The Dialogue Continues… Nicodemus is oblivious to the two levels of meaning. He focuses on one meaning of “born anōthen” (“again”) and protests that what Jesus calls for is physiologically impossible (3:4). As in v. 2, Nicodemus’s categories of what is possible intrude into the conversation. On the level that Nicodemus understands Jesus’ words, Nicodemus’s protest is correct. It is impossible for a grown man to reenter his mother’s womb and be born a second time. Nicodemus’s protest is ironic, however, because his words are correct and incontestable on one level, but that level stands in conflict and tension with what Jesus intends by the expression “to be born anōthen.” Jesus’ words speak of a radical new birth, generated from above, but Nicodemus’s language and imagination do not stretch enough to include that offer.
Born of Water and the Spirit. In vv.5-8 Jesus provides a fresh set of images to move Nicodemus out of his misunderstanding. The expression “born of water and Spirit” (v. 5) interprets the phrase “to be born anōthen.” For the reader of this Gospel in the Christian community, the reference to water and the Spirit carries with it images of baptism.
Gail O’Day points out that the narrative also includes a listener, Nicodemus, who hears these words independent of any knowledge of Christian baptism. She writes :
Jesus’ words about birth from water and Spirit are comprehensible without a baptismal referent if one attends carefully to the verb for “born” (the passive of gennao). In 3:4, Nicodemus drew Jesus’ attention to the birthing process with his words about his mother’s womb. The birth that Nicodemus envisions, the exit from the mother’s womb, is quite literally a birth out of water. The breaking of the waters of birth announces the imminent delivery of a child. In v. 5 Jesus plays on Nicodemus’s womb imagery to say that entrance into the kingdom of God will require a double birth: physical birth (“water”) and spiritual rebirth (“Spirit”). New life will be born from water and Spirit, no longer only from water. Yet the spiritual rebirth also does not void the physical birth. Spirit and flesh are held together; this is not a docetic understanding of human existence before God. Verse 6 supports this interpretation of v. 5, because its terms more directly underscore the two births of v. 5.
Most scholars see this as a secondary meaning at best – but then, most of them are men. Yet, the other scholars note that John is not “newspaper reporting” a conversation, but is in fact providing a narrative to the late 1st century church about meaning.
The early church clearly and indisputably understood baptism to be the sacramental enactment of Jesus’ promise of new birth. Thus baptismal reading as the primary meaning of John 3:5-6 expands on the images of birth and new life that O’Day suggests are already contained in the text.
Born from Above as Born of the Spirit. In v. 7, Jesus returns to his initial metaphor, “you must be born anōthen “ The “you” is a second-person plural pronoun in the Greek, so that Jesus’ requirement of fresh birth is now addressed to the “we” of Nicodemus’s words in v. 2. Nicodemus resisted Jesus’ words about new birth the first time Jesus spoke them (vv. 3-4) and, in v. 7a Jesus warns him against repeating that response.
In v. 8, Jesus uses the image of the wind to explain the birth of which he speaks. The Greek word for “wind” (pneuma), like anōthen , has two inherent meanings; it means both “wind” and “spirit” (as does the Hebrew word ruah). Once again Jesus describes the new birth with a word that cannot be held to a single meaning. The word pneuma perfectly captures the essence of Jesus’ message: the wind/spirit blows where it wills; human beings can detect its presence but cannot chart its precise movements. Jesus’ offer of new birth is like the wind/spirit: a mystery beyond human knowledge and control.
Beyond our Understanding. Nicodemus responds to Jesus’ words exactly as Jesus warned him not to, in amazement. Nicodemus’s question in v. 9, “How can this happen?” Once again his preconceptions of what is possible intrude on the conversation (cf. 3:2, 4) and prevent him from embracing Jesus’ words. One hears in Nicodemus’s incredulous question an echo of Sarah’s laugh in Gen 18:12. Nicodemus’s words of resistance are the last words he speaks in this story, although he will appear twice more in John (7:50¬52; 19:39-40).
Jesus responds to Nicodemus’s resistance with a quick and penetrating irony that characterizes much of the dialogue in the Fourth Gospel: “You are the teacher of Israel and you do not understand this? (v. 10). In 3:2-4 Nicodemus confidently asserted his knowledge of Jesus and God. Now Jesus turns that confident assertion back on Nicodemus. Neither Nicodemus’s credentials (Pharisee, ruler of the Jews, teacher of Israel) nor his self-professed knowledge have brought him closer to understanding Jesus.
Image Credit: Born of Water, Born of Spirit by Jan L. Richardson