Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews; 2 this man came to Jesus by night and said to Him, “Rabbi, we know that You have come from God as a teacher; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.” 3 Jesus answered and said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” 4 Nicodemus said to Him, “How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born, can he?”
Nicodemus missed the point entirely. He did not understand what Jesus meant when he said “born again.” The word translated “again” has several distinct meanings in Greek1 and since Nicodemus had not been “born again,” he picked the wrong one. Let’s look at these meanings and see why Nicodemus got the wrong one.
The primary meaning of the Greek word is “from above” [Heaven] and it is usually translated that way. For example, later in this same chapter John quotes Jesus saying, “He who comes from above is above all, he who is of the earth is from the earth and speaks of the earth.”2
John later uses that same Greek word as follows, “Jesus answered, ‘You would have no authority over Me, unless it had been given you from above.’ ”3
Other occurrences of the same Greek word are: “Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights…”4 Also, “This wisdom is not that which comes down from above, but is earthly, natural, demonic.”5 Furthermore, “But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle…”6
The only place that this word is used to mean “again” is in Galatians 4:9 “…how is it that you turn back again7 to the weak and worthless elemental things, to which you desire to be enslaved all over again?”
Because the word can have several meanings, Nicodemus wanted to make sure he got what Jesus was saying so he used a different unambiguous word8 meaning “a second time” to paraphrase back what he thought he understood. Unfortunately, he got the wrong meaning. And so did the translators!9 They stuck with tradition rather than translating it accurately.
Since Jesus is contrasting an earthly (fleshly) birth to a heavenly (spiritual) birth,10 this verse should more accurately be translated, “Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born from above he cannot see the kingdom of God.’ “
As one commentator has said:
This could also be translated “to be born from above.” Both meanings are correct since this is a birth from God and it is a new birth.11
It is a known fact that people see what they expect to see. Nicodemus wasn’t expecting to see spiritual truth (because he wasn’t “born from above”) so he didn’t see it.
So the term “born-again Christian” actually should literally be “born-from-above Christian.”
Photo Attribution: Marcin Jozwiak – unsplash.com
- NT:509 “anothen”
- John 3:31
- John 19:11
- James 1:17
- James 3:15
- James 3:17
- It is interesting that the word translated here as “again” is a different Greek word.
- NT:1208 “Deuteros”
- In the NASU the margin says: “from above.”
- See verse 6, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.”
- The Complete Word Study Dictionary: New Testament © 1992