I have small children, so the other day I was watching the movie Kung Fu Panda. Okay, who am I kidding? I would watch King Fu Panda even without small children. There is a scene in that film that I am particularly fond of.
While standing beneath a blossomed peach tree overlooking the fabled Jade Palace, the training place of the film’s greatest wuxia warriors, the martial arts teacher Shifu airs his frustration to his own mentor, Master Oogway, for being tasked with training the overweight, lazy, and clumsy panda, Po, to somehow defend the surrounding valley from the impending threat of Tai Lung, a powerful and seemingly unstoppable renegade warrior. You can click here to read their exchange, or watch it below.
What did I tell you? Awesome scene, right? I particularly love how the whole time they are talking about peaches and peach trees, they’re not actually talking about peaches and peach trees.
Anyhow, hang onto that thought for now. This happens to remind me of another conversation between two sagely figures.1
Nicodemus and Jesus
In John’s Gospel, we find an account where the esteemed Nicodemus, a prominent pharisee and member of the council of civil rulers in ancient Judaism, visits the highly controversial and much younger rabbi Jesus of Nazareth in the dark of night (Jn 3:1-21). After Nicodemus admits that he believes Jesus is a teacher of God’s truth, Jesus cryptically responds by saying, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
You may have heard this phrase “born again” before. Christians often use this term in reference to those who have been adopted into the family of God, whether through justification or regeneration (cf. Tit 3:5). Whenever this is mentioned from the pulpit, there’s usually some correlation made with Paul’s idea of believers being new creatures in Christ (2 Cor 5:17) or Peter’s mention of being born again imperishable through the living word of God (1 Pet 1:23). This is a spiritual (some might even say mystical) sort of rebirth wherein we are changed on a profound and fundamental level. As I heard one preacher say, God gives us new DNA.
This theme of being spiritually changed from the inside out is certainly present throughout the New Testament. But is that what Jesus is talking about here? Honestly, I don’t think so.
You see, in Peter’s letter he uses the term anagennao, which gets translated as “born again” and means “to be changed as a form of spiritual rebirth” resulting in “a radical change in personality.”2 In his Gospel, however, John uses the phrase gennao anothen, which is an idiom meaning either to be born again or to be “born from above.” The idea here is to undergo “a complete change in one’s way of life to what it should be.”3 It is a figure of speech, similar to how we in English will sometimes say, “take it back to the beginning,” or a music instructor might say, “let’s take it from the top.” The idea is to go back over something from start to finish.
Nicodemus then follows up with the question, “How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born, can he?”
Often when this passage is taught in church, people will say that Nicodemus was confused and thought that Jesus was talking about literally entering into his mother’s womb and being physically born again. We think, silly ol’ Nicodemus. Jesus is talking about spiritual stuff, not physical stuff.
But, you know, I don’t think Nicodemus has misunderstood Jesus at all. In fact, I think he understands Jesus better than most of us do. The old man wasn’t an idiot, and he wasn’t unfamiliar with this way of talking about being born from above in a non-literal fashion, which we find variances of both in the Old Testament (Ps 2:7; Prov 8:25) and in Jewish writings both before Christ (Psalms of Solomon 17:23ff.) and after (Canticum Rabba, Strack, Einl., 213; Yebamot 22a).
In fact, I think just like Shifu in the above scene from Kung Fu Panda, Nicodemus is playing along with Jesus’ figurative language, and uses it to ask a very practical question. Jesus has just made a huge statement about what it means to see the kingdom of God. In essence, he said that in order to do so, one must start from the beginning and rethink everything. This means rethinking…
… theology and philosophy
… how one reads Scripture
… how one practices their religion or lack thereof
… how one regards their friends and family
… how one regards the marginalized and oppressed among us
… how one regards those not in their tribe
… how one regards their enemies
… how one thinks about marriage
… how one thinks about sex and sexuality
… how one thinks about parenting
… how one thinks about pregnancy, birth, and the value of life
… how one thinks about death and suffering
… how one thinks about war and peace
… how one thinks about politics and government
… how one thinks about justice
… how one thinks about economics, wealth, and poverty
… how one spends one’s money
… the sort of entertainment one consumes and participates in
… how one thinks about technology and its uses
… how one thinks about creation and our responsibility to it
… how one treats animals
… how one thinks about health and treatment of one’s own body
… how one thinks about education and learning
… what it means to be human
… and on, and on, and on…
Nicodemus is keenly aware of what Jesus is saying to him, which is why he asks his question. Notice that he is particularly concerned with this from the perspective of an old man (Jn 3:4). In other words, his question to Jesus goes like this: “I am old. I have spent my life living a certain way. What you’re asking of me would take another lifetime, which I don’t have. I can’t go back and start my life over again, can I? So how do you expect an old man like me to begin again from the beginning?”
I actually think this is the same sort of response that many Christians today have to Jesus. You see, many people are raised with a certain set of beliefs, and then when they encounter the person of Jesus they simply incorporate what they can from his example and teachings into their pre-existing worldview rather than re-evaluate those beliefs in light of Jesus. This is how you end up with people on both sides of the political spectrum claiming that theirs is the side that Jesus would have been on if he were on earth today.
So, for example, on the one hand you have political conservatives saying there’s nothing morally wrong with being wealthy, decrying socialism and adhering to capitalism, claiming that God wants people to work for their living (which is largely true), while ignoring Jesus’ preference for the poor and the early church’s disregard for notions of personal property. On the other hand, you have political liberals saying that our government and society as a whole has a moral obligation to take care of the poor, decrying capitalism and adhering to socialism, claiming that God is concerned with the oppressed (which is also true), all the while ignoring Jesus’ distinctly interpersonal, non-government aided approach to social justice.
While I personally suspect a better solution is to be found somewhere in the space between, both groups have attempted to coopt Jesus for their own political agendas, and neither have really taken the time to truly and fully rethink their perspective from start to finish.
That’s just one example, and I’m sure there are countless others that could be presented. The point is simply that most “born again” believers, regardless of what side of any given issue they are on, have yet to begin the long and arduous process of actually being born again in the way that Jesus mentions in his discussion with Nicodemus.
And it is a time consuming and tedious process. In our world of instant gratification, that sort of marathon type discipleship just doesn’t sell as well as the idea of a spiritual DNA swap. And this, I suspect, is why most Christians who have been reborn (anagennao) have actually yet to be “born again” (gennao anothen). It would just require too much of us, and who has time for that?
1: I first came across this way of reading John 3 in this a sermon podcast by Brian Zahnd.
2: Johannes P. Louw and Eugene Albert Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains (New York: United Bible Societies, 1996), 154.
3: Louw and Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, 509.