The Context of John 3:1-12
by Gene Nouhan
If we want to understand a difficult Bible passage, we must know its context. Context gives a passage the setting from which its meaning can emerge. But establishing the context, to some people, means reading a few verses before and after the passage in question, and nothing more.
While the immediate context may give the reader some insight, many of the more difficult passages of Scripture require an awareness of the greater context from which they were written. John 3:1-12 is best understood in its greater context, that of the entire book of John.
In John 20:31 we read, "These are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name." This is John's specific purpose statement, so to speak. It has three parts: 1) to show that Jesus is the Messiah, 2) that he is the Son of God and 3) that he gives eternal life to believers (see also John 11:25-27). John accomplishes his three-part purpose by demonstrating that Christ, his works and even his words are of divine origin.
John opens his book with a stunning prologue, which reveals Christ's preexistence as the divine Word and that he became flesh and lived for a while among humans. The first point John makes is that Jesus was more than a great rabbi or teacher he was God in the flesh. This theme is woven throughout his Gospel. Jesus' divine origin gives him the authority to grant eternal life to his followers (8:12; 17:2).
Of Jesus' works John says, "if every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written." That may not be an overstatement. Thousands of books have already been written about Christ, and many thousands more could be written, and still not exhaust the complexities of the Son of God! Even so, Jesus' miraculous works, as recorded, are sufficient to show that he is able to give eternal life (3:14-15; 11:23-25, 43-44).
Even Jesus' words are extraordinary. After considerable confusion and a "falling out" because of his words, Jesus said, "The words I have spoken to you are spirit, and they are life" (6:63b). When Jesus asked the Twelve if they would desert him as the other disciples did, Peter said, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life" (6:66-68). Christ's words show how eternal life comes.
In the book of John, for various reasons, everybody misunderstands Jesus' words except those who truly believe; and even they are slow to grasp his meaning. There's not enough space in this article to examine all these instances, but this is another theme for John.
The context of John 3
The conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus was representative of the church and the synagogue, or Christianity and Judaism. Nicodemus, a ruler of the Pharisees, represents Judaism, and Christ represents his church.
The way John tells the story, Nicodemus approaches Jesus without stating his purpose for coming. The sense one might get is that John's purposes are more important than Nicodemus's. As the conversation unfolds, Nicodemus is quickly forgotten. Jesus moves the conversation from singular to plural pronouns, "we speak" and "you" (plural in the Greek), etc.
Nicodemus came by night. "John may have meant simply that Nicodemus visited Jesus by night for reasons of secrecy (compare 19:38).... It is more probable that he intended to indicate the darkness out of which Nicodemus came into the presence of the true Light."
Why is this important? Because an awareness of the context helps the real meaning of the text come to life. Our task is not to arrive at a meaning that suits our purposes, but to learn what John meant by the words and events he recorded. We cannot know what he meant unless we understand his purposes and the context of his writing.
When Nicodemus said, "Rabbi, we know you are a teacher come from God," he said "we know." Nicodemus brought with him the views of others. He was representing the Pharisees, who were willing to acknowledge Jesus to a certain point and grant him some recognition. But John makes it plain in his "specific purpose statement" that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God, and all people (including Pharisees) must believe this if they want to receive eternal life (John 11:25-27; 20:31; 1 John 4:15).
Nicodemus's opening statement indicates he was not prepared to hear the words of Jesus that followed. While Nicodemus was possibly considering some kind of compromise, merger or peaceful coexistence with Jesus and his disciples, Jesus was about to tell him that his whole religion was ineffectual for entry into the kingdom of God and that it was about to be superseded.
Unless you are born again
The well-known words of Christ, "unless a man is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God," were misunderstood by Nicodemus. But in what way did Nicodemus misunderstand? He surely could not have taken Christ's words literally.
Nicodemus was not a simpleton. As a respected teacher in Israel, he would have been well acquainted with the use of analogy in teaching and illustrating. Parables, for example, are lessons set in analogies. It is well documented that the Pharisees used parables, analogies and allegories extensively.
