Reflections on John 3:1-10 Part 1


The Bible in Your life and Your Life in the Bible

"Unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God" (John 3:3)


God created man in his image and likeness to allow him to establish a relationship with him and lead a life of peace and harmony with himself and with the whole of creation. The only condition was that man was to respond to that call by trusting him in loving obedience, which alone would have guaranteed the continuation of that life. That relationship was broken and man hid from the presence God, source of his wellbeing. Man is now under the curse and separated from God. In the passage under consideration the condition for inverting this process and being restored to a relationship with God is set out in a brief conversation with a high profile Jewish leader, Nicodemus. This text elaborates on what had already been written:
to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. (John 1:12, 13)
That relationship can now be restored by trusting in Jesus Christ, the perfect revelation of God. This faith has nothing to do with emotional experiences one might have in a particular place where healings and other wonders take place. Jesus worked many miracles and quite naturally drew the crowds. A faith that depends on the spectacular is superficial and does not last; it is all too human and is not ‘from above’. The crowds could not see beyond the signs and wonders, there was no vital encounter. Jesus does not want fans (fanatics) he wants followers:
many believed in his name because they saw the signs that he was doing. But Jesus on his part would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people ... he himself knew what was in everyone. (John 2:23-25)
If this is true of Jesus, it is even more so with any other healer or place of healing. The birth from above is on a completely different level. It is not emotional, neither is it intellectual, it is spiritual.

The crowds flocked to see the wonder worker and they had an emotional experience. Nicodemus exercised his reason and came to the conclusion that Jesus was from God even though he was not part of the official institutions of Judaism. He could deduce this because the miracles were possible only with the presence of God. The intellect of Nicodemus and the emotions of the crowds belong to the first birth, the natural birth. These cannot bring about the faith that leads to the spiritual birth. Now, in this passage, Jesus attempts to open Nicodemus up to the deepest dimension of being, the spirit. Like the Pharisees and religious leaders of the time, Nicodemus, too, was imprisoned in a limited vision of his relationship with God by placing emphasis on man-made precepts and traditions. These are cold, they are lifeless. Here Jesus is trying to open up Nicodemus' mind to perceive the necessity of the birth of an entirely new way of relating to God, made possible only by the power of Spirit of God himself who generates a new birth, a new life.

When Jesus says 'truly, truly' he has something very important to communicate. He is actually saying, get everything else out of your mind and listen very carefully to what I am about to say. “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above”. These words, reach down to the very roots of the spiritual life but they were meaningless to Nicodemus who interprets them on a purely physical level. They are on different wavelengths. There is no effective rational communication between Jesus and Nicodemus because the natural man cannot understand the things of God:
Those who are unspiritual do not receive the gifts of God’s Spirit, for they are foolishness to them, and they are unable to understand them because they are discerned spiritually. (1 Corinthians 2:14)
However something deep, something unseen, is going on. There is communication on a spiritual level that takes root in Nicodemus and which imperceptibly develops within. This living encounter, which at the moment apparently does not bring forth fruit, is at work. This vital encounter is recalled in John 7:50 when Nicodemus attempts to defend Jesus and in John 19:39 when Nicodemus has clearly become a follower of Jesus. That apparently unfruitful encounter sowed the seed that did eventually become fruitful. He was conceived by the Spirit at that vital encounter and was born of the Spirit after the period of gestation. That vital encounter is necessary in every one of us in order to be truly born from above. All we need to do is talk, listen and be perceptive of the motions of the Holy Spirit around and within us.

We are clearly not talking about material things but spiritual. How many of us are so restricted and imprisoned in the material as not to be able to understand that which is spiritual? 1 Jesus repeats the solemn truth but with the addition ‘born of water and Spirit’. He makes a sharp distinction between the ‘flesh’ and the ‘spirit’. The flesh can only beget flesh but to become reconciled to God the flesh is of no use as this belongs to the realm of the Spirit. It is the spirit of man that needs to be born from above and that can only come from the Holy Spirit just as when the breath of God created the spirit of man in his own image and likeness. The natural birth can only produce what is in the image and likeness of Adam, fallen man. Kind begets kind:

When Adam had lived for one hundred and thirty years, he became the father of a son in his likeness, according to his image (Genesis 5:3)
Jesus was conceived of the Holy Spirit who ‘overshadowed’ Mary and it was at that moment that the unbreakable chain of kind begetting kind which had begun with Adam and Eve was interrupted. Jesus was physically conceived from above. As the Holy Spirit was involved in the creation of man and in the conception of Jesus, it is also he who is the origin of our spiritual birth by which we enter the spiritual world of the Kingdom of God. We cannot simply grow into this world, there is nothing natural or human about it. Just as we are conceived and brought into the natural, material world and then grow in it so are we conceived by the Holy Spirit, born into the spiritual world of the kingdom of God and then grow in it. Two births and two lives, one must increase and the other decrease.

