Jesus is famous for his metaphors and earthy teaching–mustard seed, building foundation, lilies of the field and other such niceties. But if we look properly, we find he also used some rather crude, dare I say vulgar analogies to describe the most important of all spiritual realities.
I’m thinking about John this week–reading through it, and also specifically John 3 because it was the subject of the small group lesson at the church I visited on Sunday. John 3 is a favorite of many because of the clarity of John 3:16 for summarizing the key divine attribute, the missio dei, and the responsibility of people to believe. However, there is a lot going on here. Not the least of which I have enumerated below for your reading pleasure.
1. Nicodemus is an important person. That is why we learn his name (unlike the woman at the well (John 4) or the man born blind (John 9). He makes a couple of other cameo appearances in John, the most important of which is at the burial of Jesus. It appears he aided Joseph of Arimathea in burying Jesus. It is odd that he doesn’t appear in Acts, but that might be because he was killed early due to his high profile position. It would be neat if he was one of the 120 in the upper room, and it makes logical sense.
2. Born again is an ambiguous term. Reborn would be a good way to translate it, so too would be “heavenly born” as the word “again” can also mean “from above.” To be born again means that you are born as a child of God in the 1 John 3:1 kind of way.
3. Now back where I started this blog–Jesus actually uses rather delicate language to describe the issue. Of much debate is the role of “water” in verse 5 when Jesus elaborates on what being born from above means. People try to sanitize this spiritually, I think by saying it is a reference to baptism. Jesus has baptism in mind, I think, but it is not here. Water here may mean semen as the seed of birth or it might refer to a pregnant woman’s ‘water breaking’ at the onset of child birth. Either way, it is an earthy image that Nicodemus would have gotten. In case Nicodemus didn’t, Jesus spells it out. Notice the two verses (ESV, bold and italics mine)
 Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, 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.
I find in these verses typical Hebrew parallelism. Water is flesh, spirit is spirit (or the wind, v. 8) Flesh likely means sex.
4. Here is where I think it really comes together with baptism, and that is the way Jews of the first century understood baptism. Baptism was not a novel concept, but an old practice used to symbolize the birthing process for non-Jews who were undergoing the process of adopting Judaism as their faith. After such baptism a person was referred to as a child of Abraham (c/f 1 John 3:1). Jesus is arguing that not just non-Jews, but even Jews, need to be baptized as an act of repentance and belief in order to begin this rebirthing process. Baptism is the key to being born from above. The testimony of John the Baptist at the end of the chapter punctuates this point.
5. These are complicated lines of thought but Nicodemus, a teacher, should understand the symbolism of it all. This is not simplistic stuff here but very nuanced ideas. We do violence to the text if we try to make it simple and easy. It is not, so much so that Nicodemus, though sympathetic and learned, did not readily understand. Specifically NIcodemus and the teachers in Israel had not embraced John’s baptism.
6. The reference of the serpent, in the desert, alludes to the weird tale in Numbers 21:4-9 where the great plague broke out and a snake is put on a pole for healing (for a cross-cultural religious parallelism, consider Asclepius) to the Jews who had sinned. Again, Jesus is laying out bread crumbs. Just like with semen, bursting birthing fluid, and wind even Scripture has a deeper spiritual revelation in Christ and his mission.
7. One more thought. I don’t care what your red-letter Bible says, Jesus stops talking most definitely after verse 15 (and maybe even verse 12). John the evangelist is the one who synthesizes the complicated message Jesus was communicating to Nicodemus in verses 16-21 with his typical symbolism of light, truth, and love. We cherish verse 16, but look at the whole thing again and you might find that verse 21is the best summary–our works show whether or not we are ‘born from above’–carried out, or worked–birthed by God.