Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus in John 3 is an intriguing, but cryptic dialogue. One of the most important decisions one must make in seeking to understand the conversation regards the tone of the dialogue. Is Jesus’ rebuking Nicodemus? Or is His tone more supportive?
In the past I have, rather uncritically, assumed that Jesus’ tone is confrontational and challenging. Nicodemus is, after all, a Pharisee; and the Pharisees are the bad guys in the New Testament. My conclusion, however, was overly hasty. The encounter makes more sense if we read Jesus’ tone as encouraging and supportive rather than challenging. And Jesus’ general attitude toward Pharisees does not contradict this. He did not set Himself in opposition to individual Pharisees; He set Himself in opposition to the institutionalized culture of Phariseeism and everything it embodied. Luke tells us that, in the end, many Pharisees came to believe in Jesus. And we know from the Gospel accounts that Nicodemus was one of them. At one point Nicodemus courageously attempts to defend Jesus before the other chief priests and Pharisees (John 7:51-52); and later he took responsibility, along with Joseph of Arimethea, for burying Jesus’ body (John 19: 39). While formerly I had taken Jesus’ initial response to Nicodemus as a rather rude interruption, a complete dismissal of what Nicodemus had come to ask, on further reflection, I think something else is going on.
Nicodemus begins with “Rabbi, we know that You have come from God as a teacher; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him” (John 3:2, NASV). If we take what Nicodemus says at face value, his statement clearly reveals how Nicodemus is responding to the life, deeds, and ministry of this man Jesus. While the vast majority of the Jews in Nicodemus’s generation are acting dumb to the implications of what they are seeing and hearing, Nicodemus has concluded that Jesus is unmistakably “from God.” When Jesus responds to Nicodemus, then, He is not rudely interrupting Nicodemus—as if He understands Nicodemus’s words to be purely empty praise and manipulative hypocrisy. Rather, Jesus responds to the fact that Nicodemus has shown himself to be a rare and unusual man—one whose eyes are being opened to the truth of Jesus’ identity.
Jesus’ responds to Nicodemus with “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born from above, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:2).1 One good way to understand Jesus’ response here is to see Him instructing Nicodemus on the significance of what He Himself can see to be transpiring in Nicodemus’s spirit—namely, Nicodemus is being “born from above”—that is, “born from God.” Accordingly, he is among those who will enter the kingdom of God.
As Jesus means it, the metaphor of being born is more about the question of birthright than it is about the intense experience of childbirth. Our modern talk about a “born again” experience does not capture what is of interest to Jesus here. He is not speaking of having an experience; He is speaking of a certain sort of evidence that one is a child of God. To be “born from above” is to have a birthright that qualifies one to enter into the Kingdom of God—and that birthright is given and imparted directly from God Himself through the work of His Spirit in the spirit of the person whom He has chosen. Accordingly, it is as if Jesus is saying to Nicodemus, “You are being granted entrance into the Kingdom of God. I know that is the case; for, in your openness to see the truth about who I am, God is writing on your heart the evidence that He is granting you a birthright as His chosen child. You are among those who will enter the kingdom of God, for you are being born from above.”
Jesus’ claim is profoundly radical at this time and place in history. Pharisaical Judaism understood one’s birthright to derive from one’s physical birth. If one had Jewish parents, then he was a Jew, born into the people of God, the people destined to populate the Kingdom of God when that arrived. Granted, Phariseeism believed that a person could forfeit his birthright. If a Jew did not “keep” the Law and live faithfully as a Jew (as Phariseeism interpreted “living faithfully”), then he would forfeit his inheritance in the Kingdom of God. But the initial basis of his birthright was his physical lineage.2 Being born a Jew gave a person a birthright that was only his to lose.
Jesus is offering a radically different understanding of who will enter into the Kingdom of God. The primary basis for being granted entrance into the Kingdom of God is the inward, subjective condition that results from being “born from above.” This is what Jesus is getting at when he says, “That which is born of flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:6, NASV). The significance of being born of Jewish parents is trivial; it only signifies that one is physically related to the people to whom God chose to make His promises. The true evidence that one is a child of God—destined for the Kingdom of God—is the utterly inward evidence of a spirit transformed by the working of God’s Spirit.3 Mere outward Law-keeping does not make one a true child of God; the true child of God is one whose spirit has been made receptive to God and all that God represents—to His truth, to His righteousness, to His goodness, and to everything else that concerns Him.
