"Born Again" ― What Did Jesus Mean?
“I tell you the truth, unless you are born again, you cannot see the Kingdom of God.” ―John 3:3, NLT
Most of the many churches in
the realm of Christendom believe that a person must be "born again" in
order to go to heaven to be with Jesus. That belief is said to be based
on the conversation that Jesus had with Nicodemus, a Pharisee and ruler
of the Jews, who came to visit Jesus privately one night after dark. When
Nicodemus confessed that Jesus must be from God ― on
account of his many miracles ― Jesus answered him, saying:
"I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is
born again," and be "born of water and the Spirit." (John 3:3-7;
NIV) What did Jesus mean by the term born again? And when a
person today claims to have been born again, or asks if you have been
born again, what exactly does he mean?
According to the online encyclopaedia Wikipedia, this is what most people understand "born again" to mean: "In Christianity, to be born again is to undergo a 'spiritual rebirth' (regeneration) of the human soul or spirit, contrasted with the physical birth everyone experiences. The origin of the term 'born again' is the New Testament: 'Jesus replied, "Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born again."'" (Bold added)
Although Jesus spoke to Nicodemus of the need to be "born again" in order to "see the kingdom of God," the Scriptures reveal that Jesus did not use it in the context in which it became popular, as described in the above definition. In fact, the term "born again" was adopted to legitimize a new sort of resurrection that began to be taught during the time of the apostles, and which was spreading rapidly among many of the early Christian Greek congregations.
Nicodemus, as a Pharisee, believed in the physical resurrection of the body while the Sadducees did not; and neither did the Greeks. (Luke 20:27; Acts 23:6-8; 17:31,32) Jesus himself, of course, not only taught the resurrection of the dead, but also demonstrated that he had the power to bring the dead back to life again. And on at least three occasions, Jesus confided to his closest disciples that he was going to suffer and be put to death, but would rise on the third day. He certainly had faith that his heavenly Father would resurrect him from death. (John 11:21-27, 38-47; Luke 9:22; 24:1-9)
Seeing that Jesus had shown himself to "upward of five hundred" disciples after his death and resurrection, how is it that some of the Greek disciples in Corinth came to question the reality of the resurrection of the dead? (1 Cor. 15:4-8) The apostle Paul found it necessary to reason with them on this matter when he wrote: “Now if Christ is being preached that he has been raised up from the dead, how is it some among you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If, indeed, there is no resurrection of the dead, neither has Christ been raised up. But if Christ has not been raised up, our preaching is certainly in vain, and our faith is in vain.” (1 Cor. 12-22)
These ones were not rejecting the hope of the resurrection outright; but were “deviating from the truth” by preaching a different sort of resurrection, such as was the case of Hymenaeus and Philetus. Therefore Paul found it necessary to warn the congregations against this apostasy. To young Timothy Paul wrote: “Keep away from worthless and useless talk. It only leads people farther away from God. That sort of talk is like a sore that won’t heal (gangrene; ESV). And Hymenaeus and Philetus have been talking this way by teaching that the dead have already been raised to life. This is far from the truth, and it is destroying the faith of some people." (2 Tim. 2:16-18; CEV) This faith destroying teaching continued to develop over the centuries into the popular doctrine of a spiritual resurrection, that of being born again.
Believers in the "born again" doctrine argue that Paul’s own letters support their interpretation of the teaching, although they twist the meaning of what Paul actually did write, even as the apostle Peter notes, "which the untaught and unsteady are twisting, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction." (2 Peter 3:15,16) Take for example Paul's letter to the Greek congregation in Ephesus, where Paul wrote: “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience — among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ — by grace you have been saved — and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.” (Ephesians 2:1-6; ESV)
Was Paul saying that the members of the congregation in Ephesus, who were uncircumcised Gentiles, were "born again" when they accepted Jesus and came "alive" to God, though having been formerly "dead" in their sins and trespasses? Is that what Jesus meant when speaking to Nicodemus, that he and the Jewish nation were dead to God in their sins and trespasses, and thus they needed to be born again? In his letter to the Ephesus congregation, Paul contrasts the Gentile Christians with the natural circumcised Jews, for he goes on to explain:
"Don’t forget that you Gentiles used to be outsiders. You were called
'uncircumcised heathens' by the Jews, who were proud of their
circumcision, even though it affected only their bodies and not their
12 In those days you were living
apart from Christ. You were excluded from citizenship among the
people of Israel, and you did not know the covenant promises God
had made to them. You lived in this world without God and without
13 But now you have been united with
Christ Jesus. Once you were far away from God, but now you have been
brought near to him through the blood of Christ.
