During the later part of the twentieth century, the phrase “born again” entered into the religious language of America. Of course, conservative Christians have always understood and affirmed the necessity of being “born again.” Two men brought the phrase “born again” into the
American media. Charles Colson, former Nixon Whitehouse counsel and convicted conspirator during the Watergate scandal, wrote a popular book describing his conversion to the Christian faith titled Born Again. Presidential candidate Jimmy Carter shocked the media by claiming to be a “born again Christian.” The news media personnel did not know the meaning of the term. Since Carter was Southern Baptist, the media asked a Southern Baptist seminary professor to explain the term. After his academic definition, no one knew what “born again” meant. A born-again UPI journalist named Wes Pippert explained the term to his colleagues. According to a poll, approximately 40 percent of the American population claims to be born-again Christians.
More important than religious polls is the biblical meaning of the term. What does “born again” mean? In John 3, Jesus Himself explained the concept of new birth.
First, Jesus described the necessity of the new birth to Nicodemus (3:1-3). The name Nicodemus means “Conqueror of People” (think Nike). Yet, Jesus conquered him. Nicodemus, like many others (2:23) became attracted to Christ because of His miracles (3:1). Nicodemus belonged to the highest political and religious echelons of Jewish society. Politically, he was a “ruler” of the Jews, a member of the Sanhedrin—the supreme court of the Jewish people.
Nicodemus was a wealthy man; he provided the expensive spices for the burial of Jesus (19:39). Religiously, he belonged a movement of 6,000 religious men, known as the Pharisees. He held conservative beliefs affirming the existence of God, creation, inspiration of the OT, miracles, angels, and future resurrection. He meticulously practiced his religion praying three times a day, paying three tithes, recognized Jesus came from God and expressed respect to Jesus by granting him the high title “Rabbi.” More importantly, Jesus recognized the popularity of Nicodemus as a religious teacher—calling him “the Teacher of the Jews rather than “a teacher” (a literal translation from the Greek of 3:10). Jesus threefold proclamation of the “must” of the new birth to the religious teacher of the Jews (vv. 3, 5, 7) highlights the necessity of the new birth. Without the experience of new birth an individual can neither see nor enter the Kingdom of God.
Second, Jesus described the meaning of the new birth (3:4-8). The Greek term translated “again” in our English translations possess two usages—“again” or “above.” Nicodemus misunderstood Jesus’ words as a second physical birth while Jesus taught the necessity of a different source of birth—a birth from above. People interpret the phrase “born of water and Spirit” in various ways: born physically (water) and spiritually. Alternately, some understand the phrase as affirming the necessity of water and Spirit baptism for salvation. In my opinion, water and Spirit refer to the same experience. Ezekiel described a threefold new work of God: water (a symbol of cleansing), new heart (not a stone heart), and the Spirit of God indwelling His people (Ezek. 36:24-29). The birth from above is a cleansing, a new heart, and the indwelling of God’s Spirit.
Third, Jesus explained the method of the new birth (3:13-16). Jesus descended from heaven in order to be lifted up. Jesus used the wilderness experience of the deliverance of the Hebrews from a plague of serpents through looking in faith at the snake on a pole (Num. 21:6-9). Likewise, individuals who look with faith upon Jesus lifted up on the cross as their sin-bearer experience eternal life.
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