Understanding Jesus’ Teaching In Context
You may claim to be a born-again Christian because a preacher told you so. Does “inviting Jesus into your heart” cause you to have a spiritual new birth? To find answers to these vital questions, Philip P. Eapen examines Jesus’s teaching in John 3:3-5 in its Jewish context.
I am glad to have you with me as I examine Jesus’ teaching on spiritual regeneration or “new birth.”
The Lord Jesus Christ came to this world to inaugurate the Kingdom of God. Jesus is the King of Kings and He wants everyone to be a part of that Kingdom. However, there’s just one way to be a part of that heavenly kingdom.
The Lord Jesus said, “I assure you, unless you are born again, you can never see the Kingdom of God.” In the light of what Jesus said, I think, one of the most important things in life is to know for sure that you are born-again.
Let me invite you to study the meaning and importance of being born again.
You may claim to be a born-again Christian. What’s the basis of your claim? Is your understanding of this spiritual new birth right? How do we know for sure that we are born-again? Are we going to believe what preachers tell us? Are we going to believe that we are born-again on the basis of some kind of good spiritual experience? Or are we going to base our claim on the immutable Word of God?
Suppose someone should ask you why you call yourself a “born again” Christian, I am sure you’ll point out Bible verses such as John 1:12 and 13. That passage says, “He came to his own home, and his own people received him not. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God; who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.”
You’ll say that you “accepted the Lord Jesus Christ as your personal Saviour. So, on the basis of this verse, you’ll claim that you too have become a child of God.
But look carefully. This verse does not say that those who received Jesus became the children of God. It just says that those who received Jesus were given the “power to become children of God.” But how exactly does one become a child of God? This passage does not spell it out.
There’s another problem. This verse does not spell out how people are supposed to “receive” Jesus. The context of this verse gives us the impression that to “receive” Jesus was the opposite of what most Jews of his time did—“his own people received him not.” The chapter begins with claims about the divinity of Jesus. Those who received Jesus certainly had to accept and submit to his divinity and to his new mission as the “lamb of God.” Some Jews of that time believed Jesus and his claims. But how did they express their belief? In other words, how were they expected to show that they “received” Jesus? Did they pray a “sinner’s prayer” like you did? Did they walk down the aisle of a synagogue?
Our evangelical friends are quick to point out Romans, chapter ten, verses nine and ten.
Paul says that the word of faith that he preached is this: “That if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved; for with the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation.”
At first glance, it would appear that Paul is giving us a formula for “receiving” Jesus. This’s what happens when we quote this piece of Scripture out of context and then marry it with John 1:12. How can we combine or connect John 1:12 with Romans 10:9, ignoring their respective contexts, and then claim that we have a formula for “becoming children of God”? Paul was arguing his case for righteousness based on faith. He wasn’t defining a procedure for becoming “born again.”
Without realizing this, preachers and evangelists formulated a “sinner’s prayer” for leading people to Christ. People who respond to the gospel are made to repeat this prayer and are then assured that they are “born-again.” Where in the Bible do we find a precedent for this? Did the apostles or the early evangelists make people repeat a prayer of repentance? Was that the way sinners were led to salvation in the early church? Was anyone asked to lift their right hands or to repeat a so-called “sinner’s prayer?”
In fact, the Bible doesn’t talk about any altar calls similar to what we have in our gospel meetings. As an aside, let me mention that the very language that we use today is alien to the Bible. Where does the Bible talk of “Personal Saviour?” For years, evangelical Christians have been using the phrase “personal Saviour and Lord” as if that phrase is found in Scripture.
If the Bible gives us clear information about spiritual new birth, it is in the third chapter of the Gospel of John. This chapter is known for Jesus’ conversation with a Jewish rabbi named Nicodemus.
One night, this senior Jewish rabbi visited Jesus. Having seen or heard about the miracles and signs that Jesus did, he was convinced that Jesus was sent by God.
“Rabbi,” he said, “we know that you’re a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do, unless God is with him.” Nicodemus deserved to be commended for his honest evaluation of Jesus. Truly, he did what other Pharisees did not do. He verbalised his faith in Jesus’ teachings and wondrous works. He was different from the Jews who did not “receive” Jesus; in fact, by our standards, he “received” Jesus and had the courage to confess his faith.
