“YE MUST BE BORN AGAIN”
We read in John 3:3, “…..except a man be born again he cannot see the kingdom of God”. What does it mean to be born again? Does it refer to individuals or does it refer to the rebirth of the nation of Israel? Let us search the Scriptures for the answers to these questions.
A CONSIDERATION OF THE PHRASE “BORN AGAIN”?
John 3:3, “…..except a man be born again he cannot see the kingdom of God”. The Greek word translated “again” is “anothen”. Because the meaning of any word is established by its usage, we will look at every occurrence of the word in the New Testament.
The first occurrence is found in Matt. 27:51 which speaks of the curtain that was torn at the time of the crucifixion of Christ and reads, “…the vail of the Temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom….”. In this first occurrence “anothen” is translated “top”.
Mark 15:36 tells of the same event and is, of course also translated “top“.
Luke 1:3, “It seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first.…”. Here “anothen” is translated “first”.
We will return to the two verses in John 3 where “anothen” is translated “again”.
Jn. 19:11, “”….Thou could have no power at all except it were given thee from above“. In this verse “anothen” is translated “above”.
Jn. 19:23, “…now the coat was without seam, woven from the top throughout”. Again “anothen” is translated “top”.
Acts 26:5, “Which knew me from the beginning....”. Here it is translated “beginning”.
Gal. 4:9, “But now after that ye have known God, or rather are known of God, how turn ye again to the weak and beggarly elements, whereunto ye desire again to be in bondage”. Because this is the only time, apart from Jn. 3, that “anothen” is translated “again” it warrants further consideration. In verse 8 Paul wrote, “Howbeit then, when ye knew not God, ye did service unto them which by nature are no gods”. Evidently, these Galatians were wanting, in some ways, to go back to their original state of worshiping idols. They were wanting to go back to the way things were at the beginning. The concept of going back to the way things were at the beginning is in keeping with the translation of Luke 1:3 and Acts 26:5 quoted above. It is not used in the sense of “again”, but in the sense of “from the beginning”.
James 1:17, “Every perfect gift is from above“. The last three occurrences are translated “above”.
James 3:15, “This wisdom descendeth not from above.….”.
James 3:17, “The wisdom that descendeth from above is first pure, then peaceable gentle….”.
We have seen that “anothen” is used in the sense of “from above”, “from the top” and “from the first , or “beginning, but never in the sense of “again”.
We are now ready to discuss Jn. 3. The Holy Spirit never uses the word “anothen” to express the idea of “again“. That, in my opinion, is sufficient evidence to prove that “anothen” should be translated “above” not “again”. But let’s consider the context as well. I believe that this entire passage presents one single message. Note that verses 3, 5, 6, 7 and 8 all speak of being born of the Spirit. In verse 3 it is “born from above”, in verse 5 it is “born of water and of the spirit“, in verse 6 it is born of the Spirit, verse 7 repeats verse 3 and in verse 8 it is, “so is every one that is born of the Spirit“. So, to be born from above is the same as to be born of the Spirit . Having said that we can determine from the context that speaks of this birth, especially verse 6, whether this birth is “from above” or if it is “again”.
We read in verse 6, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit”. In other words, Jesus is explaining to Nicodemus that there is a contrast between the birth of the flesh and the birth of the Spirit. There is no contrast between being born of the flesh and being born again. But there is indeed a contrast between being born of the flesh and being of the Spirit. When man is born of the Spirit, he is born from God, Who is above. The message is that one must be born of the Spirit, i.e. from God, which is the same as saying that he must be born from above, in order to enter the kingdom of God. I suppose it can be argued that to be born from above is to be born again, but if we translate “anothen” as “again” we miss the lesson that we are born from above, i.e. from God. Therefore, I believe that Jn. 3:3 should read, “….Except a man be born from above, he cannot see the kingdom of God”.
But what about I Peter 1:3 and 23? I Peter 1:3 reads, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Which according to His abundant mercy hath begotten us again unto a lively hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead”. The Greek word translated “again” is not “anothen”, and is correctly translated “again”. But note the context. This verse speaks of resurrection. God has “begotten us again unto a lively hope“. What is that hope? It is, of course, resurrection. We must conclude therefore, that to be born again in this verse refers to resurrection, not to a second birth in this temporal life.
