"Ye Must Be Born Again!" (John 3:1-21)

by Pastor-teacher Dennis Rokser

"Born again" has become a buzz word in religious circles over the last thirty years. Recovering alcoholics speak of a "rebirth." Chrysler, under the leadership of Lee Iacocca, claims to be "born again." People from all walks of life give testimony to having entered into the "born again" experience. All of this raises several questions for the honest seeker of biblical truth.

To answer these questions, let’s examine the most definitive passage in the Word of God that addresses this subject… John chapter 3.


THE CONTEXT OF JOHN 3 (John 3:1-2)



This recorded conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus transpires early in Christ’s Judean ministry. John the Baptist had heralded his coming (Mt. 3:1-12). Jesus had been baptized by John and heard from the Father… "This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased" (Mt. 3:13-17). Satan had tempted Him unsuccessfully in the wilderness, demonstrating His human and Divine character credentials for being Israel’s Messiah and the Savior of the world (Mt. 4:1-11). Christ had begun calling His disciples and the multitudes were beginning to follow Him wherever He went (Jn. 1:35-2:25).

In the midst of all this activity, John Chapter 3 sets forth an extremely informational and relevant personal encounter between a devoutly religious but lost soul, and Jesus Christ: "for the Son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost." (Lk. 19:10)



Several important details emerge in verses 1 and 2 about the individual who converses with Jesus Christ.

Though Nicodemus is still in the dark — physically and spiritually — about who he is conversing with, Jesus Christ takes advantage of Nicodemus’ belief to instruct him about the most important issue in life — he needs to be born again.




The SPIRITUAL NECESSITY of the New Birth. (3:3)

How stunning and surprising for Nicodemus to hear Jesus Christ say… "Except a man be born again, he cannot see the Kingdom of God." From a human perspective, one of the greatest candidates to enter the kingdom of God was Nicodemus. Yet, like many in our day, he was religious but not regenerated. He had been born once, but needed to be born twice. Though he was a son of Abraham, he was not a child of God. While Nicodemus was seeking to be righteous before God, he was going to hell with the Old Testament under his arm. Unfortunately, the passing of time has not remedied this problem for many religious people and "clergy" in the twentieth century. Unless people see their need to be born again, they never will.

What does it mean to be "born again"? Our phrase "born again" (anw q en = anothen) literally means "born from above." "Anothen" is used later in the same chapter by John the Baptist referring to Christ as "He that cometh from above is above all" (3:31). To be "born again" is to have a spiritual birth from God. Consistent with a birth, the aorist tense is used to indicate a completed action, but not an ongoing process. One is not born again and again and again. A birth is a once-for-all, non-repeatable event that happens at a point in time. The passive voice clarifies that sinners are not born again of their own doing, for only God can do this (Titus 3:5). How devastating this truth is for the religious lost who depend on their religious works and rituals to save them from God’s judgment for sin.

Is it really necessary to be born again? Jesus Christ teaches us an emphatic… "Yes!"

"Except a man be born again" This sets forth a must, not a maybe; an imperative, not an option.

"he cannot see the kingdom of God" Apart from the new birth, one "cannot" (not might not) "see" (perceive or participate in) "the kingdom of God."

Why is this? Ephesians 2:1-3 provides the answer:

"And you hath he quickened, who were dead in trespasses and sins; Wherein in times past ye walked according to the course of this world, according to the Prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience: Among whom also we all had our conversation in times past in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind; and were by nature the children of wrath, even as others."

Jesus Christ immediately confronts Nicodemus with the necessity for his regeneration. All of Nicodemus’ religious rituals and activities had not afforded him entrance into God’s kingdom (Isa. 64:6). He, like all people, needed to be born again.


The SUPERNATURAL NATURE of the New Birth. (3:4-8)

Did Nicodemus understand Christ’s imperative of the new birth? No, he actually missed the point. His confused response was… "How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb, and be born?" (vs. 4)

Although this religious leader possessed political, financial, and spiritual clout, he thought of two physical births instead of a spiritual birth from God. Throughout the book of John, Christ’s listeners misunderstood His spiritual truths, giving them physical explanation (see Jn. 2:19-22; 4:10-14; 6:29-35). One must wonder how many there are like Nicodemus of the 80 million Americans that claim to be born again.

The Lord Jesus Christ, the Master-Teacher, seeks to clarify the true nature of the new birth by declaring… "Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God." (vs. 5)

While there are varied interpretations of this verse, (some which are doctrinally allowable, and others which are doctrinally heretical, such as baptismal regeneration), it is this writer’s conviction that the Hebrew parallelism and flow of thought clears up this exegetical problem.






"born again"





"of water"

"the Spirit"


"that which is born of the flesh is flesh"

"that which is born of the Spirit is Spirit"


Jesus Christ is not clarifying the means of the new birth (which many interpretations of vs. 5 give) but the nature of it. It is a spiritual birth from God the Holy Spirit. Having done this, He again reiterates the necessity of this spiritual birth by exclaiming… "Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again" (vs. 7). "Marvel not" indicates that Nicodemus was absolutely amazed that he of all people would need to be born again. This is often- times the reaction of religious people in this matter. Over the centuries, Satan has successfully used religion to blind people to their need of salvation and the means of obtaining it through God’s grace (2 Cor. 4:3-5; 11:3-4, 13-15).

The word "must" (dei = dei) refers to something of absolute necessity. In this chapter alone, John writes how one "must" be born again (3:7), how Christ "must" be lifted up (3:14), and how Christ "must" increase and John the Baptist decrease (3:30). Also note the shift in verse 7 from the singular "thee" to the plural "ye." This spiritual birth from God is not only a necessity for Nicodemus, but for all unregenerate Pharisees, whether in the first or twentieth centuries!

