“…Spirit and Life”: John 3:5-6

The first occurrences of the noun pneu=ma (“Spirit”) in the Gospel of John are in 1:32-33, part of the testimony of John the Baptist (vv. 19-34). The specific testimony in vv. 29-34 involves the Baptism of Jesus, presented in the Fourth Gospel only indirectly, by way of a description/narration by the Baptist. The references to the Spirit in vv. 32-33 draw upon early Gospel traditions shared generally by the Synoptic Gospels. While the introduction to the Spirit is important (including use of the expression “Holy Spirit” in v. 33), these references should little specific development or uniquely Johannine thought regarding the Spirit. I will not be discussing them here in these notes, but would direct the interested reader to the earlier series “Jesus and the Gospel Tradition”, in which the Baptism of Jesus is discussed in considerable detail. Instead, I will turn to the next passage using the word pneu=maJn 3:5-8, part of the famous discourse with Nicodemus in chapter 3.

John 3:5-8

The Jesus’ discourse (with Nicodemus) in chap. 3 is the first of the great Johannine Discourses, which follow a basic format:

    • Narrative setting/introduction, which is based upon a specific (historical) tradition, such as an encounter episode (chs. 34) or miracle story (chs. 56).
    • A central saying or statement by Jesus
    • Reaction to this saying by those around him, reflecting some degree of misunderstanding
    • Response by Jesus, in which he explains/expounds the true, deeper meaning of his words

The structure of saying-reaction-exposition is sometimes developed or expanded into a more elaborate dialogue-discourse format. All of the great Discourses in the Gospel are developed in different ways. The discourse of Jn 3:1-21 may be divided as follows:

    • Narrative setting/introduction (vv. 1-2), establishing the encounter between Nicodemus and Jesus
    • Central Saying by Jesus (v. 3)
    • Question (misunderstanding) by Nicodemus (v. 4)
    • Initial Exposition by Jesus (vv. 5-8)
    • Second Question by Nicodemus (v. 9)
    • Exposition by Jesus, divided into two parts:
      • Witness of Jesus as the Son of Man (vv. 10-15)
      • Jesus as the Son of God (vv. 16-21)

The references to the Spirit are found in the initial exposition of vv. 5-8 and are central to it. This exposition may be divided into two pieces:

    • The Saying about coming to be born of the Spirit (vv. 5-6)
    • An explanatory illustration regarding the Spirit (vv. 7-8)
John 3:5-6

The saying in vv. 5-6 cannot be understood apart from the context of the discourse, where it is intended to explain and clarify the central saying in v. 3:

“Amen, amen, I say to you, if any(one) should not come to be (born) from above, he is not able to see the kingdom of God”

Nicodemus’ misunderstanding (v. 4) involves the Greek word a&nwqen (“from above”), which can be understood as in the English idiom “from the top”, “again”—that is, in a temporal, rather than spatial, sense. Nicodemus apparently thinks Jesus is saying that a human being must be born (physically) a second time, whereas Jesus is actually speaking of a kind of heavenly/spiritual birth “from above” (i.e. from God). This is what he clarifies in verse 5, a saying that is almost exactly parallel with that of v. 3 (differences in italics):

“Amen, amen, I say to you, if any(one) should not come to be (born) out of water and (the) Spirit, he is not able to come into the kingdom of God”

Clearly “out of water and (the) Spirit” (e)k u%dato$ kai\ pneu/mato$) is parallel to “from above” (a&nwqen). The main interpretive question involves the relationship between “water” and “(the) Spirit”. There are three possibilities:

    1. “Water and Spirit” is a hendiadys (two words representing one thing)
    2. The expression is a parallel image—utilizing water as a symbol of the Spirit
    3. There is a developmental contrast between water and Spirit—i.e. the Spirit in addition to water.

1. The first option is preferred by those who see here primarily a reference to (Christian) baptism. This might be called the sacramental interpretation, in which water and the Spirit represent two aspects of the same ritual. The close connection between Baptism and the Spirit is certainly found in many New Testament passages, going all the way back to early Gospel tradition (Mark 1:8ff par). It is also a distinctly Christian view of baptism (Acts 2:38; 18:25; 19:2ff; 22:16, etc), which Paul, in particular, expresses most vividly in reference to its spiritual aspect (1 Cor 12:13, cf. also Rom 6:3-4; Gal 3:27; Col 2:12). However, while early Christians might naturally read Jn 3:5 in terms of Christian baptism, this would have been essentially unintelligible to someone like Nicodemus. If we accept the authenticity of Jesus’ saying here, in any meaningful sense, it is hard to see how anything like a Christian view of Baptism could be the primary meaning.

