This is the first of a blog series on the new birth.
Geoffrey R. Kirkland
Christ Fellowship Bible Church
Jesus said to Nicodemus, the teacher of Israel, when he approached him and remarked on the signs that He had done: “Truly, truly, I say to you that unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). Jesus said the same thing in verse 7: you must be “born again.” What does it mean, however, to be born again? What does the Greek phrase refer to?
When Jesus told Nicodemus that a man must be born again to enter the kingdom, it behooves every reader to carefully study the text so as to know the divinely-given meaning of this most-important verse. To misunderstand this verse is of grave consequence. To rightly understand it thrusts one to the highest heavens in worship.
To be born again means that one receives the new birth from above. The word that occurs in this passage is ἄνωθεν [anothen] which speaks of being born “from above.” It speaks of the Mercy Seat which sat above (on top of, ἄνωθεν) the Ark of the Covenant (Ex 25:21 LXX). The curtain of the Temple, at Christ’s death, was torn from top (ἄνωθεν) to bottom (Matt 27:51). Jesus’ tunic that the soldiers took at His crucifixion was seamless, woven in one piece from top (ἄνωθεν) to bottom (John 19:23). This means that the main way that this particular word is used throughout the gospels and especially in the Johannine literature is that it refers to something that is from above.
Thus, Jesus states that a person must be born from above in order to enter the kingdom of God. To be born from above speaks of a supernatural birth. It encompasses a divine miracle. To be born from above bespeaks to the fact that the person who is birthed is receiving the action. He is not the active participant but the passive receiver of the heavenly birth. To be born again defines what it means for God, by His initiative and by His grace, to speak life into spiritually dead sinners’ hearts. To be born from above means that it is beyond this space and time here. It far transcends human capacities and religious abilities. It goes beyond what humans can achieve by their own power and effort. It rests entirely beyond the initiative of the sinner. This birth from above (or, the re-birth, or the second birth) means that God alone is the giver of this new life.
When Jesus spoke to Pilate, He told him that he would have no authority over Jesus unless it had been given to him from above (ἄνωθεν; John 19:11). This authority from above speaks of the authority that God gives. This authority that comes down from above comes from God. Thus, the meaning of being born again is that the sinner is born from above; that is, from God. All of this points to the reality that the meaning of the new birth is that God is the initiator, the accomplisher, the grace-giver, the sufficient dispenser and the active operator of this new birth. It is a birth that comes from God.