You Must Be Born Again
Message on the Gospel of John (16) Translated by Dr. Jerry Cai
The following is a fable story.
A girl who graduated from a seminary died the day before her graduation and came to the gate of heaven. When she saw the apostle Peter standing there, she asked to enter the heaven.
Peter looked at her and said, "Please wait, there is a little problem that needs some clarification. Do you really want to go to heaven?"
"Of course" The girl answered, "The theological education I have received so far is always to go to heaven."
Peter thought for a while and said, "So, before you formally decide to go to heaven or hell, I will give you an opportunity to allow you to live one day each in heaven and hell, and then you can decide whether you want to go to heaven or hell."
"No need to try, I have decided to go to heaven." The girl said firmly.
Peter replied, "I have instructions from above, you should experience it yourself. Would you like to go to heaven first, or go to hell first?"
"Then I will go to heaven first. But you must be wasting your time and energy because I have decided to choose heaven." The girl answered with an attitude still firm.
So Peter pressed a button, and the girl was instantly sent to heaven. She saw many angels and saints, dressed in white, dancing in the air non-stop and singing praise songs.
The day passed quickly, and the girl returned before Peter.
"How are you doing today?" Peter asked.
"Yes, I am very happy. What I see is similar to what I have learned in the seminary."
"Okay, now you have the opportunity to live in hell for a day, and tell me your decision when you come back."
Peter pressed another button, and the girl was immediately sent to hell.
The door to hell opened slowly, and the sight in front of the girl surprised her: on wide green grass people were playing golf, and many were partying in groups. People were holding wine glasses, talking and laughing. She even saw many old friends greeting her with a smile, "Come on, join us, and see how good it is." So, she slowly walked over to join them. Time passed really fast that day.
The girl returned to Peter.
"How are you today? Have you had a good time?" Peter asked.
"I am really happy today. But I am a little confused. This is a bit different from the education I received. I did not expect it to be so beautiful in hell."
"Then have you decided where to go? Heaven or Hell?" Peter asked.
"I...I..., I don't know how to choose...I know this contradicts the theological education I received ... However, if you ask me now, I would rather go to...hell..."
"Are you serious? Do you really want to go to hell?"
"Yes, I made my decision and I decided to go to hell."
"Well, as you wish." Peter pressed the button again, and the girl was sent back to hell in a blink of an eye.
The door of hell slowly opened, but this time it was complete darkness, the people inside were extremely ugly, everyone was gnashing his teeth, everyone was tortured by the pain of the indestructible fire, and there were crying and cursing everywhere.
The girl turned around and wanted to leave, when Satan came to block her path, "Welcome, lady, welcome to join us."
"No! No! This is not the place I visited yesterday." The girl protested.
"Yesterday, we were recruiting you, but today you are our staff."
If someone asks, please give the best reason why you should go to heaven, how would you answer?
Here are some common answers:
I have always abided by the laws and regulations
I strive to be a good person
I do things worthy of conscience
I have helped many poor people
I have contributed to society
I consider myself morally noble
I am an accomplished scholar
I often participate in church activities
Do the above-mentioned good activities reach the standard of entering heaven?
Let us look at the story of a rare good man in the Bible, Nicodemus.
Chapter 3 of Gospel of John, through the question of Nicodemus and the answer of Jesus Christ, records an important dialogue that took place two thousand years ago. This dialogue is still of great significance to everyone today.
1. Nicodemus's confusion -- you must be born again? (John 3:1-3)
There was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews.（John 3:1）
What kind of (good) person is Nicodemus?
First of all, he was a Pharisee. (John 3:1)
"Wait a minute." You may ask, "Can the Pharisees be good people? Isn't it documented in the Gospels the Pharisees are a group of people that are stereotypical, extremely dogmatic, hypocritical, narrow-minded, proud, self-righteous, critical of others? Isn’t this the same group of people who are against the Lord Jesus in every ways?"
