June 10: John 3:3-8

John 3:3-8

In the Johannine writings, the theme of believers as the sons/children of God is especially prominent, and is expressed primarily in two ways: (1) through the use of the noun te/knon (plur. te/kna), “offspring”; and (2) by the verb genna/w + the preposition e)k. The statement in 1:12b-13, discussed in the previous note, uses both of these elements.

The principal passage in the Gospel for this theme is the first section (vv. 3-8) of the Nicodemus Discourse in chapter 3. In these verses, the verb genna/w occurs eight times, four of which also use the preposition e)k (“out of”).

The verb genna/w is a verb of becoming, related to the more common gi/nomai, and with a comparable meaning. Both verbs can be used in the context of birth (i.e., coming to be born); however, this aspect of meaning is more regularly expressed by genna/w. The verb is relatively rare in the Synoptic Gospels, outside of the Matthean genealogy (1:1-16, where it occurs 40 times). It occurs primarily in the Matthean and Lukan Infancy narratives, in reference to the birth of Jesus (Matt 1:20; 2:1, 4; Luke 1:35), but also to the birth of John the Baptist (Luke 1:13, 57). Otherwise, it is used only rarely, in the context of an ordinary human birth (Mark 14:21; Matt 19:12; 26:24; Lk 23:29). The idiom of genna/w + e)k (i.e., “come to be born out of”) occurs only in Matt 1:20, in reference to the conception/birth of Jesus from the Holy Spirit. Elsewhere in the New Testament, outside of the Johannine writings, genna/w + e)k occurs only in Galatians 4:23 (cf. the earlier note on Gal 4:21-31).

As mentioned above, the verb genna/w occurs eight times in 3:3-8, the first section of the Nicodemus Discourse, in which the theme of birth is emphasized. Following the narrative introduction (vv. 1-2), the central statement by Jesus in verse 3 begins the Discourse:

“If one does not come to be (born) [e)ggenhqh=|] from above, he is not able to see the kingdom of God.”

The Johannine Discourses of Jesus follow a basic pattern, which is outlined below (applied to the chap. 3 Discourse):

    • Statement by Jesus (v. 3)
    • Response by his hearer(s), reflecting a lack of understanding (v. 4)
    • Exposition by Jesus, in which he explains the true meaning of his words (vv. 5-8)
    • A second response by his hearer(s), again demonstrating a lack of understanding (v. 9)
    • Further exposition by Jesus (here, in two parts: vv. 10-15, 16-21)

In the initial exposition (vv. 5-8), Jesus explains the meaning of his statement in v. 3. Nicodemus, in his initial response (v. 4), has difficulty understanding Jesus’ use of the expression “come to be (born) from above [a&nwqen]”. He understands the adverb a&nwqen in the figurative/temporal sense of “again”, specifically in the context of a person coming to be born “a second time”, repeating his/her physical birth (from the mother’s womb). Jesus, however, explains that the ‘birth’ of which he speaks is a Divine birth, coming from God (“from above”). Since God Himself is Spirit (a point to be made in 4:24), a birth from God must be a spiritual, not a physical, birth. Jesus rephrases his initial statement in verse 5:

“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.”

Being born “from above” is explained as being born “out of [e)k] water and (the) Spirit”, while “seeing” the Kingdom of God is explained in terms of “entering” (“coming into”) the Kingdom. In verses 6-8, the explanation of “from above” (a&nwqen) is further narrowed to “out of the Spirit”, without any mention of water. This has led commentators to debate the significance of “out of water” (e)c u%dato$) in verse 5. There are three lines of interpretation:

    • “water” and “Spirit” are essentially synonymous, perhaps in anticipation of the water-motif in the chapter 4 Discourse (vv. 10, 13-14; cf. vv. 23-24; 7:37-39)
    • “water” and “Spirit” are supplemental, referring (most likely) to the baptism ritual and its symbolism; “Spirit” is primary (vv. 6, 8), but “water” (i.e., baptism) is still essential for the believer (in order to “enter” the Kingdom)
    • the conjunction kai/ (“and”) signifies that in addition to being born out of water (i.e., one’s physical/biological), it is necessary specifically to be born “of the Spirit”.

I am very much inclined toward the third approach, which seems to be more in keeping with the context of vv. 3-4, and the exposition by Jesus in verses 6ff. There is a clear contrast between an ordinary human birth (from the mother’s womb), and a Divine/heavenly birth from the Spirit of God. In this regard, “out of (the) flesh” (v. 6) seems to be parallel with “out of water” in v. 5. Moreover, I would maintain that this line of interpretation is in accord with the Jesus-John contrast that runs through chapters 1-3; in particular, John’s baptism with water is contrasted with Jesus’ baptism with the Spirit (1:26, 31, 33; cf. 3:22-23ff). This thematic contrast is undercut if the wording in verse 5 refers to the (physical) water of the baptism ritual.

