John 3 records Nicodemus’ desire to learn from Jesus about how one enters or participates in the reign of God (His Kingdom).
Again or Above
Depending on your English Bible, you might see Jesus speaking of the need to be born AGAIN or from ABOVE (Jn 3:3). William Barclay hits the home run by keeping both terms: “Reborn from above.” Jesus is emphatic: One enters the flow of God in a radically new fashion. She cannot enter by striving or straining; he cannot evolve or inch his way past the threshold.
In other words: “Nicodemus, there is one path from here to there, and you can neither find it, nor walk it. You must be born again.”
Not surprisingly, this fails to answer every question and raises several more. That list is headed by this query: “How can this be?” (Jn 3:4)
Smarter than We Think
We have not flattered Nicodemus; we have laughed that he would envision a physical rebirth. But Nicodemus is no numbskull. Among the brightest and most educated minds of his nation, it is highly unlikely that this teacher is tone-deaf to metaphors and is instead visualizing a man being crammed back into a uterus.
Far more likely, Nicodemus has engaged the rhetoric and is actually on to something fairly profound. He might have thought it like this:
Each man is the sum of a lengthy equation. We are who we are today as a result of all our yesterdays. That lengthy equation is a bundled mess of doubts and dreams, hopes and hurts, faith and fear. It includes choices wise and foolish, and habits healing and harmful. All of this is layered and swirled over a lifetime. Surely, everyone longs at some point for a clean break and a fresh start. But that is a fantasy. I mean, if physical birth is beyond possibility, how much greater a miracle would it take to remake the core of a person?
And accordingly, Jesus replied: “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” (Jn 3:5)
Water and Spirit
How are we to understand this phrase? The mention of water quickly takes many minds to baptism. This may be, but it is certainly not Christian baptism as we know it. That imagery would have meant nothing to Nicodemus at his point on the timeline. If any baptism is envisioned, it is John the Baptist’s work for purifying repentance.
That said, a better interpretation awaits.
The first clue is hidden in the Greek grammar. The words are cobbled together in such a way that one phrase is indicated, not two concepts. So we are not decoding water and Spirit; we are speaking of one thing. I call it Spirit-water.
And what might that be?
The miracle of life begins with a woman’s egg cell being fertilized by a man’s sperm cell. Within the woman’s body, there is a monthly potential for new life. What makes all the difference between life and no-life is the fertilization of that cell. In this light, Jesus is declaring, “As surely as you live and breathe in this world, you are here because one of your father’s cells fertilized one of your mother’s cells. With that same certainty, you will function in the Kingdom of God only if the Father fertilizes something. Within everyone lies the potential to participate in the divine nature, but mark it down: There is no such experience apart from the Holy Spirit’s awakening fertilizing.”
So yes, Jesus and Nicodemus were basically bouncing around sexual (ie: reproductive) innuendo filled with spiritual connotation. And the dominant point within it all: Nothing is happening minus the Spirit’s conceiving and birthing efforts.
Commentator extraordinaire Leon Morris says it like this:
”It is the perennial heresy of the natural man to think that he can fit himself by his own efforts for the kingdom of God. Jesus makes it clear that no man can ever fit himself for the kingdom. Rather he must be completely renewed, born anew, by the power of the Spirit.”
That is enough for today. Tomorrow, we will add one more layer.
See you then.