there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus
a ruler of the Jews.
the same came to Jesus by night,
and said unto him,
"Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God
for no man can do these miracles that thou doest
except God be with him"
Jesus answered and said unto him,
"Verily, verily, I say unto thee,
Except a man be born again,
he cannot see the kingdom of God"
An eminent Jew comes to Jesus "by night" to ask him questions. The pharisee, Nicodemus, speaks in prose: Jesus speaks in a kind of mystical poetry. The answers don't seem to have much to do with the questions: that's one thing John's Jesus definitely has in common with Mark's version. It isn't clear which sections of the text ought to be printed in black and which sections ought to be printed in red. Are all the poetic bits supposed to be words which Jesus actually spoke? Or are some of them commentary: things which the narrator, "John" is telling us about Jesus? And isn't it more than a little suspicious that it is so hard to tell one from the other?
Nicodemus thinks Jesus is a prophet because of all the miracles he has been doing. But John has, in fact, only mentioned one miracle at this stage: a private one, at a wedding, in Galilee, to which Judean pharisees were presumably not invited.
So: John's listeners can't be hearing this story for the first time. They already know of Jesus as a miracle-worker; they take it for granted that it he has been doing miracles "off-stage" and that learned Pharisees would be expected to have heard of them.
Nicodemus's word for miracle, incidentally, is semeion, "a sign", where Mark generally uses dunamis "a (work of) power".
Nicodemus says that Jesus must have come from God and that God must be with him with him. Jesus answer seems to contradict him. You say that I am a teacher sent from God; you say that I am a miracle worker because God is with me. But you are mistaken. No mere teacher can be said to have been sent from God and no mere man can be said to have God with him. The Kingdom of God is something which no human can see. He says "no man has the power to see it".
No human being can perceive the reign of God. Unless...
Unless that person has been "born from above"; "born all over again".
Even if you have never heard of Nicodemus, you know that Christians have a thing about being born again. People used to talk about "born-again-Christians" as if they were a specific sub-class. The term doesn't seem to have existed before 1970, but by 1980, being a bornagainChristian was the in-thing. When I first came across the expression, I took it to mean a person who was raised in a Christian community, fell away from his faith, but re-embraced it as an adult, at a deeper and more committed level. Copywriters took it to mean "with a renewed interest in": he's a born again comic book reader, a born again whiskey drinker. A lot of people simply used it to mean "a religious person who makes a great deal of fuss about it." Catholics are devout; protestants are staunch; Christians are born again. Jews are observant. I don't know what Muslims are: fanatical, I suppose. When Cliff Richard told one of his musical associates that he was a born again Christian they replied "So what? I'm a born again Jew -- bubala."
But this is clearly not what John means. On no possible view is Jesus telling Nicodemus to re-embrace his faith at a more committed level.
William Blake mentions the story of Nicodemus in his rambling poem the Everlasting Gospel. He takes John to be contrasting Jesus's anarchic spirituality with that of the rule-bound Pharisee. He puts John's story alongside Luke's about the boy Jesus disobeying his parents. See how much Jesus cared about rule-following?
When the rich learned pharisee
Came to consult him secretly
Upon his heart with iron pen
He wrote Ye Must Be Born Again.
I don't know where the "iron pen" came from. I suppose not that many things rhyme with Again. Not many things rhyme with Jesus, either: Blake is one of only two poets I can think of to go with "please us". [*]
Nicodemus saith unto him,
"How can a man be born when he is old?
Can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb
and be born?"
"Verily, verily, I say unto thee,
except a man be born of water and of the Spirit,
he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.
That which is born of the flesh is flesh;
and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.
Marvel not that I said unto thee,
Ye must be born again."
"Marvel not." Don't be surprised. I haven't said anything very remarkable.
Nicodemus doesn't know what Jesus means. He double-checks that he isn't talking literally. "A person can't go back into his Mummy's tummy, can he?" This happens a lot in John: Jesus says something obscure and esoteric, and his listeners take him grotesquely literally.
Jesus seems, at some level, to be talking about baptism. Mark's John the Baptist said that he baptised with water; but that his successor would baptise with the holy spirit. (Matthew says "with the holy spirit and fire".) I think we are supposed to remember this when Jesus talks about being born of water and the spirit.
