Child refers to age or parentage, but not to maturity and correspondence, or inheritance or privilege and responsibility.)

The Gospel according to John is about the Father giving birth to us through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. Its central images are feminine, nuptial and maternal. Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus is famous for the statement of “John 3:16” but also for the words, “You must be born again” in verse 7. We, however, want to get beyond the patriarchal civic religion of America—which is simply consecrated worldliness—to what Scripture actually says.

For a detailed discussion of John 2:23—3:21 please read my post, “John 2:23—3:21, The New Birth.”

The author of the gospel, the disciple John, took Mary, the mother of Jesus, into his home when Jesus died, adopting her as his own mother (John 19:27). Tradition has it that they—together—eventually ended up in Ephesus, the church that had once been the base of Paul’s apostolic labors. John therefore had spent long years in the close company of the woman who had given birth to Jesus, who had raised him, and who had witnessed close-at-hand his excruciating death. How can this not have had an impact on the gospel itself, the gospel that stands in such contrast to the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Luke and Mark)? He forms his thoughts about Jesus in this company, in conversation with the one who was closest to him and had this unique physical and domestic connection to him.

Considering this, is it so surprising that at the chiastic heart of the Prologue (John 1:1-18) are the words, “But as many as received him, to them he gave the freedom to become (ginomai) children of God, to those who believe into his name, who were born (gennaō) not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of a man (anēr, a male), but of God.” The word ginomai is capable of many translations, but basically it means to “come into being” or to “take place.” It sometimes has the sense of being born (see John 8:58; Romans 1:3). Gennaō can refer to either parent, a father begetting or the mother bearing. If the Father begets us, who is the mother who bears us? We can say it is the bride, the church, the Jerusalem that is above “that is our mother” (Galatians 4:26), and we would be correct. John 1:18, however, at the end of the Prologue, speaks of the “the only begotten God [or ‘Son’ in the Byzantine text] who is in the womb (kolpos) of the Father” (though the word kolpos could also refer to lying on someone’s breast).

It seems to me that birthing is being set up as a central motif in the gospel. The Son is begotten of the Father, genetically, and he is the Father’s heir (all that the Father has is his), but the Son is also eternally born of the Father (who is consequently Mother), though born of the body of Mary (child of Israel) and born from the Garden Tomb of the earth in the course of time (thus born in time twice: from the womb of Mary of Israel and from the womb of the earth). We too are born of the Father when the resurrected Son breathes into us the Holy Spirit, giving to us eternal life. This is not a legal adoption but a birth, for it involves the gift of life, the eternal uncreated life of God, yes, but for us it is a new life, we who were spiritually dead before (John 5:25). Our spiritual resurrection is a birth, a new birth. This what some of the stories in the gospel allude to, culminating in the raising of Lazarus.

It is also the “process” that is described in John 13—17, which is the vertical mate of John 2:23—3:21. In John’s mandala, these two pieces also correspond to a horizontal pair: the story of the healing of the paralytic in chapter 5 and the healing of the blind man in chapter 9 and 10. These stories correspond to the fourth day of creation, when God creates the lights of the heavens: the sun, moon and stars. They also have a correspondence in the Prologue. Chapter 3 corresponds to “And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (see 3:19-21). Chapter 5 corresponds to “And the world came into being through him, yet the world did not know him.” Chapters 9—10 corresponds to “And we beheld his glory.” Chapters 13—17 corresponds to “For of his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.” Thus we have darkness and the light that overcomes it, and with the light comes grace and fullness.

Nicodemus comes to Jesus in the night, and Jesus, by his discourse, creates the light of the sun to measure the day, and the light of the moon and stars to measure the night, thus overcoming the darkness of the mind, and the dark night of the world.

Nicodemus is tentative: “We know that you have come from God as a teacher …” Jesus says, “Amen, amen, without being born from above no one can see the kingdom of God.” Ean tis gennēthē (gennaō) anōthen, he says. Anōthen can mean either “from above” or “again, anew.” Here it is left ambiguous, intentionally bringing to mind both meanings. Nicodemus correctly understands that Jesus is speaking not only of a Father’s begetting but of being born as if from a womb (though he is being obtusely materialistic). Jesus goes on to say that this new birth (or birth from above) is by (ek, “out of”) water and spirit: water signifying the repentance that the Baptist preached; S/spirit signifying the breathing of the Holy Spirit into our spirit through the Word. Water, however, connotes more than that: in this gospel it is itself life-giving, or rather, it signifies that which is: repentance and S/spirit, yes, but the two are inseparable. The water of baptism sets one apart to Jesus, to faith in him. This is the real significance of baptism (and repentance) in this gospel. “What is born of the flesh is flesh; what is born of the Spirit is spirit.” We are talking, in other words, of a birth that comes strictly from God; we cannot produce it ourselves, nor does it come out of ourselves. It is a gift from above, though it wells up from deep within us. Indeed, it arises from a depth within us that is deeper than ourselves—it is from the source of our own inner being—from God who originally breathed into us the breath of life (our spirit), now understood as the Holy (Sanctifying) Spirit, the Spirit who thus begins the process of glorifying (divinizing) us with eternal life (God’s own life).

The Holy Spirit has not yet been given at the time Jesus is speaking to Nicodemus, for the Spirit of God awaits the death and resurrection of Jesus before she can become the “Holy Spirit,” the one who glorifies us, though she is already the Holy Spirit with respect to Jesus himself.

So when Nicodemus asks, “How is that possible,” Jesus goes on to speak of his own being lifted up and glorified by the cross in verse 14. This is the doctrine of John’s gospel, and in his mandalic (and cruciform) creation (i.e., the gospel) we see here lights that measure the night and day.

There is also the flow of the gospel’s narrative.

In chapter 1 Jesus invites disciples to dwell with him as the house of God, the portal of heaven. Then he attends a wedding with his mother and with a word turns the water of cleansing into the wine of joy, alluding to the union of God and us (divinity and createdness). After that, he goes to Jerusalem for Passover and declaims against the temple and declares, “Destroy this Temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The judgment of God—though it will fall on the temple—resolves itself in the destruction of his body, which he will himself raise to become the new temple of God, the place where God and creation dwell together: “In my Father’s house are many abodes … for I go [to the cross] to prepare a place for you” (John 14:2). He is the Father’s house (in which we can abide), of course, but he goes through death and resurrection so that by the Spirit’s dwelling in us, we become an abode (a dwelling place) for the Father and the Son to abide (John 14:23).

The new birth that Jesus speaks about in chapter 3 is this same thought. What we see here is not the doctrine of the substitutionary atonement, if such a doctrine can be found in the scriptures (sorry, for those of you who believe that we cannot be saved unless we understand and believe that particular commercial interpretation of Jesus’ death).  What we see is that through the glorification of Jesus by his death we are born again out of our own state of death with the gift of eternal life.

What must we do? Jesus alluded to it in verse 5, but makes it explicit in verses 15-16 and 18: “Everyone who believes may have eternal life in (en) him … Everyone who believes into (eis) him may have eternal life.” If we believe into him, we shall have eternal life in him. This is when we are born from above, but the “how” is not the mechanism of our believing but rather his own death and resurrection and the giving of eternal life by the gift (his breathing into us) of the Holy Spirit.

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