The Gospel of John is the most profound of all the New Testament gospels. It is in this gospel that we find one of the most famous and theologically significant Scripture passages on the theme of salvation: John 3:1-21. Jesus’ first statement in this chapter establishes the very basis of the process of salvation: “Truly, truly, I say to you, except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of heaven” (verse 3, NJKV).

As simple as this sentence is, it has been one of the most misunderstood by Christians through time. Even Nicodemus the Pharisee found it challenging to fully grasp what it meant to be “born again.” This article seeks to show what being born again entails, especially based on the context of the Gospel of John.


Nicodemus was probably very surprised by Jesus’ first statement to him. Seeming to ignore Nicodemus’ cordial introduction (John 3:2), Jesus went straight to the heart of the matter. Jesus’ statement implied that Nicodemus needed a new divine beginning that guaranteed citizenship in the kingdom of God (verse 3).

As a Pharisee (John 3:1), Nicodemus was quite sure of eternal salvation based on his human birth into the lineage of Abraham and his strict observance of the Jewish Law, especially the Sabbath (John 8:33, 39a; 9:16). Like Paul, who had been a Pharisee, Nicodemus was confident in the flesh (Phil 3:1-8).

But Jesus pointed out that to be a part of God’s kingdom, a person needed to be born of the Spirit, not of the flesh (John 3:5, 6). In other words, spiritual rebirth “from above” is the divine qualification for salvation, not fleshly ancestry and law-keeping.

Jesus made a simple but clear distinction between the two kinds of births: human birth in the flesh and divine birth by the Holy Spirit (John 3:6). Paul confirms Jesus’ affirmation that humanity can be divided into those whose lives are controlled by their fleshly human nature and those whose lives are controlled by the Holy Spirit (Rom. 8:5; Gal. 5:17). Jesus emphasized again that Nicodemus needed a new divine birth (John 3:7). He needed a spiritual experience which, like the wind, had effects that were evident though inexplicable (John 3:8). Being born again is a spiritual transformation from a life based on sinful lusts and impulses of the flesh to one that is controlled by the Holy Spirit.


The conversation continued, transitioning from an emphasis on birth to a focus on the Son. It appears that this change took place because Nicodemus did not understand what Jesus was saying (John 3:10). Jesus stopped talking in symbols (earthly things) and instead introduced Himself and His mission (heavenly things) (John 3:11, 12). At the beginning of that evening interview, Nicodemus addressed Jesus as “teacher from God” (John 3:2); however, Jesus identified Himself as more than that. He was the Son of Man who came from heaven (John 3:13) to be “lifted up,” just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness (verse 14).

This Old Testament story was familiar to Nicodemus and served as a good earthly illustration to explain the heavenly things Jesus was trying to impress upon this Jewish teacher. Numbers 21 succinctly narrates the tragedy of the Israelites after they were bitten by fiery poisonous serpents, causing many people to die (Num. 21:6-8). God’s solution was for Moses to make and “lift up” a bronze serpent so that anyone who looked at it would live and not die (Num 21:9). The term “lift up” in the Gospel of John is used to describe the crucifixion and death of Jesus Christ (John 8:28; 12:32-34).1 Jesus explained to Nicodemus that His mission on earth was to be “lifted up” in death so that anyone who believed in Him would not perish in condemnation but be saved into eternal life (John 3:15-18; 1 John 5:11-13). This makes the Cross the heart and center of this nighttime talk about being born again. To be born again of God, Nicodemus had to believe and receive Jesus Christ, the “lifted up” Son of God (John 1:12).

From the Jewish perspective, being born again was synonymous with returning to God (teshuvah).2 It could be said that being born again was the ultimate return to God. From the context of John and the Scriptures, this return is possible only through Jesus Christ, who connects earth to heaven (John 1:51) and offers the only way back to the Father (John 14:6). To Nicodemus, it was clear that believing in Jesus was the great teshuvah—the only way to return to God.

It is important to state here that believing in Jesus is not just mental assent; it goes beyond the mere intellectual or doctrinal belief to a worldview/mindset that encompasses and controls the whole life and person. Other words in the Gospel of John that describe what believing entails include “receive” (John 1:12), “accept” (13:20), “do as I have done” (13:15, 17), “do what I command” (15:14), “listen and follow” (10:27), “love and obey” (14:15, 23; 15:10), and “abide” (15:4, 5, 7, 9). Thus, believing in Jesus is a total acceptance of and surrender to Him as Savior, Messiah, and Lord of one’s life. This is significant because the word “believe” is a key word in the Gospel of John—occurring almost 100 times in the book.3 Its appearance in the present, continuous tense suggests that to believe in Jesus was not to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience but a moment-by-moment and continuous dependence on Him for life—a continual living by faith in Him.

