By Derrick Olliff
There was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to Him, “Rabbi, we know that You are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.”Jesus answered and said to him, “Most assuredly, I say to you [sing.], unless one [sing.] is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
Nicodemus said to Him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?”
Jesus answered, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you [sing.], ‘You [pl.] must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
Nicodemus answered and said to Him, “How can these things be?”
Jesus answered and said to him, “Are you [sing.] the teacher of Israel, and do not know these things? Most assuredly, I say to you [sing.], We speak what We know and testify what We have seen, and you [pl.] do not receive Our witness. If I have told [aorist] you [pl.] earthly things and you [pl.] do not believe [present], how will you [pl.] believe [future] if I tell [aorist] you [pl.] heavenly things? No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of Man who is in heaven. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” (John 3:1-16)
In Protestant circles, the meaning of the first half of John 3 is well known. In this passage, Jesus taught Nicodemus about the necessity of personal regeneration. The subject is thought to be about how individuals are saved. They are “born again”–transformed in the inner man so that those who formerly rebelled against God are now faithful to him (principally by believing in Jesus). Without addressing the whole subject of “inner transformation,” I would like to present a different reading of what Jesus meant by being “born again.” (I think this phrase should really be translated “born from above” but this will not affect what follows.)
I don’t think the typical Protestant interpretation of the first half of John 3 does justice to what Jesus said because it contains two errors. The first error relates to whom the passage is addressed. The standard Evangelical view sees this need for regeneration being directed to individuals in general. Instead, I believe that the object of rebirth being spoken of here was the nation of Israel. The second error relates to the subject at hand. I don’t think the subject in this passage is the kind of inner transformation that Protestants usually talk about. Jesus was not here giving a timeless description of how an individual is inwardly transformed from one who hates God to one who loves God. Rather, He was describing the historical fulfillment of specific things promised under the old covenant. He was talking about a transformation from the old covenant order to the new covenant order.
To begin with, we should notice an unusual point of grammar in the text. An individual came to Jesus by night to talk to him, and the whole conversation was between Jesus and this one man. But in verse 7, Jesus shifted from the singular “you” to the plural “you.” “Do not marvel that I said to you [sing.], ‘You [pl.] must be born again.’” This change would have been noticeable to Nicodemus because either the pronouns are different words (unlike the English word ‘you’) or the verbs are conjugated differently.
I believe that when we consider who Nicodemus was, the shift in grammar shouldn’t seem all that strange. In the quotation, we find that Nicodemus was both a “teacher of Israel” (v. 10) and a “ruler of the Jews” (v. 1). In other words, he was a representative of Israel. Along these lines, the trouble he had with Jesus’ words reflected the general unfaithfulness and unbelief within Israel at that time. The unbelief mentioned in verse 12 was Israel’s unbelief, and it was ultimately Israel as a nation (not simply individuals qua individuals) that needed to be born again. The text begins with Jesus’ telling the individual ruler and representative of Israel that he needed to be born again, but this was functionally equivalent (as the plural grammar in verses 7 and 12 show) to Jesus talking about Israel’s need for regeneration. So we can understand verse 7 as saying, “Do not marvel that I said to you Nicodemus, ‘Israel must be born again.’” And though verse 11 tells us that Jesus was talking to the individual Nicodemus, verse 12 tells us that He was actually talking to and about Israel (all of the 2nd person pronouns in verse 12 are plural).
This identification of the object of rebirth as national Israel becomes quite explicit when we notice that Jesus was not talking about something new. He incredulously asked the teacher, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and do not know these things?” (3:10) Jesus was not only talking about something that Nicodemus should have known from the OT Scriptures, it was something that should have been rather obvious to him. But if we search the scriptures for references to a water/Spirit regeneration, we will not find anything related to the general, personal, inner transformation of individuals as individuals. Instead, we will find that there are only two OT passages that directly describe what Jesus was talking about, and those passages record the specific promise of Israel’s national rebirth/restoration.
The first passage is from the prophet Isaiah.
Yet hear me now, O Jacob My servant,
and Israel whom I have chosen.
Thus says the Lord who made you
and formed you from the womb, who will help you:
“Fear not, O Jacob My servant;
and you, Jeshurun, whom I have chosen.
