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)
The teaching on the born-again doctrine—found primarily in John 3 but expanded by Paul, Peter, and John in later writings—has been prone to misunderstanding since Jesus Christ spoke to Nicodemus about it nearly two thousand years ago. In fact, Nicodemus immediately misconstrued what Christ meant, understanding His analogy on a purely physical level, as another literal birth. He was not alone in this. A study of Jesus' discourses throughout the book of John shows that people frequently interpreted His entirely spiritual instruction in a physical manner, and thus failed to grasp the truth He taught.
That Christ's teaching on being born again is pivotal is revealed in the fact that it is the first major discourse that John records. In addition, it is introduced with the words, "Most assuredly, I say to you" (NKJV) or "Verily, verily, I say unto thee" (KJV), a construction that announces that what follows is significant and weighty, urging us to pay close attention.
Even so, it is not necessary for us to understand all the particulars of the born-again doctrine to be saved, although a deeper understanding of it helps us to grasp how God perceives us once we experience the born-again event. This teaching reveals that God sees us as His children, already part of His Family Kingdom, and able to function as adults before Him in this world. Further, it shows that, to Him, we are a new creation embarking on a spiritual journey, in which we will grow in the grace and knowledge of Christ and transform into His image.
In turn, this doctrine should also teach us how to perceive ourselves once we are converted. We are not what we once were—spiritually dead to God and His way of life—but now we are alive in Christ, heirs of salvation, and free from spiritual bondage, able to pursue the holy, righteous character of our Savior. Jesus' teaching reveals that we are special to God, and at the same time, that we are responsible for what we have been given and under judgment, unlike the rest of the world.
John W. Ritenbaugh
Born Again or Begotten? (Part Two)
The root and trunk of the born-again doctrine is found within John 3. Matthew, Mark, and Luke do not speak directly of it at all, though without directly naming it, they supply supporting information. It is not until the epistles of Paul, Peter, and especially John that main branches of this doctrine make appearances. Thus, as we begin, it is helpful for us to perceive the wide treatment of figures John uses to prepare us for how he uses them to support the various elements of this important, foundational doctrine.
He begins using symbolism immediately in John 1, identifying Jesus as the Word, the central Figure in God's spiritual work in men's behalf. He continues, speaking of light, darkness, baptism, the Lamb of God, and the Temple, among others, before the reader arrives at John 3.
The imagery regarding the Temple (John 2:18-22) is especially interesting because it immediately precedes Jesus' teaching on born again in John 3. The Jews listening to Jesus immediately reject what He teaches based on what He says being a physical impossibility. Indeed, it is physically impossible, but note that this is the same reason Nicodemus rejects Jesus' teaching on born again. Similarly, in John 4:7-15, the woman at the well immediately jumps to the conclusion that Jesus speaks of natural water, and in John 4:31-38, even Jesus' disciples fail to grasp the spiritual significance of food.
In John 6:32-63, those who listen to His manna discourse follow the same pattern. In fact, His "eat My flesh and drink My blood" imagery so offends many of His disciples that they stop following Him! This consistent failure to grasp the meaning of His imagery continues through the entire book. If, in studying John 3, we follow the same pattern of misunderstanding His spiritual imagery, like Nicodemus, we will also misunderstand being born again.
We must recognize that this spiritualizing continues in John 3. In fact, for the children of God, it not only continues, but it also increases exponentially in terms of its importance to their spiritual lives! It is an unvarnished truth that only those who are born again will see and enter the Kingdom of God (John 3:5). Jesus is teaching that, besides one's biological birth, one must also experience a supernatural, spiritual birth. Just as surely as a Christian is not merely biologically begotten but born, there is no such thing as a non-born-again Christian.
John W. Ritenbaugh
Born Again or Begotten? (Part One)
Among all of the Bible's teachings, the instruction given in John 3 regarding being born again is perhaps the most liable to being misunderstood. In fact, as soon as it was out of Jesus' mouth, Nicodemus misconstrued His meaning, taking Christ's spiritual symbolism literally and physically. Ever since, people have stumbled over various parts of Jesus' teaching in this passage, and usually the stumblingblock is the imagery.
To convey essential, spiritual principles, Jesus uses imagery extensively in the gospels, and perhaps the most in the book of John. Along with John 3's imagery of the new birth, the book contains many references to light, water, bread, blood, blindness, sheep and shepherds, fruit, seed, vines, and several others. In nearly every case, they have spiritual meanings that transcend a plain, literal sense.
The book of John also contains a remarkable witness to the fact that Jesus was constantly being misunderstood. An example appears in nearly every early chapter and continues sporadically to its end. Even in the last chapter, Jesus has to tell Peter three times to feed His sheep before the apostle realizes that His Master is teaching him that he could demonstrate his love for Him by truly caring for His people for the rest of his life.
John W. Ritenbaugh
Born Again or Begotten? (Part Three)
Jesus describes the beginning of the process that ultimately leads to salvation and the Kingdom of God. We could also say that this is what triggers a person's calling into the church. He reveals to Nicodemus that the spiritual Creator God must deliberately begin the process. It is not an event that will randomly happen when an individual shows an interest in matters of the Kingdom of God. The new creation will take some time, as the person must be taught of God, experience life in a relationship with Him, and voluntarily cooperate with Him within the relationship.
Spiritually, the Father is totally involved right from the get-go. As the ultimate Creator and Sovereign Ruler, in His salvation process, nothing happens randomly to those He calls. One of the central issues in this spiritual creation is God's sovereignty over His purposes on the one hand, and on the other, as shown by history, mankind's lack of submissive conversion. God, through His creative wisdom and powers within the relationship, must bridge this huge gap. If He is not involved in the birth process from the very beginning, framing us in His image, how can He truly be called our Father?
John W. Ritenbaugh
Leadership and Covenants (Part Eight)
Other Forerunner Commentary entries containing John 3:4: