I’ve been thinking about John 3 over the last couple of days. I don’t think Jesus was talking about what Protestants have come to call the ‘regeneration’ of an individual.
He was speaking to a ruler and teacher of Israel about Israel, and he chastised Nicodemus for not knowing what he was talking about, but-
There is nothing like the reformed conception of regeneration by the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament. In fact, the work of the Spirit is limited to only some of God’s people, and-
Nicodemus ought to have been aware of this major theme- probably the theme in the mind of Jews at the time.
Jesus wasn’t speaking about a timeless (and hitherto unknown) Order of Salvation, but of a specific historical event in the life of Israel.
If you’re interested, more here: The Eschatology of Being Born Again
It also seems to me that the flow of the conversation is discounted. Nicodemus speaks of Christ who then answers with a discussion of the Ordo Salutis. That seems a bit odd. It seems more likely to me that Joel Garver had it right when he wrote:
‘Jesus’ speech to Nicodemus points first to his own person as the one preeminently born from above, descending from heaven as the Father’s Son, born of water and Spirit in John’s baptism, receiving the Spirit without measure in that baptism, and who, born of the Spirit, comes mysteriously as the wind. Jesus, after all, speaks only of what he himself knows and has seen (Jn 3:11) and, as Jesus goes on to say, all who desire eternal life—the life of those born from above—must look to the Son of God in faith, thereby finding in him the power to become sons of God (Jn 3:11-21; 1:12-13)’
So Nicodemus is speaking of Christ; Christ continues that conversation about himself, and extends it to Nicodemus (a ruler of Israel) and then the people over whom he rules (plural ‘you’), and then amazingly to the whole world.
Let me try an extended paraphrase. This is how I understand the passage… at the moment, anyway:
Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from above, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.”
‘You’re right’, Jesus said. ‘I come from God; for no one can see that God is now making the world right unless he is born from above.’
‘This world made right?…how can these things really be undone…. How can a person start over when he is old. Can history be undone? Can the clock be wound back? Can he crawl back into his mother and be born a second time?’ the Pharisee asked.
‘Yes, that’s exactly what is happening through me. The clock is being reset- not though a denial of history and history’s dead end, but by the Spirit-of-the-Age-to-Come’s invasion into history. You saw God’s affirmation in my baptism, when I was anointed with Spirit and Water. The New Age is at hand- just as God promised through his prophets. Israel’s dead bones are being brought to life by the Spirit of God. God will sprinkle clean water upon his ancient people, and wash away there iniquity. The exile is over, Nick:
“Therefore say to the house of Israel, ‘Thus says the Lord GOD: “I do not do this for your sake, O house of Israel, but for My holy name’s sake, which you have profaned among the nations wherever you went. … Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will keep My judgments and do them…. The hand of the LORD came upon me and brought me out in the Spirit of the LORD, and set me down in the midst of the valley; and it was full of bones. Then He caused me to pass by them all around, and behold, there were very many in the open valley; and indeed they were very dry. And He said to me, “Son of man, can these bones live?”
So I answered, “O Lord GOD, You know.”
Again He said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them, ‘O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD! Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: “Surely I will cause breath [or “spirit” throughout this passage] to enter into you, and you shall live. I will put sinews on you and bring flesh upon you, cover you with skin and put breath in you; and you shall live. Then you shall know that I am the LORD….
… Then He said to me, “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They indeed say, ‘Our bones are dry, our hope is lost, and we ourselves are cut off!’ Therefore prophesy and say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord GOD: “Behold, O My people, I will open your graves and cause you to come up from your graves, and bring you into the land of Israel. Then you shall know that I am the LORD, when I have opened your graves, O My people, and brought you up from your graves. I will put My Spirit in you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I, the LORD, have spoken it and performed it,” says the LORD.’” (Ezek. 36:22-27, 33-35; 37:1-14)
‘Look around. Can this really happen?’ Nicodemus asked.
‘You’re right; things are bad indeed when a teacher of Israel doesn’t believe in the power of God’s spirit’
‘But,’ Jesus continued, ‘you’ve come to me acknowledging that I am born from above. I’m telling you that God is bringing all of this to pass, and yet though you (by your own admission) have seen it, you don’t believe it. If I tell you things which you ought to already know, and have seen with your own eyes and you don’t believe, then how will you believe what I know, but which hasn’t yet been revealed? The Messiah- the one who will bring all of this to pass- has come from heaven indeed- you have no idea, Nick, and just as Moses lifted up the serpent for the salvation of his people, so will his law lift me up, and anyone who believes that I am the Messiah, will participate in the New Creation of the Age to Come.
It’s true, Nick. The time is here. God isn’t moving to condemn the world. He is making a new beginning for everyone. He is making all things new- not only for you and Israel, but all people- the entire cosmos will be born again by looking to me- the one born from above. Choose Nick, do you love light or darkness; your choice is you’re verdict. Do you believe in me- in what God is doing through me?’