Born Again

What is the meaning of the Biblical phrase ‘born again’?
This is the question we intend to discuss today.
The best passage to learn about born again is the famous conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus Apostle John recorded this conversation his gospel in 21 verses.
Let us read certain passages from this conversation and try to understand the real meaning of ‘born again’ experience.

To understand the spiritual mystery revealed through the conversation, we should know who Nicodemus was.
The first verse in John 3 says that Nicodemus was “a man of the Pharisees” and “a ruler of the Jews”
Here John uses two words to describe him, Pharisee and ruler.

The Pharisees were a group of Jews who were orthodox in belief and fastidious in keeping the letter of the Law.
The Pharisees were more representative of the common working people and had the respect of the masses. The group also included priests who were not wealthy like Sadducees. Common people approved the Pharisees and respected them.
Hence, they also had a measure of political power, but not as much as Sadducees enjoyed.

The Pharisees gave the Jewish Oral Traditions equal authority with the written Word of God.
They believed that the oral traditions also were spoken by God to Moses.
Moses did not write them, but passed on to Joshua, his descendant. Joshua passed on the oral traditions to his descendants.
Pharisees did believe in the resurrection and after life. They believed in an appropriate reward and punishment for individuals, in the afterlife.
They believed in the existence of a spirit realm and the angels and demons there.
The whole universe is under the authority of God. Still God has given humans Free Will to choose their daily life. So the choices and decisions of Man influences human life. This was one of their important doctrine.

Pharisees controlled the synagogues, while Sadducees controlled the Temple. Politically, Pharisees were not so friendly with the Roman Empire and their laws. They resisted the influence of Greek culture and philosophy on the Jewish beliefs and life.

They often opposed Jesus throughout His ministry, because Jesus questioned their legalistic interpretations. Jesus interpreted their oral laws in a different way than the traditional views.

So it is important that, Nicodemus a Pharisee was asking questions about inheriting the kingdom of God.
He was a man who teaches the law, rites and rituals for purification and the atonement of sins and their spiritual mystic interpretations. Still he was not sure that these works of man can help him to inherit the Kingdom of God.
And Jesus replies to him that his doubt is reasonable.

The second phrase used by John to describe Nicodemus is, “ruler”.
From John 7:50, 51 we understand that Nicodemus was a member of the Sanhedrin, which was the ruling body of the Jews.
The Sanhedrin was a court of ancient Israel that consists of 70 members including both the Sadducees and the Pharisees.
Sanhedrin functioned as the “lower courts” in Jewish province. Each city could have a Sanhedrin.
During the time of Jesus Christ, the Roman Empire allowed a measure of self-rule to the Jews in the matters of religion and culture. The Sanhedrin in Jerusalem was the final court of appeals for matters regarding Jewish law and religion.
But they had no authority to death penalty which was under the jurisdiction of the Roman law.
So they condemned Jesus to death, but the final sentence must come from Pilate, the Roman Governor.

Both the words, Pharisee and ruler give us the information that Nicodemus was a man well versed with the rites and rituals described in the Mosaic covenant for the atonement of sin.
He was an expert in the Jewish laws.
This information is very important to understand the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus.
At one point of the conversation Jesus asked him: "Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not know these things? (John 3:10 – NKJV)
That means, Jesus is answering the questions considering that Nicodemus was a Pharisee and a member of Jewish lower court.

Nicodemus and Jesus

The time of the visit of Nicodemus and the eulogy he showered on Jesus is not a point of discussion here.
We consider here their conversation about inheriting the Kingdom of God. Surely it was not a discussion about seeing the kingdom from a far distance, it was indeed about inheriting it.
When Jesus says, "Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God." (John 3:3), He was emphasizing the minimum qualification to inherit the kingdom.

We should not assume that all words passed between them are recorded here. There was indeed more than what we read in the gospel of John.
Thus the question is not recorded in the gospel, but the answer is clear from which even a casual reader can form the question.
The question might have been like this: “Rabbi, how can a man inherit the Kingdom of God?”

