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The Context of John 3:1-12

by Gene Nouhan

If we want to understand a difficult Bible passage, we must know its context. Context gives a passage the setting from which its meaning can emerge. But establishing the context, to some people, means reading a few verses before and after the passage in question, and nothing more.

While the immediate context may give the reader some insight, many of the more difficult passages of Scripture require an awareness of the greater context from which they were written. John 3:1-12 is best understood in its greater context, that of the entire book of John.

John's purposes

In John 20:31 we read, "These are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name." This is John's specific purpose statement, so to speak. It has three parts: 1) to show that Jesus is the Messiah, 2) that he is the Son of God and 3) that he gives eternal life to believers (see also John 11:25-27). John accomplishes his three-part purpose by demonstrating that Christ, his works and even his words are of divine origin.

John opens his book with a stunning prologue, which reveals Christ's preexistence as the divine Word and that he became flesh and lived for a while among humans. The first point John makes is that Jesus was more than a great rabbi or teacher — he was God in the flesh. This theme is woven throughout his Gospel. Jesus' divine origin gives him the authority to grant eternal life to his followers (8:12; 17:2).

Of Jesus' works John says, "if every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written." That may not be an overstatement. Thousands of books have already been written about Christ, and many thousands more could be written, and still not exhaust the complexities of the Son of God! Even so, Jesus' miraculous works, as recorded, are sufficient to show that he is able to give eternal life (3:14-15; 11:23-25, 43-44).

Even Jesus' words are extraordinary. After considerable confusion and a "falling out" because of his words, Jesus said, "The words I have spoken to you are spirit, and they are life" (6:63b). When Jesus asked the Twelve if they would desert him as the other disciples did, Peter said, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life" (6:66-68). Christ's words show how eternal life comes.

In the book of John, for various reasons, everybody misunderstands Jesus' words except those who truly believe; and even they are slow to grasp his meaning. There's not enough space in this article to examine all these instances, but this is another theme for John.

The context of John 3

The conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus was representative of the church and the synagogue, or Christianity and Judaism. Nicodemus, a ruler of the Pharisees, represents Judaism, and Christ represents his church.

The way John tells the story, Nicodemus approaches Jesus without stating his purpose for coming. The sense one might get is that John's purposes are more important than Nicodemus's. As the conversation unfolds, Nicodemus is quickly forgotten. Jesus moves the conversation from singular to plural pronouns, "we speak" and "you" (plural in the Greek), etc.

Nicodemus came by night. "John may have meant simply that Nicodemus visited Jesus by night for reasons of secrecy (compare 19:38).... It is more probable that he intended to indicate the darkness out of which Nicodemus came into the presence of the true Light."

Why is this important? Because an awareness of the context helps the real meaning of the text come to life. Our task is not to arrive at a meaning that suits our purposes, but to learn what John meant by the words and events he recorded. We cannot know what he meant unless we understand his purposes and the context of his writing.

When Nicodemus said, "Rabbi, we know you are a teacher come from God," he said "we know." Nicodemus brought with him the views of others. He was representing the Pharisees, who were willing to acknowledge Jesus to a certain point and grant him some recognition. But John makes it plain in his "specific purpose statement" that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God, and all people (including Pharisees) must believe this if they want to receive eternal life (John 11:25-27; 20:31; 1 John 4:15).

Nicodemus's opening statement indicates he was not prepared to hear the words of Jesus that followed. While Nicodemus was possibly considering some kind of compromise, merger or peaceful coexistence with Jesus and his disciples, Jesus was about to tell him that his whole religion was ineffectual for entry into the kingdom of God and that it was about to be superseded.

Unless you are born again

The well-known words of Christ, "unless a man is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God," were misunderstood by Nicodemus. But in what way did Nicodemus misunderstand? He surely could not have taken Christ's words literally.

Nicodemus was not a simpleton. As a respected teacher in Israel, he would have been well acquainted with the use of analogy in teaching and illustrating. Parables, for example, are lessons set in analogies. It is well documented that the Pharisees used parables, analogies and allegories extensively.

It is also documented that the Pharisees were acquainted with the idea of rebirth. There are several allusions to rebirth and being a child of God in the Apocrypha or Deuterocanoncial books, written in the intertestamental period. Also, the Babylonian Talmud says, "A proselyte just converted is like a child just born" (Yebamoth 22a). Jesus said the Pharisees searched land and sea to make a proselyte, and, instead of making him a child of Abraham, they made a child of hell (Matthew 23:15).

