What makes us human? I don’t propose this as a philosophical question, or one that seeks to explore the depth of meaning in human existence. Rather, on the most basic of levels, what makes us human as opposed to, say, a cat or an elephant? Most fundamentally we are human because we were conceived of a human father and mother, and birthed by that human mother. If we had been birthed by an elephant or a cat, we would be an elephant or a cat respectively, because like gives birth to like. It’s an elemental law of nature.
In John 3:1-17, Nicodemus, the member of the Jewish ruling council who comes to see Jesus at night, starts with this assumption, but reverses it: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him” (v. 2). It appears he has witnessed or heard about some of Jesus’ “signs” (perhaps the one at the Wedding at Cana in the previous chapter) and wants to know what Jesus’ “secret” is. He thinks he knows, but wants to hear it from Jesus himself because it is such an unusual, even unbelievable, prospect.
His logic goes like this: if someone looks like (or acts like) someone else, they must naturally be “born of” or “come from” that person. Jesus is doing “God-like” things, and therefore Jesus must have come from God. But Nicodemus is puzzled about about how this could be. A humble itinerant rabbi was hardly the form that Jewish teachers and scholars expected Yahweh to take when he came.
Jesus instantly grasps the underlying assumption of Nicodemus’ statement and indirectly affirms his belief that he has come from God by using a human metaphor: “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again [or “from above”]” (v. 3).
In other words, Nicodemus is correct in assuming that Jesus comes from the Father. Just as the child in a physical birth resembles his or her parents, Jesus resembles his Father (who is “above”).
Note that Nicodemus doesn’t initially ask Jesus anything. I think we often assume that he did–that he asked how he could become born of God, or how Jesus could do such signs. But no. He makes a simple statement of faith in WHO JESUS IS, that is, one who has come from (or is “born of”) the Father. And that sets Jesus off on a discourse about Spiritual birth, comparing it with human or physical birth.
But what does being “born of the Spirit” mean exactly? It means those born by the Spirit are one with the Spirit in the same way all humans are one together. All children of human parents are humans, and all children of the Spirit have the characteristics of the Spirit–they “look” like the Spirit, just as human children look like their parents. This is what Jesus means by being “born from above” (or “born again”; the word can be translated either way). The ideas are parallel, not contrasting, as interpreters often suggest. One need not choose one of these meanings over the other. Rather John intends them to be understood together: Being born of the Spirit IS being born “from above,” and being “born from above” is best understood through the metaphor of human birth.
But, when Nicodemus fails to catch all of this (v. 4), Jesus takes things a step further: “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit” (v. 5). There has been much commentary through the centuries on this verse, discussing the exact meaning of being born of “water and the Spirit.” But the best way to understand this phrase is within the context of this passage itself. Jesus here is engaging in a standard Jewish literary and rhetorical technique: parallelism–or repetition designed for emphasis. He’s not saying two different things in these verses, but rather he says the same thing in two different ways, in an attempt to help Nicodemus understand.
Therefore, being born “again” or “from above” in v. 3 is equated somehow to the idea of being born of water and Spirit in v. 5. Centuries of interpreters have seen in v. 5 a reference to baptism. This makes sense as in John 1 we saw the Spirit descend as a dove on Jesus at the moment of his water baptism by John (vv. 32-34). This use of a human metaphor to explain something about Jesus, God or the kingdom is a very typical Johannine device, one that replaces parables in the Gospel (e.g., 6:35; 8:12; 10:7, 11; 15:1). But, why does Jesus (and John) choose the metaphor of birth to describe this dynamic? Why didn’t he say you must be “cleansed” by water and the Spirit, or just outright say “you must be baptized in water through the Spirit”? Jesus partly answers this question for us in his later statement to Nicodemus: “I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things?” (v. 12). Jesus knows that the way to human understanding of heavenly realities is by relationship with a tangible earthly reality that humans can wrap their heads around.
But even more to the point, I believe Jesus specifically chooses the verb “born” to describe this new reality because this metaphor best captures the NATURE of life in the Spirit–it is a restart, everything is made new again, and as a result people become “like” their parent (God) and one with him in nature. I think we so often focus on the being born “again” part of this passage, or on the meaning of “water and the Spirit,” that we miss this bigger point: being born of the Spirit means becoming LIKE the Spirit, in the same way that Jesus has demonstrated he is LIKE his Father Yahweh.
I think it is not coincidental that Nicodemus is said to be a Pharisee (v. 1), someone whose entire existence was bound up in strict faithful obedience to the word of the law. Jesus is not addressing an unreligious pagan who is in need of conversion; Nicodemus already believes in the way of Yahweh. What Jesus wants him to understand is that true religion goes far beyond the keeping or rules or devout practices. It is not just a new start (which I think is what we often mean by being “born again”). Rather, it demands a complete change of nature and orientation towards life so that we become one in nature with the Spirit, and, like Jesus, born “from above,” a participant in the heavenly reality even while still here on earth.