1 July 2014

John 3:1-15

“Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.’” (v. 5)


The first half of John's Gospel (John 1:1 - 12:50) tells us who Jesus is, and what was new about him. After presenting Jesus as the Word who became a human being (John 1:1-18) and the recognition of him by John the Baptist and the disciples (John 1:19-51), John's Gospel tells us how others began to believe in him because he performed a number of 'signs' (John 2:23) - including changing water into wine (John 2:1-12) and cleansing the temple of unscrupulous traders (John 2:13-22).

After taking a whip to the traders and arguing with the religious leaders in the temple, Jesus is not the most welcome visitor to Jerusalem for the Passover! But one leader, Nicodemus, is intrigued - so he meets Jesus in secret, at night-time.

Nicodemus has recognised that God is at work in the signs of Jesus (verse 2). But Jesus asks for more than recognition - he offers a completely new start (verse 3). Those who want to see the Kingdom of God need to be "born from above" (or 'born again') (verse 3) in "water and Spirit".

Yet Nicodemus, despite being a Pharisee, a member of the Sanhedrin (the ruling council of the Jews) and a rabbi (verse 10) cannot understand what Jesus is saying. This is especially strange as the rabbis spoke of converts to Judaism as having rebirth. And the prophet Ezekiel had also spoken of God cleansing the chosen people with water and the spirit for the Messianic kingdom (Ezekiel 36:24-28). But Jesus points out that even the greatest teacher cannot control the spirit or wind of God. Without the spirit or breath, the flesh is dead (verses 6-8). (Both in Greek and in Aramaic the same word means 'spirit', 'breath' and 'wind'.) Some heavenly mysteries cannot be understood in earthly terms. How can a poisonous snake bring healing? (Numbers 21:4-9). How can being raised up on a cross bring glory?

Thankfully, Nicodemus understood enough to become a disciple. We see him later in the Gospel asking that other Pharisees give Jesus a fair hearing (John 7:47-51); and after the crucifixion, he is the one who provides the expensive spices to prepare Jesus's body for burial (John 19:39-40). And no doubt he witnessed the raising up of the Son of Man …

To Ponder

  • How easy is it to spot when we are stuck in a rut and need a fresh start?
  • What part does pride or position play in preventing us from changing?
  • Is there any significance in the order of "water and Spirit"? What difference would it make to speak of being born of 'Spirit and water'? Why?

Bible notes author

The Revd Neil Cockling

Neil spent 20 years as a circuit minister before becoming the District Development Enabler for the Newcastle upon Tyne Methodist District. He now works full-time for the NHS as a Consultant Lead Chaplain in mental health, leading a multi-faith team of 14 chaplains working in 10 hospitals in Northumberland and Tyne & Wear.