“I tell you the truth, no-one can see the Kingdom of God unless he is born again.” (verse 3)
Jesus says no less than three times (verses 3,5,7) that it is essential to be “reborn”. Without being born again, nobody can enter God’s Kingdom or have eternal life. The phrase “born again” has become a cliché that many Christians dislike; but all genuine Christians are born again, whether they use the term or not!
Born ‘from above’ (verse 3)
The Greek word translated ‘again’ can also mean ‘from above’ – and the ambiguity is probably deliberate. For no amount of human effort can achieve the new birth; it is something that only God can do for us (John 1:12,13). It is in fact the work of the Holy Spirit (verse 6), and it is normally brought about through the preaching of the gospel (I Peter 1:23-25).
Repentance and faith (verse 5)
“I tell you the truth, no-one can enter the Kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit.”
Christians have understood these words in several different ways. This is my understanding: that ‘water’ refers to baptism. Elsewhere, Jesus told people to “repent and believe the good news” (Mark 1:15) in order to enter the Kingdom of God. Water baptism is the outward sign of repentance and commitment (the ceremony achieves nothing on its own!); in the New Testament all those who believe are immediately baptised, and “whoever believes and is baptised will be saved.” (Mark 16:16) And those who repent and commit themselves to following Jesus will receive the Holy Spirit to give them new birth. As Peter preached on the day of Pentecost: “Repent and be baptised… 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)
A new creation
The new birth is a complete inner transformation – a new creation (II Corinthians 5:17). It is well described by Ezekiel: “I will cleanse you from all your impurities… I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you… I will put My Spirit in you.” (Ezekiel 36:25-28) Again, this is something that we cannot do for ourselves. The Holy Spirit cleanses us from our sins (I Corinthians 6:11; Titus 3:5,6) and changes our hearts; obedience to God is no longer something imposed on us from the outside (as law) but arises from the prompting of the Spirit within us (Romans 8:9,10).
The beginning of a new life
Being born (or even being born again) is not an end in itself; it is the beginning of a new life! “We were buried with Christ Jesus through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead… we too may live a new life.” (Romans 6:4)
People who are born again change. They do not “continue to sin” (I John 3:9,5:18) – meaning that they are no longer comfortable with sin, but strive to avoid it. Instead, they “do what is right” (I John 2:29). They love other Christians selflessly (I John 4:7). Love and obedience are the outward evidence of the inward transformation that is new birth.
We know what God has in store for us (I Peter 1:3,4) – a living hope, a heavenly inheritance, secured for us by the resurrection of Christ. And we have a new power within us that enables us to rise above the rest of the world (I John 5:1-5).