For I will pour water on him who is thirsty,
and floods on the dry ground;
I will pour My spirit on your descendants,
and My blessing on your offspring;
they will spring up among the grass
like willows by the watercourses.” (Is. 44:1-4; emphasis added)
The second passage is from the prophet Ezekiel.
“Therefore say to the house of Israel, ‘Thus says the Lord GOD: “I do not do this for your sake, O house of Israel, but for My holy name’s sake, which you have profaned among the nations wherever you went. And I will sanctify My great name, which has been profaned among the nations, which you have profaned in their midst; and the nations shall know that I am the LORD,” says the Lord GOD, “when I am hallowed in you before their eyes. For I will take you from among the nations, gather you out of all countries, and bring you into your own land. Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will keep My judgments and do them….‘Thus says the Lord GOD: “On the day that I cleanse you from all your iniquities, I will also enable you to dwell in the cities, and the ruins shall be rebuilt. The desolate land shall be tilled instead of lying desolate in the sight of all who pass by. So they will say, ‘This land that was desolate has become like the garden of Eden; and the wasted, desolate, and ruined cities are now fortified and inhabited.’…
The hand of the LORD came upon me and brought me out in the Spirit of the LORD, and set me down in the midst of the valley; and it was full of bones. Then He caused me to pass by them all around, and behold, there were very many in the open valley; and indeed they were very dry. And He said to me, “Son of man, can these bones live?”
So I answered, “O Lord GOD, You know.”
Again He said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them, ‘O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD! Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: “Surely I will cause breath [or “spirit” throughout this passage] to enter into you, and you shall live. I will put sinews on you and bring flesh upon you, cover you with skin and put breath in you; and you shall live. Then you shall know that I am the LORD.”’”
So I prophesied as I was commanded; and as I prophesied, there was a noise, and suddenly a rattling; and the bones came together, bone to bone. Indeed, as I looked, the sinews and the flesh came upon them, and the skin covered them over; but there was no breath in them.
Also He said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath, ‘Thus says the Lord GOD: “Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they may live.”’” So I prophesied as He commanded me, and breath came into them, and they lived, and stood upon their feet, an exceedingly great army.
Then He said to me, “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They indeed say, ‘Our bones are dry, our hope is lost, and we ourselves are cut off!’ Therefore prophesy and say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord GOD: “Behold, O My people, I will open your graves and cause you to come up from your graves, and bring you into the land of Israel. Then you shall know that I am the LORD, when I have opened your graves, O My people, and brought you up from your graves. I will put My Spirit in you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I, the LORD, have spoken it and performed it,” says the LORD.’” (Ezek. 36:22-27, 33-35; 37:1-14)
What the prophets proclaimed here is not a general, timeless description of how the thoughts and desires of individuals get transformed via a personal conversion. This is not a generic picture of an unbeliever who gets converted to trust in God. Rather, it is a promise and prediction of a specific event that would happen to the nation of Israel. Throughout the books of Isaiah and Ezekiel, the prophets presented Israel with the judgments of God. The nation had apostatized from God. But along with this judgment and desolation, God would provide a new birth for the nation.
Isaiah began by calling Israel “Sodom” and “Gomorrah” (1:10). Israel had become one of the pagan nations. God had created the vineyard of Israel but it had brought forth wild grapes and would be destroyed (5:1-7). This would be the death of Israel (9:13-19). But God would deliver Jerusalem with a new exodus (31:4, 5). The people would mourn and desolation would come upon the land until God poured out the Spirit from on high and the wilderness became a fruitful field (32:12-15). This would in fact be the “gospel”: the good news that God would return to Israel and restore her (40:9-11). This new exodus/creation would make the old one pale in comparison (43:16-20). God would pour His water and Spirit upon His people so that they would grow again (Is. 44:1-4), and the mysterious servant “Israel” would bring salvation to the nation of Israel and to the world (49:1-7). This was the gospel of the kingdom of God. The Lord would return to Israel to restore her and to reign (52:1-10).
