Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus (we’ll call him “Nic” for short) has been so over-quoted we tend to skip over it anymore, and it’s a shame. There’s incredible stuff here! Let’s dig in…
“[Nicodemus] said, “Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not in him.”
In reply Jesus declared, “I tell you the truth, unless a man is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.””
How many times over the years have you heard those words: “you must be born again”? And how many of those times were the words being spoken in jest, or by someone (in or out of the church) you had no respect for?
Let’s set all that aside for a moment. What is Jesus really saying here? It says Jesus’ words are a reply to Nicodemus — how so? Nic says “we know you’re from God” and Jesus answers “be born again”. Huh?
I’ve been reading a little lately about the life of Martin Luther, and one of his teachings was that the Word of God is active, that is, when God speaks, what He says happens.
I may be going out on a little bit of a limb here, but I think maybe Jesus was coming close to this in his conversation with Nic. Maybe He was saying “I see your doubt, but I see your desire for faith too. Here’s the answer to the question you don’t know how to ask.”
But Nic doesn’t understand. “How can a man be born when he is old? Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb…!”
Jesus answers: “I tell you the truth, unless a man is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying ‘You must be born again’. The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
Do you remember the old King James version? The quotation starts out with Jesus saying “Verily verily I say unto thee…”. Struck with a sudden attack of curiosity, I decided to look up the original Greek and see if I could figure out whether Jesus was actually repeating a word, and if so, which one. (no I don’t speak Greek, I just know the alphabet (kind of) and happen to own a Greek/German Bible I found at a garage sale years ago. And no I don’t speak German either, LOL)
Answer: yes, Jesus is repeating a word. And yes, I was able to sound it out: “amen amen”. “Amen” is actually a Hebrew word meaning “this is true and I affirm it.”
So what He’s saying is: “What I’m telling you is true Truth. It doesn’t get any true-er than this.” And the word for “tell” has the same root as the Greek “logos” — that is, “the Word”. The same Word that was in the beginning with God, and that was God, is in what Jesus is saying. I think Luther was onto something.
Even the experts don’t agree on what Jesus means by the next phrase: ‘born of water’. But here are a few possibilities.
He might have meant baptism, which is a sign of repentance. In other words, repent (turn around, change directions) and believe and be baptized.
He might have meant the fluids we are surrounded by in the womb — the next sentence about flesh giving birth to flesh would be a logical follow-up to this interpretation.
He might have meant the “water of the Word” — that is, the Word of God, being active in that person’s life, and calling to life the person’s spirit.
I kind of like all of them… any opinions?
Then Jesus elaborates by explaining that the wind blows where it wills, and people full of the Spirit are guided much the same way: as the Spirit wills.
Nic still doesn’t quite get it. “How can this be?” he asks.
Jesus replies: “You are Israel’s teacher, and do you not understand these things? I tell you the truth (amen amen) we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven — the Son of Man. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.”
Again I’m reminded of what Martin Luther taught: to try to know God by speculation or reason is like trying to climb to heaven. The effort is futile. Luther called it a “theology of glory”, by which people try to meditate on the best of the best… but in the end it’s only what we think is praiseworthy, and we end up making God in our own image.
Rather, he said, God’s revelation and highest self-disclosure is the cross. God is radically different than we expect; He destroys all our notions of glory.
And so Jesus says: “as the snake was lifted up in the desert” — that is, when the people of Israel were bitten by snakes in the wilderness, they needed to look up to a bronze snake Moses had placed on a pole, and they were healed — “so the Son of Man must be lifted up”. And when we look to Him in faith, we are healed and made whole.
And why is this? Why would Jesus go to the cross for us, and make God known to us in that way? Because…
“God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.”
For the last few verses I’d like to switch over to The Message translation… it’s beautiful:
“This is the crisis we’re in: God-light streamed into the world, but men and women everywhere ran for the darkness. They went for the darkness because they were not really interested in pleasing God. Everyone who make a practice of doing evil, addicted to denial and illusion, hates God-light and won’t come near it, fearing a painful exposure. But anyone working and living in truth and reality welcomes God-light so the work can be seen for the God-work that it is.”
Doesn’t that describe the world we live in to a T? Our world is a dark place, and lots of folks like it that way because we can hide what we’re doing. We know what we’re doing is wrong, at least a good bit of the time. Eventually it gets to the point of, as the Message says, being “addicted to denial and illusion”.
When a person gets to this point, they will look you straight in the eye and tell you they didn’t do what you just saw them do. And even though you know it’s a lie they will really think they’re telling the truth. They can’t tell the difference any more. And they won’t want to be anywhere near God or His people because His light is actually painful to them.
BUT — here’s the good news — anyone who loves the truth and wants to live in it welcomes God’s light. Not so we can show off how good we are, but so we can show off how amazing God is. It’s all His doing, it’s all His work, and it’s beauty beyond description.