Short Meditations in John 3: 4. You what?
Jn 3:4 How can a man be born when he is old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born!”
I remember many years ago a TV police series with Stratford Johns as a sceptical detective who pulled suspects in and interrogated them and his scepticism of their stories was always expressed as, “You what?” Those two words in that context were shorthand for, “You’ve got to be joking! You surely don’t expect me to believe that!” Now Nicodemus seeks to be very much more polite but that, essentially, is what he is saying.
Jesus has just made a statement which, if taken at its face value in a materialistic world, cannot possibly be true. We know that human beings are born once and that is it. Once you’re here, you’re here! End of story! Nicodemus, I suspect, thinks of himself when he says, “How can a man be born when he is old? I am an old man so how can this possibly apply to me? Whatever are you talking about?”
Now we have said this before in one of the earlier chapters in John, but it bears repeating. If you are listening to a teacher – and Nicodemus accepts that Jesus is a teacher – and that teacher says something that seems impossible, there are only a limited number of possibilities. First, he’s lost his mind. No, that doesn’t seem likely for Jesus is still quite rational in all other ways. Second, he’s made a mistake and really doesn’t mean what he’s just said. That, I would suppose, is where Nicodemus has got to. “Do you really mean that?” Now if there were discussing quantum physics or philosophy, that might be a possibility but the language being used is simple and straight forward and easily understood, so it is unlikely that Jesus has been mistaken. Which brings us to a third possibility: Jesus is using ordinary language to convey truth about something else, so what can the ‘something else’ possibly be?
Again and again in scripture we find figures of speech being used, that are not to be taken literally. Personification is not to be taken literally. Analogies are not to be taken literally, none of these figures of speech are to be taken literally. So, I ask the question I ask often in these studies because it needs asking of Christians: when you come across something difficult in the Bible do you ignore it or ask God for revelation? There is nothing wrong with being a questioner as long as we come with an open seeking heart. In fact that is the sort of heart that God demands of us. If we don’t understand something in His word, ask Him what it means and watch and listen and then rejoice in what you find coming to you.