Part 13 – John 3:3
Again or Above
When we come to the well known encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus we find something strange. The NIV says, “Jesus replied, ‘Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.’” While the NRSV, another very accurate translation in English, says, “Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’” ‘Born again’ or ‘born from above’ – which is it? The rather surprising answer is ‘both!’. The Greek word translated in those two ways can mean either of them with equal force. Both translations give the other interpretation as a footnote but even that is misleading because it seems to indicate that the translation given in the text is primary and the other is secondary, but the word is distinctly ambiguous and can mean either or both. There is no word in English that can carry both meaning like that so the best we can do is probably something like ‘born again from above’.
Both translations go on to say that Nicodemus picked up the ‘again’ possibility and proceeded to comment on that. That would seem to suggest that he thought Jesus meant ‘again’ but he was a clever man and may simply have understood instantly that there are deeper problems with the ‘above’ option and carefully avoided it.
Exactly the same thing is true in our culture. To be ‘born again’ can mean nothing more than to return after a gap to something you used to do and enjoy. So you might be a ‘born again rock-climber’ if you return to that sport after giving it up on getting married and starting a family; but now they are grown up and you don’t feel the same deep responsibility for them so you return to that sometimes dangerous sport. But you cannot play any such tricks on the phrase ‘born from above’.
What did Jesus mean by what he said? Including what did he mean by talking about ‘seeing, or entering, the kingdom of God’?
It is a matter of dimensions. You may be stuck in two dimensions if you think only of being born again. The phrase can mean no more than I have decided to follow Jesus, or I have decided I am a Christian. But if you bring the third dimension into it things are quite different. If you are born from above you have clearly been touched by those who come from ’above’, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. In only a few verses down the page we shall read that Jesus said he was talking about heavenly things, and only a verse or two further and he is talking about how he will be ‘lifted up’. He will be lifted up on the Cross, which will take him out of our two-dimensional world into a greater world of three dimensions. And when we are born again from above we are being touched by the glory of the Cross; by its potent effect in carrying away our sin and broken relationship with the Father; by the way in which it released the Holy Spirit to encourage and empower us provided we are one of those who want to enter the ‘kingdom of God’.
That kingdom is not a place in any sort of worldly sense. It is a sphere of influence where the Triune God, God the Father, the Lord Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit rule. You may live in one of the many countries of this world, divided up as they are by the whim of men, the results of history, by many a reason long forgotten by almost everybody. It doesn’t matter how big, how small, how rich or how poor your country may be and how much you have to participate in it for good or ill. You can be a citizen of heaven a member of the kingdom of God. WOW!