The Necessity of the New Birth: A Theological Exegesis of John 3:3-7

I.          INTRODUCTION

Jesus said to Nicodemus, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3 ESV). Just the same as Nicodemus, you and I likewise must be born again to see the kingdom of God. It means that unless we are born again, we will not be saved; we will not be part of God’s family, and we will not go to heaven. Unfortunately however, the term “born again” has either come to mean as being a member of a certain religion or the name of a religion itself as in our case where the term “born-again” has been equated with Evangelicalism or Protestantism.

According to John Piper, Jesus’ teaching about the new birth confronts us with our hopeless spiritual and moral and legal condition apart from God’s regenerating grace. Before the new birth happens to us, we are spiritually dead; we are morally selfish and rebellious; and we are legally guilty before God’s law and under His wrath (Ephesians 2:3). When Jesus tells us that we must be born again, He is telling us that our present condition is hopelessly unresponsive, corrupt, and guilty. Moreover, teaching about the new birth is unsettling because it refers to something that is done to us, not something we do. In the same way that we do not decide nor control our physical birth, it is God who causes the new birth, not us (1 Peter 1:3).[1] This paper will attempt to expound on John 3:3-7 through the use of the historical-grammatical method.

II.         HISTORICAL CONTEXT

Authorship

The fourth gospel does not specifically assert its author’s name but only refers to the author as “the disciple whom Jesus loved” in 21:20, 24. The internal evidence indicates that the author was (a) an apostle (1:14; cf. 2:11; 19:35), (b) one of the twelve disciples (“the disciple whom Jesus loved”; 13:23; 19:26; 20:2; 21:20; cf. 21:24-25),, and still more specifically, (c) John the son of Zebedee. The external evidence from the church fathers supports this identification (e.g. Ireneus, Against Heresies 3.1.2). The title “According to John” however, was attached to it two or three decades later after the book was published. From the end of the second century on, there is virtual agreement in the church as to the authority, canonicity, and authorship of the Gospel of John. An argument from silence in this case proves impressive.[2] Therefore, it has been accepted henceforth by the Christian community that this gospel was indeed written by John the son of Zebedee, who was one of the three closest disciples of Jesus Christ together with Peter and James (13:23-24; 18:15-16; 20:2-9; 21:2-23; cf. Luke 22:8; Acts 1:13; 3:1-4:37; 8:14-25; Galatians 2:9).

Purpose and Audience

The author himself provides the reason for the writing of the gospel in John 20:30-31, where it says: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” John selected the signs he used with the apologetic purpose of creating intellectual and spiritual conviction about the Son of God. The key verb in John is “believe”, and requires both knowledge and volition.[3] John’s original audience most probably consisted of both Jews and Gentiles living in the larger Greco-Roman world in Ephesus and beyond toward the close of the first century A.D. He frequently explains Jewish customs and Palestinian geography and translates Aramaic terms in to Greek, thus showing awareness of non-Jewish readers. He also present Jesus as the Word (“Λογος”) become flesh against the backdrop of Greek thought that included Stoicism and early Gnosticism. Nevertheless, John likewise shows awareness of Jewish readers as he demonstrates Jesus to be the Jewish Messiah, the fulfillment of many Old Testament prophecies, and the Son of God who was sent by God the Father to reveal the only true God and to provide redemption to humanity.[4]

The Gospel of John presents a strikingly different picture of Jesus from that of the synoptic. Allusions to the opening chapter of Genesis can clearly be seen, i.e. “in the beginning”, as reference to God’s word as a creative power. The prologue of John 1 presents us with the story of Jesus as the coming of the Divine Word to humanity and that there is no other way to truly know God except through the Word that has dwelt with man in the form of Jesus.

