“Unless someone is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God!” (John 3:3) Many Christians take this as a foundational principle of their faith. But what did this statement of Yeshua/Jesus actually mean in its original first-century Jewish context, before Christianity existed?

The first thing to consider is that the Jewish-Greek word ἄνωθεν (anôthen), often translated “again” in this verse, more commonly means “from above.” In the Septuagint, an earlier translation of the Hebrew Bible, the same word is often associated with heaven, the tabernacle, and visions of God’s throne.

So why did the young rabbi from the Galilee mention some kind of “new birth from above”? He was speaking with a senior Pharisee and member of the Judean ruling council, Nakdimon/Nicodemus (see also Talmud, Ketubot 66b). Nakdimon saw Yeshua as “a teacher come from God” and was hoping for insight into the heavenly realm (John 3:2, 12).

For his part, Yeshua called Nakdimon “the teacher of Israel” and clearly expected him to understand the points being made (John 3:10). This is a key to reading the passage. The Pharisaic teacher would have understood the “kingdom of God” as a realm of perfect justice, truth, and love centered around Israel. But what kind of related metaphorical “rebirth” would have been familiar to him?

One strong possibility is the case of the “proselyte” גר (ger) who joined the nation of Israel by choice rather than physical birth. In the first century many non-Jews (Gentiles) did make this choice, abandoning their former connections and pagan godsAccording to the rabbinic tradition that grew out of Pharisaism, such proselytes or converts emerged from water immersion “reborn” to begin a “new life” with allegiance to the people and God of Israel.

From this perspective, the conversation between two leading teachers of Torah suggests an analogy between the radical choice of the proselyte and the lifestyle required for anyone to join the realm of “the above.” In other words, humans are born naturally (not by choice) into a flawed and often unjust world. But at any age a person can choose to start a “new life” pursuing the practical realization of justice, truth, and love.

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110 COMMENTS

  1. I studied under Daniel Gruber. Have you heard of him? So, whether Jew, gentile or proselyte all of mankind can choose this “new life” you describe. J.

    • I was amazed at how you missed Yeshua’s point here…’But what kind of related metaphorical “rebirth” would have been familiar to him?’ Its literal meaning was totally ignored. He points to himself as the standard here and you do not have to look to your left or to your right. Yeshua was born of the flesh yet He was born from above, “literally.” Where is the metaphor there? He is speaking in plain language and you try to complicate it with Hebrew roots. The problem is you keep coming from the Hebrew perspective yet Yeshua is coming from heaven’s perspective.

      • Thank you for commenting, Felipe. With all due respect, I think it is the reverse: if we look at the language and culture of the time, we can more easily understand the meaning of these ancient texts. If we instead look through the prism of much later interpretations that neglected this background, well, that complicates things (at the very least). I’m not sure I understood your point about the “literal” meaning of birth. That’s exactly Nicodemus’ question: “Can an old man go back into his mother’s womb?” (verse 4). The answer given in the discussion doesn’t seem to be “yes.”

        • Dear dr. Yeshaya
          I just dont understand why you say # in its original first-century Jewish context, before Christianity existed? Sounds like pounting a finger to Christians.
          All my life I understand rebirth as choose to be a new person with a better life with love and leave all sins and Idols behind. Thats what you say it is, or do I miss undertand you? (Sorry English is not my first language).

          • Thank you for the question, Christopher. I understand “Christianity” in a historical sense as a new religion that developed gradually from the late 1st century through the 3rd century, becoming fully institutionalized in the 4th century. In the first century “religion” per se did not exist, rather a wide variety of Jewish and hybrid lifestyles (both within the community of Israel and among Gentile “God-fearers” who attached themselves in some way to Israeli/Jewish lifestyle and belief). Reading first-century Jewish texts as if they speak in the language of 4th-century Gentile Christianity — as is often done! — significantly distorts the picture. Hope this helps to explain!

          • Rebirth requires a new life. If a person to start a new life without receiving a new life that is changing the form of the old existing life. In fact the death should occur before the new life to come into action. Water terminates Spirit germinates.

