Spirit and Divine Birth in the Johannine Writings
Before embarking on our final topic (here in Part 5), let us summarize some of the results from our study thus far. This can be done best, I think, by presenting the key points of development in something of a chronological sequence.
- In the earliest strands of the Gospel Tradition, Jesus was identified as an Anointed (Messianic) Prophet—an identification that was defined, in part, by the servant/herald figures of Isaiah 42:1ff and 61:1ff, upon whom God is said to put His Spirit. The Heavenly Voice at Jesus’ baptism, in the core Synoptic Tradition, apparently alludes to Isa 42:1. Jesus, even during the time of his ministry, could have been thought of as God’s son in this Messianic sense.
- Jesus also was identified as the royal/Davidic Messiah, though increasingly more so after his resurrection. Passages such as Psalm 2:7 (and 2 Sam 7:14), expressing the ancient Near Eastern tradition of referring to the king as God’s “son” (“born” at his coronation), already given a Messianic interpretation, were applied to Jesus. If the ‘Western’ reading of the Lukan version (3:22) of the Heavenly Voice is original, then the Gospel writer may have intended this specific Messianic identification of Jesus at his baptism (cp. the Transfiguration parallel, Lk 9:35).
- For early Christians, such Messianic passages were applied to Jesus primarily in the context of his resurrection (and exaltation to heaven). It was through his exaltation that Jesus was ‘born’ as God’s Son. Jesus’ resurrection took place through the presence and power of God’s Holy Spirit, and the exalted Jesus (at God the Father’s right hand) shared in the same Divine Spirit as the Father.
- Christians soon came to realize that Jesus must have been God’s Son (in this Divine/exalted sense) even prior to his resurrection—that is, during the time of his earthly life and ministry. The Heavenly Voice at Jesus’ baptism (marking the start of his public ministry), declaring him to be God’s Son, would thus have taken on a deeper theological significance.
- Gradually, the belief developed that Jesus’ Divine status (and nature) as God’s Son preceded even his birth. Belief in the Divine pre-existence of Jesus is attested by 60 A.D., at the latest (the ‘Christ hymn’ of Philippians 2:6-11). Psalm 2:7 was further interpreted in this sense—viz., that Jesus was already ‘born’ as God’s Son in eternity, before the world was created. Hebrews evinces a pre-existence Christology, alongside the earlier exaltation Christology, and can cite Psalm 2:7 (and the idea of Jesus’ being “born” as God’s Son) in both contexts.
- At around the same time, a seminal narrative of Jesus’ human birth developed, as one of the last strands of the Gospel Tradition. By at least 70 A.D., there was in existence a seminal narrative, common to the core of the Matthean and Lukan Infancy narratives. It includes the central belief of the role of the Holy Spirit in the miraculous (virginal) conception of Jesus. However, there is no real evidence of a pre-existence Christology in the Infancy narratives.
To these Christological points, we should mention the important parallel between Jesus’ as God’s Son and believers as the sons/children of God. Paul notably brings out this parallel (and relationship) in Galatians 4:1-7 and Romans 8:12-17, explaining that our sonship, as believers, comes through our receiving of the Holy Spirit. Traditionally, the receiving of the Spirit took place during (and was symbolized by) the baptism ritual. This follows the pattern of Jesus’ own baptism, when the Holy Spirit descended upon him. Paul also juxtaposes Jesus’ incarnate birth (as a human child) with the divine birth of believers (and children of God).
All of these Christological themes reach their pinnacle in the Johannine Writings—the Gospel and First Letter of John. In the Gospel of John, all of the main lines of tradition, regarding the relationship between Jesus (the Son) and the Spirit, are brought together and given new depths of meaning. For example, we have the Spirit descending upon Jesus at his baptism (1:32ff), along with the declaration by the Heavenly Voice (1:34), as in the Synoptic Tradition. Also, the Spirit is associated with the resurrection/exaltation of Jesus, after which Jesus is able to communicate the Spirit, sending it to his disciples (20:22).
However, there are two very distinctive points of Johannine development:
- Through the Spirit, the manifest presence of Jesus abides in and among believers. We are united with Jesus the Son through the Spirit, and, through the Son, with God the Father, since Father and Son share the same Spirit.
- Believers come to be “born” of God, through the Spirit, thus becoming children/offspring of God. While Jesus is the Son (ui(o/$), we, as believers, are God’s children (te/kna).