But John the Baptist's baptism was about washing: a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Jesus appears to be talking about procreation: to perceive the rule of God you need to be born of water and spirit. Evangelical Christians do tend to see baptism in this way: initiation, rebirth -- being born-again. That is why they prefer total-immersion to sprinkling. Being pushed under the water and coming up out of it works pretty well as a birth-symbol; sprinkling water on someone's head feels much more like cleaning all the bad stuff away. But maybe "getting spiritually cleaned up" and "being born all over again" are different ways of saying the same thing?
John's Jesus doesn't seem to be particularly interested in cleaning Nicodemus up; he doesn't talk about his sins. He seems to be saying that there are, or are going to be, two distinct kinds of human: the ones made of flesh (because their mothers were made of flesh) and the ones made of spirit (because their mothers were made of spirit). And only these spirit children can see, or perceive, or understand this thing called the kingdom, or reign, of God. Perhaps when Nicodemus goes for the literal, physical, and rather silly meaning of "born again" as opposed to a deeper, metaphysical, spiritual one is what shows that he can't yet perceive God's kingdom?
"The wind bloweth where it listeth
and thou hearest the sound thereof
but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth:
so is every one that is born of the Spirit."
The same Greek word, we have to keep reminding ourselves, does for air, breath, spirit and wind. It is astonishingly unhelpful of our Bibles to translate pneumas as "wind" at the beginning of the sentence and "spirit" at the end: because it introduces an unnecessary non-sequitur into the saying. The wind blows where it wants: that's what people whose parents are the wind are like. The spirit breathes where it wants: that's what people whose parents are the spirit are like.
Mark's Jesus talked in parables. The kingdom of heaven is like a careless farmer throwing seeds around without caring where they land. And it's also like a man who dropped seeds outside his house and was surprised when plants appeared. And it's also like mighty giant redwoods growing out of tiny, powdery seeds. The disciples don't always grok the meaning, but they understand that they are parables. They never say "So you want us to quit fishing and go into agriculture?"
John's Jesus certainly uses figures of speech: but they work quite differently from Mark's parables. You could imagine something called the Parable of the Air: "The Kingdom of God is like this: a man heard the wind blowing around -- but he didn't know where it had come from or where it was going." But it would be quite a different thing from what Jesus actually says to Nicodemus. He isn't drawing an analogy: "The children of the spirit are in this one particular respect like the wind". He isn't using the the wind as a teaching aid, an illustration -- "if you want to get your head round the idea of the children of the spirit, then thinking about the wind might help you." He isn't painting a grotesque and exaggerated picture so the message sticks in the listener's mind. He seems to be pointing out a connection which really exists; showing how things actually are. Looking through a physical phenomenon and seeing an eternal truth behind it.
Of course the spirit-children are wind-like. That's their nature.
C.S. Lewis's friend Owen Barfield thought that the linguistic unity of pneumas pointed to a conceptual unity. There was a time when humans perceived breath as being the same as air and air as being the same as spirit. So pneumas doesn't sometimes mean breath and sometimes mean spirit: it always means breath-air-spirit-wind. The breath-air-spirit-wind blows where it chooses: that's what it's like for people whose parents are the spirit-wind-air-breath. Flesh gives birth to flesh; breath-wind-air-spirit gives birth to breath-wind-air-spirit. Unless you are born of water and breath-air-wind-spirit you can't perceive God.
What are people whose mothers are the spirit, the air, the breath like?
The answer, my friends....
Nicodemus answered and said unto him,
"How can these things be?"
Jesus answered and said unto him,
"Art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not these things?
Verily, verily, I say unto thee
We speak that we do know,
and testify that we have seen;
and ye receive not our witness.
If I have told you earthly things,
and ye believe not,
how shall ye believe,
if I tell you of heavenly things?
And no man hath ascended up to heaven,
but he that came down from heaven,
even the Son of man which is in heaven."
"How can these things happen?" asks Nicodemus: how do these things have the power (that word again) to be done. These things must refer to what Jesus has been talking about in the previous paragraph. How can people possibly be born all over again? How can people possibly become children of the spirit with the attributes of the wind?
