New Birth in the Gospel of John

John’s Gospel is full of rich imagery and contrasting themes. There is light and darkness, water and wine, flesh and spirit, law and grace. One notable theme in the Gospel is that of the new birth, which is contrasted with natural birth. This theme is addressed in two passages, both of which I intend to examine here.

Children of God

The theme of new birth is first introduced in John 1:9-13. The passage introduces Jesus as a light shining in the darkness and describes his rejection by many within Israel. We read “He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:11-12). The first thing we should note here is that this is a division within Israel between faithful and unfaithful Jews. There were many true believers within Israel who already had the law written on their hearts, who loved God and who were glad to receive Jesus as Messiah when he came. Yet most rejected him and did not welcome his coming.

The Greek word translated “right” in this passage (as in “he gave the right to become children of God”) is quite a strong word. It’s usually translated as either “power” or “authority”, which gets closer to the heart of what John means here. John is speaking of a time when the followers of Jesus would receive divine power, being declared children of God. The event which I think he has in mind is the day of Pentecost, in which the Spirit would be poured out upon the followers of Jesus, forming them into a prophetic community.

This divine birth is contrasted with natural birth, which is described using the metaphors of “blood”, “flesh” and “man”. “Flesh” here is not referring to the sinful nature, but to natural human power. The contrast is not between the sinfulness of man and the righteousness of God, but between the relative weakness of man and the power of God. Within this passage, there is no explicit association of the new birth with deliverance from sin. Rather, the association is with deliverance from human weakness by divine power.[1]

Born of the Spirit

The theme of the new birth is unpacked more fully in a later discussion between Jesus and Nicodemus in John 3:1-8. The dialogue begins with a statement by Nicodemus: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” (v2) This statement sets the context for the rest of the discussion, which concerns the means by which God gives power to his servants.

Jesus’s reply to this statement is somewhat cryptic. He responds “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (v3) To understand what Jesus is referring to here, we need to understand how Nicodemus’s initial statement frames the response. When Jesus speaks about being “born again”, he is not simply talking about a kind of spiritual experience, but about the ordination of a person as a prophet of God. To become a prophet, to be a “teacher come from God” endowed with heavenly power to perform miraculous kingdom signs and teach the will of God, a person must be born again.

Unfortunately, Nicodemus misunderstands what Jesus is saying. He thinks Jesus is speaking about a second natural birth rather than a special, divine birth: “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” (v4) Nicodemus is not alone in misunderstanding Jesus, since people throughout John’s Gospel misunderstand him. What sets Nicodemus apart is that he is a “ruler of the Jews” (v1) and so should know better.

Jesus responds a second time: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” (v5) By “water” here, Jesus is almost certainly referring to the baptism of John. The reason for this is that it was at Jesus’s own baptism by John that he received the Spirit of Sonship and was ordained as a prophet (see John 1:29-34). Jesus is essentially saying that you can’t merely be ‘born’ of water as were the many Jews who were baptised by John but must also be ‘born’ of the Spirit of God.

Jesus goes on to contrast flesh and spirit, human and divine power. He summarises his teaching with an interesting observation: “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (v8) This is not a statement about how mysterious the new birth is. Jesus doesn’t conclude “So it is with the new birth”, he concludes “so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit”. In other words, those who are ordained as prophets are mysterious and hard to pin down, like the wind, like the Spirit of heaven.[2]

A Universal Council of Prophets

In the book of Numbers, there is a story of how God made the seventy elders of Israel into temporary prophets, taking some of the Spirit which he had given to Moses and placing it upon them (Numbers 11:24-30). They all prophesied for a time and then ceased. But two of them, outside of the company of the rest, prophesied in the camp, where the regular Israelites dwelled. Moses’s successor Joshua protested at this, presumably because he thought it might take away from the authority of Moses in the eyes of the people. But instead of protesting, Moses responds: “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put his Spirit on them!” (v29)

What Moses wished for came true in the new covenant. After Jesus had ascended to heaven, the same Spirit which had rested upon him was poured out upon all believers at Pentecost. Now in and through Jesus Christ, all the Lord’s people are prophets, members of the divine council. All of us have the Spirit upon us, through whom we have been adopted as children of God. Those living under the old covenant certainly had a knowledge of God through the Spirit. But they had not yet entered into the fullness of their inheritance which would only come through Christ.

“But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law,to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.”

(Galatians 4:4-7)

[1] This is not to deny an association between the new birth and deliverance from sin, only to note that it is not John’s focus, which is more on the exaltation of already faithful Jews.

[2] Note that both “wind” and “Spirit” in this passage are translating the same Greek word.

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