During the 1st century some rabbis described Gentiles as “a new-born child” when they converted to Judaism (Yebamoth 22a, 48b, 97b). Proselyting to Judaism required a baptism. During the same time that the rabbis were using this language of new birth, John the Baptizer was calling people to reorientate their lives with a baptism of repentance. (Luke 1:15-17; 3:3)
This was the religious background when Nicodemus, a Pharisee and a member of the Jewish ruling class, visited Jesus. Jesus taught Nicodemus that no one can enter God’s kingdom unless he is born from above, namely “born of water and Spirit” (John 3:3,5).
With this teaching, Jesus highlighted humanity’s universal need for spiritual rebirth. However, this implied that even the Jews, including Nicodemus, needed to be “born of water and Spirit.”
Jesus’ words must have shocked him and certainly ran counter to common beliefs. The Jews were confident that their status as Abraham’s descendants meant they would participate in the kingdom.
Yet, Jesus’ words were wide sweeping, “Do not be amazed that I said to you, ‘You must all be born from above’” (John 3:7). Jesus placed everyone outside of the kingdom in need of spiritual renewal!
Nicodemus either seems to have feigned ignorance because he did not like being placed outside or he misunderstood Jesus’ meaning. He questioned how a grown person could be born again. Jesus called his bluff. “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you don’t understand these things?” (John 3:10).
This new spiritual beginning from above would occur by water and Spirit. In telling his account of the Gospel, John uses this interaction between Jesus and Nicodemus to advance a theme he has already introduced, namely the necessity of receiving Jesus in order to have new life (John 1:12-13). The story of Nicodemus serves as a stepping stone to introduce how the new birth occurs – by water and Spirit.
For three reasons Jesus was not telling Nicodemus to be baptized with John’s baptism, but rather what would be required to enter God’s coming kingdom. First, even John was not in the kingdom (Luke 7:28). Second, the promise of the Spirit’s indwelling arrived after Jesus’ death with the inauguration of Christian baptism (Acts 2:38; 5:32). Third, being born of God from above requires believing in Jesus (John 1:11-13) which John’s baptism only anticipated (Acts 19:4-6). Jesus was, therefore, discussing approaching future events as he would later do with the Samaritan woman in John 4.
Early Christians understood Jesus to be teaching that baptism and renewal by the Spirit were required to enter God’s kingdom. In fact, from the second century forward, this became one of the early church’s most heavily cited baptismal texts. When people respond to the good news about Jesus, God rescues them from darkness and places them into the kingdom of his Son (Colossians 1:13).
Peter, who explained baptism’s role in Acts 2:38, also described how obeying the truth of the gospel’s message causes us to be born again (1 Peter 1:22-23). Similarly, Paul identified entering “newness of life” with one’s baptism into Christ’s death (Romans 6:3-4). Furthermore, his words “washing of rebirth and renewal by the Spirit” not only echoes Jesus, but also relates how someone enters into this new life Jesus provides (Titus 3:5). He affirmed in Galatians 3:26-27 that we become God’s sons and thus heirs when we rely upon Christ by being baptized into Christ.
The new birth is not something we can achieve by our own power. It is from above. God’s power continues to remake and grant new spiritual life, if we will receive his Son.
A companion article: The God of New Beginnings: The New Birth’s Cleansing