“In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope…” (1 Peter 1:3b)
When I was a child, my class at school memorized John 3. We would recite it each day for a month, and we had it learned by heart in no time.
I remember sympathizing with Nicodemus, because I also struggled with wrapping my mind around what it means to be “born again.” In the late 1970s and early 1980s, being “born again” was a term that was used frequently by preachers and in chapel services. I myself had asked Jesus to forgive my sin and be my personal savior, but yet I didn’t really see that much had changed about my little life. I didn’t see how I was a “new creature” (2 Corinthians 5:17) or how I had been “born again.”
As I have now lived through several decades, I can relate to Nicodemus again but on a different level. Now I have lived — and I have made mistakes. Oh, how many days I wish that I could return to Day Zero and live again! Oh, if only I might do things differently this time! Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be “born again” and to have my slate wiped clean?
As I continue studying through 1 Peter, phrase by phrase, I see that my Father has given me “new birth.” I decided that I really wanted to study out the concept of “new birth” and make sure that I understood what it means.
What I’ve Been Told Being Born Again Is
Because John 3 is Jesus’ famous discussion with Nicodemus about being born again, John 3:16 seems to be the pinnacle of what new birth is, and this verse is often used to explain salvation.
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).
When explaining salvation to someone, for instance, we might say,
“Suppose you were standing before God right now and He asked you, ‘Why should I let you into Heaven?’ What would you say?”
John 3:16 seems to point to a simple answer: “I should be allowed into heaven because I believe in Your Son.”
“Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31).
Basically, the simple answer is that if we believe that God sent His son, Jesus Christ, down to earth to die in my place on the cross, I will be born again. I must:
A – Admit that I am a sinner.
B – Believe that Jesus died on the cross and rose again, and that His blood was shed to pay for my sins.
C – Choose to trust Jesus alone for the forgiveness of my sins.
I have no argument with these points, but I would like to elaborate on them, to be sure that we’re all meaning the same thing by them. First, let’s go through John 3 verse by verse, then we’ll return to the ABCs of Salvation, to make sure we understand them.
Jesus Explains New Birth to Nicodemus
“Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. 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 3:1-2).
First, I want you to note that Nicodemus was a very well-educated man, especially in the Scriptures. As a member of the Sanhedrin, he was one of the 70 rulers of the nation of Israel (Numbers 11:16), a place he could only have achieved if he had evidence of great knowledge of the Tanack, or what we would know as the books of the Old Testament. One of their functions was to identify those who were false messiahs, so they had to have a very good working knowledge of messianic prophecy. You can see that the members of the Sanhedrin had discussed the signs and miracles that Yeshua had done, and that they were at least convinced that he was a “teacher who has come from God,” even if they weren’t quite convinced he was the Messiah.
But Yeshua seemed to change the subject from his own right to be Messiah to Nicodemus’ desire to see the kingdom of God established.
After all, as we learned last week, isn’t that what being a “messiah” or anointed one was all about? The Sanhedrin deeply desired to see Roman rule put down and a rightful king of David’s line replaced to the throne of Israel. Why? Because they wanted the kingdom of God to be established on earth.
This is not a bad desire! Honestly, Yeshua taught his disciples to pray for this as well.
“This, then, is how you should pray:
‘Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven'” (Matthew 6:9-10).
That they were under Roman rule, and really had been under the rule of one empire after another since the Assyrians conquered Israel in 722 B.C. and the Babylonians conquered Judah in 586 B.C., was just an evidence of the judgment of God on their nation because of their sin. (See Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28.) To pray that God’s kingdom would be reestablished was to pray that sin would be dealt with, that God’s commands would be followed again in Israel, and that His blessing would be given to them as evidence.
So this is how Yeshua got right to the heart of Nicodemus’ deepest and most sincere desire to see the coming of the Messiah and the righteous return of God’s kingdom:
“I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again” (John 3:3).
Nicodemus then asks a honest question.
