Born again

Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, 'Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.'

Jesus replied, 'Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.'

'How can someone be born when they are old?' Nicodemus asked. 'Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother's womb to be born!'

Jesus answered, 'Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, "You must be born again." (Joh 3:1–7)

The conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, recorded in Joh 3:1–21, is one of the most famous in Scripture. Generations of evangelists have proclaimed its truth and told us that we cannot enter the kingdom of God (be saved) unless we are born again. In this study we are going to look at what it means to be born again.

Necessity of the new birth

Nicodemus was a Pharisee, a religious man, who worshipped the true and living God. He wanted to speak to Jesus and came to him at night.

He believed he was a teacher who had come from God because no one could have performed the miraculous signs he had been doing unless God was with him. That was good: Nicodemus believed Jesus had come from God. But acceptance of that fact wasn't enough to save him.

Many people today believe that Jesus existed and that he was a good man. Some even believe he was the Son of God who performed miracles on earth; but such belief won't save them either. There are churches full of people like that: they have an intellectual belief in Jesus, but not a true faith in him. I know what I'm talking about—I was one of them!

Jesus came straight to the point: 'I'm telling you the truth,' he said. 'No one can see the kingdom of God (the Greek word means to see with the mind, to understand) unless they are born again (Joh 3:3).' He also said that no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water (signifying repentance: Mat 3:11) and the Spirit (Joh 3:5).

If Nicodemus wanted to receive the salvation God was offering him, he had to be born again. The same is true for us.

The literal meaning of the Greek word translated again, in the phrase born again, is from above; but it can also mean again, anew or from the beginning. Most translations translate it as again, but the word should be viewed in its full meaning.

Made in his image

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. (Gen 1:1)

Biblical Hebrew contains masculine and feminine noun forms, as well as singular (signifying one), dual (two) and plural (more than two). The Hebrew word translated God in this verse, and more than two thousand times in the Old Testament, is a masculine plural noun, which means that God is male and is more than two persons.

So God begins to reveal himself as the triune God (one God in three persons) in the first verse of the Bible, and emphasizes his plurality in v26:

Then God [plural] said, 'Let us [plural] make mankind in our [plural] image, in our [plural] likeness…'

The Hebrew word translated image in that verse means image or idol (physical image). And the Hebrew word translated likeness means likeness, resemblance, form or shape (physical likeness). The same two Hebrew words are used in Gen 5:3, where Adam had a son in his own likeness and image (physical likeness and image).

Jesus the creator

But God is spirit (Joh 4:24) and doesn't have a body. He lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see (1Ti 6:15–6). So how could the invisible God make mankind in his physical image? The answer is given in Col 1:15–6:

The Son is the image of the invisible God…. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him.

Jesus (the Son) is the image (Greek image, likeness) of the invisible God. He is God in a visible form. Every appearance of God in the Bible was, and will be, Jesus. He is the person of the Godhead who can be seen, has been seen, and will be seen (Rev 1:7); and he created all things, including mankind. God (plural) said… and Jesus created.

Jesus, in his pre-incarnate body, took dust from the ground and formed it into a man in his own image (shape, likeness, resemblance). He then breathed the breath of life into him and he became a living being (Gen 2:7).

Jesus didn't breathe into the animals, birds and sea creatures to give them life, so why did he breathe into man? He breathed into him to give him his Spirit—the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus (Act 16:7). (Both the Hebrew word translated Spirit in the Old Testament and the Greek word translated Spirit in the New Testament mean breath or wind.)

Unlike the animals, man was created a physical being and a spirit being so he could have fellowship with God, who is spirit. And not only did God, through Jesus, create man in his physical image, he gave him his Spirit so he could have his nature.

Spiritual and physical death

The Lord God put the man in the garden he had planted and told him he could eat from any tree that was in the garden, but he must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when he ate from it (not if—he knew what he was going to do) he would certainly die (Gen 2:15–7).