This question is answered in detail by Jesus during the following conversation with Nicodemus.

Jesus is telling Nicodemus that he must go through spiritual rebirth, he must start a new life in the Spirit.
This spiritual rebirth must happen before he could enter God’s kingdom.

At one point of their conversation Jesus asked him, "Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not know these things?” Though this question is recorded bit later, this is valid from the beginning of their conversation. A chief of Pharisee and a ruler of the Jewish Sanhedrin must know how to inherit the Kingdom of God.
Here Nicodemus stands as a representative of all Pharisees, members of Sanhedrin and Jewish community and religion.
They have the law, the oral traditions and rabbinic interpretations, but still is not aware of how to inherit the Kingdom.
It simply states that, the Law is not the way to the Kingdom, but Jesus is the way to the Kingdom. The law only leads us to the Way.

The Answer

So Nicodemus, a learned and ordained Pharisee and a member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish court asked Jesus, how to inherit the Kingdom of God.
He asked the question, because he was not sure of his own teaching about it.
He asked the question to Jesus, because Jesus was teaching a different doctrine.

Now what is wrong with the teachings of the Pharisees?
As we have already said, they strictly followed every detail of the Mosaic law, the oral traditions and the Rabbinic interpretations about it.
Their interpretations even extended the law to impossible or at least difficult tasks.
Their interpretations made life difficult. After all they were not supposed to offer an easy way to the Kingdom.
In brief, they depended on works to inherit the Kingdom. Rites, rituals, physical sanctifications, fasting, prayer and many more were there in their list as ways to go to heaven.

But Jesus preached a different theology. He said, He is the Way to the Kingdom of God and He is the only Way.
Jesus disowned the works of the Pharisees, He publicly denounced their fasting and prayer.
So Nicodemus came to Jesus to know about the veracity of the new teaching.
And Jesus emphatically said:

John 3:3 “Jesus answered and said to him, "Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God." (NKJV)

But the Jewish Rabbi could not understand or was confused by the answer.
So the conversation goes on to explain the phrase, “Born Again”. 

Why should a person need to be born again?

Before we proceed, let us discuss, "Why should a person be born again?"
Or why should a Jew and any other man go through a spiritual experience that renews him?
The answer is in Ephesians 2:1: "And you He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins" (NKJV).
And again in Romans 3: 23, we read, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God".
These verses and some more tells us that all humans are dead in trespasses and sins and hence they have fall short of the glory of God.
Surely, sinners cannot inherit anything holy. The Kingdom of God is a holy place since the King is holy.

But how came that all humans are sinners? Some one cannot simply declare all humans as sinners. All humans will not become sinners by the declaration of an apostle.

Sin Nature

Let us understand that the Bible is the story of Man not the story of God. This is the main difference between the Bible and other religious writings. All other sacred books are describing who God is. But only Bible speaks about the story of Man from his creation to eternity.
Through the story of Man, his fall, redemption and restoration recorded in the Bible, we may get a glimpse of God.
So the Bible, the authentic record of human history says that all humans are under the “sin nature”.

Now what is “sin nature”? Bible is clear that sin is not what we do, but what we are.
What we do are works of the sinful nature in us.
Sin nature is simply desire to live contrary to God’s will. The sin nature is universal in humanity. All of us have a sinful nature, and it affects every part of us. This doctrine of total depravity is biblical.

Where did the sin nature come from?
Scripture says that God created humans good and without a sinful nature.
In Genesis 1: 27, we read: “So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.” (NKJV)
And, “Then God saw everything that He had made, and indeed it was very good.”
However, Genesis 3 records the disobedience of Adam and Eve. They were deceived by the devil and they ate the fruit of a particular tree which God forbade them not to eat.
Thus they disobeyed God. Disobedience is rebellion and rebellion is sin.
By that one action, sin entered into their nature. They were immediately stricken with a sense of shame and unfitness, and they hid from God’s presence (Genesis 3:8).
When they had children, Adam’s image and likeness was passed along to his offspring (Genesis 5:3).
The sin nature manifested itself early in the genealogy: the very first child born to Adam and Eve, Cain, became the very first murderer (Genesis 4:8).

