Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. “Do not be amazed that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ “The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
– John 3:5-8, NAU
Throughout John’s Gospel, he pursues his aim of showing that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of God” (John 20:31). According to Morris (p. 208), he does this “chiefly in two ways: he narrates some of the signs Jesus did, and he records some of the discourses Jesus delivered.” His first discourse is with Nicodemus, a member of the ruling class. At the beginning of this discourse (John 3:5-8), Jesus focuses on the role of the Holy Spirit in the new birth. The discourse includes the fact that salvation is through faith in Jesus Christ.
Nicodemus (13:1) was a man of the Pharisees, a ruler of the Jews, and a teacher (3:10) of Israel. Each of these descriptive phrases is important in understanding Nicodemus. According to Hull (pp. 238-239):
As a man of the Pharisees, he belonged to the most deeply religious brotherhood in all of Judaism. As a ruler of the Jews, he sat on the supreme judicial body permitted by the Romans, the Sanhedrin, entrusted with the spiritual and moral leadership of the nation. As a teacher of Israel, he was a trained theologian concerned with the true understanding and teaching of the revelation given by God.
This ruler of the Jews came to Jesus by night. Keener (Bible, p. 269) states: “One might come by night to avoid being seen, or because Jewish teachers who worked during the day could study only at night (cf. Ps. 119:148; the latter was undoubtedly not the case with Nicodemus, who would not need to work–v. 1).” According to Robertson (p. 43), “He wished to avoid comment by other members of the Sanhedrin and others.” Whatever the reason, Nicodemus came with questions.
Although Nicodemus came with questions, he was open to the truth. John records the story of his movement toward Christ. Keener writes (Gospel, p. 533) that “Nicodemus, who came out of darkness into light (3:2, 21), moves from secret discipleship (3:1-2; 7:50-52) to true, complete discipleship (19:39-42).” It was this Nicodemus who buried Jesus in the garden tomb. This act showed considerable devotion to Christ.
Upon meeting with Jesus, Nicodemus said (John 3:2), “‘Rabbi, we know that You have come from God as a teacher; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.'” When he says, “we know,” it may mean that he was representing at least some of the leaders in the Sanhedrin. He seems to be speaking for others as well as himself. Moreover, he must have been acquainted with spurious signs, but even so he was convinced that the miracles worked by Jesus were genuine. Therefore, he concluded that God was with Jesus.
Jesus answered and said to him (John 3:5), ‘”Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again (anothen), he cannot see the kingdom of God.'” The Greek word anothen can have several meanings. Robertson (p. 44) says that originally anothen meant “‘from above’ (Mark 15:38), then ‘from heaven’ (John 3:31), then ‘from the first’ (Luke 1:3), and then ‘again’ palin anothen, Gal. 4:9).”
Clearly, Nicodemus understood Jesus to say “born again,” but elsewhere in the Gospel of John (3:31; 19:11, 23) anothen means “from above.” According to Keener (Spirit, p. 1), “John frequently employs word-plays, which were often given hermeneutical significance in Jewish circles, and many scholars thus recognize a double entendre here: ‘born again’ and ‘born from above.'”
Given this background, we can conclude that both “born again” and “born from above” are correct interpretations of anothen. Jesus uses a figure of speech from natural birth to express a spiritual truth. All persons experience natural birth and may experience spiritual birth. Any figure of speech, when frequently used, can take on a literal meaning in another sphere. Thus, people literally can be born again spiritually.
In response to Jesus, Nicodemus asks (John 3:4): “‘How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born, can he?'” NAU The second question is translated by the NIV as: “‘Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born!'” Using this translation, Nicodemus expressed his doubts about new birth.
Just what Nicodemus meant is much discussed. The term born again was familiar to teachers in Jewish circles. The Pharisees envisioned a day, the day of the Messiah, when the entire world would be renewed. They called this transformation a “rebirth.” In addition the rabbis applied the term to the individual conversion of a Gentile to Judaism. They called this a “new birth.” The rabbis, however, did not use this term with regard to a Jew. They did not believe that a Jew needed to be converted.
Many hold that Nicodemus could not see the need for a Jew to be converted. Therefore, he responded literally in terms of physical birth. With regard to this view, Keener (Gospel, p. 545) writes:
Jerusalem’s leaders and others often understand Jesus partly correctly–but only on a purely physical level. They cannot be reborn physically (3:4), nor can they eat Jesus’ flesh physically (6:52), nor can one younger than fifty have seen Abraham (8:57), and so forth–their understanding of what Jesus should mean makes it impossible for them to truly hear him.
