You Must Be Born Again

(If you would like to receive Pastor Harris’ weekly sermons via e-mail, Click here)

Pastor Scott L. Harris

Grace Bible Church, NY

December 12, 1999

You Must Be Born Again

John 3:1-15

What does it mean to be "born again." This morning we are going to be looking at John 3 where this term originates, but the term has been perverted over the years to mean something different than what Jesus meant by it when He said it to Nicodemus.

Just to see how our society is now using the term I did a search on the Internet using the Infoseek search engine. Here is what I found:

"Quadzilla – Born Again." An article was subtitled, "The Road to Resurrection." What was it about? The increased popularity of sports quads – off road motor vehicles.

"Born Again Macs" in the MacWord magazine explained a new and improved product line.

There was a novel by that title, Born Again, by Alfred Lawson, the founder of the University of Lawsonomy. I did not get the impression his thesis was anything close that of Jesus.

"Born Again Bacteria" was an article in a science magazine about bacteria spores encased in Amber being "brought back to life" after supposedly being dead for "25 million years." At least the article understood the radical nature of "born again" even if showed the absurdity of evolutionary dating and the hardiness of bacteria spores.

"Born again Bears" is a company that will take your old furs and make them into heirloom quality Teddy Bears.

A real estate add for houses in Cincinnati spoke of the value of older houses that were "born again" through being retrofitted.

After all of these there were finally listed many different churches and individuals that sought to explain what Jesus said in John 3.

Then there followed a lot of other sites including: An article on a "Born Again Giant Star" about a hot dwarf start that suddenly enlarged into a giant star; An article by a woman that recommitted herself to her political/social beliefs and referred to herself as a "Born Again Feminist;" An add for "Born Again Beads" which recycles jewelry; And an add for T-shirt that had "Born Again Pagan" printed on them.

Webster’s 1989 Edition Dictionary defines "Born Again" as an adjective "of one taking a new, different, and more religious course, e.g., a born-again Christian." At least that is better than it being a synonym for "recycling" or a renewed enthusiasm for something. Yet, the dictionary definition also misses the point of what Jesus says. Turn with me to John 3 and lets find out what Jesus meant.

As you are turning there, let me remind you briefly of the context of this passage. Jesus has started His public ministry and been baptized. He has been tempted by Satan in the wilderness. He has chosen His first disciples and turned the water into wine at the wedding in Cana of Galilee and He has cleansed the Temple of the merchants and money changers. Jesus has already publicly claimed His deity when He called the Temple "His Father’s house." The Jews that questioned Jesus asked Him for a sign of His authority. Jesus has already given them a sign when He cleansed the Temple, but they wanted more. They did not understand what Jesus meant by His reply, "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up" (2:19), but His disciples did at a later time. John 2:23 says that during the week of the Feast of Unleavened bread that Jesus was doing signs which caused many to believe in Him.

It is during this time that we pick up the story in John 3:1.

Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews; 2 this man came to Him 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." 3 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 would have seen some of Jesus’ signs and it caused him to want to know more, so he seeks out Jesus. We do not know why Nicodemus came at night, but it seems likely that there was already apprehension about what the Jewish religious leaders thought about Jesus. It is obvious that Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple was a financial blow to the High Priest Annas and his followers. They would not have been happy about that. So it is possible that Nicodemus is coming at night because he is fearful of what his fellow Pharisees would think of him for coming to talk with Jesus. It is also possible that Nicodemus simply wanted to have a quite conversation with Jesus without being interrupted. Either way, we find Nicodemus coming to Jesus with a very important question.

Nicodemus addresses Jesus as "Rabbi," a term of great respect especially coming from a Pharisee who was a member of the Sanhedrin (the Jewish ruling body) and spoken to a Galilean who was not schooled in Jerusalem. The term means, "teacher." This alone would have required a great humility on the part of Nicodemus.

The pharisees were an extremely devout and proud group, especially those from Jerusalem. They were meticulous at trying to keep the Law of Moses. This was from a sincere desire to honor God by doing so. But the Law was not designed to save a person, but to teach them their sinfulness and need of God’s mercy and grace (Rom. 7:7; Gal. 3:24). The tragedy is that they perverted the Law through their own traditions in the very effort to try and keep it. They generally looked down on other people as less holy and therefore of less value than themselves. They looked down on those from the region of Galilee as being ignorant country bumpkins. This would be similar, but even stronger than someone from a prestigious Law School such as Yale or Harvard looking down on someone who had no formal training acting as their own lawyer.