        • Born again of the Spirit of God, Nicodemus was thinking of the physical birth of flesh. We’re born anew as from above by the Spirit

  2. Dr. Gruber… you wrote, “In other words, humans are born naturally (not by choice) into a flawed and often unjust world. But at any age a person can choose to start a “new life” pursuing the practical realization of justice, truth, and love. Dr. Gruber, your words seem to be expressive of an outward experience…. but are we not the ones who are FLAWED? Are we not the ones who need to be born from above because of our sinful nature and our relationship to the first Adam?

    • Thank you for the interesting question, Nan! I don’t think it is necessarily just one or the other (internal/external). Would the thought be better phrased as “humans are born naturally as part of a flawed world”? The ancient Hebrew prophet Yeshayahu/Isaiah spoke of a day when predators and prey would rest peacefully together (Isaiah 11:6-9). Yet currently the animal kingdom is full of violence, pain, and death as a normal, everyday experience. Similarly, in the first century CE/AD Shaul/Paul wrote that “all of creation” is suffering (Romans 8:21-22). So I think both aspects could be relevant here!

    • Yes Nan,Humans are born into a “fallen world” through our Adamic father. The Heavenly Father chose, through Jesus Sacrifice and the work of The Comforter, to give Birth to a whole New Race of people Fathered by Him alone, but contained in our Human Vessels.

  3. Yes Jesus died for the whole world ! Yet individually, each must accept HIS sacrifice for their sin to be able to be one of HIS, He alone gives the ability thru the Holy Spirit and the preaching of HIS WORD from the Bible

    • Well said Melva I agree with you wholeheartedly. John 3: 5 Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.

    • Melva, I quite agree with your statement. We can never be born again by our own good works for the “Heart of man is desperately wicked and who can know it “. Scripture teaches and our Lord states that we are born of this world and as such carry the sin of Adam but as is stated the new birth is from above and is a gift of God. Hence we are changed from earthly to heavenly through our Lord Jesus work on Calvary. Blessed be His name.

    • Thank you (Melva, John, and Colin) for commenting. You mentioned things like “spirit,” “word,” “works,” etc. An important question: What were the concepts that existed in the language and culture of first-century Jews like Jesus and Nicodemus? It can be very helpful to explore such questions when reading. Here is one more quick example from John 3. In both Hebrew and Greek a single word meant “breath,” “wind,” and “spirit.” So in the original text there is no shift from v. 6 (“spirit”) to v. 8 (“wind”) – both verses use the same word (unlike in most English translations).

  4. I can swear on a stack of Bibles that I had never heard of Jesus (even though I sang Jesus loves me). I was not baptized, nor did I attend a religious assembly, yet I believe I was born again at that point in my life. My 1st century question is could the water (emersion) have been “rain” from heaven similar to Exodus 16:4 or Baruch 3:18

    • Kat, thank you for this comment and question. Water immersion/baptism in the Hebrew Bible and Jewish tradition will require another article or perhaps course – so stay tuned! Related to your question and what I wrote above: Genesis 27:39 speaks of “the dew of heaven from above”; this is one of the places where the Jewish-Greek Septuagint uses the same word as in John 3, ἄνωθεν (anôthen) “from above.” About Baruch – are you sure that is the verse you mean? Or perhaps 3 Baruch 10:8-10?

  5. Thank you for the insight, one question, are you saying that immersion in water is a requisite to salvation under Yeshua’s Grace?

    • Thanks for joining the conversation, Steve! In this article I was only suggesting some aspects of what the phrase “born from above” probably meant in its original first-century Jewish context. However, the issue of water immersion/baptism in the Hebrew Bible and Jewish tradition is indeed related. Please stay tuned for (hopefully) more material to come on that topic!

      • Dr. Gruber: Many times you don’t answer questions in outright fashion, or you will say, “Stay tuned for future discussion.” Steve’s question is important, so why not give a brief answer in a paragraph or two? His question is relevant, and we may miss a later answer. Thanks.