Jesus was however not impressed with Nicodemus’ confession! Taking into consideration the role and status of Nicodemus in Jewish religious life, Jesus revealed to him the secret of entering the Kingdom of God. In fact, Jesus told him the essential condition that any sinner should meet before he/she would be allowed to see or enter the Kingdom of God:
“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
How could a person be born again? That’s what Nicodemus wanted to know. So, Nicodemus asked Jesus “how” a person could be born again when he is old.
Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be amazed that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’” (John 3:3-7)
This answer is crucial because Jesus explained “how” exactly a person may be born again. A person is born again “of water and the Spirit.”
There are two things worth observing here.
First, Jesus’ statements in verse 3 and 5 are not two different sets of conditions for entering the Kingdom of God. In verse 3 he talks of “seeing” the Kingdom and in verse 5 he talks of “entering” the kingdom. “Seeing” the Kingdom of God and “entering” the kingdom of God are two different ways of saying the same thing. In verse 3 Jesus stated the condition. In verse 5, Jesus explained “how” a person could be born again.
Second, Jesus placed the responsibility of “being born again” on Nicodemus. This is where the comparison between natural birth and spiritual regeneration gets strained. When a child is born, the child has no role to play in the matter. Every baby is passive during its birth. However, in this spiritual new birth, the sinner is not passive. If a sinner has no role to play in spiritual birth, Jesus would have said, “God will give you a new birth to whomever he chooses.” Instead, he said, “You must be born again” Verses 3 and 5 squarely place the responsibility of being born again on the sinner who needs spiritual life. Nicodemus understood this well. That’s why he asked, “How can I be born again?”
Now, let’s look at the meaning of verse 5. What does the phrase “born of water and the Spirit” mean? Some think that birth through water refers to natural childbirth while birth through the Spirit refers to a spiritual regeneration. In other words, they say that Jesus was saying, “It is not enough to be born naturally (of water) into the world; a person should be born of the Spirit once he is grown up.” In fact, there is nothing in this passage to suggest that Jesus was referring to two separate births in verse 5. Jesus spoke only of one spiritual birth. That one spiritual birth takes place “of water and the Spirit” (Cf. New Jerusalem Bible).
John Calvin, an influential Reformation leader, interpreted verse 5 by subsuming water into the Spirit. He read it as “unless one is born of water which is the Spirit he cannot enter the Kingdom of God.” Thus, Calvin said that “water” and “Spirit” in verse 5 are one and the same. This too is mistaken. Both the factors – water and the Spirit – are important. One should not be sabotaged by the other (Marvin R. Vincent, Vincent’s Word Studies, 1886).
So, how do we go about interpreting John 3:5?
A key to understanding this new birth through water and the Spirit is found in verse 10 and 12. Jesus expected Nicodemus to understand his teaching regarding the new birth. After all Nicodemus was a Jewish rabbi, a ‘teacher of Israel.’ When Nicodemus questioned Jesus, “How can these things be?” Jesus shot back, “How can you be a teacher of Israel and still not understand this teaching on new birth.” In fact, Jesus was not referring to something that that was totally unheard of among Jews.
The Jews of Jesus’ time, as in modern times, practiced different kinds of washings. These “washings” were sometimes more than just a washing; they were immersions.
Ritual immersions were performed at various times for various reasons.
The highest of all “washings” was the immersion associated with conversion to Judaism. A convert was baptised in the presence of at least three witness in “living waters”—that is, water from a flowing natural source). A convert had to repent of his sins and confess his faith in the God of Israel. Such a person was considered to have received a new birth.
“The baptismal water (Mikveh) in rabbinic literature was referred to as the womb of the world, and as a convert came out of the water, he/she was considered to have experienced a new birth. Thus, he got separated him from the pagan world around him. After the convert comes out of these waters, he is referred to as “a little child just born” or “a child of one day.”1
These facts can be verified by consulting the Jewish Talmud or any Jewish Encyclopedia (Yeb. 22a; 48b; 97b); Cf. Mikvah.org
In the Gospel of John chapter 3 verse 5, Jesus was referring to the baptism offered by John the Baptist. In chapter 1 of John we read of John’s baptism. The Pharisees and the scribes had rejected John’s baptism and thereby God’s purpose for them (Luke 7:30). “John’s rite had a real and legitimate relation to the kingdom of God which Nicodemus must accept” (Vincent).
Jesus was also referring to the Christian baptism which he would institute after his death and resurrection. Such an understanding is not only consistent with the Jewish practice but is also consistent with the context of the passage.
In fact, the Gospel of John is a “wet” gospel; it is full of allusions to water baptism even though there are no explicit directions about baptism.
How was the baptism offered by Jesus different from the Jewish baptism? Jesus brought in the dimension of the Holy Spirit to an existing practice of Jewish proselyte baptism. His Messianic Kingdom was to be marked by the Holy Spirit’s power. Thus, Jesus in John 3:5 gave a complete definition of Christian baptism as seen in Titus 3:5. The Holy Spirit’s unseen presence brings about spiritual regeneration as a repentant believer obeys the gospel in the waters of baptism. Thus, Jesus maintained continuity with the Jewish practice of cleansing by immersion. At the same time, he brought in the age of the Holy Spirit.
In the light of all this, the “new birth” introduced by Christ can be understood as the regeneration brought about by the unseen work of the Holy Spirit when a repentant sinner accepts water baptism to identify himself with the Lord Jesus Christ.
Vincent’s Word Studies, published in the year 1886 notes that both the visible water baptism and the invisible regenerative work of the Spirit are equally important and that they are “inseparably blended” together. The operation of the Spirit in the life of an obedient, repentant sinner elevates the outward rite of baptism from the level of a “mere symbol.” According to Vincent, baptism becomes a “veritable vehicle of grace to the recipient, and acquires a substantial part in the inauguration of the new life.” Without the work of the Spirit, the outward rite is empty, without any regeneration in the inner being. That explains why infant baptism or the baptism of an unrepentant sinner is an empty ritual.
In the light of this study, I am forced to adopt a better and more correct understanding of what it means to be “born again.” A person is born again by the will of God and by the renewing work of the Spirit of God, when he/she responds to the gospel of Jesus Christ in faith, repentance, and obedience in the waters of baptism.
A person is born again by the will of God and by the renewing work of the Spirit of God, when he responds to the gospel of Jesus Christ in faith, repentance, and obedience in the waters of baptism.
In all our proclamations of the gospel we should not expect a response that is short of the biblical new birth. No altar call should stop short of the call to repent and to receive baptism. Peter’s first altar call on Pentecost should be an eye-opener for all evangelists:
“Repent, and each of you be baptised in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38; Cf. Matt 28:18-20).
You might ask me, “Can a sinner be considered as a ‘born again’ Christian after he has repented of sins and placed his trust in Jesus’ atoning work even though he has not been baptised?
According to Jesus’ definition of spiritual new birth, we cannot say that a person who is yet to be baptised is a “born again” Christian. And we don’t have an authority higher than that of Jesus! The Holy Spirit has certainly started His work in a repentant sinner. Such a person, who trusts in the atoning work of Jesus Christ may be assured of forgiveness. Yet this person has neither been cleansed of his/her sins nor been “born again” as per John 3:3-5.
A few passages from Scripture should make this clear.
Paul met the Lord Jesus on the road to Damascus. He could have considered that encounter as the defining moment in his life. When Ananias met Paul, he encouraged him to take baptism at once without wasting a moment,
“Now why do you delay? Get up and be baptised, and wash away your sins, calling on His name” (Acts 22:16).
Jesus’ teaching on regeneration should help us understand Ananias’ words. Indeed, a “mere ritual” cannot wash one’s sins away. That’s why Ananias asked Paul to “call on” Jesus’ name during baptism. This verse tells us how penitent and prayerful a sinner should be as he/she accepts baptism. In answer to the earnest prayers of a sinner, God forgives his sins and regenerates him through the renewing work of the Spirit while he is in the waters of baptism.
