This week the students in my second year Greek Exegetical Methods class finished their final research paper and one of the two passages they could choose to write the paper on was John 3:1-8. One issue that the student must wrestle with is the expression “born again” used in both 3:3 and 3:7. The issue surrounds how the adverb ἄνωθεν (anōthen) is translated. Most Bible versions render the adverb into English as “born again,” two exceptions being the NRSV and the NET Bible which render it as “from above.” The reason for this difference is that the adverb can have either meaning. BDAG notes 4 different ways it can be understood including “above,” “from the beginning,” “for a long time,” and “again.” As a matter of fact, BDAG notes the difficulty in John 3 in that it includes the use of the adverb in John 3:3 and 7 in both the listing under “from above” and “again.”
When Jesus declared to Nicodemus in John 3:3 ,“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” it becomes clear that Nicodemus understood him to mean again. He responded to Jesus in verse 4 saying, “How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born, can he?” But the birth which Jesus has in mind is not a natural birth, but a supernatural one. Jesus goes on to say in verses 5-8 that the kind of birth he means is one which is a spiritual birth, declaring,
“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into 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 be amazed that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
The expression “born of water and the Spirit” is another blog post, but what is clear here is that the context of the passage helps us to know which of the two meanings for ἄνωθεν (anōthen) is meant by Jesus. Carson notes,
Because Nicodemus understood it to mean ‘again’ (cf. ‘a second time’, v. 4), and Jesus did not correct him, some have argued that ‘again’ must stand. But Jesus also insists that this new birth, this new begetting, this new regeneration, must be the work of the Spirit, who comes from the realm of the ‘above’ (The Gospel according to John, PNTC, 189).
Jesus is saying that all men do need a second birth, but that this birth is not natural or from human means, but a supernatural work of God in our lives. Have you been “born from above?” Have you been saved? This passage goes on to talk about how this salvation is appropriated to us: by faith. We read a few verses later this great truth of salvation:
For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.