The rabbis even debated whether a newly converted gentile might be permitted to marry a close relative, such as a sister or mother, because he was now a completely new person and all his previous connections were broken. Clearly, the Pharisees were acquainted with the idea of rebirth, but they had some mistaken notions about it; namely, they believed it was the gentiles who needed it, not they.

So why did Nicodemus say, "How can a man be born when he is old? Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother's womb to be born!" Part of the answer lies in Nicodemus's Pharisaic view of rebirth and part of the answer lies in understanding the original Greek word translated "again." First, let's take a closer look at Nicodemus's concept of rebirth.

In first-century Judaism, being a natural-born Israelite was thought to be almost a guarantee of salvation (see Matthew 3:9 and John 8:33-34). An Israelite didn't need to be converted to the nation of Israel — he was already born that way and would have been circumcised the eighth day. To the Pharisees, the nation of Israel was the kingdom of God, and the Messiah was to come and establish Israel's dominance over the gentile nations.

Nicodemus was already a natural-born Israelite and a "good" one. Why should he have to be converted (born again) into the nation of Israel? To the best of his knowledge (which must have been extensive), he had done everything right according to his religion. And that was the problem — his religion. For Jesus meant what Paul was to say later: "A man is not a Jew who is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit" (Romans 2:28-29).

Had Jesus said, "gentiles must be born again," Nicodemus would have understood him. But when Jesus said that even a devout Jew needed rebirth, Nicodemus was understandably troubled because it amounted to telling him, in his old age, that the religion he had been practicing all his life was not effective for eternal life (see John 5:39-40).

In Nicodemus's mind, the Pharisees were the best of God's children. But Jesus meant that not even they were God's children in the way they needed to be in order to receive eternal life. This went against everything Nicodemus knew and taught. An old and highly respected rabbi would find that hard to believe. It meant that Nicodemus had been wrong and he would have to start his religious or spiritual life all over again. His questions were no doubt rhetorical, probably a "gut reaction" that underscored his difficulty with and his disbelief in Jesus' statement (see 3:12).

Since Jesus was using symbolic language to convey his teaching, Nicodemus obliged him and used symbolic language right back. Although his questions could be interpreted literally, he meant them symbolically. To put it another way, Jesus' words must have made as much sense to Nicodemus as if he actually said "You must reenter your mother's womb." So Nicodemus illustrated, with his questions, that he thought Jesus was applying spiritual rebirth to the wrong person. It wasn't the idea of rebirth per se, but the universal way Jesus applied it that caused Nicodemus to react the way he did.

Again vs. from above

The Greek word for "again" in John 3:3 is anothen. It has a double meaning — either "again" or "from above," depending on the context. John uses this word five times; and he uses it consistently to mean "from above" or, in one case, "from the top."

Jesus meant we are to be born from above (born of God, who is above); although to be born of God does amount to a second birth. The rebirth is a spiritual one — not a reenactment of physical birth. To be reborn in the biblical sense means to undergo a total change of one's character, which is made possible by the Holy Spirit. That Spirit comes from above. Nicodemus ignored the "from above" aspect of Jesus' wording, which contributed to his misunderstanding (not his understanding, as some would have it) of Christ's words.

Some say that Nicodemus's questions were proof that he correctly understood that Christ was speaking literally. This is an impossible interpretation because, for Christ to be taken correctly or literally based on Nicodemus's reaction, we would have to conclude that Jesus did mean for Nicodemus to actually reenter his mother's womb. That, of course, is absurd. Nicodemus's misunderstanding was based on his narrow view of rebirth and how it was accomplished.

Of water and spirit

In John 3:5 the expression "born of water and Spirit" has been interpreted to mean born physical and born a spirit being (at the resurrection) respectively. That does not do justice to the context. Jesus is explaining where Nicodemus went wrong — he had overlooked the "from above" aspect or the spiritual component of rebirth. Jesus is continuing the conversation, explaining to Nicodemus where he's mistaken.

The expression "born of water and spirit" is not referring to two different births, one physical birth and one spiritual. He is talking about one birth from above, which demands that a person (Jew or not) cleans or buries his past completely before receiving the Holy Spirit. The cleansing of water and subsequent giving of the Holy Spirit was prophesied in Ezekiel 36:25-27.

Water baptism is the symbol that one has buried the "old person" (including his religion) and now lives a new life in a new community. That's why Luke says, when John the Baptist went about the countryside, the Pharisees refused to be baptized by him (Luke 7:29-30). To submit to the rite would have been an acknowledgment that their Jewish birth was insufficient; it "was a humiliation they could not suffer."

While John's baptism symbolized cleansing and burial, it was also insufficient because it did not include the giving of the Holy Spirit and new life (Acts 19:1-7). In John 1:33 the Baptist said that he baptized with water, but Jesus would baptize with the Holy Spirit. Water refers to the outward show of baptism, and the Spirit refers to the inward change effected by the Holy Spirit. "It was the addition of the `Spirit' which transformed John's baptism into Christian baptism."

Jesus was describing the new birth in terms of a new kind of baptism that included both water and Spirit. It's not enough to be baptized with water (John's baptism) anymore than it was enough to be circumcised of the flesh. One also must be baptized with the Spirit (a Christian baptism) to enter the kingdom of God.

The problem with the Pharisees was, in order to receive the Holy Spirit and thereby eternal life, they would have to do something they were generally unwilling to do — come to Jesus Christ the Son of God to receive it (John 5:40).

Is that which is born of the Spirit a spirit being?

The expressions, "that which is born of the flesh is flesh," and "that which is born of the Spirit is spirit" (New King James Version) have been interpreted to mean "born human" and "born a spirit being," respectively. But this is not the intended meaning. The context shows that the three expressions, "born from above," "born of water and spirit" and "born of the Spirit is spirit," are parallel statements.

The antithesis of John 3:6 is not in the bodily composition of those who are born, but in the inner nature. One has a special relationship with God and the other one doesn't. Notice Galatians 4:29, where the phrase "according to the Spirit" is used symbolically. Paul speaks of Ishmael, who was "born according to the flesh," and of Isaac, who was "born according to the Spirit" (NKJV). Yet both of these men were human beings, made of flesh. These expressions show the different spiritual relationships the two men had with God. Isaac was converted and Ishmael wasn't.

To be "in the flesh" or "in the Spirit" depends on one's spiritual condition, not on one's bodily make-up. Romans 8:9 says, "You are not in the flesh but in the Spirit if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you." In other words, if the Spirit of God dwells in you, you are "of" or "born of" the Spirit.

John 6:63b parallels John 3:6 in an interesting way. Jesus said, "the words that I have spoken are spirit." Here is something else that "is Spirit" — Jesus' words. He did not mean that the words he spoke were spirit beings! Nor did he mean the words were of a nature other than that of the human languages of his day. Jesus meant that the words he spoke were to be understood spiritually.

John 3:6 is to be understood in the same way: that which is born of the flesh (gentile or not) is physical or carnal, and that which is born of the Spirit is spiritual. It is certainly possible to be spiritual without being composed of spirit, even as it is possible to speak human language with spiritual meaning. Notice what Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 2:13-16 (emphasis mine):

This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words. The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual man makes judgments about all things, but he himself is not subject to any man's judgment. For "Who has known the mind of the Lord that he may instruct Him?" But we have the mind of Christ.

Nicodemus fits well into Paul's thoughts in that he was a natural man and his religion was still on a physical plane, so he could not "accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they were foolishness [like reentering his mother's womb] to him." His idea of rebirth, put simply, was converting a physical gentile into a physical Israelite. To Jesus it meant converting a natural man (gentile or not) into a spiritual man.

If "that which is born of the Spirit" refers to the resurrection, several of John's statements are puzzling, to say the least:

To those who believed [past tense] in his name, he gave the right to become the children of God — children born [past tense] not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband's will, but born of God. (John 1:12-13)

If you know that he is righteous, you know that everyone who does what is right has been [past tense] born of him. (1 John 2:29)

This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are: Anyone who does not [present tense] do what is right is not a child of God; neither is anyone who does not love his brother. (1 John 3:10)

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been [past tense] born of God and knows God. (1 John 4:7)

Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is [present tense] born of God. (1 John 5:1)

The many references to rebirth — born of God — in Johannine literature clearly speak of it in present or past tense, connecting it with Christians who believe in Christ and do what he says. Therefore, the context of John 3 makes it unthinkable that John would present these terms inconsistently or in opposition to Christ's usage. From this and the above references we conclude "that which is born of the Spirit is spirit" means that whoever is born again by the Spirit is spiritual — it refers to the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit.

Wind and Spirit

Now what about John 3:8, which says, "The wind blows where it pleases. You hear the sound of it, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit." Does this say Christians are born of the Spirit at the resurrection? No, it does not. The context is not future but present tense — So it is with everyone born of the Spirit. The center focus of this conversation is a comparison between Judaism and the effectual working of Christianity for eternal life, which comes through the Holy Spirit. Jesus continues to make his point that entrance into the kingdom does not depend on physical attributes or pedigree, but on spiritual ones.

John 3:8 contains another Greek word with multiple meanings. In this case the word is pneuma. It's like the Hebrew word ruach, which means wind, spirit or breath. In John's Gospel, pneuma is used with all three meanings. Here Jesus is saying that the Spirit, like the wind, is beyond the five senses, and it breathes into man the breath of new life. Its workings are invisible and therefore mysterious to us. The words "So it is" refer to the mysterious or invisible nature of the Spirit's activity, not bodily make-up.

The time had come when the children of God were to worship him in spirit and in truth and not in mountains like the Samaritans on Gerizim or in a temple at Jerusalem (see 4:20-24). The center of Christian worship is in Christ or in spirit, which is not found in any geographic location. Spirit, like the wind, comes and goes where it wills, and its workings are beyond human control and comprehension. "It breathes into the world from another place."

A Jewish argument might contend that, because the new birth is not visible (like the physical accoutrements of Israelite worship) it is therefore ineffectual or a figment of the imagination. But that argument is no more valid than it would be if used of the wind. "In each case, judgment is to be based on the effects produced."

New believers rarely experience anything externally dramatic when they receive the Holy Spirit and are baptized — lightning bolts do not come down from heaven nor does a halo appear above their heads. The receiving of the Holy Spirit is not something they can physically detect. The proof of conversion will manifest itself down the road as one looks back on the experience with faith and spiritual growth. In John 3:8, it is not a spirit being that is described, nor is it describing the Holy Spirit — what is being described is the nature of the Holy Spirit's activity in the life of a Christian.

Conclusion

Nicodemus was incredulous and overwhelmed. His ideas of worship, conversion, circumcision, the kingdom of God, the Messiah, the Holy Spirit — the very foundations of his religion — were in question. He faced the disturbing prospect of having to start all over again in his old age. Yet his training should have better prepared him for meeting the Messiah (3:9-10). The prophets had written about the giving of the Holy Spirit and the work of Christ. Since Nicodemus would not believe Jesus to this point, there was no need to proceed any further (3:12).

The main point in John 3:1-12 is to show that Judaism, which Nicodemus represented, was insufficient. Judaism could not, as it was, enter the kingdom of God. Judaism stands on the outside, and a radical change comparable to birth is necessary if it or any individual is to enter the kingdom.

The Pharisees thought their pedigree was sufficient. The point behind the term "born from above" or "born again" is that no one's pedigree is sufficient. A change of one's whole inner nature must take place before a new creature is born. Circumcision of the heart is needed if one is to be part of the community of spiritual Israel and a true child of Abraham (see John 8:39-44 and Galatians 3:7). This is made possible only by a living faith in Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

Galatians 6:15-16 (NKJV, emphasis mine) sums it up well:

For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision or uncircumcision avails anything, but a new creation. And as many as walk according to this rule, peace and mercy be upon the Israel of God.

John 3:1-12 teaches us that, while some Bible passages can be taken at face value, some are best understood in both their immediate and greater context. The authors of the various books of the Bible had a plan, with purposes in mind that were inspired by the Holy Spirit. When we trample on those purposes or ignore them, we do so to our own detriment. The good news is, when we rightly handle the Scriptures and respect them for the way they were written, the truth of God becomes abundantly clear, and so does our relationship with him.

Endnotes

1 There are secondary themes and tensions that John uses to accomplish his purposes. For example, he contrasts light with darkness, eternal life with temporal life, heavenly things with earthly things, flesh with spirit, truth with falsehood, belief with unbelief, John the Baptist with Christ, and Judaism with Christianity. These themes shed light on the words of Jesus that John was inspired to select for the purposes of his book.