We need to understand that the Jewish people distinguished forgiveness from cleansing. They knew that it was God alone who could forgive sins through atonement. A forgiven sinner then needed cleansing from the impurity of his sin. This was why David prayed in Psalm 51 for both forgiveness and cleansing. Ananias knew that God had forgiven Paul. But Paul needed to be cleansed. That’s why he said to Paul, “Get up and be baptised, and wash away your sins, calling on His name.”
If you’re wondering whether the apostle Paul understood spiritual regeneration in this manner, all you got to do is to read Titus chapter 3, verses 4 and 5. Paul says:
“But when the kindness of God our Saviour and His love for mankind appeared, He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit …”
God “saved us … by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit.” The washing of regeneration is translated as the “washing of rebirth” by the New International Version and the New Revised Standard Version. This is an explicit reference to water baptism even though the word baptism is not used. (In fact, the English language does not have its own word for baptism; the word ‘baptism’ is a sort of transliteration of the Greek word).
Baptism is not just any washing. It is washing that brings about “new birth” or regeneration when combined with the renewing activity of the Holy Spirit. Note how the washing and renewing go together. The works of the baptismal waters and the Spirit are purposely hitched together. We can safely say that Paul’s words allude to Jesus’ words in John 3:5—“born of water and of Spirit.”
There is an allusion to baptism in Apostle Paul’s exhortation to husbands in Ephesians 5:26. The apostle Paul says that Jesus sanctified the church, “having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word.” Here, many people confuse the water with the Word. The word “water” in this verse does not refer to the Word of God. Instead, it refers to baptism that is accompanied by the Word of God, which is indeed the gospel.
And in Hebrews 10:22, the writer reminded his audience:
“Let us draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.”
This washing too is an allusion to water baptism. A person whose sins are forgiven and is cleansed by baptism can draw near to God in “full assurance of faith.”
Some others might say, “I experienced joy, peace, love, victory over sin and the presence of God years before I took water baptism. How then can you say that I was not born-again?” Well, it is not I who say that you are not born-again. After having placed your trust in Jesus for your salvation, you should have proceeded to “wash away your sins” (Acts 22:16) in the waters of baptism, thus fulfilling Jesus’ condition for being “born again.”
In comparison to your former state, you must be experiencing great joy and love after you found faith in Jesus. Our understanding of what is meant by “born again” should not depend upon these experiences but on the Word of God. God can choose to work in exceptional ways as with Cornelius and his family who received the Holy Spirit before they were baptised. This exception however does not change the rule. We do not study the Scriptures on the basis of exceptions but on the basis of the regular principles.
I know that most evangelical Christians who teach that baptism is a mere outward symbol of the real thing. They teach that a person is born again the moment he repents of his sins and “accepts” Jesus into his life. In order to stay faithful to the doctrine of “Justification by faith”, they diminish the importance and role of water baptism.
And yet, John 3:3-5 indeed teaches that Christian water baptism is essential for anyone to see or enter the kingdom of God. I wish to submit that this does not contradict the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith in Christ.
All Christians are commanded to preach the gospel. How should a repentant sinner who listens to our preaching accept Christ’s death, burial and resurrection as his/her own? How does the Bible expect a sinner to tell God and the world that he “believes” in Christ?
We have devised ingenious ways to make people express their “faith” in Christ’s atoning work. We ask people to raise their hands, to get up and walk down an aisle and to repeat the “sinner’s prayer” after us. We then assure them that they are now “saved.” Does the Bible endorse our current practices? Does it teach us that this is the way we should lead a repentant sinner to express his/her faith?
The Bible clearly teaches us that there is one God-approved way of “believing” and “accepting” Jesus as our personal Saviour and Lord. God expects every repentant sinner who responds to the gospel to come forward in faith, confess Jesus Christ as the risen Lord and take water baptism. This is God’s prescribed manner for sinners to accept God’s free salvation. Is there a better way of making Christ’s death, burial and resurrection one’s own than through water baptism?
When the Bible clearly states time and again that God’s style of doing an “altar call” is to call repentant and believing sinners to the waters of baptism, why do we abbreviate and alter it?
Next time you “lead” a sinner to Christ, lead him or her to the waters of baptism. Baptism is the biblical way of accepting Jesus Christ as one’s “personal Saviour.” This is why Jesus referred to believer’s baptism as a spiritual new birth. “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” In the water’s of baptism, a repentant and believing sinner becomes “born again” of water and the Spirit.
