Sometimes we hear about “born again Christians” and some believers describe themselves as being “born again.” Where did this phrase “born again” come from and what does it mean? In the book of John, chapter 3, the words “born again” come from Jesus Himself when He is explaining to Nicodemus, a Jewish religious leader, what you need to do to see the kingdom of God:
“Jesus replied [to Nicodemus], “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”
“How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”
Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are 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 3:3-8)
Water and spirit
In Jesus’ explanation of “born again”, He says that we must be born of water and born of the Spirit. Some people think Jesus is referring to baptism (water) and spiritual transformation (spirit) as two necessary parts to salvation. Others think that water and spirit refer to physical birth and spiritual birth. However, a more likely explanation for Jesus’ phrase “born of water and born of the Spirit” is that both water and spirit refer to the same thing: spiritual rebirth.
A well-known passage in the Old Testament, with which Nicodemus should have been familiar, is Ezekiel 36:25-27. In this passage, the image of cleansing with water is given as symbol of spiritual cleansing:
“I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you will be clean. I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.” (Ezekiel 36:25-27)
Nicodemus should have picked up on this Old Testament reference in Jesus’ explanation of “born again” and understood that “born again” refers to the water and spirit mentioned in Ezekiel 36. To be born again is to have sin and impurity cleansed from your heart and to receive new spiritual life.
A work of the Spirit
How does one receive this cleansing from sin and new spiritual life? It is not through trying really hard to obey God’s laws like some people in Jesus’ time believed. Being born again is something that only the Spirit of God can do. How does the Holy Spirit cause people to be born again? We don’t know. Jesus says the Spirit is like the wind. We can’t see Him and don’t know where He is coming from or where He is going. But we know the effect the Spirit has! Like the wind, we can feel the difference between Spirit and no Spirit!
Everyone who is born again (born of water and born of the Spirit) seeks light and truth and comes to Christ:
“Whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.” (John 3:21)
However, those who have not been born again don’t come to Christ because they are afraid that Christ will expose the bad things they’ve done: “Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed.” (John 3:20)
Do you want to see the kingdom of God? Do you want to be cleansed from sin and receive new spiritual life? Seek the Lord Jesus in prayer and ask for the transformation that only His Spirit can bring.
Get the basics of the Bible in What is the Bible?