2. The second option above is more plausible in this regard. For one thing, water (as a visible symbol) is used to represent the invisible Spirit (of God) frequently in ancient religious thought. This imagery is found a number of times in the Old Testament, both with a specific reference to “water”, as well as the idea of the Spirit being “poured out”—cf. Prov 1:23; Isa 32:5; 44:3; Ezek 39:29; Joel 2:28-29, also Neh 9:20; Zech 12:10. The association the Spirit of God with cleansing can relate to water as well as fire—on the former, see e.g., Ezek 36:25-27, and passages from subsequent Jewish writings, closer in time to the Gospels, such as Jubilees 1:23-25 and the Qumran 1QS 4:19-21. The motif of God creating a new heart/spirit in the believer begins to approximate the idea of being born. The reference from Jubilees makes this more or less explicit: “I will create in them a holy spirit… I will be their Father and they will be my children”. In Ezek 36:25ff, this “new spirit” in humankind is identified with (or is the result of) God’s own Spirit that is placed within.

The fact that both “water” and “Spirit” are governed under the same preposition (e)k, “out of”) suggests that the terms should be understood as parallel images or expressions of some sort.

3. There is, however, much to be said for the third option above, in which there is a contrast between Spirit and water. The contrast is best viewed as supplemental or developmental—i.e. born out of the Spirit in addition to being born out of water. The context of vv. 3-8, taken as a whole, would argue in favor of this view. I note the following points:

    • The sayings in vv. 3 and 5 both indicate that human beings must undergo a different kind of birth from that of one’s ordinary physical birth.
    • The use of the term a&nwqen (“from above”) suggests a dualistic contrast—above vs. below—found elsewhere in the Gospel (3:31; 8:23; 19:11, etc).
    • The discourse in chapter 4 plays on the contrast between ordinary water and “living water” which is associated with the Spirit. This will be discussed further in an upcoming note.

Perhaps the strongest argument is to be found in the continuation of Jesus’ exposition in verse 6:

“the (thing) having come to be (born) out of the flesh is flesh, and the (thing) having come to be (born) out of the Spirit is spirit”

It is hard to imagine a more direct and emphatic contrast, which, taken together with verse 5, suggests the following parallelism:

“born out of water” = “born out of flesh”
(i.e. ordinary human birth)
“born out of (the) Spirit”

A final, difficult point of interpretation involves the two occurrences of pneu=ma in verse 6: “the (thing)…born out of the Spirit [e)k tou= pneu/mato$] is spirit [pneu=ma/ e)stin]”. Propriety requires that the second pneu=ma be translated in lower-case (“spirit”), to avoid the confusing (and impious sounding) idea that it is God’s own Spirit that is being born. Yet, in a sense, that is what is intended here. Use of the lower-case “spirit” can create the even more misleading impression that it is simply the normal life-force (“spirit/soul”) in a human being that is involved. Nowhere else in the Gospel of John is the noun used this way, except, to some extent, in 11:33, 13:21, and 19:30; but these (especially the last) are special cases, involving the person of Jesus, which must be examined separately. There can be no doubt that both occurrences of pneu=ma in verse 6 essentially refer to the Spirit of God.

The second part of Jesus’ exposition, in verses 7-8, with the illustration involving the Spirit (and the meaning of the word pneu=ma) in v. 8, will be discussed in the next note.

April 2 (2): John 3:1-21

(From today on through Easter, I will be posting two daily notes—one in the morning, and another in the afternoon/evening.
The morning notes will continue the series on the Son of Man sayings.)

John 3:1-21 (Jesus and Nicodemus)

The scene between Jesus and Nicodemus (John 3:1-21[?]) is the first of the great Discourses of Jesus in the Gospel of John, containing some of the most famous (and extraordinary) verses in all the New Testament. And yet, as a formal matter, there are several basic questions regarding this passage, of which should perhaps be mentioned:

