This is one of the most important discourses in the New Testament, and I think one of the most misunderstood.
1 Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. 2 This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do, unless God is with him.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” 4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” 5 Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born anew.’ 8 The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes; so it is with every one who is born of the Spirit.” 9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can this be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand this? 11 Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen; but you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven but he who descended from heaven, the Son of man. 14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” 16 For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. 18 He who believes in him is not condemned; he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. 20 For every one who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. 21 But he who does what is true comes to the light, that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been wrought in God
The misunderstanding centers around one word – anew (ἄνωθεν – anothen), this is one of those words that can be translated in different ways, most have chosen to take it, in this case, as “anew” or “again” – meaning that one must be “born again” or a second time. I think this comes from Nicodemus’ response “Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb“, in an attempt to make him seem more confused than he really was. Again, my conjecture.
In other places ἄνωθεν is translated “from above” (Jn 3:31, Jn 19:11, etc.) it is only in this discourse that the other translation (new, again) was selected, and I think that is a grave mistake. It is clear from Jesus’ statements that he is talking of a birth from above, a heavenly, spiritual, birth, and I don’t think this was lost on Nicodemus, he just wasn’t sure how this was to come about. Remember, this is early on in John’s narrative, Chapter 3, the Cana wedding was just past (Jesus had not performed any miracles before Cana, nor afterwards before his meeting with Nicodemus), and had just chased the money changers out of the temple with the declaration “I will rebuild this temple…”. It is that evening that Nicodemus comes to speak with Jesus, to question him about his teachings.
This entire discourse is done in a flowery language, Jesus is saying that to be saved one has to be “born from above”, and Nicodemus is asking “how do we do that?” He is asking an academic question, remember that Nicodemus is from an elite, learned group…the Pharisees. He is asking for guidance in achieving this goal, much like the discourse between St. Seraphim and Motovilov (A Pilgrim’s Journey), these are two very wise men having an intellectual discussion, and John has chosen to present it as such.
Jesus then goes into a lengthy explanation of why one needs to be “born from above”, why our material birth isn’t enough, why we must undergo a spiritual change, a rebirth. At the end, again, our translations do not do justice to Nicodemus. Usually his question is translated, “How can this be?” when the more literal translation is, “How is this rebirth to occur?”, or, “What do we need to do to experience this birth from above?” Jesus then shows his astonishment that the Pharisees haven’t figured this out, that they are so ignorant of what God wants from us. He tells Nicodemus that he (Jesus) doesn’t understand how they can listen to what he has taught, seen what he is doing, and yet not understand what he is saying. He is hoping that they will make the connection between Scripture and himself.
Jesus then explains why he is here, why God sent him, that he is not here to condemn us, but to save us, to show us the way. That those who desire the spiritual rebirth need only listen and follow. We know from history that Jesus was very convincing, that Nicodemus becomes one of Jesus’ closest followers (though in secret), that he tries to defend Jesus before the Sanhedrin, and claims his body after the crucifixion.
To close this out we must look at what is not so much a mistranslation as a misunderstanding of another word – sign (σημεῖα – semeia). In most cases the understanding of this word is “miracle” and that’s okay, but when it is used in a case like this, where Nicodemus is talking about “signs” before Jesus has done any miracles other that at Cana (remember, it wasn’t a public miracle that most knew about) we must reconsider how to translate it. Generically σημεῖα means something that is done that has meaning beyond the obvious, an event with a special meaning. In this case Nicodemus is referring to what happened in the courtyard – the cleansing of the temple, let’s reread Nicodemus statement, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one could do what you did (in the Temple) unless God is with him.” It would, certainly, take a miracle (of sorts) to chase the merchants out of the Temple grounds, with the Temple guards and Pharisees there watching. This wasn’t the Jesus of three years hence when arresting him would create a public outcry, this was a Jesus just at the cusp of his ministry. To be able to accomplish this a person would have to have God on his side.