What does it mean to be “born again”? How can you know if you are? Is there any clear example in the Word of what it means, or any practical proof that it has happened?
Today the term is often used as a cliché, with little real meaning, but when it was first spoken, it was a shocking concept. The night that Nicodemus visited Jesus secretly, he was puzzled to hear the Master’s words, “He understood what being born meant, but his mind reeled at the thought of how it could happen again. “He understood what being born meant, but his mind reeled at the thought of how it could happen again. “How can a man be born when he is old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born!”1
The response of Nicodemus reveals two important parts to the idea of birth:
It was clear to Nicodemus that our Master was talking about starting life all over again, and not just about having a religious experience, or adding a new dimension to his existence. He understood the natural process of birth — that babies come out of the comfortable, familiar realm of the womb where their life is sustained by their attachment to the placenta, and into another, unfamiliar realm. It was clear that the umbilical cord had to be cut and they had to take in the breath of life and be sustained in an entirely different way. But how could that process apply to him, a prominent Pharisee?
It didn’t become any clearer when our Savior told him, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the Kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit.”2 What did water and the Spirit have to do with being born again? What did being born again have to do with entering the Kingdom of God? And how was he supposed to do these things? Nicodemus could not figure it out, nor can most people today.
Fortunately for us, we have a clear record of what happened when people first began to be “born of the Spirit.” The Spirit of God was sent to earth on the day of Pentecost, and came upon Peter and the other disciples to preach the gospel boldly. “Repent,” said Peter, “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.”3 And when the listeners obeyed these words (and the many other words 4 that Peter spoke) the results were as follows:
Many Christians today realize that our Savior was talking about baptism when He said that entering His Kingdom required being born of water. But what does it really mean to be “born” of “the Spirit”?
It is just like a baby coming out of the “world” of the womb, where he was sustained by the placenta, and into “another world,” where he is sustained by breathing air and nursing. In order to be born of the Spirit one must come out of the realm where he is sustained by eagerly seeking for his own food, drink, and clothing12 — earning his own bread by the sweat of his brow, under the curse that the fall of man brought upon the earth.13 This is the realm of self-concern that all who are born of the flesh dwell in, a society where self reigns supreme.
Those who are born of the Spirit leave that old realm and enter a new realm, where they are sustained by seeking first the Kingdom of God and His justice.14 Instead of looking out for their own interests, they look out for the interests of others.15 When they do this, all the things they each need are supplied. This is the realm or society where love reigns supreme. It could be called the Kingdom of love, or the Kingdom of God, because God is love16
In the first century, being born again was a practical experience. When the first disciples received the Spirit, they physically came out of one realm into another, just like a baby being born. They knew they had been born again because they had left the kingdom of this world, and entered a physical kingdom where the Son of God was actually obeyed. This new environment was a community of believers who were devoted to doing all the things the apostles taught (which were the very same things that the Savior had commanded the apostles to do — the commands He had received from His Father in heaven).17
Prominent among the things they obeyed were:
Obedience to these commands severed the disciples from their old existence in a world that is passing away, just like a baby’s umbilical cord is cut to separate it from the dead and useless placenta.22 Forsaking their possessions and their intimate ties to those who refused to follow the Savior freed the disciples to live the new life of the Spirit.
Then, as now, disciples had to be born out of one physical kingdom, ruled by the spiritual prince of this world, who blinds the minds of the unbelieving,23 and into another physical kingdom, ruled by the Spirit of God. The good news is that now, just as in the first century, there are places on the earth where that new life of the Spirit is being lived. There are places where you can know that you have passed out of death and into life, because you daily live a life of loving your brothers. This passing from one Kingdom into another can only be accomplished by putting your complete trust in the Son of God and obeying His commands.
His words are Spirit and they are life.