    1. How far does the actual discourse with Nicodemus extend in the passage? It appears to end at verse 21, but critical scholars have long had doubts about this. For the material from v. 13 to 21 does seem hard to relate precisely with what comes before. The shift from spiritual birth to the ascending/lifting-up of the Son of Man seems rather abrupt; however, one can find other similar abrupt shifts throughout the Gospels. Is it a product of Jesus the speaker or the way in which the author/redactor of the Gospel has assembled the material?
    2. When did the scene occur? In the Gospel sequence as it stands, the scene with Nicodemus takes place rather early in Jesus’ ministry. However, there are several indications that it may have actually occurred later on, perhaps during the last week in Jerusalem: (a) Verse 3 suggests that Jesus has performed many signs in Jerusalem and/or Judea; (b) the setting at night (cf. 13:30); (c) the discussion of lifting-up the Son (v. 14-15) seems more appropriate in the context of Jesus’ impending death. Of course, these details can otherwise be explained; but it is interesting that in Tatian’s harmony of the Gospels (Diatessaron, 2nd century) the scene occurs during the last week, following the Cleansing of the Temple (Arabic §32, and in the Codex Fuldensis). If John moved the Cleansing of the Temple episode to an ‘earlier’ position, he may also have done so for the discourse with Nicodemus; on the other hand, the Synoptic literary arrangement (with one final journey to Jerusalem) could naturally force all Jerusalem events into the final week, regardless of when they originally occurred. I suspect that the Diatessaron simply harmonized according to the Synoptic sequence.

There are so many wondrous and fascinating details in this passage—for the moment, I can only touch briefly on a few for which there is a particular textual or interpretive difficulty:

1. “Born again” (verse 3)

The Greek reads: e)a\n mh/ ti$ gennhqh=| a&nwqen ou) du/natai i)dei=n th\n basilei/an tou= qeou=, “if one does not come to be (born) a&nwqen, he is not able to see the kingdom of God”. The adverb a&nwqen is literally “from above”, but in a transferred temporal sense can also mean “from the beginning, again”. Jesus intends it primarily in the literal sense, but Nicodemus mistakenly understands it in the temporal sense, asking how one can come to be born (physically) a second (deu/tero$) time. This sort of wordplay on Jesus’ part, accompanied by misunderstanding from the hearer, occurs quite often in the Gospel of John; in this case, the wordplay, as many scholars have noted, is specific to the Greek. It is also an interesting response to Nicodemus’ statement in verse 2, where he specifically mentions the “signs” (shmei=a) Jesus has shown. Without any explanation, Jesus immediately points to something beyond what can be seen and judged in ordinary human terms—which must, at first, be met by incomprehension.

2. “Water and the Spirit” (verse 5)

Jesus follows his first statement in verse 3, with one similar: e)a\n mh/ ti$ gennhqh=| e)c u%dato$ kai\ pneu/mato$ ou) du/natai ei)selqei=n ei)$ th\n basilei/an tou= qeou=, “if one does not come to be (born) out of water and spirit he is not able to go into the kingdom of God” [differences from v. 3 in italics]. The parallel between a&nwqen (“from above”) and e)k pneu/mato$ (“out of [the] Spirit”) seems clear enough, which Jesus explains further in verses 6-8. Curious is the mention of water (u%dwr). Traditionally, this has been taken as a reference to baptism, and so critical scholars almost universally understand it here; for the critical view generally treats the passage according to the import it had for the early Christian Community. However, at the historical level, would Jesus here have referred to baptism, in the Christian sense, in speaking with Nicodemus? Perhaps the reference is to the “dipping/immersing” performed by John the Baptist—in the Synoptics, the Baptist prophecies of the One coming who will dip/immerse [i.e. baptize] e)n pneu/mati a(gi/w| (“in [the] holy Spirit”). If John’s dipping/immersing (with water) was for repentance, in preparation for the coming Kingdom, an immersing (by the Spirit) was necessary to see and enter into the Kingdom. The symbol of water to represent the Spirit of God was widespread, especially in early Christianity, but is also attested in the Old Testament (Ezekiel 36:25, implied) and in Judaism (see esp. 1QS 4:19-21)—for similar usage later in the Gospel, see John 4:14; 7:38-39. For a connection between the cleansing power of the Spirit and the coming of the Kingdom of God, see the variant reading in the Lord’s Prayer (Luke 11:2): e)lqe/tw to\ pneu=ma sou to\ a%gion e)f’ h(ma$ kai\ kaqarisa/tw h(ma=$, “may your holy Spirit come upon us and cleanse us”)

3. “The Wind/Spirit” (verse 8)

