In interpreting John 3:1–21, then, it is not enough to say on the basis of the discourse in vv. 11–21, for example, that this text is about faith, decision, and judgment, because that way of interpreting diminishes the full impact of the text. One needs the preceding dialogue, with Nicodemus’s misunderstanding and Jesus’ repeated offer of new images, to understand what the words of vv. 11–21 are really saying. The interpreter must attend to how John tells this story of Jesus and Nicodemus, how he moves the reader through the give and take between the two characters and thus affords the reader the chance to understand what Nicodemus can only misunderstand. Because the reader has participated in the dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus, the words in vv. 11–21 are heard with more immediacy. Moreover, the reader has read the Prologue and attended to the witness of John, so that he or she has a wider theological context in which to place those words.
The use of the phrase “born again” in contemporary North American Christianity is instructive in this regard. This expression, which derives from Jesus’ use of ἄνωθεν anōthen in 3:3 and 7, has become a slogan and rallying cry for an entire segment of contemporary Christian experience. Indeed, the validity of a person’s faith is frequently judged by whether one has been “born again.” Born-again Christianity also exerts significant influence on discussions of politics and religion in North American culture. Yet this use of the expression occurs in isolation from its context in John 3 and with no attention to the complexities of the word anōthen. Rather, anōthen is flattened to have only one meaning, roughly equivalent to an individual’s private moment of conversion.
Such contemporary Christians thus repeat the same mistake Nicodemus made: understanding the word anōthen on only one level. Nicodemus misunderstood the double dimensions of “born again” and “born from above” and so focused on physical rebirth. The priority given to “born again” in contemporary usage of John 3:3 and 7 also misunderstands the interrelationship of “born again” and “born from above” in Jesus’ words. To interpret anōthen as describing spiritual rebirth through personal conversion can disregard the decisive christological dimension of anōthen: birth from through the lifting up of Jesus on the cross (3:15). Contemporary usage of “born again” privileges anthropology over christology. That is, it emphasizes personal change more than the external source of that change: the cross. In Jesus’ words in chap. 3, anthropology and christology are held in a delicate balance. That is, one cannot know the meaning of human life without grounding it in the reality of Jesus’ life and the corporate dimension of that life. The irony of Nicodemus’s response to Jesus’ words is unwittingly operative whenever the church operates out of a single-level interpretation of anōthen.
By codifying the expression “born again” and turning it into a slogan, interpreters risk losing the powerful offer of new life contained in Jesus’ words. Nicodemus and the reader are intended to struggle with the expression “born anōthen” in order to discern what kind of new birth is at the same time birth from above. In that struggle of interpretation, the reader is called to listen to all of Jesus’ words in this text, not just a few of them. As the reader moves with Nicodemus and Jesus through this dialogue and into the discourse, a fresh and fuller understanding of “born anōthen” emerges. “Born anōthen” is complicated to interpret because its language and its promise transcend conventional categories. It envisions a new mode of life for which there are no precedents, life born of water and the Spirit, life regenerated through the cross of Jesus. If interpreters turn “born again” into a slogan, they domesticate the radical newness of Jesus’ words and diminish the good news.
The challenge to interpreters of John 3:1–21, then, is to approach this text openly, not convinced that they already know what the text is about and what its words mean. If interpreters approach the Jesus of this text as Nicodemus approached him, confidently asserting what “we know …” (3:2), they may find, as Nicodemus did, that their certitudes and assumptions stand in the way of the full experience of Jesus this text offers. The Fourth Evangelist invites interpreters to allow the words of this text to play on them. This is a demanding invitation, because if accepted, it means that the interpreter must be willing to be changed by this text, to welcome new life on the terms offered by Jesus in this text. Belief in Jesus (3:16, 18) changes one’s life so that one can, indeed, speak of being “born again,” not because of an intrinsic change in human nature, but because of the new beginning that comes with a recognition of the full character of God that is revealed in Jesus. To believe in Jesus is to believe that Jesus is the Son of God and that God loved the world so much that God gave the Son as a gift. The God revealed in Jesus is a God whose love knows no bounds and who asks only that one receive the gift. If one receives the gift, one receives eternal life, because one’s life is reshaped and redefined by the love of God in Jesus. The words about judgment with which the text concludes (3:17–21) underscore the seriousness of God’s offer.
- K. Beale and D. A. Carson, Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI; Nottingham, UK: Baker Academic; Apollos, 2007).
- Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John, vol. 29a in The Anchor Bible, eds. William Albright and David Freeman (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1966)
- Neal M. Flanagan, John in The Collegeville Bible Commentary, eds. Dianne Bergant and Robert J. Karris (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1989). 985-86
- Colin G. Kruse, John: An Introduction and Commentary, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003). 105-20
- Francis J. Moloney, The Gospel of John, vol. 4 in Sacra Pagina, Daniel J. Harrington (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1998)
- Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995). 198-208.
- John J. McPolin, John, vol. 6 of the New Testament Message, eds. Wilfred Harrington and Donald Senior (Wilmington, DE: Michael Glazier, 1989) 47-49
- Gail R. O’Day, John in the New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 9, ed. Leander E. Keck (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1996) 548-556
- Brian Stoffregen, CrossMarks Christian Resources, available at crossmarks.com/brian/
- Gerhard Kittel, Gerhard Friedrich and Geoffrey William Bromiley, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1995) anōthen 1:378
- Horst Robert Balz and Gerhard Schneider, Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1990) – anōthen 1:112; krisis 2:318
- The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, ed. David Noel Freedman, Gary A. Herion, David F. Graf, John David Pleins and Astrid B. Beck (New York: Doubleday, 1996).
Scripture – Scripture quotes from New American Bible by Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC. © 1991, 1986, 1970 at http://www.usccb.org/bible/index.cfm