By Christine Graef
Under cover of night, a Jewish leader and teacher named Nicodemus approached Jesus, recognizing that Jesus was sent by God but aware of the criticism surrounding him. Jesus told him, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again” (John 3:3). Nicodemus asked, “How can someone be born when they are old? Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!” (v. 4).
But Jesus was amazed that Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council, didn’t understand what he was saying. “You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again’” (v. 7).
Being born again is an ancient Jewish practice. Jesus was saying that a rabbi such as Nicodemus who was learned in both the written Torah and oral law should have known this because he experienced new birth in his culture all the time. The concept occurs when something significant transforms a life.
Within Jewish understanding, getting married is a born-again experience—the previous state of being single changes to become part of something new. When they have a child, this is viewed as another born-again experience—they have gone from being a couple to becoming a family. When a man goes through the steps of training and becomes a rabbi, he has had a born-again experience.
Converting to Judaism is also a born-again experience. This transformation for men would include physical circumcision. Likewise coming to trust in Jesus as Messiah requires a circumcision of the heart, performed by the one who created us. Jesus answered Nicodemus, “No one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit” (v 5).
Born-again events require an immersion in water. When John the Baptist said, “I am immersing people in water, but among you is standing someone whom you don’t know” (John 1:26, Complete Jewish Bible), he was following the ancient teaching. Immersion by water is known as mikveh, meaning a natural pool or gathering of water.
John was performing mikveh in a natural body of flowing water, the River Jordan. The concept began in Leviticus 11:36, when the Jewish people were instructed to use only water gathered without the assistance of human action, such as a river or cistern.
Unclean persons were required to become ceremonially clean through immersion before they could bring a sacrifice to the temple. To be consecrated also required a mikveh. Aaron and his sons were chosen to be priests and were brought to the entrance of the tent of meeting to be washed with water before they could approach God (Exodus 29:4).
The origin of mikveh goes back to Genesis when the earth was unformed and the Spirit of God hovered over the surface of the water. God gathered the water together and let dry land appear. God said that it was good, meaning that it was pristine and undefiled.
When we are baptized, we are immersed, wholly suspended under water, surrendered entirely, holding back nothing, cleansed to emerge transformed. We are stating that we are unclean and turning back to God to be identified as a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17). Consecration separates us from our old life and sets us apart to be citizens of the kingdom of Heaven.
Nicodemus would have understood the roots of transformation. The oral law of the Talmud teaches that the Spirit of God over the waters refers to the Spirit of Messiah. The Spirit directs all change moving the world, his creation, back to its original state of perfection.
“Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit” (John 3:6).
Jesus’ death tore the veil that separated the holy of holies and Jews and Gentiles streamed into one flock under one shepherd, fulfilling God’s plan for humanity. “His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility” (Ephesians 2:15, 16).
The new covenant introduced the word henoteis, unity, made possible when the Spirit baptizes us into the body of Jesus. He joins us to the Father and to one another as an eternal community. “The Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father.’ The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children” (Romans 8:15, 16).
Before the born-again experience can happen, there is another Jewish idea that must occur—t’shuvah, turning back to the way. Without a return to God, potential remains for us to return to what we have turned away from.
Jesus said “you must be born again” to Nicodemus, an upright man who already knew God. Nicodemus was learned in Scripture, a sincere and successful man. Yet Jesus said, even to this man, you need rebirth.
“How can this be?” Nicodemus asked (John 3:9).
In the time of Noah the earth again was submerged beneath water to bring out a family from humanity. Life was still there under the water, but it could not grow or offer its gifts until it emerged. The soul was still there, beneath the sin, separated from the light, waiting to be born out of the baptizing waters.
We all come to God as prodigals, separated from the holiness of Heaven. The birth from above is needed for the Holy Spirit to move into every life. Not one life can be released from darkness by good intent, fabulous programs, or educational materials. When we realize this, we are moved to pray. The Hebrew word for prayer, tefillah, means “attachment.” It is God who kindles the flame of the soul to rise and reunite with Heaven’s light.
Ultimately Nicodemus did understand. Like many of us, he first approached Jesus in the solitude of the night, cautious of the mockery of others. But later we see his faith bringing 75 pounds of myrrh and aloes to prepare the body of Jesus for burial (John 19:38, 39).
You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit (John 3:8).
The Hebrew word for Spirit, ruach, can be translated as wind or breath (Acts 2:1, 2). Like wind his work may not be visible, but we can easily see the effect of his transforming people’s lives. It is his breath that brought life to the body of the church just as he brought life into the first man, Adam, when he breathed into him.
There was a body, but it wasn’t yet empowered to carry out God’s work until the Spirit illumined. “I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49). The Spirit teaches all truth to transform a person emerging from the waters into the image of Jesus and into the one body he prayed for us to be.
The song the Israelites sang crossing the Sea of Reeds was their first prayer together as a people (Exodus 15:1-18). Referred to by Paul when he said his people were all baptized into the sea with Moses, the singing marked the end of part of Israel’s history. They stepped into the water and were separated from the world around them, leaving behind the idols of others. God led his people safely through waters of judgment.
At the end of the song the people had a clear and unshakeable identity. They again went to the water, commanded to wash and prepare for God’s glory coming down on Mount Sinai to transform them into a unified nation. Crossing the sea was physical liberation from slavery. The people’s spiritual liberation came with receiving the Torah, which is celebrated during the Feast of Pentecost, a day the people were baptized with God’s Spirit.
At the end of his letter to the Thessalonians, Paul admonished believers not to put out the Spirit’s fire. God had ignited something wonderful, a flame from the fire of Heaven to purify and unify. We are to kindle its light among us as one faith, one baptism, one Spirit that lives in all believers in one hope.
Christine Graef is author of several books about Christianity and culture, most recently The Jewish Concern for the Church.