Picture a seacoast rising in green forested cliffs to mountains and valleys beyond. Imagine mischievous boys discovering turtle eggs in the sand and removing one to an eagle’s nest high on the hillside. In time all the eggs hatch, eaglets and turtle alike. Eventually the parent eagles teach the young to fly. They lecture, explain and demonstrate. They teach, motivate and inspire. One by one parents push the baby eaglets from the nest. One by one the young birds gasp for breath, stretch their wings, respond instinctively and soar into the ocean breezes naturally and without a thought.
The turtle’s launching time arrives. He summons his courage, remembers his lessons, recollects his motivation. He is full of resolution and determination. The parent eagle pushes him out of the nest. The turtle flaps his feet feverishly — and falls to the beach far below. He is not an eagle. He is a turtle. Regardless of his best intentions and most diligent efforts, he cannot fly. That is simply not his nature.
So it is, says Jesus, with us sinful, fallen human beings in relation to God’s kingdom. To a pious and powerful Pharisee named Nicodemus, a teacher and leader in Israel who supposed that he had a reserved seat at the heavenly table, who thought that he could master any required spiritual curriculum and perform any necessary religious duty, Jesus Christ said: “Truly, truly, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3).
This word translated “again” is the Greek word anothen, which literally means “from the top.” It can be translated both “again” and “from above.” Unless a person is reborn, given a new nature, regenerated by the Spirit of God from above, he or she simply cannot participate in God’s reign and salvation. No matter how hard one tries, no matter how much one learns, no matter what one does. Being religious does not help. Being intellectual is no profit. Being successful in life is no profit. Being self-motivated, self-disciplined and self-organized is no advantage. It is not a sinner’s nature to see the kingdom of God. No more than it is a turtle’s nature to fly.