I don’t need my car washed,” said the man. “I need a new car!”
The driver joked about his old clunker after he stopped at our church car wash. And he wasn’t joking. His car really was in bad shape. Judging by the dents and rust, even a thorough cleaning wouldn’t do much for it. But he was more concerned about the times his lemon had left him stranded.
Not long after, I realized that his problem illustrates a deeper truth. When it comes to our inner lives, an external makeover won’t do. If I want to be a more patient mom or a more loving husband, no superficial cleanup can get the job done. We need to be totally new persons who’ve been transformed from within. The Bible calls this transformation “the new birth.” Jesus said that “no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again” (John 3:3).
What does this mean?
Like electricity, spiritual rebirth isn’t easy to define. Grade-school students learn that electricity is “the flow of electrons.” The everyday definition of electricity is “an electromagnetic field energy sent out by batteries and generators.” It’s also been broadly defined as “a field of science.” Though a perfect definition is elusive, no one has decided that electricity doesn’t exist. Its effects are clearly seen in bright lights, the internet, air conditioners, and a host of other technologies and electrical equipment.
The new birth is like that. It’s an internal, invisible change that has visible results. Jesus compared it to air currents that can’t be seen: “The wind blows wherever it pleases,” He said. “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” (verse 8). The miracle of the new birth is also called “conversion,” and it’s beyond our understanding. Nevertheless, we see its result in lives changed from rebellion to loyalty, hatred to love, and discouragement to hope and purpose.
How Jesus explained it
The Jewish leader Nicodemus got a lesson on conversion when he approached Jesus late one night to ask some questions. The wealthy aristocrat started the conversation with a compliment about Jesus’ miracles. But Jesus didn’t waste time exchanging compliments. He turned the conversation to the heart of the matter: Nicodemus’s spiritual life. “No one can see the kingdom of God,” He said, “unless they are born again” (John 3:3).
Nicodemus was startled. A kingdom too pure for him to see? He was a respected elder and a teacher of the Hebrew Scriptures. He was also a member of the Jewish ruling council known as the Sanhedrin. He was shocked to learn that even an educated, cultured, and devout man like himself needed the same about-face as a Greek or a Roman who did not know anything about the laws of God. Humbled, he inquired further.
“How can someone be born when they are old?” he asked (verse 4).
In reply, Jesus said that the new birth is a work of the Holy Spirit: “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit” (verse 5).
This puzzled the seeker even more and prompted another question: “How can this be?” (verse 9). That’s a practical query that we should all ask at some time in our lives.
Jesus used an example from history to clarify His point. Some time after the Israelites left Egypt, they found themselves surrounded by venomous snakes, and many of the people were dying from the snakes’ bites. So God told Moses to craft a brass serpent, mount it on a pole, and lift it high for everyone to see. The people were told that if they looked at the brass image and believed in God’s power to heal them, they would not die. Sure enough, everyone who believed and looked survived (see Numbers 21:4–9).
Jesus explained that this incident was a model of the plan of salvation. He said, “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him” (John 3:14, 15). Just as the Hebrews were to look and live, so God wants us to believe that Jesus can forgive our sins and deliver us from their death penalty.
A changed life
When we surrender to Christ by faith, we begin to experience a change in our likes, choices, and goals. The apostle Paul called this a mental transformation: “Do not conform to the pattern of this world,” he said, “but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2). Paul went on to explain that the person who experiences this change in how he thinks “will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will” (verse 2).
Like a good pair of prescription lenses, the new birth enables us to see God in a way that we never saw Him before. It’s a new awareness by which you and I begin to grasp the power of spiritual realities. Our eyes are opened to new truths about Jesus, ourselves, and others. The Bibles that collected dust on our shelves suddenly become interesting, because we now hear God’s voice speaking to us through their pages. The beggar on the street is no longer a nuisance but a candidate for God’s kingdom; someone we wish to help. The churches that once seemed so irrelevant are now intriguing, because within their doors we hear teachings that explain life and help us to make friends with others who have experienced this change in how they think and feel.
why the new birth is important
Why did Jesus make the new birth a requirement for entry into God’s kingdom?
First, we must understand what the kingdom is. It’s a place, but it’s much more than that. It’s wherever God is King. When we submit to His loving reign, we enter His domain even now because He sits on the throne of our hearts. In the future, by His grace we will gain access to heaven. But whether then or now, God’s presence is a spiritual atmosphere, which only a spiritual person can desire. Jesus emphasized this when, after speaking of the entrance requirement, He added, “Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit” (John 3:6).
Going to a foreign country for the first time provides a clue as to Jesus’ meaning. Anyone who has traveled internationally has experienced culture shock in an unfamiliar place with new smells and a strange language. People who move to a new country are wise to do advance reading about the dos and don’ts, the practices and traditions, of the people whom they will serve. This way they can avoid offending and more easily adjust to their new environment.
God’s presence is the ultimate new destination. Born-again believers are studying up on His kingdom. You and I become comfortable in the spiritual realm as we are fitted by God’s grace to enter God’s kingdom by the experience of the new birth. Let us accept His invitation and the Spirit-empowered transformation that it leads to!