14 "For Christ himself has brought peace to us. He united Jews and Gentiles into one people when, in his own body on the cross, he broke down the wall of hostility that separated us. 15 He did this by ending the system of law with its commandments and regulations. He made peace between Jews and Gentiles by creating in himself one new people from the two groups. 16 Together as one body, Christ reconciled both groups to God by means of his death on the cross, and our hostility toward each other was put to death.
17 "He brought this Good News of peace to you Gentiles who were far away from him, and peace to the Jews who were near. 18 Now all of us can come to the Father through the same Holy Spirit because of what Christ has done for us." ―Ephesians 2:11-18, New Living Translation.
Do Paul's words to the Ephesians also apply to Nicodemus? Was Nicodemus excluded from citizenship among the people of Israel? Did Nicodemus not know the covenant promises God had made to Israel? Did Nicodemus and the Jews live in this world without God and without hope, as was the case of the Gentile disciples in Ephesus? Clearly, Jesus' words to Nicodemus about the necessity for them to be born again was not what Paul was writing about in his letter.
What Did Nicodemus Understand?
Nicodemus was a Pharisee and a teacher of Israel, a ruler of the Jews (a member of the Jewish governing body, the Sanhedrin), who is mentioned only in John's Gospel. Having been impressed by Jesus' many miracles, Nicodemus visited him one night to talk to him in private. The apostle John tells us about this meeting:
there was a man from the Pharisees — the name for him was Nicodemus — a
ruler of the Jews.
This one came to Him by night and said to Him, “Rabbi, we know that You
have come from God as a teacher. For no one is able to be doing these
signs which You are doing unless God is with him”.
Jesus responded and said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you — unless
one is born again, he is not able to see the kingdom of God”.
Nicodemus says to Him, “How is a person able to be born while being an
old-man? He is not able to enter a second time into the womb of his
mother and be born, is he?”
Jesus responded, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of
water and the Spirit, he is not able to enter into the kingdom of God.
The thing having been born of the flesh is flesh, and the thing having
been born of the Spirit is spirit.
Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You all must be born again’ —
the wind blows where it wants, and you hear the sound of it, but you do
not know from where it comes, and where it is going. So is everyone
having been born of the Spirit”.
9 Nicodemus responded and said to Him, “How are these things able to happen?” 10 Jesus responded and said to him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and you do not understand these things? 11 Truly, truly, I say to you that we are speaking what we know, and we are testifying what we have seen, and you people are not receiving our testimony. 12 If I told you people earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things? " ―John 3:1-12. Disciples’ Literal New Testament.
Nicodemus was puzzled by Jesus' reply about the
need to be "born again," although Jesus told him that he
"should not be surprised" at this. Since he was a teacher of the Jews,
Nicodemus should have been familiar with God's promises and the prophecies
regarding the nation and the new covenant foretold by Jeremiah. That is why Jesus
criticised him, saying, "Are you the teacher of Israel
and you do not understand these things?"
With these few words Jesus focused on the very heart of what Nicodemus had just acknowledged, namely, that Jesus had come from God, and the purpose for his coming, and also how Nicodemus and all the Jews were involved, including the changes that were about to come upon the nation of Israel and their relationship with God in fulfillment of God's promises as he had foretold by means of his prophets. Rather than not being familiar with these prophecies, it was their lack of faith that prevented them from accepting Jesus as the prophet foretold by Moses. (Deut. 18:15-22)
But, before we can understand Jesus' message to Nicodemus, we must first determine whether Jesus had told him that he must be born "again", or be born "from above" ― for the Greek word used, άνωθεν, anothen, (pronounced an'-o-then), can mean either. That is why some Bibles translate Jesus as saying, "I tell you for certain that you must be born from above before you can see God's kingdom." (CEV)
In the King James Version the word an'-o-then (Strong's 509) appears 13 times: three times it is translated as "the top" (Matt. 27:51; Mark 15:38; John 19:23), twice as "from the very first" or "from the beginning" (Luke 1:3; Acts 26:5), five times as "from above" (John 3:31; 19:11; James 1:17; 3:15, 17), and three times as "again" (John 3:3, 7; Gal. 4:9). Therefore, how can we determine whether Jesus told Nicodemus that he must be born "again" or be born "from above"; or do those two terms mean the same?
