The following post originally appeared on the Grace Apparatus in 2014.
“Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” John 3:3
There are many senses of the verb to see. Here are a few entries from Merriam Webster online:
a : to perceive by the eye
a : to have experience of : undergo
b : to perceive the meaning or importance of : understand
a : to grasp something mentally
There are three possible senses of the word to see which could be used in John 3:3, which I have listed above. The last two are basically the same. The first possibility is that it could mean to perceive with the eyes, as in to physically see the kingdom of God, regardless of whether it might be an earthly kingdom (as the Jews often expected) or a heavenly one. Either one, if real, could be seen with the eyes. While it is unlikely that Jesus was speaking of seeing an earthly kingdom based on the fact that he did not come for that purpose, I think we could at least debate the possibility that he could have meant to see the kingdom of God in a physical sense (i.e. at the end of the age). But given the fact that verse five speaks of entering his kingdom, I do not think that Jesus is speaking of entering physically, in the same way we would walk through a physical door. Therefore it’s not probable that he was speaking of seeing the kingdom visually.
A second possibility could be to see the kingdom in an experiential way, as in to see life or to see good days . This sense of the word is like partaking of or being a part of the kingdom. I find this to be the most compelling possible usage based on what we find in the context, as well as what we do not find there. Jesus seems to be speaking of seeing in the same way he speaks of entering, for the results are the same (being born again). If the seeing were physical, then the entering would be too; the same would be true if the seeing were mental, for the results are the same: to be born from above is the same as to be born of the Spirit, therefore seeing and entering are synonymous. The question then is, which sense of the word does Jesus mean to use? Let us consider the third sense of to see before trying to answer that.
Lastly, it could mean to perceive, recognize or grasp something mentally or spiritually, as in “I see that Jesus is bringing the kingdom of God” or when one sees one’s need to be born again. Calvinists seem to take the third meaning of seeing as in to grasp or to understand something mentally. I personally think that this is a Calvinistic assumption that is brought to the text rather than derived from it. Out of all the sermons I have listened to and essays I’ve read, it has never really been explained why they have chosen this usage. Rather than defend or explain this usage, it is usually just strongly asserted that, “You can’t even see the kingdom unless you’re born again!”  This type of assertion is less than helpful.
I find this last interpretation weak because Jesus doesn’t really speak about seeing one’s need in this text. It’s often asserted by Calvinists that since we had no say in our first birth and the Spirit blows wherever he wants, God must therefore give new birth in order for us to see our need. But the text simply is not about who gets to choose, nor is it about our inability to force God’s hand to bring us salvation. It’s not about an inability to believe either. It is about undergoing a total paradigm shift in the way the ruling Jews thought. They thought they could just enter the kingdom because of their birthright, but Jesus says that they aren’t just born into this kingdom (i.e. that which is born of the flesh is flesh…verse 6). They must become children of God to enter his kingdom, and this they were not (John 8:44). Paul says in Romans that the Jews sought it by works, apart from faith (Rom. 9:32-33). They thought they we already God’s chosen ones. Paul dismantles this argument in Romans 1-5, where we learn that right standing with God (justification) is by faith alone.
A brief summary of Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus might be helpful at this point. Nicodemus comes to Jesus and claims that he and the Pharisees essentially believe that he is from God because they saw the signs he did (v.2). They think they’re on the right track. Jesus corrects him and basically says, “No, you don’t believe and as a result you are not going to see life.” He explains that people give birth to physical children and the Spirit gives birth to Spiritual children. We are not naturally children of God and therefore must be born from above. You can see the effects of the wind, but you don’t see the wind. Likewise, you can see the effects (fruits) of the Spirit within a person and Jesus tells them that they don’t believe and they aren’t children of God. They don’t bear the marks of children of God. John’s gospel reveals that the Jews don’t receive Jesus because they weren’t right with God. They were not in right covenant relationship with the Father . By verses 14-15 we find out the reason Jesus came and what that means for those who truly believe: “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” Jesus is calling Nicodemus to be born of the Spirit, to become a true child of God and not a religious dead man. This happens by faith (c.f. John 1:12; 3:15, 16, 18, 36). Those who would be healed of the venomous bites in Moses’ day had to believe and look at Moses’ staff to be healed; it makes no sense that they would need to be healed (saved, born again) in order to see their need for salvation.
Christians should not automatically assume that Jesus is talking about a mental perception without a careful study of the immediate context and surrounding chapters. Due to the entire conversation with Nicodemus, I think that when Jesus says you can’t see the kingdom of God unless you are born again, what he means is that you will not experience it. I say this mainly because Jesus next equates seeing with entering. The Jews looked forward to experiencing the kingdom of God and seeing life. And in the first three chapters of John alone we see that faith leads to life, not the reverse.
 People will sometimes say, “I was blind but now I see,” meaning that they couldn’t see Christ for who he is. In other words, they didn’t perceive his importance as the Messiah. But note that this saying comes from a man who obtained his physical sight, rather than a mental or spiritual insight, yet people use this phrase nowadays to insinuate a mental perception. This is a form of equivocation and should be avoided in this example found in John 3:3.
. For an in depth look at this theme I recommend this essay by Robert Hamilton on SEA’s website.
 Following are some scriptural examples from the NASB of seeing in this sense:
Job 33:28 “He has redeemed my soul from going to the pit, And my life shall see the light.”
Psalm 34:12 “Who is the man who desires life and loves length of days that he may see good?”
Psalm 36:9 “For with You is the fountain of life; In Your light we see light”
Psalm 91:16 “With a long life I will satisfy him and let him see My salvation.”
Psalm 128:5 “The Lord bless you from Zion, and may you see the prosperity of Jerusalem all the days of your life.”
John 3:36 “He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.”
1 Pet 3:10 “For, ‘The one who desires life, to love and see good days, must keep his tongue from evil and his lips from speaking deceit.'”
Both John 3:36 and 1 Peter 3:10 are speaking of experiencing eternal life, for God would not be satisfied (and neither would we) to simply let us perceive it without experiencing such a glorious truth. In the former quote, to see life is to have it; not mentally or spiritually, but actually in the truest sense. In the latter, to see good days is more than an inner sight. We don’t just want to perceive life and be aware of good days, we want to experience them with our whole being. It seems reasonable therefore, to conclude that Jesus means that we must be born again in order to obtain or experience this wonderful gift. And it is a gift that John repeatedly tells us comes to us by faith. We are not born again nor do we obtain life prior to exercising faith. The Calvinist idea of regeneration preceding faith is unfounded and a bias that is read into the text of John and other passages.