October 20, 2017

Difficult Scriptures – John 3:1-5

There was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to Him, “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.” Jesus answered and said to him, “Most assuredly, I say to you unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” 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?”Jesus answered, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:1-5 NKJV).

Dear Internet Monks, I’m embarrassed to tell you this is a difficult Scripture for me. You might say, “What’s wrong with Lisa Dye? She’s making this entirely too difficult.” At the risk of exposing my ignorance, I’ve pondered the above passage from time-to-time over the years and found it … well, difficult.

Some folks wonder if this points to salvation and baptism of the Holy Spirit being two distinct experiences. My questions are more along the lines of, “Is there a distinction between seeing and entering the kingdom of God?” If so, “Is seeing the kingdom of God a lesser and different experience than entering the kingdom of God? Is being born again (the act that allows us to see the kingdom of God) the foundation for being born of the water and the Spirit (the act that allows us to enter the kingdom of God)?”


Some of you are already saying, “What’s she going on about? Jesus is just reiterating here.” I’ve thought of that too, but in checking my Young’s Analytical Concordance to the Bible and my Strong’s Complete Dictionary of Bible Words for definitions, I see a difference. I’ve never studied biblical languages and I realize this is a minimal treatment at best. Knowing there are theologians and language scholars in the community, I welcome instruction.

The Greek for ‘see’ here is eidon. It means to see, literally or figuratively, to know, be aware of, behold, consider, look on, perceive, be sure, tell, understand. The Greek for ‘enter’ here is eiserchomai. It means to enter literally or figuratively, arise, come in, come into, enter in enter into, go in, go through.

It would be helpful to know if this passage refers to seeing and entering literally or figuratively. If meant figuratively, it could indicate that seeing and entering are spiritual perceptions and experiences. If meant literally, then the distinction between seeing and entering is something we’d do well to note.

During the last year, I’ve been wandering with the Israelites through the Pentateuch. In reading Numbers 20:1-13, Numbers 27:12 and Deuteronomy 32:48-52, I immediately thought of the passage from John 3. When the children of Israel complained to Moses over their lack of water at Meribah Kadesh in the Wilderness of Zin, Moses inquired of the God. God instructed him to speak to the rock and waters would flow, but Moses lost his temper with the people and struck the rock. In this act he did not hallow the name of the Lord.

Because of this sin God told Moses in Deuteronomy 32:52, “Therefore, you will see the land only from a distance; you will not enter the land I am giving to the people of Israel.” The Hebrew word raah means to see, literally or figuratively, appear, approve, behold, consider, discern, enjoy, have experience, gaze, take heed, look on, look out, look up, look upon, mark, meet, be near, perceive, regard, respect, spy, stare, think, view. This this case we know the word ‘see’ is meant literally. Moses went up on Mount Abarim and saw the land promised to Israel. There he died.

The Hebrew word bo means to go or come, abide, attain, be, befall, beseiege, bring forth, bring in, bring into, bring to pass, call, carry, to come against, come in, come out, come upon, come to pass, enter in, enter into. Once again, we know this is a literal meaning. Moses died on the mountain and was not permitted to bring the children of Israel into the land. Are these two Hebrew words for ‘see’ and ‘enter’ equal in meaning to the Greek words for ‘see’ and ‘enter’ in the John 3 passage?

For Moses, not entering the land did not mean a loss of salvation, but of reward. We can assume this from several references to him throughout Scripture. He was a man with whom God met face-to-face (Exodus 33:11). He appeared with Jesus and Elijah on the Mount of Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-3). Furthermore, he is given seven verses in Hebrews chapter 11, highlighting his life of faith, along with the other patriarchs (Hebrews 11:23-29).

If we view this in conjunction with John 3, can we consider the possibility that saved people have eternal life and go to heaven, but without the clear and lasting presence and power of the Holy Spirit do not enter the kingdom which will come to earth during Christ’s millenial reign? Do they lose the reward of ruling and reigning with Christ (ref. Revelation 1) and only see it from the portals of heaven?

Do these passages on Moses point in any way to Christ’s meaning in the John 3 passage? Do seeing and entering have distinct meanings in John 3 as in Moses’ story? Is Christ saying that spiritual rebirth provides spiritual perception — a necessary stepping stone to entering the kingdom or are seeing and entering one and the same?

Nicodemus was a Pharisee and ruler of the Jews, a member of the Jewish council. Jesus said to him at this encounter, “Are you a teacher of Israel and do not know these things?” This was a rebuke to Nicodemus for not knowing about spiritual rebirth referred to in various places in the Old Testament, including Ezekiel  36:26,27.

As a member of the Jewish council, Nicodemus had investigated John the Baptist and knew he denied being the Messiah, but John did proclaim the presence of Messiah. Nicodemus was on the the verge of acknowledging Jesus as Messiah, the one who could give him spiritual rebirth.

