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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?

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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.

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  • 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, 2011 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. Oct 18, 2011 at 20:02
  • My 2c: I think for this to fit hermeneutically, the passage would need to talk to your three categories. The question would be: does the surrounding text make reference to the law, circumcision and tradition. If it does: 💥. If it doesn’t, your three categories can still be used, but frame them as examples of what is being referenced, not the ‘hidden’ meaning of the text. My second 2c: Is the passage a notated speech? It’s likely then to have characteristics of this style: less careful planning/structure at the ‘hi-res’ level, focused on the overarching direction of ideas.
    – user36337
    Oct 30, 2021 at 3:23
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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.

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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.

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  • Fantastic answer!
    – user36337
    Oct 30, 2021 at 3:35
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I believe the Wycliffe translation best represents the original text:

the which not of bloods [which not of bloods], neither of the will of flesh, neither of the will of man, but be born of God. (WYC)

The entire statement taken with the entire Gospel in view, speaks to being born again:1

Yet to all who received Him, He gave the power to become sons of God, to those who believed in His name, who were born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God. (John 1:12-13) [MEV]

Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly I say to you, unless a man is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” 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?” Jesus answered, “Truly, truly I say to you, unless a man is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter 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 marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:3-8)

This is the Gospel, which is for all people:

But these are written that you might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name. (John 20:31)

And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached throughout the world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come. (Matthew 24:14)

In the Kingdom of God people are divided into two main groups, those who are Gentile and those who are Jewish. Those born of the will of the flesh are described as from σάρξ (flesh). This is the word used to describe those who are of Jewish descent:

concerning His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, who was born of the seed of David according to the flesh (σάρκα) (Romans 1:3)
For I could wish that I myself were accursed from Christ for my brothers, my kinsmen by race (σάρκα) (Romans 9:3)

The two primary groups are those born of the will of the flesh, who are Jewish, and those born of the will of man, who are Gentiles.

Those who are of Jewish descent may be divided into two groups, Levites and all others. The Levites inherited no land as their inheritance was service to the LORD in the Tabernacle and Temple. The Levites were chosen in place of the first born:

I Myself have taken the Levites from among the children of Israel instead of all the firstborn that open the womb among the children of Israel. Therefore the Levites will be Mine because all the firstborn are Mine, for on the day that I struck all the firstborn in the land of Egypt I set apart to Me all the firstborn in Israel, both man and beast. They will be Mine. I am the LORD.
(Numbers 3:12-13)

In Egypt, a firstborn (singular) was saved by the blood used to mark the door posts to their house. Among the nation then, all the first born (plural) had been saved by the bloods of the lambs killed to mark the door posts. Therefore, the first born (plural) had been saved by bloods. When the LORD exchanged the first born who were saved in Egypt with the Levites, in that sense they would be considered to have been born of bloods.

The four types of people listed in order are:

Levites: born of bloods (first born ---> Levites)
Jewish: born of the will of the flesh
Gentiles: born of the will of man
Children (of God): born of God (Levite or Jewish or Gentile ---> Children of God)

The order and the use of "will" is likely significant. Levites, Jewish, Gentile are listed in inverse order of how the group came to be. Levites were born of bloods yet in another sense they were "chosen" of God, which how children of God come to be.

Conclusion
The three types are Levites, Jewish, and Gentiles. Regardless of what type of human ancestry is used to characterize a person, they have been given the right to become children of God.


  1. Or "born from above" or "born again...from above"
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What types of birth were meant by 'blood', 'will of the flesh', and 'will of man'?

Are these the three things being, refer to one and the same thing, that all humans are born according to the "fleshy will" of their parents. And being Adam's descendants, born with the inherited sinful tendencies, did not have the right to become children of God. This is shown by the apostles John's words.

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."

John further shows that all who received him -Jesus- and exercised faith in his name were given the authority to become God's children, being born, not from blood or fleshy will or man's will, but being born of the will of God. (Compare Matthew 24:31 NASB)

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I have no answer, only my own attempts at understanding.

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, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.

As I am seeing it, this passage contrasts three ways that people are normally born with a new way Jesus offers those who believe in his name, being born of God.

These three ways are "ex haimatōn" (of bloods), "ek thelēmatos sarkos" (of the will of flesh), and "ek thelēmatos andros" (of the will of a man).

From what I've read, "ex haimatōn" is unusually plural. As such, it's probably referring to families/ethnicities (note Why is "bloods," translated as "blood," in Genesis 4:10?).

Jesus himself adopted the children of God as his family, rather than those connected to him by flesh and blood. He said "For whoever shall do the will of my father in Heaven is my brother and sister and mother," (see Matthew 12:46-50, Mark 3:31-35 and Luke 8:19-21). He makes the point more aggressively in Luke 14:26 and Matthew 23:8-12. There are other places the point is made.

Both Matthew and Luke record John the Baptist saying that being a child of Abraham is not sufficient for salvation. The letter to the Romans makes the case in much greater detail. However, the closest the Bible gets to Jesus talking about the matter is in John 8:31-47. And even here, the claim to decent from Abraham isn't given as a path to salvation; and those making it quickly move to a claim of being directly children of God. (Jesus' words at the end of Luke 19:1-10 are also relevant as to his position).

So I think John chapter 1 is making a broader point about familiar ties rather than something specific about Abrahamic descent.

I find it hard to separate "ek thelēmatos sarkos" and "ek thelēmatos andros", and am open to other people's interpretations. I'm not convinced by the answer given here assigning the terms to Jews and Gentiles respectively.

But we can get a sense of John's understanding of sarkos from John 3:5-6 - "Answered Jesus, 'Truly, truly I say to you, if anyone is not born of water and of spirit, they are not able to enter into the kingdom of God. Those born of the flesh are flesh, and those born of the spirit are spirit.'"

If the concept of being born of sarkos is the same in John's first chapter as Jesus uses it in chapter 3, the first reference would appear to be referring to natural human conception/pregnancy/birth and natural human nature (both products of the fall).

"Andros" draws attention to the role of the father's will in birth. A father's will tended to have a prominent role in both conception and infanticide. John may be referring to certain aspects of maleness. But I don't feel particularly enlightened about the matter.

Rather than listing three false paths to salvation, I think John is listing three attributes of the path that everyone follows if they don't accept Jesus' narrow way.

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