What would spiritual rebirth look like in your church?
I love the story in the Bible when Nicodemus, a Pharisee, comes to Jesus one night to talk. This is in John, chapter 3.
This may seem like just a conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus, but we’re going to look at it light of what church needs.
Nicodemus says right off the bat,
“Rabbi,” he said, “we all know that God has sent you to teach us. Your miraculous signs are evidence that God is with you.” John 3:2 NLT
He was acknowledging that God must be with Jesus, or he wouldn’t be able to do all the wonderful things he was doing.
Jesus didn’t just say, “Thank you very much! At least someone is appreciating what I’m doing.” He took the conversation in a completely different direction.
Our deeper need: spiritual rebirth
Jesus knew what was in Nicodemus’s heart and he knew what Nicodemus needed on a deep spiritual level.
Jesus uttered that famous line we love to quote:
Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, unless you are born again, [Greek: born from above] you cannot see the Kingdom of God.” John 3:3 NLT
This was a shock to Nicodemus, because he took it literally. He wondered how someone could get back in his mother’s womb and be born again. (See John 3:4 below)
Jesus rephrases his words to help Nicodemus understand his meaning.
Jesus answered, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ ” John 3:5-7 NKJV
Nicodemus still doesn’t get it, or at least, doesn’t see how it’s possible. Jesus replies,
“If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things? John 3:12 NKJV
Doesn’t this seem a little odd? Jesus is saying that to be born again is an earthly thing, or an earthly way to talk about what’s going on, you might say. I always used to think what Jesus was saying about being born again, being born from above, or spiritually, was pretty heavenly.
So why does Jesus call “being born again” an earthly thing?
Here’s what comes to me.
Jesus is describing, what he calls being born again, or born from above, from the perspective of what’s going on here, how it looks to us here and now on earth.
What are the heavenly things Jesus says Nicodemus wouldn’t believe?
If someone is born again, born of the spirit, to us here on earth, it really does look like someone has become a new person to some degree.
Many years ago when I had an amazing spiritual rebirth experience, I felt regenerated and renewed in a way that was hard to describe. I really felt born again spiritually. And I’d just like to say, this was a number of years after I first believed in Christ.
After a week or so of me going about my regular business of just doing what I was supposed to do, my friends at work started saying, “What happened to you?” In fact, I heard them talking behind my back asking this same question.
They saw a big difference in me. They saw a rebirth, so to speak. And that’s what it looked like here on earth.
Spiritual rebirth from heaven’s perspective
But what about looking at that experience from the perspective of heaven. What was true about me in heaven?
If you are a regular listener to The Bible Speaks to You Podcast, you’ve probably heard me talk about this idea before.
Jesus said the kingdom of heaven is at hand. I’ve realized how important it is to look at ourselves, others, and situations from the perspective of what is already true in the kingdom of heaven, where there is no sin, sickness, tears, pain, or death.
Heaven is a state of pure, divine, harmony, peace, and love. Jesus says it’s here and within us. We just can’t see it with the five material sense.
So, looking at what happened to me from heaven’s perspective, where everything is already perfect and complete, I didn’t change and become more spiritual when I had that rebirth experience. I just got a clearer glimpse of what is already true about me in heaven.
As the image and likeness of God, I didn’t change and wasn’t reborn. My true identity as God’s image is always the same. I just saw more of it here on earth. On earth, it appeared as a rebirth, or perhaps another way to describe it is some of my material mindedness dissolved.
To sum it all up, from earth’s perspective, I experienced a spiritual rebirth. From heaven’s perspective I was already and always will be spiritual and whole.
What can your church learn from Nicodemus?
If Nicodemus had trouble understanding the idea that he needed a spiritual rebirth, how would he have responded if Jesus had told him that he was already spiritually complete in heaven. It was beyond his comprehension, because he was looking at things from an earthly, and very literal perspective.
Jesus was trying to get him to look at himself and the world from a more spiritual perspective.