A couple of other passages come to mind at this point. On the heels of his encounter with the rich young ruler, Jesus commented to his disciples in Matthew 19:26 “And again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” It appears the rich young ruler at least had enough spiritual perception to know who to ask what was necessary for eternal life. Perhaps his was the same belief that many approach Christ with today, a belief in his deity. However, it fell short of the obedience, devotion, denial of self and a hard following after him that would gain what he sought.

In the Parable of the Ten Virgins, oil for the virgins’ lamps was the commodity that gained entrance to the wedding feast when the bridegroom came to summon them. One could say all were clean or righteous as they were referred to as virgins. All had sight (spiritual perception) or the potential for it as they had lamps. Only five were ready when the bridegroom came because they had sufficient oil. In the Old Testament, oil often signified the anointing or presence of the Holy Spirit. Is it so in John 3? Is it the Holy Spirit that gets us beyond seeing to entrance by providing ever deepening wisdom and perseverance to finish the journey of following Christ?

It’s interesting to note that when Moses knew he would not be allowed to lead the Israelites into the Promised Land, he inquired who he should commission in his place. It came down to Caleb and Joshua, the only two of the original spies who believed that with God’s help Israel was well able to possess the land. The honor went to Joshua because he had the Holy Spirit.

The conclusion I am drawing, unless you Internet Monks point me in a different way, is that there is a distinction between seeing the kingdom and entering the kingdom and that the difference is the presence or power of the Holy Spirit. I want to know if you agree and if you think that what is at stake here is salvation or reward.



Comments

  1. Maybe Jesus was just playing/playing along with Nicodemus here and playing his words back to him. Notice the dialogue:

    There was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to Him,

    “Rabbi, we know that You are a teacher come from God; for no one can [dunamai] do these signs [i.e., things that Nicodemus and others have SEEN] that You do unless God is with him.”

    Jesus answered and said to him, “Most assuredly, I say to you unless one is born again, he cannot [dunamai] SEE the kingdom of God.”

    Nicodemus said to Him, “How can [dunamai] a man be born when he is old? Can he [dunamai] ENTER a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?”

    Jesus answered, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot [dunamai] ENTER the kingdom of God” (John 3:1-5 NKJV).

    If Nicodemus had been able to squeeze in a third question, Jesus likely may have turned his words back on him again.

    • FYI, I like your discussion of seeing vs. entering. It’s something to think about. On the other hand, GJohn seem to like to repeat things by saying them differently; the author’s style seems to include using synonyms when repeating something. E.g., John 21 isn’t simply about 2 different words for “love”; there are also two different words for boat and fish, and switching between sheep and lambs, and between tend and shepherd, and oida and ginôskô.

      • Eric, you are right to remind us to stand back and always look at the bigger picture (i.e. the writer’s style in the whole book). It helps put things in context. Thank you. I appreciate your comments.

      • Isaac (the poster formerly known as Obed) says:

        Just riffing off of what Eric is saying here, this may be an example of the tendency toward parallelism in Hebraic poetic language. John seems to like to toss poetic devices throughout his text. If this is the case here it’s an example of what is sometimes called synthetic parallelism, where the second thought builds upon and completes the first. A more obvious example of this would be:

        Cast your bread upon the waters;
        For after many days you will find it again

        Even though the Gospel is written in Greek, John’s Hebraic culture peeks through a lot.

        • I think this is probably true. John (probably not quoting Jesus exactly, since Jesus spoke in Aramaic and John writes in Greek) probably changes from ‘seeing’ to ‘entering’ for stylistic reasons. He does this quite often in this book. A classic example is the agape/phileo switch – sometimes the Father ‘agapes’ Jesus (3:35) and sometimes he just ‘philos’ him (5:20), sometimes the ‘beloved disciple’ is ‘agaped’ (13:23), other times he is just ‘philoed’ (20:2). Likewise in John 21 we see Jesus alternating between ‘feeding’ and ‘tending’ the sheep. People often try to read more into this than John intended (particularly the old saw about ‘agape’ being a ‘unique divine type of love’ [it was the run of the mill word for love in the first century – See D.A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies, mentioned below]) without realizing this is John’s style of writing.

  2. All I can say is, good for you! I’m glad you think this is a difficult scripture, because it is. I remember the days when people were asked, “Are you born again?”. It’s refreshing to hear from someone who finds depth to plumb in these words.

  3. I’ve always thought that v. 5 “born anew” was interesting, as “anothen” [transliteration] can also be translated “from new ancestors” I love the idea that in Jesus our family tree is planted afresh – new roots, new origins

    • Buford Hollis says:

      “Born again” apparently can also be read as “born from above.” Either would make about the same amount of sense.

