“Jesus answered and said unto him, 'Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.'”
Back about 1970, the news media discovered the term “born again.” Perhaps initially it was associated with the Jesus People, which was kind of a Christian hippie group, but it quickly spread beyond them and was used to describe an intense conversion experience. By the mid 1970s, born again Christians were increasingly referred to in the mainstream media as part of the “Born Again Movement.” In 1976, Charles Colson, a Watergate conspirator and convicted felon, wrote a book called Born Again. The book described his path to Christ in conjunction with his criminal imprisonment. During the 1976 Presidential campaign, in the first Playboy magazine interview of a U.S. Presidential candidate, Jimmy Carter described himself as born again. The “born again movement” was suddenly big news. Many celebrities were being “born again.” Then like everything the news media turns its attention to, the coverage became embarrassing, overdone. Trivial. Suddenly every renewal, every change or return was described as “born again.” If a baseball batter, turned his season around and started hitting well, he was a “born again batter.” If an actor rejuvenated his career, he was “born again” as an actor, Eventually the term was so overdone and overused that even the media got tired of it, and dropped it, and the “Born Again Movement” was forgotten. At which point Christians breathed a sigh of relief—because it is distressing to believers when the sacred things of our faith are mishandled and misused.
The phrase “born again” is a special term for Christians. It describes the experience of salvation, conversion, and spiritual birth. Jesus uses this language during his encounter with Nicodemus in John 3.
Nicodemus is mentioned only in the gospel of John. We are told in v1 that he was a Pharisee and a leader of the Jews. We learn later in John 7:50-52, that he was, in fact, a member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish high court. He came to Jesus at night. It seems that the rich and well-to-do, even when they knew that Jesus taught the truth, were afraid to acknowledge him openly. Thus, we read later, in John 19:38 that Joseph of Arimathaea who was also a member of the Sanhedrin, was a secret disciple of Jesus. He was a secret disciple, John says, “for fear of the Jews.” We wonder who “the Jews” were. After all, is not John himself a Jew? And Nicodemus and Joseph were Jews. Who are “the Jews” that they are afraid of? Not the ordinary Jews certainly, the common people flocked to Jesus and loved him. By “the Jews” John seems to mean the Jewish establishment, the movers and shakers, the rulers. The wealthy and well to do were afraid and came to Jesus by night while the poor came openly by day, because the wealthy felt that they had more to lose. They had seats on the Sanhedrin and the admiration of their peers, and they did not want to lose that.
But we must admit that however he comes, Nicodemus is sincere in his seeking after Jesus. He is afraid for his position, but he has recognized that there is something of God about Jesus.
So he came to Jesus secretly and he said, "Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God." Notice that Nicodemus says “We know” that you are from God, indicating that there were others who were accounted leaders who believe.
John had mentioned in 2:23 that when Jesus “was in Jerusalem during the Passover festival, many believed in his name because they saw the signs that he was doing.” Perhaps Nicodemus is referring to these signs
But Jesus says that being impressed by signs is not enough. Verse 3, “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
Now Nicodemus heard what Jesus said, but he totally misunderstood what Jesus meant. He replies in v4, “How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter the second time into his mother's womb, and be born?” Obviously that is an absurd notion. We cannot climb back into our mother’s womb. Nicodemus is trying to interpret physically words that Jesus meant spiritually.
Jesus patiently explains in verses 5-7 saying, “Except a man be born of water and of 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. Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again.”
Perhaps, like many Jews, Nicodemus was expecting the messiah to appear soon, and, in the miracles of Jesus, he sees confirmation of this belief. He thinks that Jesus is either the messiah or a prophet. But Jesus tells him that such thoughts are of no advantage to him unless he also has a change of spirit, a change of attitude, equivalent to a new birth.
To be born again is to have a new life, to begin again. The implication is that the way we have lived previously is pretty much wasted. It was lived in the wrong way for the wrong purposes. If we think of life symbolically as the building of a house, then from the foundation up, we have been building it all wrong, and it is not going to help to go back and try to patch it up here and there. It is so wrong that it cannot be fixed, and the only thing to do is to tear it down and start over. In our lives, the only thing to do is tear it all down and start over with a new nature, new principles, and new purposes.
