By Scott N.
While Jesus was in Jerusalem observing the Passover, many began to follow Him, seeing the miraculous signs he performed (John 2:23). The crowds following Jesus and His purification of the Temple courtyard caused quite a commotion and piqued the curiosity of Nicodemus, a leader of the Pharisees and a member of the ruling council known as the Sanhedrin (3:1). Nicodemus approached Jesus seeking answers, because he believed the miracles signified that Jesus was a teacher who had come from God (3:2).
Jesus responds to Nicodemus’ inquiry by explaining that no individual can see the Kingdom of God unless he is born from above, which also means born again (3:3). Nicodemus obviously thought Jesus was speaking about physical rebirth, when he asked how it is possible for a man to enter into his mother’s womb a second time (3:4).
While the term “born again” has become a popular cultural appellation for Jesus’ followers, Judaism often uses rebirth as a metaphor to describe the change of a person’s status, such as when an individual converts to Judaism. The Talmud describes a convert to Judaism as a newborn infant (b. Yeb 22a, 62a, 48b; y. Bik 3:3 vii). Rebirth also occurs on a man’s wedding day; when he takes a wife he becomes like a newborn child (y. Bik 3:3 vii). Jewish tradition teaches that when Israel offered sacrifices to God on Rosh Hashanah (the Feast of Trumpets, or Jewish New Year; Lev. 23:24), God considered it as though He had created them as a new being (Lev. Rab. 29:12). God also told Moses that he would create him into a new being when he called Moses to speak as God’s representative (Ex. Rab. 3:15).
The king of Israel was also considered to experience new birth when he became the king. While Psalm 2 ultimately anticipates the coming of the Messiah, it also depicts the birth of the king as “God’s son” during the king’s inauguration (Ps. 2:7). The king functioned as God’s representative to Israel; therefore, his status changed at his inauguration and he experienced new birth.
Finally, Judaism frequently uses new birth to describe the world to come. Job looked forward to his renewal during the coming resurrection (Job 14:14) and the Dead Sea Scrolls speak of works of renewal during the world to come (1 QS 4.25). In this world, God will remove sin from His people and permanently plant Israel in her land (Ezek. 36:25-36; Pss Sol 17:32-33; Gen. Rab. 89:1; Deut. Rab. 3:11). God’s people look forward to the coming world, because He will make a new creation (Jub. 1:29; 4:26; 1 En 72:1-2).
Despite the presence of new birth imagery within Judaism, Nicodemus did not comprehend the significance of Jesus’ declaration that a person must be born again to see the Kingdom of God. He did not yet recognize his own personal need for rebirth (John 3:9-10). Jewish teaching in the Mishnah says that all Israel will share in the world to come (San 10:1) and also that those who are Abraham’s disciples will inherit it (Avot 5:19). Since Nicodemus was born into the covenant by natural birth, perhaps he thought that rebirth was only necessary for Gentiles converting to Judaism (Matt. 3:9; Luke 3:8; b. Yeb 22a, 62a, 48b).
Yet Jesus’ concept of new birth was dramatically different from the images of rebirth common within Judaism at the time. New birth is only possible from above, because it occurs when God transforms an individual and gives him a new heart (John 3:3; Ezek. 36:26; Jer. 31:33). This is not the rebirth of a Gentile becoming Jewish, but the spiritual awakening of God’s children (John 3:6-8).
Jesus says that a person cannot enter the Kingdom of God unless they are born of both water and the Spirit (3:5). When God purifies Israel, He will sprinkle clean water on her and remove her sin (Ezek. 36:25; 1 En 5:8-9). This cleansing occurs as a supernatural work of God’s Spirit when He indwells an individual and gives him a new heart (Ezek. 36:26-27; Jer. 31: 33-34; Jub 1:20-23). Jesus invited Nicodemus to experience the authentic transformation that God promised to Israel – a transformed life born of the Spirit.