Thus from generation to generation, the sin nature was passed down to all humanity.
Romans 5: 12 says: “Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned:” (NKJV)
Jesus refers to this truth when he said to Nicodemus that: "That which is born of the flesh is flesh” (John 3:6 - NKJV)
Paul further explains the sin nature in Romans.

Romans 7: 19, 20 
19 For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice.
20 Now if I do what I will not to do, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. (NKJV)

King Solomon in Ecclesiastes 7: 20 said: “For there is not a just man on earth who does good And does not sin.” (NKJV)
In 1 John 1:8 apostle John says: “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” (NKJV)
That means, we are sinners not because we do sins, rather we do sin because we are sinners.

A way out

Sinners are spiritually “dead”; so they need a regeneration of their spirit.
A regeneration of Spirit is available only in Jesus Christ.
When we regenerate our spirit through faith in Christ, the Bible likens it to a rebirth or ‘born again’.
Thus the sins of the ‘born again’ are forgiven and they have a new relationship with God.
In short, ‘Born again’ is a spiritual process through which one is saved from sin and its punishment into righteousness and eternal life.
All ‘born again’ are saved and salvation comes only through faith in Jesus Christ.

Ephesians 2: 8, 9
8    For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God,
9    not of works, lest anyone should boast. (NKJV)

So the process may be stated like this: when one is born again, he is saved, he is spiritually renewed, and is now a child of God by right of new birth. Trusting in Jesus Christ, the one who paid the penalty of sin when He died on the cross, is the means to be "born again." And one must be “born again” in order to inherit the Kingdom of God.

Meaning of Born Again

What is the meaning of the phrase, “Born Again”?
The Greek word for ‘born’ is gennao and for ‘again’ is anothen.gennao’ means to regenerate and ‘anothen’ means ‘again’, ‘anew’ or ‘from above’. All these meanings are consistent with the redeeming purpose.
Thus the phrase "born again" literally means, ‘born again’ ‘born anew’ or "born from above."
Some translations of Bible uses the phrase “born from above”. This does not affect the meaning or intention of Jesus.

Born again is a phrase that refers to "spiritual rebirth" or a regeneration of the human spirit.

‘Born Again’ is not about physical birth, but about experiencing a spiritual renewal.
Being born again is having a transformation of the soul and heart by the work of God’s Spirit.
This spiritual transformation is a change in the way we think, the way we manage our emotions, and choices we make by our will.
The new birth is an illustration of God’s Spirit controlling a person.
So nobody can achieve spiritual rebirth through any religious ceremony or traditional rite.
Becoming born again is a personal choice, open for everyone to receive.

Born again is not an experience that may be inherited from our parents. Our fathers and mothers may be the greatest born-again Christians in the world, but that doesn’t make us born-again Christians.
God’s gift of rebirth is not through our human effort or merit, but comes through God’s mercy alone.

Titus 3: 5, 6
5    not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit,
6    whom He poured out on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior, (NKJV)

Being born again, is an act of God whereby eternal life is imparted to the person who believes.
Born again is not becoming a better person. It is not reforming our life according to a new philosophy.
All our works, even the good works of the best man in this world are “like filthy rags” before God. (Isaiah 64:6).
It is the death of the old person and birth of a new person by the regenerating process of the Holy Spirit. It is clearly ‘born from above’.
Born again is not a physical reformation but a spiritual transformation.

Water and the Spirit

Nicodemus had a real need. He needed a change of his heart - a spiritual transformation.
This was a concept that Nicodemus was unable to grasp. He took it for a second physical birth that is impossible.

John 3: 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?" (NKJV)

The answer to this question is an emphatic repetition of the former statement that, “unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God."
But here Jesus adds more explanation to it.

John 3:5 Jesus answered, "Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.  (NKJV)

Here is the core of the teaching. This verse need further explanation in order to understand it.
So before we study the verse, let us read another verse that Jesus spoke.

