Begotten by the Spirit

A verse-by-verse study of John 3

John is the only Evangelist who mentions Nicodemus, a Pharisee who was impressed by the miracles and came to Jesus by night to learn more. Because this was a private conversation, we would not expect to know what was said. But since Nicodemus anointed Jesus’ body with spices after the crucifixion while the disciples had scattered, it is safe to say he accepted the message and became one of Jesus’ footstep followers. Undoubtedly he told John and others about his conversation where he learned that one becomes a son of God by being begotten by God’s holy spirit. After growth and development takes place, those who have been begotten will be born on the spirit plane as spirit beings, leaving behind their old human nature as did Jesus.

Nicodemus Appears—Verses 1 and 2

“There was a man of the Pharisees, named Nico­demus, a ruler of the Jews: the same came to Jesus by night, and said unto him, Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him.”

In John 7:50 Nicodemus is specifically identified as the one who came to Jesus by night and is associated with “the chief priests and Pharisees” (John 7:45,50). Although Nicode­mus might have come at night because he was concerned about what others might think were he to be seen with Jesus, it is more likely he wanted some private time alone. There certainly was no opportunity for privacy during the day when the crowds surrounded Jesus, begging to be healed, and hanging on his every word. Nicodemus was a thinking Pharisee. In John 10:38 Jesus urged the Jews to believe his works even if they couldn’t believe in him. That was what Nicodemus was doing. He had seen Jesus’ miracles and knew they had to be a result of God’s power. He wanted to know more.

Spirit Begettal—Verses 3-8

“Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born [gennao] again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. Nico­demus saith unto him, How can a man be born [gennao] when he is old? can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb, and be born [gennao]? Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born [gennao] of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born [gennao] of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born [gennao] of the Spirit is spirit. Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born [gennao] again. The wind [pneuma] bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born [gennao] of the Spirit [pneuma].”

In Matthew’s genealogy in chapter 1 the Greek word gennao is used repeatedly and is correctly translated “begat” because it describes the role of a man in procreation. Matthew 1:16 reads, “Jacob begat [gennao] Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom was born [gennao] Jesus, who is called Christ.” Note that in this verse this same Greek word is correctly translated born when the active agent is a woman.

Jesus begins by saying a person must be begotten/born again. But because he does not mention the operative agent, Nicodemus thinks he’s talking about an actual birthing process and is understandably confused. When Jesus says the begetting must be “of water and spirit,” Nicodemus undoubtedly understood how he should interpret this ambiguous Greek word.

We can understand the necessary role of God’s holy spirit in begetting a new life within a believer, but why water? At that time John the Baptist was using water as a symbol of cleansing from past sins after people repented. Water in Scripture symbolizes truth and truth comes from God through his son Jesus. In John 7:37 Jesus calls out for the thirsty to come to him to drink. In verse 38 he refers to “rivers of living water.” In verse 39 John parenthetically observes that by these words he was referring to the spirit that they that believe on him should receive after he was glorified.

“In that day there shall be a fountain opened to the house of David and to the inhabitants of Jerusalem for sin and for uncleanness” (Zechariah 13:1). Jesus is that “fountain.” We must drink or appropriate the “living water” which comes from him and receive God’s holy spirit if we are to have life on a spirit plane. The Companion Bible states that these two nouns next to each other should be understood as referring to one thing and are better translated “of water—yea, spiritual water.”

Verse 8 is the only place where translators rendered the Greek word pneuma as wind even though it is most unlikely Jesus is talking about the wind. If he were, the Greek word would have been anemos which occurs many times and is always translated wind. Surely those who are begotten by God’s holy spirit but not yet born on the spirit plane cannot go and come like the wind. Jesus is talking about how God’s spirit touches one here and one there with no one able to predict in advance just what it will do or who will respond to it. Roth­erham conveys the correct thought: “The spirit where it pleaseth doth breathe, and the sound thereof thou hearest; but knowest not, whence it cometh and whither it goeth.” Like countless others Nicodemus was touched by the spirit. Because he boldly came forward during the daylight hours with Joseph of Arimathaea and willingly defiled himself by touching Jesus’ dead body (John 19:39), we feel sure he responded appropriately to the spirit and became a consecrated follower of the Master.

