The phrase “born again” may be one of the most abused and misunderstood concepts in all of Christianity.
For instance, some people may hear the term “born again” and think of wild-eyed TV evangelists with flashy suits and perfect hair. Others may see this expression as an easy way to describe certain religious people that offend them. While these unfortunate stereotypes do exist, the true meaning of this term has nothing to do with those things.
In reality, the idea of being “born again” actually started with Jesus Himself. You see, Jesus taught that no one will ever go to heaven without being born again and that makes this concept much too important for people to simply ignore or associate with others who make them feel uncomfortable.
So instead of identifying this term with things that are not really Biblical, let’s see what Jesus had to say about it within the pages of the Scriptures. We can start by looking at an after-dark meeting between Jesus and a member of the religious establishment…
“Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night…” (John 3:1-2a NIV).
Nicodemus (pronounced “nick-oh-dee-muss”) was a Pharisee (1) and a member of the Sanhedrin or “ruling council,” the highest governing body among the Jewish people at that time. This council had the final say in all religious and governmental affairs as long as its decisions didn’t violate the rules of the Roman government that was in charge during that time. Because Nicodemus was a member of this ruling council, we know that he definitely was a religious person and we can also say that he was probably educated and influential as well.
So why then did Nicodemus choose to visit Jesus after dark? Well, it’s possible that Nicodemus simply wanted to talk with Jesus at a time when other people were not likely to be around to interrupt their conversation. However, it’s also possible that Nicodemus was afraid of what others might say if he was publicly seen with Jesus. You see, Jesus was not very popular among the religious authorities of that time and at one point later in Jesus’ life, these same leaders announced that anyone who saw Jesus had to report Him for arrest (see John 11:57).
So it’s very possible that Nicodemus wanted to see Jesus but also wanted to avoid being seen with Him. To his credit however, Nicodemus seems to be the only one among his peers who was willing to step up and personally find out about Jesus for himself.
So Nicodemus showed up on Jesus’ doorstep one night and said this…
“‘…Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him.’
In reply Jesus declared, ‘I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.’
‘How can a man be born when he is old?’ Nicodemus asked. ‘Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born!’
Jesus answered, ‘I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit'” (John 3:2b-8 NIV).
In His response to Nicodemus, Jesus informed him that things like status and position and accomplishments in life really don’t do anything to help people to go to heaven when they die. Instead, what’s really needed is for people to be “born again.”
So what exactly does it mean to be “born again?” Well, just as everyone must undergo a physical birth that’s necessary for a physical existence, everyone must also be born spiritually as well. The reason for this has to do with the fact that human beings are spiritually separated from God and must be spiritually “reborn” before God can accept them. For more on that, you can take a look over here to see how that spiritual separation happened and why it’s a problem.
Anyway, this is why Jesus told Nicodemus, “I can guarantee this truth: No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above” (GW). In other words, being born again is something that must happen before someone can be reconciled to God.
Here’s an illustration that might make this concept a little easier to understand. Let’s say that you have to take a required course in Global Studies as part of your school curriculum. The course catalog for this class lists two choices: Global Studies I and Global Studies II. Now the course outline says that anyone who takes Global Studies II must complete Global Studies I first. That’s because Global Studies I is a necessary prerequisite to Global Studies II and you can’t go to class II unless you complete class I first.
Pretty simple, right? Well, in the same way, Jesus says that being born again is also a kind of prerequisite- it has to happen first before someone can go to heaven. This spiritual rebirth is something that is completely directed by the Spirit of God and takes place when someone accepts Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross in place of the punishment that they deserve for the things they’ve done wrong. For example, the Scriptures tell us that “Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God” (1 John 5:1 NKJV) and “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation…” (2 Corinthians 5:17 NIV).
So being “born again” has nothing to do with TV preachers or anyone else- it means that we are “reborn“ from a spiritually separated existence into one that is alive to God through Jesus Christ.
(1) The Pharisees were a group of religious leaders who were extremely dedicated in keeping a strict code of conduct that earlier religious leaders had developed to follow the laws found within the Old Testament. This included many detailed interpretations that specified how to follow the Old Testament rules, especially when it came to things like washing and handling food. This group, along with the Scribes (a group of men who were responsible for making copies of the Old Testament) and another group called the Sadducees helped to form the religious establishment of Jesus’ day.