It is possible, however, that Nicodemus did understand that Jesus referred to the need for all persons to be converted or born again, Jew and Gentile alike. Therefore, Nicodemus used the term figuratively and understood that Jesus referred to a moral renewal.
Thus, we have two views: (1) that Nicodemus responded in literal terms and (2) that he spoke in a figurative way. Including both views, Eerdman (p. 36) says:
Probably he was interpreting the words with stupid literalism, as reference to a physical birth; but possibly he understands the reference of our Lord to a moral renewal, and borrows his figure to express the objection so familiar in these modern days: ‘Character is the product of countless past impressions and experiences; it cannot begin anew.’
Assuming that Nicodemus uses born again literally of physical birth, at least three possibilities exist. One is that he made a rather ignorant comment. Two, some writers hold that he was mocking. Three, Nicodemus was expecting a negative answer. As Lenski (pp. 235-236) holds, he was really saying something like “‘I know you cannot and do not mean that!'” Lenski maintains (p. 236) “He clearly perceives that Jesus has in mind some other, far higher kind of birth.”
This last possibility leads naturally to another option. Let’s consider the option that Nicodemus uses the term born again in a figurative sense. His reply carries forward the figure of speech that Jesus used. It was a good question. An old man is bound by habits. His life-style has long ago been set. The tapestry of his life already is woven. Thus, he asks, “How can a man have a new heredity and will? How can he change?” Figuratively, “How can he renter his mother’s womb and be born again?”
In my view, Nicodemus used the term “born again” figuratively. However, whether literally or figuratively, his understanding was limited to what could happen in a natural sense. He did not understand how the new birth could take place. As a result, Jesus then explains to him what He means by the new birth.
Jesus declared (John 3:5), “‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.'” What does “born of water and the Spirit” mean? According to Robertson (p. 45), “Many theories exist.” We will examine some of these views.
First, many hold that by “water” Jesus referred to water baptism. Some believe he referred to John’s baptism in water. Largely, this is based on the context of John 1:29-34 and 3:22-30. For others Jesus referred to Christian baptism. With regard to both views some think of baptism in a sacramental way; others of baptism as symbolic of the spiritual transformation wrought in repentance or all that baptism signifies.
Second, others think that “water” refers to natural birth. Those who hold this view believe that 3:6 expounds 3:5; therefore one must be born both of water and the Spirit. As Robertson (p. 46) points out, some adherents to this view speak of a “sac of water” in natural birth. According to Morris (p. 216) others think water refers to male semen. Thus the term would be used figuratively of procreation. This view contrasts water and the Spirit.
Three, there are interpreters who refer to the Word. Horton, (p. 114), says: “This is a strong possibility, for the Bible speaks of being born again by the Word of God.” In I Peter 1:23 the apostle declares: “for you have been born again not of seed which is perishable but imperishable, that is, through the living and abiding word of God.” Certainly, the Word of God is a vital part of bringing about the new birth.
Fourth, Horton (p. 114) sees water as being symbolic of the Spirit. According to him, John means, “born of water even of the Spirit.” Dunn (p. 192) writes: “The phrase is a hendiadys, and the single preposition governing both words indicates that hudatos kai pneumatos [transliteration mine] forms a single concept–water-and-Spirit.” Certainly, water is symbolic of the Spirit in John 7:37-39.
The interpretation has to be contextually decided. But what is the correct context? Some put the remark of Jesus in the context of water baptism in John 1 and 3. The immediate context (3:6) contrasts natural birth and heredity with spiritual birth and heredity. Dunn examines the relevant “water” passages in John (pp. 186-190). He favors (p. 192) the idea that water is emblematic of the Spirit.
In my view, along with others, water is symbolic of the Spirit. Moreover, whatever view one holds about water, the emphasis of the passage is on faith in Jesus and transformation wrought by the Spirit of God. Without the Spirit of God, there is no new birth.
Next, Jesus declares (John 3:6), “‘That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.'” Jesus contrasts rebirth by the Spirit with merely natural or “fleshly” birth.
