Second Sunday in Lent, 2023
The encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus tends to be overshadowed by its two most famous quotes; the perennial favorite at 3:16, “God so loved the world…,” and the more contentious—because deliberately ambiguous—“you must be born anōthen” (3:7 etc.)—which means either or both “again,” or “from above.”
Your commentator confesses that he has spent time arguing—with himself not least—about this latter quote, in large part because of its fairly obvious misuse as a direct and exclusive reference to a type of personal conversion, “decisions for Christ” and the like. This appropriation—by self-described “born again” Christians of course—has not only created its own inadequate interpretations, but to be fair may have sent some others of us into reactive corners, producing our own poor readings in response, rather than engaging the text on its merits.
As already noted, the same Greek word means both “again” and “from above”; the interaction between Jesus and Nicodemus is driven (like so many conversations in John) by a misunderstanding which Jesus uses to advantage. We could flatten the subtlety of this to “Nicodemus thinks Jesus means ‘born again’ but he really means ‘born from above’”—the NSRV translation almost works this way. This isn’t quite the point, although it is a part of it.
Nicodemus initially hears Jesus referring to the absurdity of a physical recapitulation of birth, and of course no, it’s not that. Yet Jesus doesn’t mean “you must have a particular sort of conversion experience normalized in some modern forms of Christianity” either. It’s not that these experiences are bad, they’re just not the topic here. Nor—apologies to all you baptismal regeneration people—does Jesus just mean “you have to be baptized.”
Yet to imagine this is just “born from above” rather than “born again” is merely to flatten the text in a different way. There were those in early Christian circles who did this, imagining that their Christian call reflected membership in a hidden cosmic elite (a tendency sometimes referred to as Gnosticism), whose true home was “above.” While John does have in mind another reality, this story implies that belonging to that new and different realm is available to Nicodemus, not merely something predetermined.
The true significance of the “above” is made clearer in vv. 12-15, where Jesus contrasts earthly and heavenly (i.e., “above”) things, identifying himself as the one whose movement between the realms is the source of salvation. However this is not just a matter of him coming bringing the truth from above, or of there being a higher realm to which one can aspire, but of him being “lifted up” (v.14) so that all may see the mystery of the cross. “Above” therefore doesn’t just mean being connected to a higher reality, it means the exaltation of the crucified Jesus to whom we look up for salvation.
The interpretive answer lies then in maintaining the ambiguity of the phrase, not resolving it. What Jesus does mean is “your life must change in a way so radical that it can be spoken of as rebirth” and “the changed character of your life will reveal that your true identity belongs to a reality other than this world.” The two meanings support one another, showing that the change Jesus calls for and offers is not just incremental or partial (even though it may not be instantaneous), nor driven by our own initiative. We’re not in control of birth, after all. It is radical, and is his (and the Spirit’s [vv. 5-8]) work not our own. Recall the famous prologue: “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of a man, but of God” (1:13).
While intense religious experience and sacramental acts play their parts, they are not in themselves the rebirth. What is it then? Not a decision alone or a sacrament alone, but a transformation whose duration is considerably less clear than its result. Here we ought to pay attention to a clue often left on the table by the interpreters.
Nicodemus—unknown outside this Gospel—appears twice more in John, once at a sort of turning point where he represents a desire for justice while arguing with his fellow leaders about Jesus (7:50), but more strikingly then at Jesus’ burial, bringing a massive load of spices (19:39). In between he had been poised, assessing; at the end, he has been brought to a quite different place from the tentative inquiry of chapter 3. Where once he had come at night, now he comes openly. There has been a change, perhaps grounded in some moment of decision never narrated, but manifested now in his tenderness to the pierced body of Jesus once lifted up, and to which Nicodemus has been drawn. He has been born again, and from above.