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You Must Be Born From Above

The conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus in John 3 is the climax of a rejection that was announced in the first chapter. "He came to his own and his own received him not" (verse 11). Luke tells us that Jesus' contemporaries "hated him" (Luke 19:14), but as representatives of the realm of darkness, the Jews were not able to quench his light (John 1:5). John the Baptist witnessed that Jesus was the Son of God (John 1:15-34), and Jesus' identity was evident in his miracles (as in turning water to wine, John 2). Some Jewish rulers and teachers (3:10) knew that he had divine powers, but they rejected his message. Samaritans, ironically, accepted his teaching (4:39-42).

John's intent in chapter 3 was to highlight the Jewish rejection in terms of a confrontation between two representative individuals (Jesus and Nicodemus). Nicodemus represented Judaism in this account; this is evident from John's description of him as a Pharisee, a teacher, a ruler of the Jews (John 3:1, 10). This is also shown by the plural personal pronouns used by Nicodemus and by Jesus in the claim "we know" (3:2), in which Nicodemus refers to Judaism, and in Jesus' response "I told you [plural] but ye..." (3:12). These pronouns present Nicodemus as the embodiment of Judaism, speaking on its behalf.

In addition to the hints mentioned above, John has included another reference to the blindness of the Jews in his mention of night (3:2). Nicodemus' preference for the night echoes the thought that the Jews loved darkness because their deeds were evil (3:19-21). Jesus could have praised Nicodemus for coming to him, but the issue in this account is Judaism, not Nicodemus' personal attitude toward the truth.

Nicodemus approached Jesus with a comment that is often misread. He began with an acknowledgment that Jesus was a man "come from God: for no one can do these miracles that you do, except God be with him" (John 3:2). This admission did not grant that Jesus was the Son of God, but only that he had been commissioned by God, as the prophets of the Old Testament had been. At best, the Jews represented by Nicodemus were prepared to allow a divine mission for Jesus. In John's terms, however, the status of a divinely-commissioned teacher does not capture the truth concerning Jesus.

Nicodemus could see that miracles were being performed, but he was not able to perceive their full importance or purpose. For this reason, Christ pointed out to him that these were only signs, a visible manifestation of a higher power, and could not be experienced through the senses. Sense experience is what John meant by "see" (John 3:3), as can be surmised from expressions like "see life" (3:36) and "taste death" (Mark 9:1). The kingdom of God would be in view only if the missing condition were present, namely an internal change that would bring about an entirely new outlook. The person who undergoes this internal change is so drastically changed that he could be described a new being. Since the new being would see things from a higher perspective God's he is described as born from above.

Meaning of gennao and tikto

Gennao derives its meaning from the root genna (birth). It means "to produce through birth." Whether the agent is male or female, the meaning of the verb is the same, "to bring a child into the world." Some clear passages that illustrate the meaning of this verb are:

Matthew 2:1: "Jesus was born [gennao] in Bethlehem."

Matthew 19:12: "...eunuchs, which were so born [gennao] from their mother's womb."

Luke 1:13: "Your wife Elizabeth shall bear [gennao] you a son."

Greek has other verbs for describing birth specifically as an act of a woman. One of these verbs is tikto. This verb cannot be applied literally to a father because he is not bodily equipped for this function, but a figurative application of the verb to a man can be done. In this sense, Onesimus became Paul's son "who became my son [tikto] while I was in chains" (Philemon 10, NIV). Some clear passages in which tikto is used literally (to describe parturition) are:

Matthew 1:21: "She shall bring forth [tikto] a son."

Luke 1:57: "Elisabeth's full time came that she should be delivered [tikto]."

Hebrews 11:11: "...and was delivered of a child."

In John 3:3, the verb is gennao which describes coming into the world, not a birth in the sense of parturition.

Again or from above?

In John 3:3, the verb gennao is accompanied by the adverb anothen. Depending on the context, this adverb can mean "again" or "from above." The nearest expression in English is "from the top" (ano = above, then = from). Christ's tunic was "woven from the top [anothen] in one piece" (John 19:23). John uses the expression only in the sense of "from above" (see also John 3:31, 19:11).

