I might more aptly have titled this “Two Generations,” but I didn’t want to imply I was talking about parents/children or genealogy, as such.
It isn’t my intent here to toe any party line (or even to rebel against one) around concepts like regeneration or being “born again” or baptism. My interest in those things is strong (see footnote 1 for links to prior essays, if interested), and some of that may well be predicted here, but . . . this is intended simply to exegete a short John text within the complete document.
I find that John 1:13 contrasts two senses of being generated or born. This text appears (although it might not have been originally scripted in this sequence) pre-Nicodemus, and long before any 16th- or 19th- or 20th/21st-century concepts, e.g., of being “born again.”
Here is the NASB95 rendering of verses 12-13 together:
But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.
And here is my attempt at a word-for-word, interlinear Greek-English rendering of the last part of the same verse:
who not out of bloods
οἳ οὐκ ἐξ αἱμάτων | haimaton — pl., think hematology, the study of blood
not out of will of flesh
οὐδὲ ἐκ θελήματος σαρκὸς | sarkos — cf. sarcoma, a flesh-eating tumor
not out of will of man
οὐδὲ ἐκ θελήματος ἀνδρὸς | andros — think androgen, a male sex hormone
but out of God’s generating
ἀλλ᾿ ἐκ θεοῦ ἐγεννήθησαν | egennethesan — see below
Although most English translations don’t render these thoughts in a way that shows the parallelism, the connections are there. The word choices and syntax in this remarkable text are . . . well, remarkable. So I am remarking! 🙂
The only bona fide verb in 1:13 is the final word. It comes from γεννάω | gennao — to become the father of, to produce (BAG Lexicon 1957). Taking this range of meanings perhaps a step further in English, we might add to generate. The aorist tense of this verb is not particularly significant; it indicates, relatively simply, that something was done in the past. The “mood” of the verb is passive, and that aspect seems more significant here: God is the active agent, and the human is simply the passive recipient of God’s productive/fatherly action.
The NASB, the NIV, the ESV, and other English translations I glanced at have all opted to insert the idea of being born/birthed at the beginning of this verse. This word-order inversion isn’t necessarily a bad idea if one is interested in the general import. It does, however, obscure some of the specific beauty of this text, which contrasts two births/”begettings” and delays mention — with strong effect — of the supernatural one:
- the one that arises out of blood, out of flesh, and out of the sexual desire or will² of a male
- the one that arises out of God (the last four words in the original)
It appears to me that the idea of being begotten/produced is significant — both in the literary micro-context and in the book-level context of John. A similar word (see footnote below) is used six times prior to v13. Furthermore, these notions of being begotten/produced/birthed/generated appear first in v12, with a somewhat related idea in v13, followed by a repetition of the v12 idea in v14:
12 to them He gave the right to become ____,
13 those who have been begotten by God
14 the word became flesh
In the above verses, the words for “become” and “begotten” are not the same. Please see footnote 3 below if interested in more detail here. At the least, the verbs in vv 12 and 14 are the same, and they flank the important notion of being fathered/begotten by God. This insight into generative origin may be just as theologically significant as the more-often-quoted, poeticized v14 in its entirety.
Via e-mail, Dr. Paul Pollard has made this observation about the micro-context of v12: “. . . that for those who have received him (12a), and continue to believe in him (12c), they are entitled to become God’s children (12b). Verse 13a then shows that becoming the children of God is not by appeal to family connections, or genealogy. . . .” Exegetically derived points such as this are always, always helpful in our efforts to read the text — and to hear God — more thoroughly.
The word ἀλλ’ | all’ (the antecedent of “but” at the beginning of the last phrase in v13) is considered to set up a strong contrast with what has gone before. There is another word that could have been used here, if the contrast weren’t so clear-cut, so emphatic. What the text of John has is something like this (ignore the redundant English, if you please): ” . . . but instead were begotten by God.”
The two kinds of begettings/births are distinct. It is my hope that this little insight about God’s action in spiritual birth has brought someone closer to this great Father. It has done that for me when I needed it today — to the point that I regret that I now need to do some work that I get paid to do.
¹ Here are three links that refer to, and/or attempt to explicate, portions of the interaction between Jesus and Nicodemus:
That Christianese wasn’t original with John
Rebirth, as Jesus taught it
The misread part of John 3
² Here, some might choose the word “lust” for “will” or “desire” — but presumably not in a negative sense. Immediately prior, “flesh” appears to be used without the later, negative Docetist or Pauline connotation — e.g., in Romans 7 and 8, where it is contrasted with the πνεῦμα | pneuma (spirit) nature. It is significant that, in the next verse, Jesus is said to have become (ἐγένετο | egeneto) flesh. Neither flesh nor a man’s will appears to be cast negatively here.
³ The ice is getting thin, and my ear for similar sounds and potential Greek etymological connections has gotten me in trouble before, but the ideas of the ginomai and gennao word families seem related. In other words, to become (a being verb) seems possibly connected to the original begetting, which endowed them with the right to become/be in the first place. I am becoming damp here and may soon be “all wet” — and not just for mixing English ice/water metaphors. 🙂 The abridged Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the NT gives this gloss for ginomai (vv 12 and 14): “to be born” (adding very little other than the mention of John 8:58 — ” . . . before Abraham was born, I am“), where both the contrast and connection again appear). Kittel’s gloss for gennao (v13) is “to bear, beget.” Moreover, in Warren Trenchard’s Complete Vocabulary Guide to the Greek New Testament, these two words are shown in the same “cognate word group.” Essentially, I would suggest that, though the two verbs may be as distinct as the two births I’m attempting to delineate, the verb-concepts are at least syntactically related in John.