What the Bible says about
Begotten of God
(From Forerunner Commentary)
Nicodemus grasps that Jesus is speaking of a birth. The Greek word following "born," anothen—translated in our Bibles as "again," "anew," or "from above"—magnifies his puzzlement. It is this word that he questions when he asks, "How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born?" (John 3:4).
As an adult man, he is perplexed by the second occasion of being born. His reply indicates, not that he is contemplating being conceived again and entering his mother's womb, but that he is thinking of the end of the pregnancy, departing the womb in birth. He obviously does not understand that, in God's view, despite being physically alive, he is a spiritually dead man who needs God to resurrect him and give him the spiritual life that he lacks.
He immediately relates Jesus' words to a literal, physical, fleshly birth, thus his thoughts take him in the wrong direction. Jesus' spiritual intent has nothing to do with a second physical birth of a human being. Commentator Albert Barnessuggests that Nicodemus' spiritual prejudices turn Jesus' words into an absurdity, illustrating how disconnected he is from Jesus' spiritual intent.
The Greek term gennao (Strong's Concordance #1080) underlying "born" can be confusing because it broadly means "to procreate" or "to father," and figuratively, to regenerate." It can also be used as "to bear," "to beget," "to be born," "to bring forth," "to conceive," "to be delivered of," "to engender," and "to make." The Greeks used the term for both conception and birth, for the entire gestation process. Therefore other parts of Jesus' and the apostle's instruction must be sought to reveal more clearly which Jesus means.
In his The Complete Word Study New Testament, p. 313, Spiros Zodhiates reveals that gennao in this verse is aorist subjunctive and in the passive voice. Word Pictures in the New Testament, "John," p. 44, confirms that gennao is "aorist passive subjunctive" here. Vine's Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, p. 104, relates that, in the passive voice, gennao means "to be born." In addition, the Interpreter's Bible, vol. 8, p. 505, states, "Birth can be considered either from the father's side, in which the verb is to 'beget,' or from the mother's side, in which the verb is to 'bear.' The Johannine metaphor uses the former verb, with the meaning 'beget' (verses 3, 5, 6, 8)." Thus, it is translated grammatically correct in English Bibles as "born," not "begotten."
The American Heritage College Dictionary defines the English word born as "brought into life; brought into existence; created and resulting or arising." In brief, it indicates a beginning, whether that beginning is an actual birth of a human, animal, concept, circumstance, process, or organization.
When anothen (Strong's #509) is combined with gennao, the phrase most strongly indicates a second birth, not a conception. This is why Nicodemus responds by saying in verse 4, "How . . . can he enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born [also in the passive voice]?" He does not say, "How can he enter a second time into his mother's womb and be begotten?"
Another term that needs further thought is "regeneration," Greek paliggenesia (Strong's #3824). As seen above, it is a synonym for gennao anothen. The prefix palin means "again," while the root is genesis, meaning "beginning" or "start." In this context, it means "spiritual rebirth" or "spiritual renovation." It is used twice in the New Testament, once by Jesus in Matthew 19:28 and once by Paul in Titus 3:5. Regeneration stresses the inception of a new state of things in contrast with the old.
When Jesus uses it, the setting is when He "sits on the throne of His glory." In Paul's usage, the occasion is the beginning of a person's salvation. Both settings indicate new beginnings. The American Heritage College Dictionary states the English meaning of regeneration as "to reform spiritually or morally; to form, construct, or create anew, especially in an improved state; to give new life or energy to; revitalize"—which is almost perfectly synonymous with paliggenesia. It describes a new beginning, a new birth.
John W. Ritenbaugh
Born Again or Begotten? (Part One)
Some have mistakenly used this verse as proof that an individual is not born again until he is composed of spirit. However, Jesus is not considering a person's bodily composition at all. A Bible student can be misled by abruptly abandoning Jesus' use of spiritual imagery and returning to a literal interpretation. Like the rest of the context, verse 6 must be understood spiritually and figuratively.
The verse states why the new birth is necessary. Flesh can continue to give birth only to what it has always produced: flesh. Yet, Jesus states clearly in John 6:63, "The flesh profits nothing." In John 8:15, He accuses the Jews of judging Him according to the flesh rather than using God's Word—which is Spirit—as their evidence. In both of these cases, Jesus is also speaking figuratively.
In Greek, "flesh" is sarx (Strong's #4561). Jesus and Paul commonly use the term as a metaphor for sinful man's nature, sometimes also described as "carnal." Used in this way, sarx is morally negative, even though by creation a person's flesh is not intrinsically negative. Figuratively, it symbolizes the unregenerate moral and spiritual state of man that almost continuously generates sinful acts. "Flesh," then, represents the inward, carnal inclination rather than muscle, skin, and bones—disposition rather than composition.
