What Did Jesus Mean When He Said "You Must Be Born Again"?
- Joel Ryan Contributing Writer
- 2021 23 Apr
You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ John 3:7
You've probably heard the phrase, "You must be born again," during a sermon. But what does this mean exactly?
When Nicodemus, a prominent Pharisee and member of the Jewish Sanhedrin, came to Jesus with questions about His teaching and the nature of salvation, Jesus provided the perfect synopsis of the Gospel, which included one of the most important metaphors and doctrines of the Christian faith. “Jesus answered and said to him (Nicodemus), ‘no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” (John 3:3, bold emphasis added).
At the time, the idea of being “born again” confounded the inquisitive Nicodemus, who asked, “how can someone be born when they are old? Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!” (John 3:4). Though educated in matters of the Old Testament and Jewish law, Nicodemus struggled to grasp the deeper meaning of Jesus’s words. He was not alone. Many have wrestled with the spiritual truths of Jesus’s teaching and the implications of Christ’s call to discipleship in their lives. So what does it really mean to be born again and what does this look like for Christians and those called to follow Christ?
First, let's read this verse in context: Jesus replied, “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.’ (John 3:3-7)
What Did Jesus Mean by 'You Must Be Born Again'? (John 3:7)
When Jesus said we must be “born again” He was not referring to any kind of literal or physical rebirth. He used the term “reborn” to affirm our need as individuals to be redeemed and spiritually transformed, refashioned, and remade through God’s saving grace and His eventual death on the cross. To explain this concept to Nicodemus, Jesus connected His mission on earth to an Old Testament story that Nicodemus would have been familiar with.
“As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness,” Jesus said, “even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life.” (John 3:14-15)
Jesus was of course referring to Numbers 21 and the plague of fiery serpents that spread through the camp of Israel as a result of their frequent complaining and lack of faith. To save those infected, Moses was instructed by God to place a bronze serpent on a flagpole at the center of the camp. All who looked upon the bronze serpent would be miraculously healed from the poison coursing through their veins (Numbers 21). The point of comparison Jesus was making to Nicodemus was that, at our core, we too are corrupted by the deadly poison of personal sin. As the apostle Paul writes, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23, bold emphasis added). Unfortunately, the consequences of this sin are spiritual death and eternal separation from God (Romans 6:23).
Thankfully, as God provided a way out for the Israelites, He provided the perfect Savior and healer through His Son, Jesus Christ. As the bronze serpent was raised up to save the children of Israel, so Jesus Christ was raised on the cross to be our saving grace. In his letter to the Romans, Paul writes, “but God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8)
He went on to argue that, “because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved.” (Ephesians 2:4). Jesus made it clear: to enter the kingdom of God and experience true transformation, forgiveness, and healing, complete renewal and regeneration are required. The poison of sin is too great to overcome by any quick fix or human antidote. We must be born again.
According to Matthew Henry, “corruption and sin are woven into our nature; we are shapen in iniquity, which makes it necessary that the nature be changed. It is not enough to put on a new coat or a new face, but we must put on the new man, we must be new creatures.”
Jesus argued that we must start over and be “born again” into a new life “of water and the Spirit.” (John 3:5)
Several passages of the New Testament repeat this idea.
"He saved us, not on the basis of deed which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy by the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ.” (Titus 3:5-6)
“If you know that He is righteous, you know that everyone also who practices righteousness is born of Him.” (1 John 2:29)
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His great mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” (1 Peter 1:3)
The Bible makes it clear. You must be born again, in order to be saved.
How Are Christians Born Again?
It’s important to affirm what the Bible says about salvation and that Christians are NOT born again by their own work or merits. Unlike many world religions, salvation is not obtained by anything we do but rather what Christ does in us. We are not capable of saving ourselves from our sin, nor are we able to buy our way into heaven.
“For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9)
True Christians must accept the foundational truth of the Gospel, that is, that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, died on the cross, was buried, and rose again three days later. In doing so, He alone interceded before God on our behalf, paying the ultimate price for our sin once and for all so that we might be saved (Hebrews 7:25).
