On Knowing God: What Does “Born Again” Mean?

ADAM AND EVE ENTERED LIFE innocent and pure. Their relationship with God came without a mediator. They talked directly with God. As nothing hindered their fellowship with him, there was no need for a mediator. That changed when they chose to do things their own way. They listened to the serpent and ignored the Creator. Not only did it bring separation and hostility, it activated the death principle in their lives. Each had a body that was dying and a spirit under the sentence of death. Adam and Eve were in a predicament they could not dig themselves out of. They were hopeless.

That is a bleak picture, isn’t it? If that were the end of the story, we would not be here to talk about it. Our existence today is the assurance that the Creator has done something to restore mankind’s relationship with him. Had God not intervened, the human race would already have died out. As you have seen from Genesis 3:21, when Adam and Eve broke their covenant with God and entered into the death life, God provided a covering of animal skins for them. A life was taken and blood was shed to make atonement for the couple. That was a temporary provision by the Creator until the legally binding sacrifice was offered.

That brings us to the subject of this chapter—what it means to be “born again.” Since it was God’s design from the beginning to enter into relationship with mankind, we know a way of reconciliation has been opened. Our intention here is to see how we are reconciled with God. Since the first chapters of Genesis show us the basis for this relationship, we want to see how God’s plan takes form. How does God bring reconciliation and relationship together?

The Original Plan
We have seen God’s character through creation. God is the source of light and life. And he also is Light and Life. The generally accepted time frame for the “Big Bang” and other creative acts, support God’s titles in Scripture. He is the everlasting God, the Creator of heaven and earth, the Ruler of God’s creation, the Alpha and Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End; the Morning Star, etc. These names are just samples from one book in the Bible, Revelation. God is not the “unmoved Mover” of Greek philosophy. His plan for relationship and fellowship with humankind are purposeful and personal. It came from out of eternity.

How do we know that relationship was the original plan? Let’s check. As you begin reading the first chapter of Genesis, creation is going along rather smoothly. At the end of nearly all creative periods, God reviewed the results and we read, “and God saw that it was good.” (1:4, 10, 12, 18, 22, 25, 31). At God’s verbal ordering of events, they take place. The spoken words produced results. We are not told how they take place or how long it took to take place. However, we know that at the completion of each stage, God was pleased.

During the sixth age or time period, God brought land animals into the picture. After creating numerous kinds and species of animals to populate the earth, we are again told that God saw that it was good (1:25). Right at that point, a completely new direction in creation is introduced. Within the Godhead, there is conversation: Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air . . .” etc. (1:26). After this discussion we read, “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” (1:27).

These verses reveal two essential truths to us. First, whatever process God used to create the heavens and the earth, and the land and sea, and the fish and birds and the animals was not used when it came to humans. Second, there is a likeness to God himself in mankind that was not given to the rest of creation. God’s plan for mankind was far different from and superior to anything else he had made. Between mankind and the animal kingdom an impassible chasm exists, placed there by God’s creative design.

Here is what we are saying: In terms of purpose and design, God put a gap between humans and the rest of creation. As we’ve seen, only humans are able to talk with God and share in his understanding of love and justice. The wonderful thing is that God wants to talk to us, to fellowship with us and to have an eternal relationship with us. No other part of his creation was given that ability or offered that invitation.

That gap is further shown by the progress of human civilization. In just the past century, look at what humankind has accomplished. The buggy has been replaced by the automobile and airplane; computers, cell phones, fax machines, DVD television and other devices have made worldwide communication immediate. We talked about music and the instruments for musical performances. And we haven’t even gotten to dishwashers, electronic toys or medicine. These are further indicators that God’s ultimate plan for the human race exceeds our ability to imagine or anticipate. Because of God’s design of mankind in creation, we are in a class by ourselves. All this was on the table when Adam and Eve entered into the Garden of Eden. Let’s pick it up from there.

The Sin Problem
Adam and Eve had an agreement with God when they took possession of Eden. Under the terms of that agreement, there was fellowship, relationship and freedom. When we read that God said, “Let us make man in our image,” it meant God created mankind to share in his character—to be holy and loving. Also, Adam and Eve were free moral agents—they could choose right from wrong. Part of that was freedom to break the agreement and end their relationship with God. God’s desire was for the first couple to keep their agreement with him and stay in fellowship with him. They chose a different course.