Here we find another wordplay by Jesus—in Greek, but one which also has a Semitic parallel. The beginning phrase in Greek, to\ pneu=ma o%pou qe/lei pnei=, is virtually untranslatable: a consistent literal rendering would be “the breath breathes where it wishes” or “the blowing blows where it wishes”. Idiomatically, Jesus is referring to the “wind” (that which “blows”, or “breathes” [according to a dynamic anthropomorphic view of nature]). Indeed pneu=ma can mean specificially “wind” or “breath” (just like the Hebrew j^Wr)—it also, like jWr, can refer to the life-breath [i.e. the animating life-principle] within a person (the “spirit”). Pneu=ma also came, in a technical or popular sense, to refer to any living, animated, but incorporeal being (i.e., “ghost, spirit”). Here Jesus moves, by symbol and comparison, from a simple natural image (“the wind blows/breathes where it wishes”) to one revelatory and profound (“the [holy] Spirit blows/breathes where it wishes”)—ou%tw$ e)stin pa=$ o( gegennhme/no$ e)k tou= pneu/mato$, “thus it is (for) every (one) coming to be (born) out of the Spirit”. Notice too the specific Greek preposition—it is not just a matter of baptism (going down into) the Spirit, but a coming-to-be (a birth) out of [i.e. from] the Spirit.

4. “Has ascended” (verse 13)

The perfect form a)nabe/bhken is a bit unusual. The verse reads kai\ ou)dei\$ a)nabe/bhken ei)$ to\n ou)rano\n ei) mh\ o( e)k tou= ou)ranou= kataba=$ o( ui(o\$ tou= anqrw/pou, “and no one has stepped up [i.e. gone up, ascended] into the heaven if not [i.e. except] the (one) stepping down out of the heaven, the Son of Man”. The perfect form could be taken to imply that the one stepping down, the Son of Man, has already stepped up above into Heaven. Some critics view this as evidence that the Discourse stems more from the vantage-point of the post-resurrection Christian Community than from the historical Jesus. However, Jesus’ words here probably mean something like “No one has [as yet] stepped up into Heaven”, that is, no one has ascended into Heaven. The theme continues on, paradoxically—the Son of Man’s “stepping up” begins with his being u%ywsen (“brought/raised high” [i.e., lifted], just as Moses raised the ‘bronze serpent’) upon the Cross.

5. “in Him” (verse 15, 16)

This verse contains both a textual and interpretive question. First, textual: the more unsual reading, also found in some of the oldest and best manuscripts (Ë75 B T Ws 083 [579] pc aur c l r1 vg) is e)n au)tw=| (“in him”); however, the majority reading (Ë63vid a [A] Q Y 086 f1, 13 33 ª) is ei)$ au)ton (“in[to] him”), while a few MSS (Ë66 L pc) read e)p’ au)tw (“upon him”). Now, even though we conventionally speak of having faith “in” God, Christ, His Name, etc., the more common preposition is ei)$ or e)pi, rather than e)n—according to a literal translation, one “trusts into” or “trusts upon” someone, and normally does not “trust in” someone. Therefore, assuming that the more difficult e)n au)tw=| is correct, the sentence perhaps ought to punctuated so as to read: i%na pa=$ o( pisteu/wn, e)n au)tw=| e&xh| zwh\n ai)w/nion, “…that every (one) trusting, might have life (of the) age [i.e. eternal life] in Him”. Is this not a powerful, pregnant ambiguity?—we both trust in him, and have eternal life in him.

6. “Judge/judgment” (verse 17ff)

Another ambiguity lies in the words kri/nw/kri/si$ (“judge/judgment”), which have, as with their English counterparts, a wide range of meaning—judging/judgment can have a positive, neutral, or negative sense. Generally, in the Gospel of John, the negative sense of judging (sometimes rendered “condemn/condemnation”) is meant, and so it  is here. The words kri/nw and kri/si$ occur five times in verses 17-21, generally in the context of light and darkness—light shines in the darkness (cf. 1:5) and exposes (“convicts”, e)le/gxw) that which is evil (v. 20). Curious is Jesus statement that God did not send the Son to judge the world (a theme echoed elsewhere in John), while other passages clearly state that judgment is given to the Son. Here there seem to be two special points of emphasis: (a) the judging has already taken place (perfect passive ke/kritai, “has been judged” or “will have been judged”) when one does not trust in the Son, while those who do trust are not judged at all (v. 18); and (b) there is throughout a strong sense, introduced here, of what is traditionally referred to as “realized eschatology”. However, in this last respect, I prefer the idea of a dynamic-spiritual aspect to faith and salvation—all of these symbols which suggest a process (birth, ascent, light dispelling darkness, etc.), do in fact take place “in Him”. The concept of “eternal life” (literally, “life [of the] Age[s]”) sums up this dynamic—what we wait for as believers, is already realized “in Him”. Consider the last words of this passage, that one “comes to[ward] the light” (e&rxetai pro\$ to\ fw=$, suggesting ‘conversion’?) which will “make apparent” (fanerwqh=|, lit. “be made to shine”, suggesting ‘final judgment’?) that his works “have been worked” (perfect participle ei)rgasme/na) “in God” (e)n qew=|).

