“Second Birth”

In the Christmas hymn Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, the third verse says this:

“Hail the heav’n-born Prince of Peace!

Hail the sun of righteousness!

Light and life to all he brings,

Ris’n with healing in his wings.

Mild he lays his glory by,

Born that we no more may die,

Born to raise each child of earth,

Born to give us second birth.

Hark! The herald angels sing,

‘Glory to the newborn king!’”

Notice the lines “Born to raise each child of earth, Born to give us second birth.”  How do these lines of the above hymn compare with Jesus’ words to Nicodemus in John’s Gospel: “no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again” (John 3:3).  In other words, what does it mean to be “born again”?  And, is being “born again” only a spiritual manifestation of one’s faith, or is it also physical?

Stephen Prothero, in his book Religious Literacy (2007), defines a “Born-Again Christian” as “Someone who has accepted Jesus as his or her Savior and Lord, typically in a sudden experience or ‘new birth’”.  How does this definition apply to the story of Nicodemus found in John’s Gospel (see 3:1-21)?  Nicodemus is a Pharisee and, by implication, an observant Jew.  Observant Jews in the New Testament, like Nicodemus, obey the Old Testament law of God.  They believe that, by doing so, they will maintain a right relationship with God.  This relationship tends to be physical, rather than spiritual.  In this way, the Old Testament Judaism practiced by New Testament Jews, like Nicodemus, is a religion of orthopraxy, rather than orthodoxy.  Orthopraxy means “proper practice,” whereas orthodoxy means “proper belief.”  When Jesus says to Nicodemus, “You must be born again” (John 3:7), he (Nicodemus) probably doesn’t understand because he is thinking physically, not spiritually.  Jesus even says as much: “‘You are Israel’s teacher,’ said Jesus, ‘and do you not understand these things?  Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony.  I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things?’” (John 3:10-12).  Nicodemus doesn’t appear to meet Prothero’s definition given above.  Nicodemus doesn’t appear to believe that Jesus is anything other than “a teacher who has come from God” (John 3:2).

Being “born again” is not only a spiritual manifestation, but is also physical.  Why?  Because baptism is both a spiritual act and a physical act.  Baptism combines both physical and spiritual elements: the water and the word.  Baptism is the usual point of entry into the Christian faith, either as an adult or as an infant.  And, because of Jesus’ “Great Commission” to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19), there should be no such thing as an unbaptized Christian (although someone can go to heaven without it: see Mark 16:16).  Being “born again” is not only a spiritual and physical manifestation regarding baptism, but also regarding a Christian love for others.  One who is “born again” spiritually apparently has the power to love others physically.  Both the Apostles Peter and Paul refer to this.  Peter, among his “Exhortations to Holiness of Life,” says “Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for each other, love one another deeply, from the heart.  For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God” (1 Peter 1:22-23).  And the Apostle Paul, among his “Instructions for Christian Households,” says “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless” (Ephesians 5:25-27).

In the Church hymn The Church’s One Foundation, the first verse says this:

“The Church’s one foundation

Is Jesus Christ, her Lord;

She is his new creation

By water and the Word.

From heav’n he came and sought her

To be his holy bride;

With his own blood he bought her,

And for her life he died.”

Notice the lines “She is his new creation By water and the Word.”  The reference to baptism appears to be explicit.  Notice, too, the lines “From heav’n he came and sought her To be his holy bride; With his own blood he bought her, And for her life he died.”  They are reminiscent of the Christmas hymn quoted above, Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.  Jesus comes from heaven to do certain things that, ultimately, lead to the “second birth” of those who see Him “as his or her Savior and Lord” (see Prothero, above).