Nicodemus does not understand what Jesus is saying, in part because he does not understand who Jesus is. But he also does not understand because of the way Jesus speaks to him – Jesus’ choice of vocabulary. When Jesus says, "You must be born again” (John 3:7, NIV), the adverb he uses is anothen, and anothen can in fact mean "again," as in sequence or chronological order: I had that same dream again the other night, for the second time. It points to a moment, the one after the other. Born “again," and that is what Nicodemus thinks Jesus has said: again.
But anothen can also mean "in a completely different way" – as when we say, "then again…" You may have thought one thing, but then again…. It points to a process, a journey: gradual understanding, perhaps, increasing insight. John Wesley talked about ongoing, "continual," conversion, as if rebirth is always a possibility, many times, not just once or "again."
Scripture: John 3:3-4 (GNT)
Jesus answered, “I am telling you the truth: no one can see the Kingdom of God without being born again.”
“How can a grown man be born again?” Nicodemus asked. “He certainly cannot enter his mother's womb and be born a second time!”
For me, there's quite a bit of freedom in understanding our faith as a journey. When I think of it as something with a beginning point and a definite destination, I feel that I am always struggling and failing to get to that destination. That's why it is so encouraging to understand these words of Jesus from John 3 in a new way, to understand that being born again is not about making a one time definite decision. It’s not about arriving at a destination. It's about a relationship that is continually growing and changing, progressing and regressing.
In this relationship, in this journey of faith, I find the grace of God that allows me to struggle, to take the wrong turns, to make the wrong decisions and yet welcomes me back into the path when I find my way there again.
It can be tempting to look at the way Jesus addresses Nicodemus and think that he has no patience for Nicodemus. His lack of insight, lack of faith. But I believe that Jesus is simply trying to help him to see what he cannot see. It's really up to Nicodemus to stretch himself, to open his eyes, to come in from the dark and see Jesus for who he is and not for who he would have him to be. It's up to Nicodemus to accept the grace that's being offered and allow himself to be born anew, in the light of this new person but he has found in Jesus. The question is will he see it, will he accept it? Will we?