Yet, we find Nicodemus, a Judean pharisee who is a member of the prestigious Sanhedrin, seeking out Jesus from Galilee and addressing Him with a term of great respect and seeking wisdom from Him. This is an incredible action. And what had caused it? As verse 2 tells us, Nicodemus had seen the signs Jesus was doing and concluded that Jesus must have come from God as a teacher.

Remember as well that at this time there was a wide spread expectation of the coming of Messiah. Not only was there an expectation that the time of the Gentiles (Daniel 9) would be soon coming to a conclusion, but John the Baptist, whom they believed was a prophet, was proclaiming that the Kingdom of Heaven was at hand.

In response Jesus does not even let Nicodemus state his question before going to the heart of the reason Nicodemus had come – the nature of the kingdom of God. "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God."

What did Jesus mean by this? Nicodemus was a religious leader, a teacher of the law of Moses, but unless something happened to him, he would not be able to understand or be part of the kingdom of God. What Jesus said was very similar to a common Jewish simile of being as a new born. This simile was used to describe a number of occasions. When a bridegroom was married he was seen as one who was newly born to a new life with his wife. A king was seen as taking on a new life when ascending the throne. In both cases, the old life was set aside as the past as they new life and responsibilities were assumed. When a proselyte repented they were seen as taking on a new life as a new born. It meant that they had entered into a new relationship with God and man as if they were newly born. Their past was forgiven and his nearest relationships were now with those that had also repented and not those of blood ties. This is very close to Webster’s definition and common usage today of being "born again." But Jesus did not say or infer that repentance would bring a person into the kingdom of God and they would become like a new born. What Jesus said was much more radical than that, which is why Nicodemus did not understand. He questions Jesus in verse 4.

John 3:4 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?"

Nicodemus understand that what Jesus said was radical. He did not say to become "as" or "like" a baby. Jesus did not use a simile, but another mashal as He had done when answering the Jewish authorities when He cleansed the Temple (2:19). It is another veiled, but very pointed saying. Jesus says directly that one must be "born again." Nicodemus would have understood a simile and its usage if Jesus had said it. He is astounded at what Jesus says. This is not only a radical change, but it is required to be born again before entering the kingdom of God rather becoming as a new born as a result of entering it. He would have understood it if Jesus has spoken of entering the Kingdom first and as a result becoming as a new born. Nicodemus’ question is an expression of what he sees as an impossibility. The feasibility of a person actually becoming something new was equal to an old man reentering his mother’s womb to be born a second time.

Jesus’ explains the mashal in verses 5-8, but the response causes Nicodemus to continue to wonder. 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 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 do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit."

Jesus again stresses the absolute necessity of being born again, but this time He gives a fuller explanation of what that meant. A person is not able to enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of both water and the Spirit. Nicodemus would have understood what was meant by being born of water, but the idea of being born by the spirit was hard for him to grasp.

There were several Jewish rites that used water for cleansing from sin (Lev. 11:32; 14:8,9; 15:13, 17:15; Numb. 19:12, etc.). Psalm51:2 expresses well the heart of the righteous man to be cleansed, Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, And cleanse me from my sin. Ezekiel 36:25, 26 expresses both the ceremonial cleansing with water and the promise of a new heart. "Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. 26 "Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. Nicodemus would have been familiar with these passages and the common practice of baptizing proselytes as a sign of their repentance from paganism. John’s baptism was the same as this except it was also for Jews as a sign of their repentance from sin to righteousness.

Jesus’ reference to being born of water is about this baptism of repentance. The baptism is simply a ceremonial expression of the individuals professed change of heart and mind from sinfulness to righteousness. This was what John was doing and why he said in John 1:26, 31 that he came baptizing in water. It was preparation for the coming Messiah who would baptize with the Spirit. The water baptism is only a shadow of the reality needed of being baptized by the Spirit. Both are needed, but the later is the critical element.

