John 1:13 describes a group of individuals “who were not born from blood nor from a fleshly will nor from a husband’s will but from God” (οἳ οὐκ ἐξ αἱμάτων οὐδὲ ἐκ θελήματος σαρκὸς οὐδὲ ἐκ θελήματος ἀνδρὸς ἀλλʼ ἐκ θεοῦ ἐγεννήθησαν). For John, being born “from blood” (ἐξ αἱμάτων), “from a fleshly will” (ἐκ θελήματος σαρκός), and “from a husband’s will” (ἐκ θελήματος ἀνδρός) would all have been perfectly reasonable ways of describing ordinary, human generation.1 Yet, the individuals John describes as not having been born in these ways but as having been born “from God” (ἐκ θεοῦ) are still very much human beings (John 1:9–12). John’s point, then, is not to negate the reality of the ordinary, human, physical generation of the individuals he describes but to negate the significance of this origin for determining the identity of the “children of God” (John 1:12; τέκνα θεοῦ).
Not surprisingly, then, fairly soon, the Gospel’s narrative finds Jesus discussing with Nicodemus how those who have been born by ordinary, human generation must be born ἄνωθεν (e.g., John 3:3, 7). That it would make no sense for Jesus to affirm that someone, especially an older person, would need “to go into his mother’s womb and be born a second time” (John 3:4; εἰς τὴν κοιλίαν τῆς μητρὸς αὐτοῦ δεύτερον εἰσελθεῖν καὶ γεννηθῆναι) Nicodemus already well knows.2 What Nicodemus fails to grasp is that, for Jesus, birth ἄνωθεν is not so much about a difference of time as it is difference of location (i.e., not so much about birth “again” as birth “from above”; cf. John 3:31), along with the precise definition Jesus gives to the latter.3 Thus, to be born “from above” (ἄνωθεν) is to have a share in the same parentage as “the one who has descended from heaven” (John 3:13; ὁ ἐκ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ καταβάς; cf. John 3:31). Such parentage is that of the Father who sends the Son to do his will (John 6:38) so that the Son also gives this same commission to his disciples and his siblings (John 18:36; 20:17, 21).4
1. William Hendriksen and Simon J. Kistemaker, Exposition of the Gospel according to John (New Testament Commentary; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1953), 1:82; Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 2003), 404–5; Andreas J. Köstenberger, John (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004), 39–40.
2. Nicodemus seems not quite sure what to make of Jesus’ initial response or his further clarification (John 3:3–10; cf. Chrysostom, Hom. Jo., 24.2–3 [NPNF1, 14:85–86]; Keener, John, 544–45; Andreas J. Köstenberger, A Theology of John’s Gospel and Letters: The Word, the Christ, the Son of God [Biblical Theology of the New Testament; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009], 474–76). Yet, the syntax of Nicodemus’s question in John 3:4b indicates that he expects Jesus to reject the possibility he there raises for interpreting what Jesus has said about birth ἄνωθεν (BDF, §427.2; cf. NASB95 and NET, sub. loc.).
3. Keener, John, 537; Köstenberger, Theology of John’s Gospel and Letters, 474–76. Of course, assuming that it would temporally follow birth according to ordinary, human generation, a birth “from above” would also be a kind of “second” birth (cf. Augustine, Faust., 24.1 [NPNF1, 4:317]; Chrysostom, Hom. Rom., 10.17 [NPNF1, 11:403]). Yet, for Jesus in John 3, this temporal sequence seems not to be nearly so significant as is the spatial distance between heaven and earth and the ideological significance that distance bears.