John 3:6 "That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. (NKJV)

This is a straight forward statement that Nicodemus must understand. Remember he is a Pharisee and a member of the Jewish court. But he has some problem with the revelation contained in this verse too.
Jews have been waiting for a Messiah, the anointed one, who will defeat all their enemies and establish a Kingdom for them. For them, the Messiah is a political leader and the Kingdom is a physical kingdom.
But here Jesus is making a correction to their concept. He is reinterpreting their interpretations.
Jesus said that the Kingdom of God is not a physical kingdom, but a spiritual kingdom.
A physical birth in the lineage of the great patriarch Abraham is sufficient to inherit a physical Jewish kingdom. But since the kingdom of God is spiritual, we need a spiritual birth to inherit it.
That simply means, works, rituals and sacraments cannot help him to inherit the spiritual Kingdom. He need a drastic transformation of heart and a spiritual rebirth.
The argument of Jesus is logical and clear. But for Nicodemus, it is radical and unsettling. It is giving up his traditional interpretations about the Kingdom of Messiah.
Here Nicodemus is facing a serious dilemma: can he stand with Jesus and His kingdom?

If only Nicodemus understood and accepted this new revelation, he can progress into the ‘born again’ experience.

So Jesus said, you must be born again “of water and of the Spirit”. What does Jesus mean by the rebirth of water and the Spirit? Let us discuss it further.

As I said before, at one point of the conversation Jesus asked Nicodemus: "Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not know these things? (John 3:10 – NKJV)
That means, Jesus has been talking about interpretations and revelations of the Old Testament scripture. A Pharisee and a member of the Jewish court must know the Old Testament very well.
He is also an authority to make fresh interpretations to the Jewish Oral Traditions and add fresh revelations to it.
Jesus was talking simple truths that is elucidated in the scripture. Still Nicodemus seems to be ignorant about it.
So the phrase, ‘born of water and the Spirit’ must be an Old Testament truth revealed fresh by Jesus.

The phrase, ‘born of water’ is indeed a reference to the Jewish ceremonial washings. Nicodemus being a teacher must know, when and how the ceremonial washing is prescribed in the Old Testament. He also must know the mystic meaning of the ritual.
In the Old Testament, if a person has become unclean, he should wash to become clean. He also should wash his clothes.
Cleansing in the Old Testament was a physical act with a mystic effect of spiritual cleansing. The renewal of the inner man is the mystic change that was supposed to happen through the ritual washing of the body.
A Jewish Rabbi must know this spiritual meaning of the physical act.

When a person from the gentile belief convert to Judaism, he must go through a ritual baptism by immersing in the water or pouring water on his head or at least by sprinkling holy water on him.
Washing by water here too is a symbol of spiritual renewing of the gentile person. The old man is washed off and a new man is born.
So the mystic meaning is the death of the old person and birth of a new man.
Nicodemus must know this mystic truth.

Jesus is referring to the spiritual truth of renewal in washing the unclean and baptism of a converted gentile. And for any kind of renewal, one must give up the old man and accept a new man.
This is what John the Baptist preached: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!"
He revealed the mystery of repentance that leads to regeneration.   
Nicodemus must know the preaching of John the Baptist and the spiritual mystery he revealed.

More over in New Testament imagery, water stands for the Word of God also. This is what we read in Ephesians 5:26: “that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word,” (NKJV).
Here the washing of water is done by the word of God.
So when Jesus said that a person must be born again by water, he meant the spiritual renewal by the death of the old man and rebirth of a new man through repentance of sins. And repentance come through hearing the Word of God.

Born again or born from above by the Holy Spirit is regeneration by the Spirit of God. Born again is a spiritual process, it has nothing to do with physical rites and rituals. Rites and rituals are simply guides to the spiritual mystery.
So Jesus was saying that without the spiritual washing of the soul, a cleansing accomplished only by the Holy Spirit through the Word of God, no one can enter God’s kingdom.
Jesus continued by further emphasizing that this spiritual cleansing is wholly a work of God, and not the result of human effort.
Just as only human nature can beget human nature, so also only the Holy Spirit can effect spiritual rebirth.

