John 2:23—3:21, The New Birth

[February 6, 2011] We come now to the first teaching chapter in the Gospel according to John. In the front to back correspondences of the gospel, it matches the lengthy and most important teaching section in chapters 13—17, just as the clearing of the Temple corresponds to the arrest, trial and crucifixion of Jesus in chapters 18—19. As the stories prior to this find their fulfillment in their later corresponding story, so the story of Jesus and Nicodemus merely introduces what is expanded on at length in Jesus’ later teaching.

In chapter 1 John tells us to “Behold the Lamb of God” and we find ourselves invited to abide with Jesus, who is the House of God, the earthly portal of heaven. Next, in chapter 2, the wedding speaks of the fulfillment of God’s promise to marry His people and the good wine from the six stone vessels of water—after the old wine had run out—speaks of the corresponding joy. Then we get a hint that the Body of Jesus will replace—by fulfilling—the sacrifices of the Temple, and His Body offered up on the cross will become in resurrection the Father’s House which He has prepared for us to dwell in. (That took place during the first Passover of Jesus’ ministry and it corresponds to the last Passover when He was crucified.)

This backward movement is as if we were peeling away layers to get at the beginning. Chapter echoes the seventh day of creation, the day of rest and fullness and satisfaction; the wedding of Cana the sixth day, when man and woman were created and came together; the clearing of the Temple the fifth day, when the waters of the former chaos teemed with life as did the vault of the sky created by the tearing apart of the waters. Now we come to the story of Jesus and Nicodemus with its significant teaching moment. It echoes the fourth day of creation, when the great lights of the heaven were created. John’s testimony to the glory of Jesus, that follows in 3:22—4:3, corresponds to the third day of creation, when land surfaced from the waters and the earth brought forth life. These echoes are underlying and implicit, maybe even conjured, but if there, they all point to the Gospel of Jesus as the beginning and source of a new creation.

Let us approach now this story.

The Seeker (John 2:23—3:2)

In these verses a contrast is drawn between the crowds who believe into Jesus’ name on account of the miracles that they had witnessed and Nicodemus who wanted to know Jesus more, for whom the miracles were merely signs of God’s approval.

Jesus is in Jerusalem, at the Passover. In contrast to the crowds in Galilee, outside of Judea proper, the crowds in Jerusalem are an ambivalent group who just as easily oppose Jesus as rally to Him. They saw the signs that He did and are excited by them. Jesus is magical, and thus the source of goodies, something for nothing. We are either spectators of His marvels, and are being entertained by them, or we are the recipients of His gifts of healing or whatever. For the time being, He wins our approval, as if we were the critics whom He had to impress. The Jerusalem crowd, as is true perhaps of all crowds, is very superficial and completely misses the significance of who Jesus is.

Some scholars think that the word “Jew” in the Gospel according to John means Judean. John does not call the Galileans Jews even though they are Jews in the familiar sense of the word. Luke in the Acts of the Apostles also uses the word “Jew” in a narrow sense to refer to the zealous, the Judaizers who wanted to enforce a separation between Jews and Gentiles. We should try to be sensitive to these nuances. In any case, the word “Jew” in the Gospel according to John, at least in most cases, cannot mean Jew as opposed to Gentile but seems to have a narrower sense.

They believe into His name—whatever that means—but Jesus does not entrust Himself to them. He impresses them, but they do not impress Him: “for He knew all men” and “knew what was in man.” He knows that His “fame” can turn at any moment. The believed, but they did not really. He was the Light of life that sheds light on every man (i.e., every human being) who comes into the world, but what was in man, as we shall see, is darkness (verses 19-20). They do not want the Light, and if Jesus threatens to expose them, they will hate Him.

But Nicodemus was an exception, and later on he will be numbered among the believers. He defends Jesus in John 7:50. He was a learned man, a member of the Pharisees and a member of the council (the Sanhedrin). He and the rich man Joseph of Arimathea, both members of the Jerusalem elite, requested, dressed and buried the Body of Jesus after His death (John 19:38-42). By that time both men were disciples of Jesus, but—on account of their position—hidden ones “for fear of the Jews.”

Nicodemus was not content to just be in the crowd. He wanted to talk to Jesus, to find out more about Him, to get it from Jesus firsthand. He went to Jesus by night, perhaps out of fear, but he nevertheless sought Him out.

