New Life from Above (John 3.1-15)

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Meet Nicodemus
Nicodemus is immediately introduced as a Pharisee and one of Israel’s leaders, but at this early stage he is not yet sufficiently convinced about Jesus to risk his position. He therefore only approached Jesus “at night”. In 2.23/24 we saw that Jesus was less than enthusiastic about people who believed just because they saw his miracles, but this is exactly Nicodemus’ position. With Nicodemus however his hesitant approach towards faith in Jesus would lead on to more open and definite faith (c.f. 7.50 and 19.39). As so often in John’s Gospel faith and new life in Jesus come little by little as people move towards Jesus and come closer and closer to him. We may remember John’s two favourite prepositions – eis/into and pros/towards: prepositions of movement.
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New Life
Without any shilly-shallying around, Jesus answered Nicodemus with a strong “Truly truly” declaration that people can only see the kingdom of God if they are reborn. The Greek word here (anothen) normally means ‘from above’ (c.f. 3.31; 19.11; 19.23) – was it a misunderstanding by Nicodemus that started the traditional idea of being ‘born again‘? Was Jesus rather thinking of the Spirit pouring out his blessings from above as in Psalm 133 and Isaiah 32.15? Psalm 133 declares that “The Spirit is poured upon us from above” and consequently God’s rich blessings are “like precious oil poured on the head, running down on the beard . . . ” (Isaiah 32.15). In the early pictures of baptism in the Roman catacombs water is poured over the head of the new believer to signify the all-embracing  anointing of the Holy Spirit in new birth from above. So Jesus stresses that we must be born not only naturally and physically (using the picture of water), but it is also the work of the Spirit.
By means of the many repetitions of the word ‘can/cannot’ we are made aware of our human inadequacy. Without God being with them no-one can perform the miraculous signs which Jesus did (3.2); unless we are born from above we ‘cannot see the kingdom of God (3.3). Our inability stands in marked contrast with the two-fold “must” – “the Son of Man must be lifted up” (3.14) and we “must be born from above” (3.7). In the plan and purpose of God it was essential that Jesus should be lifted up in crucifixion and resurrection unto new life like Moses’ brass serpent (Numbers 21.4-9). Although bitten by a poisonous snake, anyone who looked up to that brass serpent would live. Likewise we must look up to Jesus in the cross and resurrection. Then the promise of eternal life comes to us. By looking to Jesus we too “must be born from above”, starting out on that great pilgrimage of eternal life in Jesus and by the Holy Spirit.
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What is that ‘New Life’?
 a) Life of Faith. In his recording of Jesus’ teaching, John constantly emphasizes our faith as the key that unlocks the way to eternal life. By this John means the abundant resurrection life which starts here on earth and continues eternally in the glorious presence of the Father. It is this faith in Jesus which leads to a life of total commitment in following Jesus as our Lord, our Master and our unique way to the Father.
b) The Kingdom of God.  Being born from above by the Spirit is the necessary condition for us to “see the kingdom of God” (3.3). Believing in Jesus means that we begin to live with him as king and we see what it means for his will to rule. Some Christians rightly understand the kingdom rule of God to mean that social, political and economic justice will prevail. Others equally rightly stress the miracle-working and healing power of Jesus as the outworking of his kingdom. In more recent years ecology and environmentalism have come centre-stage as marks of the kingdom rule of God. All such emphases reflect one particular aspect of the kingdom. The kingdom includes all of them, and much more! In the glorious perfection of God’s kingdom all evil, sin and tragedy are overcome. The ideal becomes reality. God’s absolute holiness, grace and love reign supreme.
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‘Believe in Jesus’ – ‘born from above by the Spirit’ – ‘see the kingdom of God’. And now John adds another point. Parallel to seeing the kingdom comes the promise that those who believe in Jesus will “have eternal life” (3.15). ‘Eternal life’ and ‘the kingdom’ are virtually synonymous. Having eternal life goes together with seeing and experiencing the kingdom. We are reminded of our total inability on our own to believe in Jesus, to find eternal life and to experience God’s kingdom. Such gifts are only possible by the working of the Holy Spirit. “The wind/Spirit blows wherever he wants” (3.8). We can never understand or manipulate for ourselves how God’s Holy Spirit will function, but he it is who breathes the new life of Jesus’ resurrection into us.
So we pray, “Come, Holy Spirit!”
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