Through the course of the day while taking calls, those energy sucking screens in front of me are filled with numbers: dates, identification numbers, group numbers, phone numbers, digital clocks and timers. The observation, or phenomena of note is that in the last few months I have repeatedly seen the numbers 3 & 16 paired together. People with dates of birth on March 16th have come to my attention far more than should be expected based on probability, and my eyes continue to fall on little ticking timers as they fall upon 3 minutes and 16 seconds. On the clock, "3:16" tells me that I have an hour and forty five minutes left of my shift. While that last example is pretty compelling on it's own, 3:16 has greater significance. It is, of course, the reference to one of the most well know verses in the bible:
"For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life." - John 3:16I learned this verse when I was three years old. Fast forward now and I'm 27 with about two decades of legitimate academic and emotional understanding of John 3:16 and it's relation to my world view and identity as a human being. I admit, I felt somewhat patronized by this simple spirit nudgings towards the most fundamental of verse and it left me kind of puzzled.
To explain some of the gravity of this observation some context to my life in the immediate is important to share. And it's very good news. It so happens that few months ago I got engaged to my best friend, which has given me a base line state of carefree joy. Over the past few years, my battle against negative thoughts, which is quite evident from past post on this blog, resulted in seasons of my life where I didn't have joy even remotely like this. In those seasons I found decision making to be so difficult that I frequently didn't make any decisions until I had no other choice. Since finding Elizabeth, my bride to be, I've gotten a lot better at this. I purchased a car, and planned for and organized events months before hand. These are mundane accomplishments but they marks of big changes for me. However the change was more than joy. I always had joy. It was just complicated by mental and spiritual struggle with negativity. Once I became set upon proposing, and especially after she said yes, that I found myself filled with this foreign feeling of clarity. At first I didn't recognize it. It was exhilarating, but I was uncharted territory. I don't recall a time when I felt so comfortable jumping into future planning. So, in this carefree joy that sprung from this clarity, my fiance and I dove right into planning our wedding and preparing for our life together. It's wonderful. But in the unfamiliarity, my spirit got a little lost for a number of weeks.
This is when the 3s and 16s showed up. Was this some supernatural take over of my computer screen? No. Is it as grand and expansive as another shocking appearance of 3 & 16? No. But it was a beautiful little example of how the Holy Spirit can work. The numbers in front of me are no different than they've always been, but God pointed out the 3s and 16s to me as if highlighted. At first I took the repetition of seeing the numbers of the reference of this famous reference to be a reminder to take it easy on myself. I saw it, smiled, giggled a little bit, took a deep breath and moved on. I am loved. Simple enough, right? But when I kept seeing it is when I started to feel somewhat patronized.
But the more I thought about it, it called me deeper. God doesn't patronize. That's not how the spirit works. Upon further thought, I found it to be a terribly simplistic view to see John 3:16 as only confirming God's love for me. God's love described in John 3:16 is for everyone. It's not just about me. The scope is so much greater. While, that was a good conclusion it didn't satisfy for me. That was too simple a thought for the pure oddity of these numbers coming to my attention over an over again.
Eventually, I resolved to look at John 3, to try to come to a greater understanding of this all-so-familiar verse by looking at its context. That pointed me in a far more compelling and applicable direction that jives right a long with the concept of this blog. Take a read:
Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. 2 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.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” 4 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?” 5 Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 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.”
9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? 11 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. 12 If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.Here's where I want everyone to put a star or some symbol of **ALERT** as a note in their bible. There's no end quotes! Jesus keeps talking! And goes right on to the words of John 3:16. And if it wasn't for the pesky heading below there would be no option but to group these two sections together.
Thinking about John 3:16 and the verses after it on their own is okay. These verses are dense with theological value and spiritual significance. But connecting them to what Jesus said to Nicodemus adds some other wrinkles. What does it mean to believe in Christ? What does it mean to be "born again"? Since those are the operative actions Jesus mentions to gain eternal life and entrance into the Kingdom of heaven we really ought to know how that works right?
For God So Loved the World16 “For God so loved the world,[i] that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. 20 For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. 21 But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.”
