What does it mean to be born again?

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.

John 3:3

A notable inquiry

In the New Testament, there is only one gospel account from the apostle John that records a conversation between a man named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews and Jesus. There are some incredibly interesting points worth mentioning right from the beginning of their encounter. The first one is that Nicodemus was identified by John as a man of the Pharisees. Generally speaking, the Pharisees were intent on persecuting Jesus right from the beginning through to his mock trials and subsequent crucifixion. For Nicodemus to approach Jesus this would have been quite unorthodox and a departure of their group mentality in trying to trick and accuse him of something in the form of entrapment. Secondly, Nicodemus came to Jesus at night time, perhaps under the cloak of darkness, so as not to be seen or discovered by his fellow religious cohorts.

Now this scene is three chapters into John’s gospel account. The Pharisees had already interrogated John the Baptist to find out who he was and what his motives were (John 1:24). It was highly likely that the Pharisees would have heard John’s preaching and witnessed that he identified Jesus as the Lamb of God, the one who takes away the sins of the world and that he was the Son of God (John 1:29, 34). Further to this, Jesus was already calling his disciples to follow him such as Andrew, Simon, Philip, and Nathanael. Following this, Jesus attended a wedding with his mother, brethren and disciples and it was at this time that he manifested forth his glory and turned every day well water into fine wine (John 2:11). Thereafter, Jesus entered the temple and drove out all the people who were merchandising animals for profit.

Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.

John 3:5b

During that encounter with the Jews they asked him what sign he could show them for doing these things but Jesus responded with a statement that caused them great confusion. He told them that if they destroyed this temple he would raise it up again in three days (John 2:19). While the Jews thought he was referring to the great temple built by Herod that took decades to construct, he was referring to the temple of his body (John 2:21). These scenes and events were the pretext now for Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews to come and speak with Jesus. Interestingly, Nicodemus addresses Jesus with respect by calling him Rabbi and then confirms that he knows he is a teacher sent from God since no one could do the miracles that Jesus did unless God was with him.

Nicodemus, a Pharisee

With that opening statement of accolades from Nicodemus, a Pharisee and ruler of the Jews, Jesus then responds by making a profound comment, “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.” [John 3:3] These words created complete confusion for Nicodemus and his response came with a hint of sarcasm when he asked Jesus how a person can be born again in that he would have to enter his mother’s womb a second time. The confusing point was that Jesus’ words were in reference to the spirit and not the physical aspect of life which tended to confuse many of the Jews during another discussion of this nature (John 6:63).

Hereafter, Jesus starts to incorporate the spiritual meaning of his statement, by distinguishing between birth by water and birth by spirit (John 3:5).  To further his point, Jesus delineates this by saying, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” [John 3:6] In other words, Jesus is clearly referring to a spiritual birth, or rebirth rather, as in born again. While this phrase has gone through various iterations and has often been stigmatized with fanatical religious zealots it has a simple meaning of being born from above, spiritually. To underscore the importance of this spiritual birth, Jesus clearly stated that people can neither see the kingdom of God nor enter into the kingdom of God unless they are born again. It was clearly a conditional statement that echoed his closing point to Nicodemus when he said, “Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again.” [John 3:7] For seekers of faith, remember, ye must.

Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again.

John 3:7

Born from above

Clearly, this was too much for Nicodemus to comprehend since his response to Jesus was one of bewilderment (John 3:9).  But as the dialogue continued between the two of them Jesus then started to expound upon this premise of being born again by pointing to the belief and conversion process of believing in him “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” [John 3:16] Here is the crux of the matter in the question of what does it mean to be born again. Jesus was not talking about a second physical birth, rather he was referring to the spiritual birth that occurs when people believe in him for salvation. This is why John wrote earlier in his gospel account that it is God who gives people the power to become children of God, “Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.” [John 1:13] The apostle Peter also noted this in his letters by stating that as believers we are, “…born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God, which liveth and abideth for ever.” [1 Pet. 1:23]

Born again living

From this point on in this study, we will now transition from what does it mean to be born again to living as a born again believer in Christ, the Lord Jesus. It is of great interest that while all authors of the New Testament scripture seek to glorify God and instill godly living among believers, the first letter written by John notably uses the word born amidst these descriptions. Take the first one for example, where John highlights that people who are born of God live a life of righteousness, “If ye know that he is righteous, ye know that every one that doeth righteousness is born of him.” [1 John 2:29] In tandem with this John notes that the indwelling Spirit of God in believers is something that cannot sin by again referencing that a true believer in Christ is born of him, “Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin; for his seed remaineth in him: and he cannot sin, because he is born of God.” [1 John 3:9]

John then continues on along the same theme of godly living, perhaps akin to the teachings of Jesus in the sermon on the mount by highlighting how love forms part of a born again believer’s life, “Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; and every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God.” [1 John 4:7] John also adds in a foundational component to the the Christian faith in that people must believe that Jesus is who he says he is, “Whosoever believeth that Jesus is the Christ is born of God: and every one that loveth him that begat loveth him also that is begotten of him.” [1 John 5:1] Readers of scripture will quickly see how this mirrors John’s earlier message in his gospel account when he concluded, “But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name.” [John 20:31]

For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.

John 3:17

Victory in Christ

Finally, in John’s first letter he gives believers the confidence and assurance that as believers born of the Spirit of God we have victory in Christ, “For whatsoever is born of God overcometh the world: and this is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith.” [1 John 5:4] This is coupled with his last reference to being born of God from this passage that eloquently brings three key points to the forefront of believers, “We know that whosoever is born of God sinneth not; but he that is begotten of God keepeth himself, and that wicked one toucheth him not.” [1 John 5:18] Note how all six scripture passages encompass that pivotal message of being born of God. For it is that indwelling Spirit of God that does not sin because it cannot sin. It is that indwelling Spirit of God that helps us to keep yourself and untouched by the devil in this world.

Dear seekers of faith and believers in Christ, this is the answer to what does it mean to be born again. Christianity is not a religion of works. It is a relationship with the great redeemer, the Lord Jesus Christ, believing in him as the atoning sacrifice for your sins on the cross, believing that he is the Christ, come in the flesh to redeem mankind. And as believers, born from above in Spirit, we are now instructed by the apostle Paul in this glorious passage of scripture, “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.” [Gal. 2:20]

Bible Study Questions

  1. Why do you think Nicodemus missed the point of being born spiritually during his initial encounter with Jesus?
  2. True or false, Nicodemus was the person who helped give Jesus a respectful and ceremonial burial. Hint John 19:30
  3. To become born again, one must believe in who, (a) John the Baptist, (b) the Holy Spirit, (c) Jesus Christ? Hint John 3:16
  4. True or false, later on, Nicodemus was noted as being one of the believers in Jesus. Hint John 7:50
  5. How would you summarize being born again to someone who was not familiar with the phrase from scripture?
  6. Can you recall three of the six points John mentions in his first letter that result from being born of God?
  7. For a faith building exercise, memorize Galatians 2:20 as part of this Bible study on what does it mean to be born again.

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