  4. Lisa,

    You said,

    “The conclusion I am drawing, unless you Internet Monks point me in a different way, is that there is a distinction between seeing the kingdom and entering the kingdom and that the difference is the presence or power of the Holy Spirit. I want to know if you agree and if you think that what is at stake here is salvation or reward.”

    Uh… where to begin..

    It is not my intent to be disrespectful or dismissive, so please do not take my comments that way. However, I will be direct.

    Most scholars in the Reformation tradition view the use of different words by Jesus in that passage as a ‘Hebraism’ basically saying the same thing in two slightly different ways to underscore a point.

    Moses and his inability to enter the Promised Land says more to the temporal consequences of his sin(and ours) than levels of spirituality and piety.

    Biblically speaking, if you are saved, having faith in Christ, you have the Holy Spirit.

    In recent church history there have been several group and movements that have tried to build a theology based on a two tiered division of Christians. The Holiness groups with their emphasis on ‘Entire Sanctification’ (Church of God, Andersen Ind., Keswick Movement, and others) and the Pentecostals with ‘Baptism in the Holy Spirit.’

    Both of these interpretations are built around the idea that there are two types of Christians; ‘spiritual ones’, who are led/filled with the Holy Spirit, and ‘ carnal Christians.’ Usually this is based on a faulty reading of Paul’s epistles, then fleshed out with bits and pieces of other Scripture.

    What does this kind of teaching tell those that struggle with besetting sins, or just don’t seem to be victorious, or like Mother Theresa suffer years of spiritual dryness?

    It tells them that they are second class Christians, barely saved and not certain of any reward in Heaven, IF in fact they even make it. It puts many on a never ending pursuit chasing the carrot of sanctification or Baptism in the Holy Spirit on the end of an unreachable stick. Many bruised reeds and smoldering wicks despair under such teaching. Many fled here to Internetmonk to hear something other than that. Watch some of the comments that come in from people despairing.

    To those who think that they are making it, this teaching turns the Christian life into a mad dash for bigger and better rewards in heaven. (In contrast, Jesus says we will be unaware of the times we served Him.)

    My friend and mentor Dr,. Rod Rosenbladt has said many times..” Not one person who has faith in Christ will be left out on that day. Those who trust in HIm WILL NOT be disappointed.” He has a huge ministry to people who are despairing and have been crushed by churches teaching that being saved isn’t really enough, or you need to ‘do more’ and “are you really sure that you’re sure.”

    The distinction you are trying to make is bad exegesis, and becomes a nightmare pastorally speaking. It is all Law and no Gospel.

    Please reconsider.

    • Buford Hollis says:

      I like the distinction. A lot of Christians (well, Protestants) have the idea that anyone who affirms Jesus as messiah, son of God, etc. will be saved. The rich young ruler has apparently recognized Jesus’s station, but balks at giving away his possessions (presumably having realized the dangers of the social gospel). Similarly for Matthew 25, where we are saved or damned according to whether we have clothed the hungry, fed the naked, or however it goes. We can say that the Kingdom of God / Heaven is made manifest to the extent that we do these things. Recognizing it doesn’t mean doing it. A monk I know says that the devil knows theology very well, and yet is in hell!

      • Not all they that say “Lord, Lord” will be saved, you mean?

        🙂

        • Buford Hollis says:

          YES!!! That’s no joke, that’s a real confirmation of the principle. There are other examples, too. Matthew 21, for instance (“Which one did the will of the Father?”)

          • Buford, Martha,

            Since the faith of another cannot be seen , and the outward appearance of our works does not always give a definite gauge of one’s heart, how do we avoid being unrighteous judges comparing people’s level of sanctification based on what we see? Some people are super special Christians because their outward works appear to us to be good, and others are ‘carnal Christians’ because they struggle with something? The fact is that we are all ‘bad’ or failing Christians, that’s why Jesus had to die for us. (even for Christians)

            Jesus told the parable of the wheat and the tares, which look exactly alike until the end, when the ‘harvesters’ (angels) weed them out.

            Most protestants(and Catholics for that matter) give the benefit of the doubt to those who profess Christ. The Church lauds and encourages those works and behaviors commanded in God’s word, and reproves and rebukes sinful thoughts and actions, but judgment is reserved for God.

            On that Day we will be shocked both at who is’ in’ (that we thought wouldn’t be) and who is ‘out’ (that we thought for sure would be in.)

            This business of categorizing Christians especially on something as subjective as ‘the power and presence of the Holy Spirit in their life’ is bad.

    • Patrick, I appreciate what you are saying here. It’s not my intention to cause anyone to despair or lose heart. I ask these questions genuinely and not believing I have the answers.