2 See John 1:1; 5:23; 9:35-38; 10:30-36; 14:9; 20:28.

3 Many commentators have noted that John records an unusual number of misunderstandings between Jesus and his listeners. John had a reason for selecting so many of these occasions — probably to illustrate the superiority of Christ over others. These misunderstandings are almost all centered around people taking Christ's words on some physical plane, when he meant them spiritually. Here is a list of misunderstandings: 2:19-21; 3:4, 9; 4:10-11; 6:52; 7:33-35; 7:41-47; 8:21-22; 8:56-57; 11:11-13; 13:33-38; 14:4-11; 16:17-18; 21:22-23.

4 The name Nicodemus appears often in Rabbinic literature. Jesus calls this one "Israel's teacher," or literally, "the teacher" of Israel (3:10). He must have been highly respected and an able representative of the Pharisees.

5 At the time of John's writing (mid 90s A.D.) the clash between church and synagogue was intense. John's readers would have been interested in knowing more about the work of Jesus and his followers and the Jewish response to them (see John 3:11; 7:13; 7:47; 9:22-23, 33-34; 12:42-43; 18:19; 19:38; 20:19).

6 In verse 11 Jesus says, "I tell you [plural] the truth, we speak of what we know, and we testify of what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony." The conversation appears to end in verse 21, but no reference is made to Nicodemus after verse 11. All this confirms that, in addition to the initial incident, a greater conversation is going on here — one between church and synagogue or Christianity and Judaism.

7 C.K. Barrett, The Gospel According to John (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1978), pages 204-205. As stated above, light and darkness are themes in John, and he uses day and night to depict them (see 9:4-5; 11:9-10; 13:30). If John meant "secretly," he most likely would have used "secretly," as he did in 19:38. The point here is not that Nicodemus (and by extension the Pharisees) was groping in total darkness. What light he did have, compared to the rest of the world, could be seen only as darkness when compared to Jesus Christ, the Light of the world.

8 For a discussion of the present and future aspects of the kingdom of God, see "Present and Future Aspects of the Kingdom of God." John 3:3 does not say, when a man is born again he is, at the same time, resurrected into the kingdom of God. It means, if one wants to be in the kingdom, one must first be born again — converted. Jesus made similar statements in the Synoptic Gospels. For example, Matthew 18:3 says, "Unless you change [be converted] and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of God." Luke 18:15 says "infants" or "babies." An infant or a baby is a newborn child. It is easy to see that the expressions, "be converted," "become like little children" and be "born again" are synonymous.

9 "Concepts of new birth and new life are not original in or unique to early Christianity. Already in postexilic Judaism there are references to being or becoming God's children (Wisd. of Sol. 2:13, 16, 18; Sir. 4:10; 23:1, 4).... Images of new birth also appear outside of Judaism" (B.R. Gaventa, From Darkness to Light: Aspects of Conversion in the New Testament (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1986), page 130). See also R.E. Brown, The Gospel According to John I-XII (New York: Doubleday, 1966), page 139.

10 No such ruling was made, of course, but the fact that they engaged in such a discussion, if only on a theoretical basis, underscores their familiarity with the idea. Some commentators have suggested the incestuous man in 1 Corinthians 5:1 may have been practicing what the rabbis only discussed in theory. While this is interesting, it is theory. For a survey of various first-century views on rebirth, see F. Buchsel and K.H. Rengstorf, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964), volume 1, pages 665-677.

11 John Lightfoot, A Commentary on the New Testament from the Talmud and Hebraica (Oxford University Press), 1859, volume 3, pages 264-265. Lightfoot says that Jesus' words teach "it is not enough for [people] to be children of Abraham to give them any title to or interest in the Messiah. They must further be born from above; they must claim [the kingdom] by a heavenly, not an earthly birth."

12 Nicodemus's questions show that he understood rebirth to be something he could experience in this life. He did not say, "How can a man be born after he is dead?" but rather, "How can a man be born when he is old?"