Jesus’ Authority—Verses 9-15


“Nicodemus answered and said unto him, How can these things be? Jesus answered and said unto him, Art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not these things? Verily, verily, I say unto thee, We speak that we do know, and testify that we have seen; and ye receive not our witness. If I have told you earthly things, and ye believe not, how shall ye believe, if I tell you of heavenly things? And no man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.”

Nicodemus is hearing things he has never heard before from anyone. Surely this was not a doctrine taught by the Pharisees. Weymouth translates verse 9 as “How is all this possible?”

John is the only one who quotes the Lord as using the phrase “verily, verily.” It appears in this doubled form 25 times, never as a single “verily” which is how Matthew, Mark and Luke use it. Why? Perhaps John wants to emphasize the greater authority with which our Lord speaks. John presents Jesus as God’s personal representative. He speaks for God and thus his words should be given special emphasis. The Greek word means trustworthy, sure­ly. It is almost always translated “verily” in the gospels and “amen” in all other books. In fact in Revelation this Greek word appears as a title of our Lord: “Unto the angel of the church of the Laodiceans write; These things saith the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of the creation of God” (Revelation 3:14).

Students of the Bible have long looked into the Old Testament and found types and pictures of what would occur in New Testament time periods. Paul said that what happened to Israel happened as examples or types for our edification (1 Corinthians 10:6). In his conversation with Nicodemus Jesus identifies as a type an experience the Israelites had in the wilderness. After a particularly egregious lack of appreciation for what God had done for them, the Israelites were plagued with fiery serpents and many died. Moses was told to make a copper-colored serpent and place it on a pole so any who looked upon it would live and not die (see Numbers 21:4-9). This, Jesus tells Nico­demus, pictured himself. He would be “lifted up” on a “pole” and those who looked to him would live and not die. John quotes Jesus as saying this even more directly to a wider audience a few chapters later: “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me. This he said, signifying what death he should die” (John 12:32,33).

As is always the case with a type the Old Testament experience is much inferior to the glorious antitype. True, “bitten” Israelites who would quickly die if they did nothing, were able to live if they looked at that which had been lifted up for their salvation. But of course they did die eventually. There was nothing they could do to stop the dying process which sooner or later culminated in their certain death. Only when we see Jesus do we appreciate the far grander antitype. Looking to Jesus, and him crucified, brings life, not just life for a few years but everlastingly. In John’s gospel the King James translators rendered the Greek word aionios “eternal” nine times (including verse 15) and “everlasting” eight times (including verses 16 and 36). Consistently rendering it “everlasting” in all cases would have been better.

God’s Love—Verses 16-21


“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved. He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For every one that doeth evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved. But he that doeth truth cometh to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest, that they are wrought in God.”

Perhaps no other verse in the Bible is as well known as John 3:16. God is love (1 John 4:16) another word John uses far more than the other Evangelists. God demonstrated love by giving his most precious possession, his son. How sad it has been to hear those who call themselves by his name claim that God tortures forever those who through ignorance or willfulness reject the avenue of salvation his love has provided. In so doing they make him into an ogre who by placing human beings in flames does the very thing he commanded his people to never do (see Leviticus 18:21; Deuteronomy 18:10,12; Jeremiah 32:35).

Why does God love the world when he specifically tells us to not love the world (1 John 2:15)? The answer, of course, is that God loves the world because of what he knows will be its state when his plans and purposes have been fully accomplished, when it will have been brought back to perfection and harmony with him. He does not love the world in its sinful, depraved condition and neither should we.

