John 3:1-17

Commentary Excerpt by Tom Boomershine

The verbal threads are first of all Jesus' two statements: "Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born again from above," and then, "No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born again from above." The next element of connection for being "born again from above" is when Jesus says "Don't be astonished that I said to you, you must be born again from above" which is a verbal thread connecting to his first statement. Both of these are expositions of the first statement/puzzle that Jesus gives to Nicodemus.

Another verbal thread, which connects the last two episodes, is the Son of Man and the Son. In the first case, "except the one who has descended from heaven, the Son of Man"and then "the Son of Man must be lifted up, that whoever believes in him;" later "God gave his only son" and "God didn't send the son into the world." These verbal threads connect the often puzzling elements of this story.

The motif that connects the first three episodes of this story is being born again from above. Some translations have "born again" (KJ, NIV) and some have "born from above"(NRSV). This is because the Greek word anothen means both "above" and "again" and both are implied here but normal translation process requires that you translate with only one word. I think it's best to use both words, so in my opinion, "being born again from above" is the best translation. If you translate only "from above," which is the major theme in John and the best one word translation into English, Nicodemus' response—"How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can anyone enter a second time into the mother's womb and be born again?"— doesn't make any sense. Nicodemus hears the word as meaning "again" while Jesus’ major meaning is “from above.”

It is very possible that there is an element of laughter in Nicodemus saying, "How can anyone be born after growing old?" It could have been told as a kind of joke to which Jesus then responds with a somewhat playful response. Regardless of the implied humor,this is rabbinic repartee. It is mutual exploration. There is an element of delight in Jesus saying provocative things that people don't understand and are then invited to explore.This is his way: he invites others to join him in exploring the mysteries of the kingdom of God. I think that spirit is more appropriate than that Jesus is making a series of profound statements. There is a sense of playfulness and rabbinic joy in his statements here. And so his response to Nicodemus, "You are a teacher of Israel and yet you don't understand these things?" is not a critique, but a nudge spoken with respect. A little Yiddish accent there would be just fine.

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