“Ye must be born again” #BCCSundaySchool2019

Readings: John 2-4

We’re back in John for this week’s reading. And John moves really fast through Jesus’ life and early ministry. It’s almost like an anthology of snippets of Jesus’s greatest hits. And Jesus is travelling all over the place. In these chapters we get these episodes:

  • Jesus in Galilee: Jesus turns water into wine at the marriage in Cana, his first miracle, according to John (John 2:1-11).
  • Jesus back in Jerusalem: Jesus turns the money-changers out of the temple (John 2:12-17).
  • Jesus prophesies of his death and resurrection: “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:18-22)
  • Jesus meets with Nicodemus: “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:1-21).
  • John in the desert: John the baptizer testifies of Jesus (John 3:22-36).
  • Jesus in Samaria, on his way back to Galilee: Jesus speaks with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well and makes a lot of converts in Samaria (John 4:1-42).
  • Jesus back in Cana: Jesus remotely heals a nobleman’s son (his second miracle) (John 4:46-54).

John is so compact and dense, and Jesus and John both speak in such mystical, prophetic language in John, that you could have many weeks of discussion about these chapters. In this post, I’m going to look at just a couple of these episodes.

The marriage at Cana: This is a unique miracle, because here, Jesus was not feeding those who were starving, nor healing the sick, but was just providing more party supplies when the wine ran out. You could argue that it wasn’t necessary to have more wine in the same way that it may have been necessary to feed the hungry or heal the sick.

  • What does this tell us about Jesus’s willingness to bless? Do we sometimes prevent ourselves from having the faith to receive blessings because he haven’t convinced ourselves that we need them?
  • Is it perhaps that periodic joy and celebration are as necessary to the human heart and spirit as food and healing are to the human body?

Yes, it was real wine, not grape juice. You could use this to start a discussion about the difference between eternal principles and situational commandments, practices, or policies.

  • How can we know the difference between a commandment that is eternal and one that might change? Can we know that difference?
  • How does our understanding of this issue affect how we think about commandments, practices, policies, and other church teachings. What do you do when you’re not sure what category a given policy, rule, or practice falls into?
  • If I were teaching, I might try to bring the discussion around to the principle taught in D&C 10: 67-68 and 3 Nephi 11:31-40.

Jesus throwing out the money-changers: Sometimes we read this story with our modern understanding that Jesus was the rightful “owner” of the temple, that everyone knew the money-changers were bad, and that he and was just setting the temple right. I think that’s a mistake. We ought to read it from the point of view of the people watching. From their point of view, Jesus was a radical who came from outside the established religious authority, and wrongfully kicked out lawful merchants who had a right to be there, and were providing a valuable service, allowing people to buy what they needed to worship correctly according to the law of Moses.

John notes that Jesus “made a scourge of small cords.” To me, that suggests that Jesus was not merely overcome with emotion in the heat of the moment, but that this action was premeditated. Jesus didn’t just get offended and fly off the handle, he chose to be offended by the unjust, exploitative, and sacrilegious situation he saw, made a plan to make a stand against it, and then executed on that plan.

  • There’s two ways to look at Jesus’ violent angry reaction to this: one is simply that he was concerned with the purity of the temple. That’s what the translation of John seems to suggest: “Make not my Father’s house an house of merchandise.” But the translation of Matthew suggests a different motive: “My house shall be called a house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves.” Thief v. merchandise. Thief suggests more than just the presence of trade, but that there was dishonesty and perhaps exploitation. What are the pros and cons of each perspective?
  • What was Jesus’ problem with the money-changers? Was it just the fact that they money was changing hands in the temple grounds? If so, how do we distinguish it from our modern practice in some temples of paying for the rental of clothing needed for temple worship?
  • We don’t have outside merchants setting up shop in the temple itself, but do we have the equivalent of money-changers? Those who would convince us that we have a religious need for something and take advantage of that to sell for profit? I am not suggesting that all religious art or literature or music is inherently dishonest exploitative, but what can this story teach us about how to be wise consumers of religious media?

Jesus and Nicodemus: Sometimes discussions of this episode veer into shallow condemnations of Nicodemus: “Oh, silly Nicodemus, he was ashamed to be seen with Jesus so we met with him by night. Oh, the tragedy of Nicodemus, he heard Jesus speak, but never became a disciple because he couldn’t give up his power and prestige.” I think such discussions are a mistake. They’re not based on really anything textual, and they more often than not veer into the edges of anti-Semitism.  Jesus doesn’t condemn Nicodemus for coming to him by night, or draw any conclusions from it, though he does chide Nicodemus for being a teacher in Israel and not understanding the principle of being born of the spirit. Nor does the text tell us one way or the other whether Nicodemus did or did not become a disciple of Jesus. It tells us that he, as a Pharisee, defended Jesus, and that he was accused of being his disciple because of it (John 7:5-52), and it also tells us that he donated materials to help with Jesus’s burial (John 19:39). Nicodemus was like the Thomas Kane of the primitive church. I stan Nicodemus.

Often, in my experience, we give a shallow reading to these verses: “You have to be born of water and of the spirit, therefore, you have to be baptized and also confirmed. Okay, moving on…” I think that’s a mistake. And while I’m not going to argue against the teaching of the church that baptism and confirmation are both necessary saving ordinances, I’m going to suggest here that Jesus is not just talking about the ordinance of the laying on of hands when he talks about being born of the spirit.

First, notice that the gospels describe Jesus himself receiving the baptism of the holy ghost spontaneously out of heaven, not by the laying on of hands. John himself expressly says that he lacks the power to baptize with the Holy Ghost. And this is consistent with a whole slew of restoration scriptures. In the Enoch revelation, now canonized as part of the Book of Moses in the Pearl of Great Price, Adam is described as being baptized in water by the Spirit of God, and of being born of the Spirit without receiving the laying on of hands:

“And it came to pass, when the Lord had spoken with Adam, our father, that Adam cried unto the Lord, and he was caught away by the Spirit of the Lord, and was carried down into the water, and was laid under the water, and was brought forth out of the water. And thus he was baptized, and the Spirit of God descended upon him, and thus he was born of the Spirit and became quickened in the inner man” (Moses 6:64-65).

Being born again, born of God, born of the spirit, is a major theme of the latter half of the Book of Mormon, and only rarely is the laying on of hands mentioned. Perhaps the most detailed description from the Book of Mormon is the Lord’s statement to Alma, after his conversion:

“Marvel not that all mankind, yea, men and women, all nations, kindreds, tongues, and people, must be born again; yea, of God, changed from their carnal and fallen state, to a state of righteousness, being redeemed of God, becoming his sons and his daughters; and thus they become new creatures; and unless they do this, they can in nowise inherit the kingdom of God” (Mosiah 27:25)

Being born again, according to the Book of Mormon, is not about complying with The Rules to enter heaven; it is about changing our human nature into divine nature in order to be the kind of being that can withstand being in heaven in God’s presence. See also, e.g., Alma 22:15.

Again, I’m not suggesting that the ordinance of the laying on of hands is not necessary, I’m suggesting that while that ordinance is the means by which we approach the Lord to receive the holy ghost in the church today, the ordinance is not itself the gift. Much like how the temple liturgy, while it is the means by which we approach the Lord to receive the endowment of power promised in the revelations of the Doctrine and Covenants, is not itself the promised endowment.

I am suggesting that conversion, being born of the spirit, is a gift of god. One that we cannot control or demand, because the spirit, as Jesus tells, Nicodemus, blows where it wants to. And in fact, the language of our confirmation ordinance reflects that: The ordinance does not say “now you have the gift of the holy ghost.” It says “receive the holy ghost.” It is up to us, as individuals, to exercise faith to receive the gift of god of being born of the Spirit and of receiving the holy ghost. And it’s my personal belief that to “receive the holy ghost” for most people, is not something we do in an instant when we are confirmed, but is the work of a lifetime–the primary work of a Christian disciple’s life. (See also D&C 50:24). Sometimes our discussions of the ordinance and the gift of the holy ghost can be a little trite and overlook this. But restoration scripture puts a pretty heavy emphasis on this.

