“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.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.’
‘How can this be?’ Nicodemus asked.
“’You are Israel’s teacher,’ said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man.'” (John 3:1-13)
We have to be born into relationship with God. We don’t inherit a relationship with God. We must receive Him directly, on our own.
“[T]o all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.” (John 1:12-13)
I’ve been reading through the Bible slowly from Genesis to Revelation. This is something I have not done in many years. I have taken some sidetracks and rabbit hole excursions along the way, but I am still plodding forward.
It’s amazing that circumstances of life arise from time to time of which the particular passage I am reading comes to bear on those circumstances. This is the case in a poignant way in regard to a conversation I had with a very close friend recently.
We were talking about the Catholic Church and a very bad experience that someone very close to both of us had being raised by strict parents in a strict Catholic school setting. I was also raised Catholic, though my experience differed from his. I didn’t go to parochial school, and I didn’t experience the strictness of the Catholic Church like he did, though I certainly saw evidence of it.
In my friend’s case, the strictness and severity he experienced bordered on abuse. I don’t know the details, but his reactions to things religious suggest he might have some degree of PTSD as a result of his experiences.
I don’t mean to pick on the Catholic Church. I have seen the same “spirit” evident in other denominations as well. Certain Baptists and Pentecostals and people we might label “fundamentalists” or other labels have exhibited a similar spirit as the Catholics in the focus on do’s and don’ts and religious rituals practiced in front of foreboding audiences. The Westboro Baptist Church is a very extreme example of the legalism and dogmatism I am talking about.
In the context of this conversation and these thoughts, I read these words the very next day that were penned by Paul the Apostle about two millennia ago:
Therefore, let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival our new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance is in Christ. Colossians 2:16-17
I was listening to Ravi Zacharias this morning when he quoted Gandhi saying something to the effect that Christians will not make a dent in India until the Sermon on the Mount becomes part of their creed. Gandhi saw what many modern skeptics see, which is a gap between the Christian proclamation and testimony and how those same Christians live their lives.
If we are followers of Christ, shouldn’t we model what Jesus preached?
“Two things cannot be in one place. Where you tend a rose, my lad, a thistle cannot grow.”[i]
This quotation by Frances Hodgson Burnett is pretty profound when you think about it. A person cannot feed love and feed hate at the same time. One displaces the other, like light displaces the darkness.
Except, we know from our own experience that we can love and hate at the same time. It’s just that we cannot love and hate the same thing at the same time. This is what the quotation is saying: a rose and a thistle cannot occupy the same space, though roses and thistles can certainly stand side-by-side. We can love one person and hate another.
Jesus puts a twist on these thoughts when he says that a person cannot serve two masters. When two priorities are vying for position in our hearts, they cannot both occupy the top position: “Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other.” And Jesus provides us a ready example: “You cannot serve both God and money.”
We can have confidence in His message not only because His message was attested by the miraculous signs and wonders He performed when He spoke, but by the fact that He rose from the dead, demonstrating for us the power of this new life that is not of the flesh, but of the Spirit.
Being born again requires repentance (turning from our own ways) and embracing, committing to, Jesus and the message he spoke. In that process of repentance and embrace, God causes us to be born again, born from above, born of the spirit.
This isn’t just a theoretical, philosophical paradigm shift; it is an actual change that we experience. Something happens within us that is not the result of anything we have done (or can do). The change may be subtle or it may be dramatic, but the change is noticeable and certain. For a quick description of what this change is like, see the video below before reading on:
The change comes from being born again, which occurs when we believe in Jesus and the message He delivered. Accessing this new life is a matter of faith (commitment) to Christ which is the import of these famous words:
“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.”
Similarly, the writer of Hebrews said,
“without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him.”
Being born again comes from a genuine, heartfelt response to God’s message that Jesus spoke and initiates a new life that carries forward from that point. Being born again begins our spiritual lives, as being born in the flesh begins our lives as natural human beings. The Spirit is the hallmark of this new life.
In fact, God’s Spirit is the sign that we have, indeed, been born again.
Jesus promised us, if we keep his commandments, he would give us the Spirit to help us, to dwell with us and to be in us. The greatest commandments are to love God “with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” and to “love your neighbor as yourself”.
We become born again by believing and submitting to God in Christ and to His message. We have access to the Spirit of God to the extent that we keep His commandments, which are not a list of rules, but is a loving relationship with God and people. The Spirit will help us with these things as we submit to live as God intends for us to live.
Our “work” is to believe and submit. The new life comes from God who causes us to be born again. The change happens from the inside out as God initiates that new life within us. It isn’t a change that we summon up, but a change that God makes in us, a fresh view of the world, filtered now through the Spirit that dwells in us and with us, providing that we embrace it and don’t grieve or quench the Spirit we have been given.
The idea of being born again, born from above, born of the Spirit, is central to the message that Jesus spoke, and it is carried through the rest of the New Testament. Paul taught that we are dead in our transgressions and flesh (natural selves) until God makes us “alive together with Him”. Paul says that “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature…..” Peter likewise taught that people who have given themselves to Jesus, God’s Son, are “born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable….”
Being born again is essential. Flesh and blood can’t inherit the kingdom of God; the perishable can’t inherit the imperishable. Our perishable bodies must put on the imperishable – the Spirit that God has promised and offers us if we will believe and submit ourselves to Him.
Being born again is only the beginning of our spiritual lives, just as being born as an infant begins our natural lives. There are perils along the way. Our spiritual lives must be nurtured. We must grow in our knowledge of God and continue to water and feed the new life God gives us.But, that life comes from God.
 Hebrews 2:3-4 (“[Salvation] was declared at first by the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard, while God also bore witness by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will.”)
 The resurrection of Jesus in bodily form is so important and so central to the message of the Gospel that Paul says, “[I]f Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.” (1 Corinthians 15:14)
 To get some idea of how being born again happens to a person, one might read accounts of it in peoples’ own words, C. S. Lewis having provided a famous account. For him, he became aware that he was holding something at bay, shutting something out. One day, after a long intellectual journey from atheism to theism, he simply found himself believing in God, but it would be nearly two years later before he submitted himself to the God he now believed in. From my own experience, I can say that a clarity and insight and new desires followed my submission to Jesus as my Lord and Savior, and they have never left me, though I at times have grieved the Spirit and spent times wandering in a sort of spiritual desert – yet that pilot light that was lit has never gone out, and that new life has been growing and renewing in me ever since.
 John 6:47-51 (“[W]hoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”) Paul likewise taught, “[I]f you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Romans 10:9)
 Romans 8:16 (“The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God”)
 John 14:15-17 (“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.”)
Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews; this man came to Jesus by night and said to Him, “Rabbi, we know that You have come from God as a teacher; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.” Jesus answered and said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
Nicodemus said to Him, “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?” Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be amazed that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:1-9)
One of the most ubiquitous and enigmatic Christian phrases is the phrase “born again”. It is as enigmatic now as it was when spoken to Nicodemus who asked the question of Jesus that sparked the answer that is now famous.