An Important Parallelism in John 3

In John 3, there are debated questions about the “new birth.”  For instance, what does it mean to “see” the kingdom of God (3:3)?  And, what does it mean to be “born of water and the Spirit” (3:5)?

We should note an important parallelism between Jesus’ words in 3:3 and 3:5 that seems to shed light on such questions.  Since both verses begin with “I tell you the truth,” I will focus on what comes after those phrases.

We must put v. 3 and v. 5 in a symmetrical arrangement:

V. 3: “No one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.”

V. 5: “No one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit.”

I’ve italicized certain above phrases in order to emphasize certain parallels.  Let’s make 2 observations:

First, “see” is parallel with “enter.”  When Jesus speaks of “entering” the kingdom, then, he is explaining what he means by “seeing” it.

Second, being born “again” means to be born “of water and the Spirit.”  This solves what seems to be an enduring interpretive issue.  Some wonder, does Jesus refer to natural birth with the word “water” and then spiritual birth with the word “Spirit”?  The parallelism denies that view.  Instead, the words “of water and the Spirit” all refer to the new birth.

These observations may provoke further questions, and that’s good.  At least by viewing these verses in parallel form, we will be asking the right questions.

…Questions such as:

(1) Does one enter the kingdom now by faith, or at the end when the fullness of God’s kingdom comes?

(2) How does being born again by “water” relate to being born again by “the Spirit”?  Are these two separate acts that bring about the new birth, are they two ways of speaking of the same things, or are the two complementary notions?  Does this “water” reference have anything to do with baptism?  And since the Greek word for “spirit” can refer to the human spirit or the Holy Spirit, how do we know which one Jesus meant?

But those are questions for a later day.


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