Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, l 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 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?’John 3:5-7
Jesus answered, “Truly, 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. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind 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.”
To be born again is one of the core tenants of Christianity. We’ve all heard the doctrine and marveled at its meaning. How will rebirth grant us the ability to see the Kingdom of God? Many of us have had a similar reaction to Nicodemus and resisted the urge to make wisecracks to nurture our lack of understanding. We obviously can’t crawl back into our Mothers wombs and initiate a physical rebirth right.
However, Nicodemus wasn’t cracking jokes, he was asking for clarification. The phrase we tend to translate as ‘born again’ carries several different meanings depending on the context they’re used in-
(The author of John does this a lot. Almost always with concepts that have strong parallels between the Hebrew and Greek languages)
-The word for ‘again’ is anōthen (ἄνωθεν) and can also imply ‘from above’ and denote things that come from God. Several newer translations even read ‘unless a person is born from above,’ but even that understanding fails to illustrate the depth of Yeshua’s words here. Anōthen also means ‘coming from the first’ and could easily relate to our being ‘born from the beginning.’
When Yeshua clarifies he says:
“unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
Think about Yeshuas words here. To see the Kingdom is to return to the beginning in a sense.
When one recalls Nicodemus ‘came to Jesus by night’ we start to see how this intense search for truth beyond religious darkness is universal. Here, we have a figure who recognized that no one could do these semaino (σημαίνω) ‘signs’- great works of God that point to spiritual truths- unless ‘God is with them.’ Nicodemus eventually leaves his old manners of thinking behind and becomes a follower of Christ. This is the type of devotional tenacity we need to awaken within ourselves if we are to ever join Nicodemus in the place of Divine light and love.
Even now, many of us remain in the dark and insist on seeing this need to ‘be born of water’ as a sign that baptism is necessary for salvation. The Church as we know it today wasn’t even established at this point let alone drafting up ordinances of baptism. No, Yeshua wasn’t even speaking to Christians. He was talking to a Pharisee who observed the law to the letter and was all too familiar with ablution- טְבִילָה; “immersion”- a ceremonial washing performed to correct ritual impurity and restore one to a state of cleanliness.
(This ritual cleansing goes even further back and ties into several different cultures along the way.)
Ablution isn’t just the act of cleaning ones physical body. They tended to be followed by a withdrawal period where rituals and intense forms of meditation were practiced until the person was rendered clean inside and out. These ritual immersions into mayim ḥayyim- living water- were literally written into the Law of Moshe and have always been revered as religious acts, not physical ones, by the Blessed Rabbis of Olde.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE BORN OF WATER?
On the surface, this is a relatively simple question. We are all born sheathed in vernix caseosa- a naturally occurring watery like biofilm covering our skin during the last trimester of pregnancy. When we consider humankind is the only animal born encased in such a substance it makes sense to stop there. After all, ‘that which has been born of flesh is flesh’ can be read as literally as it sounds. Of course, all matter has a singular source including our flesh- water and flesh are two parts of the same- but that’s neither here nor there.
By tying water and Spirit together in relation to the Kingdom of God Yeshua is, once again, alluding to the mystery of our being. We know from the study of scripture that God is a unity. Meditation and introspection reveal that there is something deep within us that is always observing. On some level we all intuitively understand that this silent observer ties into God. What we don’t know is where our conscious observers come from or how they truly relate to the world at large.
See, most of us spend our entire lives living inside our heads dealing with feelings of separation and loneliness, not only from God but from the greater part of humanity itself. We get these brief moments of connection where the very fabric of life seems to be held in a loving embrace of something much bigger than ourselves but experiences like these are rare. For the most part we play the role of silent seekers whose curiosity to know the truth of our being drives much of our spiritual study.
In similar fashion, it was Nicodemus recognizing that Yeshua is ‘a teacher that came from God,’ that led him to seek the Kingdom of Christs teachings beyond his own understanding of God, It was this thirst for living water that he wanted to quench and something within him began to understand only Christ could fill his cup. So he did what all spiritual seekers must ultimately do and sought the source. He let go of his old way of thinking.
Nicodemus was a Pharisee. This implies he was well educated and had devoted his life to religious practice and the study of Mosaic law. We know he was held in high esteem by the body of his community. My mans was a member of the Sanhedrin- The Jewish Council. What this tells us is he possessed the type of status and wealth many people today would love to have. In spite of all that there was something in Yeshua’s rhetoric that called to him.
Think about the fact that Nicodemus was so well versed he was an elder with status among his own Pharisees and the larger assembly around Jerusalem. He, himself was a teacher, and yet he sought Christ to learn whatever truth his own knowledge base was lacking. So this isn’t just a dialectic on the Holy Spirit and the cleansing power of water She represents. This is something deeper.
“To you has been given the mystery of the Kingdom of God, but those who are outside get everything in parables.”Mark 4:1
Next time we’ll dive deep into the waters of Spirit. I just wanted to point out Judaism had a longstanding association between water and Spirit. Yeshua would hardly be handing Nicodemus anything of import by telling him of Ru’ahh HakoDesh, my mans was a Pharisee, he knew.
So what is special in Christs teachings? Think about that.