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John 3:3 (NIV) Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”

A note for this verse in the NIV says, "The Greek for again also means from above; also in verse 7."

How should this phrase be interpreted?

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Welcome to BiblicalHermeneutics.SE! Interesting first question. +1 – Richard Oct 21 '11 at 17:48
The ritual of baptism symbolizes life (above), death (submerged), and rebirth (above). Maybe there's a link. – The Freemason Jan 3 '14 at 18:02
up vote 15 down vote accepted

This is a great question, and you're not the first person to have it.

Today, the phrase "born again" can have any one of a host of meanings. It can have meaning in the secular world, such as a "born again" politician who changes political parties, or in the religious world, where "born again Christian" is sometimes used to differentiate one from a "regular" Christian.

And in fact, the original hearer apparently had this same question as you, as you see in verse 4:

Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born?” (John 3:4 ESV)

Before jumping into what Jesus's intention was, it may be helpful to take a step back to verse 2, to see how Nicodemus approaches Jesus.

This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.”
(John 3:2 ESV)

Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council (v1), was a man in a position of authority. As a ruler of the Jews and teacher of Israel (v10), he is coming from a position in which he considers a teacher like Jesus, and evaluates him. "We know..." he says, from a position of authority. By default this puts Jesus at an inferior position.

But this is not how man must come to God--he, the creator, is the judge, and man, the creature, is the one being judged. In fact Jesus will, in a few verses, answer Nicodemus in the same way that Nicodemus has approached him. Just as Nicodemus came as if speaking on behalf of the council saying "we know..." Jesus responds in v11 saying "we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen" in an almost tongue-in-cheek way of saying "we know a few things too, we do".

But at present, Jesus turns Nicodemus around, saying, in essence "You think you see what God is doing? Let me tell you, you don't have a clue. In fact, you couldn't see that unless..." and then there's that tricky phrase. Jesus tells Nicodemus that the only way to see what God is doing is by being "born again".

Nicodemus apparently misunderstands this (v2), and so Jesus rephrases the assertion in v5, stating that he must be born of water and spirit. As argued elsewhere, this phrase ("born of water and spirit") is simply another way of putting "born again" in terms that Nicodemus ought to understand--that he must have a purifying and transforming spiritual rebirth.

But while v5 is put in more spiritual terms, v3 is a bit more practical. It is a metaphorical way of saying that we are so weighed down by sin that we are blinded to what God is working for us. What can't see the kingdom unless we first shed all of our sin. But even if we were to never sin again, we have every past sin to weigh us down as well. In fact, I suspect that Nicodemus is not totally lost on the metaphor, but is continuing the dialog using Jesus's metaphorical language--saying in order to shed our history of sin, we would need to go back into our mothers' wombs to start over.

But, while he may have understood the metaphor, he ought to have seen that there is a way to shed all of our sin, that we can be made clean. As Jesus points out in v10, Nicodemus should have known this because he is the teacher of Israel. This means that he was well-acquainted with what we know as the Old Testament, where these themes are present (again, I'd refer you to this answer for more on that background).

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Great answer. (+1) Too often people seem to view Jesus as "Captain Random" in His responses to people. But here again we see Him responding on topic -- to Nicodemus' error of thinking that he can see when in fact this is impossible because he has not yet been born again. – Jas 3.1 Jun 3 '13 at 4:44
Except to be born again is to be born into the breath. – Decrypted Sep 9 '14 at 21:44
The theological approach to answering this question is very fascinating, and I agree, true. However, I would like to throw in something my teacher just told me: John 3: 3 is explained or simplified by John 3: 5 which states "born of water and spirit". I automatically thought water in this sense brought the baptism angle. However, being baptized is not a requirement to enter heaven. My teacher says "born of water" actually means maternal birth as with all humans that were given dominion over the earth in Gen 1: 26 where God (plural) states that them (humans) rule earth (excluding God). – mugume david Apr 4 at 6:30

Jesus is not referring to what systematic theologians call "regeneration." In John 1, we learn that Jesus granted this birth to many who would already have been (by systematic theological standards) "regenerate." (Compare 1:11–13 with the calling of the disciples in 1:35–51.) He is telling Nicodemus, as a representative teacher of Israel that "you all," all Israel, must be reborn in order to enter the kingdom they are awaiting.

