Jesus told Nicodemus that he needed to be born again to be in the Kingdom of God. What happens when we are born again? What does it mean to be a child of God?
The third chapter of John’s Gospel includes some very important teachings. Most people have heard of the 16th verse (“For God so loved the world . . .”). The context of this famous verse is the fascinating story of a Pharisee named Nicodemus, who visited Jesus by night.
Who was Nicodemus?
Nicodemus was a Pharisee and “a ruler of the Jews” (John 3:1), which means he was a Jewish leader and probably a member of the Jewish council, the Sanhedrin. Nicodemus would have understood the Old Testament and Jewish tradition very well.
Jesus wasn’t well-liked by the Pharisees in general. But there were exceptions, as Nicodemus acknowledged, “We know that You are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him” (verse 2). That was not a popular belief among Pharisees, and it could be why Nicodemus came to visit Jesus at night instead of during the day.
“Unless one is born again”
Jesus then answered Nicodemus with an unexpected statement: “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (verse 3).
Nicodemus then asked a simple question, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” (verse 4).
Jesus again replied, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (verse 5).
Nicodemus seemed baffled by Jesus’ words (verse 9). In fact, it’s been about 2,000 years since Jesus spoke these words, and they still baffle people! What exactly did Jesus mean? What does being born again have to do with seeing and entering the Kingdom of God?
This analogy is very important, because becoming a part of the Kingdom of God is the purpose of human life! Jesus even told us to “seek first” the Kingdom (Matthew 6:33).
Throughout the Gospels, Jesus taught that in the future, He would come again and form a government that will rule the entire world! But His Kingdom was not yet (John 18:36). Christ will come to “sit on the throne of His glory” and rule over “all the nations” (Matthew 25:31-32). The blessed ones, meaning the saints, will “inherit the kingdom” (verse 34).
Nicodemus, like many of his time, misunderstood the plan of God. They imagined that the Messiah would come as a conquering hero to release His physical kinsmen from subjugation to the Roman Empire. Correcting Nicodemus’ misunderstanding, Jesus told him that people must be born again even to see or enter the Kingdom of God.
What does it mean to be born of water and of the Spirit?
“Water” refers to baptism, after which we come up out of a watery grave to live in the newness of life. “Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:3-4).
In a secondary sense, water also refers to God’s Word, which washes us spiritually as we apply it through the help of the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 5:26). So, we must first be baptized and then receive God’s Holy Spirit through the laying on of hands (2 Timothy 1:6).
What it means to be born again
Jesus went on to define what it means to be “born again” in the ultimate sense: “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:6).
Paul identifies when this birth will occur—“at the last trumpet,” when Jesus Christ returns to earth.The word born in John 3 is translated from the Greek word gennao. It is difficult to find a one-word English definition of gennao. Spiros Zodhiates, a well-known Greek scholar, in his volume The Complete Word Study New Testament, provides the following definition of gennao: “to beget, pass[ive] voice, to be born, mainly used of men begetting children . . . more rarely of women begetting children . . . deliver . . . of conception (Matthew 1:20).” He also states this word is used metaphorically of God’s divine nature imparted to the believer (John 3:3, 5, 7).
Bauer-Arndt-Gingrich’s A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature adds the figurative definition “bring forth, produce, cause.” Thayer’s Greek Lexicon also mentions it can refer more rarely to women giving birth to children. According to Merriam-Webster.com, “beget” means “to procreate as the father, sire.” Perhaps “sire” or “father” (verb) is as close as one can come to a one-word definition of gennao.
When we are born into this world, we are born into a physical life with a physical family. We are made of flesh and are mortal. But when we enter the Kingdom of God, we will be “born of the Spirit”—meaning we will be transformed into spirit. We will no longer be physical, imperfect beings. Instead, we will be spirit beings!
Jesus went on to use an analogy to describe what spirit life is like: “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit” (verse 8).
Many years later Paul wrote more details about what it means to be “born of the spirit” into the Kingdom of God:
“And as we have borne the image of the man of dust [or as Jesus said, been ‘born of the flesh’], we shall also bear the image of the heavenly Man [or as Jesus said, be ‘born of the Spirit’]. Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; nor does corruption inherit incorruption. Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed—in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality” (1 Corinthians 15:49-53).
Paul identifies when this birth will occur—“at the last trumpet,” when Jesus Christ returns to earth (Matthew 24:31; 1 Thessalonians 4:16).
This rebirth, the change from flesh and blood to spirit, is necessary to enter the Kingdom of God. Flesh-and-blood human beings cannot inherit the Kingdom of God. Only those who are “born of the Spirit”—those who are resurrected to incorruptible and immortal life at Christ’s return—can be in the Kingdom of God.