From our contemporary standpoint, the most interesting thing Jesus tells Nicodemus is “The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is every one who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8, NASV). Jesus’ point is this: from the human standpoint, the transforming work of God in our lives is mysterious and unanalyzable because it results from the activity of the transcendent Creator transforming us from the inside. God’s transforming work does not follow predictable, law-like patterns. It is not something like the laws of nature that we can control and use. God—like the wind—blows wherever He wills.
Of all that Jesus tells Nicodemus, this assertion is the one that most challenges us today in the modern American church. We are a culture given over to what Jacques Ellul has called “technique.” We assume that we can reduce to some step-by-step mechanical method anything we need to know, to learn, to do, or to make. This inbred cultural assumption is false, of course. Many things are done or accomplished by means of skill, and skill cannot be reduced to a step-by-step mechanical method. A paint-by-numbers reproduction of a Rembrandt is not a Rembrandt. But we are intractably committed to the false vision of technique, sometimes to the point of absurdity. I remember seeing the following “directions” on a small bag of airline peanuts: “Step One: Open bag. Step Two: Eat peanuts.” I don’t think the directions were a joke. Somehow they were serious.
If something needs to be accomplished, we reason, one simply needs to get hold of the right technique—the right step-by-step method—to accomplish it. How do you grow a church? Find the right divinely-revealed technique. How do you grow in faith? Look to the Bible to find the technique it teaches. How do you increase in holiness? Find the time-tested techniques used by saints of old. How do you win others to Christ? Employ the technique that channels the power of the Spirit into effectively convicting them and bringing them to faith.
As Americans, Jesus’ answer is flat-out unacceptable to us: “There is no how to grow a church, grow in holiness, increase faith, or win others to Christ. God blows where He wills. When He wills to grow a church, He grows a church. When He wills to increase faith or holiness, He does it. When He wills to bring a soul to Himself, He does so. Human beings can’t make God do anything—not even by means of technique.”
If you are a good American, you will respond like every one of us good Americans responds: “Yes, of course God does it. Of course there is no growth of any kind that God does not cause. We all know that. But the question is, how does He do it? What means does He use? We need to employ the means that God uses so that God can do His work.” We think of God’s working spiritually in our lives the same way God works in nature—in an orderly, predictable, law-like way. But this, I submit, is the very thing that Jesus is denying: God does not do His most important work in our lives in an orderly, predictable, law-like way. God’s saving and sanctifying work is mysterious and unpredictable. One person will hear a sermon or read a book that will open his eyes and transform his perspective, leading to faith. The next person will hear the same sermon or read the same book, and it will have no impact on him whatsoever. Why the different responses? Ultimately, because the wind blows where it will. There is no telling when and where the wind will decide to shake some leaves. So it is with the Spirit of God. He shakes leaves when, where, and in whomever He pleases. There is perhaps no more difficult truth for us Americans to accept than this one.
1 In my judgment, “born from above” better translates what Jesus is saying than “born again.” Back to text
2 Indeed, for Phariseeism, to be a Jew was a necessary condition of entering the Kingdom of God. It was not a sufficient condition, but it was a necessary condition. Back to text
3 Jesus is seeking to explain to Nicodemus that inner transformation, not outward law-keeping, qualifies a Jew for the Kingdom of God. But in the process of making this point, Jesus also introduces another significant challenge to Pharisaical assumptions: to be a Jew is not a necessary condition for entering the Kingdom of God. The only necessary condition is that one be born from above. This is what the apostle Paul comes to grasp so clearly. A gentile who has been born from above meets the condition for being a child of God; he need not be nor become Jewish. Although Jesus is not seeking to make this latter point to Nicodemus, the manner in which Jesus articulates the former point clearly implies the latter. Furthermore, while Phariseeism viewed the lawless Jew as a child of God who had forfeited his birthright, Jesus is suggesting to Nicodemus that the Jew who has not been born from above has never been a child of God at all. The birthright of authentic status as a child of God does not come by way of fleshly descent; it can only come directly from God, as God sends His Spirit to write the evidence of that birthright on one’s heart. Back to text