Jesus first spoke of being born again in John 3.
Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews; this man came to Jesus by night and said to Him, “Rabbi, we know that You have come from God as a teacher; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.” Jesus answered and said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
Nicodemus said to Him, “How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born, can he?” 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. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be amazed that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
Nicodemus said to Him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered and said to him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and do not understand these things? Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know and testify of what we have seen, and you do not accept our testimony. If I told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven, but He who descended from heaven: the Son of Man. As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life.
“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But he who practices the truth comes to the Light, so that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God.” (John 3:1-21)
We are all familiar with this passage, especially verse 16. Let’s unpack this a little. Firstly, we need to understand the context of the event. Back in John 2 we learn that Jesus was in Jerusalem, and while there, He cleansed the Temple by throwing everyone out that was corrupting the area by turning it into a business and dishonouring God.
In verse 23 we read, “Now when He was in Jerusalem at the Passover, during the feast, many believed in His name, observing His signs which He was doing.” So in chapter 3 Jesus is still in Jerusalem at the Passover, and we can safely assume that He stayed there for at least another week, because following the Passover was the Feast of Unleavened Bread, which lasted another week. So He was there for a couple of weeks, at least. And according to verse 23, He’s performing miracles, called signs by John; probably healing the sick, casting out demons and such, things that marked His entire earthly ministry, and they were so convincing that many believed in His name.
However, this faith was not saving faith, and that becomes clear in verse 24, “But Jesus, on His part, was not entrusting Himself to them.” In Greek, the verb used for entrusting in verse 24 is the same verb used for believing in verse 23. Another way you could say it is, “Jesus was not believing in their believing,” or “He had no faith in their faith.” In other words, He knew that it wasn’t saving faith; it wasn’t full faith; it didn’t have enough content.
How did He know that? The rest of verse 24 and verse 25 tell us, “for He knew all men, and because He did not need anyone to testify concerning man, for He Himself knew what was in man.” Jesus knew that they did not truly believe in who He was – that He is God, the Messiah – but merely in His teachings and powers. This becomes more apparent in the story of Nicodemus.
So let’s quickly look at the man. Who was Nicodemus? He is introduced in verse 1 as a Pharisee. The Pharisees were the religious leaders of the day, but as we learn through the Gospels, they were literally hypocrites. They were models of what true hypocrisy is. Jesus condemned them in Matthew 23, calling them sons of hell who produce more sons of hell, and repeatedly calls them hypocrites and pronounces damnations and curses on them, one after another. They tell people to do things that they were not willing to do themselves. They put burdens of legalism on people. They were phonies; frauds described by Jesus as whitewashed tombs on the outside, but inside full of corrupt dead men’s bones. Nicodemus was one of those.
But more than that, we also learn in verse 1 that he was a ruler of the Jews, in other words, a member of the Sanhedrin – the ruling group, or government if you will, made up of seventy men, who made many important decisions regarding the law – and to be in that group meant that Nicodemus was more than just a Pharisee, but was very intellectual and had climbed the ladder of Biblical knowledge and regarded as a superior teacher. Maybe he was even the main or chief Rabbi at the time. This could be why Jesus referred to him in verse 10 as the “the teacher of Israel.”
So here is Nicodemus, extremely religious and well studied, yet living the life of a hypocrite, and he comes to Jesus by night. Why is this significant? Well, he obviously realised that something was wrong and he needed clarity from Jesus about it, but he dared not come in the daylight, so like any hypocrite would, he goes to Jesus secretly. We could say he was similar to those who try to be secret Christians – in front of the world, their friends and family, they are just like everyone else, but in private try to be good Christians.
In reality, Nicodemus had no relationship with God. He had no assurance of forgiveness and did not understand the Kingdom of God. Since the spirit of a man knows what is in a man (cf. 1 Cor. 2:11), maybe Nicodemus was thinking to himself, “I am a rabbi, yet I do not know the things this man is teaching. I cannot perform the signs he is performing.” He wanted to know more, but he did not want anyone else to know that he was going to Jesus to learn more.
In verse 2 he says to Jesus, “Rabbi, we know that You have come from God as a teacher; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.” It is often taught that the we referred to here are the Pharisees or the Sanhedrin that Nicodemus was a part of, but in light of the context of what came before in chapter 2, it is actually far more than that. It refers to all that believed in Jesus’ teachings and miracles, but did not truly believe in Him.
