The Gospel of John is the most profound of all the New Testament gospels. It is in this gospel that we find one of the most famous and theologically significant Scripture passages on the theme of salvation: John 3:1-21. Jesus’ first statement in this chapter establishes the very basis of the process of salvation: “Truly, truly, I say to you, except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of heaven” (verse 3, NJKV).
As simple as this sentence is, it has been one of the
most misunderstood by Christians through time. Even Nicodemus
the Pharisee found it challenging to fully grasp
what it meant to be “born again.” This article seeks to
show what being born again entails, especially based on
the context of the Gospel of John.
BORN AGAIN: A SPIRITUAL TRANSFORMATION
Nicodemus was probably very surprised by Jesus’ first
statement to him. Seeming to ignore Nicodemus’ cordial
introduction (John 3:2), Jesus went straight to the heart
of the matter. Jesus’ statement implied that Nicodemus
needed a new divine beginning that guaranteed citizenship
in the kingdom of God (verse 3).
As a Pharisee (John 3:1), Nicodemus was quite sure of
eternal salvation based on his human birth into the lineage
of Abraham and his strict observance of the Jewish Law,
especially the Sabbath (John 8:33, 39a; 9:16). Like Paul,
who had been a Pharisee, Nicodemus was confident in the
flesh (Phil 3:1-8).
But Jesus pointed out that to be a part of God’s kingdom,
a person needed to be born of the Spirit, not of the
flesh (John 3:5, 6). In other words, spiritual rebirth “from
above” is the divine qualification for salvation, not fleshly
ancestry and law-keeping.
Jesus made a simple but clear distinction between the
two kinds of births: human birth in the flesh and divine
birth by the Holy Spirit (John 3:6). Paul confirms Jesus’
affirmation that humanity can be divided into those whose
lives are controlled by their fleshly human nature and
those whose lives are controlled by the Holy Spirit (Rom.
8:5; Gal. 5:17). Jesus emphasized again that Nicodemus
needed a new divine birth (John 3:7). He needed a spiritual
experience which, like the wind, had effects that were
evident though inexplicable (John 3:8). Being born again is
a spiritual transformation from a life based on sinful lusts and impulses of the flesh to one that is controlled by the
BORN AGAIN: BELIEVING IN JESUS
The conversation continued, transitioning from an emphasis
on birth to a focus on the Son. It appears that this
change took place because Nicodemus did not understand
what Jesus was saying (John 3:10). Jesus stopped talking
in symbols (earthly things) and instead introduced Himself
and His mission (heavenly things) (John 3:11, 12). At the
beginning of that evening interview, Nicodemus addressed
Jesus as “teacher from God” (John 3:2); however, Jesus
identified Himself as more than that. He was the Son of Man
who came from heaven (John 3:13) to be “lifted up,” just
as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness (verse 14).
This Old Testament story was familiar to Nicodemus
and served as a good earthly illustration to explain the heavenly
things Jesus was trying to impress upon this Jewish
teacher. Numbers 21 succinctly narrates the tragedy of the
Israelites after they were bitten by fiery poisonous serpents,
causing many people to die (Num. 21:6-8). God’s solution
was for Moses to make and “lift up” a bronze serpent so
that anyone who looked at it would live and not die (Num
21:9). The term “lift up” in the Gospel of John is used to describe
the crucifixion and death of Jesus Christ (John 8:28;
Jesus explained to Nicodemus that His mission
on earth was to be “lifted up” in death so that anyone who
believed in Him would not perish in condemnation but be
saved into eternal life (John 3:15-18; 1 John 5:11-13). This
makes the Cross the heart and center of this nighttime talk
about being born again. To be born again of God, Nicodemus
had to believe and receive Jesus Christ, the “lifted up”
Son of God (John 1:12).
From the Jewish perspective, being born again was
synonymous with returning to God (teshuvah).2
It could be
said that being born again was the ultimate return to God.
From the context of John and the Scriptures, this return is
possible only through Jesus Christ, who connects earth to
heaven (John 1:51) and offers the only way back to the Father
(John 14:6). To Nicodemus, it was clear that believing
in Jesus was the great teshuvah—the only way to return
It is important to state here that believing in Jesus is not just mental assent; it goes beyond the mere intellectual or doctrinal belief to a worldview/mindset that encompasses and controls the whole life and person. Other words in the Gospel of John that describe what believing entails include “receive” (John 1:12), “accept” (13:20), “do as I have done” (13:15, 17), “do what I command” (15:14), “listen and follow” (10:27), “love and obey” (14:15, 23; 15:10), and “abide” (15:4, 5, 7, 9). Thus, believing in Jesus is a total acceptance of and surrender to Him as Savior, Messiah, and Lord of one’s life. This is significant because the word “believe” is a key word in the Gospel of John—occurring almost 100 times in the book.3 Its appearance in the present, continuous tense suggests that to believe in Jesus was not to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience but a moment-by-moment and continuous dependence on Him for life—a continual living by faith in Him.
