Thursday, November 8, 2012

Born Again or Born from Above? The Concept of Spiritual Rebirth in John 3:3

When Nicodemus came by night to visit Jesus, he had only just offered his greetings to Jesus when Jesus spoke to him about the condition for salvation in the kingdom of God. Jesus said: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). As a pious Jew, Nicodemus would have been greatly interested in this issue; but Jesus’ raising of this topic so early in his conversation with Nicodemus definitely highlights the importance of it in Jesus’ thinking.

Unpacking the meaning of Jesus’ statement, the expression truly, truly, I say to you occurs 25 times in John’s Gospel, where it usually introduces sayings of Jesus of particular significance. The use of this expression by Jesus also highlights the fact that Jesus has come into the world to speak the truth (e.g., John 8:40, 45–46; 14:6; 17:17; 18:37).

The word ἄνωθεν, which is often translated as again as in the phrase born again also means from above. In a Jewish context it would be most natural to take ἄνωθεν as being a Jewish circumlocution for from heaven or ultimately from God. It is clear from Nicodemus’s response in John 3:4, however, that ἄνωθεν could also mean again, and this is primarily how Nicodemus understood it. As far as Jesus’ use of ἄνωθεν is concerned, it is likely that Jesus used the word in John 3:3 with deliberate ambiguity but at the same time with the sense of from above primarily in mind. This is apparent from the substitution of the expression by water and spirit for ἄνωθεν in Jesus’ explication of his statement in John 3:3 in John 3:5. The concept of being born again in a spiritual sense should have been familiar to Nicodemus as a reference to conversion, given that Jewish rabbis spoke about Gentile conversion to Judaism as the beginning of a new life.

The expression to see the kingdom of God simply means to experience, to be a part of, the kingdom of God. It is a synonymous concept with entering the kingdom of God (see John 3:5). New birth, a spiritual rebirth engineered from above, is the condition of salvation. This teaching could have been rather controversial for Nicodemus, had he understood Jesus’ intended meaning, because the implication of Jesus’ teaching was that more is needed for the Jews to be right with God than adherence to the law of Moses. A new birth, connected with faith in Jesus, is what is needed in order to experience salvation in the kingdom of God.

In terms of the wider context of the Jewish-Christian polemics relevant to John’s readership—where Christian Jews were facing opposition from many non-Christian Jews—Jesus’ teaching would clearly have been quite controversial. In effect, Jesus was stating that Jews need to be converted out of Judaism (symbolized in its purest form in Jesus’ day by Pharisaism, of which Nicodemus was an adherent) to Christianity, which was distinguished from traditional Judaism by the belief that Jesus is the Messiah.

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