Are we simply part of the crowd, or do we seek Jesus out? Are we willing to go to Him ourselves and find out firsthand, or are we content with the secondhand accounts of others? If we were to seek out Jesus today, how would we go about it? Might it not be through the gospels themselves, read against the background of the other Scriptures (which they assume), and through prayer—a prayerful reading of them? The Gospel according to John shows us that this is precisely how we can know Jesus firsthand—the Holy Spirit using the Word to bring us into Jesus’ real presence.

(This is not apart from baptism and supper. Both are pervasive in the Gospel according to John, but also kept below the surface. The gospel recounts neither Jesus’ baptism nor the last supper, though it assumes and implies both. It is through the Word and Spirit that these have their “mysterious”—sacramental—significance. The “mystery” refers to the real presence of Christ in and among us.)

You Must Be Born of the Spirit (3:3-6)

Jesus is very abrupt with Nicodemus and comes right to the point. You must be born anew, Jesus tells him, the word “anew” also meaning “from above.” Without this new birth, no one can see the Kingdom of God.

Nicodemus demands an explanation, teasing it out of Jesus by giving a mundane interpretation of His words. Jesus then says that a person must be born of water and the Spirit if he or she would enter the Kingdom of God. Apparently “seeing” the Kingdom of God is the same as entering it. We cannot “see” it, that is, have it inwardly revealed to us, unless we enter. There is no real perception of it without an existential participation in it. The Kingdom of God is not something that can be known objectively, say by merely studying it. If you want to study it, you will never come to understand it unless you have entered it. To enter the Kingdom of God is to enter that sphere where God is overcoming that which opposes and resists Him. It is to come under the government of God in this sense, not simply in the sense of God’s sovereign providence over all things.

The Kingdom of God is thus an eschatological term referring to the time when the Messiah comes and overturns the old age and institutes a new age, the age when God fulfills His promises in faithfulness to His prophetic word to the patriarchs and prophets. It is the time of hope to which all the prophets of Israel pointed.

But what does Jesus mean by “born of water and the Spirit”? People’s countless speculations have made this seem complicated but it really is not. Contextually the meaning is obvious. John baptizes in water; the One who is coming baptizes in the Holy Spirit. Baptism in water signifies repentance. Baptism in the Spirit signifies the indwelling of the Spirit (the anointing Spirit came on Pentecost as a seal of the indwelling Spirit that was breathed into the disciples on Easter, just as the Spirit that anointed Jesus at His baptism sealed Him as the One in whom the Spirit dwelt).

These are not two births but the two aspects of the one birth. The regeneration of the Holy Spirit that Jesus brings accompanies the repentance that John preached. Repentance is primarily negative, the termination of the old life; regeneration is primarily positive, the germination of the new life. R & R: repentance and regeneration, water and the Spirit.

To become a disciple of Jesus does not only mean receiving Jesus. It means giving up the former center of one’s life. One must turn away from that former center, renounce and deny it. The heart has to change; or rather the object of the heart has to change. Otherwise, there has been no new birth. Conversion is not as simple as signing a card, raising one’s hand, or coming up for an altar call. It may happen on such an occasion, but it is just as likely to not happen. Conversion has not taken place until the heart has turned—permanently. This does not mean that one’s life has instantly become that of a fully developed disciple—that is a long and arduous journey, a journey that only begins with conversion. There will be many times of defeat and despair, when there seems to be no progress at all, but rather regress. The routes each of us must follow to get at our own truth (the knowledge of ourselves) can seem like that. But the question here is the direction of the heart, its object. One is not born again until Christ becomes the object of one’s heart.

Once the heart has changed, truly changed, that person can never again be comfortable in the world; they will be gloriously comfortable in the creation, but not in the world. It will become alien to them as they to it. Nor will they ever again be comfortable with themselves, their false self. But they will begin to recognize that which is authentic, that which is not false, even if their glimpses of it are ever so brief.

When Jesus says that one must be born again, He is not just speaking metaphorically. He does not mean that you must turn a new leaf, or make a major change in your life. We are all too quick to go in the direction of the practical or the moral. If we change how we act, how we live, how we believe—that is the new birth; we are like a different person. But that is not what Jesus means. These all constitute the “flesh.” “That which is born of the flesh is [still] flesh.” If the source is ourselves, it is just more of the same, no matter how different it looks.