This was challenging for Nicodemus because he knew
the attitude of the Pharisees toward Jesus (John 7:31, 32,
45-49; 8:13; 11:47-50, 57; 18:3). Nicodemus was caught
between following the Pharisees and believing in Jesus.
However, Jesus made it clear that being born again begins
with believing in God’s Son.
In addition, the context of the fourth gospel reveals a
very significant link between Jesus and the Holy Spirit, the
agent of divine transformation. The Gospel of John consistently
points out that believing in Jesus results in the giving
of the Holy Spirit to the believer (John 1:32, 33; 7:37-39;
14:26; 15:26; 16:7-15; 20:22). This makes the new birth
possible in the believer. Once again, being born again begins
with believing in Jesus.
BORN AGAIN: LIVING IN THE LIGHT
It is significant that this night interview (John 3:2)
ends with the subject of light and darkness. Based on the
prominent feature of dualism in the Gospel of John,4
distinction is made between those who love darkness and
those who live in the light (John 3:19-21). Again, Jesus divides
humankind into two groups based on their deeds.
This is poignant because Nicodemus appears to belong
to the group that loves darkness because he comes to Jesus
in the darkness of the night. In reality, Nicodemus probably
came to Jesus at this time for fear of the Pharisees
(John 12:42, 43). Jesus thus saw him as a representative
of the Pharisees—those who love darkness and fear being
exposed by the light (John 3:19, 20). By making this
distinction between the deeds of light and darkness, Jesus
was profoundly asking Nicodemus the question, “To which
of these groups do you belong?”
Those who are born again love the light and live in it and
by it (John 3:21). Their deeds confirm and testify to the reality
of their spiritual change. Because they have been born
from above by the Spirit, they exhibit the deeds or fruits of
the Spirit, not the deeds or works of the flesh (Gal. 5:17-
23). Therefore, living in the light is the result of divine spiritual transformation (Rom. 13:11-14; Eph. 5:8-14; 1 John
1:5-7; 2:8-11)—the result of being born again.
Based on the context of John 3:1-21, there are three clear
points about what being born again entails. It is a spiritual
transformation by the Holy Spirit that begins with believing
in Jesus. He gives the Holy Spirit to the believer and, consequently,
the Spirit works out a divine change in the believer—a
spiritual rebirth. This spiritual transformation becomes
evident through the deeds that the believer does, not in the
darkness of night but in the light.
Being born again means (1) believing in Jesus, (2) being
transformed by the Holy Spirit, and (3) living in the Light.
Being born of the Spirit is what it means to be born again,
believing in Jesus is how the born-again experience begins,
and living in the light is the result of being born again. Being
born again does not mean speaking in tongues, barking, or
laughing hysterically. It is not an ecstatic experience based on
human emotions. It is a significant divine life transformation
Nicodemus finally believed Jesus. After Jesus’ death, Nicodemus
came into the light to stand for Jesus by helping to
bury Him (John 19:38-40).5
His actions proved that he was
finally born again.
1 Judith L. Kovacs, “‘Now Shall the Ruler of this World Be Driven Out’: Jesus’ Death as Cosmic Battle in John 12:20-36.” Journal of Biblical Literature 114 (1995): 241; Andreas J. Kostenberger, John: Baker Exegetical Commentary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2004), 128.
2 Phil Bova, “Born Again: A Jewish Concept,” in Ministry, October 1998, 44-47.
3 The Greek verb pisteuo (“to believe”) is used 98 times in the Gospel of John as opposed to 11 times in Matthew, 14 times in Mark, 9 times in Luke, 37 times in Acts, and 54 times in Paul’s writings. See Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John: The New International Commentary on the New Testament, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995), 87:81.
4 Dualism is a key feature in the Gospel of John. It can be seen in the contrasts mentioned in the book: heaven/earth, above/below (3:12, 31), light/ darkness (3:19-21; 8:12; 9:4, 5), belief/unbelief (3:18, 36), life/death (5:24, 28, 29) Spirit/flesh (3:6; 6:63), and God/human (1:12, 13) .
“For a time, Nicodemus did not publicly acknowledge Christ but he
watched His life and pondered His teachings. . . . When at last Jesus was
lifted up on the cross Nicodemus remembered the teaching upon Olivet. .
. . The light from that secret interview illumined the cross upon Calvary,
and Nicodemus saw in Jesus the world’s Redeemer” (Ellen G. White, The
Desire of Ages, 176, 177). “After the Lord’s ascension, when the disciples
were scattered by persecution, Nicodemus came boldly to the front. He employed
his wealth in sustaining the infant church that the Jews had expected
to be blotted out at the death of Christ. In time of peril, he who had been so
cautious and questioning was firm as a rock, encouraging the faith of the
disciples, and furnishing means to carry forward the work of the gospel.
He was scorned and persecuted by those who had paid him reverence in
other days. He became poor in this world’s goods; yet he faltered not in faith
which had its beginning in that night conference with Jesus” (ibid., 177).
Michael Oluikpe, Ph.D., is a lecturer in the School of Theology and
Religious Studies at Bugema University, Uganda.