Throughout Christendom an ever growing number of believers refer to themselves as “born again”. As this trend continues, so has the debate over what exactly “born again” really means. To all seekers of spiritual truth, the most important question must always be, what does scripture actually say?
To the casual observer there are only two passages where the term “born again” is specifically mentioned. To begin a conscientious study of the subject these two passages must be fully examined objectively and carefully compared to all other possible relevant scriptures.
The first reference is found in the third chapter of the Gospel of John. “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” – Jn. 3:3.
The second mention of the exact phrase is found in Peter’s first epistle. “Having been born again, not of corruptible seed but incorruptible, through the word of God which lives and abides forever” – 1Peter 1:23.
To properly interpret and fully understand that which scripture teaches about being born again it is necessary to study these two verses in the context of their original placement within the larger passages of scripture surrounding them. It is important to grasp the whole message, not merely build on unclear fragments.
John relates a concise story in which the term “born again” is first mentioned. None of the other Gospels contain any reference to this. In attempting to rightly interpret scripture, especially in the creation of sound doctrine, it is not advisable to give too much weight to any sole entry in scripture. In other words, sound doctrine must be supported by several cross-referenced passages, not established based merely upon only one passage.
With this consideration and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, an examination of the following twenty-one verses of text will hopefully reveal what Jesus was explaining.
“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.” Nicodemus answered and said to Him, “How can these things be?”
Jesus answered and said to him, “Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not know these things? Most assuredly, I say to you, We speak what We know and testify what We have seen, and you do not receive Our witness. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of Man who is in heaven.
And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved. “He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. And this is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For everyone practicing evil hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But he who does the truth comes to the light, that his deeds may be clearly seen, that they have been done in God.” – Jn. 3:1–21.
The entire twenty-one verses must be studied as a whole in order to fully grasp the intent of the author as this story unfolds. The first important relevance to note is the obvious direct association of being born again with the most oft quoted verses pertaining to salvation (vs.16,17). Being born again is inexorably tied to believing unto eternal life.
It is equally important to note that this is a personal conversation, NOT a sermon to a large group. The significance of this observance is because in many other places in the four Gospels, Jesus is questioned about the meaning of certain parables, and things He indicates are hidden from the masses and only revealed unto a chosen few. Only a select few are given this information.
While a complete comprehension of that would necessitate an article dedicated to the specific subject, consideration of this fact should suffice right now. This text is relating what John must have overheard in a discussion between Nicodemus and Jesus. This was not presented as a teaching, although there is certainly something to be learned. Surely, if one cannot see the kingdom of God UNLESS they are born again, knowing what it is, and becoming born again, is extremely important.
Nicodemus is a Pharisee, a sect of religious leaders from whom most of the ruling class and priests belonged. That he came to Jesus at night is an indication that he was seeking information of a personal nature and that he wanted secrecy. Both points are important.
As mentioned above, Jesus often explained things at deeper levels of revelation and comprehension to his closest followers to which others were simply not privy. The point is that Jesus would give Nicodemus a private, secret meeting and divulge such important information about the Kingdom of God (KOG) indicates that His estimation of Nicodemus was above that of the other Pharisees. Unlike other confrontations by members of this sect, Nicodemus was apparently sincerely seeking truth, not merely hoping to catch Jesus in something by which to accuse Him.
Nicodemus declares that he knows Jesus is come from God, the evidence is the signs he must have witnessed. Therefore, this is no opponent like most Pharisees. This is a man who is basically confessing faith in Jesus. Discerning this, Jesus takes him into His inner circle and shares a deeper, hidden truth, not available to the masses.
John supplies further evidence that Nicodemus was NOT like the majority of Pharisees who rejected Jesus. He opposes the Pharisees in their denunciation of Jesus as a legitimate prophet in chapter seven, and in chapter nineteen he assists Joseph of Arimathea in the burial of Jesus [Jn. 7:50; 19:39].
Keep in mind, Nicodemus is a religious leader, Jesus calls him “the teacher of Israel”. But he is a student of the law under the old covenant. The New Testament has not yet come. Whatever knowledge Nicodemus has of the Kingdom of God is confined to what he learned from the Torah and the few things he may have heard Jesus say regarding it.
Jesus does not answer in reply to any direct question from Nicodemus. In fact, there was no question. So the reply must be to Nicodemus’ declaration of faith in Jesus. Since it contains things formerly unheard of (the term “born again”), it automatically begs for an explanation.
That Nicodemus immediately responds with a perfectly natural enquiry is an indication that he is NOT expecting a new spiritual revelation, simply to understand what Jesus means. Accordingly, he asked a perfectly rational question from any world-ground perspective. “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 is obviously not talking about ANY natural birth experience, but of a supernatural birth. “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.”