No. The new birth is a birth from above, from a source outside of ourselves—at least outside of our souls and the constructed self. “That which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” The new birth is a birth from God in which God is both seed and womb, Father and Mother. “As many as received [Christ], to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe into His name, who were born—not of bloods, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of an adult male, but—of God.” Gentile believers in Christ are adopted into the tree of Abraham, this is true. But we are not adopted children of God, at least not in the sense that the English word has. We are genetically born of God, not adopted. The word translated “adoption” means “sonship.” We are born by the Word (as seed) and Spirit (as the germination of the seed). We are born of God when the Holy Spirit enters our spirit, and our spirit, formerly dead in relation to God, becomes alive (Romans 8:14-16).

When the Holy Spirit enters our spirit, the two become as one (1 Corinthians 6:17). The human spirit wakes up, not in an ordinary sense but as if rising from the dead. It wakes up but it is not simply a human spirit any more. It now participates in the divine Spirit, and the two can no longer simply be distinguished as if they are separate. They can be distinguished, yes, but they are no longer separable or divisible from each other. Though yes, the Holy Spirit hypostatically is always independent of us. What is inseparable is the energy of the Holy Spirit (which, however, cannot be separated from the Holy Spirit as a hypostasis) which is “lent” to us. It is not subject to our manipulation as if we “possessed” it. We are divinized, in other words, but we do not become divine ourselves, as if we were God in addition to God. We participate in divinity by grace. It is not a possession of our self. Nevertheless! By this participation we are born from above—we become a new creation—in Christ. The birth is real, but it is the birth of a life in us that is uncreated, “begotten, not made,” without beginning or end, eternal. We are born of God, and as such we are not our own.

The Fulfillment of the Scriptures (3:7-12)

Interpreters like to say that Jesus, by speaking in this way, is terminating Judaism. The religion of the Torah is over. They set that which is new against the old as if the relationship were adversarial. This is not so! When they do this, their Gentile anti-Semitic tendency is exposed. Jesus tells Nicodemus not to marvel precisely because Nicodemus is a Pharisee and should know better. “You are a teacher of Israel and you do not know these things?” These are things that the Pharisees should readily understand. They are not antagonistic to a Jewish understanding of the Torah and the Prophets.

The prophets, relying on the revelation of the Torah, spoke of the last days when the Spirit would be poured out and God would change their hearts of stone into hearts of flesh, and put a new spirit within them. When He put His Spirit within them, they would have a new heart and a new spirit (see Ezekiel 11:19 and 36:26-27). In one way or another, this recurs throughout the prophetic writings. This was not the end of Judaism but its fulfillment by the coming of the Messiah. This is why Nicodemus should understand these things. Maybe what Nicodemus was not prepared for was that the Messiah had come! He was here. Jesus was the fulfillment of the prophets.

When Jesus speaks of “we” in verse 11 He is speaking of Himself and John the Baptist and probably of all the prophets. The “you” is plural and does not mean specifically Nicodemus but rather you Jews, perhaps the ones in 2:23-25. “He came to His own, yet those who were His own did not receive Him” (1:11). His own refers in particular to those of Judea.

In verse 12 Jesus contrasts the “things on earth” with the “things in heaven.” Perhaps this refers to the earthly fulfillment of the promises to Israel, which Jesus did also speak of—approvingly!—especially in the synoptic gospels, compared to their inner fulfillment which is the particular focus of the Gospel according to John. The earthly fulfillment even includes the restoration of the land of Israel to the Jews (or rather, all Israel). But the heavenly fulfillment corresponds to the work of the Holy Spirit, which in this age takes place in Christ’s church among the Jews and Gentiles who believe into Him now.

By the Death of the Messiah (3:13-16)

Verse 13 speaks of Jesus’ incarnation as the Son of Man from heaven. Even as He speaks to Nicodemus He is in heaven, for He and the Spirit of God mutually dwell in each other. The Son of Man is the glorious figure of the end time in Daniel 7:13 to whom the Kingdom of God is given when the kingdoms of the world are defeated. Jesus could not have appeared to be this One. But He who will ascend into heaven as the Son of Man is He who has first descended out of heaven.

He descended out of heaven—that is, He emptied Himself and took on the form of a slave and humbled Himself—in order to be lifted up on the cross, just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness. Thus God “gave His only begotten Son.” The Son of Man is none other than the Son of God, but this Son must first be given up to the death of the cross. The bronze serpent in the wilderness was lifted up on a pole or standard so that everyone who looked at it would be healed of their snake-bites. Bronze is symbolic of judgment throughout the Scriptures. The serpent reminds us of the serpent in Eden, who is the devil (Revelation 12:9). The entire history of humanity grows out of that “snake-bite” in which we ate of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. They—we—perish from this bite. The Son of Man is lifted up on the tree to bear our judgment, so that the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil becomes the Tree of Life that was in the center of Eden. Humanity has been eating of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil ever since it left Eden, but when it left Eden, the way to the Tree of Life was barred. Through Christ the way to the Tree of Life is once again open. Adam and Eve never ate of the fruit of this tree, but the fruit is now available for those who would approach Christ.