It is also documented that the Pharisees were acquainted with the idea of rebirth. There are several allusions to rebirth and being a child of God in the Apocrypha or Deuterocanoncial books, written in the intertestamental period. Also, the Babylonian Talmud says, "A proselyte just converted is like a child just born" (Yebamoth 22a). Jesus said the Pharisees searched land and sea to make a proselyte, and, instead of making him a child of Abraham, they made a child of hell (Matthew 23:15).
The rabbis even debated whether a newly converted gentile might be permitted to marry a close relative, such as a sister or mother, because he was now a completely new person and all his previous connections were broken. Clearly, the Pharisees were acquainted with the idea of rebirth, but they had some mistaken notions about it; namely, they believed it was the gentiles who needed it, not they.
So why did Nicodemus say, "How can a man be born when he is old? Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother's womb to be born!" Part of the answer lies in Nicodemus's Pharisaic view of rebirth and part of the answer lies in understanding the original Greek word translated "again." First, let's take a closer look at Nicodemus's concept of rebirth.
In first-century Judaism, being a natural-born Israelite was thought to be almost a guarantee of salvation (see Matthew 3:9 and John 8:33-34). An Israelite didn't need to be converted to the nation of Israel he was already born that way and would have been circumcised the eighth day. To the Pharisees, the nation of Israel was the kingdom of God, and the Messiah was to come and establish Israel's dominance over the gentile nations.
Nicodemus was already a natural-born Israelite and a "good" one. Why should he have to be converted (born again) into the nation of Israel? To the best of his knowledge (which must have been extensive), he had done everything right according to his religion. And that was the problem his religion. For Jesus meant what Paul was to say later: "A man is not a Jew who is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit" (Romans 2:28-29).
Had Jesus said, "gentiles must be born again," Nicodemus would have understood him. But when Jesus said that even a devout Jew needed rebirth, Nicodemus was understandably troubled because it amounted to telling him, in his old age, that the religion he had been practicing all his life was not effective for eternal life (see John 5:39-40).
In Nicodemus's mind, the Pharisees were the best of God's children. But Jesus meant that not even they were God's children in the way they needed to be in order to receive eternal life. This went against everything Nicodemus knew and taught. An old and highly respected rabbi would find that hard to believe. It meant that Nicodemus had been wrong and he would have to start his religious or spiritual life all over again. His questions were no doubt rhetorical, probably a "gut reaction" that underscored his difficulty with and his disbelief in Jesus' statement (see 3:12).
Since Jesus was using symbolic language to convey his teaching, Nicodemus obliged him and used symbolic language right back. Although his questions could be interpreted literally, he meant them symbolically. To put it another way, Jesus' words must have made as much sense to Nicodemus as if he actually said "You must reenter your mother's womb." So Nicodemus illustrated, with his questions, that he thought Jesus was applying spiritual rebirth to the wrong person. It wasn't the idea of rebirth per se, but the universal way Jesus applied it that caused Nicodemus to react the way he did.
Again vs. from above
The Greek word for "again" in John 3:3 is anothen. It has a double meaning either "again" or "from above," depending on the context. John uses this word five times; and he uses it consistently to mean "from above" or, in one case, "from the top."
Jesus meant we are to be born from above (born of God, who is above); although to be born of God does amount to a second birth. The rebirth is a spiritual one not a reenactment of physical birth. To be reborn in the biblical sense means to undergo a total change of one's character, which is made possible by the Holy Spirit. That Spirit comes from above. Nicodemus ignored the "from above" aspect of Jesus' wording, which contributed to his misunderstanding (not his understanding, as some would have it) of Christ's words.
Some say that Nicodemus's questions were proof that he correctly understood that Christ was speaking literally. This is an impossible interpretation because, for Christ to be taken correctly or literally based on Nicodemus's reaction, we would have to conclude that Jesus did mean for Nicodemus to actually reenter his mother's womb. That, of course, is absurd. Nicodemus's misunderstanding was based on his narrow view of rebirth and how it was accomplished.