Sound interpretation of the passage requires understanding that "kingdom of God" and "kingdom of heaven" are not generic terms referring to "heaven, the destination of the saved," but to the reign of God in the Messiah that arrives in Jesus' ministry. (This is why Jesus speaks in Mt 11:11 of "the least in the kingdom" being greater than John the Baptizer, which would be nonsensical if "the kingdom" were supratemporal or ahistorical.)

This kingdom is something that can only be "seen" if (Jesus tells the teacher of Israel) one is "born again" or "born from above" (the Grk term means either or both, and John loves that sort of ambiguity).

Jesus says that this "rebirth" can only take place by "water and the Spirit." Every Jew would have recognized the role of water, as it was used in all sorts of levitical baptisms; and while the Hebrew Scriptures repeatedly speak of various actions of the Spirit, preeminently, the Spirit is viewed with eschatological anticipation, reflected especially in such passages as Ezek 36–37 and Joel 2.

The former passage is particularly intriguing, as it depicts Israel as a valley of dry bones, who are brought to eschatological life when the "son of man" prophesies the "breath" (same word as Spirit) over them and they receive revivification. By taking the title of "Son of Man" to Himself (which Jesus frequently does in John including in 3:13, 14), one thing Jesus is doing is assigning to Himself the fulfillment of the role played by Ezekiel in his eschatological vision. Through His action, the eschatological Spirit will bring life to the dead people of God.

Along a similar vein to Ezek, Isa 32:15 foretells that in the time of the "king who will reign in righteousness" (32:1), the Spirit will be "poured upon us from on high," bringing fruitfulness, righteousness, justice and peace.

The upshot of all of this is that Jesus appears to be using a birth metaphor in place of the resurrection metaphor of Ezek 37, but with a similar idea. He is claiming that the eschatological event long sought, the kingdom/reign of God in His Messiah, has now arrived—but that enjoyment of this kingdom is not something automatic; it requires (as foretold) the entrance into the kingdom by baptism, and correspondingly the life-giving gift of the eschatological Spirit. (The role of baptism in this text is further confirmed by the baptismal controversies in the passage immediately following, Jn 3:22ff; the baptismal theme continues through 4:2.)

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I find it interesting that people vote down my response without bothering to comment why. – Tim Gallant Jun 3 '13 at 2:31
Why indeed? We all know the feeling. Sorry about that. Hopefully they'll come back and explain their reasoning. – Matthew Miller Jun 3 '13 at 3:23
I have not seen this interpretation before. It is interesting to say the least. Do u have any references for it? Thx – user5197 Aug 9 '13 at 7:43
I missed this useful answer first time round, thanks for the thoughtful and interesting contribution. – Jack Douglas Nov 1 '13 at 17:09
FIRST COMMENT: Thanks for pointing out the role of baptism. In that culture the Jews knew water baptism well. Both John the Baptist and the disciples of Jesus were still baptizing at that time (see chapter 1 and 3:22-4:2). There was also a procylite baptism practiced in that culture where willing Gentile males were baptized into a new life of Judiasm. Baptism in that culture represented an initiation into a new life. Unfortunately, this passage of scripture is often interpreted through western eyes with presuppositions without considering the background. – Jesus Saves Nov 2 '13 at 17:13

The term "born again" in the Greek is "gennao anothen" which in straight English means "born from above." It does not actually translate into "born again" but "born from above" meaning born of God. We can also see this...

John 1:12-13 12 But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.

This is what theologians call regeneration, meaning that the Spirit of God has come into a person and renovated him, the picture here being one like renovating your house. It is still the same house, but the countertops are now polished stone where the were once wood; a wall has been knocked out to make a larger dining room; the one car garage is now a two car garage; and there is an island in the center of the kitchen where before there was none. Or, like a computer up-grade...the Spirit giving us what we need in order to have intimate communion with God one-on-one, where before man did not have this level of intimacy with Him.

