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Do you refer to yourself as a “born again” Christian? If so, why? Because that’s what it says in the Bible, right? But have you ever looked up the passages in which that term is used and studied the original context? Probably not, so let’s do it now, because it’s really quite interesting.
There are only two speakers who use the term “born again” in the New Testament: Jesus and Peter. The only time Jesus uses the term, He is having a private conversation with a Pharisee named Nicodemus. Now as soon as you notice that one of your Gods is talking to just one person in some passage of Scripture, you need to be cautious about applying what is being said to yourself. For example, Yahweh was only speaking to Noah when He told him to build a ginormous boat. Today we don’t try to pretend that Yahweh’s instructions to Noah are words for us as well. We don’t all go out and start building huge floatable crafts. But when we come to passages in which God is promising someone something good, well then we leap all over that and say the promise is for us as well. Such juvenile games will get us nowhere. If you want to learn the right lessons from the Bible, you must respect context, and that means you stop pretending God is talking to you when He’s obviously talking to someone else.
Now certainly Yahweh and Jesus have said many things to people in the past which apply to us today because they are general spiritual principles. In the Bible, these kinds of comments are found most frequently in speeches where one of our Gods is addressing a very large audience. When Yahweh says He’s furious with the Jews for acting like other gods are more powerful and dependable than He is, that’s a more general principle. But here again, context is important, because the only people Yahweh rages at over this issue are people who already knew who He was and that He had specifically commanded them to trust in Him alone. You see, Yahweh isn’t just flying off the handle at folks who’d never heard of Him. So when you read a passage in which Yahweh is raging at people and then you say, “Uh-oh, I wonder if He’s angry at me as well?” you need to think about how much you have in common with the original audience. We never find Yahweh punishing people for doing things they didn’t know were wrong. We never find Him accusing people of rebelling against Him when they had no idea who He was or what He wanted. It’s when we ignore the context of passages that we end up feeling like Yahweh is an unapproachable Volcano.
THE IMPORTANCE OF EXISTING BELIEFS
Whenever you’re trying to make sense out of something God is saying to someone in the Bible, here’s a useful discernment tip to keep in mind: God talks to humans within the context of their current beliefs. You see, in the Bible, there are no atheists. Everyone was walking around with theories about supernatural beings. Most of the folks in the Bible believed in the existence of multiple gods, and most of the worship that happens in the Bible is being directed at gods who weren’t even real. The point is that we never find Yahweh or Jesus talking to someone who has no theological foundation. Everyone already believes something, and Yahweh and Jesus then respond to those beliefs.
So how does this principle of discernment affect you? Well, were you raised in a family that practiced Judaism? Do you consider Yahweh to be the national God of your homeland? Do you believe your society should be run in accordance with the laws and principles that you read about in the Old Testament? Do you believe that God considers you and all those who share your ethnicity to be superior to all other humans? Do you consider yourself to be sinless and a model of perfect righteousness? Do you consider your eternal future in Heaven to be secure because Yahweh is so impressed with all of your good deeds? Do you consider it terrible blasphemy to even suggest that there could be any other being who is equal to the magnificent Yahweh? Do you believe that the ability to perform miracles of healing and casting out demons proves that a man has some special connection to Yahweh? These are just some of the beliefs that Pharisee Nicodemus already had when he pulled Jesus aside for a private chat. When Jesus talks with Nicodemus in John 3, Nicodemus’ current beliefs have a lot to do with how Jesus chooses to phrase His comments. So think about it: are you as pompous and self-righteous as Nicodemus was? Do you think you are vastly superior to all other ethnicities and do you think you are a whole lot smarter than most of the folks in your own ethnic group? This is how Nicodemus thought, because he was a Pharisee, and Pharisees were at the top of the power structure in Israelite society. Pharisees strutted around claiming to be perfect in the eyes of God, and they actually believed their own arrogant claims. You have to bloat your ego up quite a bit before you can even begin to identify with Nicodemus. You have to first imagine that God can’t find the words to describe how impressed He is with you before you can start to feel the full impact of Jesus’ punch in John 3.