13 In addition to 3:3; 3:7, see 3:31; 19:11; 19:23. In John 3:31, Jesus says he came from above (anothen). This is an instance where anothen clearly means "from above," and it is unlikely that John would use the word with a different meaning in 3:3, which is in such close proximity. As Christ came from above, so his followers are born from above. If Jesus meant only "again," John would have used the Greek word palin (again), as he does 47 times elsewhere in his Gospel! John's consistent use of anothen and palin and his regular portrayal of Christ's words being misunderstood indicate that John intended anothen to mean "from above," while Nicodemus took Christ to mean the more rabbinic "born a second time."

14 Recently, some have denied the need to examine the original Greek because the conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus probably took place in Aramaic, and therefore, they say, the Greek wording of John is unreliable. This argument tries to remove the debate from the real issues: What does the Bible say? And what does the Bible mean? If we can't trust the original language of the Scriptures, then the entire discussion is irrelevant.

15 There is no mention of a future resurrection or glorification here. The phenomena Jesus describes are seen as occurring among Christ and his followers, not among Nicodemus and the Pharisees. Jesus said in verse 11, "we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not except our testimony."

16 D.A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984), page 42. Carson, quoting L.L. Belleville, says the phrase "of water and spirit" refers to one birth: "The fact that both nouns are governed by one preposition favors this view." The original Greek does not say "of water and of spirit," but simply "of water and spirit."

17 W. Robertson Nicoll, editor, The Expositor's Greek Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans), volume 1, page 713.

18 Barrett, page 209. John often clarifies the work of the Baptist in relation to Christ's work. There must have been people in John's day who refused to make the change from the Baptist's community to the Christian community (see 3:25 and Acts 19:1-7). John shows that the Baptist was not the light but that he testified to the Light and that he must decrease while Jesus must increase (John 1:8; 3:28; 3:30). John 3:5 is a veiled reference, indicating that John's baptism would be transformed by Christ's baptism. It is no coincidence that immediately after the encounter with Nicodemus, John compares the work of the Baptist with Christ (3:22-36).

19 "Believing in" or "coming" to Jesus was not a superficial expression of acceptance (see John 3:20-21; 5:44; Hebrews 11:6). It meant a complete change of heart and mind to serve and obey Christ. John 3:36 says, "Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever disobeys the Son will not see life, but must endure God's wrath" (New Revised Standard). Here, belief is equated with obedience.

22 Carson, page 42.

22 Paul also draws a comparison between Judaism and Christianity in Galatians 4:21-31. Ishmael had persecuted or mocked Isaac (Genesis 21:8-11). Paul uses Ishmael to represent the Jews of his day who were persecuting the church and Isaac to represent the church itself (see especially Galatians 4:24-25, 28-29). Like Ishmael, Nicodemus was born only according to the flesh and like Isaac, Christians are born according to the Spirit.

22 Jesus said the hour would come when he would no longer speak to them in figurative language, but would speak plainly to them (John 16:25). Those who insist on a literal interpretation have failed to see that the words of Jesus that John recorded were spirit and they were life. See note 3.

23 For more on the meaning of gennaφ, see the accompanying article, discussing Matthew 1:20.

24 Titus 3:5b says, "He saved us by the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, [which] he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior."

25 According to Barrett, there are 22 passages in John that contain words with double or ambiguous meaning. Unfortunately, the double meanings are lost in translation.

26 John 20:22 says Jesus breathed on them and said, "Receive the Holy Spirit." With this unusual gesture, Jesus was illustrating that new life (rebirth) comes by receiving the Holy Spirit (compare Genesis 2:7). "Just as at creation God brought man into being by breathing into [him] the breath of life so is this new gift of [spiritual] life communicated through the divine Spirit or breath" (R.E. Brown, New Testament Essays (New York: Doubleday, 1968), page 127).

27 W.D. Davies, The Gospel and the Land (Berkeley: University of California, 1974), page 302. When the church was born in Acts 2, the Holy Spirit came down out of heaven (from above) upon the disciples. They heard the sound of it, for it was as the sound of a rushing mighty wind. Its effects were indeed mysterious, since many people still are confused as to what exactly happened that day.

28 Francis C. Nicol, Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary (Washington: Review and Herald, 1956), volume 5, page 928. Those who are born of the Spirit are not of this age but of the age to come (or kingdom of God). Though they live in the world, they are not of it; they do not confine their activities to the physical realm.

Copyright 1993

To a companion article: The meaning of gennao in Matthew 1:20

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