What Does ‘Born of Water and the Spirit’ Mean in John 3:5?

The Gospel Coalition | 7/29/2019 | Don Carson
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The question is important, because it lies at the heart of Jesus’s explanation of “born again,” of new birth, of regeneration. When Jesus first introduces the category (John 3:3), Nicodemus clearly doesn’t understand what Jesus means (3:4 NIV): “How can someone be born when they are old?” he asks. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”

Many people think the question Nicodemus poses shows that he is a rather dimwitted literalist. But that’s almost certainly too harsh. You don’t get to be called “the teacher of Israel” (John 3:10—possibly a title) if you can’t spot the odd metaphor. When he hears Jesus say that to enter the kingdom one must be “born again,” I suspect Nicodemus understands Jesus to mean that we are not good enough to enter the kingdom: we must start over, have a different origin, spring from a different life. Nicodemus thinks Jesus is going too far: people can’t really start over or claim a new life, boast of a new birth, or enjoy a new beginning. Omar Khayyam had it right: “The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ, / Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit / Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line, / Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.”

Moments - Sins - Faults - Man - Man

Most of us have faced moments when we wish we could “start over,” or at least expunge some of our worst sins and faults. “Oh, for a man to arise in me / That the man I am may no longer be,” Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote. Or, as John Clare said, “If life had a second edition, how I would correct the proofs.” Nicodemus perceives the futility of insisting that we must have a new beginning: it’s a bit late to demand a...
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