You must be born again

Jesus’ conversation with a ruler of the Jews named Nicodemus revealed important information about how to get to heaven. Nicodemus approached Jesus with the intent of discovering the secret to his success. John’s gospel tells us, “This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.’” (John 3:2). Nicodemus knew there was a spiritual component to Jesus’ ministry that couldn’t be overlooked, but he didn’t realize that Jesus was more than just a teacher and that he had the ability to do things that were beyond the scope of normal human comprehension. Nicodemus’ recognition that Jesus had come from God was a step in the right direction, but Nicodemus missed the mark when he admitted “No one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him” (John 3:2). God was not with Jesus, Jesus was God in human flesh. Jesus told Nicodemus, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). The Greek word that Jesus used that is translated see, eido (iˊ-do) has to do with experience and suggests that Jesus wanted Nicodemus to connect the kingdom of God with something beyond the perception of his physical senses. The phrase that Jesus used, born again isn’t related to a person’s physical birth, but has the connotation of spiritual regeneration.

You might say that Jesus’ comment about being born again went right over Nicodemus’ head because he responded, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” (John 3:4). Jesus likely used the term born, or gennaō (ghen-nahˊ-o) in the Greek, because birth signified a definite event that occurred at a specific point in time. We all know that being born is something that is necessary for us to be alive and can relate to birth as a significant event in everyone’s life. If you have been born, you are clearly aware of it. The part that was probably confusing to Nicodemus was the part about being born again. The Greek word that is translated again in John 3:3, anothen (anˊ-o then) means “from above” (G509). Anothen is derived from the word ano (anˊ-o) which means “upward or on the top” (G507). In Acts 2:9 ano is used to signify being “in a higher place” and also refers to heavenly things in the sense that they are above or more important than other things. Nicodemus may have misunderstood Jesus’ use of the term anothen in the phrase born again because he knew that all life originates with God, but Jesus wasn’t talking about a second physical birth. Jesus was talking about an actual event, a second birth that superseded the first one because it was of a spiritual rather than a physical nature.

John said about Jesus, “He who comes from above is above all” (John 3:31). In this statement, John used the same Greek word anothen, which is translated again in John 3:3, to convey Jesus’ superiority over everything else. When we are born again, our spiritual life begins to take precedence over our physical life and we are able to live on a higher plane, the spiritual plane which is associated with heaven. Matthew referred to the kingdom of heaven on numerous occasions and his gospel contains many parables that Jesus used to describe what this realm is like. After telling his followers the parable of the sower, Jesus’ disciples came to him and asked, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” (Matthew 13:10). Jesus answered them, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven but to them it has not been given. For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand” (Matthew 13:11-13).

Jesus connected being able to understand what he was saying to being born again and said that you cannot see or hear things associated with heaven unless you have access to that realm. Jesus told Nicodemus, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter 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 marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:5-8). Jesus equated being born again with entering the kingdom of God. The Greek word that is translated enter, eiserchomai (ice-erˊ-khom-ahee) is derived from the words eis (ice) which signifies the primary idea of motion into any place or thing (G1519) and erchomai (erˊ-khom-ahee) which represents movement in a particular direction (G2064). Essentially, what Jesus was saying was that there was a passage way that one had to travel through in order to reach the kingdom of God. Somewhat like the birth canal that must be passed through when a child is born, there is a particular way for a person to get into the kingdom of heaven and Jesus equated that with being “born of water and of the Spirit” (John 3:5).

Jesus noted the Holy Spirit’s prominent role in the process of spiritual birth when he said that “unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5). It seems that Jesus’ indication that both water and the Spirit were involved in spiritual birth means that both are required for it to happen. In the same way that it takes both an egg and a sperm to make a child, the Holy Spirit and water or perhaps water baptism make it possible for spiritual regeneration to take place. It could be that Jesus’ comment about entering the kingdom of God was not about spiritual birth, but about spiritual life. As we all know, conception takes place inside the mother’s womb, but the child’s birth doesn’t happen until later. Birth makes is possible for a new stage of the child’s development to begin. It’s possible that being born again happens in two stages. First the conception, when the Holy Spirit comes in and regenerates a person and then, the birth, when a person is baptized and makes a public profession of faith.

Jesus associated the human spirit with the wind and said, “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8). A unique characteristic of the wind that differentiates it from other natural forces is that you can’t see it, but you know that it’s present because of its effect on the things that it comes in contact with. The Greek word pneuma (pnyooˊ-mah) is translated as both wind and Spirit in John 3:8. Pneuma is “the vital spirit of life, the principle of life residing in man. The breath breathed by God into man and again returning to God, the spiritual entity in man (Matthew 27:50; Luke 8:55; 23:46; John 19:30; Acts 7:59; 1 Corinthians 15:45; Revelation 13:15)” (G4151). Pneuma is derived from the word pneo (pnehˊ-o) which means “to breathe hard, i.e. breeze” (G4154). This might make it seem as if the spiritual aspect of man is uncontrollable, but it could be that God causes us to be born again so that like the wind he can get us moving and so that his power will have a channel to flow through.