“‘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 where I said I could relate to Nicodemus. I think he’s admitting his personal guilt here. He is saying, “I am part of the reason that God has cursed our nation. I have not fully kept His covenant. I have not fully obeyed His laws. I remember a time when I did not honor my parents in my heart. I remember a time when I looked on a woman lustfully in my heart. I remember a time when I coveted my neighbor’s house. I remember a time when I did not rest as I should on the sabbath day.”
Nicodemus is echoing what we have all felt. If only we had never sinned, then maybe we wouldn’t be reaping the consequences today. If only we could start over! If only we could have our slate wiped clean! If only we could enter into our mother’s womb a second time and be born again! We would do it differently next time….
Yeshua responds with such a merciful and gracious answer, an answer born out of a divine plan of love to rescue us from our own inability to do what is right and just and good.
“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” (John 3:5-6).
Yeshua says, “It is only by the Spirit of God that you can have the power to do what is right.”
And then he chides Nicodemus a little for not knowing this. After all, Nicodemus was a teacher of Israel! Who should know better what prophecy said than he?
Of course, you and I might not know prophecy as well as Nicodemus did, so let’s get a little refresher.
First, they had sinned by transgressing YHWH’s law.
“Again the word of YHWH came to me: ‘Son of man, when the people of Israel were living in their own land, they defiled it by their conduct and their actions. Their conduct was like a woman’s monthly uncleanness in my sight. So I poured out my wrath on them because they had shed blood in the land and because they had defiled it with their idols. I dispersed them among the nations, and they were scattered through the countries; I judged them according to their conduct and their actions'” (Ezekiel 36:16-19).
But YHWH had a plan for restoration.
“For I will take you out of the nations; I will gather you from all the countries and bring you back into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. 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. Then you will live in the land I gave your ancestors; you will be my people, and I will be your God. I will save you from all your uncleanness” (Ezekiel 36:24-29).
YHWH promised to give them “a new heart and put a new spirit” in them. He would give them new birth.
In the very next chapter, YHWH repeated the prophecy in another way, this time by bringing a valley full of dry bones to life again, as a living, breathing army of men.
“Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy to these bones and say to them, “Dry bones, hear the word of YHWH! This is what Sovereign YHWH says to these bones: I will make breath [spirit] enter you, and you will come to life. I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am YHWH.’”
“So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone. I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them.
“Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to it, “This is what Sovereign YHWH says: Come, breath, from the four winds and breathe into these slain, that they may live.”‘ So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet—a vast army.
“Then he said to me: ‘Son of man, these bones are the people of Israel. They say, “Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.” Therefore prophesy and say to them: “This is what Sovereign YHWH says: My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. Then you, my people, will know that I am YHWH, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I YHWH have spoken, and I have done it, declares YHWH”‘” (Ezekiel 37:4-14).
Then for special emphasis, YHWH gave a third prophecy about new birth.
“This is what Sovereign YHWH says: I will take the Israelites out of the nations where they have gone. I will gather them from all around and bring them back into their own land. I will make them one nation in the land, on the mountains of Israel. There will be one king over all of them and they will never again be two nations or be divided into two kingdoms. They will no longer defile themselves with their idols and vile images or with any of their offenses, for I will save them from all their sinful backsliding, and I will cleanse them. They will be my people, and I will be their God.
“My servant David will be king over them, and they will all have one shepherd. They will follow my laws and be careful to keep my decrees. They will live in the land I gave to my servant Jacob, the land where your ancestors lived. They and their children and their children’s children will live there forever, and David my servant will be their prince forever. I will make a covenant of peace with them; it will be an everlasting covenant. I will establish them and increase their numbers, and I will put my sanctuary among them forever. My dwelling place will be with them; I will be their God, and they will be my people. Then the nations will know that I the Lord make Israel holy, when my sanctuary is among them forever” (Ezekiel 37:21-28).
In fact, for those on the Sanhedrin who only recognized the first five books of the Bible (the Torah) and would not have accepted Ezekiel’s triple prophecy, Yeshua knew that they would know the prophecy from the book of Deuteronomy.