Being born of ‘water and the Spirit’ is essential for entering into or participating in the Kingdom of God. As the Gospel reflects the faith of the Christian community it seems clear that John had baptism in mind especially as the passage is in close proximity to the episode concerning John the Baptist. 2

What is baptism? In a nutshell it is the means by which we are enabled to return to the Father. It is the loving Father welcoming once again his own personal creation spoken of in Genesis. It is a restoration of that vital relationship the first couple had originally in the Garden of Eden. It is man brought out of hiding and empowered to enjoy once again the holy presence for which he was created. We can now relate once more to God in whose presence we may rest every moment of our lives, unlike Adam and Eve who had to hide. It is the Holy Spirit who brings the person whom the Father had chosen before the creation of the universe back home, back to where he belongs and there is no distinction of age, infant or adult: “he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world”. (Ephesians 1:4) Baptism is the homecoming of the Father’s sons and daughters. It is the climax of the work of the Holy Trinity: chosen by the Father, in the Son and brought to fruition in the power of the Holy Spirit. Baptism is the most extraordinary work that God has ever wrought in man, it is the victory of God over the havoc wrought by Satan in the Garden of Eden. 3 It is nothing less than a new creation, a rebirth:
if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ (2 Corinthians 5:16-19)
Man receives the new spiritual birth, he does not earn it - it is a gift. Once again man comes face to face with his helplessness, his dependence, once again man is invited to accept and cultivate humility. We can do absolutely nothing to bridge that gap that exists between God and natural man, after the fall. By ourselves we can do nothing to enter into the kingdom of God: “apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5), ‘For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.’ (Matthew 19:26). 4 However, the time predicted centuries earlier has now come:

A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances. … I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live (Ezekiel 36:26,27; 37:14)
Faith in Jesus is needed but even this does not come from man but is a gift from God, a gift that God offers to all:
This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. (1 Tim. 2:3, 4)
Man has nothing but receives everything. How great is our God! “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:3)

What is born of the Spirit is spirit. The spirit of man is born of the Holy Spirit and it this spiritual birth that enables him to live a new Spirit-controlled life in the realm of the Kingdom of God. This is the miracle of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob now operating within us. This new birth is necessary in order to become spiritually alive to God and to effect a complete change of direction in one’s life, from a self-ward direction to a God-ward direction. Let us learn to rest in that presence and with the presence of God we shall have the power of God so that, like Nicodemus, others may see the “we have come from God” (John 3:2) and are companions of Jesus:

Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John and realized that they were uneducated and ordinary men, they were amazed and recognized them as companions of Jesus. (Acts 4:13)
With the power of the Holy Spirit in our lives that new life will grow and the image and likeness of God, to which we have been restored, will grow clearer and clearer and become more and more visible and others may see and come to believe.

“What is born of the flesh is flesh and what is born of the Spirit is spirit” (v. 5). This is why the Holy Spirit communicates with our spirit to confirm that we are born from above and hence can enjoy the intimacy of the relationship between Father and son. The curse is broken and the relationship restored with this new birth:
When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God. (Romans 8:15, 16)

1 “At least there are certainly many who are very deficient in their religious practices, but their faith is involved in much darkness. Wherefore all preachers and those having care of souls should remember that it is their duty to instruct their people more diligently and more fully about the Holy Ghost … What should be chiefly dwelt upon and clearly explained is the multitude and greatness of the benefits which have been bestowed, and are constantly bestowed, upon us by this Divine Giver, so that errors and ignorance concerning matters of such moment may be entirely dispelled, as unworthy of "the children of light." We urge this, not only because it affects a mystery by which we are directly guided to eternal life, and which must therefore be firmly believed; but also because the more clearly and fully the good is known the more earnestly it is loved.” Encyclical of Pope Leo XIII, Divinum Illud Munus, 1897, # 10.

2 Confirmation of this can be found in Justin Martyr (c. 100 – 165 AD), I Apology, LXI: “I will also relate the manner in which we dedicated ourselves to God when we had been made new through Christ; lest, if we omit this, we seem to be unfair in the explanation we are making. As many as are persuaded and believe that what we teach and say is true, and undertake to be able to live accordingly, are instructed to pray and to entreat God with fasting, for the remission of their sins that are past, we praying and fasting with them. Then they are brought by us where there is water, and are regenerated in the same manner in which we were ourselves regenerated. For, in the name of God, the Father and Lord of the universe, and of our Saviour Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit, they then receive the washing with water. For Christ also said, “Except ye be born again, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.””

3 Catechism of the Catholic Church: “Baptism not only purifies from all sins, but also makes the neophyte "a new creature," an adopted son of God, who has become a "partaker of the divine nature," member of Christ and co-heir with him, and a temple of the Holy Spirit.” (1265). “The Most Holy Trinity gives the baptized sanctifying grace, the grace of justification: ...  giving them the power to live and act under the prompting of the Holy Spirit through the gifts of the Holy Spirit” (1266).

4 “Moreover, human nature was thereby elevated to a personal union with the Word; and this dignity is given, not on account of any merits, but entirely and absolutely through grace, and therefore, as it were, through the special gift of the Holy Ghost.” Divinum Illud Munus, #4.

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