 Date and Place of Writing

Since none of the arguments concerning the exact dating of the Gospel of John, scholars suggest that the probable writing of the same occurred anytime between A.D. 55- 95. As to the locus of its writing, four places are commonly proposed by scholars, namely, (a) Alexandria; (b) Antioch; (c) Palestine; and (d) Ephesus.[5]

III.         LITERARY CONTEXT

The theme of John’s Gospel is that Jesus is the promised Messiah and Son of God and that by believing in Jesus, people can have eternal life with God. John 3:3-7 belongs to topic heading 2:23- 3:12 of section 2:1-4:54. The section 2:1-4:54 where 3:3-7 is included belongs to the large unit of 1:19-10:42 where Jesus discloses Himself in word and deed. This first large unit may be divided into four major sections, to wit: the prologue (1:1-18); Jesus’ early ministry, specifically, His signs, works and words (2:1-4:54); more signs, works and words, but now in the context of oppositions (5:1-7:53); the periscope of the woman caught in adultery (7:53-8:11); and climactic signs, works and words in the context of radical confrontation (8:12-10:42).

The first section includes the stories about Jesus’ first sign which, is the changing of water into wine at Cana (2:1-11), His words and actions in the clearing of the temple (2:12-17), and the utterance about Jesus’ replacing the temple (2:18-22). The inadequate faith of those who trust Him is then shown at the juncture of 2:23-25 now sets the stage for the exchange between Jesus and Nicodemus (3:1-21), which is the subject of this study.[6]

Nicodemus is described as a Pharisee and a ruler of the Jews (1:1), which meant that he was a member of the Jewish religious ruling council, the Sanhedrin. Albeit the Sanhedrin does not possess civil authority because it rests with the Roman Empire, they still had significant influence over the Jewish population as they were the ones charged with the interpretation and proclamation of the Laws of Moses or the Torah. The conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus took place at nighttime probably because Nicodemus was afraid of anyone seeing him confer with Jesus, with the latter considerably being hated by his fellow Pharisees. Nonetheless, Nicodemus did not hesitate to address Jesus as “Rabbi” (1:2) as he recognized Jesus as a teacher of the Law who came from God due to the “signs” that Jesus performed (2:23) notwithstanding His lack of formal rabbinical training. Jesus then tells Nicodemus outright about the necessity of being born again (3:3-12) or what we would call “regeneration”. The topic of regeneration however is not just limited to the book of John but is actually taught in other parts of the New Testament. Below is a table of passages where the new birth or regeneration is mentioned:

John 1:13 “born…of God”
John 3:3 “born again”
John 3:5 “born of water and the Spirit”
John 3:6 “born of the Spirit”
John 3:7 “born again”
John 3:8 “born of the Spirit”
Eph. 2:4-5 “God…even when we were dead…made us alive together with Christ”
Col. 2:13 “you, who were dead…God made alive together with him”
Titus 3:5 “he saved us…by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit”
James 1:18 “he brought us forth by the word of truth”
1 Peter 1:3 “he has caused us to be born again”
1 Peter 1:23 “you have been born again”
1 John 2:29 “everyone who practices righteousness has been born of him”
1 John 3:9 “no one born of God makes a practice of sinning”
1 John 4:7 “whoever loves has been born of God”
1 John 5:1 “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God”
1 John 5:4 “everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world”
1 John 5:18 “everyone who has been born of God does not keep on sinning”

IV.          LITERARY STUDIES

3 “Jesus answered him, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”[7]

Jesus’ answer begins with the word “Amen” (Gk. “άμην”) which is of Hebrew origin (“אמן”) transplanted into the Greek New Testament that signifies trustworthiness or truthfulness, i.e. verily, truly. The fact that Jesus begins His statement thus stresses the veracity of whatever He is about to say. Moreover, it is noteworthy that the word “amen” was said twice, which was a device employed by ancient writers who did not possess the technology of a computer that can embolden, underline or italicize certain words, to stress the importance of what they are saying.

Jesus stresses that it is He who says what He says, i.e. “I say to you”. This assertion contrasts with what of the rabbinic training that Nicodemus was accustomed to in that the Pharisees, Sadducees and teachers of Jewish religious law would always quote other eminent scholars and scribes for authority. Instead of doing the same, Jesus Himself would issue a command or an interpretation of God’s command by His own authority.