Light is another word John uses more than the other writers. God is light (1 John 1:5) and Jesus is the human embodiment of God. Water is a symbol of the truth and so is light. Jesus was like a light shining in a dark room making visible all the imperfections. And what do we do when that happens in one of our darkened rooms? We have three choices: 1) ignore what we see and accept the imperfections as they are; 2) correct the imperfections now that we have become aware of them; or 3) turn out the light and pretend everything is fine. Because those with the power within the Jewish polity preferred choice three, they plotted to destroy Jesus and effectively “turn out the light.”

John the Baptist’s Testimony—Verses 22-36


“After these things came Jesus and his disciples into the land of Judaea; and there he tarried with them, and baptized. And John also was baptizing in Aenon near to Salim, because there was much water there: and they came, and were baptized. For John was not yet cast into prison. Then there arose a question between some of John’s disciples and the Jews about purifying. And they came unto John, and said unto him, Rabbi, he that was with thee beyond Jordan, to whom thou barest witness, behold, the same baptizeth, and all men come to him. John answered and said, A man can receive nothing, except it be given him from heaven. Ye yourselves bear me witness, that I said, I am not the Christ, but that I am sent before him. He that hath the bride is the bridegroom: but the friend of the bridegroom, which standeth and heareth him, rejoiceth greatly because of the bridegroom’s voice: this my joy therefore is fulfilled. He must increase, but I must decrease. He that cometh from above is above all: he that is of the earth is earthly, and speaketh of the earth: he that cometh from heaven is above all. And what he hath seen and heard, that he testifieth; and no man receiveth his testimony. He that hath received his testimony hath set to his seal that God is true. For he whom God hath sent speaketh the words of God: for God giveth not the Spirit by measure unto him. The Father loveth the Son, and hath given all things into his hand. He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life: and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him.”

Baptism (Greek: baptizo—to make whelmed [Strong’s definition], immerse) was being practiced not just by John the Baptist. The disciples under Jesus’ authority were also doing it. We know that Jesus himself did not personally baptize anyone because John says, “Jesus himself baptized not, but his disciples” (John 4:2). When some of John’s disciples came to him to discuss what was happening, it appears they were disturbed at what they saw as competition. But John did not view it that way. John was preaching words he received from heaven, which is why he could with assurance say, “He [Jesus] must increase, but I must decrease.” John did not have a competitive spirit which tried to make himself appear best; the same could not be said for some of Jesus’ disciples on another occasion (see Mark 9:33,34).

John correctly points out that Jesus came from heaven. He was sent by God and God gave him the words which he spoke. Jesus made this claim himself when he said to Philip, “I am not the source of the words that I say to you, but the Father who is united with me is doing these things himself” (John 14:10, Goodspeed). Others could not accept this and later John recounts how some Jews wanted to stone him because, in their opinion, he was making himself God (John 10:30-33).

The King James translation of verse 34 makes it seem as though God’s spirit is measured out to some but it was not so measured out to Jesus. God’s holy spirit is his power in action; it makes things happen. And in this case it illuminated without measure, without limitation, the mind of Jesus so that all the wisdom of God could be communicated to ­others. John the Baptist knew that his own understanding, marvelous as it was, had its limitations. Yet he rejoiced in the role he was given to point to God’s anointed one, to be a “friend of the bridegroom.”

May we all as did John the Baptist, praise God for what he through the spirit has done for each of us. May we rejoice that his spirit has touched us, one here and one there, and opened our eyes to see and our ears to hear. Jesus performed many great miracles during his earthly ministry, but just as types are inferior to antitypes, so his miracles are much less than what will happen in the future. If we are faithful unto death, we will have the privilege of performing even greater miracles in the kingdom: “Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that believeth on me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do; because I go unto my Father” (John 14:12).

1. The Companion Bible suggests that faulty punctuation of John 7:37,38 hides the meaning of the Greek. This is how they believe the text should be understood: "Jesus cried, saying, If any man thirst, let him come unto me, and let him drink him that believeth on me. [End verse 37 here; begin verse 38.] As the scripture hath said, out of his [the giver--Messiah--not the receiver] belly shall flow rivers of living water [which becomes available for believers to drink.]