        • Thanks for the comment, Zip. You can subscribe to be updated by email on new posts, and many of these issues recur in our courses as well. These blog posts are meant to open up questions for thought; reasons of time and space don’t always allow us to give thorough answers or opinions in response to every commenter. That said, I did answer Steve’s direct question: No, that is not what I was saying; the article was focused on something else (but it’s a related question that may be addressed elsewhere in the future). Hope this helps!

  6. Is it not true that no one can come to the Father but by Jesus? And does not the father call us? My understanding of “born again” would be to forget all the old teaching that formed and shaped us to accepting Jesus into our hearts and minds and undergo a spiritual metamorphosis. Being renewd in our thinking and allowing the Word to transform us. To allow the Holy Spirit to teach us, prune us and deliver us from our stinking thinking. I guess one could go on for days

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Dellareese! The phrase could probably be interpreted in many different ways. I wonder, though, what meaning could Nicodemus have understood in that conversation?

  7. Follow the conversation between Yeshua and Nakdimon. He testified that he came from above in John 3:13 and so His thoughts are higher than any Jewish and pagan thought. His mindset is always coming from above. He followed it up with another testimony in v.19 about some kind of verdict or judgment, it depends on which version you are referencing. Yeshua is full on with His heavenly origin. If you are of the spirit you can easily follow what he is saying. You do not need to be deeply schooled by way of philosophy or intellectual jargons.

  8. Yes, it is necessary for Christians to become acquainted with the understanding of the Word of God from the point of view of the Jewish environment. Without this, there are deep mistakes. Jesus was a Jew as well as apostles, so the influence of Jewish culture is more important than the Greek influence for understanding the Scriptures.

  9. This born again, or born from above has something to do with the death we faced in Garden of Eden. As that death was not physical, so is this new life. If we died there spiritually then this new birth is related to the new life of our human spirits.

  10. The convert remains flawed and consequently his/her decisions to make a better world are flawed no different to a non-convert trying to do what is good. If he were a new creation living in an unflawed kingdom with an unflawed ruler there would good outcomes. What do you think about this statement? Does not a lot of harm come about when people try to do good?

  11. born again means, following Jesus Our Lord and Savior whole hardheartedly. abstaining from doing evil and focusing on doing right no matter what it’s may cause.

  12. Galatians 4:19 My little children, of whom I travail in birth again until Christ be formed in you, Ephesians 4:13 Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ: Romans 8:29 For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren.

  13. From the context, Nicodamus did not understand what Jesus meant. He took the metaphor “to be born again” literally— which was nonsense to him. Unless one has the experience of understanding this world as God and Jesus see and understand it, one cannot comprehend this metaphor. And unless one is infused with Jesus’ point of view, by the Grace of Spirit, one cannot comprehend His constant references to the beneficence of the Kingdom of Heaven.

  14. Jesus was a gnostic. He was right brain dominant as per Jill Bolte Taylor’s experiences revealed in her TedTalk on YouTube and book. He realized spirituality as Applied Quantum Theory, and rejected spirituality as a form of materialism. He overcame this world’s spiritual errors and revealed an alternative reality and methods of realizing the greater Truth of Quantum Spirituality, where God and Souls are truly One in Divine Love.

  15. Thank you Dr. Gruber for this important insight. It is possible previous scholars may have translated the Jewish-Greek word ἄνωθεν (anôthen) as “again” rather than “from above” based on the context in which Nakdimon initially interpreted Yeshua’s metaphor as being a literal salvation requirement that involved returning to one’s earthly mother’s womb to experience a rebirth in being born again. However, you raise an interesting point concerning Yeshua’s expectation of Nakdimon in understanding the spiritual context of the metaphor.

    • Thank you, Deborah! Yes, that reason for the translation choice is likely. No translation is “perfect,” because one always has to select certain aspects of the original to convey (at the cost of others). Some believe that the text deliberately uses an ambiguous word (anôthen) in order to play with the two meanings – something that cannot be reproduced in English. My preference would be to translate as “from above” so that readers could perceive connections to other texts using the same word, and because the only other passage to mention being “born again” uses a different expression (1Pet. 1:23).

