The New Birth

One of the most common expressions used to describe one who is a nominal Christian is to say one has been “born again.”  Nearly anyone who claims any kind of faith at all is generally and loosely regarded as a “born again Christian.”  But there is a vast difference in how the Bible deals with the expression “born again.”  Please consider what the Bible teaches on this very important topic.

The passage that specifically deals with the new birth is as follows: “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 are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.’  Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Most assuredly, 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?’  Jesus answered, ‘Most assuredly, I say to you, unless 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.  Do not marvel that I said to you, You must be born again.  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’” (John 3:1-8).

John relates the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus.  This man, Nicodemus, was a Pharisee and a member of the Sanhedrin court.  He was one of the most influential Jews of Jesus’ day.  As a member of the high court in Judah he ruled in just about every kind of issue that rose among the Jews.  As a Pharisee he belonged to the strict sect of Jews who were experts in the Mosaic Law and Jewish tradition.  He is an interesting case, for most of the impressions we get of the Pharisees is that of a legalistic and strict interpreter of the law of God, who in turn were masters at bending laws around to fit their own wishes.  But Nicodemus shows us that you cannot always generalize.  He is mentioned three times in the New Testament and each time as a friend to Jesus.  On this occasion he respectfully recognizes Jesus as a teacher who had come from God  as attested by the working of miracles.  The second time he is mentioned is John 7:51 where he seeks to  prevent the Sanhedrin from a hurried decision that would have condemned Christ with no evidence.  He simply asked, “Does our law judge a man before it hears him and knows what he is doing?”  When Jesus was buried by the gentle care of another man named Joseph of Arimathea, Nicodemus was there.  The record says, “And Nicodemus, who at first came to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds.  Then they took the body of Jesus, and bound it in strips of linen with the spices, as the custom of the Jews is to bury” (John 19:39).

Nicodemus must have been quite impressed by what he heard from Jesus.  Jesus had been making disciples all along as He traveled through the regions of Galilee.  From time to time He paused to teach the people.  The masterful “Sermon on the Mount” was heard by thousands of people.  Possibly Nicodemus had been privileged to hear the great oration.  To say the very least, he recognized Jesus as a teacher, but not just an ordinary teacher -- a teacher sent by the Almighty.  There has been much speculation as to why he came to Christ “at night.”  Any number of answers are offered from his own desire to keep people from knowing he had visited Jesus, or that he wanted to get to Christ early before the crowds pressed in on him, or even to spy on Christ.  No one knows, although the last two can be reasonably excluded.  He had enough courage to come to Christ’s defense before the Sanhedrin and to assist in His burial.  It really doesn’t matter why he came at night.  What is vital is to know what the Lord said to him at that time.

Nicodemus began by a noble confession.  “Rabbi, we know that You are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.”  The term “Rabbi” is of Hebrew origin meaning  “my master,” i.e Rabbi, and is used as an official title of honor.  Vine says it is derived from a word that means primarily “master” in contrast to a slave; this with the added pronomial suffix signified “my master” and was a title of respect by which teachers were addressed. (Vine’s Expository Dictionary of the New Testament,) Volume II, page 504.

Nicodemus confessed “we know you are a teacher come from God.”  Did he include the Sanhedrin court as a whole, or at least in part?  Likely he simply said something familiar in our own parlance -- “We all know you are God’s teacher sent to us,” or “Everybody knows you are a teacher from God.”  The confession shows that he respected the right of Christ to dictate the terms of God’s plan for all men.  Nicodemus was also fully aware of the power of Jesus.  He had seen the signs and noted their genuineness.  While he may not have fully realized that he was speaking to the great Messiah of God, he did see the connection between miracles as a sign of God’s endorsement.  Many of our day have never had such depth of perception.  So-called “miracles” today are not used as a sign of God’s endorsement but generally as a means of raising money.  Jesus raised the dead -- modern day so-called “miracle” workers raise money.  Miracles served only one purpose in the Bible -- the confirmation of the teacher who came from God.   That is why no one has such power today.  God does not send teachers as He did Christ and as Christ sent the apostles.  We have it all now confirmed in an infallible book called the Bible.