I find these verses quite perplexing. It isn't clear in what sense Jesus has told Nicodemus, or anyone else, of purely terrestrial matters; and it isn't clear in what sense Nicodemus has not believed them. It would make more sense to say "I have spoken of heavenly things and you crassly assumed I was talking about earthly things." And that isn't what he says. It is hard to understand why Jesus is surprised by Nicodemus's incredulity. All this talk of rebirth and spiritual children is, on any view, highly esoteric and novel: can Jesus really be implying that a learned Pharisee ought to know it already?
The clue may possibly be in the fact that the first "ye" is plural: the New International Version helpfully renders it as "you people". "WE speak of what we know and testify to what WE have seen, but YOU PEOPLE do not hear our message." My first thought is that Jesus is treating Nicodemus as representative of the Pharisees, or of the Judeans in general. This knowledge is available, in your scriptures, but you Pharisees have been entirely unable to perceive the deeper meaning. But the logic of the passage makes me think that "we" refers to "we children of the spirit" and "you people" refers to "you children of the flesh." Jesus is not saying "Come on, you're a teacher, you should know this stuff already." It's more like "No; you flesh children don't understand this stuff. Only we spirit children can understand it." There is an earthly, fleshly way of understanding things; and you haven't even grasped that properly; so when I tell you the deeper, heavenly truths they are going to blow your mind.
I think Jesus must be saying something along these lines. Because in answer to Nicodemus actual question he takes an obscure passage in the book of Numbers and reveals that it has a hidden meaning.
"and as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness
even so must the Son of Man be lifted up
that whosoever believeth in him should not perish
but have eternal life"
The Isrealites are wandering in the Wilderness. They have fallen out with God, again. God is cross with them, again. He sends a plague of snakes to wipe them out, again. YHWH spends a lot of the first five books of the Bible nearly wiping out the chosen people. To smooth things over, Moses makes a big metal snake and hangs it on a pole. As one does. He declares that people who look at the toy snake will be cured of snake bite.
It sounds worryingly like sympathetic magic: the kind of thing Pharoah's wizards would have got up to. Some seven hundred years later the snake itself was destroyed by King Hezekiah when he rediscovered the Torah, and banned idol worship. Apparently some people had been worshiping it. These Jews, eh?
So: the magic snake-bite curing snake is, at some level, Jesus. (He says Son of Man, but I don't think that we can be in any doubt that son-of-the-human is an oblique way of talking about himself.) Specifically, the act of looking at the snake is like the act of believing in Jesus. People who looked at the snake didn't die of snakebite. People who believe in Jesus don't die, full stop.
Mark gradually reveals a Messianic Secret. Jesus talks about kingdom, and the Gospel, and the Son of Man, and leaves us surprised and confused when his tomb seems to be empty. John lays Jesus Unique Selling Point on the first page. Clergyman love to tell us that "eternal life" is something spiritual, that "eternal" describes the quality of life, not its duration. But King James was right to go with "everlasting". What people who believe in the raised up Son of Man get is zoen aionion: life-perpetual.
Step right up, folks. Believe in Jesus and you will live forever.
The "lifting up" of the bronze snake -- putting it on a pole -- is meant to make us think of the "lifting up" of Jesus -- putting him on a cross. You occasionally see religious paintings of crucified serpents for that reason. But it also means "lifted up" in the sense of "exalted" and "set on high". It is quite possible to push the allegory further. The Israelites disobedience to God in the desert represents Adam and Eve's disobedience to God in the Garden of Eden. The deadly snakes represent the punishment meted out on Adam. Mortality: lost access to the Tree of Life. So looking at Jesus on the cross represents the removal of the consequences of Adam's sin. The snake itself doesn't excuse the Israelites bad behaviour. But being sorry doesn't remove the consequence. First the Israelites repent; then Moses exalts the bronze artwork to defang the real snakes.
But I should be inclined to keep things simpler than that. The snake and Jesus are both examples of amazing supernatural saving-things. The original question was "What does it mean to be born again? How on earth can someone become a child of the Spirit." And the answer seems to be "Remember the story about how Moses saved all the people who were dying of poison with a magic snake? That's how."
And then comes the biggie. It isn't clear if Jesus is speaking, or if John is amplifying what he just said. And it probably doesn't matter very much, either.
for God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son
that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life
for God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world
but that the world through him might be saved.
Blake: "Had he been anti-Christ, aping Jesus, he'd have done anything to please us."
Leon Rosselson: "Why don't you sing something to please us, nothing nasty about Jesus".