What on earth does Jesus mean when he talks about being born again? The answer to that question needs to be clearly grasped, and so merits study and careful thought. For now, let me say this: to be born again is to experience a radical change in the source from which your life flows.
Imagine a creek that flows through the hilly country of northern Kentucky into a small lake. Now without changing the creek bed at all – it still occupies the same place – the corps of engineers digs a channel from the Ohio River that connects to the creek. It is still the same creek, but a new energy flows through it. At first it overflows its banks, but its banks eventually widen and its bed deepens, as the water coursing through it gives it a new shape.
That’s the kind of thing that happens when a person is born again. He or she is still the same person, but a new life – a new kind of life – is now present in his or her innermost being. At first, a person hardly knows what to do with that new life; it overflows them. But then they deepen, they change, they become bigger, if you will, and carve out a lifestyle better suited to the new life that’s in them. Or another way of putting it is: They are transformed in Christlikeness.
You see, people need new life – a qualitatively different kind of life – in order even to see the kingdom of God; to be able to envision what living in the presence and power of God is like. They need that life, which comes from outside themselves and changes them, in order to trust God and live freely in his good kingdom.
We have to ask, then, what has to happen for a person to be born again and receive this foreign life into themselves? The answer to that crucial question comes a little later in the text, so we are going to come back to that in just a couple of moments.
So the question for the text is: “What does Jesus mean when he talks about being born again?” The question for our lives is, “Have we been born again? Have we received that outside life into innermost being? And how would we know if we had? One way we know is that we have seen the kingdom of God, or at least we’ve seen its shadow. It is in our vision. We desire to live in it, under God’s rule and under his protection. We long to know God, to be his true son or daughter. That happens to people who’ve experienced this new birth.
To Nicodemus, none of this made any sense. It frustrated him. So here’s another question to bring to the text: Why didn’t Jesus’s thoughtful teaching make sense to Nicodemus? And I think the answer must be that Nick had no place to file Jesus’s words. What Jesus was saying didn’t fit into his file drawer; into what Nicodemus thought he knew – and thought he knew beyond a doubt.
You see, Nick already knew (or thought he knew) what a person – or better yet, a nation – had to do to see the kingdom of God: they had to keep the rules; live by the Law; be zealous for the Torah. Nicodemus – and the people who had taught him, and the people who taught them, were certain that the way into God’s good graces was through a careful, zealous, persistent observance of the religious law. He believed that if people would repent and obey that law, God would take notice and would respond by sending his Messiah to inaugurate his kingdom. The idea that a different kind of life was needed to see and enter the kingdom had never occurred to him – that’s not what he had been taught! He had the Law of Moses – that was all anyone needed. Why even talk about a different kind of life?
What Nick didn’t realize was that he needed a different kind of life even to understand the Law, much less to follow the Law to where it had always led: to a wholehearted, whole-person love for God and neighbor.
So the question for the text was: “Why couldn’t Nicodemus understand what Jesus was saying?” And the answer is: His view of God prevented it. His misconceptions about the kind of person God is and the kind of person he wants us to be led him led him into misguided commitments. Nick was committed to controlling his situation and managing his sin, rather than trust his Savior.
The question for our lives is this – and it is a hard one: Am I able to hear what Jesus is saying, or are mistaken beliefs and misguided commitments getting in my way? That is something we will never know without help – God’s help and others’ help. When God or others (or God through others, as is often the case) begins to show us such mistaken beliefs and misguided commitments it is natural for us to become defensive. It’s natural, but it’s not helpful. We must trust God to reveal his truth to us. Will you ask God to reveal the truth to you and about you that you need to know to live joyfully in his kingdom?
Let’s now return to the question I raised earlier, “What has to happen for a person to be born again and receive this different kind of life?” The answer is that God has to act. When Nicodemus asked, “How can this be?” Jesus’s answer was: “… the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life” – the born again kind of life. Jesus was talking about his own death on the cross as the act of God that would make possible the different kind of life – the eternal kind of life – that people need to see and enter God’s kingdom.
But what must we do? The answer is simple: believe on God’s only begotten Son. Trust him. Entrust yourself to him. “To all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12). When (v. 16) Jesus spoke of God giving his one and only Son, it’s undoubtedly the cross that he had in mind. It was preeminently there that the Son was given to us, and it is preeminently in our daily lives that we give ourselves back to him – that is, that we believe in him.
It’s God’s Spirit that gives a person this new life; that brings about the new birth. We cannot make the Spirit act any more than we can make the wind blow … but we can raise our sails. We cannot bring about our own new birth, but we can (by God’s grace) believe in his one and only Son.
So the question for the text is, “What has to happen for a person to be born again?” And the answer is: God had to give his Son and we have to believe in him. The question for our lives is, “Have we believed in him?” Not just believed things about him; not just believed that he did certain things; but believed in him – trusted him and entrusted ourselves to him.