When John wants to say "again," he uses other terms. One such term is palin (John 1:35, 4:3, 13, 46, 54, etc.). John 3:3, therefore, should be rendered "born from above," not "born again." Of course, if someone is born from above when he is old, he is also born again. John's meaning is a birth from God, not merely a second birth. Only a birth from God would enable Nicodemus to perceive that the kingdom of God was at work in the miracles that the Jews had witnessed. In fact, John states clearly that those who receive Christ (1:12) are born (gennao) "not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God" (1:13).

Born or begotten?

Some translators render gennao in John 3:3 as "born," others as "begotten." The resulting phrase varies: "born again" (KJV), "begotten from above" (New American Bible). The word "begotten" is obsolete in modern English, except in rhetorical expressions (such as "hatred begets murder"). When the Bible says that Abraham begat Isaac (Matthew 1:2), it means that Abraham was the father of Isaac. Instead of "Isaac begat two sons," modern English uses "Isaac had two sons." The difference between "bear" and "beget" in King James English is that the first applies only to parturition while the latter can refer to the father's bringing a son into the world (obviously through his wife's parturition).

A mistake has been made with respect to the two verbs, by associating "beget" with the union of the spermatozoon and the ovum (conception) but from the standpoint of a father. The verb "beget" does not have such a meaning, and the wide acceptance of the wrong meaning is due to the fact that "beget" is an obsolete verb, thus lending itself more easily to misuse. Compound verbs beginning with the prefix "be" describe personal involvement in the action indicated. Thus "beget," "beseech," "beguile," "behave," "betray," etc. express personal involvement. It is for this reason that the translators of the King James Version chose to say that Abraham begat Isaac.

With reference to John 3, Jesus was explaining to Nicodemus that the Jews experience physical matters (including the visible miracles he had performed) only because they are equipped by their physical birth for that task. Spiritual matters can be experienced only by those who are equipped by a spiritual birth. Therefore, humans need two births, otherwise they are hampered by their limitations and cannot know that it is God who is working miracles. The second birth makes believers into new creations (2 Corinthians 5:17). In this sense, Nicodemus was an old man in both senses of the word physically and spiritually.

Born of water and spirit

The sense of John 3:5 is that the regeneration that came about through the acceptance of John's baptism was not enough for the grasp of spiritual things. One had to be born of the Spirit, too, because it is the Spirit that effects the dramatic change (1 Corinthians 6:11). It is a mistake to read John 3:6 as if it were part of rudimentary physics. Christ was not distinguishing the different substances (flesh from wood or metal, for example) but was stressing what he had enunciated already, that Spirit is not limited. Flesh cannot aspire to spiritual truths because God's kingdom functions at a higher level. Whatever is born of flesh is flesh that is to say, flesh cannot transcend its limitations. On the other hand, that which is born of the Spirit is spirit that is to say, spirit reaches areas that lie beyond the physical realm.

In the verses that follow, Jesus took the thought one step further. Since the Spirit of God is so important, because the Spirit functions beyond physical humans' grasp, Jesus introduced the analogy of the wind (verses 7-8). One knows the results of the activity of the wind leaves blown about, trees bending, etc. but the origin, the cause, the "where from" and the "where to" of the wind are not disclosed in the physical results. Spiritually, lives are changing and miracles are taking place, but the source and destination of what is evidenced are not understood. In the context of this lack of understanding, the Jews of Christ's day were rejecting the kingdom of God, and John constructs the account in a way that incorporates the truths that the Jews had rejected: Jesus was the Son of Man, coming from heaven (3:13), the Son of God (3:17, 18), the Light of the world (3:19).

Misuse of Christ's words

The conversation in John 3 was initiated by Nicodemus. We have no reason to believe that Jesus ever went to anyone to ask if that person had been born again, as one finds today. The account given by John is often treated as a passport for confronting unbelievers to ask if they have been born again, or to encourage them to do so by accepting Jesus Christ. The purpose of the passage is to register a serious lack in Judaism, in which the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit was not understood and the work of God's kingdom was not perceived.

To a companion article: Conception and resurrection 

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