The Gospel of John presents a series of signs and discourses to show that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that we may have life in his name by believing in him. The first of these signs is the miracle of the water turned into wine in the wedding at Cana. Jesus was beginning his public ministry, and he was manifesting his glory by the signs he was performing.
John the Baptist had announced his coming, preaching a baptism of repentance; now the promised Messiah, the Lamb of God, had come to baptize in fire and in the Holy Spirit – bringing judgment as well as salvation to the world.
The first discourse of this Gospel will address one of the central questions of the book: how can a person be saved?
It is very important for us to keep in mind that apostle John has a particular literary style and particular interests, which are evident in the topics he chooses as well as how he expresses the truths he conveys. One of the features of his style is the occasional use of double entendre. John often states things that have double meanings – sometimes for irony to make a point, and sometimes because both meanings are true, and therefore should be taken together. In this passage, this literary device is used a few times, as we will see.
The first discourse takes place at night, when Nicodemus, one of the religious leaders of Israel, comes to meet Jesus. He is described by St John as being a ”ruler of the Jews” (ἄρχων τῶν Ἰουδαίων) which is a reference to the Sanhedrin, the council composed of the chief priests, the elders of the people and scribes. The Sanhedrin was a governing body that tried various cases and disputes, oversaw Jewish religious life, and was presided by the High Priest of Israel. Members of the Sanhedrin were the most influential people of the Jewish society, and were strict adherents of the Law of Moses.
Nicodemus was not only a member of the Sanhedrin, but he also belonged to the sect the Pharisees, the strictest group in relation to keeping external regulations of the Law.
This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “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.”
The fact that Nicodemus came to Jesus at night is the first of the several elements of this passage that suggest a double meaning. Nicodemus came at night, when it was dark, because he hoped to get an interview with Jesus when the crowds were not around to disturb, or, most likely, because he did not want to commit himself publicly to Jesus just yet. He had heard of his miracles, and was intrigued by what they could mean, and what sort of authority Jesus had; but he did not yet know enough about Jesus, and perhaps he sensed that his miracles could be a threat to the Jewish establishment of which he was a part.
Yet, there is another, more subtle sense intended by John. The Gospel of John is full of references to the contrast between light and darkness. John shows us Jesus as the light of the world.
“In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
Not Able Unless
Nicodemus addresses Jesus in a polite way, calling him Rabbi and recognizing that the miracles of Jesus were an indication that God was authorizing his ministry. Then he brings out two concepts which become the two most important ideas of this entire passage: the question of ability and the question of exception. Here, Nicodemus says that no one is able to perform such miracles except God is with them. Jesus’ response will use the same concepts, but in a way that shifts the conversation to directly address the heart of the matter.
Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
Jesus saw beyond Nicodemus’ words of respectful greeting to the very state of his soul. It is true that no one is able to do the miracles Jesus was doing, except by the power of God – but, most importantly, no one is able to enter the kingdom of God except he is born of God. The language Jesus uses here is very emphatic in the original – there is only one way in which one can see the kingdom of God – by being born again. There is no other way.
Nicodemus: οὐδεὶς γὰρ δύναται ταῦτα τὰ σημεῖα ποιεῖν ἃ σὺ ποιεῖς, ἐὰν μὴ ᾖ ὁ θεὸς μετ᾽ αὐτοῦ.
Jesus: Ἀμὴν ἀμὴν λέγω σοι, ἐὰν μή τις γεννηθῇ ἄνωθεν, οὐ δύναται ἰδεῖν τὴν βασιλείαν τοῦ θεοῦ.
This statement was a powerful confrontation. Nicodemus was, after all, one of the rulers and teachers of Israel, a member of the Sanhedrin and of the strict sect of the Pharisees, who prided themselves in keeping the Law of Moses. Jesus cuts to the chase, as if he was saying: “Nicodemus, your power, your social status – and what’s more, your idea of the observance of the Jewish Law – are absolutely inadequate to qualify you for the kingdom of God.”
Here we see another element in the narrative to which John deliberately gives a double meaning. The word translated as “again” in “born again” can also mean “above.” The expression “born again” could also be translated “born from above.” In fact, John uses this same word (ἄνωθεν) in other passages always with the meaning of “above” (3:31, 19:11, 19:23).
Here, he apparently intends a double meaning, because both meanings are true, and because Nicodemus understood it as meaning “again.” One needs to be born again in order to be able to enter the kingdom of heaven, and that birth is a birth from above; it is a birth effected by God.
Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.
Jesus now connects being born from above with being born of the water and of the Spirit. But just what does he mean by “born of water”? Once again, John is presenting the narrative with elements that are deliberately meant to convey more than one meaning.