As a whole, the Pharisees, as a religious sect and leader group, are indeed like that, making the Pharisees synonymous with hypocrisy, and people have no good impression of them.
But on the other hand, the Pharisees adhered to the law, studied the Bible, fasted, prayed, and tithed. They were moral models in the minds of generations at that time.
And as individual Pharisee, there is no lack of religious godliness. For example, the apostle Paul once claimed, "as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.” (Phil 3:6)
Secondly, he is an official of the Jews (John 3:1). Nicodemus was one of the seventy members of the Jewish Sanhedrin, equivalent to a Supreme Court judge.
In addition, Jesus called him Israel’s teacher (John 3:10), so Nicodemus was a respected teacher of Israel.
Lastly, Nicodemus was probably a wealthy person. In John 19:39, Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea buried Jesus, and he brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about 75 pounds. It can be seen that he is not poor at the very least.
In summary, Nicodemus has excellent morals, is respected by others, and has knowledge, status, power, wealth, and influence. He also had a heart of justice because he had defended Jesus in the temple (John 7:50-51); he was also humble and called Jesus "Rabbi." (John 3:2) Therefore, Nicodemus is an outlier of the Pharisees.
He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him. (John 3:2)
Why did Nicodemus come to see Jesus at night, which caused many speculations among biblical scholars: He might be afraid that if his fellow Pharisees knew that it, he would be excluded from them? He may have too many questions to ask Jesus, and the night is a good time for long conversations without being disturbed? In the context of the Gospel of John, night is usually representing the darkness. Does Nicodemus have an eager expectation of light in his heart?
Whatever the motivation, it is true that Nicodemus brought the questions and asked Jesus for advice, without feeling embarrassed.
Nicodemus was able to recognize that Jesus came from God, and by this alone, he was already a different kind of Pharisee.
How did he know about it? There is reason to believe that he knows from the preaching, teaching, authority, healing, miracles, etc. of the Lord Jesus.
"Because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law." (Matt 7:29)
Behind his pretty good opening speech, what is the question with Nicodemus's subtext? Or, what exactly is Nicodemus' real confusion?
Let’s make a reasonable inference: "Rabbi, you are a teacher from God, because your words are full of kindness, mercy, and authority. Your miracles bring comfort, healing, and life. Why is there only conviction, bondage, indifference, hypocrisy in Jewish religious system? It only brings unbearable burden and lifelessness? Why does the religious system bring curses, but your words bring blessings? Why do I abide strictly by the law, observe self-discipline, lead a godly life, but there is no joy, peace and assurance in my heart? Can all my efforts reach God's standards and be accepted by God?"
Maybe you will have an objection: how do you know that this is Nicodemus’ real thinking or question? Please see Jesus' answer below.
Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again (John 3:3)
Was Jesus answering what Nicodemus had asked?
Of course not! Jesus never speaks meaningless words. He never talks in a roundabout way. He always hit the nail on the head and cut to the chase of the problem. Because He often speaks in such a tone: "very truly I tell you..."
Jesus clearly told Nicodemus: You must be born again to see the kingdom of God.
2. Nicodemus‘s confusion --- What is to be born again？(John 3:4-8)
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! (John 3:4)
This is the second dialogue between sprit and flesh.
Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” (John 3:3)
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! (John 3:4)
If Nicodemus, Israel’s prestigious expert in the law, could ask such childish and ridiculous questions, then the question from the Samaritan woman would be justified in another conversation between spirit and flesh in the fourth chapter of John.
Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water. (John 4:10)
“Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? (John 4:11)
Looking back at the question from Nicodemus, is it really funny and ridiculous? Not necessarily.
Nicodemus may also express his thoughts firmly: "Born Again? ---It is absolutely impossible!”
"Born Again" was once a very popular term, because former US President Jimmy Carter said he was a "Born Again Christian" when he ran for the election, and many people would follow suit. I really hope there are many born again Christians in this world.
