I’ll have to wait to address his lengthier comment, but I’ll tackle his shorter question right now: To make my question more explicit: what I don’t understand is how you reconcile this “physical birth” interpretation in the context of Jesus stating the conditions of entry into the Kingdom. Are you suggesting that it read as, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is physically born and spiritually born, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” Doesn’t seem odd to cite physical birth — something we all have experienced by the virtue of our existence — as a condition to entry into Heaven? Doesn’t that interpretation render the “of water” part of the phrase a moot point? After all, who hasn’t been physically born?
Thanks–I was worried that I wasn’t clear enough in my previous posting. I now know that I was positively muddy!
Here’s the flow of conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus in the NET Bible translation of John 3.5–7:
Jesus replied, I tell you the solemn truth, unless a person is born from above [anothen], he cannot see the kingdom of God.
In this snippet of dialog, Jesus explains the whole shebang: you must be born from above. The word anothen is ambigious in Greek. In this context, it might either mean “from above” or “again”. Recent scholarly translations come down on the side of “from above,” which makes the most sense of the conversation (NET and NRSV are two of the translations: check them out).
Nicodemus said to him, How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter his mothers womb and be born a second time, can he?
Nicodemus doesn’t understand what Jesus is saying. Being born from above doesn’t make any sense to him, but neither does being born again. Evidently, he thinks being born again is the more likely meaning, so he asks Jesus the above question based on that mistaken understanding.
Why would Nicodemus assume that Jesus was talking about physical birth? Because Nicodemus thought his own physical birth was salvific. Nicodemus was trusting in his status as a biological member of God’s chosen peole to assure him of citizenship in God’s Kingdom.
Jesus answered, “I tell you the solemn truth, unless a person is born of water and spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be amazed that I said to you, ‘You must all be born from above.’ ” (John 3.3–7, NET Bible)
Jesus is now trying to help Nicodemus understand his real point–that everyone must be born from above. To that end, he draws a contrast between the physical birth that Nicodemus thinks Jesus is talking about and the spiritual birth that Jesus is driving at.
What evidence is there for this point of view?
1) It makes sense of the flow of conversation. Jesus talks about spiritual birth, Nicodemus thinks he’s talking about physical birth, so Jesus bridges from physical birth back to spiritual birth.
2) “Born of water” is clearly a metaphor for something. Physical birth is the topic being discussed when the metaphor is used, and the metaphor fits.
3) The parallelism in the text itself. The unclear term “born of water” is in parallel construction with “born of flesh”. Using the clear to interpret the unclear, we see that “born of water” means the same thing as “born of flesh.” In other words, being born.
4) It does justice to Nicodemus’ likely frame of mind. Nicodemus thought he was guaranteed access to the Kingdom of God based purely on the accident of his birth as a Jewish person.
I hope that helps.
There are other interpretations out there: just do a search on Google for “born from above.”