NRS John 3:1 Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2 He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born again / from above.” 4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” 5 Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and wind/spirit. 6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the spirit is spirit. 7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born again / from above.’ 8 The wind/spirit blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the wind/spirit.” 9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? ” (John 3:1-10 NRS [translation slightly changed])
The Gospel of John (written at the end of 1st century) is a part of The New Testament, i.e. one of Christian canonical writings, regarded by Christians as divinely inspired. The four Gospels are those texts in New Testament that portrait, in narrative way, life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. However, the Gospel of John is widely regarded as that Gospel which is the one least interested in historical background of Christianity, while focused rather on that dimension of human life which one can call spiritual or mystical. This is why many of the stories described in that Gospel should be read as the models of common human existential situations.
In the passage cited above one can find one of the most important ideas concerning the moment of entering spiritual life, namely the idea of the necessity of being born anew /from above (the Greek word anothen has here such a double meaning) or of the water and wind / spirit (pneuma).
The crucial images here are the images of water and wind/spirit. The notion of being born of water and spirit have frequently been read as referring to the Christian rite of baptism through which a person becomes a Christian. However, it need not to be read in such a way. Jesus ironic comment on Nicodemus lack of understanding (“Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?”) indicates that it is the context of Hebrew Bible (called in Christian tradition Old Testament) which should help us to understand the rebirth. The author of the Gospel refers here to the passages in Hebrew Bible where water and wind symbolize Divine action in created realm by which God brings about new life. Such Divine power is called the Ruah JHWH, the Spirit of God.
In this context it should be noted that the distinction between spirit and flesh made by the Gospel of John is not an ontological distinction between two kind of reality (spiritual vs. material), but it is the distinction between all the created reality in so far as it is conceived apart from God and the whole of reality filled with Divine powerful presence. In spite of the focus on the “spiritual”, the author of the Gospel does not diminish the value of the world we live in. He regards all the empirical realities as a signs/symbols of the Divine which is at the same time transcendent and immanent. This is why, given the main focus of the Gospel, its author frequently uses a literary technique based on polysemy of many words (such as birth, wind/spirit, water, light). They may refer to empirical realities as well as point to the Divine. In fact, here, as well as in many other parts of the Gospel, such a double reference plays an important role in the narrative.
The notion of the Kingdom of God is – in this context – a metaphorical one and refers not to any political realm but to the situation in which nothing prevents human beings to experience God’s presence and action in their lives. Entering the spiritual life amounts here to being transformed be the Spirit of God in her/his/its likeness. As such, it is the most liberating event in human life. However, it also leads to discovering the apophatic, incomprehensible dimension of one’s own being.
The “new” birth and entering spiritual life cannot be fully understood, predicted and achieved by human efforts only (the life-giving spirit is beyond comprehension and control). Of course, human person can be more or less open for divine action (e.g. more or less sensitive to signs of divine presence). However, even “professional” familiarity with religious tradition is not sufficient for bringing about (and even understanding of !) the “new” birth.