Although Jesus’ words were based on Old Testament revelation, they ran completely contrary to everything Nicodemus had been taught. For his entire life he believed that salvation comes through his own merit. Now he found it exceedingly difficult to think otherwise.
But now he has confronted the truth and has to accept it. He could never inherit the Kingdom of God by the merit of his works.

Some think that this verse is about water baptism. But it is not so.
Nowhere in the context of the whole conversation is baptism mentioned.
Baptism is mentioned later in this chapter in verse 22-30. Here the setting is Judea, another place and another occasion. Jesus met Nicodemus in Jerusalem and no baptism was done during or just after that in connection with the conversation. Moreover, if Jesus was talking about baptism, he could use the word baptism in the conversation instead of water.
And when Jesus was speaking to Nicodemus, the ordinance of Christian baptism was not yet in effect.
Christian baptism as identifying with the death, burial and resurrection of Christ came into existence only after the crucifixion of Christ.

This is the simple reason that the thief on the cross was exempted from baptism.
Baptism is not required for salvation, but all those who are saved accept baptism, at the earliest opportunity.
The thief on the cross was not under the Old Testament dispensation. Jesus started His ministry declaring the inauguration of the Kingdom of God. His sermon on the mount is a declaration of the values of the Kingdom.
The Kingdom is inaugurated and the New Covenant came into effect. Salvation by Grace through faith in the atonement of Jesus is the New Covenant.
The thief was under the new covenant, he was saved on the cross by the values of the New Covenant.
He was saved by grace through faith only. And he died before the Christian baptism came into effect.

But baptism’s importance should not be downplayed or minimized. Baptism of a born again believer is very important. Baptism is the sign or the symbol for what takes place when one is born again.
However, baptism does not save us. What saves us is the cleansing work of the Holy Spirit.
We are born again and regenerated by the Word of God and the Holy Spirit.

The wind and born again

Still Nicodemus could not grasp the mystery of born again experience.
So Jesus continued to explain the mystery using another analog.

John 3:8 "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."  (NKJV)

The Greek word for “wind” is pneuma, the same word used for “spirit.”
When wind blows, we cannot see it, but we see where it has been. Tree leaves move, plants bend, and we feel the wind touch our faces. Yet no one can catch it or restrain it. When wind blows, it changes everything it touches.
So it is with the Spirit. Spiritual birth is an act of the Holy Spirit. Holy Spirit is invisible, yet whenever He moves, there are definite changes.
Neither persuasive words nor intellectual agreements have the power to make someone “born again.” Only the Holy Spirit can perform that transformation in a repentant heart.
The wind cannot be controlled; it blows where it wishesAnd though its general direction can be known, where it comes from and where it is going cannot be precisely determined. Nevertheless, the wind’s effects can be observed.
The same is true of the work of the Spirit. His sovereign work of regeneration in the human heart can neither be controlled nor predicted. Yet its effects can be seen in the transformed lives of those who are born of the Spirit.


How can a person be ‘born again’?

The phrase “born again” applies to people who have accepted Jesus as their Savior or Redeemer.

To be born again, we must agree that we are sinners and that the penalty for that sin is death.

Because of our sin, we can’t know and experience God’s love and we are spiritually separated from Him.

But God loves us so much, that He decided to save us from sin and its punishments. So as an atonement for our sins God sent His only Son to die in our place, as a substitute and representative of all mankind. Thus Jesus died on the cross to pay the penalty for our sins.

After Jesus’ death, He rose from the dead and resurrected to Heaven.

Thus he opened a way to God and offers the gift of salvation to all who believes in His atoning death.

We can receive salvation as a gift of God by grace through faith. When we believe in our heart and accept Jesus as our Lord and confess it by mouth, we are saved and ‘born again’.


Let me cut short. I hope this message has been a blessing to you.

May God bless you abundantly! Amen.

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