      I did bring up the idea that Jesus could be reiterating or “saying the same thing in two different ways to underscore a point.” Yet, I think that what we see in the O.T. can give illumination to what we see in the N.T. and visa versa.

      For the record, I believe that saved people have the Holy Spirit sealing them for the day of salvation, but I think there is evidence in Scripture to tell us there will be reward and loss and also differentiating between those who walk after the spirit and those who walk after the flesh. As weak humans we are probably not equipped to discern who is an who isn’t. God is the one who looks at the heart.

      I believe that all who call on the name of the Lord will be saved. Recently, my son-in-law, a pastor, interacted with a man over a period of a couple of weeks. The man had a chronic drug abuse problem but stated that he knew his only hope was in Jesus Christ. He had been turning to him every day for years yet without relief from his addiction. Both my son-in-law and I agreed that the man had incredible faith — to trust God for his salvation daily in the face of such a struggle. We were both humbled.

      Truly, when it comes to these issues, I pray that I will view others with the generosity and grace I’ve received. I never want to make anyone despair. This passage has always prompted questions for me and I thought it might for others.

      • Oops. I meant vice versa.

        • Lisa,

          You said, “and also differentiating between those who walk after the spirit and those who walk after the flesh.As weak humans we are probably not equipped to discern who is an who isn’t. ”
          We can’t really discern even in our own case.

          This is a recipe for churches to spend all their time focused on the believer and what he or she should be doing and how to do it so we receive the rewards, and how to tell if you are doing it, and how to be sure that you are sure. This subtly supplants Christ as the center of our church services and places us, our search for sanctification, and our ‘duties’ in His place.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

            This is a recipe for churches to spend all their time focused on the believer and what he or she should be doing and how to do it so we receive the rewards, and how to tell if you are doing it, and how to be sure…

            And how to be Certain you’re Sure.
            And how to be Sure you’re Certain you’re Sure.
            And how to be Certain you’re Sure you’re Certain you’re Sure…

            Until one day you figure “What’s the use?” and walk away.

          • Patrick,

            I can see the endless cycle that worries you. It’s not profitable to direct our examinations toward others. It will only lead to being judgmental and legalistic.

            Still, I think its good to ask ourselves these questions. Paul said in 2 Corinthians 13:5 “Examine yourselves to see whether you in the faith; test yourselves.” Since he addresses the letter “to the church of God at Corinth, together with all the saints throughout Achaia,” he’s referring to believers. As believers, we need to examine ourselves to determine the condition of our faith — whether it be strong or weak, accurate or needing correction.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      Both of these interpretations are built around the idea that there are two types of Christians; ‘spiritual ones’, who are led/filled with the Holy Spirit, and ‘ carnal Christians.’ Usually this is based on a faulty reading of Paul’s epistles, then fleshed out with bits and pieces of other Scripture.

      What does this kind of teaching tell those that struggle with besetting sins, or just don’t seem to be victorious, or like Mother Theresa suffer years of spiritual dryness?

      It provides a perfect opportunity for Zero-Sum One-Upmanship:
      “ME SPIRITUAL! YOU CARNAL! HAW! HAW! HAW!”

  5. Faith by grace? Faith as a gift of God? Without it, without being “born again”, you can’t even recognise the Kingdom, much less enter into the new life it entails?

    First you see, then you enter, but without the movement of grace you won’t even perceive that you are missing anything or want to become a member of that crazy cult group with their weird, pre-rational beliefs?

  6. Lisa, I am glad to see someone grappling with as many questions as I have about some scriptures. I have sometimes wondered if the being born of water means first having a natural birth. Then being born of the Spirit would mean having a spiritual birth where we see things beyond simply the material world. Then the question would become, “Well, HOW do we get spiritually born?” Some will say we get baptized. Some will say we come to faith in Jesus. Some will say we have an experience in which God becomes real to us in a way that he was not before. Some will say we pick up our cross and do what we believe God wants of us, including acting towards others with love even if they behave towards us like enemies. Like you, I don’t think this is a simple passage at all.

    There is a passage about the Holy Spirit blowing wherever he wants. I think that, too, is a passage that tells us that we cannot put God in a box. God will do what he wants, when he wants, to whomever he wants. So people who may say, “Well, he can’t have the Holy Spirit because he hasn’t been baptized” may be wrong. Or, “She has never made a public confession of faith in Jesus, doesn’t attend church, has never been to Communion, so she is not a Christian” may be just as wrong. I like to have answers, but I often don’t.

    • Isaac (the poster formerly known as Obed) says:

      Most of my professors have pointed to the baptism interpretation as an example of reading doctrine/dogma into the text where the context does not support it. I.e. the passage isn’t about baptism, so why would Jesus mention baptism in passing? They would say that “born of water” is natural birth while “born of spirit” is salvation/rebirth.

