Thursday, June 15, 2006

John 3:1-21 (2)

Keeping in mind that “He knew all men,” that “He knew what was in a man,” we read in verse 3 that “Jesus, in reply, declared, ‘I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.’” Isn’t that strange? Nicodemus says, “You are clearly a man of God.” And Jesus says, “No one can see the Kingdom of God unless He is born again.” The statements seem, at first glance, unrelated. Perhaps John leaves out some of the chit-chat and gets right to the heart of the conversation. Perhaps Jesus just wanted to get to the heart of the matter. We don’t know.

But we do need to spend some time here with the theology of Jesus’ reply. “No one can see the Kingdom of God unless he is born again.” Consider that Jesus is saying: “No one can see Me for who I really am unless he is born again.” The Kingdom of God has come with Jesus. Jesus is the Kingdom of God. Nicodemus claimed that he knew Jesus was a teacher from God. Jesus’ reply is that Nicodemus can not possibly know anything about Jesus’ true identity unless he is born again. That understanding unites Jesus’ reply with Nicodemus’ opening remarks.

Now, let’s move on to “born again.” The word translated “again” can convey three meanings. Commentators usually say that there can be two meanings because it is commonly agreed that one of these three does not apply in our context. So let me first offer the one that most commentators say definitely does not apply, and that is “from the first,” unless he is born from the first. The word here translated “again” appears in Luke 1:3, and there it is translated “from the beginning” (NIV) or “from the very first” (KJV). It also appears in Acts 26:5, “from the beginning,”(KJV), or “for a long time” (NIV). This possible meaning (born from the first, born from the beginning, born from long ago, or born from eternity past) seems inapplicable in the context; however, some commentators actually prefer it, because it describes so well the radical nature and sovereign act of God of the new birth, especially light of the Biblical doctrine of election.

The second meaning is “again,” and this is the translation usually selected. For example, Paul writes in Galatians 4:9, “Do you wish to be enslaved by them all over again?” Then, the third meaning is “from above.” This third alternative is typical in John’s writing. Consider John 1:12-13, “Yet to all who received Him, to those who believed in His name, He gave the right to become children of God—children born not of natural descent [or blood], nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.” Born of God and born from above are synonymous. Likewise, John 3:31 says, “The one who comes from above [again] is above all; the one who is from the earth belongs to the earth, and speaks as one from the earth. The one who comes from heaven [again] is above all.”

Commentators acknowledge that John is fond of using words that can mean several different things when he intends to convey all those meanings at the same time. So, considering the context of this passage and other portions of the New Testament, it seems (agreed with by many) that both of these later two meanings are intended. The difficulty for us, as English readers, is that there are many English words available for one Greek word. That’s one reason for having notes in the margins of English Bibles, to let the reader know that other possibilities exist. There are several commentators who translate “born again” into “reborn from above,” so as to pack both meanings into one expression. So, acknowledging that both meanings are likely, we can read it, “…unless he is born again or born from above or born again from above or born of God.”

Now the response from Nicodemus in verse 4, as I mentioned, indicates that he took the word as meaning only “again,” although he fails to understand the term even from this perspective. Since, as we will see, there is a deficiency in his understanding about spiritual things and in what Jesus says in this verse, we cannot depend on his interpretation alone as an indication of what Jesus intended to convey by the word. It is certain that Jesus meant much more than what Nicodemus understood.

We can say that “again” is at least part of Jesus’ meaning, since this would be consistent with His own teaching elsewhere, as well as the teaching of the New Testament writers. For example, He says on another occasion, “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3). Peter writes that “He has caused us to be born again [He has given us new birth]” (1 Peter 1:3, ESV [NIV]), and here He definitely refers to being born anew.

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