When Christ talks about being born again he talks about being born of spirit and water. What is water but something that is life giving? Think about Christ's context. In an arid climate like Palestine water was life. Consider next how the new testament Greek word for spirit pneuma and the Hebrew word ruah, add context to this understanding (See definition of spirit in full at www.biblestudytools.com). In summary, The Hebrew word's "use almost defies analysis but some emphases are discernible" ranging from wind, to breath, to feelings, vital power, life force, God's creative power of life, or the human will. The new testament greek word pneuma more specifically relates to intelligent being, psyche and the part of a human's personality that allows them to interact and relate with God.
If water is new life and spirit is feeling, vital power, psyche and that what is in me that allows me to interact with God, being re-born in those sounds like entering into a new state of mind. When we become followers of Christ we live in this odd duelist reality. We have sinful temporary bodies that are not going to be renewed on our own. From dust to dust is how this iteration of bodies on earth will progress for every human for all time. We can't go back to being babies. We can't start over. We can't undo our sin. We can't be born again physically, but when we first believe in Christ and accept His Lordship upon our lives we are given access to the wonderful counsel of the Holy Spirit.
The story of Nicodemus hits me pretty deep. While I don't even come close to rivaling this respected Pharisee as a religious scholar, I identify with him. He's seeking and he wants to know more. He want's to know so much that he's sneaking around at night just to try to figure out more about Jesus. I understand Nicodemus' perceived indignation, when he comes all of this way, presumably to ask some specific questions, and even before he asks anything Jesus suggests the impossible, especially since Nico was living in a pre-pentacost world where the Spirit behaved differently on earth as it does now.
Jesus loves to flip things upside down. Christ is telling us to love him and be dependent upon him in our spirit. The idea of being birthed again in spirit is a representation of God in the role of mother, which is pretty cool. Being born again of spirit and water, this implies a relationship. Let us not forget that. Birth creates the first relationship any human has. That child-mother bond. When things are good, I want to talk to my mother. When things are bad, I want to talk to my mother. As I physically and drawn to communicate with my mother, I must remember the level of respect, familial intimacy and closeness in that mother child bond creates is how my spirit should bond with the spirit of God. Here's where I notice I'm like a spirit toddler.
I wish we got a look at Nicodemus' response to what Jesus says here. Did he go away frustrated? Did he get it?
Like Nicodemus, I like to think that my intellectual efforts will get me through. I like to think I can think my way through everything. Lots of time, that just leaves me frustrated. I think I get it all and then the Spirit of God flips things upside down.
As a man of God, clarity is something I need. But I know that for me to be the Kingdom worker that I want to be, Christ must be the center of my life. If I want to live with the energy of eternal spirit life that I have been born again into, I have to be intentional. In my celebration and new found vigor for planning after engagement, my disciplines faltered a bit. My spirit got lost in desires and efforts of the flesh, good desires and good efforts of happy exciting flesh, but still flesh. This opens my eyes fragility of my spirit and the human spirit in general. For years I prayed for clarity and direction, and then when I find it, I find that even it can pull we away from my spiritual unity with my savior. How telling is that.
Because of the life renewing power of grace, we can born again in the living water of Christ that washes our inequities away and by this grace our internal self can be born again of spirit so that it looks like Christ. Christ spirit in the maturity of a newborn, within a suborn, sinful, adult, human body.
John 3 talks about this newness of spiritual birth. Reading it again put me in my place. It reminded me how much I need my Lord. It's good go remember that we are small. The mighty get low and the low get high is a reality in God's upside down Kingdom. The big shots like Nicodemus are told to become like a baby. Sometimes, in our successes we need to be reminded that it's not by our strength. What I have learned from this, is when I am well, I will seek God. When I am unwell, I will seek God. When I don't know what I am doing I will seek God. But I will seek the Lord in my clarity as well. Everything I have came from God and anything I can plan is subject to God's will for my life. He is in control. Let us, like toddlers, as we are in spirit, lift our arms to our heavenly Father/Mother, daily looking the way of our loving Creator. Let us keep our eyes on our Lord and brother, Jesus Christ who will guide us with His Spirit as we navigate this remarkable congruence of life on earth, that is the Kingdom of already and not yet.