We all need that, right?
And this is where you’re probably wondering: Okay James, this sound great, but when are you going to talk about how this relates to church?
So let’s go there right now.
How is your Church?
Think about your church. How is it doing? Is it growing and thriving? Is it holding steady? Is it declining?
Is your membership unified in purpose? Or is there divisiveness among your members?
Are you reaching out into your community in the way that’s right for your church? Or are you just ministering to the needs of current members?
What needs to change in your church? How can you do a better job of fulfilling your mission in your community?
What will you do individually and collectively to do that?
These are normal and important questions to ask along the way.
Not everyone in church agrees on what to do
But, in case you haven’t noticed, not everyone at church always agrees on what should be done. Some folks want change; others don’t. Some want to reach out to the community one way; others want to do something different.
And there may be one of more strong personalities who sway the church one way. There are often others trying to get the church to go in a different direction.
And so it goes.
How can we take Jesus’s declaration to Nicodemus, the need to be born again spiritually, and apply it to our churches?
Your church’s spiritual rebirth
Imagine your church coming to Jesus and him saying that you need to be born again spiritually as a church.
Some churches think along the lines Nicodemus did when he was trying to figure out how someone could get back in their mother’s womb.
They think they need to revise or create new programs, have membership campaigns, encourage more Bible study and small groups. They think they have to make something happen.
They’re trying to reinvent or rebirth church in the same way it was birthed before, with all kinds of human effort and activity. That’s not to say people haven’t prayed.
But all too often our prayers are for God to shine on the plans we come up with for church, instead of listening for the inspiration and following the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
What does your church need?
So let’s take Jesus’s comment about the need to be born again and relate it to church. Our churches need to be born again, born from above, spiritually.
They do not need to be born out of human opinions, longing for the past, fear of the future, or internal church politics of who’s in power or “who shall be greater.”
Our churches need to experience the rebirth, the new birth, the spiritual birth, that comes only from giving up all our pre-conceptions and mis–conceptions of what church has been or should be.
Do you hear that root word “conceptions” in those two terms? What are our conceptions of church? How do we conceive of church? How we conceive of church will influence how it is born.
This is perhaps where we can get to the root of the problem, solve it, and go forward.
What’s your conception of church?
If we’re trying to build on our conceptions of what church is or should be, it will always be limited, and sometimes go in a very wrong direction. And if you are following church news, you can see that happening in some congregations where a very strong personality or those in charge led a particular church down a path that deviated from the Way of Christ.
What we need, what our churches need, is to become aware of how God conceives of church.
How does God see your church?
What is God’s will for the Christian Church as a whole? What is God’s will for your individual church?
What is God’s vision of your church’s identity and purpose?
How do we figure all this out and make it happen? That’s the thing. We don’t figure it out. We don’t make it happen.
The human mind tries to figure things out by searching vast resources of human information and coming up with its own perspective. The human mind tries to figure things out, and thinks it does.
That’s part of the problem, we think we can figure things out intellectually with the human mind. But the real answers can only come through revelation directly from God. The human mind is not the source of the solution. The human mind and human activity are not the mother and father of Jesus’s church.
Oh, the human mind can give birth to many churches, but that doesn’t mean they are part of Jesus’s church.
How to experience spiritual rebirth at church
So how does a church experience the rebirth Jesus says we need?
First, let me say, I don’t have all the answers. I’m working this out alongside you and my fellow church members.
I think it starts with humility. It’s important to realize our need for a more spiritual conception of church.
It takes a willingness to let go of our personal opinions of what needs to be done, what should change and what should remain. The more everyone in church can do that, the better.
It takes a listening for God’s guidance.
And we need to honestly examine past choices and acknowledge mistakes that have been made.
All this gives us the spiritual freedom to be moved by the Holy Spirit and do things we never would have thought were possible or never even thought of in the first place.
Is your church guided by the Holy Spirit?
