3 Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” 4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” 5 Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 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 3:3-8 ESV
Whatever signs Jesus had performed that day in Jerusalem had gotten the attention of the people and many had believed. But there were others in the crowd who, while impressed by Jesus’ exploits, were choosing to reserve judgment. This included the religious leaders of Israel. Among them were the Pharisees, a fairly conservative religious sect that was comprised predominantly of men from the working class of Israel. On the evening of the day when Jesus had cleansed the temple and performed signs and wonders, Nicodemus, a member of the Pharisees, came to call on Him.
Nicodemus came alone. And he does not appear to have been sent by his colleagues in the Sanhedrin, the religious council of Israel. Nicodemus had been impressed by the miracles of Jesus and his curiosity about Jesus got the best of him. He had to more. So, he showed up, addressing Jesus with the respectful title of “Rabbi.” But he seemed to know that there was more to Jesus than met the eye.
“Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” – John 3:2 ESV
Nicodemus sensed that Jesus was anointed by God, and he wanted to know more about Him. His statement stands in stark contrast to that of his religious peers, who, upon hearing that Jesus had healed a blind, mute, and demon-possessed man, had accused Jesus of being in league with the devil.
Then a demon-possessed man, who was blind and couldn’t speak, was brought to Jesus. He healed the man so that he could both speak and see. The crowd was amazed and asked, “Could it be that Jesus is the Son of David, the Messiah?”
But when the Pharisees heard about the miracle, they said, “No wonder he can cast out demons. He gets his power from Satan, the prince of demons.” – Matthew 12:22-24 NLT
But Nicodemus was intrigued. He believed there was something different about Jesus. Unlike his fellow Pharisees, Nicodemus believed that the miracles Jesus performed were done by the power of God, not Satan. But Jesus responds to Nicodemus in a rather strange and cryptic manner.
“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” – John 3:3 ESV
With this rather abrupt statement, Jesus seems to be cutting to the heart of the matter. He knows that Nicodemus has shown up because he is curious to know if Jesus might be the long-awaited Messiah. As a student of the Scriptures, Nicodemus would have expected the arrival of the Messiah to usher in a new age, featuring the much-anticipated revitalization of the kingdom of Israel. Nicodemus seems to have a glimmer of hope that Jesus is the anointed one of God, the Messiah.
But Jesus reveals to Nicodemus a detail about the coming kingdom of God about which he was ignorant. Nicodemus could long for it, but he would never see it unless he was “born again.” The Greek word Jesus used is anōthen, and it can mean “again” or “anew.” But it can also mean “from above” or “from a higher place.” It seems that Jesus had the second meaning in mind, speaking of this new birth as being spiritual in nature. Yet Nicodemus clearly understood Jesus to be talking about a second physical birth, an image that left him scratching his head in confusion.
“How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” – John 3:4 ESV
Nicodemus, while a wise and well-educated man, was completely puzzled by the words of Jesus. The condition Jesus had placed upon seeing the kingdom of God was a second birth. It made no sense. It was physically impossible. And what Jesus says next doesn’t seem to help clear up the matter.
“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” – John 3:5 ESV
Jesus provides a bit more information, but it seems to provide little in the way of clarification. Notice that the focus has shifted from seeing the kingdom of God to actually entering it. The new birth Jesus is speaking about will be the key to anyone entering and enjoying life in the kingdom the Messiah will establish on earth.
Verse 5 has been proved to be a difficult passage to interpret. And there are a number of different views as to what Jesus meant by “water and the Spirit.” In the Greek text, the definite article “the” before “Spirit” is not present. It was added by English translators for clarification. So, verse 5 could be translated, “unless one is born of water and spirit.” The point Jesus seems to be making is that this new birth will be from above and it will involve a spiritual cleansing that makes the recipient worthy of entrance into the kingdom of God.
This imagery of cleansing by the Spirit is found throughout the Old Testament and Nicodemus, as a student of the Scriptures, should have been aware of it.
And he who is left in Zion and remains in Jerusalem will be called holy, everyone who has been recorded for life in Jerusalem, when the Lord shall have washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion and cleansed the bloodstains of Jerusalem from its midst by a spirit of judgment and by a spirit of burning. – Isaiah 4:3-4 ESV
Isaiah went on to talk about a future day when the Spirit of God will be “poured upon us from on high” (Isaiah 32:15 ESV). Even John the Baptist had understood that Jesus was going to bring about a different kind of baptism, one that would include a king of purification that was far from symbolic or ceremonial in nature.
“I baptize you with water; but someone is coming soon who is greater than I am—so much greater that I’m not even worthy to be his slave and untie the straps of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” – Luke 3:16 NLT
Jesus’ reference to “water and spirit” is meant to let Nicodemus know that the kingdom he longs to see will only be occupied by those who have received purification from above. Jesus is not talking about physical birth, but spiritual rebirth or regeneration. The kingdom He will eventually establish on earth will be reserved for those who are righteous and holy, having been cleansed from the stains of their sin by faith in the Son of God. And that day will be in fulfillment of God’s promise recorded by Isaiah.
“Though your sins are like scarlet, I will make them as white as snow. Though they are red like crimson, I will make them as white as wool.” – Isaiah 1:18 NLT
Sensing that Nicodemus was still struggling to understand what He was saying, Jesus provides him with an important point of clarification: “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:6 ESV). Jesus is informing his learned visitor that there are two types of birth – one physical and one spiritual. Nicodemus had already experienced the first, but he was in need of the second. And it was going to require belief. But there would have to be more to that belief than simply an acknowledgment that Jesus was a teacher sent from God.
Nicodemus, like every other Jew of his day, thought of the kingdom of God in physical terms only. It would be a literal kingdom ruled by a literal king who would sit on the throne of David in Jerusalem. And, as far as he understood, entrance into that kingdom was reserved for all those who could claim to be a descendant of Abraham. Nicodemus believed he had an inherited right to the kingdom God due to his birth into the line of Abraham. But Jesus is letting him know that there was going to be another birth required – a new birth – a birth from above.
Nicodemus, like every other Pharisee, took great pride in his position and viewed himself as one of the spiritual elite of Israel. But Jesus was breaking the news that his flowing robes, biblical knowledge, sterling reputation, and longing for the kingdom of God would not be enough to guarantee his entrance into the coming kingdom of God.
Jesus knew that this information had left his visitor perplexed so, He told him, “don’t be surprised when I say, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it wants. Just as you can hear the wind but can’t tell where it comes from or where it is going, so you can’t explain how people are born of the Spirit” (John 3:7-8 NLT).
The things Jesus was describing to Nicodemus were virtually impossible for him to comprehend. Like the wind, the ways of God are invisible and imperceptible. You can hear the wind, but you can’t see it. You can feel the wind, but you can control it. And the new birth Jesus is attempting to describe to Nicodemus is just as impossible to understand. Without the illuminating and regenerating power of the Holy Spirit, Nicodemus would remain incapable of understanding the nature of the new birth and his need for it. And his continued confusion is illustrated by his response: “How can these things be?” (John 3:9 ESV).
But Jesus will go on to answer that question with a clear and concise explanation of how sinful men and women can be made right with God and gain access into His kingdom and presence. And it will all be through belief in God’s Son.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.