Obviously, being born of the flesh includes natural birth. However, does Jesus refer also to a moral quality? When Jesus says “born of the flesh,” does he mean that flesh is sinful? On this point, Keener (Gospel, p. 552) states:
The body was not by itself evil, but by virtue of its mortality and finiteness such “flesh” lacked moral perfection, hence became susceptible to sin. John however does not use flesh with necessary connotations of sin (e.g. 1:14); for him, flesh simply retains its biblical and early Jewish connotation of creaturely, human frailty.
Our lives are formed by heredity, environment, and will. All three have a part in shaping us. When Jesus says “that which is born of flesh is flesh,” He stresses our heredity. Our natural heredity cannot produce a spiritually transformed life. Our environment and our wayward will further limit us. Something new has to take place. This something new is being born of the Spirit.
Jesus continues with these comments (John 3:7-8):
8 “The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
The pronoun “you” in these verses is plural. Nicodemus had said “we” know. Now Jesus responds to him and the group he represents. He exhorts them not to be amazed. Do not marvel at the truth that all persons must be born again. Here, unmistakably, Jewish flesh as well as Gentile flesh has to be born again or born from above.
In verse 8 the word pneuma can mean either “wind” or “Spirit.” Thus, we can read that the Spirit breathes or the wind blows. The noun phone can mean either voice or sound. They do not hear the sound of the wind or the voice of the Spirit. The majority interpretation is that the wind blows and you do not hear the sound of it. In support of this the verb pnei usually means blow. In my view the correct translation is: “The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it.” With regard to the second clause, it clearly means born of the Spirit.
Some writers stress that the Spirit’s work is mysterious like the wind. In other words, the Spirit works where and how He wills. Only the result is seen. No doubt this is true, but we must look at the point of the comparison. Jesus says that everyone who is born of the Spirit is like the wind that blows. As Eerdman (p. 37) states,
Nicodemus was still puzzled. He asked (verse 9), “”‘How can these things be?'” Then, Jesus answered, “‘Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not understand these things?'” The implication is that Nicodemus should have known something about new birth.
Virtually all theologians recognize that Old Testament saints were renewed. Compare Chafer (p. 73), Owen (p. 122), Bickersteth (p. 124), and Pentecost (Comforter, p. 64). At the same time all recognize that there is a great difference after the work of Christ on the cross. Moreover, there was an enriched experience while Christ was on earth. Shank, (p. 87) states:
In verses 11-13 Jesus continues his explanation of the new birth to Nicodemus. In this passage Jesus stresses that eternal life comes through Him as the Son of Man who is lifted up for all. Keener (Gospel, p. 558) writes this summary statement:
In this passage John strikes a theme that is constant throughout his Gospel. All persons must be born again. To be born again, they must believe in Jesus Christ. This is the doorway to eternal life. When one believes, one is quickened by the Spirit. Without this quickening, one cannot be born again. The Spirit gives and sustains eternal life in the believer.
For Further Study
Bickersteth, Edward Henry.The Holy Spirit. Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1959.
Chafer, Lewis Sperry. Systematic Theology, Vol. VI. Dallas: Dallas Seminary Press, 1948.
Dunn, James D. G. Baptism in the Holy Spirit. London: SCM Press Ltd. 1970.
Erdman, Charles R. The Gospel of John. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1944.
Hendriksen, William. New Testament Commentary: Exposition of The Gospel According to John. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1961.
Horton, Stanley M. What the Bible Says About the Holy Spirit. Springfield: Gospel Publishing House, 1976.
Hull, Willilam E. The Broadman Commentary. Nashville: Broadman Press, 1970.
Keener, Craig S. The IVP Bible Background Commentary. Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993.
Keener, Craig. S. The Gospel of John, Vol. 1. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 2003.
Ladd, George Eldon. A Theology of the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1974
Lenski, R. C. H. St. John’s Gospel. Columbus: The Wartburg Press, 1942.
Morris, Leon. The Gospel According to John. Grand Rapids: Wm B. Eerdmans, 1971.
Owen, John. The Holy Spirit. Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications. 1954.
Pentecost, J. Dwight. The Divine Comforter. Chicago: Moody Press, 1963.
Robertson, A. T. Word Pictures in the New Testament, Vols. 1-6. Nashville: Broadman Press, 1930.
Wescott, B. F. The Gospel According to St. John. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1971.
Copyright © 2003 By George M. Flattery