From The Top
Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say untothee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. (John 3:3 KJV)
Jesus replied to him, "Truly, truly I tell you, unlessa person is born from above he cannot see the kingdom of God." (John 3:3ISV)
Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say untothee, Except one be born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God. (John 3:3 ASV)
Here are three different translations of a Bible verse and three different words used. Is it "born again" or "born from above" or "born anew" or maybe something else? I have seen various articles written arguing for each of these translations. Some people are quite vehement in defense of one or the other. After all, the "innerant word of God" can't have any confusion in it! OK, maybe not. But I do wonder when I see things like this why there should be any difference or confusion. A word is a word is a word and means what it means -- except, sometimes a word has several meanings and it may not be obvious which meaning was intended.
Jesus and Nicodemus were (we assume) speaking in Aramaic and the Gospel we have was written in Greek. That means that what we read in an English Bible is a translation of a translation. However, we have to assume(again) that the writer of the Gospel chose a word in Greek that represents what Jesus actually said. Thus we can look at the Greek word and maybe that will help. You can, if you want, go do what I did. You can look in the lexicons, dictionaries and commentaries to see what the experts say. In addition, you can locate all the places in the Bible, New Testament and Septuagint, where this word is used and see if that helps. I'll save you sometime and trouble. The word is "anothen" and means "above" -- most of the time. However,"anothen" has other meanings. It can refer to a place above, or a higher authority, or be used in a phrase meaning "top to bottom." It also is used to mean a return to something previous, or from an origin or starting place. It seems all three translations can be equally justified.
This word "anothen" is very much like the English word "top." We use "top" most often to mean something above something else, but also use it to mean a higher authority, as in the top man in an organization. We use it in the phrase "top to bottom" to indicate the whole of something, even when there is no true top or bottom. We even use "top" to mean the beginning of something as in "take it from the top." However, if you heard me say only "takeit from the top" you wouldn't know for certain which meaning I intended. Do I mean, "Take the book from the top of the stack?" Do I mean, "Accept what your superiors have said?" Or do I mean, "We have to do it all over again?" You would have to understand the context of the conversation to make any sense of it.
The point, then, is that it is not a good idea to build an entire theology on the meaning of a single word or phrase. If something is important it will be repeated throughout the Bible. If this is the only place in the Bible that talks about being "born again" then I would say it isn't that important. The only real way to understand what is meant by born "anothen" is to study the whole passage from John and then from that see how it fits the full revelation that the Bible gives us.
When people converse, it is common to repeat what is said, especially if it seems one person has not understood. That is exactly what we see in John 3. Jesus answers Nicodemus in a way that Nicodemus doesn't understand. Nicodemus interprets the answer as indicating a physical rebirth, which is something impossible. Jesus doesn't correct Nicodemus so much as He expands the meaning. Jesus says, "Don't be so shocked. Let me explain what I mean."
Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. (John 3:5)
Jesus sets forth a contrast between two births. One birth is "of water" and one birth is of sprit. That helps? Now we have to know what it means to be born of water and what it means to be born of spirit! So, keep going:
That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. (Joh 3:6 KJV)
OK, now we're getting somewhere. Born of the flesh is easy to understand. All of us have a physical birth. When a pregnant woman goes into labor the first thing to happen is her "water breaks." The baby is quite literally born out of water. It is obvious to me that "born of water" means a physical birth. Ooops. It seems every commentator out there (and most preachers) want to make this into a statement about the importance of water baptism. Maybe the statement by Jesus is an allusion to water baptism. After all, baptism is a ritual act of purification and purification of the corruption of sin is certainly necessary (Matt. 3) and precedes the Holy Spirit (Acts 19). But the act of baptism points to death more so than birth (Rom. 6:4). Jesus and Nicodemus are discussing "birth" and Jesus is showing a contrast between the physical and spiritual nature of man. So, perhaps Jesus is making a "pun" and using a reference to both physical birth and repentance as preceding regeneration. It just seems to me that the simplest, most obvious meaning of "born of water" is a reference to a physical birth and that all the interpretation of a reference to baptism is a way to justify the Church's tradition. In either case, Jesus indicates that without a birth "anothen" man is born flesh, remains flesh, and dies flesh. Salvation requires something more than that physical existence.
Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again. The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit. (Joh 3:7-8 )
Now that's shocking, isn't it? Maybe you're not shocked but Nicodemus certainly was! "How can this happen?" is his response. It seems that Jesus' explanation is more confusing than what He said to start with. More importantly, Jesus just destroyed any implication that being born "anothen" is accomplished by something man does. (What? You didn't get that?) In both the Old Testament Hebrew and the New Testament Greek, the word used for spirit is the same word used for wind. Wind is a symbol for God's spirit. Wind is unseen, blows where it will, and though we can sense it, we can't determine its origin or destination. The wind is not something we create or control. It controls us. Those who are born of the spirit are under God's control. His spirit is placed in us as an act of grace (unmerited favor) in order to accomplish His purposes. We cannot generate that spirit in ourselves, but must receive it from God. Just as we didn't do anything to get born physically (our parents did it), our spiritual birth comes from our spiritual Father.
What Jesus said parallels the story of the creation of man in Genesis (Gen. 2:7). First, God formed man from the dust of the earth creating a body of flesh. Then, God breathed into Adam and Adam became a living soul. The word for breath in Hebrew is the same word for wind and used symbolically for spirit. In John's Gospel, the word for spirit is also the word for breath or wind. Just as Adam was flesh that became a living soul by receiving God's spirit, so too we can only be saved from death by having that spirit breathed into us. When that spirit is placed into us, we return to the condition of Adam before the fall. We can then say we are born "anothen" -- from the spirit above, anew, returning again to the condition that God intended "from the top."
That at least explains what born "anothen" means. It means to receive God's spirit so that we become born as Adam was. Like Nicodemus, it should leave us asking the obvious question: How? How do we get that spiritual birth?
Simply put, you get spiritually born by reversing the action taken in the Garden of Eden. Man's fall is the result of one single act. Adam and Eve were faced with a choice between what God said and what Satan said. God told the truth, Satan lied. Instead of relying on God's word, Adam and Eve accepted and acted on Satan's lie. That was their downfall and has been the downfall of man ever since. Although Adam did nothing to receive the spirit of God, he could (and did) through his choice lose that spirit. The only way to get that spirit of life back is to turn around and do the opposite. Hmmm. Turnaround -- that's "repent" you know? We have to repent of putting our trust in and relying on Satan's lies and go back to trusting in God's word. Like this:
And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. (Joh 3:14-16)
That's it then: believe in Jesus. Now, how can just believing something have any affect? To understand this, it helps to "fix" the translation. You see, this phrase "believeth in him" doesn't fully represent what is in the original. It's not that it is wrong, per se, just that there is more than you think. First, "believeth" is a translation of "pisteuo" and it really means something more like "absolute trust leading to action" than simple mental acknowledgment. It is the same Greek word that is translated as "faith" but since it is used here as a verb, and it would sound awkward in English to say "faith in Jesus" the translators used the similar word believe. But that's not all. The word "in" is also misleading. The actual word is "eis" which is a preposition that indicates direction towards and into something. Literally, what John 3:16 says is you must "faith into Jesus." That's awkward, so maybe something like "direct your faith towards Jesus" is a better way to put it.
No one can live without faith. Most people simply put their faith into things of this world. Man trusts in the things man has made: political systems, economic systems, technology, etc. Or, man puts his faith in himself: will-power, knowledge, social connection, charitable works, etc. All of those things can be summed up as the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. In other words, they are things that are determined by deciding in our mind what is good and what is evil. The faith that saves is a faith directed towards Jesus. The Gospel of John opens with the statement that Jesus is the Word of God made flesh. Do you see the connection? In the Garden of Eden, man turned his faith away from the spoken Word of God. In the Gospel, we are told to turn around and direct our faith towards the incarnate Word of God. It isn't the Bible, the words of prophets and preachers that we direct our faith into. Our faith must be directed into the Word of God -- Jesus. That is what brings a new birth. Out of that new birth of the spirit of God in us comes true understanding, desire for moral actions, right relationship with God and eternal life.