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?”
JOHN 3:4 ESV
4 λέγει πρὸς αὐτὸν ὁ Νικόδημος· Πῶς δύναται ἄνθρωπος γεννηθῆναι γέρων ὤν; μὴ δύναται εἰς τὴν κοιλίαν τῆς μητρὸς αὐτοῦ δεύτερον εἰσελθεῖν καὶ γεννηθῆναι;
JOHN 3:4 SBLGNT
Nicodemus says to Him, How can a man be born when he is old? He certainly cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born? These questions of Nicodemus have sometimes been misunderstood. Hence, this is not mere unspiritual denseness that cannot rise above the idea of physical birth, nor rabbinical skill in a disputation that tries to make Jesus’ requirement sound absurd, which Jesus would never have answered as he did; nor hostility to the requirement of Jesus. Nicodemus puts the requirement laid down by Jesus into words of his own, and by doing this in the form of questions, he indicates where his difficulty lies. He thus actually asks Jesus for further explanation and enlightenment, and Jesus gives him this.
When Nicodemus says gerōn – γέρων ὤν (is old), he is thinking of himself, although his question would apply to one of any age, even to a babe. Hence, this touch indicates that both the conversation is genuinely reported and that one who saw the old man when he said “is old” remembered and wrote it down. The second question elucidates the first. We must note especially the interrogative μή – mē (can), which indicates that the answer can only be a ‘no’ in the speaker’s mind. Therefore, this completely exonerates Nicodemus from the charge that he understood Jesus’ words only as a reference to physical birth; or that he tried to turn those words so that they referred only to such a birth. He does the opposite as if he would say, “I know you cannot and do not mean that!” or, “That much I see.” He perceives that Jesus has in mind some other, far higher kind of birth.
Nevertheless, “how can such a birth take place?” He might also have asked, “What is this birth?” and the “what” would probably have also explained the “how.” He did the thing the other way; he asked, “How,” etc., and the manner, too, involves nature—”how” one is thus born will cast light on “what” this being born is. As in the word of Jesus, Nicodemus also retains the passive, here two infinitives, γεννηθῆναι-ginomai (born), the second after δύναται – koilia (womb). The term κοιλία denotes the abdominal cavity and thus is used for “womb.”
Although Jesus’ word must have struck Nicodemus hard, being uttered, as it was, by a young man to one grown old and grey as an established “teacher” (v. 10), Nicodemus shows no trace of resentment. He neither contradicts nor treats Jesus’ statement as extravagant and ridiculous. He takes no offence, although he feels the personal force of what Jesus says. He does not rise and leave, saying, “I have made a mistake in coming.” He quietly submits to the Word. However, this attitude and conduct are due to the Word itself and its gracious saving power. Changes were gradually going on in this man’s heart, some of them unconsciously; not he but a higher power was active in producing these changes. He was not as yet reborn, nor do we know when that moment came. Jesus was leading him forward, and Nicodemus did not run away.
As Christians, the irony of this discourse is that we sometimes live in an illusion that salvation is eternal, but that statement can allow us a harmful application to our lives. Though sin is forgiven at the point of faith in Jesus, allowing ourselves the view that we may continue to sin is contradictory to the fact that we were ever saved in the first place. Faith comes with the assurance that we have accepted Christ’s grace in forgiving our sins and allowing our objective focus to look to God as our reference.
As we look to God, the Holy Spirit is our helper that keeps our focus on God. The conscience within our souls that mind us of the consequences of sin. Our lives are reoriented towards a corral of boundaries that keep our moral focus within the moral boundaries of God. Boundaries are placed not to restrict but to keep us safe and loved.
Make our lives the temple of the Holy Spirit to be our guide and moral conscience in our daily lives as we battle the temptations of the world to deceive us from our focus in God.