The simple answer to this, of course is, what did Nicodemus understand Jesus to say? According to his reply, "How can an old man go back into his mother's womb a second time," indicates that he understood Jesus to say that he must be born "again" or "a second time," (δεύτερον - Interlinear Translation). He did not understand Jesus to say that he must be born "from above" as this would not fit his reply to Jesus. That is why the majority of Bible translations render Jesus as saying "born again." (NWT, KJV, NKJV, NIV, NLT, NIRV, HCSB, NLV, ESV, NASB, RSV, ASV, Amplified, Young, Darby, Webster, HNV) We can also be sure that Jesus meant "born again" when we understand the need or reason for Nicodemus and the Jews as a nation to be born "again" or a "second time."
For anything to happen "again" the same thing must have taken place at least once before. Did Jesus indicate to Nicodemus that he was first born in the flesh and thus needed to be born again in the flesh? That is what Nicodemus appears to have understood according to his reply about an old man entering his mother's womb a second time. But Jesus quickly ruled that out when he said, "What has been born from the flesh is flesh, and what has been born from the spirit is spirit." (vs. 6) In other words, being born in the flesh has nothing to do with being born again in the spirit. They are not the same at all. Nicodemus and all the Jews had to be born again in the same way or manner that they, as God's people, had already been born previously.
Jesus and Nicodemus belonged to a nation that had come into existence solely because of the promise that Jehovah had made to their forefather Abraham. God had chosen Abraham to be the one through whom he purposed to fulfill his promise of a future seed through whom blessings would come to all the nations of the earth, ― and that time had now arrived. (Gen. 22:17,18; Gal. 3:7-9, 16)
The Conception and Birth of God's "Firstborn Son"
The most precious, profound,
and personal gift that we can offer to Jehovah ― from his standpoint ― is
for us personally to have faith in him and his promises.
It demonstrates our complete trust in him and his care for us individually,
in spite of never
having seen him or personally heard his voice. There have been countless individuals throughout history who have had that sort of faith.
Love for Jehovah produces faith and
obedience. We cannot love Jehovah apart from faith. (2 Thess. 3:2; Heb.
11:6) Abraham was a man who had such a faith. In fact, he is called "the
father of all those having faith." It was because of his great
faith that God chose Abraham and his offspring through whom the Messiah
would come. (Romans 4:11,12)
Abraham had first proven his faith when he left his home city of Ur and moved to a distant land, as Jehovah had commanded him. He arrived in the land of Canaan when he was already an old man of 75 years. At that time he had no offspring, and yet God promised that he would make a great nation out of him. Abraham put faith in that promise. (Genesis 15:5,6) Another ten years passed, and as Abraham's wife Sarah continued barren, she offered Abraham her maidservant Hagar, in order to have a child by her. Perhaps this was out of a desire to help fulfill God's promise. And so, at the age of 86 years, Abraham became father to his son Ishmael, by Hagar. (Gen. 16:16) But Ishmael was not the son of God's promise through whom the seed would come. Jehovah confirmed to Abraham that his own wife, Sarah, though still barren, would give birth to a son whom he was to name Isaac; and it would through Isaac that Jehovah would fulfill the covenant he had made with Abraham. (Genesis 17:15-21)
Another 14 years passed when Jehovah miraculously enabled barren Sarah to become pregnant by her husband, and she gave birth to Isaac when Abraham was a hundred years old, and Sarah was ninety. With the birth of Isaac the future nation of Israel was conceived according to Jehovah's promise. “Listen to me, you people who are pursuing after righteousness, you who are seeking to find Jehovah. Look to the rock from which you were hewn out, and to the hollow of the pit from which you were dug out. Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who gradually brought you forth with childbirth pains. For he was one when I called him, and I proceeded to bless him and to make him many." (Isaiah 51:1-3, 15-16)
It would take time for Abraham
to become many; much longer than the nine months it took for Isaac to be
born. In fact, it took over 400 years for his offspring to increase in
numbers until they were born as a nation belonging to God. During those four centuries of developing in
the safety of the womb that was Egypt, Jehovah was watching over them,
referred to them as
"Israel my son, my firstborn". (Exodus 4:22-23) The prophet Isaiah wrote: “And now
listen, O Jacob my servant, and you, O Israel, whom I have chosen. This
is what Jehovah has said, your Maker and your Former, who kept
helping you even from the belly, ‘Do not be afraid, O my servant
Jacob, and you, Jeshurun, whom I have chosen." Insight on the
Scriptures notes that this is "evidently referring to the very beginning of their development
as a people." (Isa. 44:1,2) ―it-2 pp.
997-998 Son(s) of God.
