Jesus, in his conversation with Nicodemus told him that unless a man is born again he will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven. So, if being born again is the way into the Kingdom of God, then it is of utmost importance; in fact, it is the most important aspect of a persons’ life, as being born again or not is going to determine his/her eternal destiny.
WHAT DID JESUS MEAN WHEN HE SAID ‘BE BORN AGAIN’?
To be born again means to be born anew – born anew into a relationship with God. While we may consider ourselves prayerful and therefore spiritual, the Bible reveals that ‘we are all spiritually dead’ – completely disconnected from God – from the time of birth because of sin.
In Eph 2:1 the Bible says, ‘And you He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins’.
To be born again is to be made alive to God in our spirits. Being born into a relationship with God opens to us a new world, a new Kingdom : the Kingdom of God. A person being born again implies that he is now a child of God, a citizen of heaven and is saved from eternal damnation.
When we are born the first time, it was our birth in the flesh, through our parents into this world, but in order to enter(be born) into the Kingdom of God, Jesus said we need to be ‘born again’ by water and the spirit. Just because a person is born into a Christian family, or has been baptized (as an infant or adult), or goes to Church and prays regularly, or is active in the Church, it does not mean that he is born into a relationship with God or will enter into the Kingdom of God. He needs to be born again. That is why Jesus said, ‘You must be born again’.
HOW CAN A PERSON BE BORN AGAIN?
The simplest way to understand this is to look at the very passage in John 3:1-21, where Jesus mentioned it and to study what Jesus said.
1 There was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. 2 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.”3 Jesus answered and said to him, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” 4 Nicodemus said to Him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” 5 Jesus answered, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
9 Nicodemus answered and said to Him, “How can these things be?”
10 Jesus answered and said to him, “Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not know these things? 11 Most assuredly, I say to you, We speak what We know and testify what We have seen, and you do not receive Our witness. 12 If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of Man who is in heaven.
14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. 16 For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. 17 For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.
18 “He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. 19 And this is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. 20 For everyone practicing evil hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. 21 But he who does the truth comes to the light, that his deeds may be clearly seen, that they have been done in God.”
First, let’s understand what being born again does not mean:
It does not mean that one needs to just be a good person or become a better person than he already is in order to enter the kingdom of Heaven. Because if it meant that one only needs to be good then Jesus would not have told Nicodemus that he needs to be born again, as from this passage it is more than clear that Nicodemus was a good person. While all the other Pharisees and Sadducees and teachers of the law shunned Jesus, Nicodemus comes to Jesus, acknowledges that Jesus is a teacher from God and marvels at the miracles of Jesus and engages in lengthy conversation with Jesus.
- It does not mean just having a mental belief in the person of Jesus. Because from the passage it is clear that Nicodemus had a certain amount of faith in who Jesus was and in His works; but for Jesus that was not sufficient.
It is not something of the flesh or only of the mind because Jesus insisted that that which is born of the flesh is flesh but that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. We all have a sense of God, a reverence for God, a knowledge and awareness of God in the mind; all that is of the flesh. Being born again by the Spirit is something much, much deeper.
“HOW CAN THESE THINGS BE?”
Jesus said, ‘You must be born again’ and Nicodemus asks, “How can these things be?” So, in the rest of the passage Jesus is responding to that question because in no way could he have left such an important question unanswered.
In verse 14, Jesus takes Nicodemus’ mind back to what happened to the Israelites in the wilderness. In Numbers 21:5-9, the Israelites spoke against God and God sent fiery serpents among them which bit them and many died. Then the people came to Moses, confessed their wrongdoing and asked that he would pray for them. And when Moses prayed God asked him to make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, upon which if anyone looked he would live. And in Num 21:9 we read,
‘So, Moses made a bronze serpent, and put it on a pole; and so it was, if a serpent had bitten anyone , when he looked at the bronze serpent, he lived.
Any person on the verge of death, having been bitten by a serpent, if he just looked at the fiery serpent on the pole would live! How glorious! All a dying person had to do was look at the fiery serpent in obedience to the word of God through Moses. He did not have to take some medicine, he did not have to do penance, he did not have to do any good work – he just had to look. And when any Israelite who was bitten looked, in the look was expressed his belief in God and obedience to God. Because to look at a statue of a bronze serpent when one is dying does not sound like a very wise idea but the Israelites believed, obeyed and hence looked at it, in spite of the foolishness of the suggestion. By doing this they were saved.
The Israelites sinned and were perishing, but when they confessed their sin Moses stood in the gap and prayed, and God gave the remedy. Though the remedy sounded irrational those who believed were saved.