In Episode 106 of The Bible Speaks to You Podcast I interviewed my friend Markus Watson, who is a Presbyterian minister in the San Diego, CA area, about the future of the church.
Markus shared some very thoughtful insights on what our churches need. He said, “See where the Holy Spirit is working in your community and get involved in that to bring God’s Shalom to your neighborhood.”
We need to be led by the Holy Spirit in our church work. Unfortunately, sometimes we get our opinions mixed up with what the Holy Spirit is telling us.
This brings us back to the need for a deep humble willingness to listen to and follow through with how God is leading us.
How do you pray for church?
I’ve been praying about church for many years. I’ve prayed for ways to get more members. I’ve prayed for how to support our current members and help them grow more spiritually. I’ve prayed all kinds of prayers.
Basically, I’ve prayed for what I felt needed to happen.
Fortunately, over the years God has softened and matured my heart.
Several years ago, one Sunday before church, I basically told God we needed more people in church. I was asking Him how to do that. There were too many empty pews. It was a very heartfelt and sincere prayer, by the way.
Our church has a wonderful message that has blessed so many people, but our membership was declining, and I saw all those empty pews.
So, here I am, pumping out this powerful prayer to get more members. Not so bad, right?
Has God ever interrupted you while you were praying?
God interrupted my prayer and said to me, “Whose church are you going to? My church is full. Every seat is filled in My church.”
That stopped me cold. I had been praying from an earth-based perspective of what things looked like on the surface of life. I was praying for earthly things, for a change in material circumstances, in this case, more people coming to church.
God was telling me to look at things from His spiritual perspective.
When God said, “Every seat is filled in My church,” I got a glimpse that God’s church, the actual Body of Christ, is not fractured. Everyone is in the right place and no one is missing. It is already full and complete in the kingdom of heaven.
Bear witness to the truth about church
More recently, I’ve been thinking about this idea in light of what Jesus said to Pilot that he was on earth to “bear witness to the truth.” (See John 18:37 NKJV below)
When Jesus looked at an individual, whom the world called lame or blind, because they saw what was true from the perspective of what’s true on earth, Jesus looked at that same person from the perspective that the kingdom of heaven is at hand, and in that kingdom, that person was complete with all his abilities in perfect operation. In effect, he was bearing witness to the truth about that person, from heaven’s perspective.
That has been a very helpful idea for me. It helps me look at people with love and compassion instead of judgement and criticism.
So, I’ve been applying this idea to how I look at and pray for church.
What is true about the body of Christ in heaven?
My prayer now is to bear witness to what is already true about church, or the Body of Christ, in its perfect, heavenly state.
My prayers have taken on a completely different tone. I am no longer trying to fix something. I am humbly asking God to show me what is true about the Body of Christ in heaven. What does God see? That’s what I want to know now.
Does that mean that I just sit in my prayer chair all day, not doing anything?
No, but prayer is a good way to start the day. Jesus spent hours in prayer, sometimes early in the morning, sometimes all night long.
But he didn’t hide away in a cave or a temple just praying all day. He went out to where the people were, the people who needed help, the people he knew he could help.
As you pray for your church, as well as the Christian church as a whole – yes, that means you’re praying for different denominations you might not completely agree with – ask God to show you what is already true about the Body of Christ in heaven.
Look for what is true about each individual member of Christ’s Body, as well as collectively. Focus on that.
Jesus’s church is already built. It’s already complete. We don’t need to and can’t do what Jesus has already done. We just need to see it.
It’s not a material building. It’s not the place you go to worship on Sunday.
In answer to Jesus’s question, “Who do you say I am?” Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” (See Matthew 16:15, 16 below)
Jesus commended Peter and explained that no person had told him this. God had revealed it to him directly.