The conception and birth of the nation of Israel began with the birth of Isaac and developed this way:
Two sons, twins, were born to Isaac and Rebekah, namely, Esau and Jacob. Jehovah chose Jacob, with whom he repeated the covenant that he had made with his grandfather Abraham. (Gen. 28:14,15) God changed Jacob's name to Israel, and Israel came to have twelve sons. (Gen. 32:27,28; 35:10-12) As Jacob was dwelling among the people in the land of Canaan, the danger existed for the yet few in number to be integrated with the nations round about; as became evident when Dinah, Jacob's daughter, became involved with a son of a chieftain of the Canaanites. (Gen. 34:1-31) In order to protect his as yet developing nation, Jehovah manoeuvred matters to bring Jacob and his increasing family into the safety of Egypt, where he had sent Jacob's son Joseph in advance to prepare a place for them. In the relative safety of Egypt, which served as the womb in which God's "firstborn son" could grow and develop, Abraham's offspring rapidly increased in numbers. This eventually alarmed the Egyptians to the point where they enslaved them.
Jehovah had foretold all this to Abraham, ― the gradual growth of the nation, and the time it would take for them to return to the promised land to take possession of it. "And he began to say to Abram: 'You may know for sure that your seed will become an alien resident in a land not theirs, and they will have to serve them, and these will certainly afflict them for four hundred years. But the nation that they will serve I am judging, and after that they will go out with many goods.'" —Genesis 15:13-16.
With the passing of the four hundred years, Jacob's original family of seventy members that went into Egypt had by now grown into a nation of over 600,000 male adults.* (Gen. 46:27; Ex. 12:37) The labor pains that precede the imminent birth of a child indicated that the time had now drawn near for the birth of Israel, God's "son," his "firstborn." Jehovah had chosen Moses as the deliverer of his people, and so he sent him to Pharaoh, with these instructions: "And you must say to Pharaoh, 'This is what Jehovah has said: "Israel is my son, my firstborn. And I say to you: Send my son away that he may serve me. But should you refuse to send him away, here I am killing your son, your firstborn."'" (Ex. 4:22,23)
Of course, Pharaoh refused to release his slaves. It took ten plagues from God upon Egypt, the last resulting in the death of every firstborn among the Egyptians including Pharaoh's own house, before Pharaoh finally consented to sent the people away. But even then, Pharaoh had a change of heart and chased after them with his military force, which resulted in their destruction in the Red Sea. It was indeed proving to be a painful delivery. (Isa. 66:8) The vast crowd safely passed through the Red Sea, the waters of which God had parted, as they continued marching through the dry and hot wilderness for many months to the place God had chosen for their place of birth, Mount Sinai. (Exodus 16:1-3, 8; 17:2-3; 19:1-6) There, in the year 1513 B.C.E., Israel―God's "son", his "firstborn" ―was born when they entered into the covenant with Jehovah, with Moses as the mediator, amidst a spectacular display of God's presence and power. (Exodus 19:10-20)
God promised them: "And now if you will strictly obey my voice and will indeed keep my covenant, then you will certainly become my special property out of all [other] peoples, because the whole earth belongs to me. And you yourselves will become to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation." (Exodus 19:5,6) As God's people, the nation of Israel was especially blessed, for if they would prove faithful to God's covenant, Jehovah would choose exclusively from among them the full number of those he foreordained to rule as kings and priests in his future kingdom of his Son, by means of which blessings would come to "all the nations of the earth," as God had stated in the covenant he had made with Abraham. But all these details remained a "sacred secret" until God's appointed time for their fulfillment. (Romans 16:25,26; Ephesians 1:4-5; Colossians 1:26-27; Revelation 20:6)
The "People that is to be Born"
"They shall come, and shall declare his righteousness unto a people that shall be born, that he hath done this." ― Psalm 22:31, BRG.
The covenant God made with Abraham's seed at Mount Sinai would prove to be the means by which God would bring blessings to all mankind; undoing the damage caused by Adam's transgression in the Garden of Eden, and to "break up the works of the Devil". (Gen. 3:15; 1 John 3:8) For that reason the time would come when that covenant would be replaced by a new and better covenant, once the old covenant had accomplished its purpose. (Galatians 3:24-29) Therefore, Jeremiah prophesied:
“'Look! There are days coming,' is the utterance of Jehovah, 'and I will
conclude with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah a new
32 not one like the covenant that I
concluded with their forefathers in the day of my taking hold of their
hand to bring them forth out of the land of Egypt, ‘which covenant of
mine they themselves broke, although I myself had husbandly ownership of
them,’ is the utterance of Jehovah.”
33 “'For this is the covenant that I shall conclude with the house of Israel after those days,' is the utterance of Jehovah. 'I will put my law within them, and in their heart I shall write it. And I will become their God, and they themselves will become my people.
