John 3:1 Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. 2 He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”
3 Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”
4 “How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”
5 Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. 6 Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. 7 You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
Nicodemus is an important man who comes to Jesus at night to conceal his interest. Jesus’ signs are compelling and so he wants to find out more about the kingdom. In response, Jesus both reveals and conceals the way into the kingdom: a kind of ‘birth’ is required.
The adverb Jesus uses to describe this ‘birth’ can refer to time (born again) or place (born from above). The implication here is that the source of ‘birth’ is divine. God is ‘above’ in heaven. This ‘second’ birth is different to the physical ‘first’ birth, and therefore super-natural. And besides, birth is not something to be ‘controlled’– it just happens, to both the mother and the child. But it’s all a bit of a puzzle for Nicodemus.
In a clarification that continues to both reveal and conceal, Jesus says that this birth must be both of water and of Spirit (v5-8). Some say that Jesus’ words here mean that to properly enter the kingdom a Christian must be spiritually born and baptised in water, as per the typical practice of the early Christian church. But I do not find this interpretation compelling.
The only baptism yet introduced in this gospel is John’s water baptism of repentance– not the fully orbed Christian practice– so we must be careful not to put too much sacramental weight on these words. Old Testament usage would infuse ‘water and Spirit’ with the meaning that God would act for the cleansing of his people (see for example, Ezekiel 36:25-27). The reference to Spirit must refer to the Holy Spirit because of what follows in verse 6, where the contrast with flesh (sarx: human sinfulness) requires the externally sourced Holy Spirit of God for regeneration.
So gathering up all these observations, Nicodemus was being told that a spiritual experience of regeneration is needed in order to enter the kingdom of God. This will involve a desire for purification from sin (water) and the divine action of God (Spirit). Wind/breath/Spirit are all the same word in Greek and so, like the wind, this unseen birth is both real and uncontrollable. God gives this Spiritual birth to whomever he pleases.
Nicodemus is surely frustrated but all this. He seeks a way into the kingdom of God– “how do I get it?” “What do I need to do?” But Jesus says that a person is born of the kingdom. It is only seen by those born of it, of water and the Spirit.
Father, thank you for the evidence of Spiritual rebirth. May my life continually and increasingly demonstrate this unseen birth to the world. Amen.