  16. Thank you Dr. Yeshaya for all the great insights on the scriptures. It surely helps to understand or Lord in a much deeper and better way!
    Please if you could suggest resources on the convertion topic, specially in regards to immersion/baptism roots on the Torah will truly appreciate. In Christ!

  17. Nicodemus did not believe Yeshua was “The Son of YHWH.” If he had the holy spirit of YHWH upon him, he would have remembered scriptures of prophecy about Yeshua. A child has more real knowledge of the way of salvation than many who are pretended masters and teachers of Israel.

  18. My understanding of Jewish concept concerning being born again was when they entered the mikveh for immersion and as they came out that they considered themselves to be born again. Baptism does not save you though as some denominations believe.

    • Thanks for the comment, Debra. In general the outcome of immersion in the mikveh was to become ‘pure’; rabbinic sources give the ‘born again’ interpretation for certain cases (like that of the convert/proselyte).

  19. “Those whom He foreknew He predestined.” How do I fit into this? Am I one of the “predestined” ones? Somebody I knew from church years ago would say otherwise and it worries me. I want to be with my folks and my brother in Heaven.

    • Michelle, thank you for the deep and personal question. I find it troubling that someone else would make such assumptions and comments about whether the Creator knows you or not. I think one first-century Jewish text sums it up well: “God is not partial with regard to faces, but in every nation whoever fears him and lives justly is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:34-35). Maybe that helps!

    • Michelle, remember “Those whom He foreknew He predestined” is often misinterpreted. Those is plural not singular. If you choose to become a part of “Those” you are predestined to be saved. You can be with your folks and brother, you have no need to worry. Choose Jesus, you’ll be saved!

  20. God had removed me from Roman Catholic Church and the life idolatry, removed my worldly wants like the riches that most people run after, but gave me something that I would never want to exchange for anything Ever – I am saved by GOD’s Grace through faith in Christ.

  21. My question is, would not the spirit of mankind need to be regenerated from above ( God him self ) regenerating mans spirit so there is communication.
    Example as follows;
    (Rom 12:1)  I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.
    (Rom 12:2)  Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. ESV.
    Is not our human minds transformed by God speaking to our spirit and we respond by receiving the word and carrying the word ( thoughts of God) in our bodily actions ( spiritual worship) ?

    • Thanks, James. Without trying to comment on the Romans passage here, I think that by definition the conversation with Nakdimon/Nicodemus does indeed deal with some kind of special “regeneration” (a synonym of “rebirth”). To stick with the analogy proposed in the article, the rabbinic idea of conversion entails leaving one’s old life behind entirely, becoming “reborn” as essentially a “new person” with a new identity, mindset, calling, function, purpose, etc. connected to the God of Israel.

  22. “But at any age a person can choose to start a ‘new life’ pursuing the practical realization of justice, truth, and love.”
    Successful pursuit only with the help of the enabling Holy Spirit (Ezekiel 36:27). Therefore, must also be born of ruach.

  23. There is no way in the world that Nicodemus didn’t know what being born again meant. It simply did not happen. In the gospel of John, he represents those believers who remained in the synagogue, the darkness, according to John.

  24. You people are far too religious. Why does it matter who rejected Jesus, that doesn’t change anything. The Devil is in control of the world and Jesus wants to re-establish God’s kingdom. The Gospel is easily understood, why confuse it ?

  25. Yes; that new life that you are talking about can start at any time, in any place and under any situation or circumstance.

    Remember the thieves on the cross, one criticised Jesus and the other asked Jesus to remember him.

    Jesus responded, “Today you will be with me in paradise.”

  26. Shalom. Wow….. out of all this discussion only one person mentioned Ezekiel 36:25-27.
    Sorry, can’t paste that much material.
    It describes the new birth rather well, and so far, I’m able to corroborate the description in the new testament.
    It’d be nice to see a Hebrew believer’s scholar’s take.