Jesus begins His explanation by meeting Nicodemus on his level – the natural birth of flesh and blood – born of water. Entrance into this world is through the expulsion of water from the womb, ergo – born of water. He further distinguishes the natural birth by stating that which is born of the flesh is flesh. No Nicodemus, you cannot enter your mother’s womb a second time! Once was sufficient for physical, natural birth; but now learn about spiritual birth.
Jesus addresses the matter by comparing natural birth in the flesh with an introduction to what He expresses as spiritual birth. Because it is subsequent to physical birth, it is being “born again“. Just as natural birth produces life in the flesh, that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Unless one is born of water AND THE SPIRIT, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. Being born of the Spirit is being “born again”.
Two things must be received: natural birth and spiritual birth; born of water and the Spirit. While this is indeed referring to spiritual birth it is NOT a reference to an experience relegated to the after-life because it is being intentionally coupled with being born of water into the flesh in and of this present realm.
Therefore, being born again is an experience that occurs while having been also first born in the flesh. It is an experience that provides a dichotomy in our being – a dual nature – flesh and spirit. It is to be experienced while still quite alive in physical form.
Notice that this is revealed during a private, secret discussion. This is new spiritual knowledge not declared to the general audiences Jesus regularly attracted. This is also the necessary requirement for seeing the Kingdom of God (KOG). In order for Nicodemus to comprehend this revelation, he must assimilate it to any former knowledge he has about the KOG. For all to comprehend what Jesus meant by becoming born again a comprehensive study of what scripture teaches about the KOG is likewise necessary.
The following passages declare all that scripture says regarding the KOG. There are a total of 69 such passages, ALL of which are found exclusively in the New Testament. Many are merely repeating what is said in other Gospel cites, so these listed are representative of first time or unique mention only.
“But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you” Mt. 6:33; Lk. 12:31.
We are to seek the KOG and in doing so ALL these things (material, physical needs) shall be added unto us. Notice here the relationship of the KOG to the physical realm. If the KOG is only some future perfect experience and NOT one introduced in this present physical realm, what need would there be for physical material needs to be met?
Obviously, seeking after a thing is bred out of a sincere desire to find. As in everything God looks on the heart, and if in our hearts we desire to find the KOG, we shall enter it. Scripture reveals (as will be shown by other references) that the KOG is a spiritual realm and as the spiritual rules over the natural in all things, entrance into the KOG, provides spiritual authority that results in material needs being met.
“If I cast out demons by the Spirit of God, surely the kingdom of God has come upon you” – Mt. 12:28; Lk. 11:20.
Here Jesus is accused of casting out demons by satan. As He corrects their rebuke, He also associates the KOG with the Spirit of God. This association is quite important to remember when discerning exactly when and how the KOG actually comes. HINT: when the Holy Spirit comes upon you; it has ALREADY come.
“Therefore I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a nation bearing the fruits of it” – Mt. 21:43.
This is prophetic pointing to the end of the old covenant with Israel and the establishment of the KOG among primarily Gentile believers. Several other verses refer to who is eligible to enter the KOG, or to whom it shall be given: Mt. 19:24; 21:31; Mk. 10:14-25; 12:34; Lk. 6:20; 9:62;13:28, 29; 18:16, 17; 1Cor. 15:50; Gal. 5:21; 2Thes.1:5. A full examination of ALL these passages guided by the Holy Spirit is necessary for a proper comprehension of to whom and when entrance into the KOG is provided.
“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.” – Mk. 1:15.
Scripture declares in this and other similar passages that the KOG was presented to the original hearers as “at hand”, meaning it was quite near, and very soon to be revealed [Lk. 10:11]. Indeed, so soon that some alive in THAT generation would not taste death:
“Assuredly, I say to you there are some standing here who will not taste death till they see the kingdom of God present with power.” – Mk. 9:1.
The KOG is also not of this world and is quite mysterious to those excluded from it. Jesus answered,
“My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight, so that I should not be delivered to the Jews; but now My kingdom is not from here.” – Jn. 18:36; 1Cor. 15:50.
“To you it has been given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God, but to the rest it is given in parables, that ‘Seeing they may not see, And hearing they may not understand.’ – Lk. 8:10; 1Cor. 6: 9, 10; 15:50.
Never-the-less, the KOG is to be proclaimed throughout the world. This is preaching the Gospel, also proclaimed in many passages.
Jesus said to them, “I must preach the kingdom of God to the other cities also, because for this purpose I have been sent.” – Lk. 4:43; 8:1; 9:2, 11, 60; Mk. 1:14; Ac. 1:3; 8:12; 19:8; 20:25; 28:23, 31.
The KOG also signifies the end of the old covenant, the law and the prophets. The KOG replaces such preaching. Instead, the KOG is a reference to the new and everlasting covenant, and the term is exclusive to New Testament texts.
“The law and the prophets were until John. Since that time the kingdom of God has been preached, and everyone is pressing into it” – Lk. 16:16.
Several passages give some explanation of what the KOG is like or might be compared to, mostly parables or analogies, but all distinguish that NOT everyone will enter.
“What is the kingdom of God like? And to what shall I compare it?” – Lk. 13:18-29; 14:16-24.
Finally the KOG is NOT seen with the natural eye or located in a physical place, but it is WITHIN.
Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, He answered them and said, “The kingdom of God does not come with observation; nor will they say, ‘See here!’ or ‘See there!’ For indeed, the kingdom of God is within you.” – Lk. 17:20,21; Ro. 14:17; 1Cor. 4:20; 15:50.
A careful, prayerful study of all these scripture passages should result in a proper understanding of the Kingdom of God. The significance of its spiritual nature and having already come rather than as some suppose, it being yet to appear at some time in the future, should be quite obvious.
The other scriptural reference to the exact term “born again” is found in Peter’s epistle.
“Having been born again, not of corruptible seed but incorruptible, through the word of God which lives and abides forever” – 1Pt. 1:23.
Notice the verbiage. It is in the past-tense (having been); it has already occurred to Peter’s audience. This is also further evidence of those who “shall not taste death” until they “see” the KOG. Being born again is evidently NOT an experience relegated to merely sometime in the future; neither is the coming of the KOG. Both are spoken of as having already come and linked as nearly synonymous terms.
A deeper prayerful consideration of the whole first chapter of Peter’s letter shows that those he addresses are ALREADY: “in sanctification of the Spirit” (vs 2); “begotten again”(vs3) [another way of saying being born again]; “to an inheritance incorruptible and undefiled and that does not fade away, reserved in heaven for you” vs4); “kept by the power of God”(vs5) [preserved NOT by our innate ability to endure, but by God’s ability to keep us]; “though now for a little while, if need be, you have been grieved by various trials” (vs6) [although ALREADY born again, for NOW still subject to trials. This cannot therefore, be an experience yet future in a perfect realm]; “knowing that you were not redeemed with corruptible things, from your aimless conduct received by tradition from your fathers” (vs18) [becoming born again is NOT the result of obedience to the law or being good in and of yourself]; “you have purified your souls in obeying the truth through the Spirit” (vs22) [again, it is “through the Spirit”, NOT by one’s own ability]; “having been born again, not of corruptible seed but incorruptible, through the word of God which lives and abides forever” (vs 23) [having been = already born again].
Based upon the results of such study and the reference included by Jesus in His introduction to Nicodemus about being born again as the qualifier for “seeing” the KOG, it can reasonably be concluded that added to the list of those excluded from the KOG is everyone who is NOT born again.
Therefore, being born again is a necessary experience for salvation. One becomes born again as inward evidence that they are indeed saved. No one is truly saved without also being born again. It is via this spiritual birth that one is introduced to, and received into KOG, which is synonymous with salvation. It also explains why Paul warns about the need for the personal indwelling of the Holy Spirit, whereby one becomes truly born again.
“But you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells IN you. Now if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he is not His” – Ro. 8:9.
“Clearly you are an epistle of Christ, ministered by us, written not with ink but by the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of flesh, that is, of the heart” – 2Cor. 3:3.
The New Testament, once completely implemented, replaced the OT. The preaching of the OT prophets ALWAYS pointed to the coming of the New along with the advent of Messiah (Christ). John the Baptist was the last OT prophet (because his death came BEFORE Christ had ushered in the New by His own sacrificial death).
Jesus said to his followers that the KOG was near; some would not face physical death before it came to them. Just as with Nicodemus, Jesus equated being born again with the coming of the Holy Spirit. Jesus foretold of an experience where, once He had ascended to His Father, He would pour out the Spirit to indwell true believers in all generations. The Holy Spirit which had merely been WITH them (indwelt in Christ alone while in His physical body) would SOON be IN them.
Jesus said, “He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.” But this He spoke concerning the Spirit, whom those believing in Him would receive; for the Holy Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified” – Jn. 7:38,39.
Pertaining to Christ’s glorification, it is important to determine precisely when it occurred, because believers receiving the Holy Spirit is directly related to His glorification. Two passages of scripture when compared give a reasonable estimation of this time.
