“Born from above” and “new birth” in John 3:3; 1 Peter 1:3, 23

A friend used to ask me, “How come we preach being ‘born again’ so often, while it is mentioned only once in the Bible in John 3:1–21?”

While I don’t totally agree with friend’s interpretation of John 3:1–21, I share his concern that “being born again” is often understood as merely the decision to become a Christian. I tend to think that John 3:1–21 doesn’t only talk about the entry point of a Christian’s conversion experience, but also a life of transformation in the Spirit. It seems clear that 3:3, 5–8 speak of the fact that a Christian is born from God and of the Spirit. The Christian life, then, is a life of transformation by the Spirit’s empowerment.

I asked a class of theological students the same question last week. In response, a student told us that “born again” is mentioned in 1 Peter 1:23 and probably 1 John 3:9. The student is right, in that the language of “born again” and “born of God” can be found in the NIV in those verses. But it helps if we look at the original language. In John 3:3 (the famous verse concerning “born again”), the Greek expression γεννηθῇ ἄνωθεν is used, which (literally) means “born from above,” “born anew” or “born again.” In 1 Peter 3, 23, the Greek verb ἀναγεννάω is used, which means “to be born anew,” signifying a “new birth.” In 1 John 3:9, the Greek verb is γεννάω, which means “to bring forth birth” or “to be father of.”

So, how should we understand these verses? Space and time limitations only allow me to look at John 3:3 and 1 Peter 3, 23, and here I will only cite the works of Craig Keener, The Gospel of John (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2003) and Joel Green, 1 Peter (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007).

On John 3:3 (and 3:5 in context), Keener says the following (and much more).

Greek thinkers could speak of God or gods as ‘above,” in terms of a vertical dualism; but Jewish texts were no less attracted to the portrait of God as “above” and to a vertical dualism contrasting God’s heavenly realm with the earthly. “Above” or “the one above” in fact became standard Jewish circumlocutions for God, as elsewhere in this Gospel (19:11), so birth from above means birth from God. Birth “from above” conveys the same essential sense as “birth from Spirit” as opposed to fleshly birth: what is merely human is inadequate, and the chasm between divine and human power is infinite. (p. 1.538–1.539)

Granted, born ἄνωθεν can mean “born again” rather than or in addition to “born from above”; but John’s informed audience, familiar with his own usage, will find Nicodemus’s more limited interpretation wanting… In this passage Nicodemus becomes a foil whose misunderstanding allows Jesus to clarify his point for John’s audience (cf. 14:5, 8) … Jesus’ words about a rebirth, a transformation of character (3:6) that is an essential prerequisite to understanding the things of the Spirit (3:8; 1 Cor 2:10–16), are clear enough on their own terms… (p. 1.539)

In my view, John 3:3 speaks of a new birth from God that engenders a life of transformation by the Spirit (3:5–8; cf Ezekiel 36–37). For sure, being born from above is the beginning of a new life. But it is a life to be transformed by the Spirit continually.

Concerning “new birth” in 1 Peter, Joel Green says the following (and much more).

“New birth,” then, is a dramatic metaphor for the decisive transformation of life that has come in accordance with God’s mercy and by means of the resurrection of Jesus. What Peter announces, then, is a conversion of the imagination: personal reconstruction within a new web of relationships, resocialization within the new community, and the embodiment of a new life-world evidenced in altered dispositions and attitudes. (p. 26)

Present trials, we should understand, are not in spite of but are the consequence of the new birth. The imagery of “new birth” implies a new life-world, but, to continue the metaphor, it also introduces the need for growth and maturation, for growing into salvation (cf. 1:14-16, 22-23; 2:2-3). (p. 30)

“New birth” is thoroughly christocentric in character. First, “new birth” is the consequence of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Second, the new life into which one is born has as its paramount exemplar the life of Christ. If the suffering of Jesus did not disqualify his status as God’s Son and as Lord, then neither does the misery of life as strangers in the world render Peter’s audience as ineligible for their status as God’s children. Rather, affliction, paradoxically, brands them as faithful followers of the Christ who suffered, and, if this is true, then, they can be assured that, just as they share in his suffering, so they will share in his glory. (p. 30)

I think it is clear that “new birth” is not merely about how the entry point of conversion. Rather, it is about the new life that a Christian has embarked on. And the Christian will continue to experience its transforming power as she/he shares in Christ’s suffering and glory.

