The Birth Dichotomy.

John 3:16 has been one of the most popular bible verses worldwide. I remember back in the mid 90s, a local singer named Jamie Rivera popularized a song which included part of the verse in its lyrics:

For God so loved the world
He gave us His only Son
Jesus Christ our Savior
His most precious one
He has sent us His message of love
And sends those who hear
To bring the message to everyone
In a voice loud and clear

Sadly, however, the message of the verse was cut short in that song. God did not just stop at giving us Jesus, he expected us to respond. While the rest of the song tells us to “spread the love”, it does not shed light on what God’s love really means, and it’s hard to share something we don’t quite understand or even have in the first place.

While John 3:16 is a stand-alone verse,  it is actually the climax of the preceding 15 verses – an unlikely secret encounter between Jesus and the Jewish leader,  Nicodemus. The 5 succeeding verses also expound on its meaning. Their conversations are filled with imagery, with Jesus giving many dichotomous examples between this world and his world.

I have encountered this passage (John 3:1-21) quite a number of times. Yet it was just during our last bible study when I finally connected the dots  and made sense of the context leading up to the world-famous verse.

John 3:1-21

You Must Be Born Again

Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus[a] 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 him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again[b] 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, “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.[c] Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You[d] must be born again.’The wind[e] blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? 11 Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you[f] do not receive our testimony.12 If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.[g] 14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.[h]

For God So Loved the World

16 “For God so loved the world,[i] that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. 20 For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. 21 But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.”

 

For your reference, I have put together below a list of dichotomous things that Jesus compared (in some cases, the other term is implied):

Number A B Verse(s)
1 Nicodemus Jesus 1, 2
2 Jewis Leader  Rabbi “from God” 1,2
3 Earthly kingdom Kingdom of God 3
4 First birth / born from the womb Second Birth / born from above 3,4,7
5 “born of water” “born of the Spirit” 5,6
6 “flesh gives birth to flesh” “Spirit gives birth to spirit” 5,6
7 You we 11
8 Earth Heaven 12
9 Moses/Snake Son of Man 13,14
10 Present life/perishing Eternal life 15,16
11 Unbelief Belief 15,16,18
12 Condemned Saved 17,18
13 Darkness Light 19,20,21
14 Evil God(ly) 19

 

An Unlikely Encounter (verses 1-2)

Nicodemus went to Jesus at night (v1). This was a rare case in the bible, since majority of the gospel narratives occured during the day. Perhaps Nicodemus was just practical – much in the same way that you’d rather ply EDSA at 4am than 4pm. Perhaps he was ashamed to be seen talking to Jesus. He was, after all, a Jewish leader. Whatever the case may be, there was a reason.

Compared to other Pharisees, Nicodemus seemed to respect Jesus much, much more. He acknowledged him, not just as being a Rabbi, but also as being someone who is ”from God” (v2). Jesus neither confirmed nor denied Nicodemus’ salutations, going straight instead to the heart of the matter – what he perceived Nicodemus’ reason was for coming.

Jesus had a penchant for answering people’s questions even before their thoughts were translated into speech. In this case, he goes straight into mentioning what one needs to enter the “kingdom of God”. It’s as if Jesus was making a point: “Okay, you acknowledge that I am from God, now, hear out the message that I have from Him, the message that Israel had been waiting for for so long.”

Of Birth and Nationality (verses 3-4)

I am a Filipino by birth. I became a part of this geo-political classification because I was born in an area under Philippine jurisdiction. Kingdoms back then were somewhat similar to today’s sovereign nations. The most common way of becoming part of a kingdom was to be an organic resident, to have been born there. The original Greek for “born again” in verse 3 more closely translates to being “born from above.” This implied that the kingdom of God was from “above”, in the same way that Nicodemus acknowledged that Jesus was “from God.” It was, for the lack of a better term, a kingdom that was “not of this world”. It was not bound by the geopolitics of earth.

Nicodemus, however, was ever the literalist. His concept of dual citizenship was coming out of your mother’s womb twice. He understood that one had to be born a second time, but did not realize that it was not anymore a physical birth.