This was challenging for Nicodemus because he knew the attitude of the Pharisees toward Jesus (John 7:31, 32, 45-49; 8:13; 11:47-50, 57; 18:3). Nicodemus was caught between following the Pharisees and believing in Jesus. However, Jesus made it clear that being born again begins with believing in God’s Son.

In addition, the context of the fourth gospel reveals a very significant link between Jesus and the Holy Spirit, the agent of divine transformation. The Gospel of John consistently points out that believing in Jesus results in the giving of the Holy Spirit to the believer (John 1:32, 33; 7:37-39; 14:26; 15:26; 16:7-15; 20:22). This makes the new birth possible in the believer. Once again, being born again begins with believing in Jesus.


It is significant that this night interview (John 3:2) ends with the subject of light and darkness. Based on the prominent feature of dualism in the Gospel of John,4 a clear distinction is made between those who love darkness and those who live in the light (John 3:19-21). Again, Jesus divides humankind into two groups based on their deeds.

This is poignant because Nicodemus appears to belong to the group that loves darkness because he comes to Jesus in the darkness of the night. In reality, Nicodemus probably came to Jesus at this time for fear of the Pharisees (John 12:42, 43). Jesus thus saw him as a representative of the Pharisees—those who love darkness and fear being exposed by the light (John 3:19, 20). By making this distinction between the deeds of light and darkness, Jesus was profoundly asking Nicodemus the question, “To which of these groups do you belong?”

Those who are born again love the light and live in it and by it (John 3:21). Their deeds confirm and testify to the reality of their spiritual change. Because they have been born from above by the Spirit, they exhibit the deeds or fruits of the Spirit, not the deeds or works of the flesh (Gal. 5:17- 23). Therefore, living in the light is the result of divine spiritual transformation (Rom. 13:11-14; Eph. 5:8-14; 1 John 1:5-7; 2:8-11)—the result of being born again.


Based on the context of John 3:1-21, there are three clear points about what being born again entails. It is a spiritual transformation by the Holy Spirit that begins with believing in Jesus. He gives the Holy Spirit to the believer and, consequently, the Spirit works out a divine change in the believer—a spiritual rebirth. This spiritual transformation becomes evident through the deeds that the believer does, not in the darkness of night but in the light.

Being born again means (1) believing in Jesus, (2) being transformed by the Holy Spirit, and (3) living in the Light. Being born of the Spirit is what it means to be born again, believing in Jesus is how the born-again experience begins, and living in the light is the result of being born again. Being born again does not mean speaking in tongues, barking, or laughing hysterically. It is not an ecstatic experience based on human emotions. It is a significant divine life transformation from above.

Nicodemus finally believed Jesus. After Jesus’ death, Nicodemus came into the light to stand for Jesus by helping to bury Him (John 19:38-40).5 His actions proved that he was finally born again.

1 Judith L. Kovacs, “‘Now Shall the Ruler of this World Be Driven Out’: Jesus’ Death as Cosmic Battle in John 12:20-36.” Journal of Biblical Literature 114 (1995): 241; Andreas J. Kostenberger, John: Baker Exegetical Commentary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2004), 128.

2 Phil Bova, “Born Again: A Jewish Concept,” in Ministry, October 1998, 44-47.

3 The Greek verb pisteuo (“to believe”) is used 98 times in the Gospel of John as opposed to 11 times in Matthew, 14 times in Mark, 9 times in Luke, 37 times in Acts, and 54 times in Paul’s writings. See Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John: The New International Commentary on the New Testament, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995), 87:81.

4 Dualism is a key feature in the Gospel of John. It can be seen in the contrasts mentioned in the book: heaven/earth, above/below (3:12, 31), light/ darkness (3:19-21; 8:12; 9:4, 5), belief/unbelief (3:18, 36), life/death (5:24, 28, 29) Spirit/flesh (3:6; 6:63), and God/human (1:12, 13) .

5 “For a time, Nicodemus did not publicly acknowledge Christ but he watched His life and pondered His teachings. . . . When at last Jesus was lifted up on the cross Nicodemus remembered the teaching upon Olivet. . . . The light from that secret interview illumined the cross upon Calvary, and Nicodemus saw in Jesus the world’s Redeemer” (Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages, 176, 177). “After the Lord’s ascension, when the disciples were scattered by persecution, Nicodemus came boldly to the front. He employed his wealth in sustaining the infant church that the Jews had expected to be blotted out at the death of Christ. In time of peril, he who had been so cautious and questioning was firm as a rock, encouraging the faith of the disciples, and furnishing means to carry forward the work of the gospel. He was scorned and persecuted by those who had paid him reverence in other days. He became poor in this world’s goods; yet he faltered not in faith which had its beginning in that night conference with Jesus” (ibid., 177).

Michael Oluikpe, Ph.D., is a lecturer in the School of Theology and Religious Studies at Bugema University, Uganda.