Only twice in the New Testament (Matthew 19:28 and Titus 3:6) does the word paliggenesia occur. Matthew’s Gospel and Paul’s Pastoral Epistles may seem to be worlds apart, yet these documents probably were written in the 60’s of the first century and both by Jewish Christians. The word generally connotes ‘renewal’ of some kind. By the time Matthew and Paul were writing, it had entered the general discourse of the Hellenistic world.
The usage in Matthew’s Gospel occurs in the discussion Jesus has with his disciples following his encounter with the rich man (Matthew 19:16-30). After warning his disciples that wealth creates a significant barrier to entering the Kingdom, they wonder “Who then is able to be saved?” (v.25). Jesus assures them that God has the power to rescue people. Peter wonders what special reward God will give the disciples because of the sacrifice they have made to follow Jesus. In his response Jesus promises that his followers “in the renewal (paliggenesiai) when the son of man sits on his throne of glory, you also will sit on twelve thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel” v.28). At the end of v. 29 Jesus says they “will inherit eternal life.”
In the parallel passages in Mark 10:28-29 and Luke 18:28-30 the term paliggenesia is not used. Matthew seems to incorporate it in his account in order to emphasize that Jesus was talking to his disciples not about historical events, but events that occur after the end of this age.
In this eschatological context Jesus links this ‘renewal’ (paliggenesiai) to his second coming and the final judgment. Matthew uses an article with this noun, indicating that he is referring to something quite specific, i.e. ‘the renewal’. Elsewhere he talks about “heaven and earth passing away” (5:18; 24:35). “The renewal” presumably refers to that which replaces the old heaven and earth.
This usage resembles that found in Stoicism, one of the major Greek philosophies. Stoics believed that the universe experienced cycles of fiery destruction (ekpurosis) and renewal (paliggenesiai). The Jewish philosopher Philo sought to refute this Stoic doctrine, but does make it quite clear that they believed the world was perishable, “subject to the conflagration”, but the world was also eternal, “through the ceaseless rebirths (paliggenesiai) and cycles that render it immortal.” Greek-speaking Jews borrowed this terminology and applied it to their belief that one day God would remake the world.
We discover what Philo meant by this word when he retells the story of Noah and the great flood. As Noah, his family and the animals emerge from the ark they “became leaders of the regeneration (paliggenesia), inaugurators of a second cycle, spared as embers to rekindle mankind….” This term can refer to the renewal of the earth following the great flood, as well as the renewal of the earth following the final judgment. When the Jews hear the good news that the Persian king will let them return to Palestine from exile, Josephus tells us they “spent seven days in feasting and celebrating the recovery and rebirth (paliggenesia) of their native land.”
Finally, Philo can use this term to describe his existence after death. “What of it [the soul] after death? But then we who are here joined to the body, creatures of composition and quality, shall be no more, but shall go forward to our rebirth (paliggenisa), to be with the unbodied, without composition and without quality.”
I note these to demonstrate how variously this term was used within Greek-speaking Judaism contemporary with Matthew and specifically in relation to eschatological subjects.
Paul employs it somewhat differently. In Titus 3:6 he is in the midst of a long sentence that describes how God has acted in Christ for our salvation. He claims that God “saved us by washing of rebirth (paliggenesia) and renewal (anakainoseos) by the Holy Spirit….” Some conclude that this washing must refer to baptism and so Paul is identifying baptism with ‘rebirth’. While there is no warrant in the passage to suggest that the ritual of baptism is the means of salvation, this “washing” probably makes reference to the ritual of baptism as one of the actions that a convert to Jesus embraces, but the emphasis is upon the spiritual results of such washing (cf. Galatians 3:26-29). The terms ‘rebirth’ and ‘renewal’ are very close in meaning, if not synonymous, and Paul describes one event by these expressions, joining them behind a single preposition. The Holy Spirit is instrumental in both aspects, defining how we are saved.
Paul uses this language of rebirth and renewal to focus attention on the moral change that has occurred because of conversion. Just as the new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17) prepares people to be “ministers of reconciliation”, so this “washing of rebirth” should lead Christians “to devote themselves to doing what is good” (Titus 3:8).
The connection between the usage of this word in Matthew and in Paul comes, I think, in the realization that the Holy Spirit through salvation prepares us right now to participate in the new heaven and earth that God will establish at the end of the age. Our personal “rebirth” is one part of this far greater work that God is doing. The word paliggenesia emphasizes the extensive spiritual and moral change that affects the person who follows Jesus and in whom God places His Holy Spirit.
- how is the reality of Jesus’ return affecting your life today? Our eschatology will shape our ethics;
- consider the drastic changes that will occur when God establishes the ‘new heaven and new earth’ (Revelation 20);
- reflect upon the way your personal ‘renewal’ enables you to anticipate and express right now something of the life we will have in the ‘new heaven and new earth’
- what role does the Holy Spirit have in these divine activities?
- 1. Philo, The Eternity of the World, section 9.
- 2. Philo, Moses II, section 65
- 3. Josephus, Antiquities XI, 66,
- 4. Philo, On the Cherubim, section 114.
- 5. No occurrence of this noun prior to Paul’s usage has been found. Possibly Paul has coined this term (Romans 12:1-2).