JESUS’ USE OF “BORN AGAIN”
There was a man named Nicodemus who was one of the Pharisees and an important Jewish leader. One night Nicodemus came to Jesus and said, “Rabbi, we know You are a teacher sent from Yahweh, because no one can do the miracles You do unless Yahweh is with him.” (Jn. 3:1-2)
Did Nicodemus ask a question here? No, he’s just trying to butter Jesus up with this guff about everyone being sure that Jesus is Yahweh’s guy. This is a fat lie of course—the Pharisees are nowhere close to accepting Jesus as a legitimate prophet from Yahweh. Instead, they feel enormously threatened by Him because of the way He’s impacting Jewish commoners. Just recently, Jesus made a big scene in the Temple in Jerusalem which caused many people to be drawn towards Him. And while Jesus is winning fans with His miracles, He’s openly ripping on the established leaders of Israelite society: the Pharisees and Sadducees. So is Nicodemus really speaking the truth by claiming that his group—the Pharisees—are looking favorably at Jesus? No, Nicodemus is telling a blatant lie to try and lower Jesus’ guard. Perhaps Nicodemus has been sent to Jesus to try and gather intel about what Jesus’ real agenda is. Or maybe Nicodemus is just personally trying to figure out what Jesus is up to. But notice how Nicodemus doesn’t bring up the topic of salvation, nor does he ask any question. Then watch how Jesus responds:
Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, unless you are born again, you cannot see the Kingdom of God.” (Jn. 3:3)
Nicodemus walked into this conversation totally confident of his own salvation and his personal awesomeness. But Jesus just told Nicodemus that he is obviously headed for eternal damnation since he’s failing to meet some requirement that Yahweh has for salvation. Jesus is attacking an existing belief that He knows Nicodemus has. While Nicodemus came here to get information out of Jesus, Jesus just turned the focus onto Nicodemus’ own spiritual status. Without an invitation, Jesus just gave His personal assessment of Nicodemus’ standing with Yahweh, and He says it’s lousy.
Now Nicodemus is a Pharisee, and Pharisees were the spiritual authorities in Israel. Jesus is some lowly son of a carpenter. Jesus should be the one sitting at Nicodemus’ feet, accepting whatever Nicodemus says about spiritual matters. But with one comment, Jesus just reversed the accepted power structure and elevated Himself as the spiritual authority over Nicodemus. How is our puffed up Pharisee going to respond to this? Is Nicodemus going to submit to Jesus as his spiritual teacher? Of course not. Pharisees don’t allow commoners to instruct them. So Nicodemus scoffs at the idiocy of what Jesus has said.
“What do you mean?” exclaimed Nicodemus. “How can an old man go back into his mother’s womb and be born again?”
Jesus replied, “I assure you, no one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit. Humans can reproduce only human life, but the Holy Spirit gives birth to spiritual life. So don’t be surprised when I say, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it wants. Just as you can hear the wind but can’t tell where it comes from or where it is going, so you can’t explain how people are born of the Spirit.” (Jn. 3:5-8)
Nicodemus is functioning under Old Covenant theology, and to him, the term Kingdom of God means Kingdom of Yahweh. When Old Covenant Jews referred to the Holy Spirit, they specifically meant the Spirit of Yahweh. There were a lot of bathing rituals involved in Old Covenant Judaism, with washing in water often being part of the process of going from “unclean” to “clean” in the eyes of Yahweh. If a Jew cared about doing the required religious rituals–which all Pharisees did–then he would have a strong mental association between water bathing and spiritual salvation. So when Jesus says no one can be accepted by Yahweh without being “born of water,” that makes sense to Nicodemus. The term “born of the Spirit” is another way of saying “accepted by Yahweh.” So what Jesus just said to Nicodemus could be rephrased like this:
“I’m telling you that there’s no way Yahweh will accept you into His eternal kingdom because you haven’t yet been accepted by Him. Sure, your human parents gave you mortal life, but you don’t have eternal life because Yahweh has not accepted you. You aren’t pleasing Him, that’s why He hasn’t accepted you. And until He accepts you, you’ll never get into Heaven.”