  • Aside from being confirmed by someone holding the Melchizedek priesthood, What must one do to be born of the spirit?
  • How can you know if you have been born of the spirit?

Jesus with the Samaritan Woman at the Well: This episode is remarkable because it is, I think, the only time that Jesus affirmatively tells anyone that he is the Messiah. He hints at it and suggests it with others, and confirms it when Peter says that he is the Christ, but this woman of Samaria is the only one to whom Jesus actually affirmatively says “I am Christ.”

There’s something truly moving and deeply symbolic about the way Jesus treats this woman. Of course, the Jews looked down on the Samaritans as having a corrupted and apostate form of the true religion. And they were right that the Samaritan religion didn’t have everything that the temple at Jerusalem had. Add to that the fact that she was a woman, and women were not exactly respected or treated as equals in ancient society. And on top of that, this woman apparently had a complicated sexual history. No wonder that when Jesus’s disciples saw him talking to her “they marveled that he talked with the woman” (John 4:27). And yet he talks with her and teaches her without judgment. He calls her out when she tells a white lie about her marital status, but he doesn’t condemn her for it. Instead, he offers her “living water.”

  • What is John trying to teach about the way Jesus looks upon sin and sinners with this story? What is he trying to teach about the way Jesus looks on religious and political division? What about gender?

I love the fearlessness of this woman. After he tells her who he is, she goes and tells the men of Samaria that she has found the Messiah (John 4:28-29). And because of her testimony, many people believe in Jesus (John 4:39). So Jesus turns his short water break in Samaria into a two-day stay, and when he comes into the city, he finds many people prepared to believe in him.

  • Is this woman, in a sense, playing the same role that John played, to prepare the way before Jesus? Like John, she meets Jesus at a place of water (water is almost always highly symbolic in John’s gospel), and like John, she goes before him and bears testimony of him.
  • But she is unlike John in some ways: unlike John, the desert-dwelling zealot who kept himself pure, was prepared for his mission from the time he was an infant, and preached repentance, she was a woman, she was a Samaritan, and she was apparently somebody with a complicated sexual past. What do we make of the fact that the one Jesus chose to prepare the way before his entry to Samaria was so unlike John in so many ways?
  • What do we make of the fact that so many Samaritans seemed to believe so easily in Jesus despite the fact that their form of worship was regarded by the Jews as corrupted and apostate?

Jesus almost seems to be subtly holding this woman up to his disciples as an example. After he sends her into the city, he tells his disciples “You say that the harvest is months away? I say look up and look at the white fields already to harvest” (John 4:35). And then he explains that as one sows and another reaps, he is sending them to harvest what was sown by others before them. It is then that many of the Samaritans believe because of the testimony of the woman at the well, and they come out and ask him to stay with them in Samaria.

  • Is Jesus telling his disciples that they are going to Samaria to finish the work that this woman has started? John 4:38 says “other men labored, and ye are entered into their labors,” but other translations render this without the gendered “men” and just speak of “others.” I don’t know enough Greek to know whether the original text here is gendered, or if it is, if it is gendered in a way that it is supposed to be literal, or if it is supposed to be generic, like KJV English so soften is.
  • Joseph Smith’s revision changes “other men” in this verse to “the prophets.” Does that suggest that this woman, by bearing testimony of Jesus, had acted in a prophetic role? Why would Jesus say that “the prophets” had labored in Samaria, when the Samaritan religion was so widely regarded as a corruption of the teaching of the prophets?