The word “sin” came into existence when they broke their covenant with God: They said “No!” to God. Sin is any activity or action that is outside God’s plan or will. We may argue with God about his authority to set up that kind of an agreement, but it is his world and Adam and Eve were part of that world. To understand what happened, let’s take a look at what was going on before Adam and Eve broke their commitment to holy living and obedience.

God and Adam began with a working relationship. You remember that at God’s request, Adam gave names to all the animals. During that process, Adam was aware that nothing among the animals could be his mate. Adam needed human companionship. To make that possible, God again asked for Adam’s cooperation. He put Adam to sleep, removed a rib and created Eve. She, like Adam, was a living soul created in the image of God. The two happily entered the Garden of Eden to fulfill God’s plan for them and the garden. What got in the way of their commitment? Sin.

Their disobedience to God’s command was sin. Their sin broke the agreement with God, separated them from fellowship with God, and got them evicted from Eden. Death entered their lives at all levels—spiritual, physical and relational. But death was not the will of God for them. His will was that they would live forever in fellowship with him. To repair the damage that had been done, God prepared a way of escape for Adam and Eve. The earliest picture of that way is seen when God covered the first couple with the skins of an animal—blood had been shed.

In God’s world order, “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.” (Hebrews 9:22). God passed over the sin of Adam and Eve and of all people in Old Testament times who presented a sacrifice of blood. We understand that these animal sacrifices were insufficient to bring ultimate redemption. It was, however, a temporary way to provide a bridge until the perfect sacrifice was presented. So the sacrifice of animals in the Garden of Eden for clothing was an acceptable, albeit short-term solution to the sin problem.

Jesus, The Perfect Sacrifice
Everyone must deal with the “sin problem” before anything can happen to open fellowship with God. We understand this from these chapters of Genesis. Sin broke their fellowship and relationship with God. We are all born into that broken status because we carry the genetic markers of our parents. Cain, the first son of Adam, showed to all that sin is a contagious disease—children inherit it from their parents. It’s part of our DNA. It is in that condition that we are the children of Adam—the first Adam. The moment we are born, you see, means we will also die. Birth guarantees death because of our sinful nature. That is the nature we inherited from our first parents—Adam and Eve.

A reasonable question at this point would be, “If an animal sacrifice ‘covered’ the sin of people at an earlier time, why not now?” Every time there was sin to atone for, an animal was sacrificed. Understand that over hundreds of years, there were thousands if not millions of animals killed to cover over people’s sins. That the ceremony was repeated time and again showed it was an insufficient sacrifice. One sacrifice didn’t do the job. You see, the sin offerings of the Old Testament economy were not ceremonies of remembrance; they were ceremonies of immediacy. There was immediate sin that had to be covered. The perfect sacrifice had not yet been provided for humanity.

To cover all sin for all time the sacrifice would have to be perfect. And if perfect, it would have to be offered only once. The repetition in Old Testament times would be unnecessary. The perfect sacrifice also had to be an infinite sacrifice. The world has been around for a long time and people are still sinning. The perfect sacrifice has much to cover: All sin for all people for all time. Before looking at the grace of God, let’s make the connection between the Garden of Eden and Jesus.

Remember the scene in Eden after the sin and break in relationship, God made a promise to all humanity, including us. “So the Lord God said to the serpent, ‘Because you have done this (deceived and led Adam and Eve into sin) . . .’

“ ‘. . . I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.’ ” (Genesis 3:15). God was announcing that a day of reckoning would come. Yes, Satan had won this battle, but the war would be won by the offspring of the woman. At some point in history, a child—a member of the human race—would come to carry the war to a victorious conclusion. This person would have would have to be more than just human. We have already concluded that mankind does not have the ability to conquer sin and death. If that were possible, the first Adam could have done it. That introduces us to the perfect and infinite sacrifice—the Second Adam.

Jesus, The Infinite Sacrifice
What do we mean by saying only an infinite sacrifice could cover all the sin of the world? To be infinite, the sacrifice had to be eternal in being and perfect in righteousness. Thus, nothing created qualified. In truth, the sacrifice had to be God himself. God planed and provided for restoring the human race to relationship.
So, God the Father asks and assigns the Son, Jesus, to offer himself as a sacrifice to redeem all mankind from Adam to the end of this age. This perfect sacrifice could reach back in time and forward into eternity with equal authority. “But now he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself. Just as man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people.” (Hebrews 9:26-28). For a more complete explanation, you can read Hebrews chapter 9.