Let us now look at I Peter 1:23-25a, “Being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God, which liveth and abideth for ever. For all flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass. The grass withereth, and the flower thereof falleth away; but the word of the Lord endureth for ever“. There are, in this passage, two sets of contrasts. One is the contrast between the corruptible and the incorruptible seed. The second contrast is between the grass which withers and the word of God which is forever. By comparing these two contrasts we will see that this passage is about resurrection life.
The corruptible seed is analogous to the grass that withers. The incorruptible seed is analogous to the word of God which endures forever. The corruptible seed/grass dies. The contrast is with the incorruptible seed/word of God which lives forever. The incorruptible seed can only live forever in resurrection. Therefore, I believe that here too “being born again” refers to resurrection life.
But verse 23 begins “Being born again”. The Companion Bible has “having been”. This is a perfect use of the figure of speech ““Heterosis”. The Companion Bible defines “Heterosis” as, “Exchange of one …tense …..for another”.” Is. 53 has several examples of “Hererosis” where future events are put in the past tense. Isaiah wrote, of course, several hundred years before Christ, but we read in Is. 53:4, “Surley He hath borne our griefs, carried our sorrows……”. This figure of speech is used to emphasize the absolute certainty of a future event. In I Peter 1:23 it is used to assure the believer that he will be raised to resurrection life.
So then Jn. 3 speaks of being born from above in one’s temporal life, and I Peter 1 speaks of being born again in resurrection.
Now that we have seen that our Lord told Nicodemus that he must be born from above we are ready to search the Scriptures to determine what it means to be “born from above”.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE BORN FROM ABOVE?
Nicodemus asked, “how can a man be born when he is old?”. Our Lord’s answer is recorded in verses 5-8. Let us consider verse 8. “The wind bloweth where it listeth and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh and wither it goeth; so is every one that is born of the Spirit”. There is a comparison here by the word “so” in the phrase, “so is every one that is born of the Spirit”.(May I respectfully remind the reader that to be born from above is the same as to be born of the Spirit.) That comparison is between the wind that blows and the Spirit. So in this verse the wind is used as a comparison to tell us what it means to be born of the Spirit. In my opinion, that comparison tells us that the man who is born of the Spirit is like the wind in that just as the wind is heard but is not understood, (we don’t know even where it comes from or where it is going), so too the man born of the Spirit is seen and heard but he is not understood by the world any more than the wind is. This is only an opinion and I cannot prove it with other scriptures, so I am open to other interpretations.
IS IT THE INDIVIDUAL OR IS IT THE NATION OF ISRAEL THAT IS BORN FROM ABOVE ?
There are those who believe that it is the nation of Israel that is born from above, i.e. born of the Spirit. They point to such passages as Is. 66:7-9 that speak of the birth of the nation, and to Ezek. 11:19-20 and 37:9. I believe however that being born from above refers to the individual believer, not to the nation. We will consider each of the passages mentioned above in the course of this study. But let me first present the Scriptural evidence for my belief that when Christ spoke of being born of the Spirit He had in mind individuals, not the nation of Israel.
One reason for my belief that John 3 speaks of individuals rather than the nation of Israel is that John’s specific reason for including the signs that he did in his Gospel is given in 20:30-31 and it refers to salvation. That passage reads, “And many other signs truly did Jesus in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through His name”. So we have the divinely inspired reason for the recording of the signs in John’s Gospel, i.e. to bring the reader to a saving knowledge of Christ. Salvation is not a national experience, it is an individual experience.
Another reason I believe as I do is that we read in John 3:4 Nicodemus’ question, “How can a man be born from, above?” and our Lord’s answer recorded in verse 8, “….so is every one that is born of the Spirit”. The words “man” and “one” point to individuals, not to a nation.