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What is truth? (Some thoughts on the biblical concept of truth)

I find that Christians often think of the “truth” in the Bible as some kind of “objective truth” that can and should be expressed in propositional statements. While I don’t totally disagree with this, I have long been wondering whether it accurately represents the concept of “truth” in Scripture.

To me, “objective truth” can be misunderstood to mean that the truths about God are non-relational, as if the “truth” in the Bible has little to do with God’s love for his image-bearers and his desire for us to love one another.

In the New Testament, a good place to look at this matter is John’s Gospel, for it refers to the word “truth” quite frequently. Perhaps one of the most important references is the one in John 1:14, which says,

Now the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We saw his glory—the glory of the one and only—full of grace and truth, who came from the Father.

It seems clear that John is not saying that Christ is full of “grace and objective truth.” Rather, I think it refers to Christ as the embodiment of God’s character, including his grace, truthfulness, integrity and faithfulness.

The reason is that I think the Old Testament (and Hebraic), not the Greek (Hellenistic), notion of truth is the primary sense of the word “truth” in this passage. There are, of course, overlap between the Greek and Hebraic senses of the word. But it’s the Hebraic sense that is much stronger here.

I find the following comments from Craig Keener, The Gospel of John (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2003), 1.418, very helpful.

The Greek sense of truth involved especially knowledge, sometimes religious knowledge, it could also denote recognition of reality. The Hebrew and traditional Jewish concept, conversely, was more apt to include moral truth and to be identified with God’s law. שמע often stressed being “true” to one’s word—truth as integrity or covenant faithfulness—and is a central attribute of God’s character.

Although some regard John’s content for ἀλήθεια as primarily Hellenistic, many scholars now recognize more of the traditional range of שמע in the Fourth Gospel. That 90 percent of the LXX uses of ἀλήθεια translate שמע, and that John derives his use of “full of grace and truth” from the Hebrew Bible (as well as his usage in some other passages, e.g., 17:17), suggest that while the semantic range of both terms may have influenced his usage, he is especially sensitive to the term’s uses in its prior biblical contexts. Perhaps John expects the reader to hear the prologue’s coupling of “grace and truth” when “truth” recurs alone (twenty-five times) through the rest of the Gospel; if so, “truth” often includes the sense of “covenant faithfulness” in the Fourth Gospel. The aborted dialogue of John 18:37–38 even suggests that John is aware of competing cultural epistemologies or understandings of truth.

The Spirit’s work to comfort and break down all socioeconomic and cultural barriers

Pentecost Sunday Homily

Genesis 11:1-9; Acts 2:1-21, John 14:8-17

An audio-visual event

Our Bible reading of Acts 2 is a dramatic account of what happened on the Day of Pentecost in the earliest church.

Thanks to a gift voucher given by a friend, we were able to watch Star Trek as a family. As you know, a sci-fi action movie like Star Trek can give us a very entertaining cinema experience, because of the audio and visual effects they provide.

The wonder of Acts 2 is that it describes an event that has strong audio-visual elements. It speaks of a sound like the rush of violent wind. It talks about tongues of fire resting on people. When reading things like that, I think it helps to pause and imagine what happened on the Day of Pentecost.

Imagine what it is like if you witness the visible work of the Spirit on this day!

If we are familiar with the Old Testament, the imagery of the outpouring of the Spirit here in Acts may well remind us of a number of stories in the Hebrew Bible. As is often noted, the narrative in Acts 2 reverses the confusing of language in the story of the tower of Babel in Genesis 11. Instead of people being scattered, the people of God are now united by the Spirit. Each person hears their own language being spoken as those gathered are filled with the Spirit and speak in the languages of the others.

But Acts 2 may also remind us of the work of the Old Testament prophets, the spokespersons of God who were filled with the Spirit to declare God’s holiness and justice for the oppressed. In addition, we may recall the pillar of cloud and pillar of fire in the Exodus story, where God delivered his people from the yoke of slavery to freedom. I think the “visual people” in our midst (that is, those who are good at observing things visually) can quite easily visualise the Exodus story and its similarities with the narrative in Acts 2.

A cosmic event that breaks all barriers

But what’s really happening on the Day of Pentecost was a cosmic event in which God graciously intervened in the affairs of humankind. Peter cited the prophet Joel’s prophecy, which says that

In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my slaves, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy.

It is important to note the inclusive nature of the Spirit’s outpouring. In the ancient world—and in many cultures today—the society is intensely hierarchical. Women were thought to be inferior to men. Children were not as important as adults. Slaves were subordinate to their masters. But the outpouring of the Spirit on Pentecost saw no such social divisions.

The life-giving Spirit is poured out to all people—daughters and sons, young and old, and slaves are not excluded.

What we see in the narrative—in this audio-visual display of cosmic event—is not only a picture of the coming-together of peoples and nations under heaven. It also portrays God’s intention to break down all socioeconomic barriers among his people. It is about God’s purpose to bless people from all walks of life, bringing peace to all who seek to worship him and love him.

I am proud of our multicultural community. You see, I always longed for the type of community I found in the New Testament. I wanted to see an inclusive multicultural community that is not merely theoretical but a lived reality. And I am glad that I’ve found it here, where every person is as important as everyone else, without social, economic or ethnic distinctions.

God’s empowering presence

Our second New Testament reading today is from John 14, in which Jesus says that he will ask the Father to give us another advocate to help us and be with us forever—the Spirit of truth. It is worth looking at the context of the passage. In verse 1 Jesus says,

Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God, trust also in me.

In verse 15 Jesus says,

I will not leave you as orphans. I will come to you.

Later in the chapter (in verses 26–27) Jesus says,

But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you… Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.

I like these words of comfort. Jesus knew that he’s going to die, and after his resurrection he would ascend to heaven. So, he told his disciples that the Holy Spirit would come, and the Spirit would be their advocate and comforter. He will not leave them as orphans.

The Spirit is God’s “empowering Presence.” In our fear the Spirit speaks peace. In our powerlessness the Spirit gives us strength. When we feel hopeless the Spirit gives us hope. In our loneliness the Spirit speaks comfort.

As I hear the stories of people in our community—not least the testimonies of those who got baptised—I realise how much the Spirit has been working in our midst. People in our community have gone through many dangers and turmoils. Loneliness, physical pain, danger at sea, persecution, uncertainties about life and the future. But in all these life’s challenges, God’s abiding presence does not leave us.

Power differentials

Many years ago, following a crisis in the family, I prayed to the Christian God and asked whether he’s real or not. In the following months I became a Christian. I bought a Bible to read, and found a church to attend. It took me about a year to work through some major questions about Christianity. But over time the Holy Spirit helped me to understand the Scripture and the God it speaks of.

But it was through another crisis that I had an unforgettable experience of the Spirit.

Since I grew up in a relatively low socioeconomic area in Asia, very few of us were able to go to university. In fact, among all my relatives in my generation, I am probably the only one who managed to go to university.

I went to a university in the UK because I was able to get a scholarship, as well as a special government grant. But even with that there was still a lot of out-of-pocket expenses. We had very little money, and so it was no small miracle that we managed to find money to buy air ticket and pay three months’ worth university fees and living expenses. I flew to England quite literally by faith, hoping that extra money would come after three months.

The university was in Yorkshire. As you know, as someone whose first language is not English, people in Yorkshire sounded like speaking in tongues to me. I struggled greatly as a student, and for the first time in my life I almost failed a subject.

I felt extremely lonely, and I feared greatly that I might fail my parents, who worked tirelessly day and night to support me.

At the same time, it was in the UK that I experienced the power differentials that were embedded in the social structures and systems. For the first time I experienced racial slurs. I began to realise that the dominant culture in a society has power over the minority cultures.

I also began to realise that among my Asian friends there were many wealthy people. In the area I grew up, rarely could we afford to buy brand-name sports shoes or equipment. In fact, none of us would have thought that we could ever afford to play tennis, which was thought to be a very expensive game to play.

Well, I found that I had lived in a somewhat different world, for some of my friends in the UK could afford to play tennis and buy brand-name sports equipment. You see, back home I worked very hard in a factory, and I had to study very hard to go to university. But a fellow overseas student said to me one day,

Okay, you are very smart. You worked hard and certainly did well in high school. But here we are. We both end up coming to the same university and doing the same course.

In other words, some people have to work hard to seek a better life. Others don’t have to work hard and still have a good future.

Fortunately, not all my wealthy friends were like that. I did make some good life-long friends in England, who would never say that type of things.

Work of the Spirit

So, as you can see, life was not easy in a foreign country, especially when you are lonely and your family doesn’t have a lot of money. You have no idea how much I prayed to God and asked him to help me.

Then, something happened. One day I was alone in my bedroom. Suddenly I felt that God entered the room. It was an experience that cannot be described through words, except to say that God’s presence was real. I could not see his face, but I could definitely feel that he was there. Then I went out and walked on the streets, and God’s presence was there. It was the most amazing experience of all. And I can only say that it’s the work of the Spirit.

I hasten to say that this rather unique experience is not really very extraordinary, for I have seen many wonderful works of the Spirit here in our community. I have heard amazing stories of transformation. I have heard stories of those who have seen visions of Jesus or heard the audible voice of God.

I have seen the tenacity of those living with a disability and those who struggle with sickness, including terminal illness. Their resilience is inspiring and is nothing short of the work of the Spirit.

I have met those who have been hurt by religious people who do not care about people’s emotions. But the Spirit is slowly and gently bringing healing and deliverance. I have seen the courage of refugees and asylum seekers. Despite their adversities they hang in there. And there are those around them who seek to stand by these friends from overseas in their suffering and walk with them in their darkest hours. This, again, is nothing short of the work of the Spirit.

It seems to me, then, the Spirit is moving powerfully in our midst, and so we can truly celebrate on this Pentecost Sunday. God’s empowering presence is at work in our community. The Spirit brings life and peace, and through the Spirit we live in love and unity.

And may the Spirit empower us to bear witness to Christ to the ends of the earth. Amen.

Craig Koester on the meaning of “truth” and the Spirit of truth in John’s Gospel

Nijay Gupta has posted (19th April 2013) a good quote by Craig Koester about the meaning of “truth” in John’s Gospel. Here I cite that same quote, as well what Koester has to say about the Spirit of truth.

“The Advocate is also called the ‘Spirit of truth,’ a title that binds the Spirit to Jesus and his Father (14:17; 15:26; 16:13). According to John’s Gospel, God is true, and his word is truth, and Jesus bore witness to the truth he received from God (7:18; 8:26, 40; 17:17). By embodying God’s Word, Jesus also embodies God’s truth and can say, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life’ (14:6). To say that the Spirit is ‘of truth’ means that the Spirit conveys God’s truth as revealed in Christ. It is how the Spirit engages with the world. In John’s Gospel, truth is not a timeless ideal that is reached by contemplation. It is a power that counters the enslaving dominion of falsehood. Truth is communicated in order to free people from bondage to sin (8:32), to awaken authentic worship of God (4:23-24), and to shape actions that are truly life-giving (3:21).” (Emphasis added)

Source: Craig Koester, The word of life: a theology of John’s Gospel (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), 148.

Jesus is the way, the truth and the life precisely because he (that is, “the Word” in John 1, who made his dwelling among humans) embodies God’s truth. He is not an abstract truth. Nor can we have a relationship with God through an intellectual understanding of the abstract truths about Jesus. Rather, it is through the Spirit of truth that we may know God, who has revealed himself through Jesus.

A South Asian professor’s view on John’s Gospel

Michael Bird has interviewed a South Asian, Jeyaseelan Kanagaraj, regarding his view on John’s Gospel. (Here is Bird’s blog post.) Professor Kanagaraj is author of a new commentary on John’s Gospel (NCCS series, 2013). I find the following really interesting.

“The South Indian culture, more particularly the Tamil culture, is shaped by the family concept. People are knit together as families, kin and clans, and they realize the need for one another in our society. This helped me naturally to trace out in the Gospel of John the family concept and the love relationship that should shape our life as God’s community.

There is a real search for God in our culture and religions. People are longing to see the one Ultimate Reality. This cultural background led me, when I approached the text, to find out that John’s Gospel addresses this longing by stating that the one true God can be seen not primarily in any places of worship or in rituals and festivals, but in a Person, Jesus, God’s only Son, sent by the Father from heaven.”

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“The important criterion for the renewal of the church today, as John portrays, is that each believer needs to die for himself/herself daily so that the believing community may bear fruit in this corrupt world for the glory of the Father. The renewal of the churches involves suffering and facing the hatred of the world… The other side of Christian life is to undergo suffering. John’s Gospel brings out this truth along with the assurance that the presence of Jesus is always with his people even when they undergo persecution. It is actually Jesus’ suffering and crucifixion, in John’s Gospel, which is the point of revealing His/God’s glory.”