Unless A Man

In most solemn truth I tell you, answered Jesus, "that unless a man is born anew he cannot see the Kingdom of God.

In most solemn truth I tell you, replied Jesus, "that unless a man is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the Kingdom of God.
-John 3:3, 5  (Weymouth NT)

The phrase, "Unless a man", takes me to Jesus' conversation with Nicodemus, in John chapter three, where Jesus tells him, "You must be born again", "Born from above", or, "Born anew".

This is how John 3 begins, reading the Weymouth translation, for consistency:
Now there was one of the Pharisees whose name was Nicodemus--a ruler among the Jews.
He came to Jesus by night and said, "Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher from God; for no one can do these miracles which you are doing, unless God is with him.
Nicodemus was a Pharisee, a Jewish ruler, and teacher.  After John introduces him, he says some interesting things.  The visit takes place at night, symbolizing the spiritual darkness that Nicodemus is unknowingly in.

Nicodemus uses the word 'we', when addressing Jesus.  In other words, he brings with him the opinion of a group of people like him, as if to say, "The committee has met and this is what we think about you".

The 'committee' wants to affirm Jesus' ministry.  It looks pretty good to them.  They assess that he is indeed an authentic teacher, and a special one, who God is especially with.  The miracles have even been given a thumbs up.  Nicodemus has come to tell Jesus this, and perhaps find out something more.

It is generous for Nicodemus to see Jesus this way, considering that people in his circles will later accuse Jesus of using demonic power to cast out demons (Matt. 9:34 &12:24), or plot to kill him (Jn. 11:53); but it falls very short of believing who he actually is.

Many people today admire Jesus as a great teacher, philosopher, prophet, or miracle worker.  But these all are not the gospel, or the core of who he is and what we need to do with him.

It is also interesting that in the previous chapter, we have Jesus making a ruckus in the temple, driving out the money changers and people who were ripping off worshipers.  Some Jewish people asked him, "Who do you think you are, doing this?", and he enigmatically answered, "Tear down this house and I will rebuild it in three days!"  It was Passover in Jerusalem and he did a lot of miracles.

The contextual bridge from the account of Passover time in Jerusalem, to Nicodemus' visit, is the statement at the end of John two, after we read that many became believers in him through watching the miracles he performed.  Then John writes this:
But for His part, Jesus did not trust Himself to them, because He knew them all, and did not need any one's testimony concerning a man, for He of Himself knew what was in the man. -John 2:24-5 (WEY)
What this is saying is that basing your belief on seeing miracles is not enough.  Coming to the meeting and even believing in what happens there, including miracles, is not enough.  Becoming learned in Bible and theology, history and tradition, ecclesiology and government; being published or famous, being paid to teach, or having a following: none of these will save you or bring you into relationship with God and take you to heaven when you die.

"Unless a man is born anew he cannot see or enter the Kingdom of God."

Nicodemus comes to Jesus with that backdrop, of Jesus having done many miracles and teaching publicly.  Maybe the visit was purely political?  Instead of being authentic and giving him praise or thanks for what he is doing or saying, he instead comes with the 'message' that Jesus has the approval of a select group represented by him.

Nicodemus seems to be getting at the rational question of, "Who are you?"  His words are almost flattering and are certainly polite.  Before he can ask the question or get to the point, Jesus cuts to the chase.  But, instead of saying, "I know what you are thinking.  You wonder who I am.  So, let me tell you...", Jesus instead, cuts to the core problem with Nicodemus, which is spiritual and theological.  He says, "Unless a man is born anew, he can not see the Kingdom of God".

It is astonishing, that a person can know the scriptures, and can know about what others have said and written about the scriptures, but, not know God.  Someone can believe in miracles from God, go to meetings seeking miracles, and not know God; not be regenerated, not be born of God.

In a sense, Nicodemus says, "We have seen the miracles and know that you are a teacher from God".  But Jesus replies, "You do not see.  You do not see, believe, and enjoy the saving, regenerating, kingdom rule of God".

Jesus says something that implies, "You have not entered the kingdom and can not see the kingdom, because, even with all you have, you have not been born anew unto or from God."  Jesus is saying that it (our spiritual lives) is only about the Kingdom of God.  Seeing and entering in to that kingdom does not come through your five senses, but through your spirit, with God's spirit.