A person can claim to repent and be baptized in water but never have the reality of the Holy Spirit in their life. That is an act of the flesh. Webster’s definition is not enough. Taking "a new, different, and more religious course" is good and needed, but it is not sufficient for salvation. That is not what Jesus meant by "born again." It would be hard to guess how many people have been baptized in water but have not been born of the Spirit, but the figure would be in the millions if not billions. The flesh must act and repent, but that is not enough for entering the kingdom of God. The person must also be born of the spirit. Ezekiel 36:27 states this, but it was not understood even by a teacher such as Nicodemus.

In verse 8, Jesus further explains the nature of the Spirit’s work. The word for Spirit, pneuma (pneuma), is also the same word for "wind." Jesus uses the commonality of the two meaning to show Nicodemus the nature of the Spirit. Man does not control the wind. It goes where it wants. He is only aware of its presence by what it does. He can hear it. He can feel it. He can see it moving things. Man does not control the Spirit. The Spirit moves as He desires. Man can only sense the result of the Spirit’s work.

This would have been a great shock for Nicodemus. He was brought up in a system that believed that a person could and should save himself by obedience to the Mosaic Law and all the traditions of the Elders. He was really no different than many people today who have the same fundamental belief that they can somehow earn their way to heaven and gain God’s favor by keeping some set of laws and regulations they have made up for themselves. That was not true in the Old Testament. It was not true for Nicodemus. It is not true now.

Nicodemus is still confused, but he is a true seeker of God. In verse 9, Nicodemus answered and said to Him, "How can these things be?" This is a fundamental question and the answer to it reveals the very nature of salvation. How can a person be born of the Spirit?

Jesus’ answers Nicodemus with both a rebuke and an illustration that he would understand.

John 3:10-13 Jesus answered and said to him, "Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not understand these things? 11 "Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak that which we know, and bear witness of that which we have seen; and you do not receive our witness. 12 "If I told you earthly things and you do not believe, how shall you believe if I tell you heavenly things? 13 "And no one has ascended into heaven, but He who descended from heaven, [even] the Son of Man.

Jesus expected Nicodemus to be able to understand what He was talking about. Nicodemus was a teacher in Israel. This is another indicator that Nicodemus was a mature man who was well respected for his knowledge of the law and diligent in keeping it. Israel was God’s favored nation to whom He had revealed Himself and His commands. Nicodemus was a favored individual who was able to spend his time in the study of the Old Testament and teach others what it meant. This was a great privilege and he should have understood from the Old Testament what Jesus was talking about. Jesus widens the rebuke in verse 11 to include all the teachers of Israel who were not receiving Jesus’ witness. The plural, "we," is in contrast to what Nicodemus said in verse 2, "we know," and probably refers to Jesus and John the Baptist for John had proclaimed this same truth in calling people to prepare for the one who would baptize with the Spirit (1:33). Jesus makes it very clear that He and John, in contrast to the Jewish religious leaders, were not making any speculations, but speaking about what they knew and bearing witness to what they had seen. Some of the religious leaders had drawn the conclusion that Jesus was from God, but they did not receive the testimony of Jesus and John beyond that. Neither they or Nicodemus were ready to receive the teaching about regeneration by the Spirit yet.

In verse 12 Jesus chides Nicodemus again but this is also a warning. If Nicodemus would not believe the earthly things that he could experience for himself either personally or by observation, how would he be able to accept and believe the heavenly things Jesus would reveal? The doctrine of regeneration is in the Old Testament and had already been proclaimed by John the Baptist and Jesus. This was something Nicodemus could have read and heard for himself. He could also have seen its evidence in the lives of individuals changed by the Spirit. The question Nicodemus should have been asking himself all along is how could the wicked human heart be changed by human will and action? That was the commonly taught both then and now but it is not in keeping with Jeremiah 17:9 and other passages that point the human heart is desperately wicked. How could the system of the Pharisees change the heart? Any true change would require the circumcised heart described in Deut. 30:6 that would be given by God. It occurs after repentance and results in obedience. The doctrine of regeneration was something "earthly" that Nicodemus should have understood by his own study and experience. But if he did not understand that, how would he understand the heavenly revelation of God’s plan of salvation that Jesus was now going to tell him about?

