When most people think of the Gospel of John, chapter three, they think of silly people with numbered signs at football games. Or, they think of the very first verse they ever memorized in Sunday School.

Chapter 3, verse 16 somehow became a (literal) banner verse, at least for 20th century Americans.

For the last several years, I have been much less interested in 3:16, perhaps because I was one who memorized it in Sunday School when I was three. I am more intrigued by the beginning of the dialogue between Nicodemus and Jesus, earlier in the passage.

Nicodemus – who is apparently a little embarrassed to approach this new Rabbi – meets Jesus under the cover of darkness. He immediately confronts Jesus with his question about who Jesus is and how he can possibly perform all of the amazing signs he has been performing. In typical fashion, Jesus replies with an answer that seems to indicate Jesus wasn’t even listening to the question.

Instead of saying, “Yes, Nico, I AM from God and that is how I can heal and love the way I do,” Jesus says something baffling about the nature of the kingdom of God. He says:

Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born again.

Nicodemus jumps on this, forgetting his initial track of questioning and exclaims, “How can anyone be born when they are old?.. Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”

Jesus’ answer is an expansion of his first statement. The way a person can be “born a second time” is through a spiritual birth. Each person has a first birth – that of the flesh – literally our human birth. Jesus explains that each person may also have a second birth that has to do with the Spirit. Apparently, the mysterious Spirit of God causes spiritual rebirths in people.

Examination of the Greek reveals that “born again” is a poor English translation, since the original term contains both the meaning of being born “anew,” as well as the concept of being born “from above.” This second part helps emphasize the necessary work of the Spirit in this re-birthing process.

Later, verse 16 – that popular verse – was inextricably married to this idea of rebirth. The idea in verse 16 of “believing” to have eternal life has been linked with being born again. But, I see these two verses (3 and 16) as separate issues. In fact, in my TNIV, the editors haven’t attributed verse 16 to Jesus as others have and as one would if it was a continuation of Jesus’ words about rebirth to see the kingdom of God.

The above is important because linking the emphasis on “believing” with “seeing the kingdom” places the onus and responsibility (or even simply the ability) to be born again on individual humans. However, if one is to be born “from above” there is evidently a supernatural action from God that is beyond our initiation and ability. I am not arguing that we have no part in this process, I am simply arguing that the Spirit has a crucial part in this second birth and a part that is not necessarily contingent on our “believing” as has been promoted in fundamentalist circles.

When I think about John 3:3, all this musing on spiritual rebirth and one’s ability to see or not see the kingdom of God begs this question: If people see the kingdom as the Spirit acts from above, is there a part we can play in making the kingdom more accessible or visible to those who haven’t yet seen it?

My thought is that as prophetic artists (not just visual artists, mind you) we have the ever-present opportunity to portray aspects of the invisible kingdom through pictures, stories, songs, poems, and even the way we creatively live our daily lives. I believe that each time someone confronts our art, the Spirit has another opportunity to bring new birth, from above to that individual. Each engagement with kingdom revealing art is a potential revelation moment.

One more thought. I am not talking about painting pictures of flowers and children and Jesus handing out stickers. Nor am I talking about explicitly “religious” art. The kingdom of God is a spiritual reality that has sociological implications. When thought of like this, our art can portray almost any kingdom value as it is in conflict with the values of this world. Perhaps this also includes portraying worldly values in conflict.

In other words, we are not just talking about ‘shiny, happy’ art. We are speaking of art that depicts real life – the good and bad. It will differ, however, from the art of others, because it will alternatively critique culture and bring hope to culture. Not all art critiques and brings hope, but kingdom art ought to and in this way it becomes prophetic – the ‘word’ of God – spoken through those who have tasted and seen his good kingdom. It is art that conveys the beauty of a world fully embracing all the King intends for it.