34 “'And they will no more teach each one his companion and each one his brother, saying, "Know Jehovah!" for they will all of them know me, from the least one of them even to the greatest one of them,' is the utterance of Jehovah. 'For I shall forgive their error, and their sin I shall remember no more.'” (Jeremiah 31:31-34)
Nicodemus, as a teacher of Israel, should have been familiar with Jehovah's promise of
making a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of
Judah. And here he was sitting and talking with the mediator of that new
covenant; even acknowledging that Jesus must be from God due to the
signs he was performing.
One striking difference of this new covenant was that God's law would be written in the heart of his people, instead of on stone tablets or parchment as had been the case with the old covenant. Yes, instead of obeying God because of a written code of rules and regulations, under the new covenant God's people would obey him out of a pure heart filled with love and faith, for they would know Jehovah, "from the least one of them even to the greatest one of them."
Please note that Jehovah says concerning the house of Israel and the house of Judah that "I will become their God, and they themselves will become my people." (vs. 33) Was Jehovah not already their God, and were they not also his people who were born to him at Mt. Sinai, due to the covenant mediated by Moses? Yes, the Jews were God's sons on account of the Law covenant. Since that covenant was about to become "obsolete" and go out of existence, their relationship as sons of God could no longer continue once the covenant no longer existed. The end of the old covenant would also end their special relationship with God! Therefore, they needed to again become God's people, his sons and daughters, and have Jehovah be their God a second time. How? By their being born "again," a "second" time, by putting faith in the mediator of the new covenant, Christ Jesus. (Hebrews 8:6-13; 1 Timothy 2:3-6)
Under the new covenant, people of all nations who put faith in Christ Jesus are born from God, just as the Jews were previously born from God at Mount Sinai. (John 1:12-13; 1 John 3:9--10) But none of the Gentiles could be born "again", for that is applicable only to the Jews of the first century who were still living under the terms of the old covenant, as was Nicodemus. A person cannot be born "again" if he never was born under the old covenant. You cannot have something "again" that you never had in the first place. That is why Jesus said to Nicodemus, "The thing having been born of the flesh is flesh, and the thing having been born of the Spirit is spirit." A person is not born first in the flesh, and then born again in the spirit, for these two have nothing in common. In fact, they are in opposition to one another, as Paul says: "For the flesh desires what is against the Spirit, and the Spirit desires what is against the flesh; these are opposed to each other, so that you don’t do what you want." (Galatians 5:17, HCSB)
What did Jesus mean when he told Nicodemus that "unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he is not able to enter into the kingdom of God"? (John 3:5) It mean that a person needs to be baptized in water for forgiveness of sins, and then he will receive the holy spirit ― the "helper" and "teacher" ― which proceeds from God. The apostle Paul explains that we are God's temple and that his holy spirit dwells in us. In fact, a person who does not have God's spirit does not belong to God. (Acts 2:37-41; 1 Cor. 3:16-17; Rom. 8:9-11)
The new covenant, which was inaugurated with the blood of Christ Jesus, restores the covenant of life that Jehovah had originally made with Adam, by which we are now reconciled to God. (Matt. 26:27-28; Rom. 5:8-12, 18--19; 2 Cor. 5:18,19) There is no other future third covenant necessary.
"A Nation Born at One Time"
"Who has heard such a thing? Who has seen such things? Shall a land be born in one day? Shall a nation be brought forth in one moment? For as soon as Zion was in labor she brought forth her children." —Isaiah 66:8, ESV
The new covenant became operational with the outpouring of the holy spirit at Pentecost 33C.E., and with that the old Law covenant went out of existence and became obsolete. It had taken the nation of Israel four hundred years to develop and grow in size until they were ready to be born at Mount Sinai with the making of the Law covenant. But the birth of the new nation, under the new covenant, took place in just one day, before there could even be any "birth pangs", as Isaiah foretold: "Before she began to come into labor pains she gave birth. Before birth pangs could come to her, she even gave deliverance to a male child. Who has heard of a thing like this? Who has seen things like these? Will a land be brought forth with labor pains in one day? Or will a nation be born at one time? For Zion has come into labor pains as well as given birth to her sons." (Isaiah 66:7,8)
Zion, in Jerusalem, was where Jehovah's
temple stood and where God was worshiped under the old Law covenant.