Jesus points out to him in verse 13 that the only one that could reveal the heavenly things was the one who had been there. Since there was no one, not even Moses, that had ascended to heaven, it would be someone that came from heaven. Only the son of Man fits the description. The phrase "son of Man" occurs some 81 times in the gospel accounts and is Jesus’ self designated title probably taken from Daniel 7:13,14. Only two out of 81 times does someone other than Jesus use the phrase. Those who heard Jesus say it understood it to be a messianic term. He is not a son of man but the son of man. It is designates and describes Him as one who is unique among all men.

Jesus describes Himself as the son of man who descended from heaven (3:13), who speaks the language of his heavenly Father (8:28), is the link between heaven and earth (1:51), fulfils a heaven-inspired mission of suffering and dying for his people (3:14), has authority from heaven to function as judge in the present and the future (5:27), who is the object of faith (9:35), and displays the glory of heaven both in and as a reward for his suffering and death (3:13; 12:23,34; 13:31 – Hendricksen, pg. 207).

In verses 14 & 15 Jesus gives Nicodemus not only the answer to his question about the means of the new birth, but He also gives him revelation of heavenly things, God’s plan of salvation through Jesus’ sacrifice.

John 3:14,15 "And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; 15 that whoever believes may in Him have eternal life.

Turn to Numbers 21:4-9 to find out the story Jesus is talking about. This story from Israel’s 40 years of wandering in the desert after being freed from Egypt was certainly familiar to Nicodemus.

Numbers 21:4 Then they set out from Mount Hor by the way of the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; and the people became impatient because of the journey. 5 And the people spoke against God and Moses, "Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this miserable food." 6 And the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. 7 So the people came to Moses and said, "We have sinned, because we have spoken against the Lord and you; intercede with the Lord, that He may remove the serpents from us." And Moses interceded for the people. 8 Then the Lord said to Moses, "Make a fiery [serpent,] and set it on a standard; and it shall come about, that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, he shall live." 9 And Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on the standard; and it came about, that if a serpent bit any man, when he looked to the bronze serpent, he lived.

The people began to complain once again. People say on occasion that if God would grant them some miracle that it would be easier for them to believe and follow Him. That is actually not true. The Israelites saw miracle after miracle both in the land of Egypt as God brought the ten plagues and in their journey in the wilderness. They were living on the daily miracle of manna. Exodus 16:14 described it as a "fine flake-like thing" that appeared on the surface of the wilderness when the dew evaporated. They lived with daily miracles, yet they still did not believe or trust God, so they complained against Him. God sent fiery serpents among them as chastisement. We do not know why they are described as "fiery," but it could be due to the hot, searing pain of their venom after you were bit. It would seem if it was a reference to their color the people would be able to see them easily and avoid them, but the text says many died because of them. When they finally acknowledged their sin and cried out for mercy, God did not remove the snakes, but He did make a provision for their healing. They would have to go outside the camp and look upon the bronze snake Moses had placed on a standard. If they did that, they would live. If they did not, they would die.

Jesus tells Nicodemus that this was an example of the means to be born again. The basis of the new birth would be faith in the Son of Man who would be lifted up. Those that would believe would have eternal life. Those that do not will die in their sins.

The heavenly mystery revealed was that the Son of Man must be lifted up in the same way the Bronze Serpent was in the wilderness. That was the type and the Son of Man would be the fulfillment. This could only point to the cross of crucifixion to come. This is the first revelation Jesus gave concerning His coming to be a sacrifice for man’s sin. Jesus goes on in verses 16-21 to explain further, but we will examine that next week.

What Jesus says here is one of the most clear statements of the nature of saving faith given anywhere in Scripture. There has been a running theological debate going on for many decades over the nature of saving faith. There are many that are so afraid of any type of work being associated with faith that they have made faith mere intellectual assent. That kind of faith is not presented in the Bible as effective for anything, much less eternal salvation. True faith is always in an object and results in action in keeping with the belief.