Not understanding, baffled, and perhaps pushing back, Nicodemus says:
"How is it possible," Nicodemus asked, "for a man to be born when he is old? Can he a second time enter his mother's womb and be born?"
Jesus word, "from above", "anew", or "again", are all fair translations for what Nicodemus heard him say.  We have all said, "I don't know what you are talking about", and that is what Nicodemus was experiencing.  So, Jesus amplifies what he just said, in repetition; stating that, "Unless a man is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the Kingdom of God".

Jesus tells Nicodemus that it is not an earthly thing, but a heavenly thing that takes place on earth.  Jesus says, in a sense, to him, "You are a teacher of God's people and you do not see or get the spiritual dynamic of God working in peoples live's?  Come on man, it is right in and throughout the scriptures."

And, Jesus is not talking about baptism in water as the means through which this 'born anew' experience comes.  "Of water and the Spirit" is one action.  The picture in the OT that Jesus may have had in mind and Nicodemus may have been aware of is Ezekiel 36:25-27:
I will also sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean.  I will cleanse you from all your impurities and all your idols.  I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will remove your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.  I will place My Spirit within you and cause you to follow My statutes and carefully observe My ordinances.
The water is not from the baptistery, but from God.  Also, my understanding is that in the Jewish mind, the water involved in making a baby would be semen and not amniotic fluid that spills out at birth.  The immersion of our spirit's into The Spirit is the Christian's birth rite. Baptism in or of The Spirit is the church's and the Christian's birthday gift, which some of us have have delayed opening up and being immersed in.

And God has always sought to transform people through encountering them.  Jesus is the climax of God acting.  Before Jesus was born, God was already seeking and calling men and women to have their hearts changed and walk with him.  They were supposed to "get" that by reading, hearing, and through studying the OT, but Nicodemus did not.  He had the "bonafides", but did not get it.

I imagine that John decided to share this story to illustrate that you and I can study and be credentialed, be legitimated, be ordained, and even be given ecclesiastical power, but not get it; not be regenerated by God, not be born from above (born again or born anew).

What is being born again, born from above, or born anew?  What it is not, is that it is not what you know or do, but what God does and you receive.  God brings the 'new birth' or the 'birth from above' into your life, and you receive it.  Being born again is a life exchange where we receive the new life and let God have our old life.

The story of Nicodemus illustrates that we are not saved through good works.  It is all through God alone by grace.  Even for a man of knowledge, standing, and integrity there must be a radical transformation in order to enter into God's economy.  Being born from above is to give up everything and radically rely on God, who conceives your new life and will grow that life into the likeness of his son.  This new life overtakes your old life, supersedes it, and Jesus becomes Lord of all of you.

The core of the gospel is Christ.  Jesus' word is that you will not get it, see it, or experience it (it being The Kingdom of God and His Son, who is Christ), unless you are born anew - from above, by God.

And this is the rest of what Jesus said to Nicodemus:

Whatever has been born of the flesh is flesh, and whatever has been born of the Spirit is spirit.
Do not be astonished at my telling you, `You must all be born anew.'
The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it is going. So is it with every one who has been born of the Spirit."
"How is all this possible?" asked Nicodemus.
"Are you," replied Jesus, "`the Teacher of Israel,' and yet do you not understand these things?
In most solemn truth I tell you that we speak what we know, and give testimony of that of which we were eye-witnesses, and yet you all reject our testimony.
If I have told you earthly things and none of you believe me, how will you believe me if I tell you of things in Heaven?
There is no one who has gone up to Heaven, but there is One who has come down from Heaven, namely the Son of Man whose home is in Heaven.
And just as Moses lifted high the serpent in the Desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, in order that every one who trusts in Him may have the Life of the Ages."
-John 3:6-15 

The artwork above is by Henry Ossawa Tanner, found here.
Bibliography: C.K. Barrett - The Gospel According to St. John, D.A. Carson - The Gospel According to John, Walter C. Kaiser Jr. - The Hard Sayings of The Bible (The Hard Sayings of Jesus), Kurt Aland - Synopsis of The Four Gospels.