Born again can also be translated as: Born from above.
Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. (John 3:5)
“Born of water and the Spirit.” What does “water” represent?
This is another issue that has caused endless arguing among biblical scholars.
Does Water represent natural birth? Christian baptism? The Word of God? Or does Water represent the Holy Spirit? Repentance symbolized by John the Baptist?
The first two explanations lack some biblical support, but the rest all have a biblical basis.
· "Water" is a symbol of the Holy Spirit, and the word "and" should be translated as "even, namely" in English.
…“Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.” By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive. … (John 7:37-39)
· "Water" means "repentance" preached by John the Baptist.
In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (Matthew 3:1-2)
"Water" refers to the Word of God:
…, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word. (Ephesians 5:25-26)
For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God. (1 Peter 1:23)
He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of first fruits of all he created. (James 1:18)
Combined with Paul's saying, "faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ" (Romans 10:17), "Water" in John 3:5 refers to the word of God and repentance brought by the word of God through faith coming from hearing is a reasonable explanation.
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 3:6-8)
The original text of "Wind" and "Holy Spirit" is the same word, and here the Lord Jesus obviously used the rhetoric of Word Play. "Wind" is a sign of the Holy Spirit. Although you can't see it, wind has the ability to move air freely. The born again through the Holy Spirit is like the flow of wind. You don’t know where it comes from, but you can feel the external manifestation of the wind flow: for example, hearing the sound of the wind, the coolness of the breeze in hot weather, and of course sometimes severe thunder storms.
Jesus said: “So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” (John 3:8)
The born-again of a sinner is a supernatural mysterious action by the Holy Spirit to renew life. You can see the external change of a born again person, but you cannot understand how this internal change takes place.
What are the external changes in a born again life? Different people may have different behavior, which may be summarized as follows:
Plead guilty and repent;
be sensitive to sin;
love to read the Bible and yearn for God's words;
serve and work with the power and guidance of the Holy Spirit;
love God and love people;
have peace with no anxiety or sorrow; compassionate, no jealousy, no selfishness.
The world views have changed such that views on many things are different from the world.
Joy in the heart;
love the church and like to attend worship and fellowship meetings.
Changes in temperament;
patient and loving; like to pray.
Being able to understand the Bible and catch the light during Bible reading,
often being touched by the words of God;
have a burden on evangelism and a burden on the salvation of one’s soul.
Willing to serve, and have the ability and effectiveness to serve.
Less picky and complaining;
able to tolerate and forgive others;
able to think about others.
Will be extremely cautious on dating, and adhere to the biblical view of marriage. Generally speaking, they will not be casual and indulgent and will pay special attention to keeping their bodies holy.
Not follow the trend in the workplace or society;
have biblical knowledge and views on money and wealth;
no longer keen on worldliness, fame, vanity, etc.
Seeking spiritual things;
full of hope for current and eternal life;
generally speaking, harmonious in family life;
in short, there is obvious renewal and improvement of life...
Therefore, the definition of born again can be summarized as: born again is a supernatural work that God, through the Holy Spirit, instantly gives eternal spiritual life to the sinner who is dead spiritually.
The Triune God participates in the born again process of the sinners.
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. (1 Peter 1:3)
Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life. (1 John 5:12)
He saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. (Titus 3:5)
3. Nicodemus‘s confusion --- How to born again？(John 3:9-15)
“How can this be?” Nicodemus asked. “You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? 11 Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. (John 3:9-11)
How can this be?
Born again is obviously hard to believe for Nicodemus!
However, shouldn't Nicodemus understand the truth as a teacher of Israel? Hadn’t the prophets in Old Testament already prophesized long time ago?
