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Episode 28: Birth

In the Gospel of John, birth is only the beginning, Life awaits those who hear and obey Jesus’ voice.
BIRTH

     “You must be born again,” may be the most famous of this Gospel’s references to birth, and yet, it may actually be the least insightful for understanding this theme. Several other “birth” phrases describe the various types of birth possible from this Gospel’s perspective; one can be born of blood, of water, of flesh, of immorality, one can even be born in sin. Of course, the emphasis on those born from above is not limited to John 3.

     The Prologue describes the impact of receiving the Word at the Beginning with God, namely becoming Children of God (Episode 9). This identity belongs only to those “born of God,” which is contrasted with those who are born of blood, of the will of a person, or of the will of a man. This type of birth associates itself with belief, specifically belief in his name. The specific language of these who are “born of God” appears nowhere else in the Gospel, although the letter of 1 John uses this term six times. However, this contrast in birthing styles unveils itself throughout the Gospel by using a variety of terms, a practice readers and listeners of this devocast have become aware is quite common.

Elsewhere in John

     When we encounter Jesus’ famous words to Nicodemus their discussion ultimately focuses on the topic of the Kingdom of God, specifically how it is possible for someone to see or enter it. This visit by Nicodemus (Episode 27) serves as a representation for the many people who have seen Jesus’ signs and believe in Jesus’ name described at the end of John 2. Jesus draws a distinction between those born “of water” and those born “of the spirit.” The Kingdom of God is available to those who experience both types of birth. Many will be familiar with the confusion by Nicodemus over the interpretation of Jesus’ word anĊthen, that can mean both ‘again’ and ‘from above.’ While Nicodemus fixates on the first, illustrating this Gospel’s use of misunderstanding in order to identify the proper perspective, Jesus intends the second idea.

     Their discussion also introduces the contrast between one who is born of the flesh and one born of the spirit. Here we find the same concept translated earlier as “the will of a person” in John 1:13. This Gospel indicates that one born of the Spirit is the equivalent of one “born of God.” The positive association of birth with God and God’s kingdom now ceases until much later in the Gospel.

     The remainder of the Gospel of John appears to assume that Jesus is proposing birth from God or the Spirit when speaking specifically about different types of birth. In chapter 8, the discussion between Jesus and the crowd grows somewhat tense. (Episodes 8 and 9 also describe this controversy) After Jesus announces that they are seeking to kill him, they turn to their lineage, specifically claiming Abraham as their father, in order to demonstrate their honored identity (John 8:39). The crowd’s initial response makes their later statement, “WE were not born from immoral behavior, we have one Father, God” (8:41) all the more striking. The attentive listener hears the apparent conflict between their two proclamations.

     Chapter 9 portrays an apparently common understanding of human frailties when the disciples, and later the Jewish religious leaders, identify the man born blind as one born in sin. Jesus takes this opportunity to revisit the original proposition found in chapter 3, namely two births are necessary. The man is born blind so that the works of God might be displayed in him. Through the chapter, this man moves from having limited sight but a willingness to act on certain words by Jesus to believing in the Son of Man. The religious leaders on the other hand remain “blind” having experienced only one birth, that is to say, having been born in sin.

     Using birth as an illustration, Jesus speaks to his disciples about his coming death and resurrection. While grief may accompany the pain during the onset of labor, once the child is born incredible joy replaces pain. Jesus’ departure will be a painful time, but ultimately joyful. (John 16:19-22) The end result of their pain and grief will be the opportunity to make requests from the Father, requests that only one “born of God” could make. In other words, Jesus indicates that only births according to the pattern of this world can occur without his departure from this world.

     Finally, in the discussion between Jesus and Pilate reported in chapter 18, Jesus counters Pilate’s assertion that Jesus’ own people have handed him over. In reply, Jesus once again speaks about a kingdom not of this world; the first mention of kingdom since his dialogue with Nicodemus. Jesus then informs Pilate,

“You say that I am a king. I was born for this reason
and I came to the world for this reason that I might
testify to truth; everyone who is from the truth
hears my voice [and follows me]”
(18:37)

Anyone who is “of the truth” (Episode 12) will hear and obey Jesus’ voice-a phrase used earlier in John 10 to describe those sheep who belong to Jesus, the good Shepherd. The context might even lead one to say that only those who are born of the truth hear Jesus’ voice.

Concluding Thought

     Birth and birthing play a significant supporting role in the Gospel of John. As an analogy, birth makes complete sense. One joins a family through birth, one identifies one’s father through birth, and a Father identifies his children by their birth. Yet a birth event is only one step in the discussion. The type of birth is of uttermost importance. While there are many types of birth mentioned, only those born of God-also described as being born of the spirit, born from above, or born of truth-are able to see and to perceive the reign and rule of God. Birth is a necessary, and often painful, stage to go through. Yet one cannot experience life without experiencing birth.

     Birth also does not happen immediately after conception. An embryo must continue growing, nutrition must pass between mother and child until the realization of new life separate from the mother occurs. Birth from the spirit also requires a process of growth. Yet, unlike the fleshly birth, in a spiritual birth no life exists separate from the spirit. Just as one removed from nutrition or oxygen in this world will wither and die, one who does not breathe the spirit of God will suffocate. In the Gospel of John, birth is only the beginning, Life awaits those who hear and obey Jesus’ voice.

Take 5 Minutes More

     Can you identify which types of birth you have experienced yourself? One cannot become part of God’s family until there is a birth from above, a birth of the spirit. Just as in a community or neighborhood it is possible to admire a certain family, to interact with members of that family, or even to be invited into the family’s house, so it is with God’s family. Yet, as with all families, birth is only the beginning of the adventure. The goal is mature adulthood.

     Take a few moments to consider the following thoughts.
     • Do you look back to your birth into your own family for meaning or are your memories based on living life together?
     • As a child, which motivated you, growing up and doing what you saw adults doing, or staying a child forever?
     • Within God’s family where is your focus, maturing so the works of God can be displayed in you, or constantly looking back to your birth as the final activity of God?


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Updated August 4, 2022