Saturday Series: John 3:16

John 3:16

This week I would like to address again the importance of studying a verse or passage in context. I turn to John 3:16, one of the most famous verses in all the New Testament. Countless Christians (and non-Christians as well) are familiar with it, yet I wonder how many have ever really read or studied it in its context within the Gospel of John.

It is part of Jn 3:1-21, one of the great Discourses of Jesus in the Fourth Gospel. These Discourses, which are really unlike anything in the other (Synoptic) Gospels, present the historical traditions—that is, Jesus’ words and actions—within a very distinctive literary setting, utilizing a dialogue format. Generally, they follow a common structure:

    • Narrative introduction, which establishes the setting and action of the historical episode, often a miracle or encounter episode.
    • A central saying or statement by Jesus
    • The reaction of those who see/hear him, reflecting some measure of misunderstanding
    • An explanation by Jesus of the true, deeper meaning of his words

Sometimes there are multiple exchanges between Jesus and his audience, so that the discourse preserves a more extensive dialogue. The outline of John 3:1-21 should be examined according to this pattern:

    • Narrative introduction (vv. 1-2)—an encounter episode, between Jesus and Nicodemus (a member of the Jewish Council [Sanhedrin]), presumably in Jerusalem (see 2:13-25). Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night (secretly?), and addresses him (verse 2).
    • Central saying/statement by Jesus (v. 3).
    • Reaction by Nicodemus who has not understood the true meaning of Jesus’ words (v. 4)
    • Explanation by Jesus (vv. 5-8)
    • Second reaction (question) by Nicodemus (v. 9)
    • Explanation/exposition by Jesus (vv. 10-21)

The central saying by Jesus is in verse 3:

“Amen, amen, I say to you, if one does not come to be (born) from above, he is not able to see the kingdom of God”

This statement is apparently in response to Nicodemus’ address in verse 2, in which he recognizes that Jesus is “a teaching (who) has come from God”, yet does not fully realize Jesus’ identity. The implication is that only the person who has been “born from above” can see and recognize Jesus truly. The recognition of Jesus is described in more conventional religious terms, drawn from Old Testament and Jewish thought, as seeing “the kingdom of God”.

From verse 4, it is clear that Nicodemus has misunderstood Jesus. This is based on a bit of wordplay in Greek. The adverb anœthen literally means “from above”, but can also have the sense of “from the beginning, again”. This is how Nicodemus takes it, thinking that Jesus is referring to a second physical birth from the mother’s womb. Jesus’ explanation, touching on the true meaning of his words, begins with a statement parallel to that of verse 3:

“Amen, amen, I say to you, if one does not come to be (born) out of water and (the) Spirit, he is not able to come into the kingdom of God” (v. 5)

Clearly, being born “from above” is essentially the same as being born “out of water and (the) Spirit”. The exact relationship between water and the Spirit in this statement continues to be debated by commentators. Some take it as a reference to the need for (Christian) Baptism, but this likely would not have been Jesus primary meaning, if we accept the substance of the saying as genuine. A simpler interpretation, in accord with that of verse 3 (and the discourse as a whole), would be that, without a spiritual birth (from above), in addition to one’s natural human birth (out of water), one cannot see/enter the Kingdom. Nicodemus is still thinking and experiencing things from the ordinary human standpoint. In verse 8, Jesus identifies the birth “from above” specifically with being born “out of [i.e. from] the Spirit“.