Both of these thematic ideas can be found elsewhere in the New Testament (in Paul’s letters, for example), but they have a very special emphasis in the Johannine Writings. It is the latter idea—of the birth of believers, through the Spirit—that I wish to focus on here. This will be done through a survey of the Johannine passages, many of which I have discussed in detail elsewhere.
In order to view this verse properly in context, we must begin with the first portion in verse 12:
“But as (many) as received him, to them he gave the exousia [i.e. ability/authority] to come to be [gene/sqai] (the) offspring of God [te/kna qeou=, i.e. sons/children of God]—to the ones trusting in his name…”
The context is clear enough—Christ himself gives the ability to become “children of God” to believers (the ones who trust/believe in him). The the verb gi/nomai (cognate with genna/w) is used, more or less, in the sense of coming to be born, as is clear from the parallel in v. 13. The expression te/kna qeou= (“offspring/children of God”) is generally synonymous with ui(oi\ qeou= (“sons of God”), as demonstrated by a comparison of Rom 8:16-17, 21 with Rom 8:14, 19; Gal 3:26, etc. The Gospel and letters of John (Jn 11:52; 1 Jn 3:1, 10; 5:2) prefer te/kna qeou=; based on the slight evidence available, Luke (and the Synoptics) tends to use ui(oi\ qeou= (cf. Lk 20:36; and 6:35, where it is u(yi/stou instead of qeou=, as in Lk 1:32).
The sentence continues in verse 13:
“…who, not out of blood [lit. bloods] and not out of (the) will of (the) flesh and not out of (the) will of man, but (rather) out of God [e)k qeou=], have come to be (born) [e)gennh/qhsan]”
Note the general parallel with Lk 1:28-35, especially if v. 35b is expanded with the additional (variant) e)k sou (“out of you”):
In Lk 1:35, Jesus is born (as a human being) out of Mary’s body (i.e. her “flesh”); in Jn 1:13, believers are born (spiritually) out of God.
The spiritual birth of believers is referred to on several occasions in the Gospel of John, most notably in the famous passage Jn 3:3-8, where the verb genna/w appears 8 times; by contrast, it is used of Jesus’ incarnate (human) birth only in Jn 18:37. In the Nicodemus discourse, Jesus specifically contrasts an ordinary human birth (“out of [e)k] flesh,” “out of [e)k] water”) with being born “out of the Spirit” (e)k tou= pneu/mato$, vv. 5-6, 8). Being born out of the Spirit is the same as being born “from above” (a&nwqen), v. 1 (also v. 7), which Nicodemus misunderstands (v. 2) as a second fleshly birth (a&nwqen can also mean “again”). Clearly, this is a heavenly and divine birth (“from above”), and e)k [tou=] pneu/mato$ essentially has the same meaning as e)k qeou= (“out of God“). Jesus also, as the incarnate Son, comes “out of” (e)k) the divine realm above, down to earth (3:13, 31; 6:41-42, 50-51, 58; 8:23, etc).
John 8:47; 15:19; 17:6ff; 18:37
The expression e)k qeou= is used as a characteristic of believers elsewhere in the Gospel. It is often translated in the sense of “belonging to God”, but surely the idea of coming to be born out of God is also implicit in this expression. See, for example, the context of 8:47 (vv. 41-47), dealing with the idea of believers as sons/children of God (i.e., God as their Father); those who reject the Son, or who otherwise to not believe, have the Devil as their father, and belong to (being born of) the world below (8:23). As it is, believers do not belong to the world in this way (15:19). The same language runs through the Prayer-Discourse of chapter 17 (see vv. 6, 14-16).
One may also mention Jesus’ statement in 18:37, in which he declares that those who trust in him are “out of the truth” (e)k th=$ a)lhqei/a$). This is can be understood as “belong to the truth”, but again we should not ignore the implicit idea of being born, especially since Jesus himself mentions it (that is, his own birth) earlier in the same verse. The close connection between truth (a)lhqei/a) and the Spirit in the Johannine writings, makes it likely that the believer’s spiritual birth is being alluded to. The Holy Spirit is specifically called (“the Spirit of Truth“, 1 Jn 4:6; Jn 14:17; 15:26; 16:13, cf. also 4:23-24), and, in 1 John 5:6, it is even declared that “the Spirit is the Truth” —providing a belated answer, if you will, to the question by Pilate in Jn 18:38.
