Sometimes I tell people I’m an E. K., an evangelist’s kid. I heard my father use the words born again all the time. By the time I was an adult, the term had lost any meaning beyond the idea of “coming to Jesus” or praying a prayer that led to spiritual change. Born again was a label for the moment of conversion, but I had never thought of it as related to the concept of birth itself.
That was until I was studying the Gospel of John for my PhD and became pregnant with my second child, my son, Atticus. I came upon that familiar story in John 3 where Nicodemus meets with Jesus to speak with him.
I was struck by how many times the words born or birth are repeated in John 3, in part because I was preparing for my own son’s birth. I was also surprised that scholars describe John as mixing his metaphors when talk of being born again (v. 7) turns into talk about the wind of the Spirit (v. 8). I had started rethinking how metaphors work and I wanted to know what was with all of this birth language, and were these actually mixed metaphors or were they something else?
The way we interpret metaphors has recently shifted. Where previously metaphors were understood as equivalent statements (for example, “the man is a wolf” could be made into “the man is aggressive”), metaphor scholars such as George Lakoff, Gilles Fauconnier, and Mark Turner now argue that it is as important to pay attention to how the metaphor speaks to us as what the metaphor means. In fact, the how often provides a deeper understanding of the what. If we say “the man is a wolf,” it matters that wolves are not only aggressive but also sly and known for trickery. Thus, it matters that the man is compared to a wolf and not a bull or a bear, which are also aggressive but not necessarily clever.
Applying this to the Bible, we should not only value what metaphors in Scripture mean but also see these particular metaphors themselves as a gift from God to convey something valuable about who he is and what he is doing. In the case of “born again,” the conception of spiritual life in Christ as a form of birth leads us to think about how birth itself is like our own spiritual journey.
A universal human experience
Birth is a strange metaphor in Christian circles. We tend to think of birth as something that relates mostly to women. But because all of us were born, birth clearly applies to men and women alike. Similarly, metaphors about children apply to each of us because we have all been children at some point.
Modern birth is far less seen or experienced than it was in days of old. It happens in hospitals, often away from the eyes of the general population. In the case of planned C-sections, increasingly common today, even the mother might not see the birth itself.
In the ancient world, however, birth was an experience that impacted everyone. It happened inside homes that made the noise and struggle much more public. Neighbors heard it. Birth, in all of its loud messiness, was a family affair and even a community event.
It shouldn’t surprise us then that birth became a metaphor for a variety of other experiences in both the Old and New Testaments. German scholar Claudia Bergmann states that the ancients used birth to describe experiences of crisis—whether personal or communal.
Bergmann explains in Childbirth as a Metaphor for Crisis that “ancient Near Eastern examples show . . . that there was a tradition of comparing women giving birth to warriors in battle.” This happens in the Old Testament too. It may seem strange to us now, but the ancient authors of the Old Testament saw the crisis of birth—where women were close to death as they struggled to bring new life into the world—as parallel to the warrior’s experience of being close to death before victory in battle.
For example, in Isaiah 42:13 the Lord is described first as marching “out like a champion,” saying that “like a warrior he will stir up his zeal.” He “will raise the battle cry and will triumph over his enemies.” This military man’s war cry is then paralleled in verse 14 with the image of the Lord crying out “like a woman in childbirth . . . gasp[ing] and pant[ing].” Comparing the warrior’s cry to the cry of the mother giving birth provides a way to speak of the Lord moving the people from the potential crisis where everything was lost in their deepest places of darkness to a place of victory, life, and light (v. 16). When all hope seemed lost and death imminent, the Lord won the battle, gave birth to new life, and brought light to the darkness, showing that this God does not give up on his people.
Not a painless process
If crisis and even pain and death were part of the common experience of birth in the ancient world, we cannot see being born again as straightforward and painless simply because it is spiritual rather than physical. Instead, we have to acknowledge that being born again may include a crisis, may be painful, and may even be messy.
Further, when we evangelize, we may be deceiving people if we make the process sound easy. Birth is rarely easy, so we shouldn’t expect the process of rebirth to be easy either. But the fact that it may be painful, messy, and difficult doesn’t make it less valuable because, like birth itself, it leads to new life and hope exactly in our deepest places of darkness.
Rethinking birth this way also may answer that pesky question of whether John is mixing his metaphors of “born again” and “wind” in John 3:7–8. If we think in terms of the physical process of birth to understand the spiritual process of being born again, it reminds us how unexpected birth is.
When I was pregnant with both of my kids, my doctor and midwife gave me the dates when my kids would be born. But of course the dates were not the exact dates my kids were actually born. With my daughter, Elena, the dates were not only inexact, they were wrong by several weeks. I went through two weeks of initial labor, anticipating that any day could be the day. This confusion about my daughter’s due date happened even in an age of advanced medical technology, of multiple sonograms and tools to measure birthweight and the baby’s body length at each stage of pregnancy. In the ancient world, such technology didn’t exist. Midwives had years of experience by which to estimate the date of a baby’s birth, but even then the specific moment of birth was a mystery—just like it is today.
The experience of God’s Spirit is a similar kind of mystery. John 3:8 is saying that, like a baby who comes whenever that baby decides or a wind that blows how and where it wants, the Holy Spirit moves when and where the Spirit wants.
In Greek there is a play on words here as the word pneuma includes the potential meanings of Spirit, wind, and breath. The breath/wind that brings life to a newborn—when we wait what seems like forever to hear that baby’s first cry—comes when it wants to come, not when we command it. We can approximate how and when the Spirit might come, but we can never know for certain. We can pray for the Spirit to move, for new birth to happen in someone’s life, for our own lives to be transformed by God, but we will always be surprised by how exactly God makes this happen and when.
Taking the birth metaphor seriously allows us to see in a new way how being born again is linked to the hope of being the “children of God,” a theme that runs throughout John’s gospel. We can also see a link between birth in John 3 and the way Jesus’ compares his death and resurrection with a mother giving birth in John 16:20–22.
Very truly I tell you, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy. A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world. So with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy.
Here both the disciples in their grieving and Jesus in his death are pictured as being in pain and are compared to a woman at the crisis point of labor. Yet if the pain of Jesus’ death is parallel to the pain of birth, so Jesus’ resurrection and the disciples’ response parallel the joy of birth. Death could not hold Jesus down; he has been born again to new life in his resurrection. Death is not the end of the story for the disciples either; in Christ’s resurrection, they can experience the joy of new birth.
Groaning with the pangs of childbirth
As an E. K., I now look at the experience of being born again in a new way that impacts how I think about evangelism and discipleship. John 16 tells us that rebirth is not a one-time event but an event that occurs to us again and again along our spiritual journey. When we are faced with situations that lead us to wonder if God’s promise to never leave us or forsake us is actually true (Heb. 13:5), we stand with the disciples who initially saw only Jesus’ death, not knowing his resurrection was to come. But like a mother who experiences not only the pain and crisis as she gives birth to her baby but also experiences the great joy of this new life, God wants to draw us close to him to experience the hope of his presence amidst the messiness of our lives.
Our journey with the Holy Spirit may be surprisingly hard and God will not always come when we might wish him to, but when he comes, it will be like the voice of a baby crying for the first time with a breath full of new life and new hope. And he will do more than we could ever imagine or try to plan. So we live out our spiritual journey in the noise, the mess, and the crisis, but also in the victory, the light, and the hope of new life.
Beth Stovellis associate professor of Old Testament at Ambrose Seminary of Ambrose University in Calgary, Canada. Her commentary, Minor Prophets I: Hosea–Micah (Story of God Bible Commentary Series, Zondervan), will be available next year.
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