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John 3:3-12

Context
3:3 Jesus replied, 1  “I tell you the solemn truth, 2  unless a person is born from above, 3  he cannot see the kingdom of God.” 4  3:4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter his mother’s womb and be born a second time, can he?” 5 

3:5 Jesus answered, “I tell you the solemn truth, 6  unless a person is born of water and spirit, 7  he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 3:6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, 8  and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 3:7 Do not be amazed that I said to you, ‘You must all 9  be born from above.’ 10  3:8 The wind 11  blows wherever it will, and you hear the sound it makes, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 12 

3:9 Nicodemus replied, 13  “How can these things be?” 14  3:10 Jesus answered, 15  “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you don’t understand these things? 16  3:11 I tell you the solemn truth, 17  we speak about what we know and testify about what we have seen, but 18  you people 19  do not accept our testimony. 20  3:12 If I have told you people 21  about earthly things and you don’t believe, how will you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 22 

1 tn Grk “answered and said to him.”

2 tn Grk “Truly, truly, I say to you.”

3 tn The word ἄνωθεν (anwqen) has a double meaning, either “again” (in which case it is synonymous with παλίν [palin]) or “from above” (BDAG 92 s.v. ἄνωθεν). This is a favorite technique of the author of the Fourth Gospel, and it is lost in almost all translations at this point. John uses the word 5 times, in 3:3, 7; 3:31; 19:11 and 23. In the latter 3 cases the context makes clear that it means “from above.” Here (3:3, 7) it could mean either, but the primary meaning intended by Jesus is “from above.” Nicodemus apparently understood it the other way, which explains his reply, “How can a man be born when he is old? He can’t enter his mother’s womb a second time and be born, can he?” The author uses the technique of the “misunderstood question” often to bring out a particularly important point: Jesus says something which is misunderstood by the disciples or (as here) someone else, which then gives Jesus the opportunity to explain more fully and in more detail what he really meant.

sn Or born again. The Greek word ἄνωθεν (anwqen) can mean both “again” and “from above,” giving rise to Nicodemus’ misunderstanding about a second physical birth (v. 4).

4 sn What does Jesus’ statement about not being able to see the kingdom of God mean within the framework of John’s Gospel? John uses the word kingdom (βασιλεία, basileia) only 5 times (3:3, 5; 18:36 [3x]). Only here is it qualified with the phrase of God. The fact that John does not stress the concept of the kingdom of God does not mean it is absent from his theology, however. Remember the messianic implications found in John 2, both the wedding and miracle at Cana and the cleansing of the temple. For Nicodemus, the term must surely have brought to mind the messianic kingdom which Messiah was supposed to bring. But Nicodemus had missed precisely this point about who Jesus was. It was the Messiah himself with whom Nicodemus was speaking. Whatever Nicodemus understood, it is clear that the point is this: He misunderstood Jesus’ words. He over-literalized them, and thought Jesus was talking about repeated physical birth, when he was in fact referring to new spiritual birth.

5 tn The grammatical structure of the question in Greek presupposes a negative reply.

6 tn Grk “Truly, truly, I say to you.”

7 tn Or “born of water and wind” (the same Greek word, πνεύματος [pneumatos], may be translated either “spirit/Spirit” or “wind”).

sn Jesus’ somewhat enigmatic statement points to the necessity of being born “from above,” because water and wind/spirit/Spirit come from above. Isaiah 44:3-5 and Ezek 37:9-10 are pertinent examples of water and wind as life-giving symbols of the Spirit of God in his work among people. Both occur in contexts that deal with the future restoration of Israel as a nation prior to the establishment of the messianic kingdom. It is therefore particularly appropriate that Jesus should introduce them in a conversation about entering the kingdom of God. Note that the Greek word πνεύματος is anarthrous (has no article) in v. 5. This does not mean that spirit in the verse should be read as a direct reference to the Holy Spirit, but that both water and wind are figures (based on passages in the OT, which Nicodemus, the teacher of Israel should have known) that represent the regenerating work of the Spirit in the lives of men and women.