To reinforce this, Jesus uses the wind (the Greek word "pneuma" which is oftentimes translated "spirit") to illustrate the invisible yet real nature of this spiritual birth.


The SCRIPTURAL MEANS of the New Birth. (3:9-21)

Having underscored the spiritual necessity and nature of the new birth (3:3-8), Jesus Christ goes on to explain the scriptural means of it due to Nicodemus’ response… "How can these things be?" Jesus answered and said unto him, "Art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not these things?" (3:9-10)


The New Birth is through CHRIST alone. (vs. 9-13)

Jesus Christ is "he that came down from heaven" (vs.13). Apart from the incarnation of the Son of God, salvation would have been impossible (see Tit. 2:11, Gal. 4:4-5, Heb. 2:9).


The New Birth is through the CROSS alone. (vs. 14)

"And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up" (3:14). Since Nicodemus knew the Old Testament well, Christ’s illustration from Numbers 21 concerning the brazen serpent would be well understood. Because the penalty for sin is death, the God-given provision for the serpent-bitten rebellious Israelites was the lifted-up bronze serpent. And just like the brazen serpent was lifted up on a pole, so Jesus Christ must be lifted up on the cross for the sins of all mankind (Jn. 12:32-34).

The phrase "lifted up" is an aorist tense verb, referring to a completed action or event, not an ongoing process. Christ’s death for our sins is a once-and-for-all, non-repeatable event as He paid for all sin for all man for all time (Heb. 1:3; 2:9; 10:10-14; 1 Pet. 3:18; 1 John 2:2). This is also the third reference in John’s Gospel to Christ’s death (Jn. 1:29; 2:19). The death of Christ alone satisfied the legal demands of God’s holy justice regarding our sin so that He, by His grace, could save undeserving man.


The New Birth is through FAITH IN CHRIST alone. (3:15-18)

Relating to Christ’s analogy from Numbers 21, verse 15 goes on to explain… "That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life." (3:15)

In the camp of Israel, the solution to God’s judgment for their sin was not in trying to rid themselves of all serpents. Nor was it in making anti-serpent medicine or laws. Nor was it to make seven promises to God not to sin again. Nor was the solution to ask the brazen serpent into your heart or to make a commitment to obey the brazen serpent in the future. It was simply to do nothing but "look" in faith at the uplifted serpent (Num. 21:9).

To underscore the one human condition of the new birth, the word "believe" is found seven times in this passage (vs. 12{2x}, vs. 15, vs. 16, vs. 18{3x}). This is consistent with numerous other verses in John’s Gospel that stipulate that faith alone in Christ alone results in eternal life (John 1:12-13, 5:24, 6:40). Verse 16 goes on to say… "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." (3:16)

While numerous scores of people know this verse, few seem to understand it. This confusion surfaces when they are asked… "Do you know John 3:16?" They reply "Oh, my yes." Then ask… "Do you know for sure that you have eternal life?" and they answer with the same agnostic… "How can anyone know that for sure?" That is the point of this verse. God "loved" and "gave." We simply "believe" and "have." How this must have further blown away lost Nicodemus who had a religion of "do" instead of "done," or "faith plus work" instead of "faith plus nothing." The possession and assurance of eternal life is based solely on the person and the work of Christ coupled with the unfailing promises of God’s Word (see 1 John 5:9-13).

To emphasize further God’s purpose in sending Jesus Christ to earth, verse 17 reads… "For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved." Salvation comes only through Jesus Christ, who came not to condemn but to save. This verse links being "born again" with salvation. In fact, the word "saved" is an aorist passive subjunctive verb, the identical grammatical construction as "born again" in vs. 3. Salvation, like the new birth, is a work of God for man, not a work of man for God. The cross-work of Christ paid the penalty of our sin 100%. "It is finished" (Jn. 19:30) was the Savior’s cry upon the cross. Salvation is not an 80% God, 20% man proposition. Christ’s work accomplished it all. Now it is simply a matter of whether helpless, hopeless and hellbound sinners will rely on the finished work of Christ alone to save them. They have eternal life. They are saved by God’s grace. However, a failure to trust Christ alone means they remain condemned. "He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God." (Jn. 3:18)

What ultimately condemns sinners? Their sin? No! For Jesus Christ fully paid for their sin. What a righteous God cannot tolerate is one's rejection of His Son through unbelief. So if being born again, having eternal life, or being saved from an eternal hell is this simple; why don’t more people believe in Christ? "And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For everyone that doeth evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved. But he that doeth truth cometh to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest, that they are wrought in God." (Jn. 3:19-21)

"Men loved darkness rather than light" ¾ that’s why people don’t receive the truth. The bottom line is not an intellectual issue, but an attitudinal issue of self-righteous pride (Lk. 18:9-14) or unbelief (Jn. 3:11-12). The word "evil" embraces both the concepts of sin and human good. And in the case of Nicodemus, it would be his human good and religious traditions, not his sinful lifestyle, that would prevent him from trusting the Savior alone (Isa. 64:6; Rom. 9:30-10:4). This is why the Gospel is bad news for good people, but good news for bad people.

Was Nicodemus ever "born again" as a result of this conversation with Jesus Christ? There is good reason to think that he was. (See Jn. 12:42-43; 19:38-42.)

The truth of John 3 was captured in a Vacation Bible School saying I heard years ago. "If you’re born once, you’ll die twice. But if you’re born twice, you’ll only die once." Have you ever had a spiritual birth from God through faith alone in Christ alone?

"Marvel not that I say unto thee, ye must be born again." ¢

Dennis Rokser has been involved with the Duluth Bible Church for the last 16 years, serving as pastor-teacher for the last thirteen years.