Yesterday, we met Nicodemus. A Pharisee who came to visit Jesus secretly. In John’s Gospel, he represents those who are interested in who Jesus is, but aren’t yet ready to commit. Nicodemus questions Jesus, and Jesus famously tells him that he must be “born again.”
John 3:3 In reply Jesus declared, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.”
What does it mean to be ‘Born again’?
Actually, the phrase is more naturally translated ‘born from above’. But since all of us (with the exception of Adam and Eve) have already been born once, then any subsequent ‘birth from above’ must be a second birth. So perhaps the best way of understanding what Jesus says is that we must be born again from above. That is, we must be born of God.
Yet Nicodemus appears not to ‘get it’. He immediately thinks of a physical rebirth, which is why the translation ‘born again’ has stuck:
John 3:4 “How can a man be born when he is old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born!”
Now you’ve got to give Nicodemus props for raising one of the more disturbing images in the Bible. I’m trying to keep this tasteful, so let’s just say that I think there’s a good reason God created us so that we don’t remember anything before the age of about 2 or 3. I’ve seen two births happen, and that was traumatic enough; let alone if it’s your own, and it’s the first thing you ever see in your life. Sure, it’s implied by the idea of being ‘born again’ but Nicodemus has to go and spell it out for us, doesn’t he! To point out how ridiculous the idea sounds – go back into your mother’s womb a second time??
Traditionally, we’ve often read this as Nicodemus being a bit thick. You know, the kind of character in a sitcom who takes things a bit literally, and everyone sits back and has a laugh at his expense. But is that really the level of understanding we’d expect from an educated leader in Jewish society?
Maybe he got more than we think he got. Maybe he did understand where Jesus was heading. One commentator writes this:
‘I doubt very much whether Nicodemus seriously imagined that Jesus was suggesting a physical return to the womb. No, Nicodemus was wise enough to realise that the adult human personality is not something you can change easily, if at all… We can never turn the clock back to rediscover our intra-uterine innocence. That, says Nicodemus, lies outside the range of possibility.’
And that’s where Nicodemus doesn’t get it. He’s looking at it from a human perspective, not God’s perspective. As a Pharisee, he’s used to striving hard, trying to please God by his own efforts. But this fundamental change Jesus is talking about isn’t something we do by ourselves; it’s something that God does for us:
John 3:5 Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and [the] Spirit.”
OK, now we’re getting somewhere. In order to enter the kingdom of God – in order to be saved – we need to be born again from above; we need to be born ‘of water and spirit’. But what does that mean? I suppose the spirit bit is clear enough – particularly with the hindsight afforded by Pentecost – but what’s with the water?
‘Born of water and spirit’
There have been various attempts at explaining what the water is. Some say the water and spirit refer to two different births: the water symbolises the fluids involved in our natural birth (either at conception or in the womb); and the spirit refers to our ‘spiritual’ rebirth from above.
Others say that water and spirit both refer to our second birth, which is grammatically more likely. The water may then refer to baptism, which among other things symbolises the giving of the Holy Spirit.
But I think we get a clue to a more likely explanation in verses 7 & 10. Jesus says to Nicodemus:
John 3:7 You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’
And a few verses later, when Nicodemus asks ‘how can this be’, Jesus says rather incredulously:
John 3:10 “You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things?
Unless Jesus is being unfairly hard on him, we have to conclude that Nicodemus should have known what Jesus was on about. Something about his role as a teacher of Israel – the equivalent of an Old Testament professor – should have tipped him off. I think it’s more than likely that Jesus was alluding to a theme in the Old Testament; a theme that looked forward to a future time when God would create this inner transformation that Nicodemus thought impossible. A theme that links this idea of water and spirit in Ezekiel ch 36. God says to Israel that in the future:
Ezek 36:25-27 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.
‘Hey Nicodemus!’ Jesus is saying. ‘You know that prophecy in Ezekiel about renewal – the one about cleansing with water, and a new heart, and God’s spirit being in us, enabling us to change and to obey God’s laws… that’s about to happen. And if you don’t wake up and realise who I am, you’re going to miss out!’
Of course we can’t change ourselves; we can’t be ‘born again’ and recapture our innocence. As verse 6 says:
John 3:6 Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.
Our sinful, human nature can’t produce anything but a sinful, human nature. But this new birth we’re talking about comes from God. And it produces a new nature, recreated in the image of God once more! It’s an act of God’s will, not a product of human effort. Nicodemus is right in saying that a person can’t cause themselves to be born again – that much he gets. It’s God who does it, by his Holy Spirit. Living in us.
To think about
Back when my eldest son was about four, he had a strange habit whenever he ate Nutri-Grain for breakfast. No matter how much you put in the bowl, he’d always leave four little Nutri-Grains floating in the milk. Apparently he was leaving ‘a Nutri-Grain family’ – Mummy, Daddy, himself, and his younger brother. We got a little disturbed a while later when he started leaving six – but a quick pregnancy test revealed we had nothing to worry about. It turns out the extra two were God the Father and Jesus.
However, one week the family had grown to ten, and we thought maybe he’d started to include our pet rabbits. So we asked him who the extra four were, and he proudly told us that the extra four were the HS living in the four of us. (I thought of suggesting he add another two, because according to the doctrine of perichoresis the Spirit indwells the Father and Son, too. But there was enough Nutri-Grain being wasted as it was.)
But anyway, to cut a long breakfast short: whenever you despair at how you’re going to live up to God’s standards; whenever you think ‘it’s hopeless, I can’t change’; whenever you get discouraged by your own sinfulness – remember that there’s another piece of Nutri-Grain floating in the bowl next to you. You’re not alone. If you’re a follower of Jesus, you’ve been born again from above. In the words of Ezekiel, it means that God has cleansed you; God has given you a new heart; God has put his HS in you who will move you to obey God’s laws. You’ve been born again!