The first relates the story of the disciples discovering the empty tomb after Christ’s resurrection. Mary actually encountered Jesus still in the garden BEFORE He ascended to heaven. She ran to Him but was told not to “touch” Him because He was not yet glorified. Had she clung to Him then, she would have defiled Him.
Jesus said to her (Mary), “Do not cling to Me, for I have not yet ascended to My Father; but go to My brethren and say to them, ‘I am ascending to My Father . . .” – Jn. 20:17.
The other scriptural reference connected to this concept is found a few verses later.
“Then, the same day at evening, being the first day of the week, when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in the midst, and said to them, “Peace be with you.” When He had said this, He showed them His hands and His side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. So Jesus said to them again, “Peace to you! As the Father has sent Me, I also send you.” And when He had said this, He breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” – Jn. 20: 19-22.
Notice that this occurs “the same day at evening”. Jesus appears, NOW glorified and imparts to them the Holy Spirit [breathes out the Spirit for them to receive]. The Spirit which had been WITH them (in Jesus) was now released to dwell IN them.
A very important footnote to this story ties the timing of Christ’s glorification (ascending to the Father) sometime between when He met with Mary and would not allow her to “cling” to Him, and that same evening when he then appears in His glorified body.
“And after eight days His disciples were again inside, and Thomas with them. Jesus came, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, “Peace to you!” Then He said to Thomas, “Reach your finger here, and look at My hands; and reach your hand here, and put it into My side. Do not be unbelieving, but believing.” And Thomas answered and said to Him, “My Lord and my God!” – Jn. 20: 26-28.
Obviously, this account takes place eight days later, but it clearly states that Jesus now allowed others to touch Him; He was already in His glorified state. The earlier story shows He must have already been glorified Sunday evening, because He “breathed” out the Holy Spirit of which He had formerly held sole possession.
“It is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you; but if I depart, I will send Him to you.” – Jn. 16:9.
With these things having been duly considered, take a prayerful look at these other related passages, all referring to the experience of receiving the Holy Spirit.
“the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees Him nor knows Him; but you know Him, for He dwells WITH you and will be IN you”. – Jn. 14:17.
“when He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth” – Jn. 16:13.
John (the Baptist) bore witness, saying, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and He remained upon Him. I did not know Him, but He who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘Upon whom you see the Spirit descending, and remaining on Him, this is He who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.” Jn. 1:32-33.
Scripture speaks of “baptism” in several ways. Whether in reference to a literal one in water, or spiritual baptism, the word implies always a “full immersion”. Comparing the experience Jesus spoke about in relationship to the Holy Spirit with being born again, indeed one truly “immersed” in the Spirit has been “baptized with the Holy Spirit”. Is that experience perhaps synonymous with being born again?
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” – Jn. 3:5,6.
“It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing. The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life.” – Jn. 6:33.
These two passages show a similar concept of the dichotomy of every born again believer. They have two natures; one in the flesh, one in the Spirit. But ONLY the Spirit gives life (spiritual life, eternal life). Spiritual words (truth) come ONLY from spiritual revelation; spiritual revelation comes ONLY from the Holy Spirit, and revealed ONLY to true believers, the born again followers of Jesus Christ.
“But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you”. – Jn. 14:26.
“But when the Helper comes, whom I shall send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father, He will testify of Me.” – Jn. 15:26.
“But these things I have told you, that when the time comes, you may remember that I told you of them. And these things I did not say to you at the beginning, because I was with you. But now I go away to Him who sent Me, and none of you asks Me, ‘Where are You going?’ But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your heart. Nevertheless I tell you the truth. It is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Helper will NOT come to you; but if I depart, I will send Him to you. And when He has come, He will convict the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment: of sin, because they do not believe in Me; of righteousness, because I go to My Father . . .” Jn. 16:4-10.
“However, when He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth; for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak; and He will tell you things to come.” Jn. 16:13.
Scripture has revealed an undeniable connection between receiving the Holy Spirit and entrance into the Kingdom of God. Jesus declared that “you must be born again” to see the Kingdom of God. Peter declared to believers of his day that they were already born again by the “incorruptible seed”.
The Gospels say that it was by the Holy Spirit that Mary conceived that which was born the Son of God. The “seed” of the Holy Spirit seems to be the active “agent” in spiritual birth; first of Christ, (the first born of many brethren), and then of each new believer who becomes born again (of water and the Spirit) when the Holy Spirit comes to take up permanent residency IN them.
For further related reading see the article “The Baptism with the Holy Spirit“.