Thursday, June 22, 2006

John 3:1-21 (4)

Verses 5-8 consist of Jesus’ answer to Nicodemus’ rhetorical question. He says, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. 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.”

Jesus is elaborating on what it means to be born again, and why one needs to be born again, in light of the response in verse 4 from Nicodemus, who does not seem to understand what Jesus says in verse 3. Although Jesus uses several different terms here, especially in verses 5 and 6, He is still talking about the same thing. The changes in terms are intended to clarify the statement in verse 3. With this in mind, note that “entering the kingdom of God” in verse 5 and “seeing the kingdom” in verse 3 refer to the same thing. The meaning is that no one can be saved, no one can be accepted by God and enter heaven, unless he is born again. Likewise, “born again” in verse 3 in parallel to “born of water and the Spirit” in verse 5.

There are several opinions as to what Jesus means by the expression, “born of water and the Spirit.” One interpretation is that by “water,” Jesus refers to physical birth. Accordingly, the meaning of the expression is that, to enter God’s kingdom, one must undergo both a physical birth or conception and a spiritual birth or conception. The theology in this interpretation is correct, but the question is whether it is what the passage teaches. In verse 4, Nicodemus misunderstands that by “born again,” Jesus is referring to a repetition of physical birth. This first interpretation of verse 5 would have Jesus acknowledge a person’s physical birth, but then proceed to explain that He is referring to something other than and in addition to physical birth, that is, a spiritual birth. Verse 6 does not seem to contradict this understanding: “Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.” But there is reason to reject this view.

As we have noted, verse 5 corresponds to and elaborates on verse 3, but this interpretation of “born of water and the Spirit,” does not parallel “born again.” If “born of…the Spirit” in verse 5 corresponds to “born again” in verse 3, then for verse 5 to truly parallel verse 3, verse 3 should say, “born and born again,” instead of just “born again.” Also, there is only one “of” for both “water” and “the Spirit,” suggesting that Jesus is referring to only one birth in verse 5, and not two births. As for verse 6, Jesus does not say, “You must be born of the flesh, and you must be born of the Spirit,” as if He is positively encouraging both. Rather, throughout the entire passage He is only encouraging a spiritual birth – of course, the physical birth has already happened. Verse 6 merely contrasts the two to emphasize what Jesus is really talking about. He is saying that flesh is flesh, spirit is spirit, so that we need the latter to produce spiritual life. It is a case of flesh versus spirit, or the inferiority of the flesh and superiority of the spirit, and not a case of flesh and spirit working together to bring a man to God’s kingdom. This brings us back to verse 5. Like verse 3, here Jesus refers to a person who is already physically born. It is necessary for a person to undergo spiritual birth in order to see or enter the kingdom, but spiritual birth would not even apply to a person who has not been born in the flesh, since such a person would not exist to need such a spiritual birth in the first place.

A second interpretation is that by “water,” Jesus is talking about water baptism. Those who hold this view are split on whether Jesus is referring to John’s baptism or Christian baptism. But, since verse 5 corresponds to verse 3, making water and spirit into two distinct elements in verse 5 would break the parallel between these two verses. Also, while possible to infer from verse 3 that Jesus is talking about a spiritual birth (born “again” means born “from above”), there is no way to infer that Jesus is talking about baptism from the verse, or from the term “born again.” So even if the Bible speaks of baptism as a birth elsewhere, which I’m not sure that it does, baptism still does not fit into this verse.

I think the correct interpretation is that Jesus is talking about a single birth. Physical birth is assumed, and this is why spiritual birth applies in the first place. In verse 10, Jesus refers to Nicodemus as “Israel’s teacher,” and because of this he is supposed to “understand these things.” In other words, we can infer that the Old Testament already contains what Jesus is teaching here. With this in mind, we find the following in Ezekiel 36:25-27, where God declares through the prophet: “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put My Spirit in you and move you to follow My decrees and be careful to keep My laws.” What is described in this promise is consistent with what Jesus teaches in John 3, and here the application of water and spirit is considered as one act, and this one act is to be performed by God and not man. It is likely that Jesus expects Nicodemus to recall this passage and come to understand what He means by “born again,” or the equivalent, “born of water and spirit.”

So, unless a person is born again, or born from above, unless God sprinkles this person with water and puts a new spirit into him, he will never see or enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, when you assess the condition of your soul, the first question to ask yourself is not whether you have made a decision to accept Jesus, but whether God has performed this cleansing action in you, whether He has given birth to you in the spirit, and whether He has thus adopted you through Jesus Christ.

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