Spiritual Birth (verses 5-8)

To become a resident of a kingdom on earth, one needed to come out of his or her mother’s womb. To become a resident of the kingdom of God (or the kingdom from above) one had to be born of the Spirit. The use of two pairs of parallels, “born of water” + “flesh gives birth to flesh” as opposed to “born of the Spirit” + “Spirit gives birth to spirit” indicates that being “born of water” was most likely in relation to physical birth rather than say, water baptism.

In a census, pregnant mothers are not counted as two individuals. An unborn child, therefore, is still considered non-existent in statistics. Perhaps the same could be said of those who are spiritually unborn – those who have not yet been born from above. Yet at this point, Jesus had not yet mentioned the “how” of being born again/born from above. He only mentions that physical birth comes first. He does, however, relate the Spirit to wind.

The wind is mysterious. In an age where man had travelled to space, sent equipment to Mars, invented the internet, supercomputers and nuclear technology,  we still call weather predictions as “forecasts”. We still cannot truly understand the wind. Yet we cannot deny the wind’s existence. So it is with God, His kingdom, and His people. It is something we cannot fully comprehend, yet on the other hand, it is something we can feel and perceive as tangible and very real. Physical birth can be seen; spiritual birth cannot be seen, but can be felt. Someone who had been “born from above” will not necessarily manifest physical changes: no flash of light, no change in appearance; but people around him/her will feel something different – the mark of the Spirit.

Teaching from Heavenly Experience (verses 9-13)

I am a teacher myself. When I teach my students from those things I’ve experienced while working in the  “industry”, it feels so much more authoritative than say, teaching them something that I myself had just read from a book. Jesus was telling Nicodemus about the kingdom of God because Jesus himself came from that very kingdom. This is in stark contrast to all the “teachers of the law” that were alive back then, none of which have experienced the kingdom of God, let alone claim that God had talked to them in person. He used earthly illustrations as parallels to make Nicodemus understand something he had never seen or even imagined before.  It’s like describing snow to someone who had lived in the tropical mountains all their lives, with neither access to television or the internet. Finally, he uses the title that brings his divinity as close as possible to the realm of the physical – the Son of Man.

Prelude to Crucifiction (verses 14-16)

Jesus, being the Son of the King of the “kingdom from above”, now also declares himself as the Son of Man, thus identifying himself with the humans through physical birth. He now explains his mission on earth through the use of a parallelism which Nicodemus was most likely to understand: Moses’ bronze snake (Numbers 21).
It was perhaps an all-too-familiar Jewish story. God’s people rebels and grumbles. God then sends venomous snakes. Certain death awaited those who were bitten, except those who would look at the bronze snake. The parallelism could not have been more stark. Moses’ snake saved those who “looked to it” from certain physical death. Jesus’ being lifted up (or crucified) would save those who would believe in him from certain spiritual death.

And so, this was God’s love: saving the people from “perishing”, and granting unto those who believe the gift of “eternal life”, being part of the “kingdom of God.”

Judgment, Truth, Light, and Love: The challenge (verses 17-21)

What does it mean to believe in Jesus? Surely at this point, Nicodemus was still perplexed. Jesus was prophesying about his own future, something Nicodemus would see in a few year’s time. Yet Jesus was inviting Nicodemus to believe in him now. To believe that everything Jesus said was true or will come true. Jesus challenges Nicodemus that whoever does not believe him will stand condemned and will remain condemned, for in rejecting Jesus, they have rejected God himself. Jesus is the Son of God, the light that exposes everything. He makes things clear as day so that people can clearly decide. Nicodemus came to Jesus “the light”, and now had been “enlightened”, yet he must make a choice – to believe in Jesus’ words and claims, or to turn back and continue his current way of life. Belief would require him to act accordingly.

Belief in Jesus would result in Nicodemus being “born from above”, gaining acceptance into God’s kingdom, receiving eternal life, and being saved instead of condemned.

Questions for reflection:

What does it mean for you to “believe” in Jesus?

Do you consider yourself as someone who “believes” in Jesus? If yes, why do you say so? If no, do you want to believe in him?

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