The apostle Peter made it abundantly clear as if he were answering the above question. He wrote in his first epistle (1 Peter 3:21):
“Corresponding to that [Noah’s ark], baptism now saves you— not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience— through the resurrection of Jesus Christ”.
Baptism now saves you! How? Through the resurrection of Jesus Christ! If anyone will identify himself with the death and burial of Jesus Christ, God will identify him with the resurrection of Jesus Christ (Cf. Romans 6:4-5) so that he should live forever. Should anyone now dismiss water baptism as a secondary, optional expression of one’s faith?
Before I conclude, I need to mention that there are a group of Christians, of the Reformed tradition, (whom we call Calvinists) who believe that a sinner becomes born-again even before he/she exercises faith in Christ.
They say this in order to highlight the truth that it is God who regenerates a sinner, giving him a new spiritual life. Therefore, Calvinists say that we do not have any role to play in this regeneration—not even in getting ourselves to the point where God can give us this new birth. Wayne Grudem, a Reformed scholar, says that “in the work of regeneration, we play no active role at all. It is instead totally a work of God.”
As a corollary to this understanding, he goes on to say that “it is natural to understand that regeneration comes before saving faith. It is in fact this work of God that gives us the spiritual ability to respond to God in faith.”
Now, this is why I beg to differ from Grudem. Jesus said to Nicodemus, “You must be born again” (John 3:7b). It is clear from this statement that Nicodemus had to do something about being born again. The onus for getting this new birth was on Nicodemus. Nicodemus understood that he had to do something in this business of becoming “born again” even though he did not understand what this new birth was all about. That is why he asked Jesus, “How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb, and be born, can he?” (Notice the words denoting action)
To under-gird the total passivity of a sinner before and during regeneration, Grudem stretches the analogy used by Jesus. He says that a child that is born has no role to play in the whole process of birth.
“We did not choose to be made physically alive and we did not choose to be born—it is something that happened to us; similarly, these analogies in Scripture suggest that we are entirely passive in regeneration.”
Yes, indeed we are entirely passive in regeneration. But we need to respond actively to the gospel in order to reach the point of regeneration.
If Nicodemus had understood this concept of being “born again” the way Grudem and other Calvinists understood it—that is, if Nicodemus understood that he would be totally passive in and before the process of being born again, he would have asked Jesus, “How can a man be born when he is old? His mother cannot get him into her womb a second time, and give birth to him, can she?”
If Nicodemus did not have any active role in letting God give him a new birth, then why didn’t God just give him the new birth without even telling him, “You must be born again?” Indeed, the work of regeneration – of giving us new spiritual life – is an act of God. But to say that we have no active role in getting ourselves to this point of God’s act is contrary to the Scriptures. And worse, to say that regeneration occurs before the exercise of saving faith is like putting the cart before the horse!
In this Bible study, I examined Jesus’s teaching in John 3:3-5 on the need to be “born again” in its Jewish context. Jesus clearly said that a person becomes born-again by water and by the Spirit. The Jewish context helps us understand that Jesus was referring to water baptism accompanied by the unseen work of the Holy Spirit. Modern evangelists’ claim that it only takes faith in Jesus to become born-again is not supported by the Bible. The Calvinist teaching that a spiritual regeneration is an act of God that precedes even faith does not match with Jesus’s command: You must be born-again. The onus is on the sinner.
Are you born-again? If not, will you repent of your sins and trust in Jesus Christ for forgiveness of sins? Will you accept Christian water baptism in order to make Christ’s death, burial and resurrection your own?
Comments and Feedback
For details, see Ron Moseley, The Jewish Background of Christian Baptism↩︎
Philip Eapen, an environmental scientist by training, devoted his life to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ ever since he realized that the world needs Jesus Christ more than anyone or anything else. Apart from sharing the good news of Jesus Christ, Philip teaches Christians in order to equip them for service. He is supported by donations from readers. Philip is married to Dr. Jessimol and they are blessed with three sons and a daughter.
Date: May 2, 2020