Ezekiel told the people that God would make Judah’s land more desolate than a wilderness (6:14). The end had come for Judah; she was going to die (7:5-8). God would perform a new Passover. The remnant would be marked on the forehead and passed over, but the rest of Judah–the new Egypt–would be killed (9:3-7) and God would leave His people (10). Samaria had played the adulterous harlot and would therefore receive the death penalty at the hands of Assyria (23:5-10). Judah had also played the adulterous harlot, and she would likewise receive the death penalty at the hands of the Babylonians (23:11-25). Both would be stoned and killed (23:44-47). But the desolate land of Israel would be reborn and re-inhabited (36:1-12). God would gather His scattered people back to the land, sprinkle clean water on them to cleanse them, and put a new spirit within them (36:22-28). This would be the resurrection of Israel (37:1-14).
This is why Jesus was so incredulous with Nicodemus. Any Jew should have known this story rather well. For a teacher of Israel to be ignorant of this was a bad sign. At any rate, we should see that Jesus was not talking about individuals per se but about Israel as God’s chosen nation. It is of course truth that a nation is made up of individuals, but the point here is that the texts focus on and discuss the nation as a whole instead of focusing on individuals. Neither was Jesus giving a general description of a transformation that happens in numerous times and places. Rather, He was talking about a single promised event–the OT gospel promise that God would restore wayward Israel. Jesus told the teacher and ruler of Israel that Israel needed to be reborn of water and the Spirit before she could see or take part in the promised gospel of the kingdom of God.
There is one more important point that should be made about John 3. No one would describe the standard Evangelical doctrine of rebirth as an “earthly thing.” In Protestant circles, being “born again” is clearly a “heavenly thing.” Yet in His conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus did in fact call the rebirth an earthly thing. Notice again what verse 12 says. “If I have told [aorist] you earthly things and you do not believe [present], how will you believe [future] if I tell [aorist] you heavenly things?” Nicodemus was in real trouble. If he had been told about earthly things that were easily found in the scriptures and yet did not believe, how would he believe when Jesus told him of heavenly things that were perhaps not so clear in the scriptures? Thus, Jesus had told the teacher of earthly things but He had not yet told him of heavenly things. And what were the “earthly things” that Jesus told Nicodemus about? Up to that point, Jesus had only talked about the rebirth. But how could He refer to such a “spiritual” concept as an “earthly” thing?
I believe this helps to show from another angle that Jesus wasn’t talking about the same thing that Evangelicals talk about when they use “born again” language, but we should notice what happens after verse 12 to fully answer this question. That verse contains the first use of the word ‘heaven’ in the conversation. But then Jesus when on to use the word three times in the very next sentence! “No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of Man who is in heaven” (3:13). He then proceeded to talk about the Son of Man being “lifted up.” When we consider the gratuitous use of the word ‘heaven’ just after Jesus made a distinction between earthly things that had been mentioned and heavenly things that had not yet been mentioned, we should have no trouble seeing verse 13 and following as the “heavenly things.”
I believe that we now have what we need in order to really understand what Jesus was saying. In verses 3-11, Jesus told Nicodemus about “earthly things”–the necessity of Israel’s promised restoration from sin and exile. Beginning in verse 13, He taught the teacher about “heavenly things”–the Son of Man who would die, rise again, and ascend to heaven as the Lord of all.
What we have here is nothing less than a description of the promised new heavens and new earth (Is. 65:17-25). This was the goal of all of the restoration work mentioned throughout Isaiah. Israel and the nations were corrupt, and God would judge and destroy them. This would be a cataclysmic “de-creation” of the world (e.g., Is. 13:9-13; 24:1-6, 17-23; 34:4). But after this “death” of the world, God would bring life from the dead. God’s suffering Servant would bring salvation to Israel and to the world (Is. 42:1-9; 49:1-7; 52:13-53:12; 56:1-8). Israel would be reborn and restored, and this would include life for the world. After destroying the old heavens and earth, God would create them anew.
This restoration was what Jesus was talking about. The suffering Servant had come to give His life so that new life would be breathed into Israel and the world. It is the promised new heavens and earth. The heavens are new because a man, the “Son of Man”, now rules over all from heaven. This had never been the case before Jesus took our nature upon Himself, died, and was resurrected and exalted to be the King of kings (Phil. 2:5-11). The earth is new because Israel has been raised from the dead. And as the prophets promised, this new earth includes the ingathering of the nations into the covenant. The new covenant in Jesus is the new heavens and new earth.
