Johannine Insights #1
So many Christianese expressions take on lives of their own. One of the many is “born again.”
Some say “born again” means this; some say it means that. Speaking anecdotally, I’d say that Baptist and quasi-Baptist soteriological uses of the phrase exceed the sum of uses by most other believers. In some cases, the use is off-base; it is an inept use of the phrase that aims to subtract either half of the agency (compare 3:3 to 3:5, water and Spirit) in the birthing process.
The fact is, “born again” is a Christianese expression that I would argue probably ought to be euthanized, in deference to the richer, more appropriate translation of John 3:3. The better rendering of gennethe anothen (γεννηθῇ ἄνωθεν) is “born from above,” and the expression occurs nowhere else in the New Testament documents.¹
Words often have ranges of possible meanings, and the Greek anothen is no exception. Anothen can mean
- from above, from a higher place
- from heaven, from God
- from the first, from the beginning
- anew, again
In the John 3 conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus speaks of heavenly things. Although John (the writer) has Nicodemus initially not tracking with Jesus — mistaking the meaning — the larger context virtually dictates that Jesus intended one of the first two meanings — the “above” or “higher” significance rather than the simpler “again” one. (The dual layers of meaning here fit well within John’s framework.)
Nicodemus did misunderstand, it appears, choosing the other meaning — perhaps because “again” is easier to deal with than “from above.”
“A man can’t be born of his mother again, can he?”
Jesus reiterated His point, and more emphatically this time:
One cannot see, or enter, the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.
Thus said the Messiah, probing and dealing with this searching Jew — who was, not incidentally, a man of considerable pedigree and earthly (i.e., lower-world) influence. The Spirit is, of course, from the “upper” or “above” world.
The meaning of the expression at hand² is more clear when one perceives the contextual emphasis on heavenly (non-earthly) things. Of course it’s not human birth that Jesus is speaking of; rather, it’s a birth related to the Spirit — which is from above. Later, at the end of our chapter 3, immersion again appears, as does the Spirit (compare to 3:5). Also significantly, in verse 27 John the Immerser testifies — first, seemingly obliquely — that Jesus is from heaven (i.e., from above). The succeeding emphasis on “above-ness” in verses 31-35 leads the interpreter to see gennethé ánothen as belonging to a larger context.
The best translation of 3:3,² then, uses the idea of being “born from above.”
So, let’s strike the Christianese expression “born again” from our vocabularies — not because it is a wrong idea in itself. Far from it: to be born from above, of water and Spirit, is truly to be born a second time, born anew. There are other ways through which we might speak aptly of the process or results of having been initiated.¹ But it is more communicative of truth to translate the Greek of John 3:3 in a more contextually aware manner.
Jesus said, “Unless you are born from above. . . .”
¹ 1Peter uses another word formula in 1:3 and 1:23 — and this also comes to us in several English versions as “born again.” This is a different Greek expression — written by a different author, to a different audience, in a different scenario, and not using the word “anothen” at all.
² It is disappointing, yet not surprising, that only a couple of available, printed, English translations have opted for “from above” — the modern NETBible and the older Young’s Literal Translation.