There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
“Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
How in the world is one born from above? The King James version is more familiar to most of us, using the term, “born again.” The Greek can mean both, and in this case, I believe that both meanings are intended: born again/from above as two ways of saying the same thing.
Of course, when you start talking like that you sound like some guru saying contradictory things, trying to push you to the edge of a new and greater way of seeing the world. I believe that is exactly what Jesus intends here. Nicodemus has all the right answers—except for one. He could not square Jesus’ teaching with Jesus’ actions. Jesus’ actions to a 1st century Jew were proof positive that Jesus was from God. As a teacher, however, Jesus wasn’t one of the Temple authorities. So, who is this Jesus, anyway? I think all of that was behind his simple, complementary opening line.
And Jesus answers with, “You must be born again/from above.” This does not refer to praying the Sinner’s Prayer with a pastor and knowing yourself to be one possessed of a ticket to heaven. This is exactly the precipice of faith—a new and greater way of understanding the world. The end is the clincher: God sent Jesus to love, not condemn. The kingdom is not earned, it is granted. During this season of Lent, one of the hardest things to give up is the desire to earn God’s forgiveness by our disciplines rather than use our disciplines to open ourselves to the gift of acceptance already given.
the Rev. Paul Moore
Priest at St. Paul’s (email)