The man and the woman did eat from the tree, and the moment they ate from it they did die, spiritually and physically. Jesus took his Spirit from them, and their bodies began to die. Death came to the human race because of sin (Rom 5:12); sin is the cause of death (Rom 6:23). If they had not sinned they would have lived forever.

Note that it was the Lord God who formed the man from the dust of the ground and placed him in the garden (Gen 2:7–8). The same Lord God was walking in the garden after Adam and Eve had sinned. There was someone there, walking around. They heard him and tried to hide from him (Gen 3:8). Who was that Lord God? It was Jesus.

The Hebrew word translated Lord in those verses is Yahweh. It's God's name. (Father, Son and Holy Spirit are not names, they are descriptive titles.) The same Lord (Yahweh) God (Jesus) appeared physically to Moses in the burning bush, told him his name and what it means. It means I am (Exo 3:1–17), the words Jesus used to identify himself in Joh 8:58.

Sin separates us from God. Sinful man cannot have fellowship with a holy God. The Lord God (Jesus) drove the man and the woman out of his presence, out of the garden, out of his kingdom; and we cannot re-enter his kingdom unless we are born again.

Rebirth

When Jesus appeared to his disciples in his immortal body after his resurrection, he breathed on them and said, 'Receive the Holy Spirit (Joh 20:19–22).' At that point they were born again—born of his Spirit, born from above, born anew, born as Adam had been born at the beginning.

The good news of the kingdom that Jesus had preached throughout his ministry (Mat 4:23) had been fulfilled. What was (and still is) the good news (gospel) of the kingdom (Mat 24:14)? It's that Jesus has paid the price for man's sins. Providing he repents (Mar 1:14–5), man can now be given his Spirit again and re-enter his kingdom.

What is the kingdom—the kingdom of God (Mar 4:26), the kingdom of heaven (Mat 4:17), the kingdom of Christ (Eph 5:5)? It's the place, and spiritual state, of salvation over which Jesus (the King) reigns. Jesus is in charge of salvation. When he taught about the kingdom, he was teaching about salvation.

Originally it was a garden, a physical kingdom on earth. At the moment it's a spiritual kingdom where those who have received salvation dwell. But one day it will be a physical kingdom again when he returns and reigns on earth for a thousand years (Rev 20:1–6). Only Christians who have lived righteously will inherit that kingdom (Gal 5:19–21; Eph 5:3–7).

Faith in Jesus

Nicodemus was a member of the Jewish ruling council (the Sanhedrin), a body whose members were largely opposed to Jesus. Perhaps he came to him at night, under the cover of darkness, because he didn't want the others to know.

Whatever the reason, Jesus used the timing of his visit to highlight his sin. He said that people love darkness because their deeds are evil. They don't want to come into the light for fear their deeds will be exposed (Joh 3:19–20).

But earlier he'd told him that he hadn't come to condemn the world (for its sin), but to save those in the world who believe in him (v17–8). The Greek name Jesus means Yahweh saves, and the Greek word translated believe in means to put one's faith in, to trust in.

Jesus said that whoever believes in him (puts their faith in him, trusts in him) will not perish (for their sins), but will have eternal life (v16). Did Nicodemus put his faith in Jesus? I believe he did. After his crucifixion he came with Joseph of Arimathea, a disciple of Jesus, to bury his body (Joh 19:38–42); but not at night this time: he came while it was light (Joh 3:21).

Have you put your faith in Jesus Christ? I have, and I hope that you have. Like Nicodemus, I was religious and devout, and perhaps you are, too. But no matter how religious and devout you are, you will not experience God's salvation unless you are born again.

Michael Graham
August 2009
Revised September 2018

Scripture quotations taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version (Anglicised edition). Copyright © 1979, 1984, 2011 by Biblica (formerly International Bible Society). Used by permission of Hodder & Stoughton Publishers, an Hachette UK company. All rights reserved.

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