 

From the archives:

https://bycommonconsent.com/2015/03/30/cleansing-the-temple-monday-in-holy-week/

https://bycommonconsent.com/2011/02/06/born-again/#more-24150

https://bycommonconsent.com/2018/03/30/woman-i-know-him-not-the-apostle-peter-and-the-testimony-of-women/

 

 

 

Comments

  1. Good stuff, JKC, and excellent discussion questions. I think I’ll see if our teenager SS class is able to grapple with some of them. BTW, the Greek wording the KJV uses for “born again” could also mean “born from above.”
    I wonder who our current day Samaritans might be?

  2. As I’ve thought about John 4 and the Samaritan woman this week, I’ve had to keep reminding myself that our view of the Samaritans — their religion, culture, origin, everything — is filtered through the eyes and understanding of their enemies. There is a lot in this account to suggest that that bias is not justified — Samaritan hospitality in providing water and food to traveling Judeans, the knowledge and intelligence displayed by the woman, her townsmen’s acceptance of her testimony that led them to investigate on their own, their rapid acceptance of Jesus upon hearing him, their desire that he stay and teach them, their recognition that he was the Savior of the world (a title used only twice in the New Testament, here and in 1 John) and that salvation was not limited to the Jews or even to all the descendants of Jacob.

    Just as it was the Lamanites who were often more righteous than the Nephites, with our negative view of the Nephites coming from the skewed perspective of the Nephites, the Samaritans in this place, at least, have admirable and righteous characteristics, greater than much of Israel.

  3. Great point, Ardis. I found myself wondering what a gospel written by a Samaritan would have looked like. Not much different, I would guess, from the accounts in the gospels of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee.

  4. And good point, Ardis, highlighting the Savior of the World bit. I had missed that.

  5. Jared Livesey says:

    Aside from being confirmed by someone holding the Melchizedek priesthood, What must one do to be born of the spirit?

    3. One must repent of all one’s sins.
    2. One must believe the word of God as literalistically and as uncritically and as undefensively as a small child believes his father’s words.
    3. One must be baptized by one having actual authority from God (3 Nephi 11:37).
    See also 2 Nephi 31:13, 2 Nephi 31:17, and 2 Nephi 9:42, and in consecutive order for additional explanation.

    How can you know if you have been born of the spirit?

    The promise in 3 Nephi 11:35 will be fulfilled.

  6. Jared Livesey says:

    Please pardon my errors. The previous comment should have been as follows:

    Aside from being confirmed by someone holding the Melchizedek priesthood, What must one do to be born of the spirit?

    1. One must repent of all one’s sins.
    2. One must believe the word of God as literalistically and as uncritically and as undefensively as a small child believes his father’s words.
    3. One must be baptized by one having actual authority from God (3 Nephi 11:37).
    See also 2 Nephi 31:13, 2 Nephi 31:17, and 2 Nephi 9:42 in consecutive order for additional explanation.

    How can you know if you have been born of the spirit?

    The promise in 3 Nephi 11:35 will be fulfilled.

  7. Jared Livesey says:

    Do we sometimes prevent ourselves from having the faith to receive blessings because [w]e haven’t convinced ourselves that we need them?

    It may be more often that we have convinced ourselves, or have been convinced by others, that we already have the blessings we both need and lack.

    If, for example, Joseph had listened to his religious teachers, he might have become convinced that he would be saved by virtue of agreeing with some creed or council or quorum and being baptized under their auspices and receiving the laying on of hands. It was not until he actually felt the real, pressing, and critically immediate need to be delivered from the power of the devil as he sought to pray in the forest that he could exert his whole soul call upon God in true, desperate abandon for the blessing of being delivered; and for praying with that true, desperate, whole-souled abandon for deliverance, he received it, and more besides.

    Perhaps there are lessons to be learned from that –
    1. The difference that separates prayers which are truly answered by God from the prayers that bounce off the ceiling is the exerting of all one’s power, mind, and heart in the effort. In this context, see Moroni 7:48.
    2. One must be thoroughly persuaded, or have it demonstrated, that one lacks something truly needful before being willing to commit one’s entire soul without reserve to the enterprise of seeking it. So long as one receives deliverance, comfort, support, or honor apart from God, one will not seek for the deliverance, comfort, support, and honor which comes only from God (see Luke 6:20-26; John 5:44; Romans 2:7 [1-11]).
    3. God does not receive partial commitments or hedged bets (see Luke 14:25-35).

