You Must be Born Again

An Explanation of John 3:1-10

Is it true that in John 3:3, Jesus was speaking to Nicodemus about being “born again”? That’s an excellent question, especially if it is posed as the result of realizing that the Church of the Body of Christ (Christians) did not begin until the Day of Pentecost, as recorded in Acts 2, so how could Nicodemus have been “born again,” that is, become a Christian, prior to that?

Furthermore, it is clear from the ensuing dialogue that Jesus was astounded that Nicodemus had no idea what he was trying to communicate to him, and that is most significant. Why? Because the Old Testament was the only body of Scripture from which Nicodemus could learn, and thus the answer to his question must be found there—which it is.

But, there is nothing whatsoever in the Old Testament about “The Sacred Secret,” the “one new man,” the unique body of non-Jewish/non-Gentile believers who we refer to as “Christians.” So Jesus could not have been talking about being “born again of incorruptible seed” as per 1 Peter 1:23—because it simply was not available until the Day of Pentecost.

Well, what does the Greek text say? Interestingly, the Greek word rendered “again” in John 3:3 is translated “from above” 28 verses later!

The Greek word is anothen, which means “from above,” and that is exactly how verse 3 should read. So what did Jesus mean when he said that Nicodemus must be “born from above”? And why was he so amazed that Nicodemus, one of the 70 ruling elders of Judaism, had no idea what he was talking about?

Two more good questions. And they are answered in what you are about to read, which is Appendix H in our book titled, The Christian’s Hope: The Anchor of the Soul.

Appendix H

[The following was taken from Appendix H of our book The Christian’s Hope: The Anchor of the Soul.]

John 3 contains a powerful teaching about the future hope of Israel. Unfortunately, poor translation and wrong teaching have obscured it so completely that the actual meaning of what Jesus said is unknown to most Christians. The purpose of this appendix is to clarify what Jesus meant when he said, “No one can see the Kingdom of God unless he is born again” (John 3:3). We will see that when Jesus spoke about being “born again,” he was speaking about the First Resurrection, a subject clearly declared in the Old Testament. Jesus was not talking about being “born again” as this phrase has come into use in the Church Age and as it is commonly used by Christians today. He was not referring to being sealed with the gift of holy spirit and being “born” into the family of God. He was addressing Nicodemus, an Israelite, concerning the Hope of Israel, the First Resurrection.

The best way to begin this study is by reading from John 3.

John 3:1-10
(1) Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council.
(2) He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him.”
(3) In reply Jesus declared, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.”
(4) “How can a man be born when he is old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born!”
(5) Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit.
(6) Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.
(7) You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’
(8) The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
(9) “How can this be?” Nicodemus asked.
(10) “You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things?”

In this record, Nicodemus, a Pharisee, approached Jesus and engaged him in conversation. The Pharisees, like the Greeks, believed that when the body died, the “soul” departed and continued living either in a good place or in a place of torment. Jesus was aware of their erroneous belief, and took this opportunity to help Nicodemus understand the First Resurrection and entering the Kingdom of God. He spoke directly to Nicodemus’ need, namely, correcting his misunderstanding about death, resurrection, and the future life.

In an effort to gain an accurate understanding of what Jesus said to Nicodemus, we must carefully consider each of the following points:

1) Nicodemus, an educated man and one of Israel’s teachers, could and should have known what Jesus was speaking about because it is revealed in the Old Testament.

2) In John 3, the Greek words translated “born again” are not the same Greek words translated “born again” in the Church Epistles.

3) When Jesus spoke of “entering the Kingdom,” he was not speaking of Christian “salvation,” which is something entirely different.

4) Jesus was not offering the Christian New Birth to Nicodemus.

5) Jesus was making a statement of fact concerning the hope of Israel, the First Resurrection. He was not prophesying to Nicodemus about the coming Church Age.

The first point to consider is that Nicodemus could and should have known what Jesus was talking about. In fact, Jesus mildly reproved him twice during the conversation. Jesus knew that Nicodemus was a Pharisee and did not know the truths that Jesus was teaching him. However, he also knew that Nicodemus should have known those truths because they are plainly set forth in the Old Testament. Jesus said, “You should not be surprised at my saying” (v. 7a). Nicodemus was surprised, but he should not have been. Jesus continued teaching Nicodemus, but when he still did not seem to understand, Jesus reproved him even more strongly and said, “You are Israel’s teacher, and do you not understand these things?” (v. 10). These two statements of reproof show that Jesus expected Nicodemus to understand what he was saying.