Having given the reasons for my belief that being born from above (i.e. born of the Spirit) refers to individuals, not the nation of Israel, we are ready to discuss the arguments that suggest the opposite. We may begin with Nicodemus. It is suggested that Nicodemus came as a “representative” of the nation of Israel. If that were the case Christ may have spoken to Nicodemus of things pertaining to the nation. But there is absolutely no Scriptural evidence to suggest that Nicodemus came as a representative of his nation. In fact, in my opinion, the very fact that he came at night (see Jn. 3:2) suggests that he did not want the other leaders of Israel to know he had come to Jesus. It suggests to me that he came on his own behalf. In either case, there is not enough Scriptural evidence to prove either that he came as a representative or that he came on his own behalf. Therefore, I don’t believe the interpretation of this passage can be influenced by either suggestion.
Let us continue with another argument that suggests that “born of the Spirit” refers to the birth of the nation. Our Lord seemed surprised that Nicodemus did not know about the things He was saying. The argument is put forth that Nicodemus should have known of the birth of the nation because it had been spoken of in the Old Testament. (The birth of individuals from above is not spoken of in the Old Testament). Charles Welch writes in his Alphabetical Analysis Part One, page 243, “The doctrine of the new birth is not a new revelation, it belongs to the Old Testament, and the Lord implied as much when He said to Nicodemus: ‘If I have told you earthly things, and ye believe not, how shall ye believe if I tell you heavenly things'”. But there are several reasons for my disagreement with this argument.
Nicodemus was indeed a teacher of Israel and in my opinion would have known of the Old Testament prophecy of the birth of his own nation. I believe that when Christ said, “Art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not these things?” He was not referring to the birth of the nation in the phrase “these things”. I suggest we consider the context in order to determine what things Christ believed Nicodemus should have known.
I believe that “these things” referred to all the things about which Christ spoke in this passage. They include “except a man be born from above he cannot see the kingdom of God” (vs. 3). They include, “except a man be born of water and of the spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God” (vs. 5). . “These things” also include, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (vs. 6). The reader will note that we are specifically told that two of “these things” concern entrance into the kingdom of God. And in my opinion, so too does the third as told in verse 6 refer to entrance into the kingdom of God because “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God” (I Cor. 15:50). So the question is: was it the birth of the nation that Nicodemus did not understand, or was it the requirements for entrance into the kingdom of God that he didn’t understand? The context is centered on the things one needed to know for entrance into the kingdom of God. That leads us to conclude that “all these things” refers to entrance into the kingdom of God.
I am suggesting that what Nicodemus did not understand was how one enters the kingdom of God, not the birth of the nation. That was the specific topic Christ addressed three times in this context. Because entrance into the kingdom, as we shall see in the section below, was based on the judgment of the individual, not a judgment of the nation per se, this points to being born of the Spirit as an individual birth, not a national one. Also, the prophecy of the birth of the nation in Is. 66 is very clearly explained, and not in the least bit difficult to understand. I find it difficult to accept that a leader of Israel did not understand it or did not know of it. On the other hand, while it is true that there are a great many Old Testament prophecies about the kingdom, there are are very few about how one is to enter into it, and even those don’t seem to be understood by many to this day.
One of the passages Mr. Welch suggests that Nicodemus should have known as referring to the birth of Israel is Ezek. 11:19-20. In his Alphabetical Analysis Part 1 page 242 Mr. Welch wrote “Without this new spirit, no man of Israel should ‘see’ or ‘enter’ the kingdom of God”. The fact that Mr.Welch speaks of “no man” implies, in my opinion, a question of individuals not of a nation, but let us continue with this statement.
Let us consider Ezek. 11:19-20, which reads, “And I will give them one heart, and I will put a new spirit within you; and I will take the stony heart out of them, and will give them an heart of flesh; that they may walk in My statutes, and keep My ordinances, and do them; and they shall be My people and I will be their God“.
Let us consider carefully the “new spirit” that Mr. Welch mentions in reference to Ezek. 11:19. (“I will put a new spirit within you”). Does this new spirit of Ezek. 11 allow one to enter into the kingdom of God as Mr. Welch suggests? In point of fact the consequence of receiving this new spirit is given in the next verse, i.e. “that they may walk in My statutes, and keep My ordinances”. The reader will recognize several phrases of Ezek. 11:19-20 as part of the new covenant which is explained more completely in Jer. 31. My point is that the new spirit in the context of Ezek. 11:19 is not the spirit that enables one to enter into the kingdom of God, it is the spirit of the new covenant which enables believing Israel to obey God’s Law from the heart. Let us continue our study of this question with a comparison of Ezek. 11 to Ezek. 36:24-38.