Imagine that you lived among the ancient Israelites and you were just bitten by one of these fiery serpents. You know that unless something radical happens, you are going to die like so many others. You hear about what God told Moses to do and that the bronze serpent on the standard is now set up on the other side of the camp. What will you do? You could doubt the report and stay where you are, in which case you will die. You could agree the report is probably true, but do nothing because you think it is too late for you anyway. This is intellectual assent without personal application. You will also die. You could agree the report is true and even claim in a loud voice, "I believe God, so I claim my healing. "This is intellectual assent with a profession of faith. But if you stay where you are, your professed faith is worthless and you will still die. The only way to live is to believe the report and follow the instructions given. Regardless of however weak and stumbling your faith might be, regardless of whatever doubts might fill your mind, if you go to where the serpent is set up, and look upon it, you will be healed. You will live!

The same is true with belief in Jesus Christ. It is not a matter of how strong and bold your faith is, for it could be weak and doubting. Others may have to assist and carry you, but if you get up and look upon Jesus as the only means to be saved and forgiven of your sins, there will be given to you eternal life. It is an action of the Holy Spirit that is always accompanied by the fruit of repentance and action of faith. At the same time, it does not matter how vocal you are about your profession of faith in Jesus, if you do get up and follow Him, then your profession is a farce. You are only fooling yourself.

Nicodemus eventually did understand and did believe Jesus, and he was no longer fearful of what others thought of him. After Jesus was crucified, it was Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea that prepared Jesus’ body for burial and laid it in the tomb.

Nicodemus believed and was born again. He found eternal life. To be born again is more than a new, different, and more religious course. It is a whole new life. We were born dead in our trespasses and sin but were made alive in Christ (Eph. 2). This is the work of regeneration by the Holy Spirit, yet the offer is given to "whosoever will." What about you? What will you do with the offer? Have you believed enough to go outside the camp to see the Son of Man lifted up and receive eternal life? Or are you still in the camp, bitten by the fiery serpent of sin and destined to die?

Sermon Study Sheets


Parents, you are responsible to apply God’s Word to your children’s lives. Here is some help.

Young Children – draw a picture about something you hear during the sermon. Explain your picture(s) to your parents at lunch. Older Children – Do one or more of the following: 1) Write down all the verses mentioned in the sermon and look them up later. 2) How many times was Nicodemus mentioned in the sermon? Who was he? What did he want to know from Jesus? How can you be born again?


Questions to consider in discussing the sermon with others.

What does "born again" mean in popular usage? What is the context of John 3? Who was Nicodemus? What were some of the beliefs and practices of the Pharisees? What did he want to know from Jesus? Why did he come to Jesus by night? How did he treat Jesus? Why was this surprising? Jesus statement about being born again was close to but different than a common Jewish simile, how was is similar? How was it different? Why was Nicodemus confused by this? What did Jesus mean "born of water?" What did Jesus mean "born of the Spirit?" Was this a new doctrine or should Nicodemus have understood it? What O.T. references are there to it? What was the "earthly" things Jesus had talked about? What "heavenly things" was Jesus going to reveal? Who is the Son of Man? Numbers 21:4-9 tells the story of the Bronze Serpent. How did it save people? What did a person have to do? How does this relate to the Son of Man being lifted up? What does it mean to "believe" in Jesus? Do you "believe" in Jesus? What fruit of repentance and walk of faith gives evidence of that belief?

Sermon Notes – 12/12/1999 a.m.

"You Must Be Born Again" – John 3:1-15


Webster’s Definition: an adjective "of one taking a new, different, and more religious course, e.g., a born-again Christian." This misses the point of what Jesus said.


Nicodemus Comes to Jesus (3:1-2)

"You Must Be Born Again" (3:3)

Nicodemus’ Question (3:4)

"Born Again" is being something new before entering the kingdom, not becoming something like new after.

Jesus’ Response (3:5-8)

Born of Water

Lev. 11:32; 14:8,9; 15:13; 17:15; Numb.19:12; etc.

Ezekiel 36:25-27

Born of the Spirit

"How Can These Things Be?" (3:9-15)

Nicodemus’ Question (9)

Jesus’ Rebuke (10-12)

The Revealer from Heaven (13)

Old Testament Example (14a)

Numbers 21:4-9

The Nature of Saving Faith (14,15)

For comments, please e-mail  Church office