The irony is that Nicodemus was not entirely incorrect in his understanding of a&nwqen as connoting “again, a second time”, because a second birth is indeed required.

In his initial exposition, Jesus does not explain how it is that one comes to be born “from above”, that is, “from the Spirit”. This is only expounded subsequently, in vv. 10-21. The final portion (vv. 16-21), in particular, implicitly declares that this spiritual birth takes place only when a person trusts in Jesus as the Son sent to earth by God the Father. The theological (and Christological) basis for this is established in the prior section (vv. 10-15), by way of the Johannine descent-ascent schema. The Son has descended (lit. “stepped down”) to earth from heaven (v. 13), and, when his mission on earth is completed (culminating with his death), he will ascend (“step up”) back to heaven (vv. 13a, 14). Both aspects (descent and ascent of the Son) are necessary for one’s trust in Jesus to be genuine (and full), enabling that person to both see and enter the Kingdom of God.

In comparison with his teaching in the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus says very little about the Kingdom of God in the Gospel of John. In fact, there are only two passages where the Kingdom-theme is dealt with to any extent—here in 3:3-8, and the dialogue with Pilate in 18:33-38. Throughout the rest of the Gospel, it is not the Messianic kingship of Jesus that is emphasized, but, rather, his identity as the Son sent from heaven by God the Father. Similarly, in place of the Kingdom as an eschatological concept, we find the twin Johannine themes of judgment (kri/si$, vb kri/nw) and life (zwh/). And, indeed, these are the two key themes introduced and expounded in the conclusion of the Discourse (vv. 16-21). The one who trusts in Jesus, possesses life, having already passed through the Judgment, while the one who does not trust, has already been judged.

This aspect of what it means to be a believer in Jesus is stated succinctly in verse 15, in relation to the descent-ascent of the Son:

“…(so) that every(one) trusting in him would hold (the) life of the Age(s) [i.e. eternal life]”

The parallel between the idiom of “entering the Kingdom” and “entering life”, whereby the two can be regarded as largely synonymous, is reasonably well established in the Gospel Tradition, within the teaching of Jesus (Mark 9:43, 45, 47 par; 10:15, 17 par; Matt 19:17, 23-24 par; cf. also Matt 7:14, 21).

March 13: 1 Peter 1:3, 23

1 Peter 1:3, 23

The opening sections of 1 Peter represent one of the few passages in the New Testament, outside of the Johannine and Pauline writings, to deal with the sonship-of-believers theme. Indeed, this theme frames the two introductory sections of 1:3-12 and 13-25. It is established at the opening of vv. 3-12, the epistolary thanksgiving, which in Greek consists, syntactically, of a single long sentence. It begins as follows:

“(To be) spoken well of (is) the God and Father of our Lord Yeshua (the) Anointed, the (One), according to His great [lit. much] mercy, (hav)ing caused us to become (born) again unto a living hope, through the standing up again [i.e. resurrection] of Yeshua (the) Anointed out of (the) dead…”

The thanksgiving starts with a blessing toward God, utilizing the adjective eu)loghto/$, meaning “(to be) well-thought [or well-spoken] of”. The principal reason for this blessing is the fact that He “caused us [i.e. believers] to be born again”. The verb a)nagenna/w, is a compound of the (adverbial) preposition a)na/ and the verb of becoming, genna/w, which often refers to birth (i.e., “come to be born”). The preposition a)na/ principally means “up, upon”, but it can also be used in a temporal sense (“again”)—in the sense, viz., of going back (up) and doing something again.

This compound verb occurs only here (and in verse 23) in the New Testament, but the same basic terminology occurs in John 3:3-8, where the base verb genna/w (used frequently in the Johannine writings for the ‘birth’ of believers as God’s offspring) is used in connection with the adverb a&nwqen. The compound adverb a&nwqen is derived from a&nw (“up above”), related to a)na/; a&nwqen means “from above”, but, like a)na/, can also be understood in a temporal sense, “from the beginning”, i.e., so that something is done again. The Johannine Discourse (3:3-8) plays on this dual meaning: the believer is “born from above” (i.e., a Divine/heavenly birth), but is also “born again”, meaning it is a new birth, different from one’s first (ordinary human) birth.

