Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above” (John 3:5).
In the Gospel lesson for the 2nd Sunday in Lent (Year A)1, Jesus is hard at work confusing people. Specifically, he’s confusing a man that shouldn’t have had much difficulty understanding Jesus’ teachings if understanding were a simple function of knowledge.
Nicodemus we’re told, was a teacher and a ruler of Israel. A member of the Sanhedrin, the ruling religious body of the Jewish people at that time, and a pharisee, a Rabbi, a teacher of the Law. Indeed, some commentators suggest that the fact that Nicodemus comes to Christ by night may not have been completely attributable to fear of being associated with him, but because he was a true student of the Torah. 2 As such, coming to Jesus in the darkness would’ve simply indicated that he was seeking knowledge of God at all times.
Nicodemus was earnestly seeking the truth, and he recognized the truth in Christ’s teachings. So much so, in fact, that he shows great respect for Jesus as he addresses him as Rabbi (despite the fact that Jesus’ lack of rabbinic training was well known) saying:
“Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God” (John 3:2).
Jesus takes advantage of Nicodemus’ openness to push him just a little bit further along the road of understanding, telling him that “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus, not understanding what Jesus means, falls back on the debating tactic of taking a term at it’s most literal when responding to a statement so as to tease out a more exact meaning from the person one was dialoguing with.3 He asks Jesus how a person can return again to his mother’s womb and be born a second time.
In Christ’s first statement, that a person must be born from above/anew to see the Kingdom of Heaven, he used a term that could be seen as indicating something along a horizontal axis (temporal), in being born again/anew, as well as being interpreted on a vertical axis, in being born from above. In response to Nicodemus’ questioning, Christ expands upon this theme in saying, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit” (John 3:5). In speaking of being born of water, Jesus could be making references to several different things–indeed, I believe that he is–namely, to the waters of physical birth & the waters of Baptism (having in the background the purifying waters mention in such places as Ezekiel 36:25-27). The reference to the Spirit is more clear cut, as it makes the Spirit the agent of rebirth.
This rebirth is something that Nicodemus–and to be fair, the disciples–cannot grasp. In Nicodemus’ case, it seems clear that his lack of understanding is not despite his position has a teacher of Israel–in spite of Jesus’ jibe in vs. 10–but because he’s a teacher of Israel. He has too many ingrained ways of seeing the world to understand at this point what Jesus is talking about. And ironically, what Jesus is talking about is in part, precisely about shedding those ingrained ways of seeing things. Part of being born anew is seeing things in a new way, it’s becoming Childlike. Some commentators see the discussion of being born from above as a parallel to the exhortation in Matthew (Matt 18:3) to become “like a little child,” in order to enter the Kingdom of God. In any case, being born again means setting aside our old ways of doing things, our old ways of thinking and allowing our hearts to be filled with God, with his way of seeing the world.
The disciplines of Lent are a good way to go about cleaning our spiritual house, with the hope being, that we will truly be able to become, every day, more and more a new creation in Christ, being sanctified by the Holy Spirit. As this happens, we too can hope to truly see the Kingdom, with the eyes of faith.
In the end, we need the reminders, no matter how advanced we are in our professions, no matter how much learning we have and no matter how great our desire to be right–that God wants us to participate in his child-like joy in creation and salvation. God wants us to become childlike–to see the world in a new way–because God wants us to become like him, and he is childlike. God desires us to be pure, because he is pure. This is the truth at the heart of being born again: God wants to make us like God, in order to bring us to God. And he does this by becoming like us, and showing us how we can see the world as God sees it.
The great author George MacDonald talks about this in a beautiful way, saying:
Our Lord became flesh, but he did not become man. He took on him the form of man: he was man already. And he was, is, and ever shall be divinely childlike. He could never have been a child if he would ever have ceased to be a child, for in him the transient found nothing. Childhood belongs to the divine nature. […]
In this, then, is God like the child: that he is simply and altogether our friend, our father–our more than friend, father and mother–our infinite love-perfect God. […] With him all is simplicity of purpose and meaning and effort and end–namely, that we should be as he is, think the same thoughts, mean the same things, possess the same blessedness. It is so plain that anyone may see it, everyone ought to see it, everyone shall see it. It must be so. He is utterly true and good to us, nor shall anything withstand his will.
Unspoken Sermons: Series I, II, III (Greek: Epea Aptera), p. 22-23
“If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things” Jesus asks Nicodemus before proclaiming that the Son of Man must be lifted up. Jesus knows that Nicodemus isn’t there yet, that he can’t quite see the kingdom through the knowledge in his head. But he doesn’t give up on him. And he doesn’t give up on us. God pursues us, to transform us, to give us new life. And as we are being made new, we can give thanks that God sent his son “not to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” Amen.
- (John 3:1-17) [↩]
- I Qs 6:7 of the Dead Sea Scrolls says this: “And where the ten are, there shall never lack a man among them who shall study the law continually, day and night…” from The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English (Penguin Classics), p. 105 [↩]
- The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, p. 955 [↩]