Jesus would have never reproved Nicodemus for not knowing about the New Birth that is revealed in the Church Epistles, because it is not foretold in the Old Testament. [1] There are prophecies in the Old Testament stating that in the Millennial Kingdom holy spirit will be poured out on all people, but that is not the same as the outpouring of holy spirit in Acts 2 that began the Christian Church. It is similar in many respects, but it is not the same. [2] The Old Testament foretold that the outpouring would occur after the Tribulation, during the Kingdom of God, and therefore it cannot be a reference to the outpouring of holy spirit on the Christian Church, which is happening now, before the Tribulation. [3] Furthermore, there is no reference in the Old Testament to the fact that holy spirit would be “born” and “sealed” inside a person before his resurrection. The few believers in the Old Testament who were blessed with the spirit could lose it if they sinned (cp. King Saul and Samson). So, although the Old Testament foretold the coming of the gift of holy spirit, it never foretold the fullness of the New Birth as Christians experience it today. This means that Jesus could not have been talking to Nicodemus about the New Birth and reproving him for not grasping what he was saying.

Jesus could, however, rightly expect Nicodemus to know what the Old Testament said about the First Resurrection. The Old Testament reveals that the spirit of God will give life to dead believers who will then be “born” out of their graves (i.e., “birth from above”). Once they are out of their graves, these newly resurrected people will enter into the Kingdom the Lord has set up on earth.

The second point addresses the fact the Greek words translated “born again” in John 3 are not the same Greek words translated “born again” in the Epistles. It makes sense that if what Jesus is speaking of in John 3 is different from the New Birth, the vocabulary that describes it should be different, and it is. It is unfortunate that many translators used the phrase “born again” in both John and Peter, because the Greek words used in these books are different. The mistranslation causes truth that is being revealed in the gospel of John to be lost. In the book of Peter, both “New Birth” (1 Pet. 1:3) and “born again” (1 Pet. 1:23) are translated from the Greek word anagennao, made up of the prefix ana, which means “again” or “over again,” and gennao, which means “to beget” or “give birth.” Translating anagennao as “born again” in Peter is correct. Christians can correctly speak of themselves as having been “born again.”

In contrast with anagennao, the phrase “born again” in John 3 is translated from two Greek words: gennao and anothen. Gennao means “to beget” and anothen means “from above,” “from the top,” or “from the beginning.” Anothen is first used in the New Testament in Matthew 27:51 when the curtain of the Temple was torn from the “top” (anothen) to the bottom. Another use is in John 3:31, when John the Baptist was testifying of Christ and said, “The one who comes from above [anothen] is above all.” Here, the translators correctly translate anothen as “from above.” James 1:17 reads, “Every good and perfect gift is from above [anothen].” These scriptures show that the word anothen means “from above.” There are some well-respected translations that have “born from above” instead of “born again” in John 3:3,7, including: The Jerusalem Bible, New Jerusalem Bible, The Message, New Revised Standard Version, New American Bible, The International Standard Version, Young’s Literal Translation, The Bible by James Moffatt, The Better Version of the New Testament by Chester Estes, The New Testament in the Language of the People by Charles Williams, and The Emphasized Bible by Joseph Rotherham. In spite of these translations using “born from above” instead of “born again,” the phrase is almost universally quoted in Christendom as “born again,” which works against its being properly understood.

In John 3, Jesus was speaking about being born “from above,” a truth revealed in the Old Testament, to correct Nicodemus’ erroneous doctrine. Nicodemus was an educated and intelligent man, but his Pharisaic doctrine clouded the clear teaching of the Old Testament, namely, that in order for anyone to enter the future Kingdom, his dead body would have to be “born from above.” The prophets of old said that the dead bodies of believers would be given life when spirit from above, that is, the animating life force of God, entered them. The spirit would give them life and so they would be “born” from God above and “born” from the grave. Having been born “from above,” they could enter the Kingdom. Consider the following verse:

Isaiah 26:19
But your dead will live; their bodies will rise. You who dwell in the dust, wake up and shout for joy. Your dew is like the dew of the morning; the earth will give birth to her dead. [4]

Isaiah not only said that people would be “born” out of the grave, he also wrote that the spirit would come “from above” or “from on high.”

Isaiah 32:15-17
(15) Till the Spirit is poured upon us from on high, and the desert becomes a fertile field, and the fertile field seems like a forest.
(16) Justice will dwell in the desert and righteousness live in the fertile field.
(17) The fruit of righteousness will be peace; the effect of righteousness will be quietness and confidence forever.

That these verses in Isaiah refer to the Day of Judgment and the Millennial Kingdom is clear from their contexts. Ezekiel was another prophet who wrote about the spirit entering the dead bodies of believers and giving them life so that they can enter the Kingdom.

Ezekiel 37:12-14
(12) Therefore prophesy and say to them: “This is what the Sovereign LORD says: O my people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel.
(13) Then you, my people, will know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves and bring you up from them.
(14) I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the LORD have spoken, and I have done it, declares the LORD.”