Then in verse 14 and15, Jesus tells Nicodemus that just as Moses lifted up the serpent even so the Son of Man must be lifted up. ‘That whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life’. Drawing a parallel with what happen to the Israelites in the wilderness, Jesus was telling Nicodemus, that sin in the heart is like a serpent bite that poisons and destroys us and the remedy for sin is not good works, self –effort, penance or a better life, just as good works, penance or a better life cannot save us from a real serpents’ bite. But the remedy is from God Himself: God sent His only begotten Son, to be lifted up (to die) on a cross for the sins of mankind, and whoever looks upon the cross and believes (just believes) in Him will not perish (die eternally) but will be saved, just as the Israelites in the wilderness. The Israelites by looking at the bronze serpent extended their earthly lives but when we look at Jesus on the cross and believe we receive eternal life. Though it might seem like foolishness to many, it is God’s remedy and the only remedy for us.
So, in essence, Jesus was telling Nicodemus that a person cannot be made alive to God spiritually and enter into a relationship with God or enter into heaven by his own goodness, good works, piety or self-righteousness (the Pharisees were very pious and always quite self-righteous as they focused a lot on keeping the law), but only by recognizing the destructive nature of his sin, and turning and looking at Jesus, as His Savior from sin and its consequences.
1 John 5:1 states, ‘Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God’.
John 1:12-13 states, ‘But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God to those who believe in His name; who were born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.
[The only condition as we look and believe is that we recognize and repent of our sin as the Israelites did in the wilderness. John the Baptist said in Mark 1:15, ‘Repent and believe in the Gospel’, Jesus said in Mathew 4:17, ‘ Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand’, Peter said in Acts 2:38, ‘Repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus’. When we come to Jesus and acknowledge our sins and repent, Jesus on the cross becomes our intercessor, the one who stands in the gap between us and God, even as Moses was for the Israelites. ]
The thief on the cross next to Jesus just believed and he was saved. He knew he was perishing. At that point neither did he think that it was too late for him to be changed, nor did he think that now he had no hope. He did not depend on himself to be saved but he looked on Jesus, believed Him and hence was born again. And that is why Jesus assured him that he would that very day be with Him in paradise. That thief represents all of us who just believe and are saved.
In Acts 16:30-31, the Philippian jailor asked Paul, ‘What must I do to be saved’? Paul responded by saying, ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus and you and your family will be saved’.
BE BORN AGAIN OF THE WATER AND THE SPIRIT
Jesus said that unless a man is born again of the water and the Spirit he will not enter the Kingdom of heaven.
a. Born of the Water
It is clear from John 3:14-21 that a man is born again by believing in Jesus. But how does a person come to believe in Jesus. In Romans 10:14 we read,
‘And how shall they believe in Him whom they have not heard?
For a person to be born again and saved he/she needs to believe in Jesus, and for him/her to believe he/she needs to first hear the word of God, the Gospel of Jesus. So, when Jesus said be born of ‘water’ he meant that a man needs to be born through the word of God. This truth is further substantiated in Psalm 1, 1 Peter 1:23-25 and Ephesians 5:26.
In Psalm 1, the Bible says that just like water causes a plant to thrive, flourish and bear fruit, a person who depends on the word of God will flourish and bear fruit.
1 Peter 1 :23 – 25 says ‘having been born again, not of corruptible seed but incorruptible, through the word of God which lives and abides forever….Now this is the word which by the Gospel was preached to you’. So, Peter writes that we are born again by the word of God.
In Ephesians 5:26 Paul says, ‘that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word. Apostle Paul is saying that we are washed and cleansed by water which is the word of God.
Apostles Peter and Paul understood that when Jesus said be ‘born again by ‘water’, He meant that a person is born again by hearing and responding to the word of God.
It is the word of God through which a person comes to believe in Jesus and is born again. Apart from hearing the word of God a person cannot be born again. So, clearly in John 3:6, water implies the word of God.
b. Born of the Spirit
Being born again of the Spirit obviously means that a person needs to be made new by the working of the Holy Spirit of God in him. The word of God alone can never change a person. But it is the conviction of the Holy Spirit working along with the word of God that changes him/her. The Holy Spirit convicts us of sin and convinces us of Jesus as our Savior even as the word is preached. He works in us to draw us to Jesus. And when we yield to His voice and repent of our sins and believe in Jesus, rather than ourselves, we are born again.
Most people try to be right in the eyes of God by their own goodness; they try to attain their salvation by living a good life; they try to enter into and maintain their relationship with God with just piety and devotion; but that is impossible. Jesus said, ‘what is born of the flesh is flesh’, that means our efforts and works (flesh) will in no way help our spirit to be new and alive before God. The summary of the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus was that man cannot be made alive to God by his efforts but by ‘just believing’ in the work of Jesus on the cross. A person who may be very spiritual but depends on his own efforts and goodness to enter into a relationship with God or to attain salvation is not born again. When a person stops depending on his own efforts and depends on Jesus as his remedy from the poison of sin, the Holy Spirit does a work in him that causes his spirit to be born again into the Kingdom of God – that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. ‘Just believing’ – not just a mental but a wholehearted belief -, taking our dependence of ourselves and depending on God, will save us and set us free.