We understand the slain animal in Eden did not take away the sin of Adam and Eve. God accepted the temporary solution (the blood of an animal) because he knew that one day, Jesus would offer himself as the perfect, infinite sacrifice. Those who look to God for forgiveness are reconciled, then and now because of Jesus’ sacrifice. Adam brought sin and separation into the world. Jesus brought redemption and reconciliation.
In talking about Adam earlier, we spoke about the “second” or “last” Adam. The Apostle Paul explained it like this: “For if, by the trespass of the one man (Adam), death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.” (Romans 5:17). A couple of verses later, Paul expands on this. “For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.” (5:19).

If you want, we can shorten these verses like this: The first Adam (Adam) sinned and passed that sinful nature to all mankind. God’s provision in Jesus Christ (the second Adam) is to offer a covering of righteousness as a free gift. That restores the broken relationship with God. Now you may think, “I don’t understand how that works.” That’s OK—I don’t either. It’s like we said earlier—love, electricity, gravity, etc., are forces we don’t understand, but we accept them and live with them. At a far deeper level and meaning, we are talking about the grace of God.

The Grace Of God
Taking a look at “grace” will help us get the meaning of God’s gift. Grace is receiving mercy, or a gift of something that we don’t deserve. Let me tell you a simple story to explain grace. This took place when I was in fourth grade. My teacher, Miss Mikels, had rules about behavior that included throwing “spitballs.” I think everyone knows that is paper chewed up and formed into a small ball. Anyway, on one occasion she left the classroom for a couple of minutes and returned unexpectedly—just in time to see me throw one of the “outlawed” spitballs. Her first words were, “Donny, you know the rules. Come with me.” She grabbed her ruler and took my arm. As we walked out of the classroom, the other kids snickered gleefully. I had gotten caught and they hadn’t!

Once in the adjoining room, Miss Mikels whispered, “Since the other kids were laughing, I’m not going to spank you. However, you cannot tell the other children, OK?” “You bet,” I quickly agreed. She then took the ruler and hit a basin that was in the room. It sounded tinny. She whispered, “That doesn’t sound real enough.” So she took the ruler and hit the side of her hip a number of times with the ruler. The sound was heard clearly in the next room by the other fourth graders. We returned to the classroom. I was wearing the very best “sad face” I could muster. I knew what just took place is not what should have happened.

That is a story about grace. I deserved to be punished—I had broken the classroom rules. But my teacher offered me grace. She withheld the penalty I had earned. And, in a further example of God’s grace, she took the punishment I deserved. To complete the story, from that day forward, I was a model student in her classroom. As I have told others, after that incident I would have walked across redhot coals barefoot for Miss Mikels! She was a major influence in my very young life. Her actions that day were life changing for me. It let me know she loved me beyond her rules and the opinions of others. I was important to her.

Now let’s take that story of grace and enlarge and multiply it by hundreds of millions. It is because of God’s love for us that he offers us his grace—his unmerited favor. God’s offer of grace is open to every person around the globe who is a sinner. That’s all of us. He tells us that his plan is for everyone to accept and come into his grace in repentance. He is keeping that door open even now so you can enter if you haven’t already. (II Peter 3:8, 9).

God’s grace is the only way the death life can be counteracted. Your situation is hopeless if you are separated from the Creator, the author and giver of life. Without new life coming to us from an outside source, we are stuck with death. To get a clearer picture, let’s see how Jesus explained the gift of grace to a religious man of his times.

A Man Who Wanted To See Jesus
During his lifetime, many people made extraordinary effort to see Jesus. There were the four friends of the paralytic man in Capernaum who carried their friend to Jesus to be healed. When they arrived, so many others were ahead of them they couldn’t enter the house. So they tore open the roof and lowered the man with ropes right in front of Jesus. He was healed. (Mark 2:1-4). A woman suffering from a longterm disease silently reached out to touch a part of Jesus’ garment in the hopes of being healed, and she was. (Mark 5:24-29). Jesus was leaving the city of Jericho on his way to Jerusalem. Two blind men heard that he was passing by and they began to shout, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on us!” Even though they were ordered by the crowd to be quiet, they weren’t. They were healed. (Matthew 20:29-34).