Of water and spirit
In John 3:5 the expression "born of water and Spirit" has been interpreted to mean born physical and born a spirit being (at the resurrection) respectively. That does not do justice to the context. Jesus is explaining where Nicodemus went wrong he had overlooked the "from above" aspect or the spiritual component of rebirth. Jesus is continuing the conversation, explaining to Nicodemus where he's mistaken.
The expression "born of water and spirit" is not referring to two different births, one physical birth and one spiritual. He is talking about one birth from above, which demands that a person (Jew or not) cleans or buries his past completely before receiving the Holy Spirit. The cleansing of water and subsequent giving of the Holy Spirit was prophesied in Ezekiel 36:25-27.
Water baptism is the symbol that one has buried the "old person" (including his religion) and now lives a new life in a new community. That's why Luke says, when John the Baptist went about the countryside, the Pharisees refused to be baptized by him (Luke 7:29-30). To submit to the rite would have been an acknowledgment that their Jewish birth was insufficient; it "was a humiliation they could not suffer."
While John's baptism symbolized cleansing and burial, it was also insufficient because it did not include the giving of the Holy Spirit and new life (Acts 19:1-7). In John 1:33 the Baptist said that he baptized with water, but Jesus would baptize with the Holy Spirit. Water refers to the outward show of baptism, and the Spirit refers to the inward change effected by the Holy Spirit. "It was the addition of the `Spirit' which transformed John's baptism into Christian baptism."
Jesus was describing the new birth in terms of a new kind of baptism that included both water and Spirit. It's not enough to be baptized with water (John's baptism) anymore than it was enough to be circumcised of the flesh. One also must be baptized with the Spirit (a Christian baptism) to enter the kingdom of God.
The problem with the Pharisees was, in order to receive the Holy Spirit and thereby eternal life, they would have to do something they were generally unwilling to do come to Jesus Christ the Son of God to receive it (John 5:40).
Is that which is born of the Spirit a spirit being?
The expressions, "that which is born of the flesh is flesh," and "that which is born of the Spirit is spirit" (New King James Version) have been interpreted to mean "born human" and "born a spirit being," respectively. But this is not the intended meaning. The context shows that the three expressions, "born from above," "born of water and spirit" and "born of the Spirit is spirit," are parallel statements.
The antithesis of John 3:6 is not in the bodily composition of those who are born, but in the inner nature. One has a special relationship with God and the other one doesn't. Notice Galatians 4:29, where the phrase "according to the Spirit" is used symbolically. Paul speaks of Ishmael, who was "born according to the flesh," and of Isaac, who was "born according to the Spirit" (NKJV). Yet both of these men were human beings, made of flesh. These expressions show the different spiritual relationships the two men had with God. Isaac was converted and Ishmael wasn't.
To be "in the flesh" or "in the Spirit" depends on one's spiritual condition, not on one's bodily make-up. Romans 8:9 says, "You are not in the flesh but in the Spirit if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you." In other words, if the Spirit of God dwells in you, you are "of" or "born of" the Spirit.
John 6:63b parallels John 3:6 in an interesting way. Jesus said, "the words that I have spoken are spirit." Here is something else that "is Spirit" Jesus' words. He did not mean that the words he spoke were spirit beings! Nor did he mean the words were of a nature other than that of the human languages of his day. Jesus meant that the words he spoke were to be understood spiritually.
John 3:6 is to be understood in the same way: that which is born of the flesh (gentile or not) is physical or carnal, and that which is born of the Spirit is spiritual. It is certainly possible to be spiritual without being composed of spirit, even as it is possible to speak human language with spiritual meaning. Notice what Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 2:13-16 (emphasis mine):
Nicodemus fits well into Paul's thoughts in that he was a natural man and his religion was still on a physical plane, so he could not "accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they were foolishness [like reentering his mother's womb] to him." His idea of rebirth, put simply, was converting a physical gentile into a physical Israelite. To Jesus it meant converting a natural man (gentile or not) into a spiritual man.