For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour out my Spirit on your offspring, and my blessing on your descendants. (Isaiah 44:3)
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 36:26-27)
“And afterward, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days. (Joel 2: 28-29)
Through his prophets, God has repeatedly stated that in the last days, He will pour His Holy Spirit onto His servants and maids. It’s just that the Israelites, even for Nicodemus an Israel’s teacher, are just like what the Lord Jesus had said, “how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! “(Luke 24:25)
I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man. (John 3:12-13)
Therefore, all the confusions, perplexity, and doubts that Nicodemus has were for one reason: "how slow to believe."
No one knows clearly what happens in heaven, only the Lord Jesus, who "came from heaven", knows all things in heaven and earth, and all these things are under his control. The extraordinary thing about Nicodemus was that he could recognize that Jesus came from God. Only if he could really understand the fact and meaning of "incarnation", all his doubts would disappear.
Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him. (John 3:14-15)
Then, how can one be born again?
Jesus used a literary quotation from the Old Testament.
The Lord said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived. (Numbers 21:8-9)
“The Son of Man was lifted up” appears three times in the Gospel of John.
Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up. (John 3:14)
So Jesus said, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he and that I do nothing on my own but speak just what the Father has taught me. (John 8:28)
And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself. (John 12:32)
The three repetitions have the same meaning, indicating "Jesus Christ and him crucified!" (1 Corinthians 2:2)
Of course, the Son of Man is lifted up, which also points to the resurrection of Jesus and being exalted (Philippians 2:5-11), as well as the preaching of the gospel, exaltation the name of the Lord and spreading the good news of salvation. (Romans 10:14-15)
Moses’s lifting of the serpent in the wilderness and Christ’s crucifixion on the cross can be compared in parallel:
The lift up of serpent in the wilderness: people commit crimes --- bitten by snakes -- they surely will die, looking up to the copper snake for salvation;
The crucifixion of the Lord: man sins --- enslaved – they surely will die, looking up to Christ for salvation!
In the wilderness at that time, everyone in Israel was bound to die because they were bitten by the serpent. God instructed Moses to make a copper snake and lift it up, and anyone who looked up to the copper snake would be saved. But many people sniff at it contemptuously, and they died in arrogant self-belief.
In today's generation, everyone in the world will surely die from the poison of sin. God sent His Son, Jesus, to take on fresh, and to be crucified for atonement. Anyone who looks up to Him will be saved. Many people sniff at it contemptuously, but those who believe in Him will have eternal life.
At this point, the definition of born again can be modified to its final form: born again is a supernatural work by God through the Holy Spirit, so that spiritually dead sinners have eternal life by trusting in Jesus Christ.
At the end, I can't help but want to explore a question: Did Nicodemus finally understand the truth of born again after his talk to Jesus Christ this time? Has he been born again? Did he have that eternal life?
I believe that the answer is yes. According to the Gospel of John, in John 3, Nicodemus talked to Jesus at night, humbly seeking advice and truth with a willing heart (John 3:1-15); in John 7, Nicodemus publicly defended the Lord Jesus in the Sanhedrin (John 7:50-51); John 19, his colleagues in the Jewish Sanhedrin convicted the Lord Jesus and handed him over to the Romans to be crucified; even the disciples were so afraid that they ran away, but Nicodemus publicly buried the Lord Jesus (John 19:38-42).
"You must be born again!" Servants and evangelists that God use extensively, such as Martin Luther, John Wesley, and George Whitefield, all like to preach this important message.
In a letter to Benjamin Franklin, George Whitefield once wrote: “I find that you grow more and more famous in the learned world. As you have made a pretty considerable progress in the mysteries of electricity, I would now humbly recommend to your diligent unprejudiced pursuit and study the mystery of the new-birth. It is a most important, interesting study, and when mastered, will richly answer and repay you for all your efforts.”
Legend has it that George Whitefield preached this topic so often that someone couldn't help asking him: Why do you always preach “Ye Must Be Born Again?” George Whitefield answered, “Because You Must Be Born Again!”
Are you born again?
So the Lord Jesus said, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” (John 3:3)
Give Thanks to God