Then Jesus makes that remarkable statement, “On this rock I build my church.” (See Matthew 16:17, 18 below)
The foundation for Jesus’s church
What was the rock Jesus was talking about? It was the solid truth that God speaks directly to His children, that these children can hear the voice of God (Peter in this particular situation), and that the awareness of who Jesus is must be a revelation from God and not the result of human persuasiveness, opinions, and theological doctrines.
Think what kind of a church Jesus builds on that foundation. It’s really about our relationship with God, isn’t it.
It’s where everyone has a direct connection to God, cannot be led astray by personalities, politics, and man-made doctrines, which creep or force their way into so many church situations.
So, this church Jesus built, what’s it like?
Paul puts it this way
We are carefully joined together in him, becoming a holy temple for the Lord. Ephesians 2:21 NLT
We are carefully joined together in Christ. Who carefully joined us together? God, of course.
Paul hints at this unity in his metaphor, which I’ve already mentioned, the Body of Christ. He talks about this in Chapter 12 of Romans and Chapter 12 of 1 Corinthians. In fact, Paul often refers to the church as the Body of Christ with many members.
In the early Christian churches, there were often divisions that came up. People disagreed on important issues. Why? Because they were looking at things like Nicodemus did, from a self-focused, earth-based perspective.
Paul was well aware of this, but he also saw the Body of Christ from a heavenly perspective where there was already perfect and complete unity because everyone was in agreement with God’s will and vision.
Christ is indivisible
That’s why Paul could ask:
Is Christ divided? 1 Corinthians 1:13 KJV
Of course not. Neither is the Body of Christ divided.
On earth, it may appear to us that our individual churches are divided, have problems, and are struggling, but this is not the true state of the Body of Christ in heaven, where there is completeness and unity. This perfect ideal of what church is, already exists in heaven.
Whose church are you going to?
Whose church are you a member of? The one you or other people built based on human opinions, personal power, and religious dogma, or the one Jesus built on God’s revelation of Himself to mankind, mankind’s ability to hear and obey the voice of God, and God’s love for all His children?
Let me repeat, Jesus has already built his church.
It is not a human organization, but a heavenly presence. It is intact. It is perfect. There is complete unity. It is not struggling and there are no divisive opinions or man-made doctrines governing it.
For church to be reborn spiritually here on earth, we need to bear witness to this perfect ideal of church that already exists in the heart of God.
To the degree we do this, the Holy Spirit will move us to do whatever needs to be done to bring our earthly conception of church in line with the heavenly view.
I encourage you to stop trying so hard to fix the problems at church. Instead, look deeper and bear witness to what is true about the perfect spiritual church Jesus has already built, eternal in the heavens.
The more you see what’s true about church in heaven, the more your church here on earth will resemble it.
Mentioned this week: Episode 106, Markus Watson and the Future of the Church
If you have questions or comments please contact me. I’d love to hear from you..
James Early, the Jesus Mindset Coach, is a Bible teacher, speaker, and podcaster. He conducts Bible workshops online and in person. His focus is on getting back to the original Christianity of Jesus by embracing the mindset of Christ in daily life. Contact him here.
Bible references in this episode:
John 3:2 NLT
2 “Rabbi,” he said, “we all know that God has sent you to teach us. Your miraculous signs are evidence that God is with you.”
John 3:3 NLT
3 Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, unless you are born again, [Greek: born from above] you cannot see the Kingdom of God.”
John 3:4 NLT
4 “What do you mean?” exclaimed Nicodemus. “How can an old man go back into his mother’s womb and be born again?”
John 3:5-7 NKJV
5 Jesus answered, “Most assuredly, 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.’
John 3:12 NKJV
12 “If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things?
John 18:37 NKJV
37 For this cause I was born, and for this cause I have come into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth.
Matthew 16:15, 16 NKJV
15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”
16 Simon Peter answered and said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
Matthew 16:17, 18 NIV
17 Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven.
18 And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.
Ephesians 2:21 NLT
21 We are carefully joined together in him, becoming a holy temple for the Lord.
1 Corinthians 1:13 KJV
13 Is Christ divided?