Everyone who believes into Christ (verse 16) may have eternal life in Him (verse 15). Those bitten by the serpent will perish, but those who eat of the Tree of Life will be cured of the snake-bite. Not only will they be cured—for that just means that the affect of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil is undone—but they will receive in addition the gift of eternal life, the fruit of the Tree of Life—which Adam and Eve never ate.

Eternal life refers not only to the enjoyment of eternal life in the age to come but to a present possession (or, rather, participation). Eternal life sometimes is translated as everlasting life but it is not the same as endless (immortal) life. It is the divine life without beginning or end. It does not know time as such, for the past and the future exist in the present moment. Eternity only knows this kind of inclusive present. It is the mode of God. Eternal life is God’s sharing His own life with us. This eternal life that is given to us is none other than the Spirit who regenerates and indwells us. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of life, and it is by the Holy Spirit that we participate in the life and eternity of God.

It is by Christ’s own possession of the eternal life of God that He overcomes death, and it is by our sharing in the same life through Him that we too will overcome death and be resurrected like Him—but on the “last day.” As Christ’s possession of eternal life enabled Him to rise physically from the dead—though the physical is no longer just physical—so we too will be raised bodily from the dead.

The emphasis here, however, is on the inward possession of eternal life—which is the Holy Spirit in us—which has caused us to be born of God. When Jesus rose from the dead, He breathed into His disciples and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (20:22). The Holy Spirit was released by the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Thus “God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, according to His great mercy, has regenerated us unto a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Peter 1:3).

The Light and the Darkness (3:17-21)

Inasmuch as we have been bitten by the serpent of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, which is a symbolic way of speaking of the alienation of our soul from God and its consequent construction of a false self in opposition to God together with a whole “world” that attempts to seal itself off from God, inasmuch as this afflicts us, we are all condemned without having to do anything else. This condemnation is not something additional to what we are doing to ourselves. It is simply the abandonment of the divine nature, when it allows us to suffer the logical consequence of our choice. We are condemned already, though we only have a foretaste of that choice as of yet.

Jesus speaks here of this choice leaving us in darkness and in fear of the light. The light exposes our judgment—which is utter abandonment by the source of life. What could be more fearsome? Yet the light is also the cure for that judgment. It is not God’s intention to abandon us. It is not what God wants. It is our choice, a choice God must overcome in order to save us. God must overcome our resistance to His grace. It is not as though God has two wills: on the one hand He wants to condemn us and on the other He wants to show mercy. God’s nature condemns us but it is God’s desire to save us. God saves us by bearing the judgment on our human nature of His own abandonment—Christ does this, and the Father suffers in Him and with Him. By faith in Christ, our resistance to God’s grace is overcome. Our fear of God’s condemnation is absorbed when we behold the Lamb of God, the bronze serpent “lifted up” on the cross. When we see that Christ bears our judgment, our fear of that judgment is overcome—although for all our days thereafter we will have a dreadful respect for that judgment. Our distrust of God will become trust as we begin to recognize the immensity of God’s incomprehensible love for us.

“Behold the Lamb of God!” This is the call of faith. “Come and see,” we say to each other. By looking upon Christ in the Gospel our faith is awakened. Unknown to us, the Holy Spirit is at work upon our spirit awakening our inner sense, enabling us to see the truth of this. When the Holy Spirit regenerates our spirit, our heart turns and faith is born.

2 comments to John 2:23—3:21, The New Birth

  • Robert Hagedorn

    But what IS the tree of knowledge of good and evil? Do a search: The First Scandal.

  • Peter

    Robert, thank you for your comment. I read your series, and am inclined to disagree. Your proposal does not seem to be connected to the rest of the Biblical story, which would be essential for a story as significant as that of the expulsion from Eden. It is not spiritually fecund, but seems rather to issue from the narrow focus of contemporary obsessions.
    The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil represents in my view the soul’s attempt to construct itself (or to allow itself to be constructed) as if it were independent of spirit. Period. It is probably the origin of the primal dualism of the insular self.

Leave a Reply