Remember that Nicodemus entered this conversation totally confident of his own salvation. In fact, the Pharisees found delight in convincing Jewish commoners that they could never be good enough to earn salvation (see Know Your Bible Lesson 62: Woe to the Pharisees). So not only does Nicodemus think he’s approved of by Yahweh, he thinks he’s a member of a small, elite club of super righteous humans. Yet Jesus has once again blasted Nicodemus with the news that the man has never been accepted by Yahweh because he’s totally failing to meet Yahweh’s requirements for salvation.
Now just so we’re clear on the theology here, what exactly is Nicodemus failing to do? He’s failing to submit to Yahweh on a soul level. You see, the Pharisees acted like the gods of God. They made up their own rules for how salvation would be granted, then they demanded that Yahweh submit to those rules. When we tell God what to do, we’re not submitting to Him, we’re trying to dominate Him.
In the Gospel books we find Jesus telling many parables that emphasize the importance of submission to God. We simply won’t be accepted by our Gods until we are treating Them as the Supreme Authorities over us. Suppose Jesus were to say that you must eat a plate of broccoli before He would accept you. If you’re practicing submission, you’d grab your fork and start eating broccoli. But if you were a Pharisee like Nicodemus, then you’d make yourself a plate of corn instead and tell Jesus, “No, I don’t like broccoli. So I’m going to eat corn instead, and You’ll just have to accept that as good enough.” Changing Yahweh’s rules and then demanding to be rewarded for their rebellion—this was the Pharisee way. It is because Jesus knows that Nicodemus is refusing to submit to Yahweh that Jesus keeps telling Nicodemus he is not saved. But wait, does Nicodemus understand that he’s rebelling against Yahweh? Yes, Nicodemus is very aware that he’s refusing to submit to Yahweh. How can we make this assumption? It has to do with the Character of our Gods: They do not accuse humans of doing wrong when They know those humans don’t know any better.
While it sounds like Jesus is teaching some new idea here, He’s really not. He’s actually talking about a very basic principle: being accepted by Yahweh. As an Old Covenant Jew, Yahweh is the only God Nicodemus claims to be trying to please. When Jesus talks of two births, He’s just pointing out that being alive on the planet and being accepted by Yahweh are two different concepts. Rather obvious, right?
If you thought that merely breathing was enough to guarantee you’d end up in Heaven, you would never have become a Christian. People become Christians because they have an aha moment that merely being alive on the planet is not enough to ensure they’ll end up on the right side of eternity. Instead, they realize that the Gods who created them demand a certain level of respect and submission before They will grant anyone access to Their Heaven.
Now as a Pharisee, Nicodemus prides himself on being a spiritual know-it-all. He is the guy other people come to for spiritual answers. Yet here Jesus is pointing out some super obvious concept—that merely breathing isn’t enough to be accepted by Yahweh—and Nicodemus is playing dumb.
“How are these things possible?” Nicodemus asked. (Jn. 3:9)
Really? Mr. Big Shot Preacher is pretending not to understand that Yahweh requires that souls submit to Him as the Supreme Authority before He’ll accept them? It’s now Jesus’ turn to scoff at Nicodemus.
Jesus replied, “You are a respected Jewish teacher, and yet you don’t understand these things? I assure you, we tell you what we know and have seen, and yet you won’t believe our testimony. But if you don’t believe Me when I tell you about earthly things, how can you possibly believe if I tell you about heavenly things?” (Jn. 3:10-12)
Remember that Nicodemus began this conversation saying, “Hey, Jesus, we all know that You are from Yahweh.” But of course that was a fat lie, which Jesus now exposes when He says, “You’ve refused to believe what My disciples and I have said.” You see, lying to one of your Creators never works, which is why pouring on the insincere praise and gushing promises is a waste of time. Yahweh, Jesus and the Holy Spirit know you inside and out, so don’t insult Their intelligence by trying to be less than totally honest with Them.
After calling Nicodemus out for the liar that he is, Jesus goes on to say, “If you’re refusing to listen to Me about basic earthly things, why do you even bother to ask Me about spiritual things?” So now Jesus has accused Nicodemus of being closed to truth as well, which Nicodemus is. The Pharisees weren’t interested in any truth but their own. But now Jesus is going to return to the issue of rank. According to the laws of Jewish society, Nicodemus outranks Jesus. But Jesus has already claimed to be superior to Nicodemus in spiritual knowledge, and now He’s going to claim to be superior to Nicodemus in every other area because, well, Jesus isn’t a human.