Jesus responded by saying “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”  The word “unless” signifies that a clear view of the kingdom than is enjoyed by those who are born again.  To “see” the kingdom means to fully perceive it.  Jesus said, “And in them the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled, which says: `Hearing you will hear and shall not understand, and seeing you will see and not perceive(emphasis added, DRS);  for the heart of this people has grown dull. Their ears are hard of hearing, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears, lest they should understand with their heart and turn, so that I should heal them’” (Matthew 13:14-15).  Furthermore the apostle Paul prayed, “that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give to you the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him,  the eyes of your understanding being enlightened; that you may know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints,  and what is the exceeding greatness of His power toward us who believe” (Ephesians 1:17-20).   To see is to comprehend and understand.  Prior to becoming a member of the kingdom of God one must be taught what all is involved.  The new birth is that which answers Paul’s prayer.   Only those individuals who are taught the truth as revealed by the Holy Spirit and who are born again understand the kingdom of God.  Others continually grope in darkness with speculations about the meaning of the new birth and the nature of the kingdom.  Those with a determination to obey Christ as the king are born again and the reality and glory of the kingdom is theirs to enjoy.

But Nicodemus was puzzled.  He asked, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?”  There is an interesting point made by Albert Barnes.  He noted, “the expression to be born again was in common use among the Jews, to denote a change from Gentilism to Judaism by becoming a proselyte by baptism.  The word with them meant a change from the state of a heathen to that of a Jew.  But they never used it as applicable to a Jew, because they supposed that by his birth he was entitled to all the privileges of the people of God” (Barnes Notes on the New Testament, Baker Book House).

If that is the case with Nicodemus, and it very well could be, he would have really had a problem understanding Christ.  If being born again meant a change from Gentilism to Judaism, since Nicodemus was already a full blood Jew by birth, the only other explanation was another physical birth.  But that was completely out of the realm of possibility with Nicodemus.  It is physically impossible for an adult to be born a second time physically.  So Jesus addressed the questions and dealt with these two problems Nicodemus felt.  First, Jesus said the new birth was not a second physical birth.  He said, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless 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.  Do not marvel that I said to you, You must be born again.”  Second, Jesus said the new birth consisted of two elements “water and spirit.”  The idea of changing from one state to another is expressed in no better way than by the term “birth.”  We speak of the birth of a child -- a baby is born and enters a brand new environment.  Some speak of the “birth of a nation,” or “the birth of an idea.”  All of this refers to a change from one condition to another.  And when Jesus said one must be born of water and spirit in order to enter the kingdom of God He had that same idea in mind -- a change or a transition.  Later Paul would write, “giving thanks to the Father who has qualified us to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in the light.  He has delivered us from the power of darkness and translated us into the kingdom of the Son of His love, in whom we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins” (Colossians 1:12-14).  All of this relates to the spiritual change which results from deliverance from sin.

But what did He mean by “water and the spirit?”  There is only one thing that is consistently described as an act involving a deliverance from the old world of sin and a transferral into the kingdom of God.  That is water baptism.  Water cannot mean the natural body fluid in which an unborn child exists prior to birth.   Jesus statement is the same as saying, “I am not talking about a physical birth -- the new birth is the birth of the spirit.”  Please consider the next statement very carefully.  No apostle and no New Testament teacher or preacher ever used the expression “you must be born again.”  They never preached that people had to be born of water and the spirit.  If you think that is incorrect, please address that point and prove me wrong.  What they did do was tell people such things as, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38).  Now with an unbiased approach you should clearly see both elements of the new birth in this passage.  Jesus said one must be born of water.  Peter said, “Repent and be baptized.”  Jesus said the new birth consisted of being born of water and the spirit.  Peter said those who were baptized as penitent believers would receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.  In every case of apostolic preaching, sinners were told in plain language what to do to be saved, to be transformed into the kingdom of God, and always baptism in water was involved.  The late R.L. Whiteside summarized it this way.  “...the best way to find out -- in fact the only way to find out -- what the new birth is or what the new creation is, is to find out what sinners did under the preaching of the apostles.  In the cases of conversions, we learn what it is to be born again.  To be born again is figurative language, and one is born again when he believes, repents, and is baptized.  Hence, to be born of water and the Spirit is to believe what the Spirit teaches and to be baptized as the Spirit directs.  No apostle ever said to alien sinners, ‘You must be born anew,’ but told them plainly what to do to be saved.” (Annual Lesson Commentary, Gospel Advocate Co., January 10, 1937, page 23).

That is all that any preacher or teacher has the right to say today about the new birth.  Are we at liberty to preach concerning the new birth and say things no apostle or New Testament preacher dared to say?  If we tell people to do what the apostles told them to do then, will we not be telling people what is involved in the new birth today?  If those who accepted the apostolic, Spirit-filled, and Spirit-guided teaching then were born again by obeying the gospel of Christ, won’t that still hold true today?  It certainly will if we are willing to lay aside denominational doctrines and preconceived notions and accept the plain and simple teaching of the word -- and let it stand right there.

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