“Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, 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, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” (John 4:4-5).
Most first-century Jews believed they would automatically receive citizenship into the kingdom of God because they were Abraham’s descendants (See John 8:12–58). To hear that something more was needed to see and enter the coming kingdom was a shock to many first-century Jews, particularly to the Pharisees who were known for their painstaking adherence to the Law of Moses.
As one commentator explains, “As a Pharisee, Nicodemus belonged to this group of particularly scrupulous Jews, and that probably explains, at least partly, why Nicodemus misunderstood when he heard that even he needed to be born again. After all, Jesus’ words in today’s passage indicate that being born again is required of all who want to become citizens of God’s kingdom” (John 3:3, 5).
Nicodemas was incredulous. He skeptically, and perhaps a little sarcastically, responded to Jesus that would he, an adult, need to be physically reborn in his mother’s womb to fulfill Jesus’ statement of the need to be born again? Nicodemas took Jesus’ words literally (See John 4:1-15).
However, Jesus began explaining to Nicodemas, and to us, the need for a spiritual rebirth that can only be effected by God. He indicated, what the late theologian Francis Schaeffer called a “true truth,” that “unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” What did Jesus mean by this statement?
One interpretation is that Jesus was respectively referring to physical birth and then spiritual birth. This seems to be supported by the ensuring words of John 3:6 when Jesus continues to say, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” The logic is that first comes physical birth and then spiritual birth. One must be born physically in order to be born spiritually. My Greek professor at Detroit Bible College took this position.
However, the more widely held interpretation is that Jesus was referring to the Word of God and the Spirit of God. In this view, Jesus referred not to literal water but to the need for “cleansing” (Ezekiel 36:24–27). When water is used figuratively in the OT, it habitually refers to renewal or spiritual cleansing, especially when used in conjunction with “spirit” (Numbers 19:17–19; Psalm 51:9–10; Isaiah 32:15; 44:3–5; 55:1–3; Jeremiah 2:13; Joel 2:28–29).
Therefore, as one theologian explains, “Jesus made reference to the spiritual washing or purification of the soul, accomplished by the Holy Spirit through the word of God at the moment of salvation (Ephesians 5:26; Titus 3:5), required for belonging to his kingdom.”
Dr. R.C. Sproul comments, “That being born again refers to a spiritual change is evident from Jesus’ saying that to be born again is equivalent to being born of the Spirit (vv. 3, 5). The spiritual change required is no minor change but a complete transformation. The need to be born again indicates that one must be granted a brand-new nature. A new person, in essence, has to be created in place of the old. This refers to regeneration, the act whereby God changes us at the very root of our being so that we can believe.”
John Calvin comments, “By the phrase born again is expressed not the correction of one part, but the renovation of the whole nature.”
Have you been truly born again? As we previously noted, no one is born a Christian. A sinner is born again by the Word of God through the ministry of the Spirit of God thereby enabling the sinner to repent of their sins and turn to faith in Christ and thus be converted. This results in the believing sinner living a new life for the glory of God. Have you been truly born again?
Soli deo Gloria!