In order to give life to the dead bodies of the believers, God will have to put His spirit in each one. [5] In Ezekiel’s prophecy to the dead bones of Israel, the Lord said he would make ruach, spirit, enter them and they would come to life (Ezek. 37:5,6,8,9,10,14). God, who is “the Spirit,” will place His “spirit” in the dead bodies, which will give them life. This is why Jesus Christ said to Nicodemus, “The Spirit [God] gives birth to spirit” (John 3:6). The dead are literally “born from above” when God above raises up the Old Testament and Tribulation believers and animates them with His spirit. They will come to life and enter the Millennial Kingdom, which Christ will establish on earth.

The third point addresses the fact when Jesus spoke of “entering the Kingdom,” he was not speaking of Christian salvation. Many Bible teachers quote Jesus’ words, i.e., that you must be born again to enter the Kingdom, as if “entering the Kingdom” were the same as “Christian salvation.” It is not. When a Christian accepts Christ and is saved, he experiences the New Birth, but he does not enter the Kingdom, which is a place on earth and is not yet established. Christian salvation occurs in this life on this earth. In contrast, “entering the Kingdom” is available only when Jesus returns and sets up his Millennial Kingdom here on earth.

Unlike Christians who are “born again” but have not entered the Kingdom, Old Testament believers will enter the Kingdom without ever having experienced the Christian New Birth. It is important to realize that if Christ had said, “You must be born again [referring to the Christian New Birth] to enter the Kingdom,” then Old Testament believers such as Abraham, Sarah, Moses, Miriam, David, Esther, etc., would not be allowed into the Kingdom because they never were “born again” in the Christian sense of the word. Surely Christ did not say anything that excluded Old Testament believers from the Kingdom! “Entering the Kingdom” and the New Birth must not be confused. Christians must understand the vocabulary God uses in Scripture to communicate truth, and that is why having an accurate translation from the Hebrew and Greek texts is so vitally important.

The fourth point to understand is that Jesus was not offering the New Birth to Nicodemus as if he could have gotten born again in a Christian sense right then and there. The New Birth as Christians experience it was not available before the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2. It was then that for the very first time in history the gift of holy spirit was actually “born” inside a person. Even the apostles had to wait until the Day of Pentecost to be filled with holy spirit (Acts 1:8; 2:4), so Jesus could not have been offering the New Birth to Nicodemus.

The fifth point is that Jesus was not making a prophetic statement about the coming Church Age. The main reason Christians believe that Jesus was prophesying about holy spirit that came on Pentecost is that the words “born again” appear in the chapter, and they think it refers to the Christians’ New Birth. This reason is not valid however, because, as we have already shown, the phrase “born again” in John 3 is a mistranslation. Jesus Christ was speaking with Nicodemus about something of vital importance, i.e., a proper understanding of the Old Testament prophecies and the First Resurrection. A plain reading of John 3 indicates that Jesus was talking to Nicodemus about a truth relevant to him at the time that he lived, not about a future reality that Nicodemus knew nothing about. Nicodemus could and should have known about the “birth from above,” i.e., the First Resurrection, and this rules out the idea that Christ was prophesying about the future New Birth because the New Birth and the things that accompany it were so secret that had Satan known about them he would not have crucified the Lord Jesus. [6] Furthermore, Jesus mentioned getting into the Kingdom, which is clearly after the Kingdom is made available—immediately after the First Resurrection.

In conclusion, in John 3 Jesus spoke about the First Resurrection. He wanted to clear up Nicodemus’ theology about the First Resurrection because Jesus, more than anyone, knew the freeing value of truth. Jesus’ statement that one cannot enter the Kingdom without being born from above was exactly what the Old Testament prophets had said hundreds of years earlier. The way to enter the Kingdom was to be born out of the grave by the spirit of God from above. Nicodemus misunderstood what Jesus said because, as a Pharisee, he was not aware of the clear teaching of Scripture about resurrection. Jesus’ reproof of Nicodemus, including the fact that he pointed out that Nicodemus was a teacher, but did not know the truth himself, fits the fact that the First Resurrection is part of the Old Testament prophecy. Jesus’ statement that “the Spirit gives birth to spirit” is what happens, according to Ezekiel 37, when the Spirit (God) gives His spirit from above and it then gives life to dead believers. The essence of what Christ said to Nicodemus in John 3 is: “Unless a dead person be given life by the spirit from above and come out of the grave (i.e., be “born from above”), he will not be able to enter the Millennial Kingdom when it comes—he will remain dead in the ground.”

