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You Must Be Born Again (Part 3)

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Originally published at https://deeperheights.blog/theology/you-must-be-born-again-part-3/

To be born again is humanly impossible. It is something accomplished by God.

In our previous article, we have established that human credentials and remarkable character cannot earn us entrance into the kingdom of God. Nicodemus was an exemplary Jew. But in John 3:3, Jesus tells him that unless he is “born again” he cannot enter the kingdom of God.

Unfortunately, to be born again is associated with being part of a Born Again church wherein activities are mostly geared towards calling hearers to accept Jesus into their hearts. No. Jesus was not talking about association with a religious group or about participating in religious activities. He was talking about a transformation that can only be accomplished by God. Since to be born again is not about human credentials or character, then it is not something we can initiate or accomplish.

The mystery of being born again

Because Jesus’ statement was difficult to understand, Nicodemus tried to comprehend it rationally, and with indirect reference to his accomplishments and heritage as a Jew.

In John 3:4, Nicodemus was right when he said that no one can be born twice if being born again meant reentering their mother’s womb. Then after Jesus explained further what he meant by being born again, Nicodemus asked how this can be possible (Jn 3:9).

Nicodemus sounded like what he heard was new to him. This must be why Jesus answered with a rhetorical question: “You are Israel’s teacher…and do you not understand these things?” (Jn. 3:10).

Now, let’s not think that Nicodemus was too slow to understand that Jesus was not referring to physical birth. By intellectual standards, Nicodemus is more intelligent and wiser than most of us.

His question is a desire to clarify what Jesus meant. Perhaps, he was interested in the idea of having a new start in this life. If given the chance, anyone who has lived long enough to realize that they made countless stupid and foolish mistakes will grab any opportunity to have their slate reset and wiped clean. In The God who is There: Finding your Place in God’s Story, D.A. Carson comments that Nicodemus wanted to understand what Jesus was promising. It would be easy to understand if Jesus promised material wealth, health, or fame. But to promise a new beginning, a new birth, was beyond reason (Carson 126).

I do not think, however, that Nicodemus had literally no idea of what Jesus was talking about. As Israel’s teacher, Nicodemus must have read Deuteronomy 30:6 where God told the Israelites that He will circumcise their hearts so they “will love the LORD [their] God will all [their] heart and will all [their] soul, and that [they] may live” (ESV). He must have read Ezekiel 36:26 where God promised that He will give His people a “new heart” and a “new spirit,” will take away their “heart of stone” and give them a “heart of flesh.” Nicodemus knew God’s promise: “And I will put my Spirit within you and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules” (Ez.36:27).

So, what was Nicodemus thinking when he asked, “How can this be?”

Let’s look at this verse from its historical and cultural context. In Matthew 19:16, a rich young man who professed to have accomplished all the commandments God gave walked away from Jesus. He wanted to know what else he lacked in order to receive eternal life, but he did not like what the LORD said. Jesus told him to sell what he possessed and give it to the poor so he can have real riches – treasure in heaven. Then Jesus asked him to “…come, follow me” (Mt.19:21). the young man “went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions” (Mt.19:22).

After this, Jesus made a mind-shattering claim: It will be more difficult for a rich person to enter God’s kingdom than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. Matthew records that after hearing what Jesus said, the disciples “were astonished” and asked the LORD, “who then can be saved?” (Mt. 19:25)

This question is loaded.

Like many people today, the Jews during Jesus’ time believed that riches and wealth were signs of God’s blessings. Poverty and hardships were signs of God’s displeasure (Harvey 159). Since the rich young man fulfilled the commandments then God must have blessed him with many possessions. But if, according to Jesus, this devout rich man cannot be saved, even though he looked blessed from heaven because of his obedience to the Torah, then who can enter the kingdom of God?

Nicodemus must have the same thing in mind.

As a Jew, he knew he should fulfill the requirements of the Torah in order to please God. But based on Jesus’ answer, this will not give him entrance into God’s kingdom.

It was a genuine dilemma for the teacher of Israel: If he, a devout Jew, still cannot enter the kingdom of God, then how can this born-again experience happen?

We should also see Nicodemus’ question based on how the Jews perceived the kingdom of God. Amos 9:11, for example, prophesies: “On that day I will raise up the booth of David that is fallen and repair its breaches, and raise up its ruins and rebuild it as in the days of old.”

The Jews believed that this prophecy points to a time when the Messiah comes to restore the physical kingdom of Israel to its former glory. No wonder, in Acts 1:6, the disciples asked Jesus, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?”

The Jews take pride in being chosen as God’s people by virtue of their connection with Abraham (See Jn. 8:39). They believe that they are part of God’s kingdom by default, although they lost their kingdom’s glory because their forefathers and their rulers rejected the Torah and did not heed the prophets (See Nehemiah 8:16-38).

Thus, during the time of Nehemiah, the Jewish families who rebuilt the wall of Jerusalem made a new oath: “to walk in God’s Law that was given by Moses the servant of God, and to observe and do all the commandments of the Lord our Lord and his rules and his statutes.” (Neh.10:29).

As default members of the kingdom of God, they were convinced that all they needed to do in order to see the former glory of Israel was to faithfully fulfill what God required in the Torah. But all of the sudden here comes a poor Rabbi from Nazareth telling the teacher of Israel that he cannot enter God’s kingdom unless he is born again!

All of Nicodemus’ hopes in himself were shattered.

We’ll continue this discussion in the next article. For now, it is important to emphasize that our credentials, character, association, or effort to fulfill the Torah will not give us an entrance into God’s kingdom. Nicodemus, a man who was supposedly blessed by God because of his faithfulness to the Torah, obviously missed what Deuteronomy 30:6 and Ezekiel 36:26 said, that it was God himself who will initiate and accomplish the transformation that He promised to His people.

Before we move to the next article in this series. let me close with a couple of stanzas from a poem I wrote in 2019, titled He Alone Will get the Praise:

Through His words of truth
He wakes a dead soul
By Christ and His work
He makes the sinner whole

God’s calling and salvation
Is all by pure grace
So that throughout eternity
He alone will get the praise.

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