      However, I’m not sure I agree with them. In fact, I suspect some of their interpretation has less to do with the context of the passage than with their own theology of baptism (they’re Baptists).

      John’s gospel was most likely written later than any other book of the NT save Revelation. By then, the Church had certainly matured in its sacramental theology. In fact, despite the Last Supper being almost an afterthought in John’s gospel, in other parts of the gospel (e.g. Ch 6) we see some of the most developed of Eucharistic theology in the whole of Scripture.

      As Baptism and the Eucharist have always been the sacramental foundations of the Church, I find myself wondering if the Patristic/Historical understanding of the connection between salvation and baptism is rooted in passages such as these. That is, the normative entrance into the Kingdom is through the waters of baptism. But it’s not just the water that makes a difference. It’s the spiritual regeneration. I.e. water and spirit.

      As I skim through my volume of the Ancient Commentaries on Scripture (which happens to be John 1-10), this was the understanding of Sts. Tertullian, Chrysostom, Augustine, Ambrose, and Basil the Great also.

      • That strikes me as straining the text there, Isaac. After all, NIcodemus raises the natural birth and dismisses it in the same breath – how can a grown man enter his mother’s womb again? – and Jesus replies with the ‘you must be born of water and the Spirit’.

        I really can’t see that as meaning “You first have to be born naturally and then born spiritually” because, duh! we’re all born out of our mothers naturally. Why link water and the Spirit unless, yes, baptism is what we’re talking about here?

        • Jesus refers to the Spirit as water, though (John 7:37-39), so linking water and Spirit might not be a reference to two things (i.e., water baptism/birth and Spirit baptism/birth). The kai (“and”) might mean “even” – i.e., “unless one is born of water – i.e./even [the] Spirit – he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (a hendiadys?).

          • Well, speaking as a Catholic (and hence infallibly correct in all my interpretations, whims, and vague notions passing through my skull)…

            😉

            Ahem. Let me begin again. I would have associated the Spirit with water in baptism anyways, EricW, and not just the notion that plain water by itself is somehow magically transformative (you need the proper formula, for one thing, and intention, which is another).

            But neither is it just a ceremony or form to be gone through; it has some real affect and effects a real change in the soul of the person being baptised. Otherwise, John the Baptist had the right of it when he questioned Jesus about why are you coming to me for baptism when you don’t need this?

            So baptism is necessary, and the form of baptism we have is one with water, and therefore I am driven to the conclusion that when Jesus tells Nicodemus “You have to be born again of water and the Spirit”, what He said was exactly what He meant (and not some metaphor about water = natural birth, Spirit = our denomination’s test case of how you become A Proper Christian by speaking in tongues/not speaking in tongues/leaping up with joy every five minutes/sitting quietly and just experiencing the spirit/whatever).

          • I am actually replying to Martha’s post at
            September 23, 2010 at 4:13 pm, but there is no “Reply” there, so let’s see where this lands.

            Martha…you make very good points here. I will have to ponder this.

        • Isaac (the poster formerly known as Obed) says:

          Martha, and that’s why I disagree with my professors 🙂

  7. Lisa,

    If John 3 is difficult, then the rest of the book should be pretty near impossible for you. Try the red-letter portions from about chapter 13 on and see what kind of sense they make to a Western post-Enlightenment mindset. The book is fraught with mystical-sounding language that sounds almost like a koan.

    That is not to say that we cannot access it, but I recommend reading the whole book in a single sitting to get a flavor for its literary style. It probably wouldn’t hurt to do this several times, possibly in a variety of translations to break up the too familiar verses into a patter that keeps us from reciting them in a sing-song way or reading through them too fast.

    At that point you will find far more difficult passages than you ever dreamed and you will begin to understand the confusion the early disciples had when they discussed what Jesus really meant among themselves. The one thing I do understand is when Jesus asks, in Mark 7:18, “Are you still so stupid?” that they really were. Just like me. Only I’m probably worse.

    • Rick, you have seen only a tiny glimpse of my spiritual confusion in this writing. There is so much more! Seriously, I find a relief in that. If I could grasp it all then God would be as small as my mind … not a good thing.

      That the self-existant God, the Maker of the heavens and earth, the One who spoke all things into existence would become flesh and dwell among us is the greatest miracle. This loving act provides the open door we need to begin to plumb His depths. Thankfully, there is eternity in which to do it because we’ll never come to the end of Him.

  8. Maybe Jesus’s “water and Spirit” reference is drawn from Ezekiel 36, in which God promises to cleanse His people with water (v. 25) and give them His Spirit (v.27). In that chapter, verse 26 also talks about us receiving a new heart and spirit, which could have something to do with the “born again” reference in John 3.