“No one has ever gone to Heaven and returned. But the Son of Man has come down from Heaven.” (Jn. 3:13)
With this comment, Jesus just claimed to be a supernatural being—some kind of non-human who normally resides in Heaven, not Earth. Can you imagine a friend of yours saying, “Hey, did you know that I’m not really a human like you? I’m actually a supernatural being.” How would that go over? Nicodemus’ eyes have to be bugging out in shock, but Jesus is still talking.
“And as Moses lifted up the bronze snake on a pole in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in Him will have eternal life.” (Jn. 3:14-15)
This insanity just gets deeper and deeper. First Jesus claims to be a supernatural being, now He claims that belief in Him is a new requirement for salvation. In other words, if Nicodemus doesn’t get onboard with this lunacy, then Yahweh will reject him. That’s how tight Jesus and Yahweh are—Yahweh is such a Fan of Jesus that He won’t accept any Jew who fails to bow to Jesus as a supernatural entity. Oh, but wait: Jesus is still talking. First He claimed to be a supernatural being—now He gets specific: He’s actually Yahweh’s Offspring—His one and only Son.
Earlier in this speech Jesus pointed out that humans can only reproduce human life. But now He’s claiming to be the offspring of the only real God. If humans can only birth humans, it would suggest that gods can only birth gods. And this isn’t a foreign idea—Nicodemus lives in a world in which many religions tell stories of gods giving birth to gods. But can Jesus really be so bald as to claim to have the same Divine Nature as the magnificent Yahweh? Yes, He can.
“For this is how Yahweh loved the world: He gave His one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life. Yahweh sent His Son into the world not to judge the world, but to save the world through Him.” (Jn. 3:16-17)
The longer Jesus talks, the more highly He exalts Himself. Now He’s not only elevated Himself to Yahweh’s Equal, but He’s claiming to be the Instrument through which Yahweh is going to save humans. Up until now, Yahweh seemed to be getting along just fine without Jesus in the picture. There is certainly no mention of Jesus in the Scriptures Nicodemus has studied. But now Jesus claims that He has become critical to Yahweh’s salvation plan. Can the Man get anymore outrageous? Well, maybe just a little.
“There is no judgment against anyone who believes in Yahweh’s Son. But anyone who does not believe in Him has already been judged for not believing in Yahweh’s one and only Son. And the judgment is based on this fact: Yahweh’s Light came into the world, but people loved the darkness more than the light, for their actions were evil. All who do evil hate the light and refuse to go near it for fear their sins will be exposed. But those who do what is right come to the Light so others can see that they are doing what Yahweh wants.” (Jn. 3:18-21)
Are the Pharisees “coming to the Light?” No, they’re feeling threatened and scheming about how they can get rid of Jesus. This conversation began with Nicodemus trying to butter Jesus up. It now ends with Jesus criticizing Nicodemus for not bowing to Jesus as the Divine Son of Yahweh. Earlier Jesus warned that Nicodemus had not yet been accepted by Yahweh under the Old Covenant, which simply required sincere submission to Yahweh as the only true God. But now Jesus is saying that things have gotten a bit more complicated because Yahweh has changed His program. Yahweh now demands that everyone submit to Himself as well as His Son Jesus. So if Nicodemus wants to get “born again,” he’ll have to make some major changes to his soul attitude, and he’ll also have to revise his beliefs about God.
HOW JESUS DEFINES “BORN AGAIN”
So what did we learn from this passage? Well, when Jesus used the term “born again,” He simply meant “being accepted by Yahweh.” What you have to do to be accepted by Yahweh changes depending on your place in history. If you’re living in Israel in the days of the Old Covenant, then to get “born again” all you had to do was reverentially submit to Yahweh as the one and only Sovereign God. If you’re living in Israel at the same time as Nicodemus, then to get “born again” you also have to submit to Jesus as a Divine Being—and that is going to make you very uncomfortable since Yahweh says quite clearly in the Old Testament that He is the only Divine Being in existence. You see, this business about Jesus claiming to be Divine created epic theological problems for Old Covenant Jews. You simply can’t stuff a second God into Old Testament theology. Jesus was introducing a major change in the way our Gods would interact with us.