(John 4:19-24) But it was not
this Zion that Isaiah prophesied would give birth to her sons. Because
the sacred ark was situated in Jehovah's temple on Mount Zion, Zion came
to represent Jehovah's presence and heavenly realities. Quoting
Insight on the Scriptures, "Zion became a mountain especially holy
to Jehovah when David had the sacred Ark transferred there. Later, the
designation “Zion” embraced the temple area on Mount Moriah (where the
Ark was moved during Solomon’s reign) and the term was, in fact, applied
to the entire city of Jerusalem. (Compare Isa 1:8; 8:18; see MOUNTAIN OF
MEETING.) Since the Ark was associated with Jehovah’s presence and
because Zion was a symbol of heavenly realities, Zion was referred to as
the place of God’s dwelling and the place from which help, blessing, and
salvation would come." ―Vol.
2, page 1236.
Before his ascension to heaven Jesus had told his disciples not to withdraw from Jerusalem, "but keep waiting for what the Father has promised." While his disciples had already been baptized by John the Baptist in water, showing "that they had repented of their sins and turned to God to be forgiven," they were about to be "baptized in holy spirit not many days after this." (Mark 1:4, 8, NLT; Acts 1:4) As the Father had promised, Zion was about to give birth to her sons and his new nation was about to be born in one day, "at one time." The account in Acts tells us what happened when Jesus' twelve apostles and 108 disciples were gathered together:
"On the day of Pentecost all the believers were meeting together in one place. Suddenly, there was a sound from heaven like the roaring of a mighty windstorm, and it filled the house where they were sitting. Then, what looked like flames or tongues of fire appeared and settled on each of them. And everyone present was filled with the Holy Spirit and began speaking in other languages, as the Holy Spirit gave them this ability." (Acts 2:1-4, NLT)
Regarding the Spirit, Jesus
had told Nicodemus that
"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 3:8) On the last night with his
disciples Jesus had promised them
"the helper, the holy spirit, which the Father will send in my name,
that one will teach you all things and bring back to your minds all the
things I told you." (John 14:26; 15:26; 16:7) Now, on this day of
Pentecost, God sent the promised helper by pouring out the holy spirit
upon the 120 disciples. Since the holy spirit is not visible to the
eyes, God made it evident when it was accompanied by the sound from
heaven "like the roaring of a mighty windstorm" (NLT), so loud that it
brought the multitude, that had gathered in Jerusalem for the festival,
running to the house where the disciples were gathered.
They could hear the sound but could not see where it came from. Inside,
the holy spirit made itself evident when
"flames or tongues of fire" settled upon each of the 120 individuals receiving it.
The disciples had previously been "born of water" when they were baptized by John, which made forgiveness of their sins possible upon Jesus' death. (1 Cor. 6:11; Heb. 9:14) Now they had been baptized also with holy spirit which filled them with "all the fullness that God gives," empowering them to understand and "grasp what is the breadth and length and height and depth." (Eph. 3:18,19) Full of holy spirit, the apostle Peter was able to explain to the crowd that had gathered, the significance of what had just occurred, according to Joel's prophecy: “And after that it must occur that I shall pour out my spirit on every sort of flesh, and your sons and your daughters will certainly prophesy. As for your old men, dreams they will dream. As for your young men, visions they will see. And even on the menservants and on the maidservants in those days I shall pour out my spirit." (Joel 2:28,29)
With the outpouring of his holy spirit Jehovah brought the new covenant into force, thus giving birth to his new nation — his household of Christ's disciples. As foretold by his prophet Isaiah, his new nation was "born in one day," "in one moment." It was not Zion, the city of Jerusalem, that gave birth to God's new nation, but rather this came from Jehovah himself: "'Shall I bring to the point of birth and not cause to bring forth?' says the LORD; 'shall I, who cause to bring forth, shut the womb?' says your God." —Isa. 66:8,9; ESV.
Jehovah began to lay the foundation of his new nation with his chosen twelve apostles and 108 other disciples, all of them natural offspring of Abraham; with "Christ Jesus himself [as] the foundation cornerstone." (see Summary) Keeping "the covenant in force for the many for one week [of years]," Jehovah continued to add to the foundation of his household by choosing its members exclusively from among faithful Jews for another three and a half years, until 36 C.E., when Cornelius became the first Gentile to be added to the "foreordained" number of 144,000. (Daniel 9:27; Acts 10:1, 44-48; Romans 11:13, 17-24; Ephesians 2:19-22)
Of what use is a foundation unless a building is constructed upon it? (Luke 6:47,48; 14:29,30) A foundation has specific dimensions, which includes the one foundation cornerstone. On the other hand, that which is build upon it is only limited by what the foundation can bear. After laying the foundation on the day of Pentecost, Jehovah also immediately began to build upon the foundation when "about three thousand souls [that] were added." These three thousand had responded to Peter's speech and consequently repented and were baptized for forgiveness of their sins. (Acts 2:37-41) Perhaps Jehovah chose a few from among these to add to the 120 foundation stones as this began to grow in size to accommodate the newly baptized disciples who were being built upon the foundation.