“When all these blessings and curses I have set before you come on you and you take them to heart wherever YHWH your God disperses you among the nations, and when you and your children return to YHWH your God and obey him with all your heart and with all your soul according to everything I command you today, then YHWH your God will restore your fortunes and have compassion on you and gather you again from all the nations where he scattered you. Even if you have been banished to the most distant land under the heavens, from there YHWH your God will gather you and bring you back. He will bring you to the land that belonged to your ancestors, and you will take possession of it. He will make you more prosperous and numerous than your ancestors. YHWH your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live.”
Note: When was circumcision performed? On babies, when they were only 8 days old! This passage is saying that they would be born again!
“YHWH your God will put all these curses on your enemies who hate and persecute you. You will again obey YHWH and follow all his commands I am giving you today. Then YHWH your God will make you most prosperous in all the work of your hands and in the fruit of your womb, the young of your livestock and the crops of your land. YHWH will again delight in you and make you prosperous, just as he delighted in your ancestors, if you obey YHWH your God and keep his commands and decrees that are written in this Book of the Law and turn to YHWH your God with all your heart and with all your soul” (Deuteronomy 30:1-10).
Nicodemus wondered if it could ever be possible to have this wonderful new birth. It seemed too good to be true, and he certainly saw no evidence of it in his current culture.
“‘How can this be?’ Nicodemus asked” (John 3:9).
Yeshua went on to explain exactly how it would happen (and we’re going to talk about it next week, as we look at the resurrection of Yeshua the Messiah from the dead).
But Yeshua also seemed amazed the Nicodemus didn’t already know the answer.
“‘You are Israel’s teacher,’ said Jesus, ‘and do you not understand these things?'” (John 3:10).
So let’s take a look ourselves at the prophecies in Deuteronomy and Ezekiel. Maybe we can see what Nicodemus should have seen?
1. YHWH would cleanse them from their impurities and their idols.
In order to be “born again,” the people would first need to see and acknowledge their sin. They would need to do more than just see it, however; they would need to repent and to be cleansed from it.
We do see that there was a nationwide resurgence of repentance going on in Israel at the time of Nicodemus.
“The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, as it is written in Isaiah the prophet:
‘I will send my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way’—
‘a voice of one calling in the wilderness,
“Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.”‘”
And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River (Mark 1:1-5).
In Leviticus, we read that new birth always starts with humble repentance from sin.
“But if they will confess their sins and the sins of their ancestors—their unfaithfulness and their hostility toward me, which made me hostile toward them so that I sent them into the land of their enemies—then when their uncircumcised hearts are humbled and they pay for their sin, I will remember my covenant with Jacob and my covenant with Isaac and my covenant with Abraham, and I will remember the land” (Leviticus 26:40-42).
Repentance means a “change of mind,” but of course, we realize that a change of mind obviously means a change of direction. We don’t just admit we are sinners and then continue in that sin, or else we wouldn’t really be repenting at all. We would be making a mockery of our sin instead.
This is the same thing Peter preached in the book of Acts:
“Peter replied, ‘Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit'” (Acts 2:38).
“Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord, and that he may send the Messiah, who has been appointed for you—even Jesus. Heaven must receive him until the time comes for God to restore everything, as he promised long ago through his holy prophets” (Acts 3:19-21).
And then Paul said,
“First to those in Damascus, then to those in Jerusalem and in all Judea, and to the Gentiles also, I preached that they should repent and turn to God and prove their repentance by their deeds” (Acts 26:20).
And of course, this was the only message Yeshua Himself preached and asked his disciples to preach.
“From that time on Jesus began to preach, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near'” (Matthew 4:17).
“‘The time has come,’ [Yesuha] said. ‘The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!'” (Mark 1:15).
“Then Jesus went around teaching from village to village. Calling the Twelve to him, he began to send them out two by two… They went out and preached that people should repent” (Mark 6:6-7, 12).