    Hope that helps!

    • I think that’s what D. A. Carson says in his book Exegetical Fallacies, based on something one of his students had said.

      • I’d never heard of his book, I’ll have to check it out. Would he say I’m on the right track or totally off the mark? 🙂

        • I think he’d say you’re right on. And if I remember correctly, D. A. Carson is a complementarian, but it was a female student who suggested this to him. 😀

          Caveat Emptor: Some of Carson’s Exegetical Fallacies (Second Edition) is going to be a bit difficult or obtuse for those who haven’t had at least 1 year of NT Greek.

          • I haven’t had five minutes of Greek, so I’ll probably just rely on your summary!

            “And if I remember correctly, D. A. Carson is a complementarian, but it was a female student who suggested this to him.”

            🙂

          • “The person who convinced me was Linda L. Belleville, one of my graduate students before she went on to the University of Toronto for doctoral study. The relevant part of her thesis has been published as an article.” [Linda L. Belleville, “‘Born of Water and Spirit’: John 3:5,” Trinity Journal 1 (1980): 125-40.]

            Exegetical Fallacies (Second Edition) p. 42

            Belleville has gone on to become a leading spokesperson and scholar/author/writer for Egalitarianism.

    • This is most likely the proper interpretation. The key to this passage is Jesus’ question to Nicodemus: ‘You are a teacher of Israel and you don’t know these things?’ Obviously this ‘new birth’ thing wasn’t a ‘bolt out of the blue’, something new Jesus just thought up, or else he wouldn’t have expected Nicodemus to know about it.

      So, the obvious question is: where would one find something in the Old Testament that points in this direction? Jesus is talking about the ‘kingdom of God’ (not ‘going to heaven when you die’). The kingdom of God refers to the fulfillment of the Old Testament promises of an ‘age to come’, the time when God will rule and reign over his people, the time when a New Covenant is instituted (Jer 31:31ff). The way one enters this ‘kingdom of God’ (a term which was used in Jesus’ time to describe the ‘coming age’ and fulfillment of the promises) is by God’s action – forgiveness of sin (symbolized by the sprinkling with clean water) and imparting of the Holy Spirit, as promised in Ez. 36:25-27. Thus, the passage (probably) points to the need for Nicodemus (as all Israel) to embrace the kingdom of God which Jesus is preaching through repentance and faith (which is, of course, the same message we find often in Jesus’ teaching, and even that of John the Baptist). In John 3, the object of that faith is Jesus himself, but the message is straight out of the Old Testament prophets.

      • “Obviously this ‘new birth’ thing wasn’t a ‘bolt out of the blue’, something new Jesus just thought up, or else he wouldn’t have expected Nicodemus to know about it.”

        This is another reason why I was thinking it referred to Ezekiel. Why would Jesus blame him for not knowing a concept that is found nowhere in the Law or Prophets?

    • The Greek “anothen” can mean either “again” or “from above.” Jesus probably meant “born from above,” but Nicodemus misunderstood him and thought he was talking about being born a second time. The word is used again in 3:31–it’s pretty clear in that verse what Jesus was getting at.

      • But their conversation no doubt took place in Aramaic so it’s less likely that Jesus meant ‘from above’ and Nicodemus understood it as ‘again’. John introduces the double-meaning by choosing that particular Greek word.

        • Jesus and Nicodemus probably spoke in Aramaic, but you’re opening a can of worms. John probably wasn’t present during this conversation and we have no access to it in any form other than the Greek form in which it now stands. I don’t think there is any evidence in the text that we have “translation Greek” here, as if someone took notes as Jesus and Nicodemus spoke and then rendered them into Greek. I think it’s more likely that the conversation is a creation of the evangelist.

          We have a “from below”/”from above” contrast in John 3:31. Is there a “born once”/”born again” contrast anywhere else in John?

  9. Lisa,
    I have no solution to offer, but agree that there appears to be more here than the “easy” gloss that the passage often receives. I love John’s gospel but quickly acknowledge that I am not confident about all the symbolism and other literary devices in it. A split between salvation and baptism of the HS seems like an unlikely interpretation, though. The “reward” idea is an intriguing one.

  10. I’d have to join with the many others who say there’s really nothing going on but different ways of saying the same thing. I would just offer as a general principle of reading Scripture the reminder that it’s ordinary language, using ordinary figures of speech, saying things in multiple ways just like we do everyday in conversation. Not that analyzing Greek isn’t useful at times, but we can miss the forest for the trees and think that something complicated is going on with language if we let ourselves think of it as something other than everyday speech. I wouldn’t stop thinking and pondering (it’s good to make sure we’re not glossing over even the ‘simple’ passages), but in general (and here specifically), I think “seeing” and “entering” are the same thing. The immediate context of the conversation is the best indicator of this (regardless of usage, situations elsewhere).