The Spirit and the Water
And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. (Genesis 1:2)
As a teacher of Israel, Nicodemus understood that the Scriptures had often connected the work of the Spirit with the cleansing of water. Now, Jesus brings the fulfillment of God’s promises by being the One who dispenses his Spirit to his people as he unites them to himself through repentance and baptism. The New Testament brings the Old Testament connection between water and spiritual cleansing to its fulfillment. This is, for example, exactly what the apostle Peter does in the first sermon preached in the book of Acts, in connection with the work of the Spirit in Pentecost:
This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing. . . Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. (Acts 2:32-38)
During Pentecost, the devout people who were coming to Jerusalem for the feast also needed to be born from above through repentance and baptism; here, in the Gospel of John, Jesus was confronting one of the leading men of Israel and showing him that his respectability was not enough; Nicodemus needed to be cleansed and be born from above, from the Spirit of God. As Jesus himself came from heaven, those who enter his kingdom must receive life from God who is in heaven.
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.
At this point, Jesus makes evident that his statement is a universal truth, because when he restates here that “You must be born again,” he uses the plural. It is not only Nicodemus, but we must be born again in order to see the kingdom of God. We must be born from above as we trust Jesus. There was no other way for one of the most pious Jews of his time, and there certainly is no other way for us.
Natural man is born of the flesh even while being God’s creation. The first Adam was created by God out of the dust of the ground before God breathed the Spirit of life in his nostrils. As descendants of the first Adam, we are born of Adam and Eve, but as those who are recreated in the image of the heavenly man, we become descendants of the second Adam, Jesus Christ.
In this way, we are also born not just of Adam and Eve, but we are born again, born of God and his Church. We are born not only of the earthly man from the dust, but also of the heavenly man, who gives us the same Spirit who hovered over the waters in Genesis.
The Spirit who brought life to creation as he hovered over the waters is also the Spirit that Christ sends to his Church, the Spirit who uses the waters of baptism as the means through which he promises and gives the washing of regeneration. As the apostle Paul tells Titus,
But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. (Titus 3:4-7)
Born of the Spirit
We are born again and we are born from above as God gives us the Spirit through the new birth in the waters of regeneration and resurrection:
We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. 5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. (Romans 6:4-5).
As baptism unites us to Christ in his death, burial, and resurrection, as Paul teaches us, so we are raised to a new life in the Spirit through the means of grace. Baptism is a promise and a means; it is the entrance into the kingdom and the engrafting into the body of Christ by our mystical union with him.
The first Adam was created to till and cultivate the garden of God, until the time when, after obediently carrying out God’s purposes, he would have been glorified forever; he failed, and we inherit the consequences of that failure. But in Christ, the second Adam, the Man from above who is already glorified and who dispenses to us the Spirit without measure, we are re-created in his image so we can live in the new garden, the New Heavens and the New Earth, where the living waters are freely given.
We are born again and from above so that we become like newborn babes, for, as Christ tells us, “Unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” As newborn babes, we are children who need to be nourished by their mother. When we are born of the flesh, we are nourished in the bosom of our mothers, and when we are born of the Spirit we are nourished by our heavenly Mother, the Church, through the washing of the Word and the grace of the Sacraments.
The same Spirit who blew life into the earthly man Adam, and who brought to life a valley of dead bones in Ezekiel, also gives us life as He unites us to Christ through baptism and begins to deify us. This is nothing less that a re-creation, a refashioning, transfiguration and restoration of human beings into the image of the true man Jesus Christ. We are born again unto newness of life, a newness that begins even here in this life. St. Athanasius, in his book On the Incarnation, puts it this way:
You know what happens when a portrait that has been painted on a panel becomes obliterated through external stains. The artist does not throw away the panel but the subject of the portrait has to come and sit for it again, and then the likeness is re-drawn on the same material. Even so it was with the All-holy Son of God. He, the Image of the Father, came and dwelt in our midst, in order that He might renew mankind make after Himself, and seek out His lost sheep, even as he says in the Gospel: “I came to seek and to save that which was lost.” This also explains His saying to the Jews, “Except a man be born again [he cannot see the kingdom of God].” He was not referring to man’s natural birth from his mother, as thought, but to the re-birth and re-creation of the soul in the image of God.
Through repentance, faith, and baptism we have received the washing of regeneration and we have been born of the water and of the Spirit. We have been born again and born from above. The flesh is subject to death, but the Spirit is incorruptible, so that the new life we have received through God’s promises and work in the Spirit is a life that is everlasting, incorruptible, sustained by the last Adam who has defeated sin, death, and the devil.
Baptism is not only the cleansing washing of regeneration according to the promises of God, but also a public statement that we have been transferred from this world to the womb of the Church, to the kingdom of God. Even Nicodemus, the respected Pharisee and teacher of Israel, would have to publicly undergo baptism and live in newness of life even if that meant shame and scorn from those who would refuse to unite themselves to Jesus, his cross, and his resurrection.
Nicodemus came at night and he was not sure how to think of Jesus. Only through the new life given by the Spirit could he pass from death to life, from darkness to light, and from seeing things from a fleshly perspective – Jesus as an interesting miracle worker and rabbi – to seeing things in the heavenly perspective, i.e., Jesus Christ, God incarnate, the Man from heaven who unites us to himself through the Spirit and gives us eternal life.