1 John 3:9, et al
The author of 1 John repeatedly refers to believers—true believers—has those who have been born of God, using the verb genna/w, just as in John 1:12-13 (cf. above). He introduces this language at the close of the first half of the letter (i.e., at the end of the section 2:28-3:10), and then proceeds to develop the theme in the second half. It relates to the central message of the letter, affirming the religious (and spiritual) identity of true believers—members of the Community—in contrast to the false believers (called false prophets and ‘antichrist’) whom he opposes (and of whom he is warning his readers against).
Here is a summary of the references:
1 John 3:9
“Every (one) having come to be (born) [gegennhme/no$] out of God does not sin, (in) that His seed remains in him, and he is not able to sin, (in) that he has come to be (born) [gege/nnhtai] out of God.”
Note the symmetric (chiastic) structure of this verse:
- Every one having come to be born out of God
- (he) does not sin
- (God’s) seed remains in him
- he is not able to sin
- (he) does not sin
- he has come to be born out of God
- Every one having come to be born out of God
1 John 4:7
“…every (one) loving has come to be (born) [gege/nnhtai] out of God and knows God”
There is also a chiastic structure to 4:7-8:
- “love is out of God”
- “the one loving…knows God”
- “the one not loving does not know God”
- “God is love”
- “love is out of God”
Here showing love is comparable to not sinning (3:9) as a fundamental attribute of the true believer—i.e., one who has been born of God.
1 John 5:1
“Every (one) trusting that Yeshua is the Anointed (One) has come to be (born) [gegennhtai] out of God, and every (one) loving the (One hav)ing caused (him) to be (born) [also] loves the (one) having come to be (born).”
Trust in Jesus and love for one’s fellow believers are the two components of the great Commandment (3:23-24). In 1 John, sin is defined primarily in terms of violating this two-fold great Commandment, which (in the author’s mind) is what the ‘antichrist’ opponents do. Here the main point is that, if one truly loves God, then that person will show proper love to other believers. The fundamental identity of believers as having been born of God is expressed by the two sides—active and passive—of the process of giving birth. That is, God causes the believer to be born (active participle gennh/santa), and the believer as the one who has come to be born (passive participle gegennhme/non).
1 John 5:4
“everything having come to be (born) [gegennhme/non] out of God is victorious (over) the world; and this is the victory (hav)ing been victorious (over) the world: our trust.”
A neuter participle is used here, since what is born of God includes both the believer, and the believer’s trust/faith (pi/sti$) in Jesus. The masculine participle returns in verse 5, referring again to the believer: “Who is the (one) being victorious (over) the world, if not the (one) trusting that Yeshua is the Son of God?”
1 John 5:18
“We have seen that every (one) having come to be (born) [gegennhme/no$] does not sin, but the (one hav)ing come to be (born) [gennhqei/$] out of God keeps watch (over) him, and the Evil does not touch him.”
The textual and interpretive difficulties in this verse center on the second passive participle of genna/w, in the aorist (rather than perfect) tense. The Johannine writings use this verb of becoming in relation to believers, and never (or almost never) to Jesus. However, the expression threi= au)to/n (“he keeps watch [over] him”) suggests that the second participle refers here to Jesus, and that he—the Son who is also born of God—protects the believer from evil. If, on the other hand, both participles refer to the believer, then the verb threi= must be understood reflexively, i.e., “he keeps watch (over) him(self)”; in some manuscripts, the reflexive pronoun is used (e(auto/n, instead of au)to/n), which solves the problem. I discuss this verse in more detail in an earlier study.
In some ways, it would be appropriate if the two passive participles of genna/w in 5:18 did refer to both the believer and Jesus, respectively. This would be fitting for the rich and complex theology of the Johannine writings, expressing the relationship between Jesus (the Son) and believers (the children), who are united together as offspring of God.
However, it is worth mentioning again that believers are always referred to as te/kna qeou= (“offspring/children of God”) rather than ui(oi\ qeou= (“sons of God”), as indicated above. For the author (and the tradition/community in which he writes), there is only one true “Son” (ui(o/$) of God, and this is almost certainly the proper way to understand the term monogenh/$ in the context of Jn 1:14, 18—Christ is the only [monogenh/$] (Son) of God the Father. Within the Gospel, Jesus frequently identifies himself as “(the) Son”, usually in terms of his relationship to, and identity with, God the Father. Believers come to be (born as) “children of God” through Christ—that is, we are dependent on him for our relationship to the Father. Paul says much the same thing (though in different terms) in Rom 8:3ff, 14-15, 22-29; Gal 3:26; 4:4-7.