We read in Ezek. 36:24-27, “For I will take you from among the heathen, and gather you out of all countries, and will bring you into your own land. Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean….a new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you.…… and I will put My spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes….and ye shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers….”. The reader will see from the phrases in bold type that this passage is connected to the passage quoted above from Ezek. 11. It adds the fact that those to whom the spirit of the new covenant will be given will be those who “dwell in the land“. Note verses 24b-25, “……and will bring you into your own land. Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you….and a new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you…..”(KJV) In other words, first God will bring them into the land and then (after they are in the land) He will give them the spirit of the new covenant. So all the promises of Ezek. 34 will be given to those who are already in the land. Therefore, we must conclude that the spirit of the new covenant is not a requirement for entrance into the land, it is given to those already in the land. (The paper on this web-site The Kingdom of Heaven will prove from Scripture that the Land of Israel is the kingdom of Heaven, or as Mr. Welch puts it, “the kingdom of God”.)
Some may argue that the word “then” is not in the original manuscripts. That is quite true. However, the point is made with other scriptures. Ezek. 20:34-38 for example, explains that there will be a judgment of Israel as to who will be allowed entrance into the Land. We read in verse 38, “And I will purge out from among you the rebels, and them that transgress against Me; …..they shall not enter into the land of Israel“. Matt. 13:40-43 tells of this same judgment, “As therefore the tares are gathered and burned in the fire; so shall it be in the end of this world. The Son of man shall send forth His angels and they shall gather out of His kingdom all things that offend, and them which do iniquity; and shall cast them into a furnace of fire, there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth“. I believe it will be helpful if we look at just a few more verses that tell of being cast out of the kingdom where there shall be “wailing and gnashing of teeth”.
Matt. 22:13 records the end of the parable of the wedding banquet, “Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. For many are invited, but few are chosen”.
Matt. 24:36-51 is about the return of Christ. Our Lord, in this passage, is teaching the same lesson as He does in the parable of the ten virgins, i.e. if one is not prepared for the coming of the Lord he will be assigned “a place with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth“.
In Matt. 25:30 we learn from the parable of the talents that the worthless servant will be thrown”into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth“.
It makes no sense to suggest that those who will be cast out where there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth” will then be sprinkled with clean water. I believe logic dictates that those who are not allowed entrance into the land will not be sprinkled with clean water, and will not be partakers of the blessings of the new covenant
The passages in Ezekiel quoted above tell us that those already in the land will come under the blessings of the spirit of the new covenant. Therefore, we may conclude that the spirit of Ezek. 11 and 36, i.e. the spirit of the new covenant, is not that spirit which allows one entrance into the kingdom, it is the spirit given those who are already in the land so that they may obey God’s law from the heart.
In Jn. 3 we have learned that one is born from above through the Spirit. The spirit of Ezek. 11 and 36 is not the spirit of the birth of a nation, it is the spirit of the new covenant. And the spirit of the new covenant is given to those already in the land and therefore has nothing to do with entrance into the kingdom of God. Therefore, we must conclude that the birth from above in Jn. 3 has nothing to with the birth of the nation.
IS IT THE INDIVIDUAL OR IS IT THE NATION OF ISRAEL WHICH WILL BE BORN AGAIN ?
In the section above we discussed the arguments put forth which suggest to some that being born from above (Jn. 3) refers to the birth of the nation of Israel. In this section we will discuss the thought that being born again mentioned in I Peter 1:3 and 23 refers to the nation of Israel, as opposed to individuals.
Is. 66:7-9 clearly points to the birth of the nation of Israel. “Before she travailed, she brought forth; before her pain came, she was delivered of a man child. Who hath heard such a thing? who hath seen such things? shall the earth be made to bring forth in one day? shall a nation be born at once? for as soon as Zion travailed, she brought forth her children, ‘shall I bring to the birth and not cause to bring forth’, saith the Lord; ‘shall I cause to bring forth and shut the womb?’ saith thy God”.