  8. “as literalistically and as uncritically and as undefensively as a small child believes his father’s words”

    Clearly, you’ve never met my children :)

  9. Mr. Schmidt says:

    I love the reminder that the story about the woman at the well provides – engage people where they are at, and work from there. Jesus offered more than the woman already had: living water. People can change, and they choose to change when they feel that life coming into them.

  10. Reading the Jesus and Nicodemus story this time around, for the first time I found myself wondering why the metaphor of being “born again” is used and how it parallels our first birth. When you do think about it, it’s an interesting parallel to use, because our first birth is entirely passive. We do nothing ourselves to be born; our parents conceive us, and then our mother pushes us out of her body. Jesus seems to confirm this passivity when he follows up the birth analogy with the one about the wind blowing where it will.

    So this week I’ve been trying to think through the interesting paradox of spiritual birth being a gift, something we receive, and cannot control or demand, and it also being the work of a lifetime for a Christian disciple. No answers yet, but that’s my reflection for the week. :)

  11. Thanks JKC! Going to use some of these discussion points and questions with my class. The comments and questions on the wedding in Cana especially got me thinking. It will enrich what would otherwise be a pretty simple story discussion.

  12. nobody, really says:

    You’re all going to think I’m making this up, but I promise I’m not.

    The Boise Idaho temple was one of the first “mini” temples. The first temple president there often complained that he didn’t think the architect even held a recommend. So it wasn’t open too many years before they closed it down for a big remodeling project. The spire with Moroni on top had previously been out in front and separate from the temple itself, the remodel expanded the front doors out beyond that spire.

    Our Scoutmaster came in all excited one Sunday and said we had a new fundraiser for our troop. The contractor in charge of the temple remodel had stripped a bunch of marble tiles from the building and replaced them, and he was going to make them available to the Scouts to sell. They would have an image of the remodeled temple etched on the surface, and these were Real Pieces Of The Lord’s House Available For Sale Right Now! Every good Mormon family was going to want one of these for each of their kids as priceless heirlooms! You see, if furniture or stuff gets worn out in the temple, they destroy that so it could never be used in a brothel in Nevada or anything like that. We were going to represent The Lord and go forth with the stake roster and sell chunks of the Temple for just $150 each, and half of that would remain with the troop, because Scouting Is The Activity Arm Of the Aaronic Priesthood.

    My brother and I refused, saying that this was just like moneychangers in the temple, or selling off pieces of the True Cross, or relic worship. We got a big chewing out from the Scoutmaster and the bishopric counselor present, saying that we needed to do as our leaders told us, because it was revelation and everything. The other Scouts got loaded up in vehicles for the next three Wednesday nights and driven from house to house trying to take orders. I knew my parents would back us up, and they did. We commenced to create a long list of silly possible fundraisers – vials of water from the baptismal font, toilet paper from the restrooms, all sorts of relics that could be sold at a lower price point.

    I’m pretty certain our troop never saw a dime of the money. We were still encouraged to pick up beer cans on the side of the road to recycle to earn money for Scout camp.

  13. Katie M – That is a truly beautiful way of thinking about being born again. Thank you for sharing.

  14. I am indebted to Julie Smith for sharing an alternative understanding for Jesus in the temple. She points out that many of the things that appear to have upset Jesus were legal things, some even mandated by scripture. For example: the temple had its own currency and transactions in the temple, including donations, had to be made in “temple money.” Thus the money changers are essential to the functioning of the temple and are not necessarily offensive. The money changers could be compared today to our temple accepting donations, or accepting cash for the rental of temple clothing.

    She taught, if I understand her properly, that this story can be seen as a parable in action. Jesus is replacing the old. He is, in essence, a disruptive technology. The old is torn down, ruined, and made obsolete while the new replaces it. Christianity was meant to replace what we call the “law of Moses.” He was demonstrating that his law would become disruptive; the new law would replace the old. But the old had to go.

