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You Must Be Born From Above

You Must Be Born From Above

A Short Exposition of John 3:1-18

by Blake McGuckin

The phrase “being born again” has been thrown around by Christians in American society for decades; yet the popular understanding of what it means is an unfortunately grave misunderstanding. It is not a mechanistic phenomenon spurred by placing oneself in the right environment. The aim of this essay is to inform the reader of what this theological concept actually entails, which will be done through a short exposition of John 3:1-18.
The opening verses of this passage start with a discourse from Nicodemus praising Christ as a man of God, yet Christ, knowing the mind of man, answers the question that Nicodemus had merely thought (The ESV Study Bible 2008). The question of this Sanhedrin member was: How does one enter the kingdom of God? This is of no small interest given that one of the leading Jewish leaders of the day was confused as to how a person even receives redemption. However, our gracious Lord answers Nicodemus’ simple question, just the same, for his benefit and for the benefit of all future generations. Christ’s answer is aptly summarized as: You enter the kingdom of God through belief in Christ preceded by a work of the Holy Spirit. Given the counter-cultural understanding evoked by such a statement, this explanation requires elaboration. Fortunately, the text records this elaboration with such clarity as to stop the mouths of those who would replace this doctrine with one of their own making.
Jesus’ answer to Nicodemus’ question is difficult to comprehend for Nicodemus and raises more questions, all of which providentially serve to clarify the meaning of being born again, or the doctrine of spiritual regeneration. The answer to Nicodemus’ question as spoken by Christ was: “‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot enter the kingdom of God.’” (John 3:3; The ESV Study Bible 2008). Though the version I am quoting uses “born again”, a better interpretation is “born from above.” The ambiguity of the underlying Greek word, gennao, allows room for debate. This word can mean either “born again” or “born from above.” Therefore, the proper translation must focus on the etymology of the word in addition to the literary context. Gennao, in its most literal definition, means “become the parent of” and refers especially to the father’s lineage. Understanding this is vital, because it sheds light on the pertinence of John’s explanation in the Prologue of his Gospel. In John 1:13, he describes those who enter the kingdom of God stating that such were not born  “of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.”  In the text at hand, Jesus declares that “that which is born of the flesh is flesh and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:6). This birth of the Spirit is not from the earth beneath, but the Spirit descends from above just as Christ did and applies the redemption purchased by his blood. Therefore, the best translation of gennao in the context, is indeed “born from above.”
The author’s understanding of this text not only accords in the context of the book of John but also in the context of the wider body of the Scriptures. To wit, Ezekiel’s vision of the Valley of Dry Bones serves as an understanding of this spiritual regeneration from above (The ESV Study Bible 2008). In Ezekiel 37, God shows Ezekiel a valley of dry bones and then commands Ezekiel to prophesy to the bones, and as he does so, the bones come together and muscles and sinews develop. Ezekiel is then commanded to prophesy to the breath of the four winds that the former bones of dust might be given the breath of life. This prophecy applied to the nation of Israel coming back from exile but even more so, its central thrust is that the presence of God’s Spirit brings life. Christ also uses the wind to refer to the Spirit’s work, which echoes this passage. No one (including Ezekiel) comprehends the wind and its manner of action, nor does anyone comprehend the work of the Spirit. Spiritual regeneration is a sovereign work of the Lord, given that men might be given life, so that they can place their trust in Christ and live in the light that he sheds.
In verses 14-18 of John 3, Christ explains the practical use of this doctrine, the ordo salutis. Jesus refers to belief in the Son of Man, just as Israel believed in the Bronze Serpent (The ESV Study Bible 2008). He refers to himself as being offered by the Father that whoever places their faith in him might not perish but have eternal life. The practical use of this doctrine is so that the evangelizing believer can understand how to preach the Gospel. Just as Ezekiel was called to prophesy to the dry bones, so the believer heralds the truth that belief in Christ saves the souls of men. The Christian desires that men and women should grow in their knowledge of the Scriptures, that these would inform them of what it is that they need to believe, and exhorts his fellow man through the teaching of the Word of God to know God. In assenting to the Scripture and its truth, a given person is brought nearer to having a salvific relationship with God. However, it is not until the Holy Spirit makes one alive (Ephesians 2:5) and then creates a wholehearted trust through the continued preaching of the Gospel that the person becomes a Christian (Heidelberg Catechism). Understanding spiritual regeneration as taught in the Scriptures is vital, then, given that this comprehension is what fuels the continued preaching of all of Scripture, exhorting men and women to Christ.
Dear Christian, it is by doing this that we know people will be reconciled to God, for our appointed means is Christ and him crucified (1 Corinthians 2:1-5).
The ESV Study Bible (Lane T. Dennis and Wayne Grudem Ed.). (2008). Crossway.
Heidelberg Catechism. (2011). Christian Reformed Church.
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