Nicodemus doesn’t get what Jesus is saying. I am the same way some days. I hear Him but I don’t understand. Jesus challenges me to not be amazed. I am anyway.
There is hope though. Jesus is patient. Jesus will give me insight. Now that is some very good news.
Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, unless someone is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
“How can anyone be born when he is old?” Nicodemus asked him. “Can he enter his mother’s womb a second time and be born?”
Jesus answered, “Truly I tell you, unless someone is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. Whatever is born of the flesh is flesh, and whatever is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be amazed that I told you that you must be born again. | John 3:3-7 (CSB)
Our Master Jesus began with that which was familiar, birth being a universal experience. The word translated “again” also means “from above.” Though all human beings have experienced natural birth on earth, if they expect to go to heaven, they must experience a supernatural spiritual birth from above. This is a stunning revelation to one of the religious elites.
Once again, we meet with the blindness of sinners: this well-educated religious leader, Nicodemus, did not understand what the Savior was talking about! Jesus was speaking about a spiritual birth, but Nicodemus thought only of a physical birth. The situation is no different today. When you talk with people about being born again, they often begin to discuss their family’s religious heritage, their church membership, religious ceremonies, and so on.
Being a patient teacher, our Master picked up on Nicodemus’ words and further explained the new birth. To be “born of water” is to be born physically (“enter a second time into his mother’s womb”) but to be born again means to be born of the Spirit. Just as there are two parents for physical birth, so there are two “parents” for spiritual birth: The Spirit of God and the Word of God. The Spirit of God takes the Word of God and, when the sinner believes, imparts the life of God.
Jesus was not teaching that the new birth comes through water baptism. In the New Testament, baptism is connected with death, not birth; and no amount of physical water can effect a spiritual change in a person. The emphasis is on believing, because salvation comes through faith. The evidence of salvation is the witness of the Spirit within, and the Spirit enters your life when you believe.
Water baptism is certainly a part of our obedience to the Messiah and our witness for Jesus. But it must not be made an essential for salvation; otherwise, none of the Old Testament saints was ever saved, nor was the thief on the cross. In every age, there has been but one way of salvation—faith in God’s promise—though the outward evidence of that faith has changed from age to age.
Human birth involves travail, and so does the birth from above. Our Savior had to travail on the cross so that we might become members of the family of God. Concerned believers must travail in prayer and witness as they seek to lead sinners to the Messiah.
The child inherits the nature of the parents, and so does the child of God. We become “partakers of the divine nature”. Nature determines appetite, which explains why the disciple of Jesus has an appetite for the things of God. He has no desire to go back to the foul things of the world that once appealed to him. He feeds on the Word of God and grows into spiritual maturity.
Birth involves life; and spiritual birth from above involves God’s life. John uses the word life thirty-six times in his good news book. The opposite of life is death, and the person who has not believed on Jesus does not have God’s life, eternal life, abundant life. You do not manufacture disciples any more than you manufacture babies! The only way to enter God’s family is through the new birth. Period. End of story.
Birth involves a future, and we are “born again to a living hope”. A newborn baby cannot be arrested because he or she has no past! When you are born again into God’s family, your sins are forgiven and forgotten, and your future is bright with a living hope.
Nicodemus must have had a surprised and yet bewildered look on his face, for the Master had to say, “You must not be surprised that I told you that all of you must be born again”. But Nicodemus was born a Jew! He was a part of God’s covenant people! Certainly his birth was better than that of a Gentile or a Samaritan! And his life was exemplary, for he was a faithful Pharisee! He could well understand Jesus telling the Romans that they had to be born again, but certainly not the Jews!
Here is the literal translation:
Jesus answered and said to him, “Amen, amen I tell you, unless one has been born from above, he can’t see the kingdom of God.” 4 Nicodemus says to him, “How can a human being be born when he’s old? He can’t enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born, can he?” 5 Jesus answered, “Amen, amen I tell you, unless one has been born out of water, even the Spirit, he can’t enter into the kingdom of God. 6 What has been born out of the flesh is flesh, and what has been born out of the Spirit is Spirit. 7 You shouldn’t marvel that I told you [singular], ‘It’s necessary that you [plural] be born from above.’
For Jesus’ front-loaded, double “Amen”. The adverb translated “from above” can also mean “again,” as indicated by Nicodemus’s response. But Jesus follows up with talk of being born out of the Spirit. Most translations have “by (or a simple ‘of’) the Spirit” instead of “out of the Spirit,” and similarly with regard to “the flesh”; but “out of” captures better the stated sense of origin as distinct from means.
Water symbolizes the Spirit — therefore the translation “water, even the Spirit” rather than “water and the Spirit.” Although baptismal water hovers in the background, Jesus isn’t talking about water baptism as such, much less about a mother’s water breaking when she gives birth. He’s talking about the Spirit, who comes out of heaven, as in 1:32: “I saw the Spirit descending like a dove out of heaven.” So the talk of being born out of the Spirit shows that Jesus means “born from above” in a birth different from the physical. But Nicodemus’s intervening questions about a “second time” show that he mistakenly thinks Jesus means “born again” in a physical sense. Jesus must correct him. Of course, a human being can be born from above, out of the Spirit, when he’s old.
It’s obvious that what has been born out of the flesh is flesh. The flesh of a father and mother produces the flesh of their offspring. But what does it mean that what has been born out of the Spirit is Spirit? It can’t mean that the Holy Spirit produces a human spirit, because human beings have a human spirit quite apart from birth from above.
What’s meant is that birth from the Spirit produces people inhabited by the Holy Spirit. “The Word became flesh”, but also the Spirit descended and remained on him. Water, representing the Spirit, will come out of his pierced side; and he’ll breathe the Holy Spirit into the disciples. So Jesus is both flesh and Spirit in the sense that he’s in the flesh, and the Spirit is in him. Likewise, in regard to believers, then: flesh as a result of natural birth, Spirit as a result of birth from above.
But why shouldn’t Nicodemus marvel at what Jesus has said? The answer will come in 3:10. Seeing the kingdom of God means experiencing God’s reign by entering the sphere where he reigns. The shift from a singular “you” to a plural “you” makes Jesus tell all of us, not just Nicodemus, that we have to be born from above to enjoy the benefits of God’s reign.
Christian Standard Bible. (2017). (Jn 3:3–8). Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers.
Wiersbe, W. W. (1996). The Bible exposition commentary (Vol. 1, pp. 295–296). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.
Gundry, R. H. (2010). Commentary on the New Testament: Verse-by-Verse Explanations with a Literal Translation (pp. 359–364). Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers.