New Birth in the Gospel of John

Henry Ossawa Tanner - Nicodemus and Jesus on a Rooftop

Henry Ossawa Tanner – Nicodemus and Jesus on a Rooftop

[I wrote this essay over seven years ago and would write it rather differently, were I to write it today. It is fairly mediocre and doesn’t make for especially gripping reading, but I thought that I would post it now because it touches upon some issues raised in John’s gospel, which we will soon be starting in the #Luke2Acts Twitter Bible study.]

Since John Wesley and others preached a ‘nontheological and experiential’[1] doctrine of new birth in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries,[2] the term ‘born-again’ has enjoyed widespread popular usage. In recent years it has come to be employed as a common self-designation for evangelical Christians and also functions as an important sociological category.[3] Few terms so resonate in the popular consciousness of Protestantism, conjuring up images of sawdust trails and altar calls, of proselytizing zeal and evangelical fervency. Despite its popularity, the exegetical underpinnings of the term have often gone unexamined. Within this paper I will attempt to bring the language of new birth back into the orbit of the text of John’s gospel.


Birth from Above in John 3

Although the concept of being born of God appears earlier within the fourth gospel,[4] the locus classicus of the teaching is to be found in the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, the first of a number of major discourses within the Gospel.

Nicodemus initiates the conversation, expressing a degree of recognition of Jesus’ identity. Without being born ανωθεν, it is impossible to ‘see’ the kingdom of God. It is quite probable that the verb οραω involves a wordplay. To ‘see’ the kingdom of God is both to experience it[5] and to spiritually perceive it.[6] Jesus’ response summons Nicodemus to a deeper understanding. Outside of this passage, the expression ‘kingdom of God’ does not appear within the Fourth Gospel. In all likelihood the sense here is similar to that of the synoptical usages of the expression.

The word ανωθεν is ambiguous: it could mean either ‘from above’ or ‘again’. In light of the recurrence of the term in the closely related pericope of vv.31-36, the use of the term elsewhere within the gospel and the sense that the term commonly had in Greek, the primary sense of the term would seem to be ‘from above’.[7] Nevertheless, ‘again’ should be retained as an intentional secondary sense.[8] Nicodemus’ misunderstanding[9] is not that he takes ανωθεν in the wrong sense, but that he understands Jesus’ teaching in ‘crass physical terms’.[10]

The meaning of birth ανωθεν is further unpacked in Jesus’ second response of verse 5. Birth ανωθεν is birth εξ υδατος και πνευματος.[11] The meaning of this expression has been interpreted variously, the possibility of a baptismal allusion being a matter of considerable controversy.[12] I think it unlikely that υδερ here refers to semen or amniotic fluid;[13] nor do I think that Jesus is using the image of proselyte baptism as a metaphor for conversion.[14] I favour seeing in the water an allusion to the water of baptism (whether that of John, Jesus’ disciples or subsequent Christian baptism). Being born of water and the Spirit is not a reference to two separate realities — baptism followed by a later reception of Spirit — but refers to a unified event.[15] For those receiving baptism prior to the outpouring of the Spirit this birth would not be received immediately, but in ‘staggered’ stages; after this event it would be received instantaneously.[16]

At this point, anticipating some of the conclusions of this study, it is important to stress that any reference to baptism at this point must be read against the backdrop of the larger redemptive historical movement that is accomplished through Jesus’ ministry. As Ceslas Spicq counsels us, ‘[I]l faut lier étroitement la régénération individuelle du néophyte à la nouvelle ère du cosmos inaugurée par Jésus-Christ.’[17] A narrow preoccupation with the sacrament should not blind us to the fact that the waters of baptism are merely the distributaries of a far mightier river, flowing from the confluence of the water of John’s and Jesus’ baptisms with the torrents of the Spirit that were poured out at Pentecost.

In light of John’s later use of water as an image of the Spirit (7:37-39), Keener suggests reading εξ υδατος και πνευματος a hendiadys.[18] I am not convinced that it is necessary to take the language of water less than literally. The physicality of water need not stand in opposition to the Spiritual character of the birth from above.[19] It is worth commenting that, throughout the NT, manifestations of the Spirit often involve an almost embarrassingly close relationship between the Spirit and the physical forces and substances that provide imagery for its activity.[20] Consequently, we should not be surprised to find both literal and metaphorical uses of terms such as ‘water’ in relation to the Spirit.

In verse 6 Jesus presents a σαρξ/πνευμα dualism. Like begets like. The σαρξ/πνευμα contrast functions primarily as a contrast between the impotence of the merely creaturely (cf. Isaiah 40:6-8) and the life-giving power of the divine.[21] Whilst John’s dualism is not dissimilar to that of Paul, for John σαρξ does not carry the same connotations of sinfulness that it has within the thought-world of Paul.[22] Dodd suggests that Isaiah 31:3 provides background for John’s usage here.[23] A σαρξ/πνευμα dualism also appears in John 6:63, where Jesus teaches that only the πνευμα can give life.[24]

Jesus’ teaching in this passage operates in terms of a number of sharp dualisms: flesh/Spirit, earthly/heavenly, below/above, darkness/light. These dualisms do not reveal a ‘Gnostic distrust of the material as such’,[25] nor do they involve a depreciation of bodily existence. Whilst they are expressed primarily as vertical dualisms, contrasting life below with life empowered from above, John hasn’t abandoned the horizontal ‘two age’ dualism that one finds in the Synoptics.[26] The Fourth Gospel is suffused with imagery of new creation,[27] imagery that should warn us against overemphasizing the vertical (or moral) character of Johannine dualisms.[28] Furthermore, in interpreting John’s σαρξ/πνευμα contrast we should not forget that, for John, the Spirit is not given until Jesus is glorified (John 7:37-39).

In verse 7 Jesus addresses, not just Nicodemus, but the whole community that he represents.[29] Keener explains this in the light of conversion being understood to involve integration into a new community.[30] Jesus plays on the ambiguity of the term πνευμα, which can both ‘wind’ and ‘spirit’. The inscrutability of the wind is also a theme found in the OT.[31] The point being made here expands that of verse 6: like begets like. Just as the ways of the wind/Spirit cannot be grasped, so the ways of those who are born of the Spirit cannot be understood by those who are of flesh.[32]

John 8:13ff provides a potentially illuminating parallel here.[33] In verse 14 Jesus points out that the Pharisees who accuse him do not know where he came from, or where he is going, disqualifying them from judging either him or his movement. It appears that the Pharisees made it their business to inquire about potential Messianic movements (cf. 1:19-28). Jesus is making clear to Nicodemus that he is unqualified to judge either him or his movement.


Birth from Above elsewhere in the Fourth Gospel

John 1:12-13

In these verses John teaches that those who received Jesus were given the ‘right’ to become children (τεκνα) of God. This receiving of Jesus, which involves ‘welcoming him as God’s agent’,[34] is contrasted with the rejection that is mentioned in the preceding verses. Receiving Jesus is placed in apposition with believing on his name (possibly the divine name).[35]

The concept of being a child of God was not original to the Fourth Gospel and could be found in a number of earlier texts, both Greek and Jewish sources (and not just in the more Hellenized sources). Some works related being children of God to creation (cf. Acts 17:27-29), while others relate it to the possession of wisdom.[36] Keener claims, I believe rightly, that John’s usage is more closely related to that of Jewish works that are ‘less dominated by Hellenistic philosophy.’[37]

John’s usage of the concept here seems to suggest that he is operating within a more eschatological context. The OT can speak of divine sonship in the context of the restoration (Isaiah 43:6[38]) and reconstitution (Hosea 1:10) of the nation of Israel.[39] However, it seems that John’s meaning goes beyond this. Whilst undoubtedly related to the status enjoyed by OT Israel, John here speaks of a new status that is conferred upon those who believe in Jesus, the consummation of the status enjoyed by OT Israelites.

The term εξουσια here refers the ‘authorization to become what no human effort could accomplish.’[40] Significantly, it is Jesus himself who gives this authorization.[41] By virtue of his status as the ‘only begotten Son’ (1:14, 18; 3:16), into whose hands all things have been given (3:35), Jesus is uniquely qualified to confer the status of divine sonship onto others.

This sonship is conferred by being born of God, something contrasted with birth of the flesh. Those born of God are not born of bloods (presumably a reference to natural generation), of the ‘will of the flesh’ (as a result of parental passion), nor of a man’s will (the father’s authority in determining to have a child).[42]

There is a variant reading of verse 13, which either refers to the eternal begetting of Jesus, or to his virginal conception.[43] The manuscript evidence for this reading is slight, but its existence is interesting nonetheless, serving to illustrate that the close connection between Jesus’ being born of God and the divine begetting of Christians was recognized from early on.[44]


Other Passages

John 8

In 8:18-59 we find a dispute between Jesus and the Jews. Jesus’ argument in this passage turns once again on the concept that like begets like: the Jews are children of the devil as they do his works. Whilst Jesus is prepared to grant their genetic descent from Abraham (verse 37), he denies it in the sense that really matters.[45]

Jesus contrasts the status of the slave and the son within the household in verse 35. Some suggest that this verse is a later interpolation,[46] but if it is, it is nonetheless appropriate to the context. Keener observes the possibility of an allusion to the contrast between Isaac and Ishmael, in which case Jesus’ recognition that the Jews are children of Abraham may be primarily sarcastic.[47] If such an allusion were present the underlying logic of Jesus’ argument would not be altogether dissimilar to that of Paul in Galatians 4.[48]

Jesus, as the Son, has the power to set people free (verse 36),[49] presumably granting them a new status as freeborn children of God. There is a strong connection between being a child of God and being a child of Abraham, a connection that is made clear as the argument develops in verse 41. The true children of God will love Jesus (verse 42) and hear God’s words (verse 47).

Within this passage we see a distinction being made between those who are merely physical offspring of Abraham and those who are the true descendants of Abraham and children of God. This most likely relates to the distinction between those born of the flesh and those born of the Spirit in 3:6. Jesus does not deny the connection between divine sonship and Israel’s descent from Abraham, but redefines the latter concept in terms of a σαρξ/πνευμα type dualism.


John 16:20-21

In these verses Jesus employs the image of a woman giving birth. The strong eschatological associations of such imagery are not accidental to the meaning of this passage. The imagery of birth pangs is common in the OT prophets, where it is also occasionally used to refer to a period of intense suffering preceding a new age (similar usage is also to be found in Jewish literature).[50] In the prophets the image of labour pains followed by birth is associated with resurrection (Isaiah 26:16-21) and with the restoration of the people of God (Isaiah 66:8-14).[51] The prophets employed this imagery to refer to a national restoration and a general resurrection, an event within which faithful Israelites would find their salvation.[52]

John employs such imagery in the context of a broader inaugurated eschatology. For John the birth pangs begin in Jesus’ death; the birth itself is presumably the resurrection. A surface reading of the text might suggest that the birth pangs are undergone by the disciples; closer examination suggests that the reality is more complex. Murray Rae asks:

When Jesus says of the woman in travail … that ‘her hour has come’, might there not be an allusion here to Jesus’ own suffering?[53]

It is my view that the woman in John 16 represents Israel, undergoing the travail that will result in the birth of a new age. Her birth pangs are focused on the cross of Jesus, but are also experienced to some degree by the disciples. Raymond Brown suggests that the one who is born may be the Messiah, speaking approvingly of Feuillet’s thesis, which identifies the birth of the male child in Revelation 12 with the death and resurrection of Jesus.[54]

I find this position convincing in the light of the strong Johannine and NT connection between resurrection and new birth. In Revelation 1:5 Jesus is described as the ο πρωτοτοκος των νεκρων. This understanding of the resurrection is also to be observed in Lucan (Acts 13:33) and Pauline (Romans 1:3-4; Colossians 1:18) thought. Such a teaching is not treated as if it were in tension with the fact that Jesus is truly the Son of God before the resurrection. Jesus is the both the one who precedes the creation as the eternally begotten of the Father and the one who leads the way into the new age as the firstborn of the dead.[55]

Whilst the resurrected Christ is the most immediate referent of the newborn child, the image refers more broadly to the new birth of the people of God as a whole (cf. Isaiah 66:8; Revelation 12:17). It is through the birth pangs of the cross that the birth from above that Jesus has spoken of will become a possibility.[56]


John 19:25-35

Some have seen, within John’s depiction of the cross, the re-emergence of themes related to the birth from above.

Jesus gives his mother the beloved disciple as a new son. The fact that John withholds the name of Jesus’ mother might suggest that he wishes to highlight her typological significance.[57] In this passage it seems most likely that she represents Israel giving birth to her eschatological children. Both Heil and Brown relate this to the imagery of 16:20-21.[58] That the events of verses 25-27 are especially significant is suggested by the response of Jesus in verse 28.

In verse 30 Jesus is said to have ‘handed over the spirit’ (παρεδωκεν το πνευμα), presumably to his mother and the beloved disciple, in their typological roles. This language is symbolically charged and suggests a ‘very close connection between the gift of the Spirit and Jesus’ self-sacrifice.’[59]

In verse 34, blood and water flow from the side of Jesus. The ‘solemn witness’ that is borne to this event suggests that it has great significance.[60] Traditional readings have often related this to Eve being taken out of Adam’s side and to the sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist.[61] Further background may be found in Jewish traditions concerning the rock at Meribah.[62] Others relate it to Jesus’ statement that water will flow from his belly in 7:38.[63] Burge sees it as a ‘proleptic symbol of the release of the Spirit’ and relates it to the eschatological waters that were to flow from the Temple.[64]


John 20:17, 22

In verse 17 Jesus declares to Mary Magdalene, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’[65] N.T. Wright relates this passage to the themes of the prologue:

…the little company of those who ‘received him’ are told, for the first time, that the creator god is their father, their god (20.17; up to now Jesus has spoken of ‘the father’ or ‘my father’). They are now children of the father in their own right. Reading chapter 20 in the light of the prologue, we are thus to understand that Jesus’ death and resurrection have together effected for the disciples the new birth which was spoken of in 1.13 and 3.1-13.[66]

This is closely followed by the account of Jesus breathing the Holy Spirit into his disciples, in an account reminiscent of OT texts such as Genesis 2:7, just one of a number of allusions to new creation in the chapter. This gift of the Spirit is the begetting of a new humanity, who are born of the Spirit and are true children of God.


Background and Parallels

Hellenistic background

A number of scholars have argued for a Hellenistic context for John’s teaching concerning birth ανωθεν, relating it to Platonic teaching concerning rebirth and the teaching of the mystery religions and Gnosticism.[67] Others relate the concept of birth of God with Hellenistic teaching that mankind is begotten of God by virtue of creation.[68] Grese seeks a background in Jewish and pagan heavenly journey literature.[69]

Trumbower relates the teaching of John to the deterministic anthropology of Gnostics like the Valentinians. He distinguishes between two births: an original fixed birth from above and a subsequent birth, which will only be enjoyed by those who have the first birth.[70] There is no movement between the realms of flesh and Spirit.[71]

Keener observes that John’s language is not necessarily encountered in Gnosticism or the mystery religions and points out that many of the supposed parallels are too late and possibly reflect Christian influences.[72] Most importantly, though superficial similarities in language may occasionally occur, the thought world of John is quite different from that of many of the Hellenistic works that are suggested as background.