The list of those wanting to see Jesus is a long one. Let’s spend some time with one man who didn’t come to Jesus for healing or advice. He didn’t have those needs. He thought he had it “together” as we would say. After all, he was a leading teacher in Israel and a member of the Sanhedrin, the official body of religious governance in Israel. Nicodemus was a person with status and clout. You can read about him in John’s gospel, chapter 3.

Some have said that Nicodemus was cowardly—he came to talk with Jesus at night so others wouldn’t see him. That may be, but it doesn’t match with the account of him and Joseph of Arimathea. After Jesus’ brutal flogging and crucifixion and death, these two men of standing went to Pilate, the Roman Governor, to claim the body of Jesus for a proper burial. That is not cowardice. (John 19:38-42). I think that Nicodemus came to Jesus at night because he wanted to talk to Jesus privately. He didn’t want crowds of people or even the twelve disciples standing around while he asked Jesus about the kingdom of God.

Jesus had been open about his view of spiritual conditions in Israel. He joined with John the Baptist in calling for people to repent. Why? Because “the kingdom of heaven is near.” By his touch, people were being healed, demons were cast out and thousands were fed with just a few loaves and fish. Crowds were beginning to follow him. The gossiping of the Gospel had begun and people were making decisions about Jesus. Somebody from the official ruling body of Israel had to have a quiet talk with Jesus to find out what was going on. As a religious teacher, he wanted to hear the latest word from God. And the evening hours were perfect for that kind of confidential conversation. That was the scene.

Yet, as we look at what Nicodemus represented we can guess at the agenda he had in coming to Jesus. He wanted a continuation of the religious life of Israel with the present establishment in charge. He wanted to make sure Jesus is not representing anything radical like one of the Old Testament prophets or even, perhaps, John the Baptist. At this point, Nicodemus had no idea that Jesus was soon to turn the religious world of Jerusalem upside down.

Nicodemus, A Teacher Of Israel
Nicodemus opened the conversation: “We know you have come from God—the miracles you are doing are convincing.” This is another way of saying, “We in the Sanhedrin have not been asleep—we’ve had our eyes on you. We’re impressed. You must be in contact with God with all those miracles we’re hearing about. We would like to know what the latest word from God is.”

Jesus replied, “If you want to see the Kingdom of God, you have to be born again.” With that one statement Jesus was announcing to Nicodemus, “The old order of things is through.” That wasn’t just radical—it was revolutionary. What was coming to an end was the system of animal sacrifices, the temple worship, the priesthood, the earthly Holy of Holies, the annual feasts and celebrations, the Sabbath and its regulations, and the center of religious activity. That is what “born again” implied!

Everything that Nicodemus was tied to became worthless with “born again.” All that he had placed his hopes on, his career on, his standing in the community on came to an end with “born again.” Born again signaled that being born into the Jewish race didn’t count any more. Being brought up as a devout Pharisee, knowing the Law backwards and forwards didn’t matter any more. Born again meant there had to be a completely new beginning from scratch. The old rules were no longer applicable; a new life was required. It’s no wonder Nicodemus said, “I don’t understand what you’re talking about, Jesus! What in the world is “born again”?

I believe that Nicodemus truly respected Jesus. He was convinced Jesus had something unique going with God. So when Jesus said he couldn’t even get in the door without being born again, it must have torn at the soul of Nicodemus. He could not imagine that a belief system that went back centuries in time could come to an end so quickly with just two words, born again. “Perhaps I didn’t understand,” he thought. So he tried to regain his footing by bringing up the possibility of reentering your mother’s womb.

Jesus again turns Nicodemus around by speaking of being born differently than the physical birth he was thinking about. For Nicodemus, this conversation has gone from assurance of where he stood to scratching his head and saying, “How can anything like this be possible, Jesus? I’m just not getting it at all.”

What Does “Born Again” Mean?
While Nicodemus was looking at “born again” as the end of things for him, Jesus was set to have him see it as the beginning of everything. Jesus takes time to walk him through the process. He tells Nicodemus “you can’t get spirit out of flesh” (verse 6). Our birth from the stock of Adam, Jesus said, could only bring us physical life—it was powerless to give spiritual life. We had nothing to do with our physical birth. It was the will and actions of our parents that brought that about. However, for spiritual life God requires our participation—he can’t do it alone.