This birth, according to Peter (or the author of 1 Peter), is “unto a living hope”, the preposition ei)$ (“into, unto”) indicating the goal or purpose of the action. In the New Testament, the noun e)lpi/$ (“hope”) typically has eschatological significance. That is, the hope consists primarily in being saved from the coming Judgment, and inheriting a blessed life with God in heaven. The designation living (verbal adjective [participle] from the verb za/w [“live”]) has two aspects of meaning in such a context: (1) the connection to God Himself, who is the living One and the source of life (cf. 1 Tim 4:10); and (2) it refers to the eternal life that believers will inherit (and possess). Paul makes frequent use of the noun e)lpi/$, in this eschatological (and soteriological) sense; on its use, for example, in Romans 8:20, 24, see the recent note.

The new birth of believers is achieved “through the standing up [a)na/stasi$] of Jesus Christ out of (the) dead”. There is an obvious verbal connection between the noun a)na/stasi$ (the regular term for “resurrection”) and the verb a)nagenna/w. Both terms have the prefixed element a)na/, which can be understood in the temporal sense of “again”. In being resurrected, Jesus “stands up again” (i.e., alive) from the dead; similarly, believers are “born again”, implying also the possession of new life (“living”). Paul connects the birth (and sonship) of believers with our participation in the death and resurrection of Jesus—see Rom 8:12-17 in the context of v. 11 (cp. 6:3-10), and also vv. 18-25. Peter (or the author) here seems to be making the same kind of association.

The eschatological aspect of our “living hope” as believers is confirmed by the emphasis in verses 4-5ff. If we, as believers, are able to keep faith during the end-time period of distress and testing (vv. 6-7), then we will inherit the “completion” (te/lo$) of our trust in Christ, which is the “salvation of (our) souls” (v. 9).

This promise, expressed in the thanksgiving of vv. 3-12, serves as the basis for the exhortation that follows in vv. 13-25:

“Therefore, (hav)ing girded up the loins of your dia/noia, (and keep)ing sober to the completion, you must set (your) hope upon the favor being brought to you in the uncovering of Yeshua (the) Anointed” (v. 13)

The noun dia/noia literally means a “thinking through”, i.e., exercise of the mind. Peter (or the author) urges his readers to stay alert and sober-minded throughout the end-time period of distress; this exhortation to sobriety and ‘keeping awake/alert’ is a traditional eschatological motif among early Christians (Mark 13:34-37 par; Matt 24:42-43; Lk 12:37-38; 21:36; 1 Thess 5:6; Rev 16:15).

The verb e)lpi/zw (“[have] hope”), derived from e)lpi/$, I have translated here (along with the preposition e)pi/ [“upon”]) as “set one’s hope upon”. In other words, the eschatological “living hope” of believers will be realized with the “uncovering” (i.e., revelation, manifestation) of Jesus Christ at the end-time, and so we should have our hope set firmly on his (imminent) return. Indeed, the return of Christ will carry with it the favor (xa/ri$) of God; this refers to our salvation (from the Judgment), but also to the blessing and reward which God will bestow on those who remain faithful to Him.

The implications of this call to sober-mindedness are expounded by the ethical instruction that follows in verse 14-18ff. Indeed, much of the ethical instruction in the New Testament has a strong eschatological orientation, such as we find here; compare, for example, the context of Paul’s instruction in 1 Thess 5:1-11. The call to right(eous) conduct is framed in traditional religious terms: “according to (how) the (One hav)ing called you is holy, (so) also you (your)selves must come to be holy…” (v. 15-16; cf. Lev 11:44-45, etc). Since we, as believers, have already been made pure (from sin) through the sacrificial death (“blood”) of Christ (v. 19), it is imperative that we take care to maintain this purity, as far as we are able.

At the close of this section, the exhortation for believers to make their souls holy/pure (vb a(gni/zw) is  tied back to the idea of being “born again”, as the offspring of God, which opened the discussion in verse 3 (see above). Note how this climactic connection of ideas is presented in vv. 22-23:

“Having made pure your souls in hearing under [i.e. obedience/submission to] the truth, unto holding (all) brothers dear without pretending, out of a [clean] heart you must love each other outstretched, having come to be (born) again, not out of a decaying seed, but an undecaying (seed), through (the) word of God living and remaining.”