So Nicodemus was speaking not only for himself but those others who were saying things similar to Nicodemus’ words in verse 2. They believed that He was a teacher, that He had come from God. Maybe that He was a prophet, but they were not saying that He was the Son of God, the long-awaited Messiah, the Saviour, Lord etc. That’s why this was not a saving faith.
This is some of the background, which brings us to Jesus’ response in verse 3, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” This is a strange answer to Nicodemus’ comment, but in light of chapter 2:25, that Jesus knew the inner thoughts of the people, Jesus was in effect answering what Nicodemus thought, what he really needed to hear, rather than just answer his voiced words.
This was not the answer Nicodemus would have expected. This was no “5 steps to Your Best Life Now” type of answer, but rather is was meaning a complete change. Even though he was a leader of the Jews and supposedly studied the Scriptures, what he really needed was nothing short of a complete overhaul of his life.
But he clearly did not understand Jesus’ words, that’s why in the next verse Nicodemus asks, “How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born, can he?” So Jesus had to clarify His words by saying “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” He was not talking about a physical rebirth, but a spiritual one, what is technically known as regeneration – a rebirth where the one spiritual nature gives way and is replaced by a new one.
This is in effect what it means to be born again. But there is one important thing to consider here with this phrase. In the Greek, born again is in the passive tense, in other words this is something that is done to you. It is not something you can do yourself. Jesus is using an illustration here that is actually very easy to understand – that of childbirth.
When a baby is conceived and born, who is responsible for that? The parents right? The baby could not decide to be conceived or born. They were merely a consequence of what his/her parents decided to do. In the same way, you do not have anything to do with your spiritual birth either. It is something decided by God and not you. In fact, a better translation of the Greek is born from above. You are born from God, or by God.
Regeneration, or being born again, means then that you receive a new life, a new nature, a new mind from God, and that you make no contribution to it. Paul describes this changed nature in 2 Corinthians 5:17, “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.” Being born again means that we are new creatures.
This is very instructive, and is actually very simple to understand. In short, Jesus is saying that for anyone to be able to see the Kingdom of Heaven, literally, to be able to participate in it, or to have a part in it, has to be regenerated from above. Whatever it is you may have accomplished in this life, whether it be lived a good, moral life, obeyed all the religious rules and practices, is all irrelevant because you cannot contribute anything to your spiritual rebirth. In the same way that you did not contribute to your physical birth, you cannot contribute to your spiritual birth.
A perfect illustration of this reality is found later in John, chapter 11 – the account of Lazarus.
Lazarus was a friend of Jesus and died suddenly due to an illness. He was in the grave, dead, for four days, when Jesus went to Bethany and rose Lazarus from the dead simply by calling out to Him, “Lazarus come forth.” At least that is what was seen on the outside of the tomb. But imagine what it was like in the tomb itself for a moment.
Lazarus had been dead four days. In fact, when Jesus asked them to remove the stone from the tomb, the people were hesitant because of the probable stink of the body. In the tomb, was there any movement on Lazarus’ part over the four days? No. Was he still walking around and was he able to eat or drink? No. If there was any chance that he was alive when they put him into the tomb, he would have certainly been dead at this point because he was wrapped up in his burial shroud and a person can only live for three days without water.
So when Jesus called out, “Lazarus come forth,” was it possible for Lazarus at that point in time to be able to respond? No. If it was possible for Lazarus to contribute anything to his resurrection, then why did he not raise himself before Jesus arrived? The only option is that Lazarus’ life came from outside of Himself – it came from Christ. That is why Jesus said here, “I am the resurrection and the life.”
Lazarus contributed nothing to his regeneration physically, and we too contribute nothing to our regeneration spiritually. Our spiritual life comes only from Jesus.
Why Is It Necessary to be Born Again?
But why is it necessary to be born again? Verses 16-21 give us the answer:
“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But he who practices the truth comes to the Light, so that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God.”
We so often quote verse 16 on its own and use it to teach the Gospel. Though you can do that, it should not actually stand alone. The reason I say that is twofold: firstly by the first word of the verse, for. This is what is known as a purpose clause. What is to come is an explanation, and not a stand-alone doctrinal statement. But an explanation of what? This is where my second reason comes in.
As I have already shown you, there is a larger context behind this. Nicodemus and others of his time believed that Jesus was a great man – that He was a good teacher and performed many miracles, that He was from God – but they did not believe Him to be the Son of God. Jesus here is in effect declaring the purpose for His coming. The people did not have a complete understanding of who He was, so Jesus was correcting that mindset. He was explaining that mental assent will not save, but whole-hearted belief in who He is as God, Messiah, Lord, etc. will.