  27. Nicodemus being a Pharisee would have been a first born child. A position of ‘judgment’ for the family. Jesus is saying become 2nd born (child of mercy) to have eternal life. Jesus being first born took upon himself God’s judgment for mankind. Something Nicodemus would come to realize.

  28. Good day all.
    This is one subject that budened me for long time untill 2004.
    I agree with some comments that Nicodemus, although he was jew, and was up to date with his religion did not have a clue what YESHUA meant. Plz allow me to say………

  29. hebrew thought? all beliefs can make their own, result is more thoughts w/ disunity. why should add a thought when jesus replied a thought of nicodemus asking shall we need born again by our mother? jesus: you must be born with water and spirt thus, is 100% born again.

  30. ……….that we need to have a rebirth from the SPIRIT of GOD, in a sense that is sort of supernatural. Example like Jacob and Moses (face2face, glowing). HE healed my pain (burden) by giving me a literal re-birth in a vision. And after that I understand a lot more about our CREATOR.

  31. In John 3:5. Jesus answered, Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. This means you need to be water immersed to be born again & obtain the Holy Spirit.

  32. Jesus was born of a virgin by the spirit of God. Birthed in a dirty animal stable. More dirty and cold then that place was my heart. In 1974 i read john 3 got on my knees and confessed my need to be born again by His death and resurrection.

  33. Thank you professor/Rabbi for refleshing the ‘born again-born from above-born of the Spirit theme. We hardly hear of this ‘gospel truth’ in churches today. My evangelical understanding of Yeshua’s statement is in simple straightforward terms, if one is not spiritually reborn, he is not saved. Even Nicodemus.

  34. John 15 : 16-17 You did not choose Me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in My name, He may give it to you.

  35. These things I command you, so that you will love one another. To finish verse from above. The assumption that I could choose God would mean I am more almighty than Him. I am natural born of the flesh, only
    He can only make me born again.

  36. “many (Gentiles) did make this choice, abandoning … pagan gods. According to rabbinic tradition …, … converts emerged from water immersion “reborn” to begin a “new life” with allegiance to the people and God of Israel.” This sounds like Gentiles should undergo conversion to join Israel in complete Torah observance.

  37. Biblically death is described same as birth. Ps 116:3 uses the term “chevle mavet,” umbilical chords of death. 2 Sam 22:6 David says “chevle sheol” encircles him. Same term described Yeshua as He prayed in the Garden “wraped in the umbilical chords of death” (translated “agony”). (per Dr. Danny Ben-Gigi)

  38. Some where the Bible tells us ‘…you do not know upon whom the Spirit will fall’. To me this suggests that to be born again is of the Spirit.

  39. Dr Yeshaya, thank you for this topic which has become the foundation for us many who believe that being born again is to start a new life committed to following Christ.

    I wonder where the thief who was promised paradise by Christ on the cross fits in here.

  40. Thanks for great insight. It simply cannot be a religious work or by that of work. ..it’s indeed of the Spirit. We should not underestimate the work of the Spirit as apposed to over estimating the abuse of reasoning.

  41. BLESSED LOVE in jeshua blessed name. the LORD SPOKE OF FULLFILLING THE THE LAW AS WROTE IN THE OLD TESTAMENT BY FULLFILLING THE PROMISE TO JEW AND FOR THE GENTILE .so regards to what we should do is made clear by the action of JESHUA SAVOIUR as he did also

  42. Jesus was answering Nicodemus’ query. The query was “No man can do what you do except God be with him.” Jesus’s talk to Nicodemus was an answer to this query is it not?

    • An intriguing suggestion, Joe! I’m not sure that Nicodemus’ opening statement was exactly a query (it seems more declarative). However, I do think that Yeshua’s response is a kind of rejoinder — taking what Nicodemus said and pushing it a step further, if you will. This then opens up the discursive possibilities that come out in the rest of the dialogue.

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