Now by the time Jesus finishes His public ministry in Israel and goes floating off to Heaven, He’s made an even bigger mess out of things by introducing the Holy Spirit as a third Deity. Before Jesus, the Jews used the term Holy Spirit as an alternate title for Yahweh. But Jesus talks in a way that distinguishes the Holy Spirit as a third God who is not Jesus or Yahweh, yet He is a Divine Being. Given the fact that Yahweh ordered the immediate execution of any Jew who even suggested the idea of worshiping other Gods, it’s very understandable that the New Testament writers were very squeamish about coming right out and saying Jesus was Yahweh’s Equal. So they don’t say it. Instead, they teach that Jesus is a special Someone who is higher than the angels, but not quite as high as Yahweh. Then they go right on treating the Holy Spirit as an alternate name for Yahweh. This is why the New Testament shouldn’t be viewed as a good source of Christian theology. The New Testament doesn’t promote true Christianity, which is founded on the belief that there are only three Gods who are equal to Each Other in every way. Instead, the New Testament promotes a botched up version of Judaism in which Yahweh is still the Supreme God who created Jesus to assist Him (see How the NT Epistles Define Christ: Not God, Just Another Flawed Human).
So should we just be shrugging off the fact that Christ is being treated as a non-God throughout the New Testament epistles? Of course not. Jesus is God Almighty, He’s not some heavenly secretary. Jesus is Yahweh’s Peer Equal, not His Servant. The Holy Spirit is a third magnificent Deity, not some silly wind or some strange essence that Yahweh exudes. You simply won’t learn to treat your Creators properly by reading the New Testament because the Jewish writers of those documents just weren’t advanced enough in their personal theologies to properly explain who our Gods are. There really isn’t anything hard about saying, “We have three awesome, all-powerful, sovereign Creators” unless you’re a guy like Nicodemus, Paul or Peter. It’s growing up in Judaism that makes you shudder in horror at Jesus’ claims to be Yahweh’s Equal. Yahweh simply can’t have an Equal—He said so Himself in the Old Testament. But then again, since when do our Gods ever tell us the full truth about anything? Jesus and the Holy Spirit have always existed, but They chose not to reveal Themselves to the Jews until centuries into Israel’s history. And of course everyone was shocked by the news that there have always been multiple Gods. But at some point we need to stop being shocked and align with the new insights our Gods have revealed. Continuing to reject the Divinity of Christ once you’ve been taught better will only end up landing you on the wrong side of eternity.
HOW PETER USES “BORN AGAIN”
So now that we’ve explained the only time Jesus uses the term “born again,” let’s jump years ahead in history and look at how Peter uses the same term in one of his letters. Peter is a Jew who struggles to get his mind around the Divinity of Christ. Peter portrays Christ as being less than Yahweh’s Equal in the book of Acts, so Peter’s teaching should certainly not be viewed as infallible (see Know Your Bible Lesson 73: Peter Reduces Christ). Peter says a lot of things which simply aren’t true, so you need to be on your guard when you read his material and not be so impressed with the fact that he walked around with Jesus in the flesh.
Now the writers of the New Testament were all ethnic Jews who show a very strong bias towards Jews in their teachings. In other words, they make a lot of comments that would only make sense to other ethnic Jews. For example, in 1 Peter, Peter refers to how “the prophets” spoke of a coming salvation. What prophets? Any Jew would know Peter is referring to Old Testament prophets—guys like Isaiah and Malachi. But to a non-Jew, it would not be clear who Peter was talking about, nor would a non-Jew recognize when Peter starts throwing quotations from the Old Testament into his letter. When you talk in ways that exclude certain people, you’re obviously favoring a limited audience. The way Peter writes makes it clear that he is mostly concerned with instructing and encouraging other Jews—not other citizens of Rome who might have joined in the Jesus movement.