    It is helpful for me to think about the story in this way, rather that using to justify losing my temper from time to time.

  15. “What was Jesus’ problem with the money-changers?”

    By casting the money changers out of the temple, Jesus was able to ensure that his fate was sealed. He was striking at the profit center for the wealthiest ecclesiastical leaders. The problem he was addressing was grinding the face of the poor. Jews had to perform certain sacrifices, but those sacrifices could only be performed in the temple. Jews from all over the world would travel to Jerusalem to be able to discharge this religious obligation. Once they arrived in Jerusalem at the temple, they had to purchase sacrificial animals. But they couldn’t use the money from their own countries, which had graven images on it. They had to exchange it in the temple for “temple money” to use to buy the required sacrificial animals. The “money changers” making the exchanges did not charge an honest exchange rate, effectively grinding the face of the poor by extorting these pilgrims as they followed rules set by those who profited from the exchange.

  16. Mr. Schmidt says:

    john f., a very nice and succinct explanation. That dishonesty in exchanging would have certainly violated the second greatest commandment Jesus discussed, of loving a neighbor as oneself.

  17. Not a Cougar says:

    John, a very interesting take. I wonder if your theory is complicated by the apparent existence of other Jewish temples in the diaspora. Wouldn’t the poor have simply gone to those temples to complete their sacrifices?
    Also, would the truly poor have even undertaken the trip to Jerusalem? I’m not saying you’re wrong in your conclusion about exchange rates, but the archaeology suggests that the Temple of Herod wasn’t the only game in town and would seem to complicate conclusions about the socio-economic status of the pilgrims whose faces were being ground by unfair exchange rates.

  18. Ryan Mullen says:

    “The ‘money changers’ making the exchanges did not charge an honest exchange rate, effectively grinding the face of the poor by extorting these pilgrims as they followed rules set by those who profited from the exchange.”

    Do we know this, or is it an extrapolation to justify Jesus’ criticism of the temple as a marketplace (John) or as a den of thieves (Mark)?

  19. The term “den of thieves” is a reference to Jeremiah 7:11 (according to my Wayment New Testament). In that chapter, Jeremiah is commanded by God to make a protest against the temple because it has become a den of robbers: patrons were committing injustices against the poor and vulnerable and then using their service in the temple to prop themselves up and consider themselves righteous before God. In this light, Jesus’s actions in Mark have more to do with disrupting and shutting down activity in the temple than anything specific the money changers were doing. Which could also be why the scribes and Chief Priests were so angry- Jesus had called them out on their home turf.

  20. Contrast with the modern temple, where we have available patron assistance funds, so well funded that we were asked to stop donating to it, if I remember correctly.

    So certainly there is no poor person who can’t handle the clothes. The clothes are there mostly for convenience and the costs cover the machines, consumables, wear, etc. No one, that I know of is directly making money from that sale (secondary people like power utilities, maintenance, presumably do).

    The greater cost is getting to the temple for many people in terms of time off, housing or travel when the temple isn’t close. Drawing modern similarities, which l agree most aren’t doing, with temple clothing sales is a poor analysis.

    I mean, if you want to make the temple as easy and cheap as possible for all members, just temporarily dedicate a room in every chapel and do it there once a month. But truly that’s not what the Lord wants. So clearly there’s also a balance of sacrifice, work, dedicated-otherness, and permanence needed in building and attending these temples.

    It’s easy for us to say, “God will understand if we do it this way”. The work of this life isn’t for us to have God understand our imperfections. But for us to come to understand Him.

  21. Kevin Barney says:

    If anyone would like to see a relic from the monetary exchange system, here ya go:

    https://bycommonconsent.com/2014/05/16/pure-for-god/

  22. Kevin Barney says:

    f anyone would like to see a relic from this monetary exchange system, here ya go:

    https://bycommonconsent.com/2014/05/16/pure-for-god/

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