The Message of Jesus: What Does It Mean to Be Born Again?
What does the Bible mean when it refers to being “born again”? The phrase, spoken by Jesus, is found in John 3:3 and John 3:7. To understand its meaning, we need to get the context.
John wrote his Gospel so that we may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing we may have life in his name (John 20:30-31). John tells us that Jesus was God in the flesh (John 1:1), the Maker of all things (John 1:3), that life is in him, and this life is the light of humankind (John 1:4). John then notes that darkness does not understand or overcome this light (John 1:5) and that John the Baptist witnessed that Jesus is the Christ (John 1:6). He then goes on to note that the true Light came into the world, but the world did not recognize him (John 1:9-10). Though Jesus came to his people, the Jews, they did not recognize him either (John 1:11). John then notes that all who receive Jesus and believe are children of God (John 1:12). Those who are God’s true children are not so by heredity, ancestry or human choice, but by being born of God (John 1:13).
As we proceed in John’s Gospel we learn of John the Baptist’s testimony, the calling of the first disciples and, in chapter 2, Jesus’ first miracle and the cleansing of the Temple. We then come to chapter 3 where the phrase “born again” is used.
Nicodemus, a teacher of Israel, was a leading Pharisee, a respected and honorable man (John 3:1). Because of what we read in John 2, we know why the Pharisees would be interested in learning more about Jesus. He was doing some of the signs of the prophesied Messiah. Moreover, John the Baptist had identified Jesus as the Christ.
Pharisees considered themselves children of God because they were descendants of Abraham. In general, they prided themselves on being righteous. They baptized Gentiles and circumcised them to bring them into Judaism, but Jesus said that they only made these proselytes into children of hell (Matthew 23:15). In Judaism, proselytes were called new children, born again, but the conversions did no good. These rebirths were based on human emotion, human reason and human resources. They were not of God.
We must not think that we can be spiritually reborn by our own goodness, achievements, efforts or works. Jesus’ comment to Nicodemus includes the thought that a spiritual rebirth is brought about from above by God’s Spirit. A born-again experience is caused by the Holy Spirit of God changing our minds and taking away our hearts of stone and giving us hearts of flesh, to use words from Ezekiel 36.
Coming back to John 3, Nicodemus thought that the Jews were people of the kingdom of God and that Pharisees were the best children of God. They probably thought that the real Messiah would want to join the Pharisees and they could work together to liberate Judah and set up the prophesied rule of God. When Jesus said that no one could see or perceive the kingdom unless they were born again (John 3:3), it must have greatly surprised Nicodemus.
“Born again” means conversion
This context helps us understand that the term “born again” is referring to conversion. The apostle John tells us that believers, even in this age, have eternal life (John 6:54). All who believe are already children of God (1 John 3:1-2) — “children born not of natural descent… but born of God” (John 1:13).
Early Jewish rabbis spoke of proselytes — Gentiles converting to Judaism — as being “reborn.” Encyclopedia Judaica states
A proselyte terminates all former family ties upon conversion and ‘is considered a newly born child. (volume 13, page 1184, article “Proselytes”)
The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible states
The Jewish direction for developing theologically such an illustration as Jesus provided is evident in the somewhat similar rabbinic comparison of the new proselyte with a newborn child…. “I make you a new creature, like a woman who is pregnant and gives birth” (Rabbi Judah bar Simon). (volume 4, page 27, article “Regeneration”)
Further discussion of these concepts is found under the subject “Baptism” in Hastings’ Dictionary of the Bible and in chapter 6 of The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, by Alfred Edersheim. A summary of these points is also given in the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, 1985 one-volume edition, pp. 114-115, under the heading “gennao.”
New birth, as a figure of speech, is known to refer to proselyte conversion. It was understood to mean conversion of the mind and heart, beginning a new spiritual life with a new way of thinking, leaving one’s old ways and ideas completely behind. Nicodemus probably thought that the new birth applied only to Gentile converts to Judaism. But Nicodemus was a Jew, already one of God’s covenant children, and more than that, he was one of Israel’s teachers. Why would he need to be born again? Did he need to start over? The thought was so radical that it didn’t make sense to him. “Nicodemus employs a typical opening for debate by taking the most literal meaning possible” (Pheme Perkins, New Jerome Bible Commentary, page 955). Nicodemus was saying, in effect, “You can’t mean this literally, so what do you mean Jesus?”
There are several misunderstandings involved in Nicodemus’ reaction to Jesus’ words. These misunderstandings — a frequent device in the Johannine discourse — lead Jesus to explain more fully. (Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John, Anchor Bible volume 29, p. 138)
When Jesus said Nicodemus could not see or enter the kingdom unless he was born again, he was referring to conversion. Nicodemus, a leader of the Pharisees, had come to Jesus and acknowledged that Jesus was a teacher, a miracle-worker whom God was with. It was a significant moment. Jesus did not just give a general truth about the distant future. Rather, Jesus used this opportunity to give Nicodemus a substantial summary of his teaching: Everyone needs a new spiritual start. He was talking about this life, not the next.
Nicodemus should have remembered that no one can understand or see or hear unless the Lord enables them (Deuteronomy 29:4). Only God can open a person’s heart and mind to understand spiritual truths (Matthew 13:13-17; Luke 8:10).
John contrasts light with darkness — Jesus the true light had come, and the darkness, the unconverted world, did not perceive him. We who are converted are rescued from darkness — we can now see, and we are transferred into — we have entered into — the kingdom of God’s beloved Son (Colossians 1:13).
Not a literal birth
Jews didn’t think they had to be reborn, but Jesus told Nicodemus that they were no better than others who needed regeneration. Nicodemus responded by talking about a literal birth, but this does not mean that he really thought Jesus was talking about literal birth. Though no one can prove exactly what Nicodemus meant, here is a sensible explanation:
Nicodemus’s reply has often been misunderstood: “How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born, can he?” (John 3:4). Nicodemus was not speaking in literal terms. We must give him credit for a little common sense. Surely he was not so feeble-minded as to think Jesus was really talking about re-entering the womb and literally being born again. A teacher himself, Nicodemus understood the rabbinical method of teaching spiritual truth in symbols, and he was merely picking up Jesus’ symbolism. He was really saying, “I can’t start all over. It’s too late. I’ve gone too far in my religious system to start all over. There’s no hope for me if I must begin from the beginning.”
Jesus was demanding that Nicodemus forsake everything he stood for, and Nicodemus knew it. Far from offering this man an easy conversion, Christ challenged him with the most difficult demand he could make. Nicodemus would gladly have given money, fasted, or performed any ritual Jesus could have prescribed. But, to call him to spiritual rebirth was asking him to acknowledge his own spiritual insufficiency and turn away from everything he was committed to. (The Gospel According to Jesus, pp. 39-40)
Jesus did not come to put a new patch on an old garment or to put new wine into old containers (Matthew 9:16-17). He did not come to add a new wrinkle to Judaism — he brought Christianity, based on faith and Spirit rather than human works. Jesus told Nicodemus that his religion of human works and human wisdom was not acceptable to God, nor was his reliance on descent from Abraham. Nicodemus was surprised and puzzled. Jesus is saying that only those who believe in the Son of God can be God’s children and participate in his kingdom. Nicodemus, the respected teacher, would have to start all over just like everyone else.
Only faith in Christ will save a person. Only those who believe will be given power to be God’s children. Ancestry and fastidious works mean nothing, because salvation is not earned by works or status — it is a gift God gives to those who believe in Christ. Don’t misunderstand — good works are better than evil works! But relying on human works to earn favor with God is unacceptable and a self-delusion. God accepts only real repentance and confession of sin and willingness to let Christ live in us to do God’s works.
Born of water and the Spirit
John 3:5 — Nicodemus should have known from Ezekiel 36:25-27 that when the Messiah brings the kingdom, even Jews will have to repent, be washed in the waters of renewal and receive a new heart by God’s Holy Spirit. This is what Jesus means when he says one must be born by water and the Spirit.
An honest review of John will show that much of it should not be interpreted literally. For example, John 1:5 does not refer to a mere light going on in a dark room. In John 2:19 we do not take Jesus as referring to the literal Temple. In John 6:53 we do not think Jesus referred to eating his literal flesh. When we understand that Jesus was talking figuratively, we see that being born of flesh or Spirit is not speaking of the physical birth process, but of spiritual regeneration and orientation. People born of the flesh think about this world. Those born of the Spirit (1 John 3:9) are spiritually minded and are able to believe in Christ and so become children of God.
When Jesus said that “Flesh gives birth to flesh,” he wasn’t stating the obvious. He was speaking spiritually, about the heart and mind. Those born naturally have the natural heart and mind. Only those (re)born spiritually have spiritual hearts and minds. Jesus refers to what he has just stated, that one must be “born of water and the Spirit.” Compare this with Titus 3:5, which speaks of the same thing: “He saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.”
When Jesus told Nicodemus that all who are born of the flesh are flesh, he meant that they are unconverted, controlled by the sinful nature. A person cannot, as Nicodemus had thought, be a child of the kingdom merely by physical birth and descent from Abraham. Natural birth brings only a mind that cannot please God nor see the kingdom. In Romans 8, Paul tells us that the converted person is
not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you. Now if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his. And if Christ [be] in you, the body [is] dead because of sin; but the Spirit [is] life because of righteousness. (Rom. 8:9-10, KJV)
This is what Jesus meant when he told Nicodemus that “Spirit gives birth to spirit” (John 3:6). Jesus was speaking of conversion, the water of regeneration and receiving of the Holy Spirit. The context shows that Jesus was speaking about the orientation of the mind. The heart is either fleshly or spiritual depending on whether one has been converted. To see the kingdom of God, people must be born again — have their fleshly minds converted into spiritual minds.
In Romans 6, Paul describes this as the death of the old self and the beginning of a new life in Christ. The old has died; the new person now lives. This is a new birth. At the resurrection we will have a dramatic change from mortality to immortality. One could, of course, draw an analogy of the resurrection as a birth into a new kind of existence, but we should not confuse that new analogy with the analogy in John 3. The new birth Jesus spoke of and that Paul describes and that Peter writes about is our spiritual renewal, by water and the Spirit, into the new life in Christ now. We are already new creations in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17). This is why conversion is called the “new birth.”
Like the wind
John 3:8 has sometimes been used to claim that those born of God are invisible. But Jesus was speaking in metaphors — not literally and physically. When Jesus said that those born of God are like the wind, he meant that just as you cannot see the wind or know it is there, except by what it does — rustling the leaves, raising the dust, etc. — you cannot see any outward difference in those who are born again. But you can tell who is born of God by what he or she does, by the fruit produced in the Christian life. Just as the invisible power of the wind accomplishes things that can be seen, the invisible power of the Holy Spirit working in converted Christians accomplishes works and produces fruits that can be seen.
Salvation comes by faith
John 3:9 — Nicodemus is incredulous. How can salvation come by faith? Jesus replies with the example of the bronze serpent set before Israel on a pole. It was
the means God used to give new (physical) life to the children of Israel if they were bitten in the plague of snakes [Numbers 21:8-9]…. By God’s provision, new life was graciously granted. Why then should it be thought so strange that by the gracious provision of this same God there should be new spiritual life, indeed, “eternal life” (John 3:15)?
Nicodemus was being challenged to turn to Jesus for new birth in much the same way as the ancient Israelites were commanded to turn to the bronze snake for new life…. Here then is the frankest answer to Nicodemus’ question, “How can this happen?” (John 3:9). The kingdom of God is seen or entered, new birth is experienced, and eternal life begins, through the saving cross-work of Christ, received by faith. (D.A. Carson, The Gospel According to John, pp. 201-202)
Jesus’ authority is from God (John 3:11-13). He will be lifted up on the cross to save all peoples (John 3:14). Everyone, not just Jews, who believe will have eternal life (John 3:15). God doesn’t love only the Jews — he loves all people (John 3:16). The children of God will be evident by their deeds, which reflect the working of the Holy Spirit, not human works. Believers come into the light and acknowledge Christ so it may be seen that what is being done in their lives is being done by God (John 3:19-21). Their works are a result of salvation, not done in an attempt to earn salvation.