A second question from Nicodemus (“How are these things able to come to be?”, v. 9) introduces the exposition (by Jesus) which makes up the remainder of the discourse. This exposition can be divided into two parts:

    1. Jesus as the Son of Man who has come down from Heaven (vv. 10-15), and
    2. Jesus as the Son (of God) who brings light and life into the world (vv. 16-21)

At first glance, it may not seem obvious how these sections relate to the exchange with Nicodemus in vv. 1-9. But I believe that the key lies in a narrative technique found in the Gospel of John sometimes referred to as “step-parallelism”, in which a word or idea from a prior passage is taken up to start the next. Remember that the central idea in Jesus’ exchange with Nicodemus was that of being born “from above” (anœthen, verse 3). It is this motif that Jesus expounds in response to Nicodemus’ question. There are two components to the first part of Jesus’ explanation (vv. 11-15): (a) the heavenly source of Jesus’ words (his testimony), vv. 11-12, and (b) the heavenly origin of Jesus (the “Son of Man”), vv. 13-15. Consider how these two aspects relate, centered on the motif of heaven (i.e. from above):

    • Earthly things (v. 12a)
      —Heavenly things (v. 12b)
      —Ascent to Heaven (v. 13a)
    • Descent from Heaven [to earth] (v. 13b)

In verse 13-15 Jesus picks up and further expounds this motif of ascent/descent (using the verbs anabainœ and katabainœ, literally “step up” and “step down”, see last week’s study on John 1:51). According the Johannine view of Jesus, as expressed (by Jesus) in the other discourses, this ascent/descent concept is one of several in the Gospel which serves as a comprehensive symbol or image of both the death and exaltation of Jesus. Another such concept involves the verb hypsoœ (“lift high”) which Jesus uses in vv. 14-15:

“And even as Moshe lifted (up) high the snake in the desert, so it is necessary (for) the Son of Man to be lifted high, (so) that every one trusting [in him] may have [lit. hold] (the) Life of the Age [i.e. Eternal Life].”

The primary emphasis here has shifted to Jesus’ sacrificial death (on the cross) which will bring (eternal) life to every one who trusts in him. This now becomes the transition to the second half of Jesus’ exposition (vv. 16-21), which begins with the famous verse 16 (note the points of similarity with vv. 14-15):

“For God loved the world this (way), so (that) he even gave his only (born) [monogen¢s] Son, so that every one trusting into him will not be destroyed, but might have/hold (the) Life of the Age [i.e. Eternal Life].”

The joining word which introduces vv. 16-21 is the adverb houtœ[s], related to the demonstrative pronoun houtos (“this”). The idea seems to be that God loved the world “this way”, referring to what precedes—i.e. the “lifting up” of the Son of Man in the manner of the snake upon the pole (Numbers 21:9). This connection also serves to identify Jesus the “Son of Man” as the “only Son” of God (see the earlier study on John 1:18). Once again, by way of step-parallelism, Jesus takes up this motif and continues it for the remainder of the exposition:

    • God sent forth his Son into the world, so that the world might be saved through him (v. 17)
    • Salvation comes through trusting (vb. pisteuœ) in [lit. “into”, eis] God’s Son (v. 18)

Two important Johannine motifs are blending into verse 18: (1) the adjective monogen¢s (“only [born]”), i.e. God’s only Son, and (2) the identification of the person (Jesus) with his name. According to ancient Near Eastern thought, the essence of a person was seen has being bound up, in a quasi-magical sort of way, with his/her name. This took on special significance for Israelites and Jews with regard to the name of God (YHWH), and early Christians developed a similar reverence for the name of Yeshua/Jesus. In the Gospel of John, we find the important idea that Jesus (the Son) reveals God (the Father) by making known his name (i.e., who He truly is)—see 5:43; 10:25; 12:26; 17:6-26. At the same time, the Father acts on behalf of believers in the Son’s name (14:13-14, 26; 15:16, 21; 16:23-26). This inter-relationship of Father and Son is typical of John’s theology and Christology, and is found all throughout the Discourses of Jesus.

In verse 17-21 there is an interesting shift, from the theme of life (vv. 17-18) to that of light (19-21). Both are central to the Gospel of John and feature prominently in the Prologue (1:4-9ff). After the reference to Jesus’ death in verse 14, it seems that it is the incarnation of the Son (Jesus) which is more clearly in view in vv. 17-21. Jesus, in his very person, brings life and light into the world. The reference to light in verse 19 also introduces an aspect of dualism into the discourse—light vs. darkness. This takes us back to the original saying in verse 3. The word “from above” reflects a similar sort of dualism—above vs. below, heavenly vs. earthly. Only those who belong to the light, etc, are able to come to it (i.e. trust in Jesus). Trust is not a matter of human will-power, nor even of repentance and sacrifice, but of belonging to God. This is perhaps best expressed by Jesus words (to Pilate) in John 18:37:

“Unto this [i.e. for this purpose] I have come to be (born) and unto this I have come into the world, that I should give witness to the truth—every one being out of [i.e. who is from/of] the truth hears my voice.”

