A common fallacy is that words are 1-1 map of reality. But most words have a whole range of possible meaning. For example, take the word “can” in English.
can: What you put beans in, a “tin can.”
can: Ability to do, as in, “I can.”
can: another word for a toilet as in, “I gotta go to the can.”
Greek words are the same. Words rarely have one meaning. There is a range of possible meaning, what linguists call a “semantic range.”
Often, playing with this range of meaning is what makes literature powerful, and John is a master of this. A great example of this is the word “ἄνωθεν” (a-nō-then). It means two different things.
ἄνωθεν: from above
Jesus tells Nicodemus,
Ἀμὴν ἀμὴν λέγω σοι, ἐὰν μή τις γεννηθῇ ἄνωθεν, οὐ δύναται ἰδεῖν τὴν βασιλείαν τοῦ θεοῦ. (John 3:3)
Truly, truly, I’m telling you: if someone is not born ἄνωθεν, it is not possible to see the Kingdom of God.
See the wonderful double-meaning here? To see the Kingdom of God a person must be born “again” and “from above.”
It is possible that John had just one of these meaning in mind. But more likely, John had both ideas in view. They are both true.
1) We must be born again. We must experience a spiritual birth that is just as real as our physical birth.
2) We must be born from above.
As you read John carefully, you see that one of the big questions is “Where is Jesus from?” People get all tripped up about this. Prophets don’t come from Nazareth (John 1:46)! Prophets don’t come from Galilee (John 7:52)! Therefore Jesus can’t be a prophet.
Of course, we want to shout, “Jesus was born in Bethlehem!” But John’s point is even deeper. Jesus is not first and foremost the man from Nazareth, or Galilee, or Bethlehem. Jesus is the man from above (ἄνωθεν).
The one who comes from above is above all; the one who is from the earth belongs to the earth, and speaks as one from the earth. The one who comes from heaven is above all. (John 3:31. See also 8:23.)
To see the Kingdom, we too must be born ἄνωθεν, from above. This is a spiritual birth, an opening of the eyes to the transcendent, “from-above” plane of existence.
So “born again” Christians are also “born-from-above” Christians. Like our Master, our existence involves more than meets the eye.
This insight gets lost in translation. English has no word that means both “again” and “from above.” It is forced to choose one or the other. John meant both.