2. YHWH would give them His Spirit.
Peter could certainly give testimony to the mighty moving of the Spirit of God on the Feast of Shavuot (“Pentecost”), as we read in Acts 2. And Yeshua told Nicodemus that only the Spirit could give a new birth (John 3:5-8).
But what did the prophets say would be the sign that the Spirit of God had given them new birth?
“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).
When we are born again, we have a soft, tender heart. His Spirit gives us life, and He moves us to desire to obey Him.
“YHWH your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live… You will again obey YHWH and follow all his commands I am giving you today” (Deuteronom6 30:6, 8).
Without His Spirit, we do have the ability to keep His decrees and laws.
“Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, ‘Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?’ Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, ‘Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?’ No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it” (Deuteronomy 30:11-14).
We just don’t have the will to obey. We’d rather follow our own rules and do what is right in our own eyes.
“But if your heart turns away and you are not obedient, and if you are drawn away to bow down to other gods and worship them, I declare to you this day that you will certainly be destroyed” (Deuteronomy 30:17-18).
And this where we needed a Messiah who was not only a king but was also willing to lay down His life as a substitute in our place. Our hearts turned away, and we were not obedient. We were then under the law of sin and death, deserving of the death penalty according to the covenant.
Our King became the Lamb of God, who took away the sin of the world. He was righteous, perfectly obedient to the Torah and Covenant of God. He did not deserve any penalty or punishment. However, He took our punishment, in our place.
The problem is that we seek to establish our own righteousness. We reject the Torah, the laws and commands set up by God, and we manufacture our own rules. We do what is right in our own eyes, rejecting God’s definitions of right and wrong.
- He says, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3). We say, “We can worship God in heaven as well as the pagan deities of the nations around us. We speak good into the universe, tell our friends to have good luck, urge women to find their inner goddesses, and teach pagan mythology to our children. We will do whatever is right in our own eyes.”
- He says, “You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below“ (Exodus 20:4-6). We say, “Our churches have statues of Jesus and the saints, and our homes have images of the sun, moon, stars, and creatures God has made. We will do whatever is right in our own eyes.”
- He says, “You shall not misuse the name of YHWH your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name“ (Exodus 20:7). We say, “We will change the name of God to the name of ‘Baal’ or ‘LORD,’ or we will simply refuse to speak His name at all. We will do whatever is right in our own eyes.”
- He says, “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God“ (Exodus 20:8-11). We say, “We will either refuse to take a day of rest at all, or we will change his seventh-day sabbath to a first-day sabbath, even though Scripture never tells us to do this. We will do whatever is right in our own eyes.”
- He says, “Honor your father and your mother“ (Exodus 20:12). We say, “We will allow our children to disobey us, and we will not require them to honor us, nor will we show honor to our elders. We will do whatever is right in our own eyes.”
- He says, “You shall not murder“ (Exodus 20:13). We say, “We will refuse to be fruitful and multiply and replenish the earth. We have the right to our own bodies, and we may kill our children if we want. We will do whatever is right in our own eyes.”
- He says, “You shall not commit adultery“ (Exodus 20:14). We say, “We will marry whomever we choose, or maybe we will refuse to marry at all. We will divorce if we so choose, and we will do whatever is right in our own eyes.”
- He says, “You shall not steal“ (Exodus 20:15). We say, “Our possessions are our own, and we will not share with the poor or the widows. We will not support YHWH’s ministers with our offerings, nor will we give the firstfruits of our increase back to YHWH. We will do whatever is right in our own eyes.”
- He says, “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor“ (Exodus 20:16). We say, “We will slander our neighbors and stir discord among the brethren. We will not be just and fair in all we do, because it might cause us personal pain at times. We will do whatever is right in our own eyes.”
- He says, “You shall not covet“ (Exodus 20:17). We say, “We will work and worry for possessions and things, striving for riches no matter who is in our way. We will do whatever is right in our own eyes.”
Again, if we were to carefully obey God’s laws, we would be righteous. Scripture says so!
