John 3:1-21 | You All Must Be Born Again
by Lindsay Kennedy
John 3 contains a strong candidate for the most popular verse in the Bible. And for good reason: it succinctly captures the heart of God, the ministry of Jesus, and the promise of salvation for all who come to him in faith. However, as is so often the case with the familiar, there is more going on here.
In this story Nicodemus the Pharisee—a social-religious-political leader of the Jews—secretly comes to Jesus to learn from him. He recognizes that Jesus’ “signs” are proof of his divine commission. He must. be a “teacher come from God” (John 3:2). But Jesus will not leave him there. Jesus states that the kingdom of God will only be experienced by those who are “born again.” Jesus marvels that Nicodemus does not understand. However, perhaps you have wondered the same thing. From where does Jesus get this idea, and why does he think Nicodemus should understand it already (John 3:10)? If in doubt, look to the Old Testament!
The storyline of the Old Testament tells that God chose Abraham to be a conduit for his redemption plan; that through Abraham and his offspring, God would restore the world. Unfortunately, the children of Abraham were far from faithful to God’s commission and commands. They regularly rebelled and were eventually exiled: the North was scattered by the Assyrians and the South was taken into exile in Babylon.
In the Prophets, God predicted that he would restore Israel. However, returning to the land of Israel was not enough—this redemption required an internal heart-change, otherwise the cycle of sin and exile would never end. God promised a new covenant in which he would provide Israel a faithful king, forgive Israel’s sins, and transform them in such a way that obedience would come naturally.
One of these promise passages in particular, Ezekiel 36–37, is highly important for this chapter. In it, Ezekiel has a vision in which exiled Israel and Judah are a valley of bones. They are “dead” in exile. In this vision, God brings these bones to life and gives them his spirit to empower obedience.
The limitations of modern English cause us to miss an important element in John 3. When Jesus says “you must be born again” (John 3:7), the “you” is plural. Jesus is saying “the Jews may be in the land, but they cannot experience and enter God’s kingdom until they—like the bones in Ezekiel’s vision—are re-born.
Water and Blood?
Another confusing element in John 3 is that Jesus says one must be “born of water and the Spirit” to enter God’s kingdom (John 3:5). While being born of the Spirit clearly refers to regeneration (“born again”), to what does the water refer? This is a strange phrase and several solutions have been suggested:
- Being born of water refers to natural birth. Since Nicodemus confuses spiritual birth with natural birth (“can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?”), it’s possible that Jesus simply refers to natural birth here. In other words, Jesus is saying, “to enter the kingdom of God, you must be born naturally and supernaturally.” The “water” would be a reference to the amniotic fluid, for example. While this is possible, it’s a little strange. It seems unnecessary to say that to experience the kingdom of God, someone must be physically born. It also raises the theological question about the destiny of children who die before birth.
- Being born of water refers to baptism. Jesus would be saying that one must believe in him and be baptized to be saved. This seems to resonate with other passages (such as Acts 2) that link baptism with salvation. The practice of the early church was to believe and be baptized in close succession, and so this need not suggest that baptism actually saves us. However, baptism is not discussed anywhere else in this passage, so perhaps there is a better solution.
- Being born of water refers back to Ezekiel. Since Ezekiel 36-37 is clearly in Jesus’ mind when he talks with Nicodemus, perhaps the answer can be found there. In Ezekiel 36, God promises to restore Israel. In his work of restoration, he will regather Israel to the land, give them a new heart, indwell them with his Spirit, and empower them to obey. He also promises to “sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleanness” (Ezek 36:25). In other words, God promises to wash them clean. A similar idea is found in Isaiah 52-53. In this passage, Isaiah predicts a suffering servant of God—Jesus!—who among other things will “sprinkle many nations.” This cleansing work happens only through Jesus. Since God in Ezekiel 36 promises both water-washing and Spirit-indwelling in the context of being born again, I would suggest that this is what Jesus has in mind. When Jesus says that Nicodemus and even Israel must be born again, he means that they must be cleansed of their sin and given a new heart that delights in God. It is no surprise then that Jesus proceeds to tell Nicodemus about his sacrificial death on the cross.
What does this all mean for us? Most of us are not Jews, nor do we live in Israel. The good news went first to the Jews, that they may believe in Jesus and fulfill God’s role for Abraham’s offspring to be the conduit of blessing to the world. While the nation as a whole did not (yet!) believe, many of those who did became missionaries. Paul most of all. This message of restoration was also one of inclusion: all people could be born again and enter Abraham’s family, even God’s family!