Now we should note that in v3 and v7, there is a minor translation difficulty. In the King James Version Jesus says, "You must be born again," but if you have a good study Bible, you will find a little footnote beside the word "again" and the footnote says "or 'from above.'" The problem is in the translation of the Greek word "." , like many words in many languages, has more than one meaning. It means both "from above" and "again." To be born speaks both of a time of birth, "again," and the source of this new birth, "from above." Most modern translations have Jesus saying, you must be born from above. But the KJV is also right when it says you must be born again.
Which we ask, did Jesus mean? He meant both. You must be born again, that is, you must have a spiritual birth, and the source of this birth is not in yourself. In comes from above, from God.
We need both meanings of . Yes we need a spiritual birth, but if I focus only on that I make it sound like something that I do on my own. I talk about my salvation as something I achieved. However, when we add that the power of this conversion was “from above,” we bring divine action into conversion. Being born again is being born from above, which means it is not only what I am doing, it is what God is doing in and through me. Being born "from above" identifies the source of regeneration. It is God’s work in and through me.
Our first birth is physical and fits us for life in this world. There is nothing wrong with that. We rejoice when a new baby is born. We marvel at the miracle of physical birth. As most of you know, I am a grandfather for the third time. I think babies are great. Granddaughters were put in the world for grandfathers to spoil. And Jesus loved children. But he also emphasized that physical birth is not enough. We need a spiritual birthday. We need a heavenly life, a life of communion with God. We need to partake of divine nature and bear the image of heaven.
Notice that the new birth is not optional. Jesus does not say that you can do this or not, and God will accept you anyway. He says that if you are not born again, you will not see the Kingdom of God. Again in v7, he says you must be born again. Such is the nature of the kingdom that the soul must be regenerated in order to be worthy of that kingdom.
It is like Jesus is saying that the soul is so messed up that it must be radically changed before it can receive any benefit from God. Furthermore, since we were made for communion with God, we can only find true happiness in being born again and united with the Son.
We are united to the Son through the action of the Holy Spirit. Jesus says in v5, “Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” Again this change is not wrought by our wisdom or our power, but by the power and influence of the Holy Spirit. This is the same sanctification of the spirit that Peter spoke of (IPT1:2). The Spirit points us to Christ. That is always the work of the Holy Spirit.
Furthermore, Jesus says that we must be born of water. This surely refers to the water of baptism in which we are washed clean of our sins. In Titus 3:5 it is called the washing of regeneration. Thus, every Christian is baptized in some way mode or fashion. I know that some folks like to argue about the mode of baptism, but that misses the point. The water does not save you. The mode of baptism does not save you. Rather, the water represents the change wrought by the new birth. When a baby comes to baptism, it comes helpless and totally dependent. Likewise, in our spiritual rebirth, we are totally dependent on God.
So what does a spiritually reborn person look like? A born-again person is open to surprises from God--unlike Nicodemus, who was full of preconceptions about what God could and could not do. A born-again person is willing to let the Spirit of God blow where it chooses, not knowing where it comes from or where it goes, racing far beyond human knowledge and control. A born-again person believes that Jesus is the one who moves between heaven and earth and who brings heaven and earth together; A born-again person trusts that "God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him" (v. 17). She trusts that she has been born again and born from above so that she can live in the unending presence of God, in an eternal life that never really ages and never finally ends.
It could be that the born-again person I have been describing looks like you! When you attend worship and sing and listen for God's Word, when you pray every day, when you read the scripture and seek to draw near to Christ in your regular routine, when you participate in the activities and outreach of a caring Christian community, when you do those kinds of things, you demonstrate born again behavior.
Jesus expects us to have two birthdays in our lives: the first when we are born to our mother and father, and the second when we are born of the Spirit of God. At the first birthday, we become part of a small family; At the second we become part of a very large family, a family of Christians that stretches all around the world. Our second birth gives us new brothers and sisters everywhere, and once we are born in this way, "born from above," we spend the rest of our lives growing closer to God and to Jesus and to members of the family of faith.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
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