“And if we are careful to obey all this law before the LORD our God, as he has commanded us, that will be our righteousness” (Deuteronomy 6:25).
We need to be careful to recognize that the problem is not with God’s laws, because that is incorrect theology. The problem is that we refuse to obey.
“Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin” (Romans 3:19-20).
There is no person who can be declared righteous because he was so good that he perfectly obeyed God’s law — except for our Messiah Yeshua!
We need His Spirit to rest upon us, to give us a new birth, a second chance, a clean slate, a pure record.
3. YHWH’s Spirit would give new life.
When we have His Spirit, however, we show evidence of a changed life. We can’t help it! We’re a newborn baby, and we’re alive, and we just act like a new person. It’s a miracle!
“Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace. The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God.
You, however, are not in the realm of the flesh but are in the realm of the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to Christ. But if Christ is in you, then even though your body is subject to death because of sin, the Spirit gives life because of righteousness. And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you” (Romans 8:5-11).
Yes, when we are a new creation, we “live in accordance with the Spirit” and we set our minds on what the Spirit desires.
What does the Spirit desire? Again, Nicodemus would have known the answer from the prophets.
“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).
The Scriptures clearly say that the evidence of new birth is a change in behavior. Specifically, we will now obey the commands of YHWH as laid out in His covenant.
“I will save them from all their sinful backsliding, and I will cleanse them. They will be my people, and I will be their God. My servant David will be king over them, and they will all have one shepherd. They will follow my laws and be careful to keep my decrees” (Ezekiel 37:23-24).
“YHWH your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live… You will again obey YHWH and follow all his commands I am giving you today” (Deuteronomy 30:6-8).
So is this what Yeshua taught as well? Did He teach that if we obeyed His commands, it would be an evidence that we had been “born again”?
Our pastor recently reminded us of a parable of Yeshua.
“The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his servants to those who had been invited to the banquet to tell them to come, but they refused to come…
“Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding banquet is ready, but those I invited did not deserve to come. So go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.’ So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, the bad as well as the good, and the wedding hall was filled with guests.
“But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes. He asked, ‘How did you get in here without wedding clothes, friend?’ The man was speechless.
“Then the king told the attendants, ‘Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth'” (Matthew 22:2-3, 8-13).
Why was the man not allowed to enter the kingdom? Because he wasn’t dressed in his wedding clothes. Scripture clearly defines what the wedding clothes are:
“For the wedding of the Lamb has come,
and his bride has made herself ready.
Fine linen, bright and clean,
was given her to wear.
(Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of God’s holy people)” (Revelation 19:7-8).
Scripture is clear. Those who have been born again act righteously.
And again, Yeshua said,
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!'”
“Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash” (Matthew 7:21-23)
The book of 1 John seems to say it most clearly.
“Everyone who believes that Yeshua is the Messiah is born of God, and everyone who loves the father loves his child as well. This is how we know that we love the children of God: by loving God and carrying out his commands. In fact, this is love for God: to keep his commands. And his commands are not burdensome, for everyone born of God overcomes the world” (1 John 5:1-4).
I think there are bigger issues at stake in “being born again” than just my own personal salvation from hell when I die. To be born again is not “mental belief” that Jesus is the Messiah. It is belief, a change of mind, but it is always evidenced by a change in behavior.
In addition, Yeshua and Nicodemus were talking about the birth of a nation. We are talking about the reestablishment of the kingdom of God, literally, as a dominion of His here on earth in the physical land of Israel, with Jerusalem as His capitol and Yeshua as His anointed King on the throne.
We personally need to acknowledge that if we are truly “born again,” we will suddenly find within ourselves a deep desire to please our Father and to obey Him and to follow the laws of His kingdom. This is a supernatural desire, placed there by the Spirit within us. It is so miraculous that it looks as if we are a new person, born again as a brand-new creature.
And as John concludes, “This is how we know” that we have been born of God: We love Him and we carry out His commands.
This is the good news of the kingdom that was preached by our Messiah and by His apostles.
Have you received the good news? Have you been born again?