John 3:1–15: You Must Be Born Again
Forewarning: There might be more interpretation going on than usual in terms of how I think this conversation is happening.
This passage concerns a man named Nicodemus, who is a Pharisee and a ruler of the Jewish people. He comes to Jesus one night and starts to ask a question, except that he doesn’t even get past the preamble; he says to Jesus in verse 2, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him,” which sounds to me like he’s leading up to a question, but Jesus doesn’t let him get any further:
Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (verse 3)
If I’m right that Nicodemus was about to ask a question but Jesus interrupted him before he could ask, the original question is no longer his highest priority. This statement from Jesus confuses Nicodemus:
Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?”(verse 4)
If you’re reading Nicodemus’ question here in a sarcastic tone you’re not alone; I read it that way too. As far as Nicodemus is concerned, Jesus is talking crazy talk, and Nicodemus wants to point that out to him.
But Jesus explains his point more fully:
Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, 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.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (verses 5–8)
If this is your first time reading this passage—or maybe your hundredth!—and it’s still not clear to you, don’t despair, because you’re not alone. Nicodemus doesn’t understand either, so he asks Jesus in verse 9, “How can these things be?”
And now it’s Jesus’ turn to be sarcastic—or at least somewhat biting:
Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life." (verses 10–15)
Jesus will go on to say, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life,” but that’s an important enough teaching on its own that I’m leaving verses 16–21 for a separate post (following the ESV headings).
There’s enough going on in this passage that it’s worth reading closely. Which… I suppose is true of any passage of Scripture.
Nicodemus came to Jesus at night, presumably because he doesn’t want anyone to know that he’s coming to see Jesus. I don’t actually know how early or late in Jesus’ ministry this event takes place, but the Pharisees know at least enough about Jesus to know that they don’t like him. Nicodemus, however, is keeping an open mind; he may not want to advertise to people that he’s coming to see Jesus, but he does seem to be honestly seeking answers to his questions (as opposed to trying to trap Jesus in his words), and he calls Jesus “Rabbi,” which is a sign of respect.
But that doesn’t mean he immediately understands Jesus!
Christians talk a lot about being “born again”—in fact it’s become a bit of Christian jargon—and this passage is where we get that phrase. Unfortunately, Christians are so used to this phrase that we sometimes use it unthinkingly, which leaves non-Christians to wonder what in the world we’re talking about. (Just like Nicodemus did!) The flip side, however, is that Christians sometimes use the phrase as if it’s a special kind of Christian; as if there are non-Christians, Christians, and born again Christians, which is untrue. You’re either a Christian (meaning that you’re “born again”), or you’re not a Christian (meaning that you’re not “born again”).
So what does Jesus mean when he says that we must be “born again” to see the kingdom of God? According to Jesus, there are two births in question: we are all “born of the flesh,” while those who will see the kingdom of God are also “born of the Spirit”—that is, born again.
|“born of the flesh”||This is the “normal” type of birth—the kind that Nicodemus is thinking of—wherein a human being comes out of his or her mother’s womb into the world. Everyone is born this way, without exception, because this birth is the birth that gives us life.|
|“born of the Spirit”||This is a second birth, which is only experienced by God’s chosen children—by those who will see the kingdom of God—whereby one is re-born. This birth bestows more than just “life,” it allows us to “have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10, emphasis added).|
He who descended from Heaven
There’s a sense in which Nicodemus can be forgiven for not understanding all of this “born again” stuff. A lot of modern-day people don’t, when they first come across this passage, and we’ve got more Scripture than Nicodemus had!
Except that… Jesus clearly seems to feel that Nicodemus should understand this. That, as someone who studies the Scriptures—and Nicodemus is a Pharisee; “studying the Scriptures” is the most important part of the job description—he should understand what Jesus is saying. He should already have an inkling of some of these things, at the very least; he should understand that the Old Covenant sacrificial system could never be enough to properly atone for our sins, and that something more—something spiritual—is needed.
So for Nicodemus not to understand, yes, true, he didn’t have as much information as we do, but there is likely also a certain amount of not wanting to understand the deeper truths. None of us, by nature, want to accept that we can’t save ourselves, and can only be saved by trusting in God; we like to think we read the Scriptures in an unbiased manner, but we don’t. So while there is a sense in which Nicodemus couldn’t understand the Scriptures fully, there is also a sense in which he didn’t want to.
So Jesus is chastising Nicodemus for more than just “not understanding” what he means; he’s chastising him for being obstinate1.
So let’s look at the last part of this passage in a bit more detail:
|“Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?”||When Jesus starts off with “earthly things”—things that should be clearly understandable by anyone—he is already rejected by the religious leaders (which includes Nicodemus), so how can Jesus possibly go into deeper, spiritual matters with them?|
|“No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.”||And if anyone is qualified to speak of spiritual and/or heavenly things, it’s Jesus—the person who actually descended from heaven! Nicodemus would have recognized the phrase “Son of Man,” and known whom Jesus was claiming to be. So at this point it was up to him to either believe Jesus was who he claimed to be, or reject the claim outright. But if Jesus is the Son of Man, then Nicodemus would have no choice but to believe Him when he talks about heavenly things. (Which also applies to us!)|
|“And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”||And here we get to the heart of the matter: Jesus isn’t debating with Nicodemus about a specific point of law, or some arcane truth. He’s talking about eternal life; he’s talking about something more important than the Law, more important even than obedience to God. He’s talking about eternal life.|
Jesus is trying to get Nicodemus to understand that something very fundamental to a person’s very relationship with God is being revealed here. It’s not, “I’ve come to help you to obey the Law a bit better,” it’s, “I’ve come to fundamentally change your entire relationship with God by explaining that the Law was never able to make you right with Him, it could only point out your inadequacy in that regard. I’ve come to pay the penalty you deserve and be raised up, so that people can be saved simply by believing in me! Just like people were saved from the venomous snakes in the desert by looking at the bronze snake—they didn’t have to do anything, just believe that the snake would make them better, and it did.” (See Numbers 21:4–9 for this event in the Israelites’ history.)
To get even more fundamental, it’s not about us, and our obedience, it’s about God, and His Love. But again, we’ll get to that in verses 16–21.
I tend to mention in a lot of my posts that there is “a sense in which” there’s an earthly truth, but also “a sense in which” there’s a deeper, heavenly truth that needs to be understood. By saying this, I don’t mean to let Nicodemus off the hook; Jesus clearly doesn’t. But I do mean to keep myself from falling into judgement on anyone I encounter in the Scriptures who doesn’t understand things clearly. I should read this passage and come away with an understanding that we must be “born again,” and that this is not a new concept—it’s something that’s called out even in the Old Testament Scriptures, even if we don’t often think of it in that light. I should not come away with an understanding that “Nicodemus was so dumb, and I’m so smart!” ↩︎