“And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among mankind by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12)
Jesus said it best in His conversation with Nicodemus: “for God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him will not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but so that the world might be saved through Him.” (John 3:16-17). Human wisdom may claim that there are many paths to God and heaven. Jesus, however, quickly dispelled this lie, saying, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father except through Me.” (John 14:6)
Those who wish to be born again must believe that Jesus Christ died on the cross and was resurrected. They must acknowledge that they have sinned and are in need of saving. They must confess their sin and accept the free gift of salvation offered through Jesus Christ. As it is written, “if we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous, so that He will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9)
What Is the Significance of 'You Must Be Born Again'?
In response to Nicodemus’s confusion about the meaning of being born again, Jesus answered, “truly, truly, I say to you, unless someone is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which has been born of the flesh is flesh, and that which has been born of the Spirit is spirit.” (John 3:5-6)
The one who is born again exchanges the corrupt, sinful life for a new life born from above. That person receives a fresh start in the form of forgiveness, eternal salvation, and spiritual renewal. Without, he cannot enter the kingdom of heaven. The apostle Paul writes, “if anyone is in Christ, this person is a new creation; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.” (2 Corinthians 5:17)
Paul also writes in his letter to the Galatians that, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me.” (Galatians 2:20). The one who is born again is freed from the shackles of sin and death. Paul laid it out in this way, “knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him (Christ), in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin; for the one who has died is freed from sin.” (Romans 6:6-7)
The apostle John also argued that, “no one who has been born of God practices sin, because His seed remains in him; and he cannot sin continually, because he has been born of God.” (1 John 3:9). Does this mean that we will never sin or make mistakes? No. Jesus paid the price for our sin. Through His death, our previous life of sin has been crucified with Him (Romans 6:10). We will still make mistakes. We are not perfect. However, upon being born again, sin and the things of this world no longer hold mastery over us, for Christ overcame sin and the world, we have been born anew in Him (1 John 5:1-4).
In doing so, those who are born again are given a new heart, a new mind, and eventually a new body in eternity, distinct from the polluted, corrupt things of this world. As it is written, “do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12:2). Nicodemus’s inability to understand what Jesus meant by being “born again” proved Jesus’s point perfectly.
To the earthly mind, the spiritual wonders of God and eternity often seem like foolishness. Understanding can only come from a spiritual transformation and re-forging of the mind through Christ (1 Corinthians 2:16). According to Matthew Henry, “the natural man must become a spiritual man, before he is capable of receiving and understanding them.” The one who is born again is transformed from the inside out. Their desires change, their attitudes and actions are reformed, and their life begins to produce new fruit, born of the spirit (Ephesians 5:22-26).
More importantly, Jesus paid the price for our sin so that we might become “children of God” and heirs to His kingdom, welcomed, “into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade.” (1 Peter 1:4). This inheritance, Jesus argued is our eternal treasure and reward (Matthew 6:19-21).
As it is written in book of Jeremiah, “you will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.” (Jeremiah 29:13). And find Him Nicodemus did. Nicodemus may have come to Jesus in private, but he, like many, would eventually confirm his belief in Jesus publicly. He too would be born again and made new through Christ’s work on the cross, proving that Christ came and died for all and that “whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Romans 10:13)
Photo credit: ©GettyImages/jjneff
Joel Ryan is a children’s book author, writing professor, and contributing writer for Crosswalk, Christianity.com, Stand Firm Men’s Magazine, and others. He is passionate about telling great stories, defending biblical truth, and helping writers of all ages develop their craft. Joel discusses, analyzes, and appreciates the great writings of the past and present on his website, Perspectives off the Page.
This article is part of our larger resource library of popular Bible verse phrases and quotes. We want to provide easy to read articles that answer your questions about the meaning, origin, and history of specific verses within Scripture's context. It is our hope that these will help you better understand the meaning and purpose of God's Word in relation to your life today.