3:3 Jesus replied, 1 “I tell you the solemn truth, 2 unless a person is born from above, 3 he cannot see the kingdom of God.” 4 3:4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter his mother’s womb and be born a second time, can he?” 5
3:5 Jesus answered, “I tell you the solemn truth, 6 unless a person is born of water and spirit, 7 he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 3:6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, 8 and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 3:7 Do not be amazed that I said to you, ‘You must all 9 be born from above.’ 10
[3:3] 3 tn The word ἄνωθεν (anwqen) has a double meaning, either “again” (in which case it is synonymous with παλίν [palin]) or “from above” (BDAG 92 s.v. ἄνωθεν). This is a favorite technique of the author of the Fourth Gospel, and it is lost in almost all translations at this point. John uses the word 5 times, in 3:3, 7; 3:31; 19:11 and 23. In the latter 3 cases the context makes clear that it means “from above.” Here (3:3, 7) it could mean either, but the primary meaning intended by Jesus is “from above.” Nicodemus apparently understood it the other way, which explains his reply, “How can a man be born when he is old? He can’t enter his mother’s womb a second time and be born, can he?” The author uses the technique of the “misunderstood question” often to bring out a particularly important point: Jesus says something which is misunderstood by the disciples or (as here) someone else, which then gives Jesus the opportunity to explain more fully and in more detail what he really meant.
[3:3] 4 sn What does Jesus’ statement about not being able to see the kingdom of God mean within the framework of John’s Gospel? John uses the word kingdom (βασιλεία, basileia) only 5 times (3:3, 5; 18:36 [3x]). Only here is it qualified with the phrase of God. The fact that John does not stress the concept of the kingdom of God does not mean it is absent from his theology, however. Remember the messianic implications found in John 2, both the wedding and miracle at Cana and the cleansing of the temple. For Nicodemus, the term must surely have brought to mind the messianic kingdom which Messiah was supposed to bring. But Nicodemus had missed precisely this point about who Jesus was. It was the Messiah himself with whom Nicodemus was speaking. Whatever Nicodemus understood, it is clear that the point is this: He misunderstood Jesus’ words. He over-literalized them, and thought Jesus was talking about repeated physical birth, when he was in fact referring to new spiritual birth.
[3:5] sn Jesus’ somewhat enigmatic statement points to the necessity of being born “from above,” because water and wind/spirit/Spirit come from above. Isaiah 44:3-5 and Ezek 37:9-10 are pertinent examples of water and wind as life-giving symbols of the Spirit of God in his work among people. Both occur in contexts that deal with the future restoration of Israel as a nation prior to the establishment of the messianic kingdom. It is therefore particularly appropriate that Jesus should introduce them in a conversation about entering the kingdom of God. Note that the Greek word πνεύματος is anarthrous (has no article) in v. 5. This does not mean that spirit in the verse should be read as a direct reference to the Holy Spirit, but that both water and wind are figures (based on passages in the OT, which Nicodemus, the teacher of Israel should have known) that represent the regenerating work of the Spirit in the lives of men and women.
[3:6] 8 sn What is born of the flesh is flesh, i.e., what is born of physical heritage is physical. (It is interesting to compare this terminology with that of the dialogue in John 4, especially 4:23, 24.) For John the “flesh” (σάρξ, sarx) emphasizes merely the weakness and mortality of the creature – a neutral term, not necessarily sinful as in Paul. This is confirmed by the reference in John 1:14 to the Logos becoming “flesh.” The author avoids associating sinfulness with the incarnate Christ.