The two loaves of newly ripened grain that were presented to God at Pentecost under the old covenant had represented these two groups: 1. The anointed disciples who would eventually number 144,000, and who were the foundation, with Jesus as the foundation cornerstone; and 2. The countless others, "all those who [are] rightly disposed for everlasting life," that are built upon this foundation, and whose natural hope of enjoying everlasting life on earth is assured them by Jehovah. (Rev. 14:1, 3; 7:9,10; John 3:16; Acts 13:48; 1 John 4:9) Both groups were presented before Jehovah on that day; both taken from among sinful mankind as the loaves, having been baked leavened, symbolized.* (See footnote) —Leviticus 23:16-20.
The 120 disciples, who were anointed with holy spirit as the foundation stones, and the 3000 who were baptized that same day, were thus "born again" by being brought into the new covenant, thus becoming God's sons for a second time. The old covenant was from this day on no longer valid. Samaritans, and later Gentiles, would also be born from God, but not "again" as they had no share with the old covenant. (Rom. 8:14; Gal. 4:4-7) Thus, "the whole building [was] being harmoniously joined together, growing into a holy temple for Jehovah," and "built up together into a place for God to inhabit by spirit." (Ephesians 2:19-22; Hebrews 3:6; 1 Peter 2:4-6)
All who belong to Jehovah have been "born of water" (by baptism) and are also born of the spirit, for without the spirit they cannot worship God "with spirit and truth". (John 4:23-24) It is God's spirit that teaches us to know the things pertaining to God, "for the spirit searches into all things, even the deep things of God... But a physical man does not receive the things of the spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot get to know them, because they are examined spiritually." (1 Cor. 2:10-14) All of God's faithful people have God's spirit, as a recent Watchtower article acknowledged: "Genuine anointed Christians... do not believe that they necessarily have more holy spirit than their companions of the other sheep have." ―The Watchtower, May 1, 2007, page 31.
We are born from God, according to his will and promise, and are brought into the new covenant as we are adopted as his sons and daughters. As such we become members of his household, some as foundation stones, others built upon this foundation; and if we remain there, faithful, we will inherit the blessings that Jehovah had originally intended for Adam and his offspring, if Adam had remained faithful. (2 Cor. 6:16-18; Gen. 1:27,28; Ps. 37:10,11, 29; Rev. 20:3,4)
In a Nutshell:
The Jews were born as a
nation at Mount Sinai, and became God's people when they entered
into the covenant with God. The entire nation, "every man of Israel," including
the little ones, and their wives, were included in that covenant, "for the
purpose of establishing you today as his people and that he may prove himself
your God." (Deut. 29:10-13) That covenant was made with Abraham's offspring for
the purpose of producing the future promised Seed, thereby safeguarding the lineage
through which the Messiah would come, and by means of whom "all nations of the earth
will certainly bless themselves," according to God's promise to Abraham. (Gen.
22:16-18; Matt. 1:1-16; Luke 3:23-34)
God also foretold that once this covenant had produced the promised Seed, he would replace it with a new and better covenant that would include people of all the nations, rendering the former old covenant obsolete. Nicodemus, a leader and teacher among the Jews, should have been familiar with God's promise of a new covenant, as foretold by the prophet Jeremiah. (Jer. 31:31-34; Heb. 8:7-9, 13) When he failed to get the sense of Jesus' words, "You people must be born again," Jesus criticized him: "Are you a teacher of Israel and yet do not know these things?" (John 3:7, 9,10) Clearly, not only Nicodemus, but all the Jews should have been in expectation of the Messiah, including God's promise of making a new covenant with them.