8 sn What is born of the flesh is flesh, i.e., what is born of physical heritage is physical. (It is interesting to compare this terminology with that of the dialogue in John 4, especially 4:23, 24.) For John the “flesh” (σάρξ, sarx) emphasizes merely the weakness and mortality of the creature – a neutral term, not necessarily sinful as in Paul. This is confirmed by the reference in John 1:14 to the Logos becoming “flesh.” The author avoids associating sinfulness with the incarnate Christ.

9 tn “All” has been supplied to indicate the plural pronoun in the Greek text.

10 tn Or “born again.” The same Greek word with the same double meaning occurs in v. 3.

11 tn The same Greek word, πνεύματος (pneumatos), may be translated “wind” or “spirit.”

12 sn Again, the physical illustrates the spiritual, although the force is heightened by the word-play here on wind-spirit (see the note on wind at the beginning of this verse). By the end of the verse, however, the final usage of πνεύματος (pneumatos) refers to the Holy Spirit.

13 tn Grk “Nicodemus answered and said to him.”

14 snHow can these things be?” is Nicodemus’ answer. It is clear that at this time he has still not grasped what Jesus is saying. Note also that this is the last appearance of Nicodemus in the dialogue. Having served the purpose of the author, at this point he disappears from the scene. As a character in the narrative, he has served to illustrate the prevailing Jewish misunderstanding of Jesus’ teaching about the necessity of a new, spiritual birth from above. Whatever parting words Nicodemus might have had with Jesus, the author does not record them.

15 tn Grk “Jesus answered and said to him.”

16 sn Jesus’ question “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you don’t understand these things?” implies that Nicodemus had enough information at his disposal from the OT scriptures to have understood Jesus’ statements about the necessity of being born from above by the regenerating work of the Spirit. Isa 44:3-5 and Ezek 37:9-10 are passages Nicodemus might have known which would have given him insight into Jesus’ words. Another significant passage which contains many of these concepts is Prov 30:4-5.

17 tn Grk “Truly, truly, I say to you.”

18 tn Here καί (kai) has been translated as “but” to show the contrast present in the context.

19 tn The word “people” is not in the Greek text, but is supplied in the translation to indicate that the verb is second person plural (referring to more than Nicodemus alone).

20 sn Note the remarkable similarity of Jesus’ testimony to the later testimony of the Apostle John himself in 1 John 1:2: “And we have seen and testify and report to you the eternal life which was with the Father and was revealed to us.” This is only one example of how thoroughly the author’s own thoughts were saturated with the words of Jesus (and also how difficult it is to distinguish the words of Jesus from the words of the author in the Fourth Gospel).

21 tn The word “people” is not in the Greek text, but is supplied to indicate that the verb is second person plural (referring to more than Nicodemus alone).

22 sn Obviously earthly things and heavenly things are in contrast, but what is the contrast? What are earthly things which Jesus has just spoken to Nicodemus? And through him to others – this is not the first instance of the plural pronoun, see v. 7, you must all. Since Nicodemus began with a plural (we know, v. 2) Jesus continues it, and through Nicodemus addresses a broader audience. It makes most sense to take this as a reference to the things Jesus has just said (and the things he is about to say, vv. 13-15). If this is the case (and it seems the most natural explanation) then earthly things are not necessarily strictly physical things, but are so called because they take place on earth, in contrast to things like v. 16, which take place in heaven. Some have added the suggestion that the things are called earthly because physical analogies (birth, wind, water) are used to describe them. This is possible, but it seems more probable that Jesus calls these things earthly because they happen on earth (even though they are spiritual things). In the context, taking earthly things as referring to the words Jesus has just spoken fits with the fact that Nicodemus did not believe. And he would not after hearing heavenly things either, unless he first believed in the earthly things – which included the necessity of a regenerating work from above, by the Holy Spirit.



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