Psalm 135 focuses on the greatness of God and his ability to accomplish things. Psalm 135:5-7 states:

For I know that the Lord is great,
    and that our Lord is above all gods.
Whatever the Lord pleases, he does,
    in heaven and on earth,
    in the seas and all deeps.
He it is who makes the clouds rise at the end of the earth,
    who makes lightnings for the rain
    and brings forth the wind from his storehouses.

The Hebrew word that is translated wind in Psalm 135:7, rûwach (rooˊ-akh) is similar to the Greek word pneuma. Ruwach also describes the breath of a human being or the natural wind that blows. “The human spirit is sometimes depicted as the seat of emotion, the mind, and the will. The human spirit and the Spirit of God are closely linked with moral character and moral attributes” (H7307) It says in Ezekiel 11:19 and 36:26 that God will give his His people a new spirit so they will follow His decrees and laws.

Psalm 135:7 emphasizes God’s control of the natural forces. The psalmist said that God “makes the clouds rise…makes lightnings for the rain…and brings forth the wind from his storehouses.” It could be that when we are born again, we become more like that natural forces that are under God’s control. Jesus eluded to this in his final words to Peter who had previously denied his relationship with Jesus three times (John 18:17, 25-27). Jesus told Peter, “Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go” (John 21:18).

Following Jesus comment that “the wind blows where it wishes…but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8), Nicodemus openly acknowledged his lack of spiritual perception by asking, “How can these things be?” (John 3:9). Rather than explaining things to Nicodemus, Jesus took the conversation in whole new direction. He stated:

Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but youdo not receive our testimony.If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. (John 3:11-15)

Jesus referred to an experience that the Israelites had while they were wandering in the wilderness for 40 years. The incident is recorded in Numbers 21:6-9. It states:

Then the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. And the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you. Pray to the Lord, that he take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” So Moses made a bronzeserpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.

Moses’ account of what happened included three important steps that the Israelites had to take in order to avoid death after being bitten by the fiery serpents. The first step they took was to admit that they had sinned (Numbers 21:7). The Hebrew word that is translated sinned, chata (khaw-tawˊ) is a verb meaning to miss the mark…It indicates failure to do what is expected; the one who fails to find God in this life destroys himself (Proverbs 8:36)” (H2398). Second, the Israelites asked Moses to intercede with God on their behalf (Numbers 21:7). It says in Numbers 21:7, “So Moses prayed for the people.” The last thing that the Israelites had to do was to look at the bronze serpent (Numbers 21:9). The Israelites didn’t just glance at the bronze serpent and live, they had to consider its ability to save them and make a conscious decision to rely on it as a cure for their sin.

Jesus said, “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:14-15). Jesus emphasized the requirement of belief in order to have eternal life. Believing in something or someone means that you have faith in him with the idea of hope and certain expectation (G4100). One of the keys to having faith is trust. When you believe in someone, you trust that he will do what he says he’s going to, that he won’t disappoint you. The Greek word that is translated believes in John 3:15, pisteuo (pist-yooˊ-o) is derived from the word pistis (pisˊ-tis). Pistis is “a technical term indicative of the means of appropriating what God in Christ has for man, resulting in the transformation of man’s character and way of life. Such can be termed gospel faith or Christian faith (Romans 3:22ff.)” (G4102). Pistis means “persuasion, i.e. credence; moral conviction (of religious truth, or the truthfulness of God or a religious teacher), especially reliance upon Christ for salvation.” The Greek word pistis comes from the word peitho (piˊ-tho) which means “to convince…meaning to let oneself be persuaded…to assent to, obey, follow” (G3982).

The argument that Jesus presented to Nicodemus was that God loved the world and wanted to save it. Jesus said:

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” (John 3:16-18)

Jesus’ explanation of why God sent him into the world to save it made it clear that condemnation was the thing that needed to be avoided. Condemnation is the result of sin and will be the outcome of everyone’s lives that does not put their trust in Jesus Christ.

Jesus went on to say, “And this is the judgement: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God” (John 3:19-21). Jesus used the contrast of light and darkness to show Nicodemus that the Pharisees criticism of his ministry was motivated by guilt. Jesus said, “For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed” (John 3:20). Jesus was likely prompting Nicodemus to search his own soul and see if there was anything that needed to be forgiven. It seems that Nicodemus left without making a decision one way or the other to follow Christ because their conversation ended abruptly after Jesus’ comment about those who do wicked things hating the light.

John the Baptist echoed Jesus’ sentiment when he said, “He who is of the earth belongs to the earth and speaks in an earthly way. He who comes from heaven is above all…Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him” (John 3:31-36). The Greek word that John used that is translated does not obey is apeitheo (ap-i-thehˊ-o) which means “to disbelieve (willfully and perversely)” (G544). Apeitheo speaks of a conscious decision being made to not believe what one knows to be true. It’s not clear in John 3 if Nicodemus accepted or rejected Jesus’ message the night that he spoke to him or went away and gave it some more thought before making his final decision. John recorded in his gospel that Nicodemus later defended Jesus when the Pharisees spoke against his ministry (John 7:49-52) and was present when Joseph of Arimathea prepared Jesus’ body for burial (John 19:38-40).

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