As discussed in the first section of this paper, I believe the context of I Peter chapter one points to resurrection where Peter wrote of being born again. Let me quote verse 3 once again, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Which according to His abundant mercy hath begotten us again unto a lively hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, from the dead”. Note verse 5, “Who are kept by the power of God ….unto salvation…..”. Individuals are saved, not nations. Verse 6, “Wherein ye greatly rejoice, though for a season, if need be, ye are in heaviness…..”. Verse 7, “that the trial of your faith”. Faith is tried in individuals, a nation’s faith is not tried.
Rev. 12:3-4 also tells us of Israel’s birth as a nation. “And she being with child cried, travailing in birth, and pained to be delivered”. In verse 4b we read, “And the dragon stood before the woman which was ready to be delivered, for to devour her child as soon as it was born”. There is no mention of the Spirit being part of this birth. That is to say, there is nothing in the birth of Israel as a nation being born of the Spirit. Spirit certainly plays a part in the resurrection of Israel as told in Ezek. 37. But there is nothing about the Spirit in any of the passages having to do with Israel’s birth as a nation.
But let us continue the discussion of Israel’s birth as spoken of in Is. 66:7-9. As we learned in the first section of this paper, individuals are “born again“ in resurrection. Ezek. 37 speaks of the resurrection of Israel. Mr. Welch includes this passage in the Old Testament prophecies about which Nicodemus should have known in reference to Israel being born as a nation. Will the nation of Israel be born again in resurrection? In so far as Peter used the phrase “born again” of resurrection of the individual, I believe that it is not Scripturally accurate to say that Israel, as a nation, will be born again in resurrection. Is this splitting hairs? I believe not, let me explain.
We read in Ezek. 37 of the resurrection of Israel. But “they are not all Israel that are of Israel”. In other words, depending on the context, some of the natural seed of Jacob are not counted as Israel. And Ezek. 37 is one of those contexts where only believing Israel is counted as Israel. How do we know that? We read in Ezek. 37:25, “And they shall dwell in the land that I have given unto Jacob…….”. In other words, those who will be raised from their graves will live in the Land of Israel. But as has been proved from scriptures quoted above, the unbelievers of Jacob’s seed will not be allowed entrance into the Land. Because those who are raised will be in the land, we must conclude that it is not the entire nation of Israel, but only believers of Israel will be raised.
Because Peter refers to resurrection, and not all of the nation of Israel will be raised, I believe that I Peter 1 refers to individuals being born again in resurrection, not the nation of Israel. Also, as mentioned above, there is nothing in the scriptures that speaks of the Spirit being involved in any of the passages that speak of the birth of Israel as a nation.
For those reasons I believe that neither being born from above or being born again has anything to do with the birth of Israel as a nation.
In my opinion, one who is born from above is comparable to the wind in that just as the wind is heard but not understood, so too the man who is born from above is seen in the world, but not understood by the world.
I disagree with arguments put forth that say that Christ was speaking of the nation of Israel that would be born from above. One of those arguments is that Nicodemus represented the nation of Israel and Christ addressed him as such. But there is no Scriptural evidence to suggest that Nicodemus came as a representative of his nation. In fact, in my opinion, the very fact that he came at night suggests that he came on his own behalf and didn’t want the other leaders of Israel to know about it.
Another argument is that Christ was surprised that Nicodemus didn’t know what He had been telling him because the birth of the nation was a matter of Old Testament prophecy. But, as I have tried to show, Christ’s main theme in His discussion with Nicodemus was not about the birth of a nation, it was about the birth from above which allowed individuals entrance into the kingdom of God. It was that entrance into the kingdom of God about which Nicodemus was ignorant or unbelieving.
Further, the birth of the nation is never spoken of in terms of being born of the Spirit or is it spoken of in terms of being born again.
This paper was written by Joyce Pollard. If you would like to comment please feel free to e-mail me at: firstname.lastname@example.org