In stressing the necessity of regeneration, Jesus used the conditional term “unless” from the Greek word “έάν μη” which means “except”, “if not”, “before” or “but if”. The use of this word makes regeneration a conditio sine qua non before entering or seeing God’s kingdom. John Gill explains it thus: “Christ assures him, that he must be “born again”; in distinction from, and opposition to his first birth by nature; in which he was vile, polluted, carnal, and corrupt, being conceived in sin, and shapen in iniquity, and was a transgressor from the womb, and by nature a child of wrath; and in opposition to, his descent from Abraham, or being born of him, and of his seed; for this would be of no avail to him in this case, nor give him any right to the privileges and ordinances of the kingdom of God, or the Gospel dispensation”[8]

The terms “born again” from the Greek words “γέννάω ανωθέν”, can also be translated as “born from above”. Here, it can be seen that the intent of the author is to show that this rebirth is from above or from God. This discussion of the need for spiritual rebirth further develops the earlier reference to the “children of God” who are “born of God” (1:12–13; cf. 8:39–58; 11:51–52).

In this verse, “Kingdom of God” refers to the reign of God in the hearts and lives of the believers, and to the reigning presence of Christ in His body, the Church (cf. Matthew 5:10). The word “kingdom” here is a translation of the Greek word “βασιλεια”, which properly means royalty, that is, abstractly, rule, or concretely, a realm, or figuratively, a reign.[9] Genuine believers, i.e. those who have been born again, will increasingly reflect Christ’s love, obey His laws, honor Him, and proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom.

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?”

Here, Nicodemus clearly understood Jesus’ words in a literal way, hence, his confusion and dumbfoundedness.

5 “Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”

Again, Jesus uses the words “Amen, amen”, which signifies and stresses the veracity and importance of His following statement.

The phrase “born of water and the Spirit” refers to spiritual birth, which cleanses from sin and brings spiritual transformation and renewal. Water here does not refer to the water of physical birth, nor is it likely that it refers to baptism. The background is probably Ezekiel 36:25–27, where God promises, “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean. … And I will give you a new heart. … And I will put my Spirit within you.”

 6 “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.”

Here, Jesus distinguishes between the physical (“σαϱξ”) birth from the spiritual (“πνεϋμα”) birth. As descendants of Adam according to the flesh, the entire human race has inherited the sinful nature and hence, spiritually dead in our transgressions. That is why spiritual birth, which cleanses from sin and brings spiritual transformation, is necessary (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:17).

7 “Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’”

To be sure, Nicodemus was evidently puzzled and marveled by what Jesus told him. The word “marvel” here is from the Greek word “θαυμάζω”, which means to wonder; by implication, to admire.[10]

In the English language, the word “you” is meant for either singular or plural. However, the change from singular (“σοι”) to plural (“ύμας”) probably is meant to include Nicodemus and his fellow Sanhedrin members. The plural also carries broader application to all people, as in everyone “must be born again”.

The word “must” is translated from the Greek word “δεί”, which is the third person singular active present of “δεω”; also “δεόν”, which is neuter active participle of the same; both used impersonally; it is (was, etc.) necessary (as binding): – behoved, be meet, must (needs), (be) need (-ful), ought, should.[11] By using this word, Jesus stresses the indispensability of the new birth as a requirement to see the “kingdom of God”.

V.          LIFE APPLICATION

What it Means to Me

Living in a predominantly Roman Catholic country where religiosity is the norm, I have seen how millions of Filipinos would sacrifice their lives, liberty and property in order to gain that much coveted salvation. Although they confess Christ as their Lord and Savior, it is clearly apparent that they are still trying to earn their way to heaven through the merits of their own good works. Surely, however, in the passages that this study has presented, it is only through the spiritual rebirth that a person can truly and unselfishly do good works that would please God. As a physically dead person cannot produce anything, neither can spiritually dead persons produce spiritually meritorious good works. It is only by being born again to a new life can man truly do something beneficial. Only regenerated children of God in Christ can see the Kingdom of God.


[1]John Piper, Finally Alive. (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Desiring God, c2009) p.49.

[2] D.A. Carson and Douglas Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, c2005) p. 229.

[3] Bruce Wilkinson and Kenneth Boa, The Wilkinson and Boa Bible Handbook. (Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson Publishers, c2002) p. 337.

[4] The ESV Study Bible, (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Bibles, c2008)

[5] Supra, p. 254.

[6] Supra, p. 227.

[7] Text is from the English Standard Version 2007

[8] John Gill’s Exposition of the Entire Bible (Public domain).

[9] Strong’s Hebrew and Greek Dictionaries, e-Sword, c2012.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s