There is a long-standing disagreement about the meaning of the phrase “born again” among many Christian theologians, scholars, and Bible commenters which has arisen out of its use in the Gospel of John, specifically when Christ uses it speaking to the Israelite Pharisee, Nicodemus, in John 3:3.
The most common English translation reads,
“Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.'”—NASB 1995
However, an alternative literal translation reads,
“Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Verily, verily, I say to thee, If any one may not be born from above, he is not able to see the reign of God'”—Young’s Literal Translation
The literal translation from the Koine Greek phrase “gennaó” (Strong’s 1080, meaning “beget” or “generate from”) — and “anóthen” (Strong’s 509, meaning “from above or from heaven,” or “from the beginning,” or “anew” or “again”) depending on the context.
For those who claim that “anóthen” can mean only “from above” are refuted by the very fact that Nicodemus does not understand it that way — he clearly takes it, perhaps disingenuously, to literally mean “again” — that Christ is telling him he must literally be born from his mother’s womb again when he says,
“Nicodemus saith unto him, ‘How is a man able to be born, being old? is he able into the womb of his mother a second time to enter, and to be born?'”—John 3:4
Because he is a Pharisee and lacks spiritual discernment, Christ is fully aware that Nicodemus was going to misunderstand His figurative language and take it literally — which opens the door for Christ to reveal its deeper, non-literal, meaning.
Whether one takes “gennaó anóthen” literally as born again from the womb or literally as “born an Israelite,” you are doomed to miss the import of Christ’s metaphorical language that points us toward a deeper spiritual meaning.
These phrases — “born again” or “born from above” are unique to the New Testament — they appear nowhere in the Old Testament — therefore, their meaning must be understood in the context of the relationship between Jesus Christ and his followers.
Clearly, Nicodemus, as a Pharisee, must have been well-versed in the Old Testament — yet he had never before heard this phrase — “gennaó anóthen” — nor did it occur to him that it meant “born from above” or that it referred to being born of Jacob-Israel or of Abraham.
“Unless you are born of the lost sheep of the House of Israel, you will not see the Kingdom of Heaven.”
After all, that’s exactly what Christ said early in his ministry in Matthew 15:24:
“He answered and said, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’”
But Christ didn’t say that to Nicodemus because He had already established the fact that He came only for Israelites — and there would be no point in telling the Israelite Nicodemus that he had to be an Israelite to follow Him.
Yes, there are some who claim that Nicodemus was not a real Israelite — that he was some sort of crypto-Edomite — but there’s no proof of that, and if Nicodemus were an Edomite, Christ wouldn’t have tried to convert him, nor said to him,
“Thou art the teacher of Israel — and these things thou dost not know!”–John 3:10
Christ here demonstrates that the literal-minded Pharisees — clinging to the Law — are blinded to Christ’s spiritual teachings — and the necessity of spiritual redemption of Israel through Him. Merely being born an Israelite and attempting to adhere to the Law is not enough to bring about salvation.
And if Christ had told Nicodemus he had to be an Israelite to follow Him, there’s no doubt Nicodemus would have responded the same way the Pharisees had boasted to John the Baptist in Matthew 3:9 before John cut them off:
“And do not think to say to yourselves, ‘A father we have — Abraham,’ for I say to you, that God is able out of these stones to raise children to Abraham”—Young’s Literal Translation
The Amplified Bible translation provides the meaning of John’s words here:
“And do not presume to say to yourselves [as a defense], ‘We have Abraham for our father [so our inheritance assures us of salvation]’; for I say to you that from these stones God is able to raise up children (descendants) for Abraham.”
There are those who claim that this verse is some sort of proof that the Pharisees were not real Israelites, but that interpretation is contradicted by John’s following explanation:
“And now also, the axe unto the root of the trees is laid, every tree therefore not bearing good fruit is hewn down, and to fire is cast. ‘I indeed do baptize you with water to reformation [or repentance], but he who after me is coming is mightier than I, of whom I am not worthy to bear the sandals, he shall baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire,”–Matthew 3:10-11
Here John compares the Israelites to trees — and the “root” of the trees is their father Abraham — but John warns the Pharisees that if they do not bear good fruit and become “reformed” or “repentant” through baptism from Christ, they will be cast into the fire.
And if the Pharisees were not true Israelites, then why would John even bother to baptize them? The answer is simply that he wouldn’t have.
