Before you reject the Christian life, make sure you know what it is.
Here’s a question that seized the mind of a generation—“Do you like Green Eggs and Ham?” Half the entertainment value in this classic children’s book lies in the main character’s colorful determination not to receive that meal: “I would not eat it with a fox or in a box or on a plane or on a train. I would not eat it here or there, I would not eat it anywhere.” We can sympathize. Eggs and Ham are not supposed to be green. Therefore we understand the main character’s decision not to like them without ever having tried them.
People today share this experience in that they’re sure they don’t want Jesus: “I do not want him in a house, I do not want him with a mouse. I do not want him in a tree, I do not want him, let me be.” Why? Because they assume they know what He’s all about, and what being a Christian is all about.
Politics, for instance. Everything in our world has been politicized from sex to climate to cigarettes to junk food. Religion has certainly not escaped that trend, which leaves many people assuming that the mark of a real Christian is basically political.
Then add the pews, mausoleum-type buildings, money, money, money, religious celebrities, and moral failures. All of this, the world surmises, has to do with being a Christian.
People who rightly reject this pile of questionable elements, often go too far and reject Jesus Christ as well. They functionally deny themselves the Savior of the world. A couple of things happen when you reject the Christ of the Bible. By default you reject the most profound purpose a human being can have, leaving you to embrace a vacuum. Instead of eternal glory, you end up with a deteriorating mortality, the slow death of everything precious to you, including cherished relationships, and yes, finally your own self.
That is a tragedy.
It’s important for us to know what it means to be a Christian according to Jesus. Where is that bottom line, that is, where is that place where you had not been one, and then you are?
We’ll let Jesus define it inside a conversation he had with a man in John chapter 3.
“Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. 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 the signs that you do unless God is with him” (vv. 1-2).
Whether Nicodemus was aware of it or not, he brought a lot of baggage to this conversation. First, he was a man of the Pharisees, an elite sect of the ancient Jewish religion. He was a ruler of the Jews, a position of high importance. He called Jesus Rabbi, introducing a title. He brought up teaching, and he also mentioned signs. Put together all the sects, positions, titles, teachings, and signs, wrap them up and put a bow on top, and you have the entire religious world. That’s what Nicodemus brought to the table.
In response to all this, Jesus then answered in an odd non-sequitur. That is, he answered in a way that didn’t seem to follow anything Nicodemus introduced.
In verse 3, “Jesus answered him, truly truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
It was as though he ignored the cloud bank of religious things, and basically told Nicodemus, “You need to start all over again in order to see the true things of God.” Something in our native makeup simply can’t see. With our first birth we perceive the things of this world quite well and know how it all works—the material, philosophy, religion, and culture of it, but even those of us who have mastered it are still blind to the kingdom of God.
We’re good though, at bluffing. Imagine one of us having the John 3 conversation with Jesus. Yes, Jesus, I get what you’re saying, like, totally. I took a two-credit online course in Comparative Religion and Enchiladas. This is how human beings roll. We can play along, grope around in darkness, and multiply mumbo-jumbo, but we need to be born again.
So Nicodemus asked a good question. In verse four, he said to Jesus, “How?”
“How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” (v. 4).
He thought that when Jesus said born again, it meant a repeat of how he came into the world the first time. Even if that were possible, it wouldn’t have helped.
In verse 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.” The second birth is not about the reproductive substances of male and female coming together, but of water and Spirit. The Spirit refers of course to the Holy Spirit, and the water refers to the cleansing effect He has upon you when He enters—like taking a bath on the inside.
Jesus says in verse 6, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the spirit is Spirit.” The first birth is physical, what your mother gave you, but the second birth is spiritual in nature, deep, and invisible.
At this moment Nicodemus must have reacted with incredulity, maybe even crossing his arms, because in verse 7, Jesus told him “Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes and you hear its sound, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it goes.” In a sense, every day you believe in something invisible. You hear leaves rustling, or branches in trees blowing around, and you assume an invisible agency causes it—the wind. “So it is with everyone who is born of the spirit.” This birth is deep inside, and it is where seeing and entering the kingdom of God begins. It constitutes the bottom line for someone to be a Christian according to Jesus.
By the time I was 21 years old I had formulated an opinion about the Christian life. I did not like it in a house, I did not like it with a mouse, or in a tree, please let me be. The church was like a good boy and good girl club, where people claimed to have changed and were different, but they really weren’t. I saw the Bible verses they quoted as being passwords, secret handshakes, heavy beliefs I was not interested in.
But to be honest, even at such a ripe young age, I noticed that parts of my life had already begun to sour, like milk going bad. In another ten years it would all be seriously rotten. So after one final crisis, I had had enough. That night I walked out of my Army Barracks where I was stationed, and had an honest talk with God in the middle of a deserted field.
Somewhere in the middle of my frustration, the flat, lifeless belief in Jesus I had held in my childhood, blazed to life. The Christ who had died on the cross and rose from the dead now seemed present. That night when I returned to my building, no one knew I had changed, no, not even me. But I did notice I had begun to see. Although I still didn’t understand 98% of the Bible, it felt like I was now connected to it. The Christians I had avoided, I started to seek out. In a certain way I was not only seeing, but I was beginning to enter the kingdom of God. This new change in me confused some people, and angered others, but a few were happy for me.
It was as though I had moved into the second half of Green Eggs and Ham, a heartwarming phase where the main character finally tries the dish he vowed hating, finds he likes it, and then categorically reverses all of his previous rejection—“Yes I like it sam-i-am! I would eat it in a box and I would eat it with a fox and I would eat it here or there, and I would eat it anywhere!” His was the joy of discovery, and it was happening to me, with Jesus.
That night I had been born again and become a Christian according to Jesus, not according to my southern cultural upbringing, or religious background. In fact, some of the folks who found my new birth baffling were themselves religious people. As I tried to explain it to them, conventional ideas kept falling short. “This is different,” I assured them.
And it was.
I was, too.