John 3:3 – A New Birth


John 3:3


Jesus tells a Jewish leader named Nicodemus that no one can see the kingdom of God without being born anew.


One of the Greek words used in this passage means both “again” and “from above” (as in the NRSV), making it hard to translate. Nicodemus assumes that Jesus is saying that he must be “born again,” which seems very confusing, because no one can repeat the process of physical birth. What Jesus actually means is that people see the kingdom of God by being “born from above,” that is, when they are given new life by the power of God. Therefore, Jesus goes on to explain that the new birth happens by God’s Spirit.

People debate what new birth means. Some Christians identify new birth with a certain type of religious experience, namely, a moment when a person consciously becomes a committed Christian. Others identify new birth with the sacrament of baptism, since Jesus later speaks of being born of water and the Spirit. These two alternatives are not the most helpful way to discuss the issue. In the context of John’s Gospel, the shape of new birth is faith, and when the Spirit awakens faith, people are brought to new life. On one hand, this does not mean that faith requires a specific type of experience. The people described in John’s Gospel often come to faith more gradually, and even after coming to faith, many of them still have questions. On the other hand, new birth is not simply equated with the ritual of baptism. Baptismal washing is a channel for the Spirit’s work, but the new birth itself takes the form of faith.