Particular emphasis is put on showing true love to one’s fellow believers. This is also a key theme in the Johannine writings, and especially in 1 John, where demonstrating love to others is a mark of the true believer—one who has come to be born of God. Indeed, the terminology here in verse 23 is surprisingly close to that of 1 John 3:9. Note, as I have previously discussed, the following points of correspondence:

    • the use of the verb genna/w (here the compound a)nagenna/w) + the preposition e)k, to express the idea of the birth of believers (from God)
    • the use of a (substantive) perfect passive participle (“having come to be [born]”) to express this as a fundamental characteristic of believers
    • the idea that this is a new birth, with the believer being “born again/anew” (compare Jn 3:3ff)
    • this new birth is facilitated by the presence of God’s own “seed” (the related noun spora/ instead of spe/rma in 1 Jn)
    • the true, spiritual nature of the imagery is indicated by the language used, and by the specific designation of the seed/word as “living” (zw=nto$)—see Jn 4:10-11; 6:51, 57; 7:39.
    • the use of the verb me/nw (“remain, abide”)
    • the idea that the Word of God “remains” in the believer

A further similarity, given greater emphasis here in 1 Peter than in 1 John, is the identification of the abiding Word of God with the Gospel. This is expressed quite clearly in the concluding verse 25b, following the quotation from Isa 40:6-8 in vv. 24-25a. The Gospel is conceived, not merely as a message, but as a living (and life-giving) force. Being from God, the “word” (or account, lo/go$) of the Gospel is itself Divine, possessing spiritual power. This theology is fully in accord with both Pauline (see esp. Rom 1:16) and Johannine thought. The latter is less easily summarized; however, the Johannine writings, in various ways, clearly connect remaining in the Son with remaining in his word—and this word certainly includes the Gospel (declared by Jesus himself in the Discourses). The Johannine Gospel particularly emphasizes Jesus’ identity as the Son of God, sent to earth (from heaven) by God the Father.

In the next daily note, we will turn our attention to the sonship-theme as it is expressed in Hebrews 2:10-18.

Spiritualism and the New Testament: John: Jn 3:3-8ff

John 3:3-8ff

Chapter 3 of the Gospel of John (cf. the Introduction), with its important Spirit-theme, is divided as follows:

    • Nicodemus Discourse (vv. 1-21)
    • Historical tradition: Jesus and John the Baptist (vv. 22-30)
    • Exposition (vv. 31-36)

The summary exposition in vv. 31-36 follows the exposition (in the main discourse) by Jesus in vv. 11-21, reiterating many of the same themes and ideas. Those verses are best viewed in relation to the main exposition in the Discourse, echoing and summarizing Jesus’ words. The Discourse proper (vv. 1-21) follows the basic pattern of the Discourses of Jesus in the Gospel of John, the dialogue/discourse format being—

    • Saying of Jesus
    • Reaction/question by the people, indicating some level of misunderstanding
    • Explanation/Exposition by Jesus

I would outline the Discourse as follows:

    • Introduction (vv. 1-2)
    • Saying by Jesus (v. 3)
    • Reaction/Question by Nicodemus (v. 4)
    • Explanation by Jesus (vv. 5-8)
    • Second Question by Nicodemus (v. 9)
    • Exposition by Jesus (vv. 10-21), in two parts:
      • The heavenly nature of the Son (vv. 11-15)
      • Eternal life through the Son (vv. 16-21)

The initial saying by Jesus (v. 3) has a spiritualistic tone to it:

“…if one should not come to be (born) from above, he is not able to see the kingdom of God.”

This suggests that the kingdom of God is invisible, and can only be ‘seen’ in a spiritual way, which Jesus here describes in terms of a heavenly birth (“from above”, a&nwqen). The realm of God is “above” (a&nw), while that of the world is “below” (ka/tw); this is a representation, in spatial-relational terms, of the stark dualism that runs throughout the Gospel (cf. 8:23). The misunderstanding of Nicodemus (v. 4) is based on the dual-meaning of a&nwqen, which can mean either “from above”, or in the temporal sense of “again”; Nicodemus understands Jesus’ words in the latter sense. But this point of misunderstanding simply sets the stage for the explanation by Jesus in vv. 5-8:

“…if one should not come to be (born) out of water and (out of the) Spirit, he is not able to come into the kingdom of God.”

The statement in v. 5 is formally identical with the saying in v. 3, and it is not immediately obvious how it explains the initial saying. However, the closeness in form actual allows us to discern the points of exposition, which are two:

    • being born “from above” (and born “again”) means born “out of water and the Spirit”
    • to “see” the kingdom of God is essentially the same as “coming into” it

On the first point, the question is whether “water and the Spirit” is complementary or indicates a contrast. Many commentators have assumed the former, but the latter is almost certainly correct (cf. my earlier note on vv. 5-8). What follows in verse 6 confirms (rather clearly, I think) that Jesus is contrasting water and the Spirit:

“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.”

Water has the same contrastive position as “(the) flesh” in v. 6. Thus, to be born “out of water” refers to a natural human birth (i.e., from the flesh); physiologically, it would relate to the child coming out from the water in the mother’s womb (v. 4). Such a water-Spirit contrast had already been established earlier in the Gospel, alluding to the Spirit-saying by the Baptist (Mark 1:8 par), split apart in the Johannine presentation (1:26, 33). This is central to the Jesus-John contrast that runs throughout chapters 1-3, and finds its climax in vv. 22-30ff here.

In verse 7, Jesus makes clear that to be “born of the Spirit” indeed means the same as “born from above” (or “born again”):

“You should not wonder that I said to you (that) it is necessary for you to come to be (born) from above…”

He further expounds what such a spiritual birth means, with an illustration, in v. 8:

“The pneu=ma blows [pnei=] where it wishes, and you hear the voice [i.e. sound] of it, but you have not seen from where it comes, and to where it leads under [i.e. goes away]—so is every(one) having come to be (born) out of the Pneu=ma.

The noun pneu=ma literally denotes something blowing (or breathing), and can thus variously be translated “wind,” “breath,” or “spirit,” depending on the context. Jesus is making use (in Greek) of a bit of wordplay, by comparing the Spirit (pneu=ma) with the wind (pneu=ma) that blows (vb pne/w). The point of the illustration is that the Spirit is invisible and can not be seen, though one can hear its “voice”. This is an important, but somewhat overlooked, principle of Johannine spiritualism.  

The follow-up question by Nicodemus in verse 9 is general in expression: “How is it possible (for) these (thing)s to come to be?” There is perhaps another bit of wordplay here, as the verb gi/nomai (“come to be”) is closely related to genna/w (“come to be [born]”), used by Jesus in vv. 3-8. In terms of the message and purpose of the Discourse, the question means: how does a person come to be born “from above” —that is, born of the Spirit?

As is often the case in the Johannine Discourses, Jesus never answers the question directly. From the literary standpoint, the question serves as the springboard for Jesus’ exposition of his prior saying/teaching.

Important Johannine themes are expressed through this exposition, beginning (vv. 10-12) with a contrast between the “earthly” (e)pi/geio$) and the “heavenly” (e)poura/nio$), a variation of the essential Johannine dualism, presented in spatial terms (i.e., below/above). In referring to “the (thing)s upon the earth” (ta\ e)pi/geia, i.e. earthly things), Jesus presumably has in mind the immediate illustration (from the natural world) in v. 8 (cf. above). However, the terminology also represents an entire way of thinking and speaking, embodied in the religious-cultural mindset of Nicodemus, including the manner in which he views Jesus (as a prophetic teacher, v. 2). At the same time, John the Baptist is also an example of a witness (to Jesus) who speaks on the earthly plane (v. 31, etc), but giving a more accurate testimony as to Jesus’ identity. If one cannot accept the basic testimony regarding who Jesus is (v. 11), it will not be possible to understand deeper spiritual truths.

In the remainder of the discourse, Jesus comes closer to answering Nicodemus’ question. The “earthly” witness indeed reflects (and points to) the “heavenly” reality, defined in Christological terms. Jesus identifies himself as the (pre-existent) Son who comes from God (the Father) in heaven. He is thus “heavenly” and represents the “heavenly things”. In verses 13-15, this is expressed, in more traditional terms, through the expression “Son of Man”, referring to a heavenly (Messianic) figure who comes to earth as an end-time redeemer/deliverer for God’s people. On this Messianic figure-type, derived principally from Daniel 7:13-14, cf. my earlier article (and note) in the series “Yeshua the Anointed”.

In verses 16-21, Jesus is identified more precisely as the “Son of God”, sent (from heaven) to earth by God the Father. The expression “Son of God”, while still having Messianic import (cf. Part 12 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”), also carries a deeper theological meaning, particularly in the context of the Johannine Christology.

The answer to Nicodemus’ question is that a person is “born of the Spirit” when one trusts (vb pisteu/w) in Jesus’ identity as the Son (of God) sent by the Father. This is the message in the second part of the exposition (vv. 16-21), while, in the first part (vv. 13-15), this same message is expressed in terms of ‘seeing’ (i.e. recognizing) the nature and identity of Jesus in his being “lifted up” (i.e., his death, resurrection, and exaltation).

It is not immediately clear that this relates back to the specific idea of being born of the Spirit. However, the Gospel writer returns to this theme, in vv. 31-36, following the inclusion of the historical-traditional Baptist material in vv. 22-30. This literary arrangement has long puzzled commentators, but I believe that it is a product of the thematic framework that governs chapters 1-3 as a unit in the Gospel. In order to obtain a proper understanding, it is necessary to continue our discussion through a set of exegetical (daily) notes on vv. 31-36.

“…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)
vs.
“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).