  11. There was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to Him, “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.”

    Jesus answered and said to him, “Most assuredly, I say to you unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

    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?”

    Jesus answered, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.”

    “Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

    Nicodemus answered and said to Him, “How can these things be?”

    Jesus answered and said to him, “Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not know these things? Most assuredly, I say to you, We speak what We know and testify what We have seen, and you do not receive Our witness. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things?”

    (John 3:1-12 NKJV)

    – – –

    It seems to me that if “born again/born from above” means the same thing as “born of water and the Spirit,” then (to maintain the parallelism) “see the kingdom of God” would mean the same thing as “enter the kingdom of God.”

    On the other hand, “flesh” and “earthly” do seem to be contrasted with “spirit” and “heavenly.”

    So while I think one can and should see a difference being made here between fleshly/earthly things and spiritual things, I don’t think one should push too hard for a difference here between seeing the kingdom and entering the kingdom.

  12. Parallelism works for me.

    Then, on the other hand…

    Before a physical birth there must be conception.

    Some level of comprehension must enter the mind before one can accept the Kingdom.

    Knowledge enters the mind through the five senses. Often we say we see it, when we mean we grasp it. Or we may say that something is clarified by touching it, or tasting. But the information must get into the brain before we can think about it.

  13. We could argue about it endlessly (and people have been doing this for centuries). Or we can read Second Timothy chapter 2 and take it to heart.

  14. Good questions about the text! I think “seeing” and “entering” are the same thing.

    John makes a sharp distinction between “darkness” and “light” and between “seeing” and “being blind.” Jesus is the “light of the world” and the world is in “darkness” (1:4–6; 3:19–21; 8:12; 12:35–36). Judas betrays Jesus at night (13:30). Mary Magdalene comes to Jesus’ tomb “while it was still night” (20:1), only to find that the darkness has not overcome him. Those who believe in Christ “see,” while the Pharisees are “blind” (9:35–41). Jesus’ first command to John the Baptist’s disciples is “come and see” (1:39). Before Jesus raised Lazarus, he told his sisters, “If you believe, you will see the glory of God” (11:40).

    If anything, in John, “not seeing” the kingdom is a stronger indictment than “not entering” it.

    It is significant in John 3 that Nicodemus came to Jesus at night (3:2, 19:39).

  15. In my OT survey class in college, my professor shared with us that to the ancient Hebrews, water was nothingness, or space. They believed that that sky was water, etc. So when the waters were rising during the Flood for example, the situation seemed even more dire to them than it does to us…the water was closing in from above as well as below.

    In Genesis we see God dividing waters to create the world. Perhaps Jesus is referencing the totality of the new birth–it is God’s totally new creation, re-created from the most basic elements (the water, or nothingness), on a spiritual level through His spirit. I wonder if that passage may be simpler than we sometimes think.

  16. Jesus gives us forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation in Baptism.

    The promise is for you and your children (Acts).

    I’d say the Lord is pretty serious about Baptism, especially since He commanded us to do it (Matthew 28).

    “Yes, Baptism now saves you…” (1st Peter)

    I wonder why so many Christians despise (“nothing actually happens”) Baptism???

  17. Interesting discussion and some good questions. This is one of those passages that we tend to use a lot but at the same time gloss over too much and take for granted without really analyzing, and it deserves more attention. That said, I don’t really think there’s a two-tiered distinction here between seeing and entering. In both Hebrew and Greek, repetition is used for emphasis, and often the repetition gives a slightly different slant or picture of the concept being conveyed. I think that’s what is happening here, especially as Jesus two instances of answering begin with the exact same words.

    A second reason I think this is the case is because fine distinctions like this can often (not always) come from a western scientific mindset and approach to analysis that was simply not part of ancient near eastern thought. And that is the case even (perhaps especially) when the distinction is appealing to us or to our cultural mindset.

    None of this means there isn’t a difference or distinction between being saved and being rewarded in God’s kinigdom, only that I don’t see that so clearly here. Just my 2 cents, and probably worth about that much. Peace.

  18.  39One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!” 40But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? 41We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” 42Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.[f]”
    43Jesus answered him, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.” Luke 23:39-43.

    The criminal obviously was saved by his faith and was most likely never baptized, thus you are saved by faith, not a ceremonial cleansing of baptism.

    We need to put our preconceived thoughts on salvation down that we learned over the years from numerous different churches with numerous different agendas, and come back to Christ!

     6Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. John 14:6.

    Jesus didn’t say, “No one comes to the Father except through me AND baptism in My name.”