And consider also the words of Jn 1:12-13:

“(for) as many as received him, he gave to them authority to come to be offspring of God, to the ones trusting in his name—the (one)s which, not out of blood, and not out of the will of the flesh, and not out of the will of man, but out of God, came to be (born)”

This concludes our study of John 3:16 in the context of the discourse (vv. 1-21). Often it is useful, and even necessary, to consider the wider context of the book as well. I would thus encourage you to go back and read again the first two chapters of John, paying especially close attention to chapter two and episode(s) of verses 13-25. As you read these verses, keep in mind your study of 3:1-21.

And I will see you again next Saturday.

Birth of the Son of God: John 3:3-8

This Christmas series was intended to run through the Baptism of Jesus, which is commemorated on Epiphany (Jan 6) in the Eastern Churches; in Western tradition, Jesus’ Baptism is celebrated on the octave of Epiphany (Jan 13).

The next several daily notes will explore the idea of believers as “sons of God”, which ultimately cannot be separated in Christian thought from the idea of Jesus himself as the “Son of God”. I have discussed this relationship already in a number of the prior Christmas season notes (on the theme of the “Birth of the Son of God”), but it is necessary to examine in more detail just how this is expressed in the New Testament. Today I will look specifically at the motif of believers in Christ being born. This involves use of the verb genna/w (“come to be [born]”), which is related to the more general verb gi/nomai (“come to be”), as I have noted on a number of occasions previously. It is used once of Jesus’ birth in the Gospel of John (Jn 18:37), along with a parallel use of gi/nomai in context of the incarnation (Jn 1:14, and vv. 15, 30). For the birth of believers, genna/w occurs in John 1:13

“the (one)s who…came to be (born) [e)gennh/qhsan] out of God”

which is parallel to verse 12 (using gi/nomai):

“he gave them authority to come to be [gene/sqai] offspring [i.e. children] of God”

The spiritual birth of believers is described with more detail and involved imagery in the famous third chapter of John.

John 3:3-8

This is part of the great dialogue (3:1-21), that begins with the exchange between Jesus and Nicodemus (3:1-10ff). Nicodemus starts with a polite and (semi-)reverent address (v. 2); Jesus’ response sparks the brief exchange that follows:

“Amen, amen, I relate to you (that) if one does not come to be (born) [gennhqh=|] from above, he is not able to see the kingdom of God” (v. 3)

The use of genna/w, along with a&nwqen (“from above”), which Nicodemus understands in the sense of “again”, is the cause of his confusion—thinking that Jesus is referring to a second physical/biological birth (v. 4). Jesus’ answer is almost precisely parallel to his statement in verse 3:

“Amen, amen, I relate to you (that) if one does not come to be (born) [gennhqh=|] out of water and (the) Spirit, he is not able to come into the kingdom of God” (v. 5)

In several respects, this is an example of synonymous (and/or synthetic) parallelism—first with regard to being born:

    • “from above” (a&nwqen)
    • “out of… (the) Spirit” (e)kpneu/mato$)

And, secondly, in terms of its result and effect:

    • “…(able) to see the kingdom of God”
    • “…(able) to come into [i.e. enter] the kingdom of God”

The inclusion of u%dato$ (“out of water and [the] Spirit”) is somewhat problematic (I have discussed various ways of interpreting the phrase in earlier notes); here it is sufficient to point out: (a) the traditional association between water and the Spirit (in the context of cleansing/holiness), and that (b) water and Spirit are connected in the New Testament primarily with the imagery surrounding baptism (Mark 1:8, 10 par; Jn 1:33; Acts 1:5; 8:39; 10:47). Originally, the water for ritual dipping/dunking (i.e. baptism) was associated with cleansing; but early in Christian application, especially related to the baptism of Jesus (cf. the Gospel accounts), water came to be symbolic of a new “birth”—i.e. entry into a new life and mode of being. In Pauline terms, one dies (symbolically, with Christ’s death) and is ‘reborn’ (with Christ’s resurrection); it is precisely in context of the resurrection that Jesus was understood to be ‘born’ as God’s Son in the earliest layers of Christian preaching and teaching (cf. the use of Ps 2:7 in Acts 13:32-33ff). The conjunction between water and the Spirit in 1 John 5:6 is more complex, and cannot be dealt with here. As far as the expression “from above” (a&nwqen) in John 3:3, this is part of the dualistic contrast in John between above and below (3:31; 8:23; 19:11), ascent and descent (Jn 1:51; 3:13; 6:62, etc), and so forth.

