The summary exposition in vv. 31-36 follows the exposition (in the main discourse) by Jesus in vv. 11-21, reiterating many of the same themes and ideas. Those verses are best viewed in relation to the main exposition in the Discourse, echoing and summarizing Jesus’ words. The Discourse proper (vv. 1-21) follows the basic pattern of the Discourses of Jesus in the Gospel of John, the dialogue/discourse format being—
- Saying of Jesus
- Reaction/question by the people, indicating some level of misunderstanding
- Explanation/Exposition by Jesus
I would outline the Discourse as follows:
The initial saying by Jesus (v. 3) has a spiritualistic tone to it:
“…if one should not come to be (born) from above, he is not able to see the kingdom of God.”
This suggests that the kingdom of God is invisible, and can only be ‘seen’ in a spiritual way, which Jesus here describes in terms of a heavenly birth (“from above”, a&nwqen). The realm of God is “above” (a&nw), while that of the world is “below” (ka/tw); this is a representation, in spatial-relational terms, of the stark dualism that runs throughout the Gospel (cf. 8:23). The misunderstanding of Nicodemus (v. 4) is based on the dual-meaning of a&nwqen, which can mean either “from above”, or in the temporal sense of “again”; Nicodemus understands Jesus’ words in the latter sense. But this point of misunderstanding simply sets the stage for the explanation by Jesus in vv. 5-8:
“…if one should not come to be (born) out of water and (out of the) Spirit, he is not able to come into the kingdom of God.”
The statement in v. 5 is formally identical with the saying in v. 3, and it is not immediately obvious how it explains the initial saying. However, the closeness in form actual allows us to discern the points of exposition, which are two:
- being born “from above” (and born “again”) means born “out of water and the Spirit”
- to “see” the kingdom of God is essentially the same as “coming into” it
On the first point, the question is whether “water and the Spirit” is complementary or indicates a contrast. Many commentators have assumed the former, but the latter is almost certainly correct (cf. my earlier note on vv. 5-8). What follows in verse 6 confirms (rather clearly, I think) that Jesus is contrasting water and the Spirit:
“The (thing) having come to be (born) out of (the) flesh is flesh, and the (thing) having come to be (born) out of (the) Spirit is spirit.”
Water has the same contrastive position as “(the) flesh” in v. 6. Thus, to be born “out of water” refers to a natural human birth (i.e., from the flesh); physiologically, it would relate to the child coming out from the water in the mother’s womb (v. 4). Such a water-Spirit contrast had already been established earlier in the Gospel, alluding to the Spirit-saying by the Baptist (Mark 1:8 par), split apart in the Johannine presentation (1:26, 33). This is central to the Jesus-John contrast that runs throughout chapters 1-3, and finds its climax in vv. 22-30ff here.
In verse 7, Jesus makes clear that to be “born of the Spirit” indeed means the same as “born from above” (or “born again”):
“You should not wonder that I said to you (that) it is necessary for you to come to be (born) from above…”
He further expounds what such a spiritual birth means, with an illustration, in v. 8:
“The pneu=ma blows [pnei=] where it wishes, and you hear the voice [i.e. sound] of it, but you have not seen from where it comes, and to where it leads under [i.e. goes away]—so is every(one) having come to be (born) out of the Pneu=ma.“
The noun pneu=ma literally denotes something blowing (or breathing), and can thus variously be translated “wind,” “breath,” or “spirit,” depending on the context. Jesus is making use (in Greek) of a bit of wordplay, by comparing the Spirit (pneu=ma) with the wind (pneu=ma) that blows (vb pne/w). The point of the illustration is that the Spirit is invisible and can not be seen, though one can hear its “voice”. This is an important, but somewhat overlooked, principle of Johannine spiritualism.
The follow-up question by Nicodemus in verse 9 is general in expression: “How is it possible (for) these (thing)s to come to be?” There is perhaps another bit of wordplay here, as the verb gi/nomai (“come to be”) is closely related to genna/w (“come to be [born]”), used by Jesus in vv. 3-8. In terms of the message and purpose of the Discourse, the question means: how does a person come to be born “from above” —that is, born of the Spirit?
As is often the case in the Johannine Discourses, Jesus never answers the question directly. From the literary standpoint, the question serves as the springboard for Jesus’ exposition of his prior saying/teaching.
Important Johannine themes are expressed through this exposition, beginning (vv. 10-12) with a contrast between the “earthly” (e)pi/geio$) and the “heavenly” (e)poura/nio$), a variation of the essential Johannine dualism, presented in spatial terms (i.e., below/above). In referring to “the (thing)s upon the earth” (ta\ e)pi/geia, i.e. earthly things), Jesus presumably has in mind the immediate illustration (from the natural world) in v. 8 (cf. above). However, the terminology also represents an entire way of thinking and speaking, embodied in the religious-cultural mindset of Nicodemus, including the manner in which he views Jesus (as a prophetic teacher, v. 2). At the same time, John the Baptist is also an example of a witness (to Jesus) who speaks on the earthly plane (v. 31, etc), but giving a more accurate testimony as to Jesus’ identity. If one cannot accept the basic testimony regarding who Jesus is (v. 11), it will not be possible to understand deeper spiritual truths.
In the remainder of the discourse, Jesus comes closer to answering Nicodemus’ question. The “earthly” witness indeed reflects (and points to) the “heavenly” reality, defined in Christological terms. Jesus identifies himself as the (pre-existent) Son who comes from God (the Father) in heaven. He is thus “heavenly” and represents the “heavenly things”. In verses 13-15, this is expressed, in more traditional terms, through the expression “Son of Man”, referring to a heavenly (Messianic) figure who comes to earth as an end-time redeemer/deliverer for God’s people. On this Messianic figure-type, derived principally from Daniel 7:13-14, cf. my earlier article (and note) in the series “Yeshua the Anointed”.
In verses 16-21, Jesus is identified more precisely as the “Son of God”, sent (from heaven) to earth by God the Father. The expression “Son of God”, while still having Messianic import (cf. Part 12 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”), also carries a deeper theological meaning, particularly in the context of the Johannine Christology.
The answer to Nicodemus’ question is that a person is “born of the Spirit” when one trusts (vb pisteu/w) in Jesus’ identity as the Son (of God) sent by the Father. This is the message in the second part of the exposition (vv. 16-21), while, in the first part (vv. 13-15), this same message is expressed in terms of ‘seeing’ (i.e. recognizing) the nature and identity of Jesus in his being “lifted up” (i.e., his death, resurrection, and exaltation).
It is not immediately clear that this relates back to the specific idea of being born of the Spirit. However, the Gospel writer returns to this theme, in vv. 31-36, following the inclusion of the historical-traditional Baptist material in vv. 22-30. This literary arrangement has long puzzled commentators, but I believe that it is a product of the thematic framework that governs chapters 1-3 as a unit in the Gospel. In order to obtain a proper understanding, it is necessary to continue our discussion through a set of exegetical (daily) notes on vv. 31-36.