Does “born again” refer to the resurrection?
Some people teach that being born again is about the resurrection from the dead, rather than conversion. In making this assertion, they typically refer to the writings of the apostle Paul who refers to Jesus being the “firstborn” and to the new body we are given at the resurrection. Let’s look at both.
Jesus the firstborn
In Colossians 1:18 Jesus is called the “firstborn from the dead” and in Romans 8:29 he is called the “firstborn among many.” The word “firstborn” is from the Greek word prototokos, and, when used of Jesus, it is a title rather than indicating when he was “born” in the sense of gennao, the word translated “born” in John 3.
Jesus held the title “firstborn” from eternity. In Colossians 1:15, he is called the “firstborn over all creation” by virtue of having created all things under the Father’s direction. The title “firstborn” signifies Christ in his relationship to the Father — he was before creation and produced all creation. This title indicates the preeminence of Christ in relationship to the church. He also is the first to rise permanently from the grave, but this is not related to gennao. It was a resurrection, not a birth. Jesus Christ is firstborn in many capacities.
“Firstborn” is used as a title in Exodus 4:22, where Israel is called God’s firstborn. This does not assert that Israel was the first nation or that others would be born later; the Jews did not understand it in that way. Rather, “firstborn” signifies a special relationship with God. We see the same in Psalm 89:20-27 — David will be God’s firstborn, higher than other kings of earth. He was not the first king God appointed to be over Israel, nor was he his father’s first child. He was the first in his royal line, but this prophecy in Psalm 89 had nothing to do with birth.
The title “firstborn” often goes to the oldest male child, but not always (Genesis 48:14-19). In reference to Christ, it is a title of preeminence and privilege over creation and the church. The church has a special position and relationship with God. In Hebrews 12:23 we are called “the church of the firstborn,” and this word is plural, indicating that we are all reckoned as firstborn, as inheritors. Again, this is used as a title of honor and preeminence.
In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul describes the resurrection as a spiritual body given to us as we are raised from the dead (or changed if still alive). Is the resurrection the new birth to which Jesus referred? The answer is no, for a newborn baby has essentially the same body as it had before its birth. Resurrection is not analogous to birth.
In Romans 1:4 Paul says that Christ was “declared to be the Son of God with power, according to the Spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead.” Doesn’t this liken resurrection to a new birth? The answer is no. Paul is not saying that Jesus became the Son of God by the resurrection. Jesus was declared to be the Son of God before his crucifixion — he did not become the Son of God by his resurrection. Rather, the resurrection declared him to be not just the Son, but the Son with power.
Rebirth, then growth
In the analogy Jesus used in speaking with Nicodemus, to be “born again” is to be reborn spiritually. This is the miracle of conversion (regeneration)—the often mysterious work of the Holy Spirit in a person’s life. This rebirth is then followed by the Christian life of growth—again, a gift of the Spirit. All this can be likened to the process of a baby being born, then growing and developing into a mature human over the course of their life.
If we have been called by God and have let him lead us to repentance and have received the Holy Spirit, we have become children of God in the way that John refers to being a child of God. As children of God, born again (or “born from above,” as it can be translated) of the Spirit, we have been given a new start. And now we grow from infancy toward maturity so that, one day, we may be changed from mortal to immortal when Christ comes. Here’s how John puts it:
As many as received him, to them he gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in his name: who were born [past tense], not of blood [not reckoned children of the kingdom by genealogy, as Jews thought], nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man [no one can come except the Father draw him], but of God. (John 1:12-13)
Copyright 1993; updated 2018
Author: David Hunsberger