The apostle Paul and the author of Hebrews also use very excluding language in their writings—throwing in so many references to Jewish Scriptures that anyone not familiar with those Scriptures would feel left out and confused. This isn’t a very good way for a spiritual leader to communicate, and the heavy Jewish bias of Scriptures continues to cause a lot of confusion today as Christians with no background in Israelite history or the Old Testament try to decipher references that make no sense to them. How much effort should you spend struggling to understand messages that aren’t directed at you? You need to get your direction from God about this. God is not a Jew, and when He talks to you, He uses words and references that you can actually understand given your own cultural background. So you always want to talk to God first and rely on Him to guide your study of written material. When He’s in the mood to talk to you through the Bible, fine. But if He’s not, leave it on the shelf.
In 1 Peter 1, Peter says the following:
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, to obtain an inheritance which is imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away, reserved in heaven for you, who are protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. (1 Pet. 1:3-5)
Is this solid teaching? No, it’s a misleading mess. First, notice how Peter is giving Yahweh all of the credit and praise for salvation instead of praising all three of our Gods. Peter believed that Yahweh was the One who raised Jesus back to life, since non-God Jesus wasn’t powerful enough to do that Himself (see Who raised Jesus from the dead?). Notice how Peter refers to believers being “protected by the power of God through faith.” Well, no. In the first place, every human is benefiting daily from the protection and provision of their Creators. Christians don’t have some extra share of Divine help. In the second place, our Gods protect and help us of Their own free will, not because we believe in Them. So the comment that we’re “protected by the power of God through faith” is misleading. Thirdly, faith is a form of trust, not submission, and it is through submission that we obtain salvation. No one gets saved by merely believing that there is a God or that Jesus is Divine. We must personally submit to our Creators as the Supreme Authorities over us and all that is created before we’ll be granted salvation.
Peter just isn’t a good spiritual teacher. He says too many things that are just plain wrong, and he makes a lot of misleading comments. But what we can see is that he is using the term “born again” in this passage to simply mean “being accepted by Yahweh.” So Peter uses the term the same way Jesus did with Nicodemus. He’s not saying anything new, and he’s not saying things very well.
Now later on in this same chapter we find the last use of “born again” in the New Testament. Peter is still talking, only now he’s really doing a lousy job of teaching truth.
By obedience to the truth, having purified yourselves for sincere love of the brothers, love one another earnestly from a pure heart, since you have been born again—not of perishable seed but of imperishable—through the living and enduring word of God. (1 Pet. 1:22-23)
No, no, no. Humans do not “purify” themselves, they’re not capable of having a “pure heart,” and they’re not “born again” by the word of God. It is through submission that we are saved, not by works or by conjuring up warm feelings towards our fellow humans (see Salvation Q&A). You’ll find the New Testament authors spend way too much time talking about the importance of loving other created beings and not nearly enough time talking about the importance of loving God (see Applying 1 Corinthians 13: A Love that Misses the Mark).
“Born again” simply means “being accepted by God” the way Peter is using it here. But does being born again really make you go from perishable to imperishable? No, this is metaphorical language which you shouldn’t take literally. Every human is “imperishable” in the sense that we will all continue to live on after our bodies die. Souls in Hell are very much alive, as are souls in Heaven. So we really don’t choose between eternal “life” or “death.” Eternal life is a given—it’s just a question of where we will spend that life. Will we spend it in Heaven or Hell? On the right or wrong side of God’s wrath?
The purpose of this post was to clarify how the term “born again” should be defined based on the original context of Scripture. Now we have learned that when Jews used the term “born again,” they simply meant “being accepted by Yahweh” or “being on your way to Heaven because you are pleasing Yahweh.” Today when Christians claim to be “born again,” they mean that they are accepted by all three of their Creators and that they are on their way to Heaven. It’s the same general idea, but there is a drastic difference in how many Gods are viewed as controlling salvation.
Learning from Yahweh: What It Means To Be Holy
Understanding Jesus: Hate Your Family & Count the Cost
Jesus vs. the NT Jews: What it Means to Please God
Understanding Jesus: Many Will Try To Enter But Won’t Be Able (Luke 13)