A couple of stories in the Gospel of John illustrate the dichotomy of the natural world and the spiritual world. These are two of the most iconic stories in the New Testament, and they happened in close proximity in time to each other: the story of the Samaritan woman at the well, and the story of Nicodemus.
In this blog post, I want to focus on the encounter of Jesus with and Nicodemus, the Pharisee. Nicodemus was a religious leader of some prominence in the community. Many religious leaders of the time felt threatened by Jesus, but not Nicodemus.
He sought Jesus out to ask him some questions, going to Jesus at night, which suggests that his visit might not have been viewed favorably by his fellow Pharisees. He acknowledged the “credentials” Jesus demonstrated, the miracles that he had done, indicating an openness to what Jesus would say. Without waiting for a question, Jesus initiated the following dialogue:
“Jesus answered 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? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?'”
(John 3:1-4 ESV)
I think was an honest question. The context suggests that Nicodemus wasn’t challenging what Jesus said. He just wasn’t following.
We see by his approach to Jesus that he was open, but he didn’t understand what Jesus was getting at. “What was Jesus trying to say?”
It’s ironic, perhaps, that some Christians who say they take the Bible literally, don’t recognize the ubiquitous use of figurative (non-literal) language and ideas in the Bible. We can’t approach Scripture in a wooden way and hope to understand the depth of it.
If you have wondered what it means to be born again, let’s take a look at what Jesus said to Nicodemus and how Paul applies those concepts after the death and resurrection of Jesus. But first, Jesus continued:
“[U]nless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.'”
Jesus obviously didn’t mean that a man must re-enter his mother’s womb and be physically born again. He also doesn’t literally mean that man must be born of water, like out of a lake or something. He does seem to be saying literally, though, that man must be born (again) of Spirit or he cannot enter the kingdom of God, so let’s dig into it and try to flesh out what he means.
“What advantage does a man have for all the work he has done under the sun?” (Ecclesiastes 1:3). The Book of Ecclesiastes is sobering, though it is one of my favorite books in the Bible. I was drawn to it in college because of the candid assessment of life that it reveals. That candid assessment was refreshing to me as a young adult as I surveyed life and my place in the world.
We work most of our lives to earn a living, to keep up appearances, to obtain things, to advance our station in the world, to keep our yards neat and clean. We go about our labors often without much thought for why we do it. I don’t mean that we don’t have goals. Of course we do, but our goals are temporal.
I am reminded of the carrot attached to a stick mounted on the harness of a horse. We chase after those carrots. When we catch one, there is always another carrot to chase. Often we don’t achieve our goals, and we are left unsatisfied as a result. The truth is, though, even when we do achieve our goals, we are rarely satisfied by having attained them.
The author of Ecclesiastes takes a step back from the busyness of life, as I was doing in college. The author contemplates the arc of life, the beginning to the end, and asks what it all means. We rarely do that. But, if you stop to think about it, what is the point? We labor and toil on this Earth through our 60, 70, 80 or more years, but for what? What do we get in the end?
In a previous blog article, I talked about the shadow of things to come. Paul says that following rules and observing religious ritual is just a shadow of things to come. Later in the same chapter in Colossians, Paul explains in more detail what he is getting at. When we are focused only on the do’s and the don’ts and on observing religious rituals, we are focused on the wrong things.
“If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were alive in the world, do you submit to regulations – ‘Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch’ (referring to things that all perish as they are used) – according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.” (Colossians 2:20-23)
Paul isn’t advocating that followers of Christ abandon self-discipline and self-control and do whatever they like. “Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?By no means!” (Romans 6:1-2) But, following Jesus doesn’t mean stepping up religious observances and following rules and regulations more closely. The focus on rules and rituals entirely misses the point.
“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.”)