  19. John 3 must be read in context with John 1, particularly verse 13.

    What makes the passage difficult for me is that I don’t know what question – if any – that Nicodemus meant to ask Jesus. It seems like Jesus interrupted him, or perhaps the question was implied. It seems like he was about to ask Jesus the same question that the priests and the Levites were sent to ask John the Baptist in John 1:19. If the question was, “who are you?”, then why did Jesus answer regarding how to enter the kingdom of God? The answer may be found in Daniel, that the appearance of the Son of Man (and the baptism of John) meant that the kingdom was at hand. I think Nicodemus recognized these signs and knew something was up. The religious rulers knew something was up and sought to stop it. The phrase, “born again”, indicated that this wasn’t simply a fulfillment of old testament Messianic prophecies; it meant that being a genetic ancestor of Abraham didn’t mean that they were “in”. In fact, it would seem that these words of Jesus meant that confidence even in being children of Abraham must be abandoned.

    • Yes that is quite true, and no doubt the point. In the kingdom of God (the ‘New’ Covenant) status in the Old Covenant was immaterial. One must enter the New Covenant by casting one’s lot with Jesus. This ‘new birth’ (which I believe points to Ez. 36:25-27), being included in the New Covenant (the kingdom of God), is not automatic for Jews. It is essentially the same message (at least that part) that John the Baptist preached – don’t think that having Abraham for your father (ancestor) will help you. The axe is laid at the root of the tree. That is why Jesus was adamant – this new birth is an absolute necessity (particularly for a good covenant-keeping Jew like Nicodemus who thought his covenant status secure. It was – just the wrong covenant!).

  20. Here’s my suggestion for a difficult Scripture: Luke 22:35-53. Jesus tells His disciples to buy/bring a sword(s). They show Him their two swords, and He seems to approve. Then, when the opportunity/need to use the sword occurs, and one of them (Simon Peter according to John’s telling) uses it, Jesus tells him to stop.

    O…kay…. 😕

    • I have some thoughts about that particular scripture, EricW, but I don’t know if Lisa would want me to get hijack the topic we are on now. I would like to hear what people think about that passage though. Maybe Chaplain Mike/Jeff/Lisa/Damaris would allow us to submit requests for difficult passages to discuss and then they can perhaps choose some off the accumulating list for future discussions. I hope we stick with Gospel passages for a while. There are enough difficult passages there before moving on to the letters to the churches. But hey, I am not in charge of this blog! 🙂

  21. My comments are appearing in non-chronological order again.

  22. Not sure, but this might be the same as the difference in Reformed theology between being “regenerated” and “justified.”

  23. To Steve Martin who wrote on September 23, 2010 at 2:43 pm: “I wonder why so many Christians despise (“nothing actually happens”) Baptism???”

    Steve, I went to your blog and made a comment there and did read some of the blog’s posts about bpatism. I am Catholic, so your being Lutheran means that the teachings we were brought up with are very similar. When I was young, people still talked about “limbo” as a place for unbaptized babies to get around the idea that baptism is needed to remove original sin and therefore any unbaptized person could not go to heaven. The Catholic church now teaches that limbo was only a speculation of sorts and that we trust in God’s mercy to deal with unbaptized babies. That concerns some people who say that it sounds like baptism would not have any “real” effect. The Orthodox has a different take on “original sin” feeling that St. Augustine got it a bit wrong. The Orthodox teach that all humans have the consequence of Adam’s sin, including death, but that we don’t inherit his guilt. So, unbaptized babies are in heaven…period. You may ask, “Well, then, why have baptism at all?” Jesus did say we are to be baptized and he indicates that something DOES happen during baptism. I do believe that the Holy Spirit “seals” us during baptism and the Holy Spirit guides us, teaches us, protects us during our time on earth. That does not mean we will not have any problems! We certainly will. But we can know that the Spirit of God is within us and will never leave us.

    Baptism is certainly a weighty issue. There is so much more that could be said, but I will stop here.

    • JoanieD,

      Thanks for your thoughtful reply.

      The Scriptures tell us tht we are born into sin (“conceived in sin in my mother’s womb”), so we as babies need a Savior also.

      Do babies who are not baptized go to Heaven or hell? The Scriptures do not say outright. But what kind of a God do we have? Gracious and merciful…so I would hope and pray that un baptized babies do go to Heaven.

      As you said, the Lord does command baptism. He never commands us to do anything where He is not actually in it.

      I’ve always found it odd that so many of the same people who say that God lives in their hearts and is actually present there, will argue that He could NOT be present in a bowl of water with His Word attached to it. Or that He could NOT be present in the bread and the wine of the Lord’s Supper.

      I think Baptism (especially of infants) brings to light the great Biblical principle of grace before faith. A principle that many Christians today reject.

      Thanks, JoanieD!