The word “reformed” here in Matthew 3:10-11 comes from the Greek “metanoia” (Strong’s 3341) which means “change in the inner man” or “repentance.”
In other words, it’s not the Israelite flesh that we are born into that needs to change, but it’s our inner spirit that needs to be “reborn” — as Nicodemus says, the flesh cannot be reborn.
This prophecy of John the Baptist that the Pharisees would be offered salvation was fulfilled by example when the Pharisee Nicodemus approached Christ who confirmed what John had said — that he must “change the inner man” — and be “born of the Holy Spirit” and confirmed either through the words of Christ or through the symbolism of baptism — or both:
“Jesus answered, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.'”—John 3:5
Just as John the Baptist would never have promised the Pharisees that Christ would soon come and offer to baptize them if they were not Israelites in the first place — Christ wouldn’t have bothered to explain to Nicodemus the importance of becoming reborn in the Holy Spirit if he weren’t a literal-minded Israelite Pharisee clinging to the Law of the Old Testament.
The early Church father — John Chrysostom (347 – 407AD) — explained why Nicodemus failed to understand the figurative and ambiguous words of Christ,
“Nicodemus heard of the spiritual Birth, yet perceived it not as spiritual, but dragged down the words to the lowness of the flesh, and made a doctrine so great and high depend upon physical consequence. And so he invents frivolities, and ridiculous difficulties.
Wherefore Paul said, “The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit.” (1 Corinthians 2:14.) Yet even in this he preserved his reverence for Christ, for he did not mock at what had been said, but, deeming it impossible, held his peace.
There were two difficulties; a Birth of this kind, and the Kingdom; for neither had the name of the Kingdom ever been heard among the Jews, nor of a Birth like this. But he stops for a while at the first, which most astonished  his mind.”—Homilies of Chrysostom, John 3:1-3
So we see with the encounter with Nicodemus that the terms translated as “born again”and “born from above” have dual meanings — it stipulates that you must be an Israelite “from the beginning,” but over and above that, you also must also be reborn or reformed by the Holy Spirit through faith in Jesus Christ.
If merely being born an Israelite — as was Nicodemus — were enough to ensure his salvation, then Christ would never had told him that he also needed to be figuratively — and literally — baptized and reborn of the Spirit through Christ, confirming the words of John the Baptist.
Christ taught Nicodemus that all Israelites must be “born again” into His Spirit in order to be saved, but many Christians — misled by their pastors — have ignored the first requirement and extended the ability to be “born again” in Christ to anyone and everyone regardless of whether or not they are Israelite or Adamic.
Read our essays on debunking Christian Universalism — along with Charles Weiseman’s book Is Universalism Of God? — to better understand how “Born Again” Christians follow a false doctrine steeped in Marxism.
That “Born Again” Christians have falsely universalized this exchange between Christ and Nicodemus is not the fault of Christ — or the translation — after all, He repeatedly warns His followers many will come in His name preaching false doctrines:
“For false Christs and false prophets will arise and will show great signs and wonders, so as to mislead, if possible, even the elect.”–Matthew 24:24
If we insist that “gennaó anóthen” cannot and should not ever be translated as “born again,” we make the entire exchange between Christ and Nicodemus to none effect — because it is essential that Nicodemus mistakenly understands the term to literally mean “born again” so that Christ can reveal its deeper meaning.
We can accept the translation of “gennaó anóthen” as “born again” — but if we do so, we must be careful to reject the false universalist teachings of dispensationalism that virtually all mainstream Christian denominations have heaped upon it.
Christ taught Nicodemus that all Israelites must be baptized and born again in His Spirit from above in order to be saved — and that merely being born an Israelite and circumcised is not sufficient to save them.
Later, in his epistle to the Israelite Philippians, Paul confirms this teaching of Christ to Nicodemus — that merely being born an Israelite — though required to be one of His Sheep — is insufficient for salvation and “resurrection from the dead”:
“If anyone else thinks he has grounds for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin; a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, persecuting the church; as to righteousness in the law, faultless.
But whatever was gain to me I count as loss for the sake of Christ. More than that, I count all things as loss compared to the surpassing excellence of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, a the righteousness from God on the basis of faith.
I want to know Christ and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to Him in His death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.”—Philippians 3:4-11