John mentions three specific types of birth that are not the avenue through which we may become children of God. To what types of births did each of these three things refer?

John 1:12-13 (ESV)
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.

As I've thought about it, the three means by which Jewish people at that time may have looked to in order to find favor with God were 1) the Law, 2) circumcision, and 3) their own Jewish heritage. Are these the three things being referred to?


The German translation Neue Evangelistische Übersetzung translates like this:

Doch allen, die ihn aufnahmen, die an seinen Namen glaubten, gab er das Recht, Kinder Gottes zu werden. Sie wurden das nicht auf Grund natürlicher Abstammung, durch menschliches Wollen oder den Entschluss eines Mannes, sondern durch eine Geburt aus Gott. (Joh 1:12-13 GNEU)

But to all, who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right, to become children of God. They became this not based on natural descent, through human want or the decision of a man, but through a birth out of God.

Natural descent seems pretty to the point, as the word for blood can be translated kindred. As both of the other point use the same word for want and decision, best translated determination, I would interpret this slightly different: neither determination of fallen nature (flesh) nor of man in any state.

Another interpretation could be, based on Acts 2:26.31 (from Psa 16:9), flesh meaning myself, and man meaning any other man. Therefore saying it's not by natural descent nor by your own determination or through any other man, but through God.

  • So, natural descent would indicate being a descendant of Abraham, right? It seems that the will of another man could apply to circumcision, where a father would perform this on his infant son. Then the will/determination of oneself could relate to keeping the law. Does this seem to fit with what you're saying? – Narnian Oct 18 '11 at 18:51
  • @Narbian I think what you say fits into the categories, but is not exclusive. Belonging to a church or having Christian parents (descent) also fits like everything I try to earn salvation by like good works or what any other proclaims over me. It is all by God's grace. – Ralph M. Rickenbach Oct 18 '11 at 20:02

Born of blood is a reference to circumcision:

Ex 4:26 So he let him go: then she said, A bloody husband [thou art], because of the circumcision.

Born of flesh refers to natural birth since 'flesh' also means 'carnal'.

Born of the will of man is plain meaning that God chooses us. We do not choose him since we don't even seek him:

Ps 14:2 The LORD looked down from heaven upon the children of men, to see if there were any that did understand, and seek God. 3 They are all gone aside, they are all together become filthy: there is none that doeth good, no, not one.

1Jo 4:19 We love him, because he first loved us.


It is not wrong to try to break groups of things apart and understand them each individually. However, they must always be put back together to understand what is being said.

The Meaning of the Total Phrase

Initially, the NLT's translation is appealing:

They are reborn—not with a physical birth resulting from human passion or plan, but a birth that comes from God.

But this translation robs the statement of profundity by placing the onus on the nonphysicality of the birth. In broad context, the biblical theology of the σάρξ/πνεῦμα distinction does not mean primarily physical/nonphysical but man/God. In the specific verse, it seems that the statement is stronger than that.

Regeneration is a major theme in John, and we see it here as early as chapter 1. The three things together indicate that the rebirth effected by the Spirit of God excludes any sort of human cooperation that you could possibly think of. The number three indicates completeness of reference. For this reason, determining the exact reference of each is less important.

The Meaning of αἱμάτων

Bob Jones suggests the bloody act of circumcision in his answer; Gill mentions it too. To explore this idea further, I have asked the question, Does a birth-circumcision connection exist in the Old Testament? If not, I find this connection here to be much less likely.

The bigger objection, though, is that this does not account for why it the word is in the plural. Calvin takes it to indicate heritage:

The reason why he uses the word blood in the plural number appears to have been, that he might express more fully a long succession of lineage; for this was a part of the boasting among the Jews, that they could trace their descent, by an uninterrupted line, upwards to the patriarchs.

This explanation also makes more sense than taking bloods to mean physical. For all I can see, that is just farfetched. Ancestry is the clearest reading.

The Meaning of θελήματος σαρκὸς and θελήματος ἀνδρὸς

Calvin takes both these phrases to be equivalent, and this certainly is a viable interpretation which does no violence to the meaning of the overall phrase. However it seems to me that the details of each phrase may be determined more even if they are taken together as a hendiadys referring to human will. (Gill breaks it down a little more than Calvin.)

Given that σάρξ often denotes that which is human (and its precise meaning depends on the context and what it is standing in contrast to), and is a mass noun, I might paraphrase thus: not by any human power of the will nor by any man's decision because it seems to me that the will of flesh refers to the human capability of decision and will of man refers to a specific individual's decision.

See also Henry, who groups the last two phrases together in much the same way as Calvin.

[I am planning on buying some commentaries on John. Perhaps I will post more then...]

Of the three things mentioned in the answer, only one (Jewish heritage) is being referred to by this verse. The other part of the verse refers to the human capability of act of decision.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.