In verse 5 Jesus says that we must be "born of water and the Spirit" in order to see (experience - NOT see or understand) the Kingdom of God. This is because baptism (born of water) is how we enter into the New Covenant, and one must be in Covenant with God in order to be in His Kingdom. Regeneration (being "born from above") is a promise of the New Covenant and can only be experienced by entering that covenant, for the promises of the Covenant only belong to those participating in that Covenant.

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Is reveneration a typo for regeneration or renovation? I presume the former, but the latter would also fit well. – Peter Taylor Nov 27 '11 at 23:10
Welcome to Hermeneutics.SE! Your handle is intriguing since we have no less than three "Pastor Dave"s at our church. I'd never heard the literal Greek translation of "born again" despite hearing many sermons about the concept. Thanks of the answer! – Jon Ericson Nov 28 '11 at 17:59
It can also be translated literally as "born again" --- and that is exactly how Nikodemos' ears understood since he asked, "How can a man enter a second time into his mother's womb...?" "Second time" --> "again." For an instance where it clearly means "again," see Gal. 4:9. – Simply a Christian Dec 22 '12 at 8:03
Nice job linking verse 3 to verse 5. Regarding "water" = "baptism", check out this Q&A when you get time. – Jas 3.1 Jun 3 '13 at 4:51

I like the note by the NET Bible ... quoted below:

8 tn The word ἄνωθεν (anwqen) has a double meaning, either “again” (in which case it is synonymous with παλίν [palin]) or “from above” (BDAG 92 s.v. ἄνωθεν). This is a favorite technique of the author of the Fourth Gospel, and it is lost in almost all translations at this point. John uses the word 5 times, in 3:3, 7; 3:31; 19:11 and 23. In the latter 3 cases the context makes clear that it means “from above.” Here (3:3, 7) it could mean either, but the primary meaning intended by Jesus is “from above.” Nicodemus apparently understood it the other way, which explains his reply, “How can a man be born when he is old? He can’t enter his mother’s womb a second time and be born, can he?” The author uses the technique of the “misunderstood question” often to bring out a particularly important point: Jesus says something which is misunderstood by the disciples or (as here) someone else, which then gives Jesus the opportunity to explain more fully and in more detail what he really meant. sn Or born again. The Greek word ἄνωθεν (anwqen) can mean both “again” and “from above,” giving rise to Nicodemus’ misunderstanding about a second physical birth (v. 4).

It seems to be further confirmed when looking at Jesus' further explaination concerning "water and spirit" in His next statement ...

The NET note there explains that "water and spirit" further explain "from above".

12 tn Or “born of water and wind” (the same Greek word, πνεύματος [pneumatos], may be translated either “spirit/Spirit” or “wind”). sn Jesus’ somewhat enigmatic statement points to the necessity of being born “from above,” because water and wind/spirit/Spirit come from above. Isaiah 44:3-5 and Ezek 37:9-10 are pertinent examples of water and wind as life-giving symbols of the Spirit of God in his work among people. Both occur in contexts that deal with the future restoration of Israel as a nation prior to the establishment of the messianic kingdom. It is therefore particularly appropriate that Jesus should introduce them in a conversation about entering the kingdom of God. Note that the Greek word πνεύματος is anarthrous (has no article) in v. 5. This does not mean that spirit in the verse should be read as a direct reference to the Holy Spirit, but that both water and wind are figures (based on passages in the OT, which Nicodemus, the teacher of Israel should have known) that represent the regenerating work of the Spirit in the lives of men and women.

And, as already pointed out earlier ... this conversation just amplifies what was stated earlier in:

John 1:12-13 12 But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.

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to be fair, a legitimate note was offered against the "born from above" meaning and favoring the "born again" meaning by stating what most people believe: That Jesus and Nicodemus were having this conversation in Aramaic ... not Greek. And, as such, Nicodemus (misunderstanding or not) operated on the assumption that Jesus meant "born anew". It's worth the note. – RichWalt Jan 27 '14 at 22:20

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