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John 3:1-17

We hate ambiguity. We really hate it. Ambiguity is messy, frightening even. We like certainty. Black and white. It’s part of the reason America has become so polarized over politics. We want surety, on one side or the other, not questions, not shades of gray. Unfortunately, that’s not always the way the world works. Sometimes life is a paradox. We can both love something and hate it; things can be both good and bad. Often the truth doesn’t lie on one side or the other, but somewhere in the middle. And sometimes two contradictory things can be true at once. This complexity is also true of God’s Kingdom. The author of the Gospel of John understood this, and it is nowhere made clearer than in this passage.

There’s a lot that we could focus on in this relatively long passage, which includes perhaps the most well-known verse in the entire Bible (3:16). But at the heart of the passage is a significant ambiguity, or misunderstanding. And unravelling this misunderstanding is crucial to discerning Jesus’ (and John’s) meaning here.

The misunderstanding occurs in vv. 3-5: “Jesus replied, ‘Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.’ ‘How can someone be born when they are old?’ Nicodemus asked. ‘Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!’

Jesus answered, ‘Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit’” (NIV).

The ambiguity here takes place on two levels. The first is obvious, and it’s the one Nicodemus recognizes right away. Jesus seems to be saying that a person must be “born” a second time. Interpreting th