Paul writes in Romans 7:18, "I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells," meaning nothing good spiritually. Later, in verse 25, he admits that his "flesh [serves] the law of sin." In Galatians 5:15-17, he positions the Holy Spirit as the opposite of the flesh, declaring that these two are at war:
But if you bite and devour one another, beware lest you be consumed by one another! I say then: Walk in the Spirit, and you shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh. For the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary to one another, so that you do not do the things that you wish.
Biblically, the term "born" or "birth" is used, not only to indicate coming from the womb as in mammalian birth, but also to describe the source or beginning of a thing, an event, or series of events. For example, we speak of the birth of a nation, an institution, or a concept. The "womb" of those births was an event or series of events that triggered the inception of a new direction, manner of life, activity, or thought.
This is how Jesus is using "born" or "birth" in John 3. He is not speaking of the birth of a human child but the birth of a new nature. The events triggering this birth are the calling of God, repentance from sin, justification through faith in Christ's death, and the receipt of God's Holy Spirit. All of these are effects of the acts of the spiritual God.
Conversely, human nature gives birth to more human nature and thus more of human nature's sinful works. It cannot do otherwise. As Job 14:4 says, "Who can bring a clean thing out of any unclean? No one!" Paul makes the same point theologically:
For to be carnally minded is death, but to be spiritually minded is life and peace. Because the carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be. So then, those who are in the flesh cannot please God. (Romans 8:6-8)
The flesh expresses itself, produces, and gives birth to the works of the flesh and thus to immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, and other evils, as Galatians 5:19-21 details. Though the flesh is capable of doing some good things (Matthew 7:11), in relation to God and His way, the evil will always dominate. The natural, fleshly condition of man will always exhibit the same propensities. In contrast, the Holy Spirit gives birth to and is expressed by the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, etc. (Galatians 5:22-23). Therefore, a change must take place from a life dominated by the natural human heart to one motivated by God's Spirit—or a person will never be prepared for the Kingdom of God.
John W. Ritenbaugh
Born Again or Begotten? (Part Two)
1 Corinthians 15:42-49
The image Paul speaks of is not merely that we will be composed of spirit even as Christ is, but that our very nature and character be like His. If God desired that we merely be spirit, He could have made us like angels. Angels, however, are not God; they are angels. God is doing a work in us through which we will become like Him, not like angels.
His purpose requires that we cooperate. Though our part is very small by comparison to what He is doing, it is nonetheless vital. Notice how Paul draws this beautiful section of I Corinthians to a conclusion by drawing our attention to what it will take on our part to make God's purpose work: "But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor is not in vain in the Lord" (I Corinthians 15:57-58).
John W. Ritenbaugh
The Elements of Motivation (Part Three): Hope
Note that the central issue in the epistle is that Jesus Christ is the lone Subject of the author's theme from which he never deviates throughout his argument. This issue of angels may have surfaced in some people's mind because the Old Testament calls them “sons of God” in Job 1:6 and 2:1. In addition, the nation of Israel is called God's son in Exodus 4:22, and Solomon receives that title in II Samuel 7:14.
However, God gives none of these entities the exalted status of His begotten Son, as the entire epistle refers to Jesus Christ. One will search in vain through the Scriptures for God addressing any angel in this privileged manner. It appears not even once.
The quotation in Hebrews 1:5 derives from Psalm 2:6-8:
Yet I have set My King on My holy hill of Zion. I will declare the decree: The LORD has said to Me, “You are My Son, today I have begotten You. Ask of Me, and I will give You the nations for Your inheritance, and the ends of the earth for Your possession.”
God may have said this here because He desired to establish the relationship between Them as a father-and-son one, like the human relationship, to be revealed later when Jesus was born in the flesh.
Hebrews 1:6 carries this challenge another step. To affirm Christ's greatness, the Father charges angels with this directive: “Let all the angels of God worship Him.” This order clearly reinforces that the Son is also God. If any of the angels had chosen to worship any other personage but the Creator God, it would have amounted to idolatry. To Jews, this command confirms that the Son is high above any angel that they may have chosen to be the high priest within the New Covenant. Jesus is clearly superior in every way to all angels.
Another somewhat unique Greek term appears in this context: prōtotokos. It is not unique to the Bible nor to humanity in general, but it is exceptional in that it is used in absolute terms in relation to Christ. Prōtotokos means “firstborn.” Scripture uses it in connection to Jesus being the firstborn of several siblings (e.g., Matthew 1:25); in reference to the church as God's firstborn (Hebrews 12:23); in reference to Jesus' place as the source of, and supreme over, all creation (Colossians 1:15); and in regard to His preeminent place in the process of redemption (Colossians 1:18; Revelation 1:5). It is a rare term in secular Greek, mostly used in its literal sense, but it can be a title that grants a citizen social significance within a community.
Here, though, it seems to signify that the Son (note the title) has the same status with God the Father that a firstborn human son has with his father—He is the Heir. In Jesus' case, His status, partially due to this firstborn factor, reaches even to His exaltation and enthronement as Sovereign over the universe.
John W. Ritenbaugh
Why Hebrews Was Written (Part Eight): Hebrews 1
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