To learn more about the purpose of human life, read “Why Were You Born?”
Jesus is the firstborn
Jesus Christ has already been born into the Kingdom of God. Notice these two scriptures:
- “For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren” (Romans 8:29, emphasis added throughout).
- “And from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler over the kings of the earth” (Revelation 1:5).
These verses reveal two important truths: First, Jesus is the first of many other brethren (brothers and sisters) who will be born into God’s Kingdom. Second, Jesus was born from the dead. His birth took place when He was resurrected from the dead.
Jesus was “declared to be the Son of God with power according to the Spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead” (Romans 1:4). He was transformed from flesh to spirit and reunited with His Father.
The use of the term firstborn shows that many others will ultimately be born into that same family. God the Father is calling men and women today to be “sons and daughters” in His family (2 Corinthians 6:18). Those He is calling will be God’s children in the fullest sense when they are resurrected and glorified by being transformed into spirit. They will then be “like” Jesus Christ (1 John 3:2).
What does it mean to be a child of God?
Though the Bible shows that our ultimate birth into God’s Kingdom won’t take place until we are transformed from flesh to spirit at Christ’s return, the Bible is also clear that, in another sense, we are God’s children now.
There are many scriptures that refer to God’s people as His children in this life:
- “The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Romans 8:16).
- “That you may become blameless and harmless, children of God without fault in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world” (Philippians 2:15).
- “Behold what manner of love the Father has bestowed on us, that we should be called children of God!” (1 John 3:1).
- “Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is” (1 John 3:2).
- “Whoever has been born of God does not sin, for His seed remains in him; and he cannot sin, because he has been born of God” (1 John 3:9). This verse is talking about practicing sin or habitual sin, as opposed to practicing righteousness (verse 10; see also 1:8-10).
- “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and keep His commandments” (1 John 5:2).
The Bible is clear that being a child of God is both a present and a future reality for God’s people who have His Holy Spirit.
We are God’s children today because when we are baptized, we receive God’s Spirit. God’s Spirit begets us as children of God (1 Peter 1:3; 1 John 5:1). That means that God becomes our spiritual Father, and we begin the process of growing in a Father-child relationship with Him and developing His character.
Being born again—entering the Kingdom of God by a resurrection to glory—is the whole purpose of being a Christian (Philippians 3:8-14).Through baptism and the laying on of hands, we enter God’s family in this sense. God becomes our Father; Jesus Christ, our Elder Brother; and other Christians, our brothers and sisters. Just as children grow and develop physically, we are to grow spiritually by seeking the pure milk of God’s Word (1 Peter 1:22-25; 2:1-3).
We can learn many lessons about spiritual growth from the growth of children. For instance, we can learn about spiritual development from the development of a fetus in the womb of his or her mother. Just as a fetus grows and develops in the womb, we are to grow and develop spiritually. Just as a fetus relies on the nourishment of its mother, we are to rely on the nourishment of God’s Word. Just as loving parents will consider that developing fetus to be their son or daughter and a member of their family, God considers us to be His children.
We can also learn many lessons from the development of children after birth. As children grow in strength, stature, knowledge and maturity, so Christians must be growing in spiritual strength, stature, knowledge and maturity. Just as young children depend on their parents, so we must depend on God.
Just as children are humble and trusting, so we are to humbly trust God. Just as young children rely on their father and mother for protection and safety, Christians rely on the Father for spiritual protection and on God’s Church for a spiritually safe environment to grow and develop Christian character.
Both analogies can teach us much about Christian growth.
But we won’t be God’s children in the fullest sense until we are “born of the Spirit” at the resurrection of the dead. At that point, we will be spirit. We will also become perfect and immortal as God is. Just as children are the same kind of being as their parents (human beings), so we will be the same kind of beings as God our Father and Jesus Christ (divine beings). We will share in God’s glory.
This is the fullest sense of what it means to be born again and become a child of God.
To learn more about being a child of God, read “Are We Children of God Now?”
The process of Christian conversion
But in order for this process to occur, we must be converted. The conversion process is not just a shallow emotional decision. It requires that a person repent of his or her sins, be baptized in water, receive the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit of God, grow in the grace and knowledge of God and be guided by His righteous law. At the end of this process, in the resurrection, the person is finally changed into an immortal spirit being, thereby entering the Kingdom of God!
The apostle Paul said that his whole life—growing and enduring the challenges of the Christian life—was directed toward this supreme goal. Being born again—entering the Kingdom of God by a resurrection to glory—is the whole purpose of being a Christian (Philippians 3:8-14).
That’s what it means to be born again!