Frequently Asked Questions
What is the New Birth? Introduction
Sometime in 1979, I was approached by an old schoolmate who I had not seen for about seven years. We met at a local fast food restaurant and decided to sit down and bring each other up to date on our lives. At some point in the conversation, my friend informed me that the most important thing that had happened to him was the joy of being 'born again'. At first I hesitated to ask him what he meant, for I had been a Christian for about 8 years and had even taught in the Lutheran church. But after having repeated this phrase several times, my curiousity trumped my pride and I asked him what he meant. For the next 3-1/2 hours he told me. My friend did the best he could to explain this concept from a traditional Christian point of view. It was at this point that my relationship with the God of Israel began to turn another corner.
What exactly does it mean to be 'born again'? Does this English translation do the intended message justice? I have decided to spend the next few teachings addressing a subject that I am occasionally asked about. Where is the new birth taught in Torah? Traditionally, this teaching begins and ends with Yochanan 3:3-7 and 1 Kefa 1:23. It is generally understood to be an exclusively New Testament teaching. As it is with any New Testament doctrine, we must approach this teaching with one of two biases. Either we begin our search for truth by presupposing that this subject is being broached for the first time in Yochanan's gospel, or Y'shua is once again stringing together His own word, as foretold by the prophets. The second presupposition clearly answers Y'shua's comments to Nicodemus about his failure to understand what He was teaching. I, too, will begin by quoting the relevent passages given to us in Yochanan 3:1-12. But first, there are a few relatively obscure verses in the chapter preceding this short discourse that I feel is directly related to the background of my teaching on this subject.
"Then answered the Yehudim and said unto him, What sign shewest thou unto us, seeing that thou doest these things? Y'shua answered and said unto them, Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up. Then said the Yehudim, Forty and six years was this temple in building, and wilt thou rear it up in three days? But he spake of the temple of his body. When therefore he was risen from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this unto them; and they believed the scripture, and the word which Y'shua had said."
Yochanan, obviously writing this after the fact, reveals that after the resurrection of the Messiah, the disciples believed the scripture AND the word of Y'shua as well. What scripture are they referring to? Well, I can assure you that there is more than one, for this comment validates what Y'shua will say later, that is recorded by Luke in his gospel.
"And he said unto them, These are the words which I spake unto you, while I was yet with you, that all things must be fulfilled, which were written in the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the psalms, concerning me. Then opened he their understanding, that they might understand the scriptures, and said unto them, Thus it is WRITTEN, and thus it behoved Messiah to suffer, and to rise from the dead the third day: and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. And ye are witnesses of these things.
Even though my purpose is not to teach specifically on this passage, I cannot help but take you to one of the places where the 'rebuilding' of the temple (tabernacle) was prophesied. One of my later teachings will tightly focus on Y'shua's statement in Mattityahu 16, that is translated in the KJV as 'on this rock I will build my church', but should read, 'according to Torah, I will rebuild the habitation of my people'. In ‘Amos 9:11 we are told that in the last days God will raise up the tabernacle of David that is fallen and will 'rebuild' Him as in the days of old. During the times of Messiah, the temple had become the permanent structure of the tabernacle. There are a few comments to make on this passage in ‘Amos. It is tempting to get real involved with the Hebrew grammar here, but for the sake of simplicity and expediency I will get to the bottom line. The most glaring aspect of this scripture in the Hebrew text is the fact that these ruins will be uveniytiyha. This word is translated as 'build' in most translations. It is structured (pun intended) from the root banah. This word is the root word from which we get the word 'son' from. Depending on the context, this word can mean either 'to build' or to 'rebuild'. (Consult any Hebrew lexicon you wish.) It's Greek equivilent is anoikodomeo, and is translated as 'to build' or 'to rebuild'. (Consult any Greek lexicon you wish.) Whether it is used in context with our verses in Yochanan chapter 2, Mattityahu 16, or our text in ‘Amos 9, the application is the same. In all three texts the context refers to the restructuring of something that has previously existed. In ‘Amos it was the tabernacle, in Yochanan it is the Messiah Himself, and in Mattityahu it is His assembly. The tabernacle is nothing new (neos (Gk.), chadash (Heb.), the Messiah is nothing new (neos, chadash), and the assembly of the God of Israel is nothing new (neos, chadash).
This is just one example of many in which the student of scripture and truth is drawn to the inescapable conclusion that the teaching of the Holy Spirit in the Brit Chadashah is the fulfillment of prophecy previously revealed by the same Holy Spirit in the Tenakh. This is precisely why we are told by the Messiah in Yochanan 14:26 that the Ruach HaQodesh was given to bring the Word of God to our remembrance. It is because of numerous translation processes that much of what has already been previously revealed is difficult to recognize. It takes a prepared, humble heart that concedes that God is the same yesterday, today, and forever, that will find the absolute perfect harmony and symbiotic relationship between the old and new covenants. Nothing would be more pleasing than to stay with our ‘Amos context, but we must move on to our text.
"There was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Yehudim: The same came to Y'shua by night, and said unto him, Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him."
Yochanan begins this discourse with a little background of the ruler who confronts Y'shua one night. Nicodemus (would have been known as Rav Nakdimon) is not only a Pharisee, but a well respected ruler or leader of this sect. He would have had a great reputation as a living example of a keeper of God's commandments. From the perspective of the local Pharisaical leadership, Y'shua should have been coming to Nakdimon, rather than the other way around. Nevertheless, the ruler comes to the Ruler of rulers. Bible commentators have always found it interesting that this ruler comes to Y'shua at night. I agree with many, that he comes to Messiah, as we all do, in darkness, and leaves in light, or at least more light. It is no coincidence that the end of this discourse ends with the following statement by Y'shua.
"But he that doeth truth cometh to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest, that they are wrought in God."
It is commonly taught in traditional Christian commentaries that the statement that Nakdimon makes in the second verse reveals his ignorance of WHO the Messiah was to be. While this may be true, Y'shua will appeal to a fundamental, provocative teaching from this ruler's own textbooks to reveal Himself. Y'shua's answer to the statement of Nakdimon is the subject of our text. His question is not a response to Nakdimon's inability to discern WHO He is. When Nakdimon quips to Y'shua that He could not do these miracles except God be WITH Him, Y'shua responds by telling Nakdimon that he must be born from above in order to see the kingdom of God. It is this writer's humble opinion that Y'shuas teaching on the 'new birth' is His way of revealing from the scriptures (Old Testament) Nakdimons need to 'receive' the seed of the woman, and at the same time to reveal who this seed is that will 'birth' him as a son of the living God.
I find it fascinating that most Bible commentators concede to the notion that this short, but absolutely imperative phrase is only mentioned three times in scripture. In the course of a book that contains over 31,000 verses, the most important litmus test of entrance into the kingdom of God is mentioned only three times! I can come to only three conclusions in my mind as to the meaning behind these, on the surface, and almost oh! by the way, words. The first possibility is that this teaching is infrequent because it is not important. I hope to soon discourage that likelihood. The second prospect is that it IS the only way to enter the kingdom of God and God hopes and prays that you manage to find where He hid these three verses. Naaaaaa. The third probability, as it is with most consequential teachings, is that the Messiah is teaching something that is already stated multiple times in the Tenakh by the prophets of old and is nothing new in the Brit Chadashah.
Before launching into the rest of our text, I would like to be faithful to my usual modus operandi and go back to the beginning to trace the words that Y'shua uses in His discussion with Nakdimon. Next time, we will identify our terms in the Greek and Hebrew language and follow their use in the Tenakh.