If "that which is born of the Spirit" refers to the resurrection, several of John's statements are puzzling, to say the least:
The many references to rebirth born of God in Johannine literature clearly speak of it in present or past tense, connecting it with Christians who believe in Christ and do what he says. Therefore, the context of John 3 makes it unthinkable that John would present these terms inconsistently or in opposition to Christ's usage. From this and the above references we conclude "that which is born of the Spirit is spirit" means that whoever is born again by the Spirit is spiritual it refers to the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit.
Wind and Spirit
Now what about John 3:8, which says, "The wind blows where it pleases. You hear the sound of it, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit." Does this say Christians are born of the Spirit at the resurrection? No, it does not. The context is not future but present tense So it is with everyone born of the Spirit. The center focus of this conversation is a comparison between Judaism and the effectual working of Christianity for eternal life, which comes through the Holy Spirit. Jesus continues to make his point that entrance into the kingdom does not depend on physical attributes or pedigree, but on spiritual ones.
John 3:8 contains another Greek word with multiple meanings. In this case the word is pneuma. It's like the Hebrew word ruach, which means wind, spirit or breath. In John's Gospel, pneuma is used with all three meanings. Here Jesus is saying that the Spirit, like the wind, is beyond the five senses, and it breathes into man the breath of new life. Its workings are invisible and therefore mysterious to us. The words "So it is" refer to the mysterious or invisible nature of the Spirit's activity, not bodily make-up.
The time had come when the children of God were to worship him in spirit and in truth and not in mountains like the Samaritans on Gerizim or in a temple at Jerusalem (see 4:20-24). The center of Christian worship is in Christ or in spirit, which is not found in any geographic location. Spirit, like the wind, comes and goes where it wills, and its workings are beyond human control and comprehension. "It breathes into the world from another place."
A Jewish argument might contend that, because the new birth is not visible (like the physical accoutrements of Israelite worship) it is therefore ineffectual or a figment of the imagination. But that argument is no more valid than it would be if used of the wind. "In each case, judgment is to be based on the effects produced."
New believers rarely experience anything externally dramatic when they receive the Holy Spirit and are baptized lightning bolts do not come down from heaven nor does a halo appear above their heads. The receiving of the Holy Spirit is not something they can physically detect. The proof of conversion will manifest itself down the road as one looks back on the experience with faith and spiritual growth. In John 3:8, it is not a spirit being that is described, nor is it describing the Holy Spirit what is being described is the nature of the Holy Spirit's activity in the life of a Christian.
Nicodemus was incredulous and overwhelmed. His ideas of worship, conversion, circumcision, the kingdom of God, the Messiah, the Holy Spirit the very foundations of his religion were in question. He faced the disturbing prospect of having to start all over again in his old age. Yet his training should have better prepared him for meeting the Messiah (3:9-10). The prophets had written about the giving of the Holy Spirit and the work of Christ. Since Nicodemus would not believe Jesus to this point, there was no need to proceed any further (3:12).
The main point in John 3:1-12 is to show that Judaism, which Nicodemus represented, was insufficient. Judaism could not, as it was, enter the kingdom of God. Judaism stands on the outside, and a radical change comparable to birth is necessary if it or any individual is to enter the kingdom.
The Pharisees thought their pedigree was sufficient. The point behind the term "born from above" or "born again" is that no one's pedigree is sufficient. A change of one's whole inner nature must take place before a new creature is born. Circumcision of the heart is needed if one is to be part of the community of spiritual Israel and a true child of Abraham (see John 8:39-44 and Galatians 3:7). This is made possible only by a living faith in Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
Galatians 6:15-16 (NKJV, emphasis mine) sums it up well:
John 3:1-12 teaches us that, while some Bible passages can be taken at face value, some are best understood in both their immediate and greater context. The authors of the various books of the Bible had a plan, with purposes in mind that were inspired by the Holy Spirit. When we trample on those purposes or ignore them, we do so to our own detriment. The good news is, when we rightly handle the Scriptures and respect them for the way they were written, the truth of God becomes abundantly clear, and so does our relationship with him.
To a companion article: The meaning of gennao in Matthew 1:20
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