Within the context of the dialogue, this birth of believers is tied to the Son’s sacrificial death and exaltation (vv. 11-16), and to our trust/faith in Christ as the Son of God (vv. 17-21, cf. also 1 Jn 4:15; 5:10-13, etc). 1 John uses the same expression as in Jn 3:3, “come to be born out of God (or, out of Him)”, six (actually seven) times—always in connection with the adjectival particle pa=$ (“all, every”), to establish the condition or test for being “born of God”. This ‘birth’ has a two-fold aspect, in terms of: (a) ethical behavior (righteousness), and (b) faith/trust in Christ (as the Son of God):

  • 1 Jn 2:29—”every one doing right(eousness) has come to be born out of Him
  • 1 Jn 3:9—”every one having come to be born out of God does not do sin” (cf. also at the end of this verse)
  • 1 Jn 4:7—”every one loving has come to be born out of God
  • 1 Jn 5:1—”every one trusting that Yeshua is the Anointed has come to be born out of God
  • 1 Jn 5:4—”every (thing) having come to be born out of God is victorious (over) the world”—identified with faith/trust
  • 1 Jn 5:18—”every one having come to be born out of God does not sin” (cf. 3:9)

All six (or seven) occurrences of genna/w are perfect forms—that is, indicating a past action or condition that continues on through the present (and future). Three times (2:29; 4:7; 5:1) it is an indicative in the predicate position; the other three times (3:9; 5:4, 18) it is a participle substantively modifying pa=$ o( (“every one/thing th[at]…”).

Other New Testament Passages

Galatians 4:21-31

In Gal 4:21-31, Paul also refers to spiritual birth, in the context of the Abraham narratives in Genesis—specifically interpreting the promise to Abraham, which is inherited by believers through trust in Christ and through the Spirit (Gal 3:14-18, 29). The Hagar/Sarah allegory (cf. Gen 16-17) is used to symbolize slavery and freedom—the freedom in Christ vs. slavery under the Law (and sin). Verses 23 and 29 have parallel expressions:

“the one having come to be born [gege/nnhtai]…through the promise” (v. 23)
“the one coming to be born [gennhqei\$]…according to (the) Spirit” (v. 29)

1 Peter 1:3, 23

The expression “born from above” in Jn 3:3-8 is sometimes translated “born again”; while it can be understood this way (and it is part of Nicodemus’ misunderstanding of Jesus’ words), “born again” more properly renders the verb a)nagenna/w (“come to be [born] again”), which is used only in 1 Peter 1:3 and 23.

  • v. 3our being born again, which is followed by a chain of result/purpose clauses beginning with ei)$ (“into/unto”), vv. 3-5:
    • into [ei)$] a living hope—through the resurrection of Jesus
      • into [ei)$] a lot [i.e. inheritance]…in heaven
        • into [ei)$] salvation, to be uncovered [i.e. revealed] in the last time
  • v. 23having been born again
    • through the living word/account [lo/go$] of God (parallel with the “living hope” of v. 3)—this is qualified two ways:
      —not out of decaying [i.e. corruptible, perishing] seed
      —remaining/abiding [me/nonto$] (into the Age, v. 25)

The imperishable seed (spo/ra, literally, “[thing] sown”) from which believers are born is also mentioned (using the different word spe/rma) in 1 John 3:9 (above)—here is the full reference:

“Every one having come to be (born) out of God does not sin, (in) that [i.e. because] His seed is in him and he is not able to sin, (in) that he has come to be (born) out of God”

Note the precise chiasm in this verse:

    • Come to be born out of God
      • Does not sin
        • God’s seed is in him
      • Not able to sin
    • Come to be born out of God

Elsewhere in the New Testament, Paul uses seed [spe/rma] to refer to believers under the image “seed of Abraham” (Rom 4:13, 16, 18; 9:7-8; Gal 3:16, 19, 29)—we come to be “children of the promise” through Christ (cf. above). Note also a similar expression in Heb 2:16.

The idea of spiritual ‘rebirth’ (or “regeneration”) is also expressed in Titus 3:5, using the nouns paliggenesi/a (“coming to be [i.e. born] back [again]”, cf. also Matt 19:28) and a)nakai/wsi$ (“being [made] new again, renewal”, cf. in Rom 12:2).