The following images are my visual commentary on John 3:1-21.
It is important to remember that John tells stories in pairs. We can understand the dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus best when we keep in mind the upcoming story of Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well in John 4:1-42. Notice that Nicodemus is in the dark, while the woman is in the light of day.
Again, the story begins with an apparently clandestine meeting of a religious leader and Jesus in the dark of night. This is theologically significant for John.
It is hard to know the tone in which Nicodemus speaks these words. Does he believe that Jesus is from God, or is he being sarcastic or cynically suspicious of Jesus’ signs?
Jesus turns Nicodemus’ words on him. “You think I am from God (my insertion), but you can’t even see the Kingdom of God unless you are born from above.”
Here we must do a quick word study.
The phrase gennothe anothen was translated “born again” in the King James Version and “born from above” in the New Revised Standard Version. Both translations are accurate. This has created quite a controversy among translators and marks one of the most clear distinctions between the theology of Evangelical churches and that of the Mainline churches.
Having gown up in the Evangelical tradition, having always considered myself a “born again” Christian, and now serving as a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, I sit in a unique place to comment on this translation controversy. Read this post for a deeper look into that journey.
The reason this Greek phrase can be translated both ways is because the term “from above” is not about a spacial difference of up and down, but is more about a distinction of time. To say “from above” may be equivalent to our idiom “take it from the top” which means to begin again. To be “born from above” means to go back to the beginning and be born all over again. It is clear that this is what Jesus intended in the reaction of Nicodemus. He was baffled because he took Jesus literally and scoffed at the idea of reentering his mother’s womb.
Jesus is not making a dualistic distinction between spiritual reality which is above the lowly reality, in a Platonic tone (read more about nondual thinking here). Nor is he literally saying we must become a fetus and be reincarnated. Rather, Jesus is speaking to one of the main themes of John: that the Kingdom of God is about a transformation of one’s perspective. We must hit “reboot” on God’s Kingdom because the Jewish leaders had taken it so far away from God’s original creation.
We’ve already seen this in the first sign of transforming water into wine in John 2:1-12, followed by the cleansing of the temple in John 2:13-25 and a reimagining of where God dwells (read this post).
The new birth of which Jesus speaks is not about the physical mechanics of procreation. It is about a transformation of the heart. It is as elemental as wind/breath and water. It is important to understand that the word for Spirit is the same word for wind and breath in Greek. Go back and read John 3:5-8 and read either wind, breath, or Spirit in all the places these words are used.
Now, let’s return to the born again vs. born from above debate. The division between the Evangelicals and the Mainliners stems from, in my perspective, a misunderstanding of Jesus’ language regarding the Kingdom of God. Jesus said you can neither see nor enter the Kingdom of God unless you are born again of water and spirit. Evangelicals and Mainliners both agree that Jesus seems to indicate that everyone is outside of God’s Kingdom and must enter it through a process of being born again/born from above. The Mainliners see the word water and immediately proclaim “baptism.” “We baptize infants,” they say, “as a sign that our salvation and entrance into the Kingdom of God is a free gift from God and not dependent upon my own decision.” The Evangelicals look at the same text and, reading further in the passage to the language of “to all who believe” and declare, “The only way to enter the Kingdom of God is to believe in Jesus, then you will be born again and you can be baptized.”
Nicodemus is confused by Jesus’ words. That’s because Nicodemus is not thinking in the same terms that Jesus is speaking. Nicodemus is a Religious Leader. He is concerned with who is “in” and who is “out.” He thinks of the Kingdom of God in terms of the physical Kingdom of Israel. To be right with God, according to Nicodemus, is to be a Jew who correctly obeys the Law of Moses. End of discussion.
I think this is where our modern, Western, Protestant debate gets stuck as well. We have reduced the Kingdom of God to a status of “in” or “out” and “going to Heaven when I die” or “not going to Heaven.” The mainliners claim infant baptism as our sign of salvation. The Evangelicals claim a profession of faith and a decision to follow Jesus as our sign of salvation.
What if both perspectives are an exercise in missing the point?
Notice the next thing Jesus says…
Jesus makes a bizarre reference. He alludes to the story of the bronze serpent from Numbers 21:1-9. The Israelites were complaining to God, again, about how much better it was in Egypt. They were impatient with God. Poisonous serpents were sent to infest the camp. People then cried out to Moses, and God told Moses to lift up a bronze serpent. When people looked at the serpent, they were healed.
This is a weird story.
Notice that this story is not about who is “in” the camp or who is “out” of the camp. This is a story about God bringing healing to a whining, complaining people that God loves.
This is a story of new life, not conversion from “out” to “in.”
Jesus alludes to this story, because his story one in which we are about to reboot the scope of what and where we find the Kingdom of God. Jesus came so that we can “take it from the top” and see the world the way God does, through the eyes of a loving creator.
God loves the WORLD, not just the Jews.
Whoever believes has eternal life (we’ll talk about the meaning of eternal life in a later post).
The purpose of Jesus’ mission is not one of condemnation. If that were the case, then we’d all be in trouble. The mission is to save the world from its patterns of self-destruction.
John 3:19-21 introduces another important theme in John. The judgment of God is not a process of God passing judgment on individuals, as if you have to pass a test to “get into Heaven.” The judgment is simply the light of truth. The Light of God exposes truth. God invites us to step out into the light, naked and unashamed, warts and all, and live in truthfulness. Evil hides in the darkness. It cannot stand to be exposed. When humans hide in shame they turn to various acts of violence to protect themselves and stay hidden. Thus the violence and suffering of our world.
Our next story will be one in which a woman stands in the light and it is revealed that she is part of the world that God loves so much. The Kingdom is so much bigger than Nicodemus, or we, can ever imagine. These are heavenly things. These are things as basic as water and breath. God is on the side of life, and this is the Good News. This is the light of the World.
View the 2022 Version of A Cartoonist’s Guide to John 3.
Explore Every Book of the Bible
Find cartoons, illustrations, videos, commentaries, and other helpful information about every book of the Bible.