(John 3:1-2 ESV) Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. 2 This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.”
John compresses the narrative here considerably. You see, to this point, Jesus has changed water to wine in private gathering and declined to give a sign to those who demanded a sign in Jerusalem at the Passover. We only have in John 2:3: “many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing.” John doesn’t share the details with us at all.
And yet the signs were clearly sufficient to persuade Nicodemus to believe that Jesus was a prophet. He doesn’t call him Messiah at this point.
It’s often been noted that he came to Jesus at night, evidently wanting to conceal his belief in Jesus. That’s probably true. Why else would John include that detail? But we should also note that Jesus received him and gladly gave of his time. Jesus did not look down on him for his weak, timid faith. Rather, Jesus gladly shared the gospel with him — not despite his weak faith but because of his weak faith.
Imagine the blessing of being in the very presence of Jesus and hearing him speak of salvation and the Spirit! Nicodemus was favored far more than most, and yet he was a Pharisee and scared to believe.
What does that tell us about Jesus? What does that tell us about how Jesus will treat us?
(John 3:3-4 ESV) 3 Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?”
It’s often been said that Jesus invented the concept of being “born again.” But that’s not quite right. “Be born” translates the passive form of gennao, meaning primarily to be begotten, that is, to be conceived by a father. The literal translation is to “be begotten again” or “be conceived again.” Compare —
(1Co 4:15 KJV) For though ye have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet have ye not many fathers: for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel.
The same word can refer to birth when the context so indicates, especially when speaking of the action of a mother, of course. But in this case, Jesus is speaking of God’s actions. Indeed, the image is astonishingly like the account of Jesus’ own conception — begotten by God through the Spirit, and we miss this parallel due to the translation.
We also miss the Old Testament parallels, such as —
(Psa 2:7-8 ESV) 7 I will tell of the decree: The LORD said to me, “You are my Son; today I have begotten you. 8 Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession.”
Psalm 2 is a coronation psalm, referring to the anointing of the king (v 2), at which time he is said to have been begotten by God, that is, he becomes God’s special son — essentially a new person in God’s eyes.
This Psalm is famously a messianic psalm, looking to the coronation of Jesus. And so Jesus’ language connects this psalm with every one who accepts Jesus. We all become kings. We all inherit the earth!
As we discussed in Creation 2.0, God created man and woman to “rule” the earth (Gen 1:26, 28). Thus, to be begotten again is to be restored to our Genesis 1 condition — the very image of God, having dominion over the earth — with Jesus — for the sake of God.
We become united with Jesus. And therefore, as Jesus said to Nicodemus, we will “see the kingdom of God,” that is, the restoration of God’s kingship on earth.
We modern folk imagine that God is and always has been king, which is true. But what is also true is that most of the world had been ruled by false gods — demons — called Molech, Baal, or even Jupiter or Zeus. Those are the gods people served, and so God was not recognized as king. The coming of the Kingdom was a victory over false gods, and the establishment of God’s reign.
To see the kingdom, to enter in as a subject of God, we must be re-conceived, that is, made into new people, made of better stuff, by the Spirit.
(John 3:5 ESV) 5 Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born [begotten] of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”
Now, we usually want to jump straight to baptism here, but clearly the text’s emphasis is on the Spirit. We can’t change the emphasis to suit our tastes! Moreover, although John will soon mention baptism, up to this point, not only has he not mentioned baptism (except as part of the title of John the Baptist and John’s water baptism), he avoids any reference to water baptism in speaking of Jesus’ own baptism. Rather, regarding Jesus’ baptism, he only speaks of baptism in the Spirit —
(John 1:33 ESV) 33 I myself did not know him, but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’
Obviously enough, John’s emphasis is on the contrast between John’s baptism in water and Jesus’ baptism in Spirit. It’s unmistakable. And as we considered earlier, the reference is to the outpouring of the Spirit on “all flesh” prophesied by several prophets, including Joel, that was to come with the Kingdom.
It’s entirely appropriate to read Jesus’ words in light of what happened later, but we should not forget that Jesus surely meant to be understood by Nicodemus — a Jewish Pharisee and therefore a scholar of the Old Testament. He would certainly have associated “born of water and the Spirit” and “kingdom” with such passages as —
(Isa 44:3-4 ESV) 3 For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour my Spirit upon your offspring, and my blessing on your descendants. 4 They shall spring up among the grass like willows by flowing streams.
(Zec 13:1 ESV) “On that day there shall be a fountain opened for the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and uncleanness.”
(Eze 36:25-27 ESV) 25 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. 26 And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.
In the Old Testament literature, “water” is a metaphor for God washing away sin in association with the outpouring of the Spirit.
(Isa 32:14-16 ESV) 14 For the palace is forsaken, the populous city deserted; the hill and the watchtower will become dens forever, a joy of wild donkeys, a pasture of flocks; 15 until the Spirit is poured upon us from on high, and the wilderness becomes a fruitful field, and the fruitful field is deemed a forest. 16 Then justice will dwell in the wilderness, and righteousness abide in the fruitful field.
(Joe 2:28-29 ESV) 28 “And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. 29 Even on the male and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit.”
(Eze 39:29 ESV) 29 “And I will not hide my face anymore from them, when I pour out my Spirit upon the house of Israel, declares the Lord GOD.”
Nicodemus, knowing his prophets, would surely have heard Jesus to be promising the fulfillment of the ancient promises of God to pour out his Spirit and wash the sins of his people away in clean water.
That is not to say that Jesus did not have baptism in mind, but it’s far better, I think, to realize that baptism speaks of these prophecies, rather than imagining that these prophecies speak of baptism.
Indeed, by the late First Century, perhaps even during the time of the apostles, the Jews began to immerse proselytes based on these very same verses. They concluded that immersion would serve well to represent what God was doing in accepting a convert, based not on Christian teaching but the Old Testament prophets.
Water baptism, therefore, pictures the real cleansing that God is accomplishing through the Spirit. As the prophets explain (and as Jesus will say later in John), God’s “living water” is the Spirit, and it’s living water that transforms us into the image of Christ.
Now, we’ll soon see John report that Jesus took up John the Baptist’s baptismal ministry. Jesus certainly practices water baptism, and it’s very much a part of Christian teaching. The mistake we make is, not teaching baptism, but separating baptism from the work of God through the Spirit, as though baptism is something we do to earn our way into heaven — as though baptism were a work.
Baptism is always spoken of in the passive voice. It’s something received. It’s a blessing given by God — a gift — given to those with faith, making the cleansing we receive by the Spirit visual and physical.