The trouble with familiar passages of Scripture is that you stop reading them because you think you know what they say. And there are few more familiar than the record of Jesus’ interaction with Nicodemus in John 3. But when I was reading it recently I noticed something I hadn’t thought about before that made me go back and read it again with more care.
In verse 3 Jesus says to Nicodemus, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God”, and then in verse 5 it seems as if he basically repeats himself: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God”.
But there are two differences.
In verse 3 Jesus talks about the need to be “born again” while in verse 5 he says “born of water and the Spirit”. I don’t think that is actually a significant difference; Jesus means the same thing by those two expressions (although by using different words no doubt he sheds some extra light). “You need a second birth”, he’s saying, “a birth by the Spirit”.
The second difference I also similarly assumed was just a different way of saying the same thing. That is, that “entering” the kingdom (v.5) is the same as “seeing” the kingdom (v.3). In other words, I just assumed that to see the kingdom is another way of saying that you will enter, or experience, or be in the kingdom. You’ll get there and you’ll see it.
But I’m no longer sure that’s what Jesus meant. Here’s my new take (based on some of the context).
In John 2:18 “the Jews” ask Jesus to prove his authority to cleanse the temple. They ask him for a “sign”. They want him to give them a visual indication that he has the right to do what he’s doing—something they can see with their own eyes. But the only sign he promises is a (misunderstood) reference to his future resurrection (2:19-22).
Chapter 2 then ends by noting that many people “believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing”. But Jesus doesn’t “entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in a man” (2:23-24). So Jesus is sceptical about people who ‘believe’ in him because of seeing signs; he knows there are some serious heart issues at play.
To emphasize this, John then immediately presents Exhibit A: “Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus…” (3:1). And sure enough, Nicodemus sets himself up as the judge and gives his perception of Jesus based on the signs: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher from God, because no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him” (v.2).
In Jesus’ response in verse 3, I think he is actually saying something like: “Your perception of me won’t be right until you are born again. You are falling short in how you perceive what is happening and how you interpret the signs.”
In particular, Nicodemus is not perceiving the kingdom of God in his own midst: the arrival of the King, the Messiah in the person of Jesus. Rather than seeing Jesus as God come down to establish his rule, Nicodemus just thinks God must be “with him” (v.2). And in that major underestimation, Nicodemus proves John 1:10 to be true: “He [Jesus] was in the world… yet the world did not know him”. But it’s not just Nicodemus. Jesus is saying that nobody is going to know him without the Spirit intervening and helping people perceive the truth. And, of course, recognizing and receiving Jesus rightly (v.3) is the prerequisite for entering his kingdom (v.5).
This idea—that we must be born again to see the kingdom of God—is one the Apostle Paul picks up in 1 Corinthians 2:14: “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned”.
Jesus’ interaction with Nicodemus gives us an important truth to remember when we are taking the good news of Jesus’ kingdom to our world.
When we share the message of Jesus with ‘natural’ people we must be pessimistic about their ability to perceive the truth and so enter God’s kingdom. By the same token, there is reason for optimism that God will hear and answer our prayer for his Spirit to so act in the hearts and minds of those people that they will receive Jesus as their King. We can be sure of that because in the same Nicodemus story Jesus tells us that God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son (John 3:16). Why would God sacrifice his only Son, and then not generously send his Spirit (John 16:7-10)?
So, let’s pray and proclaim, being pessimistic about people but optimistic about God’s love and grace, and let the breath of God blow where it wishes:
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. (John 3:8)