That takes us back to the “sin problem.” And what was that? It was that our first parents decided not to obey the Creator, but to make a trail of their own. That trail, of course, led them out of the Garden of Eden and away from God’s presence. Here with Nicodemus, Jesus is saying, “I want to bring you back into conversation and relationship with me. I want to give you the Spirit—the life-giving member of the Trinity. And I need your help.”

So Jesus tells Nicodemus, “Unless you are born of water and the Spirit” you can’t enter the kingdom of God. That may be unclear to us today, but it wasn’t to a man like Nicodemus. John the Baptist had clearly defined for Israel what being “born of water” was about. His was the voice of one crying in the desert, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.” And what did John the Baptist require to prepare for the coming Messiah? Repent and be baptized. Yes, Nicodemus was a man who would know about John’s baptism. He understood what it meant to be born of water.

The need for repentance is where we begin to connect the first Adam with the second or last Adam, Jesus. The first couple, Adam and Eve, supplied the DNA for the entire human race. To be born human is to say we are descendants of Adam and Eve. As a race, we bear the characteristics of our first parents—the physical, including psychological, emotional, mental, etc. We also have the spiritual characteristics—being estranged from our Creator and in rebellion against his rule. There is nothing the first Adam carried that could bring us spiritual life. It’s just not in the DNA of the human race. The last Adam, however, comes along as the perfect, eternal sacrifice who can bring spiritual life. As Jesus calls it here in John 3, it is “eternal life.”

Jesus is talking about “being born of water and the Spirit” as the second birth or being born again. Our parents are responsible for our first birth. We were born into their family. When they gave us physical life, they also gave us our death certificate. As certain as we are alive, we will all die. That leads into what Jesus was telling Nicodemus.

Your birth, Nicodemus, into this world came without your consent. Your second birth, being born again, must have your consent and participation. I can give you the life-giving Spirit when you acknowledge your rebellion and say, “I give up my rebellion—I want to be led by God.” It’s the same for us. Our being born again is made up of our action—turning our back (repenting) to a life given to sinning; and God’s action, meeting us at that point with the new life of the Spirit.

Born Again: Born Into God’s Family
It’s like repairing any problem—find out where things went wrong and make the correction there. Jesus took Nicodemus to where the human race got off track. That is where Adam and Eve told God, “We’ll do it our way!” Going back to that point and correcting it is called repentance. For Nicodemus that was accepting the water of baptism that John preached about. He could understand that. Now, Jesus tells him, when you turn around, you will be born of the Spirit who gives you eternal life. That is the same Spirit who brought life to all creation. Through God’s grace, the same Spirit gives us spiritual life that brings us into God’s family. So, Jesus’ comment to Nicodemus, “You can’t see the Kingdom of God unless you are born again”—you must be born into God’s family.

You see God can take this action because we are willing. God will not violate a person’s free will. He is waiting for you to say, “I am willing to have you in control of my life.” In Eden, Adam said, “I don’t trust God to run my life.” Jesus tells Nicodemus the first step to being born again is to say, “I want to return to trusting God again. I’m sorry about my past role of rebellion. I want to accept the life (eternal life) that God offers by his grace.”

At first, Nicodemus thought that “born again” was the end of everything for him. Jesus lets him know the reality of the second birth brings “at-one-ment” with God. Jesus’ sacrifice is the atonement promised by the law and the prophets of the Old Testament. Being born again means an end to the death life and springs us into eternal life. We believe that Nicodemus accepted Jesus’ invitation to be born again. Why? At the end of the gospel stories, he is seen defending Jesus before the Sanhedrin and joining with Joseph of Arimathea to get Jesus’ body from the executioners. At that moment, he didn’t fully understand the crucifixion. Then came the resurrection! That cleared his thinking!

Again, to our question: What does born again mean? Born again means life over death; spiritual over physical; heavenly over earthly, eternal over passing; God’s ideas over mankind’s ideas. Being born again replaces rebellion with reconciliation; turns rejection into reception; takes away fear of God and gives us peace with God. Nicodemus first thought was he would loose everything; Jesus let him know he had come to give him life everlasting, now and forever. On being born again, Nicodemus passed from death to life!

We don’t know how long the conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus lasted. It becomes clear to us, however, that when he left, Nicodemus was a changed man. He had a radically different view of Jesus and his mission on earth. The fact that he joined with Joseph of Arimathea to bury Jesus shows he was not the same man who entered into the house that evening to talk with Jesus. Is this the kind of understanding you would like to have about being “born again”?