5 Things That Help Us Understand The Phrase ‘Born Again’ In John 3

A night time scene reminiscent of Jesus' meeting with Nicodemus

What does it mean to be born again?

For many, the term has come to mean adherence to a particular geographical and political movement.

For many others the term is just as confusing as it was for Nicodemus 2000 years ago.

My last 2 posts have covered Jesus’ reaction to 2 integral Jewish institutions in Johns Gospel: A wedding, and the Temple. We looked at how Jesus took those institutions and showed that He is the reality to which these institutions point*.

The water into wine representing the coming Kingdom of God – through Jesus.

The clearing of the Temple representing Jesus as the true touchpoint between heaven and earth.

In this post, we look at Jesus’ reaction to another Jewish Institution: The Rabbi. And how this helps us understand the term ‘born again’.

The Story In Brief

The story in question takes place at night, when Nicodemus, a religious leader approaches Jesus.

Nicodemus starts with assertions about who he believes Jesus is: a teacher from God. Jesus replies with the classic line, no one can see the Kingdom of God unless they are born from above / again.

Nicodemus latches onto the ‘again part’, pointing out its absurdity.

Jesus takes the dialogue further stating that one must be born of water and of spirit. Jesus then uses the analogy of wind blowing where it may, comparing it with those born of the spirit. Again Jesus uses a word with a double meaning: pneuma, translated as wind or spirit. Again, Nicodemus displays disbelief.

Jesus reveals the failure of Israel’s teachers understanding and moves on to a lengthy discourse about his death and resurrection.

The whole story can be found in John 3:1-21.

Let’s look at this in more depth.

1. The Conversation Between Nicodemus Took Place At Night

Very little in Johns gospel is insignificant.

Nicodemus approaches John under the cover of darkness.

We know from the prologue (John 1) that light and darkness represent a significant theme within the gospel.

Darkness represents not just evil, but also a lack of understanding (as used in this story).

2. Jesus Was Known as a Rabbi

Nicodemus was a member of the Jewish Ruling Council (NIV), a leader of the Jews (NRSV) and a teacher.

Nicodemus acknowledges Jesus as a Rabbi (teacher) and calls him a teacher who has come from God.

This was a standard way to acknowledge someone who was seen as an emissary of God. It also represents an unwitting Christological statement of who Jesus is.

Nicodemus states that he knows Jesus is from God because of the signs that Jesus was doing. This represents another key aspect of John’s Gospel. People are constantly asking for signs to prove who Jesus is. In the end, Jesus says “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29).

It is important to note that this represents the largest part of Nicodemus’ dialogue. Each successive comment by Nicodemus gets shorter and shorter, whilst Jesus’s responses get longer and longer. The story ends in a full monologue. This is also significant, representing the importance of Jesus’ teaching as opposed to the teachers of Israel.

3. The Greek Word For ‘Born Again’ Also Means ‘ Born From Above’

Next, Jesus utters the immortal line “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again / from above

In John’s gospel, the phrase “very truly I tell you” represents a new teaching from Jesus. The phrase is used 3 times within this dialogue (John 3:3, John 3:5, John 3:11).

Here, Jesus uses the word “Anothen” which can be translated as either “again” or “from above”. It refers to both time and space.

We must acknowledge that Jesus meant both meanings in his utterance. For us to reduce the statement to either one of these meanings is to reduce its importance for us.

To be born again represents what is taking place within us. WE are being born again. But to be born from above speaks of where that rebirth comes from.

When we remove ‘being born from above’, we fail to acknowledge that it is from Christ that this rebirth happens. We must be careful not to lose the deep Christological meaning in this passage.

Nicodemus latches onto a single meaning of the word (again) and highlights the ridiculousness of the notion. How does Jesus respond?

4. The Greek Word For Spirit Also Means Wind

Here Jesus uses another analogy. One must be born of water AND spirit.

For many us this may conjure up images of baptism (and certainly would have for the original readers of this gospel). I am sure that John had these overtones in mind whilst writing the gospel. Nicodemus was unaware of this emphasis, thus, we must look for an original meaning as well.

We need look no further than a literal rendering of water. When we are born it is of blood and water. We even say, “the waters have broken”.

For “spirit” Jesus also uses a word with a double meaning – "pneuma". It can be translated as both Spirit & Wind. And again, here Jesus means it as both.

Jesus goes on to compare the spirit with wind blowing where it may. Just as we do not know where the wind comes from, neither do we understand being born of the spirit – it is a mystery.

5. The Greek Word For ‘Lifted Up’ Also Means ‘Exalted’

Nicodemus utters his final words “how can this be” before Jesus launches into full monologue mode (it is important to understand that John’s gospel has no speech marks, so it is very difficult to tell where Jesus stops speaking and where the narrator interjects).

Here Jesus points out the lack of understanding amongst Israel’s teachers. He then moves into a discourse about His coming death and resurrection. Jesus contrasts his resurrection with the lifting up of the snake by Moses in Numbers 21:8-9.

Again, here another word with a double meaning is presented. The word for lifted up ("Hypsoo") can be translated as both “lifted up” and “exalted”. And again, here John means for us to understand both renderings.

Jesus is lifted up literally. He is lifted up on the cross for all to see. But at the same time, through this lifting up, Jesus is exalted.

Also, just as the lifting up of the snake in the wilderness saved the Israelites from death, so too does Jesus being lifted up save us from death.

To be born again is to be born from above. To be born from above is to be born from the lifting up of Christ. The lifting up of Christ is the act that also exalts Him above all else. It is his exaltation that deems us with everlasting life.

Conclusion

What starts out as a conversation between two teachers, ends up with the revelation that much more than a new teaching is what is needed. Rather, an entirely new birth is required. And that just as in the previous 2 stories, Jesus is the one that this new birth centres around.

To be born again means nothing less than to surrender oneself fully to Christ and to allow the indwelling of the spirit in our lives to transform us more into His likeness.

May we never reduce the meaning of the Bible. May we understand that what we are called to is much more than just a new teaching. And may we fully grasp what it means to be born from above / again.


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*The inspiration for this series comes from the bible projects' video on John's gospel. The majority of research I am using is taken from The New Interpreter's Bible - Luke & John (affiliate link).

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