The nigh-time encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus is an inordinately well known Bible story. In it we have the oddball reference to Moses and the snakes that gets repeated on the Fourth Sunday in Lent in Year B. It also includes those most famous words, “For God so loved the world…” in John 3:16. And last, but certainly not least, we hear from the lips of Jesus the mantra of modern, Evangelical, King James Christianity, “Ye must be born again.” If you’ve never seen these words on a yard sign or a bumper sticker or a billboard or waving at you in a parade, then I wonder about your ability to pay enough attention do drive a car or hold a job or raise a child.
This word is tricky, though. Certainly, Nicodemus interprets one meaning from it “How can anyone be born a second time?” but as noted by A.T. Robertson in his early 20th century Word Pictures “the misapprehension of Nicodemus does not prove the meaning of Jesus.” The Greek word translated as “again” in the King James Version carries several meanings including “from above” and “anew.” In Scripture, it picks up the meaning “again” in Paul’s writings (Galatians 4:9). The note in my Contemporary English Version adds one more possible translation “in a new way.” (p. 1102)
So which is it? This may seem like a cop out, but I think that Jesus could have easily meant for all of the possible meanings to be valid. As we learn from Nicodemus’ questions, what Jesus is saying here isn’t to be taken literally. Instead, Jesus is calling on those who would be his disciples to become children of the Kingdom. It’ll mean being born again, in a new way, from above. It’ll mean shedding our citizenship in this world, giving up all that we cling to for identity: family, career, education, ethnicity, and nationality. Being born again, in a new way, from above means to be so filled with the Spirit that the cares and occupations of this world simply fade away. Jesus calls on Nicodemus, and by extension each of us, to become adopted children in the Kingdom of God.
It is true, “ye must be born again,” but not necessarily in the way the people carrying a KJV sign mean it. Instead, be filled with the Spirit so that you might be born again, in a new way, from above, in the Kingdom of God.