But I am straying from my point a little. Notice the negative words and phrases in theses verses:
- perish (v16)
- judge (v17)
- he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. (v18)
- men loved the darkness rather than the Light (v19)
- their deeds were evil (v19)
- everyone who does evil hates the Light (v20)
- fear that his deeds will be exposed (v20)
These are all words and phrases that illustrate the need to be born again. Without spiritual rebirth we would all perish, we would be judged, we would love darkness rather than light, be practitioners of evil and hating even God Himself. This is who all of us would be today if God had not stepped in.
Jesus actually reminded Nicodemus that he should have remembered this fact in the first place in verses 7 and 10, “Do not be amazed that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’… Are you the teacher of Israel and do not understand these things?” Jesus was reminding him of the Old Testament that speaks of all mankind living in opposition to God. For example:
“There is nothing reliable in what they say; their inward part is destruction itself. Their throat is an open grave; they flatter with their tongue.” (Psalm 5:9)
“The LORD has looked down from heaven upon the sons of men to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God. They have all turned aside, together they have become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one.” (Psalm 14:2-3)
And in Exekiel 36 God tells the Israelites that they have a heart of stone that will be replaced by God with a heart of flesh. Paul picked up on these teachings later when he wrote the book of Romans, even quoting them. The reality is that man is living in opposition to God and does not even seek Him. He has no desire to be in a relationship with Him. Why? As Jesus said in verse 20, for fear that their evil will be exposed. Man wants to live doing his own thing, not answerable to God in any way.
Another thing that Nicodemus should have remembered, as is seen in Ezekiel 36 and other passages throughout the Old Testament, is that God was going to do something about it. Not man. Not the angels. But God Himself. God does not just point us to our sinful nature and leave us there with no solution. Nor does He tell us what is wrong and then give us a list of things we have to do to make it right. No, He does the work of regeneration Himself.
Here is what it says in Ezekiel 36:26-27, “Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances.”
Note the order there, first comes the new heart (being born again, regeneration) then comes the obedience or practices that we are to perform. He gives us the desire to do better. So in John 3 Jesus was in effect telling Nicodemus that his problem was not that he had not performed certain rituals or that he had not done enough to live a moral life that was acceptable to God, but rather that he needed to be born from above. God had to regenerate him before he could do anything else.
When Jesus told Nicodemus that he needed to be born again, his response should have been, “This is good news. This is what we have been waiting for. How can I be born again?”
So let’s answer that question ourselves: How are we born again?
How Are We Born Again?
The problem is that there is nothing we can do to be born again. It is impossible for us to do it. The good news, however, is that Jesus came to earth to make it possible. Through His life, death and resurrection, Jesus made the impossible, possible. He secured new life for His people.
Peter wrote, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His great mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to obtain an inheritance which is imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away, reserved in heaven for you” (1 Peter 1:3-4).
Regeneration, being born again, is a one-sided act of God. We simply receive His gift. All we can do is to ask Him to make us born from above. But in all honesty, if that is your true desire, chances are God has already started the work of regeneration in you anyway. And all you can do is accept His gift of grace in faith.
What are the Benefits?
But what are the benefits of being born again? Well as we have already seen it makes us into new creatures. And in light of John 3 there are a few other things:
- eternal life (v16)
- saved through Him (v17)
- not judged (v18)
One final question to consider, which is actually connected with the benefits:
How Do You Know You Have Been Born Again?
Good question, since we do not walk around with a visible stamp on our foreheads to say we are, nor do we get to walk around with a halo around our heads or get some great superpowers. In short, it is not always easy to tell if someone has been born again.
But verse 21 gives us a good measure, “But he who practices the truth comes to the Light, so that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God.”
First of all we have an inner desire to come to the Light. To stand before Christ. We want to read the Bible more, pray more, be in fellowship with other believers more.
But we also need to examine ourselves. We need to look for fruit in our lives. Regeneration always results in a visibly changed life. We will not change overnight, although sometimes certain things do change almost instantly. Instead at regeneration a process starts called sanctification that over time conforms us to be more like Jesus, and our desires change to be in line with His desires for us.
But this process of examining ourselves must not be done in isolation, instead we need to be part of a local church or group of people that are committed to our spiritual well-being. People who are not afraid to tell us that there is something in our lives that is not quite right and needs to change. People who will be witnesses to the fruit in our lives, whether good or bad, and help us to prune what does not belong and nurture that which does.
This in short is what it means to be born again.