Jewish background

Some Jewish sources compare proselytes to newborn children.[73] Conversion was regarded primarily in a legal context, although there were more ontological and moral conceptions.[74] There are also Jewish texts that use sonship language of Israel in an eschatological sense.[75] Peder Borgen reads John’s language in the light of the Hellenistic Jewish tradition of Moses’ ascent into heaven at Sinai being a second birth.[76]

I do not believe that the above provide much significant background for John’s use of the concept of new birth. For instance, the new status of the proselyte is primarily legal, rather than spiritual,[77] and Jews did not believe that they needed the transformation of conversion.[78]


Old Testament background

I believe that the most promising background for John’s teaching concerning birth from above is to be found in the OT. In Ezekiel 36:25-26 the prophet speaks of God’s sprinkling water on the people and giving them a new spirit within them. This passage is related to forgiveness and deliverance from sin and national restoration. The combination of sprinkling with water and the imparting of a new spirit in Ezekiel 36 also suggests a close relationship with the reference to birth of water and the Spirit in John 3:5.

Immediately following the allusion to Ezekiel 37 in John 3, there is an allusion to Ezekiel 37, where the reference to the φωνη, of the Spirit is reminiscent of Ezekiel’s prophesying to the dead bones.[79] Allusions to this passage are also found in John 5:25 where the dead are raised by hearing the Son of God’s voice and in 20:22 where Jesus breathes πνευμα into his disciples.

In John 16:20-21, as I have already observed, OT prophetic texts concerning the birth pangs preceding the new age closely underlie the text. Isaianic texts such as Isaiah 26:16-21 and 66:7ff provide important background here. The birth being spoken of involves general resurrection and national restoration, following a period of suffering.

It is my position that, in his teaching and narrative of birth from above, John is purposefully evoking a number of OT texts that speak of national restoration, resurrection and the dawning of the new age. No single one of these passages bears the burden of his teaching, but taken in concert they provide a background against which John’s teaching can be properly understood. Bringing various OT passages into dialogue in an allusive text, John presents his reader with a stereoscopic vision of the birth from above that Jesus makes possible through his ministry.


Parallel Teachings in the New Testament

Potential parallels to Johannine teaching concerning the new birth are to be found elsewhere in the NT. A number of authors have observed the possibility that Jesus’ teaching in John 3 is related to the Synoptic sayings of Matthew 18:3 and Mark 10:15.[80] A contrast between birth of God within the kingdom of God and ordinary human birth may also be implicit in texts such as Matthew 11:11. In Matthew 19:28 the term παλιγγενεσια is used of the renewed world of the age to come.

Pauline theology is rich with potential parallels to the new birth teaching of John. Paul presents Jesus as the firstborn of the dead (Colossians 1:18) and as one declared to be the Son of God with power by the resurrection (Romans 1:4). Paul closely relates reception of the Spirit with being sons of God (Romans 8:14-16). Christ is the one who makes divine sonship a possibility (Galatians 3:26; 4:1-7), the ‘firstborn among many brethren’ and the prototype for all other sons of God (Romans 8:17, 29). Paul also employs the image of eschatological birth pangs in relation to this theme (Romans 8:18-23).

In articulating his theology of divine sonship, Paul tends to use the concept of adoption where John uses that of birth from above (Romans 8:15, 23; Galatians 4:5). Furthermore, the eschatology in terms of which Paul operates occasionally seems to be less realized than that of John (Romans 8:23). Within Paul we can also observe a far closer relationship between being a descendent of Abraham and being a son of God (Galatians 3:7; cf. 3:26). Paul employs a flesh/spirit dualism to contrast the status enjoyed by merely physical descendents of Abraham and the true family of Abraham characterized by faith (Galatians 4:22-31), exploring themes that are closely related to those raised in John 8.

The language of divine sonship and rebirth is also to be found in such places as Titus 3:5, which uses the term παλιγγενεσια in a context that bears certain similarities to John 3:5. 1 Peter 1:24 speaks of being ‘born again’ by the word of God. Divine sonship is also a theme to be found in Hebrews, where Jesus brings ‘many sons to glory’ (Hebrews 2:10-18), granting them a new status of sonship. James 1:18 refers to Christians having been begotten by the word of truth.

The Johannine epistles and Revelation are particularly rich seams for such imagery. Being sons of God and being born of God are recurrent themes throughout 1 John (2:29; 3:1-2, 9-10; 4:7; 5:1-2, 18). The children of God/children of the devil dualism appears in 3:10. In 5:18 we see that John can use the expression ‘born of God’ to refer both to Christ and to the believer, so close is the relationship between the two.[81] In the book of Revelation Jesus has the title ‘firstborn of the dead’ (1:5). The imagery of chapter 12 also seems to refer to Christ’s birth through the messianic woes of his death.

This brief list of texts serves to illustrate that John’s teaching concerning birth from above and divine sonship is not peculiar to John’s own thought-world, but is supported by a number of different voices, throughout the NT canon. The themes of new birth and divine sonship are deeply embedded in the NT texts, and find detailed theological expression both within and without the Johannine literature.



Throughout the Fourth Gospel it is clear that Jesus is the one who has the authority to give the new birth and that he is the one who leads the way into the new age, as the firstborn of the dead. He is the one who makes the new birth a possibility for all others. The messianic woes of his cross lead to the birth of the children of God.

This narrative has all too often been lost sight of. A category within a de-eschatologized ordo salutis takes the place of a climactic redemptive historical event. The dawning of the new creation in history is reduced to a mere personal spiritual epiphany. Without wanting to lose sight of the profound personal significance of the new birth I believe that it is necessary to recover the primacy of this larger picture, as the cosmic canvas upon which our personal experience of divine sonship must be situated.

Within the Fourth Gospel, John’s teaching concerning birth from above must be understood in the light of the overarching narrative. For those with ears to hear the excited whispers of OT texts within the Gospel, it is clear that John is narrating the story of Israel’s eschatological restoration, the story of new creation and the dawning of the coming age. Through the messianic woes of a Roman cross a new era is born. From the side of the pierced victim living water bursts forth, to form rivers that will bring healing to the nations. On the day of new creation, the new Adam breathes the Spirit of life into his brethren, making them sons of the Father, giving to all of us who will receive him the right to be called children of God.

[1] Old 2004, 130
[2] Wesley 2003, 399; Old 2004, 78ff.
[3] Hart 2004, 17
[4] John 1:12-13
[5] Brown 1971, i.130. See the usages of the verb in 3:36 and elsewhere, e.g. 8:51.
[6] Keener 2003, i.537. 3:11, 12:40 and 14:7 are examples of the verb οραω being used in such a sense.
[7] Ridderbos 1997, 125; Keener 2003, i.538-539
[8] Resseguie 2001, 122-123
[9] On John’s use of misunderstanding as a literary technique, see Culpepper 1983, 164-165, and Resseguie 2001, 42-43.
[10] Resseguie 2001, 179; Witherington 1995, 95. Some have commented on the fact that this play on words would not have been possible in the Aramaic language in which this conversation would supposedly have taken place (Brown 1971, i.130-131; Ridderbos 1997, 125).
[11] Trumbower 1992, 74, argues that birth of water and the Spirit in verse 5 must be distinguished from birth from above in verse 3. We will address Trumbower’s position at a later point in this paper.
[12] See Carson 1991, 191ff.; Burge 1987, 159ff.; Brown 1971, i.141-144; Ridderbos 1997, 127-128; Smalley 1983, 227-228; Keener 2003, i.546ff.; Johnston 1970, 41-43.
[13] Pace Witherington 1995, 97 and Brown 2003, 120-122.
[14] Keener 2003, i.549-550
[15] Cf. Titus 3:5
[16] Cf. Dunn 1977, 181-182. The baptism of Jesus earlier in the Gospel (1:29-34) may be a prototype of Christian baptism, with a ‘marriage’ of water and Spirit.
[17] Cited in Leithart 2000b, 49.
[18] Keener 2003, 550. See also Talbert 1992, 99.
[19] A possibly illuminating example might be found in 6:54, where a number of commentators have recognized that the strength of the verb τρωγω serves to underline the physicality and realism of the eating in question, without denying its Spiritual character (Brown 1971, 283).
[20] Cf. Luke 3:22; John 20:22; Acts 2:2-3
[21] Johnston 1970, 22; Dodd 1953, 224
[22] Brown 1971, i.131
[23] Dodd 1953, 224
[24] See the discussion in Brown 2003, 149-150.
[25] Brown 1971, i.141
[26] Hans Kvalbein in Aune, Seland & Ulrichsen 2002, 226-227.
[27] Wright 2003, 447
[28] For instance, the darkness/light dualism should be interpreted in light of the creation account, which John alludes to (John 1:5).  Light follows after darkness and is not merely separated from it in an atemporal manner (Genesis 1:1-4). In John 3:19-21 the darkness/light dualism is not essentially a moral one, but a temporal one. It serves as a moral dualism on a secondary level, as evil and true people are now distinguished by their reaction to the light that has come.
[29] Keener 2003, i.556
[30] Keener 2003, i.556
[31] Ecclesiastes 1:14 speaks of the futility of attempting to shepherd wind. Ecclesiastes 11:5 speaks of the impossibility of knowing the way of the wind.
[32] Ridderbos 1997, 129; Keener 2003, 556-557. Brown 1971, 141, takes a different line of interpretation here.
[33] Thanks to my friend Matt Colvin for the following observations (Colvin 2006).
[34] Keener 2003, i.399
[35] Brown 1971, i.11. See also Keener 2003, i.399-400.
[36] Keener 2003, i.400-401
[37] Keener 2003, i.401
[38] Possibly background for verses such as John 11:52.
[39] See Keener 2003, i.402 for early Jewish references to uses of sonship language with reference to Israel’s status in the eschaton.
[40] Keener 2003, i.403
[41] Ridderbos 1997, 45
[42] Keener 2003, i.404
[43] See Pryor 1985 for a detailed discussion of this.
[44] This close connection can be seen in the Johannine epistles (Lieu 1991, 33-34).
[45] Keener 2003, i.758
[46] Brown 1971, i.363
[47] Keener 2003, i.753
[48] The question of Abrahamic descent is a matter of considerable soteriological importance in Pauling thought, something that has been thrown into sharper relief by the recent work of ‘New Perspective’ scholars (see, for instance, Hays 2005, 61ff).
[49] Cf. 1:12.
[50] Keener 2003, ii.1045
[51] Keener 2003, ii.1045; Wright 2003, 117. This imagery also looks back to Genesis 3:15-16.
[52] Wright 1992, 334
[53] Rae 2003, 53
[54] Brown 1971, ii.731-732
[55] The significance of Christ as the ‘firstborn’ from the dead may also be related to the fact that, according to the gospel accounts, the resurrection takes place on the feast of Firstfruits (cf. Leviticus 23:9-14).
[56] Keener 2003, 1045. See also Rae’s comments on John 3 in this connection (Rae 2003, 54-55).
[57] Heil 1995, 95
[58] Heil 1995, 97-98; Brown 1971, ii.925
[59] Congar 1983, 52. Brown 1971, ii.931 acknowledges the connection but argues that we must see this ‘symbolic reference’ as ‘evocative and proleptic.’
[60] Congar 1983, 52
[61] Burge 1987, 94; Congar 1983, 52
[62] Burge 1987, 94. Cf. 1 Corinthians 10:4
[63] Brown 2003, 102, 155-158
[64] Burge 1987, 95. Leithart 2000b, 262, observes that the account of the blood and water flowing from Jesus’ side occurs in the place where the Synoptics record the tearing of the temple veil (cf. John 2:19-21; Hebrews 10:20).
[65] Brown 1971, ii.1016
[66] Wright 2003, 667
[67] Keener 2003, i.539-540
[68] Keener 2003, i.541
[69] Grese 1988.
[70] Trumbower 1992, 72-75
[71] For criticism of this proposal, see Culpepper & Black 1996, 274-288 and Thompson 1994, 159
[72] Keener 2003, i.540
[73] Keener 2003, i.542-543
[74] Keener 2003, i.544
[75] Keener 2003, i.402
[76] Borgen 1987, 112-115; Talbert 1992, 100-101
[77] Witherington 1995, 95
[78] Keener 2003, i.544
[79] Keener 2003, i.558
[80] Ridderbos 1997, 126
[81] Lieu 1991, 33-34


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Culpepper, R. AlanAnatomy of the Fourth Gospel: A Study in Literary Design (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983)
Culpepper, R. Alan & Black, C. Clifton (eds.) Exploring the Gospel of John: In Honor of D. Moody Smith (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996)
Dodd, C.H. The Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1953)
Dunn, James D.G. Baptism in the Holy Spirit (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster John Knox Press, 1977)
Grese, William C. — ‘“Unless One Is Born Again”: The Use of a Heavenly Journey in John 3’ (Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 107, No. 4., December 1988, 677-693)
Hart, D.G.Deconstructing Evangelicalism: Conservative Protestantism in the Age of Billy Graham (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004)
Hays, Richard B.The Conversion of the Imagination: Paul as Interpreter of Israel’s Scripture (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005)
Heil, John Paul Blood and Water: The Death and Resurrection of Jesus in John 18—21 (Washington, DC: Catholic Biblical Quarterly, Monograph Series: 27, 1995)
Johnston, GeorgeThe Spirit-Paraclete in the Gospel of John (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970)
Keener, Craig S. The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2003)
Leithart, Peter J. — a) A House for My Name: A Survey of the Old Testament (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2000)
b) ‘Womb of the World: Baptism and the Priesthood of the New Covenant in Hebrews 10.19-22’ (JSNT 78, 2000, 49-65)
Lieu, Judith M.The Theology of the Johannine Epistles (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991)
Old, Hughes OliphantThe Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church: Volume 5, Moderatism, Pietism, and Awakening (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004)
Pryor, John W. — ‘Of the Virgin Birth or the Birth of Christians? The Text of John 1:13 Once More’ (Novum Testamentum, Vol. 27, Fasc. 4, 1985, 296-318)
Rae, Murray — ‘The Travail of God’ (International Journal of Systematic Theology, Vol. 5, No.1, March 2003, 47-61)
Resseguie, James L.The Strange Gospel: Narrative Design and Point of View in John (Leiden: Brill, 2001)
Ridderbos, HermanThe Gospel of John: A Theological Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997)
Smalley, StephenJohn: Evangelist & Interpreter (London: Paternoster Press, 1983)
Talbert, Charles H. Reading John: A Literary and Theological Commenatry on the Fourth Gospel and the Johannine Epistles (London: SPCK, 1992)
Thompson, Marianne Meye — Review of Born from Above: The Anthropology of the Gospel of John (Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 113, No. 1, Spring 1994, 157-159)
Trumbower, Jeffrey A. Born from Above: The Anthropology of the Gospel of John (Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr, 1992)
Wesley, JohnSermons on Several Occasions, Part 1 (Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing, 2003)
Witherington III, BenJohn’s Wisdom: A Commentary on the Fourth Gospel (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995)
Wittgenstein, LudwigCulture and Value: A Selection from the Posthumous Remains (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 1998)
Wright, N.T. The New Testament and the People of God (London: SPCK, 1992)
The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2003)

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in #Luke2Acts, Bible, John, NT, NT Theology, Soteriology, Theological. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to New Birth in the Gospel of John

  1. Pingback: #Luke2Acts—Some Notes on John 3 to 13 | Alastair's Adversaria

  2. Pingback: #Luke2Acts—Some Notes on John 14 to 21 | Alastair's Adversaria

  3. Hi Alastair,
    In your introductory comment on this post, you described it as ‘fairly mediocre’, but I think it is superb and it has certainly opened up the Scriptures considerably for me!
    Thank you.

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