Being God's people under the old covenant, the Jews needed to be "born again" by being brought into the new covenant, upon termination of the old covenant. But how could they be born again if they rejected the mediator of that new covenant? (Heb. 9:13-15) Only by entering into the new covenant could they inherit the promise that God long ago had made them: "And you yourselves will become to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation." (Exodus 19:5,6) That is why Jesus said to Nicodemus: "Unless anyone is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God." (John 3:3)
When Jesus told Nicodemus that "anyone" [of you people, the Jews] must be born "again" in order to see the kingdom of God, he was not referring to "people of the nations," the Gentiles, who had not been previously in the old covenant, but who were "alienated from the state of Israel and strangers to the covenants of the promise." (Eph. 2:11-18; Matt. 15:24) Yet, through their faith in Jesus, people of the nations could now also become God's people, under the new covenant; no, not as proselytes as before, but as genuine "sons of God." (Rom. 10:12; Gal. 3:26; Eph. 2:19-22; 1 John 3:9; 5:1) Both Jews and Gentiles are equally "born from God" upon their baptism in water, in obedience to Jesus' command, and at which time they receive "the free gift of the holy spirit." Thus they are all "born from water and spirit." This was true also in Jesus' own case. (Matt. 3:16,17; 28:19; compare Acts 2:38; 8:14-17; 10:47; 11:15-17; 19:1-6; 1 Peter 3:21) It is only by means of this new covenant that anyone can enjoy a personal relationship with Jehovah, our heavenly Father, just as he foretold, "'I will become their God, and they themselves will become my people." (Jer. 31:33; Acts 15:14-18)
God's people are his temple, "a place for God to inhabit by spirit." (Eph. 2:21,22; 3:5,6; 1 Cor. 3:16,17) As long as he remains faithful he is assured of inheriting God's kingdom, which is the everlasting life that God promised, and that Jesus spoke of to Nicodemus. (John 3:16; Jude 21; Heb. 6:4-6; Matt. 13:40-43) The vast majority of mankind will live right here on earth, according to God's original purpose when he created Adam and told him to "fill the earth and subdue it". A small number, a "little flock", is chosen by God from among mankind to rule with Jesus in his heavenly kingdom, which will "break up the works of the Devil" and bring blessings to all mankind, including the resurrection of "the righteous and the unrighteous." This is what God's covenant with Abraham will have accomplished. (Daniel 7:13,14, 27; Matt. 5:5; 6:10; 19:27,28; Luke 12:32; 1 Cor. 15:21-28; 1 John 3:8; Rev. 3:21; 5:9-10; 20:6)
• "Born again" does not refer
to some sort of spiritual resurrection.
• The nation of Israel was born as God's people at Mount Sinai when God made the covenant with them, with Moses as the mediator, "for the purpose of establishing you today as his people and that he may prove himself your God." (Deut. 29:12,13)
• God foretold: "Look! There are days coming and I will conclude with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah a new covenant; not one like the covenant that I concluded with their forefathers ... I will put my law within them, and in their heart I shall write it. And I will become their God, and they themselves will become my people." (Jer. 31:31-33; Heb. 8:6-13) Please note, with the new covenant they would renew their relationship with God as his people; he would become their God again, and they his people again.
• The foretold new covenant became operative on the day of Pentecost, with Jesus as the mediator, when the holy spirit was poured out upon the 120 disciples. (Acts 2:1-42; Heb. 9:13-15, 18-22)
• Isaiah's prophecy was fulfilled on Pentecost: "Before she began to come into labor pains she gave birth. Before birth pangs could come to her, she even gave deliverance to a male child. Who has heard of a thing like this? Who has seen things like these? Will a land be brought forth with labor pains in one day? Or will a nation be born at one time? For Zion has come into labor pains as well as given birth to her sons." (Isaiah 66:7,8) The Jews, who exercised faith in the mediator Christ Jesus, became the nation that was born at one time, in one day. They were thus born again, again becoming God's people while He again became their God. The Jews who rejected the mediator of the new covenant no longer were God's covenant people. (Paul, in his letter to the Galatians, illustrates the two covenants by comparing them to the birth of Hagar's son Ishmael and Sarah's son Isaac. ―See Gal. 4:21-31; Rom. 10:1-4; Heb. 8:13)
Nicodemus, as a teacher of Israel, should have known these prophecies, as Jesus indicated to him. (John 3:9,10) When he went to visit Jesus that night, he had the privilege of being instructed by the mediator of the new covenant. This is what Jesus was impressing on him.
The terms "born again" and "new birth" are not interchangeable. They do not refer to the same thing! Whereas "born again" applied to the Jews in the first century, who were in the old covenant but needed to be brought into the new covenant upon the termination of the old covenant (as discussed above); the "new birth," mentioned by Peter, refers to those of Jesus' disciples who will rule with him in his heavenly kingdom. (1 Peter 1:3-5) This hope of going to heaven is something new, for it did not exist prior to Jesus' time. It remained God's "sacred secret" (mystery) until the time when it began to be fulfilled, starting with the choosing of the twelve apostles and applies only to the ones who are chosen by God, the number of which will eventually total 144,000. (Rev. 14:1, 3; Rom. 16:25,26; 1 Cor. 2:7) Even John the Baptist, the greatest "among those born of women," was not among these, nor did he know anything about this new hope reserved for them. (Matt. 11:11; 25:34-46) All of God's people are "born from water and spirit," but they do not all have the "new birth."