Endnotes

1. For documentation on this point, see Appendix C.

2. The idea that they are the same comes from Peter’s statement in Acts 2:16 (KJV), “This is that which was spoken by the prophet Joel.” In the Companion Bible, E. W. Bullinger has an entire appendix on this subject, and the phrase “This is that,” used by Peter. He begins: “There is nothing in the words to tell us what is ‘this’ and what is ‘that.’ The word ‘this’ is emphatic, and the word ‘But’ with which Peter’s argument begins, sets what follows in contrast. This shows that the quotation was used to rebut the charge of drunkenness (v. 13). So far from these signs and wonders being a proof that “these men” were drunken, ‘this,’ said the apostle, is ‘that’ (same kind of thing) which Joel prophesied would take place ‘in the last days.” Peter does not say these were the last days, but that this (that follows) is what Joel says of those days. He does not say ‘then was fulfilled,’ nor ‘as it is written,’ but merely calls attention to what the prophet said of similar scenes yet future.” Bullinger’s assessment of the giving of holy spirit in Acts is correct: it is similar to, but not the same as, the giving of the spirit that will occur in the Millennial Kingdom. Bullinger, op. cit., Companion Bible, Appendix 183.

3. Exactly when the Old Testament prophecies said that holy spirit would be poured out is very important, and helps to differentiate between the giving of the spirit to the Church and the giving of the spirit to Israel. The Old Testament prophets with one voice said that the spirit would be poured out after the Tribulation and during the Kingdom. Isaiah 32:15; 44:3; 59:21; Ezek. 39:29, and Joel 2:28 all refer to after the Tribulation, in the Kingdom of God.

4. The NIV and NASB do an exceptionally good job of translating the difficult word, napal, which has a basic meaning of “to fall” and in this context refers to “dropping” children, i.e., giving birth. Brown, Driver, Briggs, op. cit., The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon p. 658. Isaiah 26:19 is referring to the First Resurrection. Delitzsch writes: “The dew from the glory of God falls like a heavenly seed into the bosom of the earth; and in consequence of this, the earth gives out from itself the shades which have hitherto been held fast beneath the ground, so that they appear alive again on the surface of the earth. …When compared with the New Testament Apocalypse, it is “the first resurrection” which is here predicted by Isaiah.” F. Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament in Ten Volumes, Vol. VII, Isaiah (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI, reprinted 1975), pp. 451, 452.

5. Unfortunately, this point is veiled in many English versions. The Hebrew word for “spirit” is ruach, which generally refers to an invisible force and is usually translated “spirit,” “wind,” or “breath.” Many versions translate ruach as “breath” in Ezekiel 37, but because of the scope of Scripture and the other prophecies relating to this subject, the chapter makes more sense if ruach is translated “spirit.” The uses of ruach, spirit, in Ezekiel 37 that must be clearly understood include, “I will make ruach, [spirit], enter you” (vs. 5); “I will put ruach, [spirit], in you” (vs. 6); “there was no ruach, [spirit], in them” (vs. 8); “prophesy to the ruach, [spirit]” (vs. 9); “O ruach, [spirit]” (vs. 9); and “and ruach [spirit], entered them” (vs. 10). Interestingly, after translating ruach as “breath” through most of the chapter, in the final verse of this section, verse 14, the translators of the NIV do use the word “spirit” instead of “breath”: “I will put my Spirit [spirit] in you and you will live.”

6. See Appendix C.

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4 comments

  1. Thank you. I was struck by Jesus saying “Why don’t you know this?” I was trying to figure out why Nicodemus should have know what nobody had ever taught about. The only thing that your writing gives me pause is the Kingdom. You mention it after the first resurrection. I am aware that it would make sense, except when Jesus tells his followers to “seek first the Kingdom.” If the Kingdom is (as we are aware of it today) still 2,000+ years away, how can Peter and John seek that which is way beyond their lifetime. Also, if just believing in the promise, as Abraham did, gives you the birth from above, what is being born again about? I am not ready to stick my neck out totally, but I am inclined to think that Jesus was suggesting that with the Holy Spirit alive in you, that the Kingdom was already a hand in your life. Even though He wasn’t ruling in Earthly Jerusalem, He was your king in Heavenly Jerusalem bestowing all the rights and privileges to you in the present time and then in the coming time. However, this is certainly a wonderful teaching to further understand the beautiful chapter that is John 3. It doesn’t diminish it for a Christian, but gives it even more awe and beauty. John 3:17 is still my favorite. We should have all memorized that one first.

  2. This article raises many interesting points to consider. Who is the author?

    1. Our records don’t show who the writer is. many articles are done as a team effort.

  3. Thank you so much. This was exactly what I was looking for as I sought to say the same things to a brother who is emphasizing ‘the imperative importance’ of telling people they must be born again as a means of presenting the Gospel. I, of course, have no problem with using these words but explaining the gospel regarding repentance, regarding the purpose of believing that Christ died for our sins, was buried and rose again and really getting this gospel. I would like to see the author/authors of this instruction to continue on with the rest of Jesus words in John three to Nicodemus up until verse 21. Thank you, again.

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