There is one final point that should be made here. If this rebirth of water and Spirit was a specific promise to Israel, can we identify when it occurred? I believe we can. Jesus came to fulfill this promise, but something quite important had to happen first.
On the last day, that great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried out, saying, ‘If anyone thirsts, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’ But this He spoke concerning the Spirit, whom those believing in Him would receive; for the Holy Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified” (John 7:37-39).
The promise of a water/Spirit restoration had not yet come to Israel, because Jesus had not yet given His life as the ransom and been resurrected from the dead. (Here again we can see that this is not referring to a generic, timeless transformation of individuals from unbelief to belief but instead to a specific historical event that was to come.) But 50 days after Jesus’ glorification, the stage was set. Many Jews from all over the Roman Empire were in Jerusalem for Pentecost when “there came a sound from heaven, as of a rushing mighty wind” (Acts 2:2). The Jews “were all filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:4) and began to speak in other languages. Peter then explained that this was the “last days” effusion of the Spirit prophesied by the prophet Joel (Acts 2:14-21). He then proclaimed that it was the resurrected Jesus who “poured out what you now see and hear” (Acts 2:33). Many were convicted and asked what they should do. Peter replied that they should “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call.” (Acts 2:38, 39)
This was the rebirth that was promised by Ezekiel and described by Jesus. God had promised this water/Spirit resurrection of Israel, and on the Pentecost after Jesus’ glorification, He kept His word and began to breathe life into Israel’s dry bones. The waters of baptism, quickened by the Holy Spirit, begot many faithful Jews into the kingdom of God by uniting them to the King and to His body (cf. Matt. 28:18-20; Rom. 6:3-5; I Cor. 12:13; Gal. 3:26, 27). And throughout Acts, we are told of the effects of this event as the Pentecostal rebirth of Israel spread first to many Jews (“the promise is to you [Jews] and to your children”) and then on to the nations as the prophets had foretold (“the promise is to… all who are afar off”, e.g., Acts 10:44-47; 19:2-6).
Now having said all of this, I would like to conclude with what I am not saying. I am not denying the existence of personal transformation. When someone who formerly hated God comes to love Him, something obviously happened to his “deepest” desires, motivations, etc. The change may have been dramatic (e.g., conversion of a mafia hit man) or not (e.g., the child born into a Christian home who never knows a day when he doesn’t love God) and it may have been sudden (e.g., the “lightning strike” experience) or not, but such transformations do occur. God does convert people who hate Him into people who love Him; He does transform people’s strongest desires.
And in line with what has just been said about the spread of Pentecost in Acts, we can see the transformation of individuals today as that which flows from the creation of the new heavens and earth. There is a clear analogy between Israel’s rebirth/resurrection and our own (with both flowing from the foundational resurrection: the resurrection of Jesus). And so the Bible presents discussion of more personal application in passages like Eph. 2:1-6 and I Pet. 1:22, 23. The new creation order is as follows. Jesus was resurrected and ascended to heaven to claim His inheritance as Lord of all. He is the “firstborn
from the dead” (Col. 1:18; Rev. 1:5). He then sent the Sprit to breathe new life into Israel. This new life then flowed to the nations. And this objective shift in the world-order provides the conceptual theme of rebirth/resurrection that we can then apply to individuals. (E.g., notice the order in Ephesians. Eph. 1:19-23 describes Jesus’ resurrection and ascension. Then Eph. 2:1-6 describes our resurrection and ascension.)
But the point of this paper is that in John 3, Jesus was not giving a general description of such individual transformation. Rather, He was describing the specific, historical rebirth that God promised would happen to Israel. Technically speaking, the nation had come back into the land after the Babylonian captivity. But in a real sense, it was still in exile. It was captive to Rome, and it was full of unfaithfulness and rebellion. Israel was a nation of dry bones and she needed the cleansing water and life-restoring Spirit in order to enter the kingdom of God, the promised new heavens and earth. This event had not yet occurred when Jesus talked to Nicodemus, and it would not occur until after Jesus–the true Servant and Israel of God–had been resurrected. He was the firstborn from the dead, and from that rebirth came Israel’s rebirth and life for the world.