One night a Pharisee named Nicodemus visited Jesus. He had seen the miracles that Jesus was doing and knew that He must have been sent by God. We can infer that Nicodemus must have known or at least suspected that these signs were pointing to “the one who is to come” (see Jesus answer to John the Baptist in Matthew 11:2-6). And he probably heard Jesus proclaim that the “kingdom was at hand” (Mark 1:15).
Knowing that Nicodemus’ thoughts were on the kingdom and the coming King, Jesus responds to Nicodemus by telling him (John 3:3 NET):
I tell you the solemn truth, unless a person is born from above, he cannot see the kingdom of God.
This statement confused Nicodemus. He did not fully understand what regeneration was or why it was needed.
What is regeneration?
In Major Bible Themes, Chafer and Walvoord define regeneration as follows:
… the instantaneous change from a state of spiritual death to a state of spiritual life.
Charles Ryrie in Basic Theology defines it as follows:
It is the work of God that gives new life to the one who believes.
Interestingly enough the Greek word (παλιγγενεσια) translated “regeneration” only appears twice in the NT.
- Titus 3:5 – which refers to salvation and the work of the Holy Spirit
- he saved us …by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit
- Matthew 19:28 – which refers to the renewal of all creation upon the return of Jesus
- Truly I say to you, that you who have followed Me, in the regeneration when the Son of Man will sit on His glorious throne …
Although the term “regeneration” is rarely used, the concept is equated to the term “reborn”. Regeneration is also in view when terms such as “being washed”, “being made alive”, and being made a “new creation” are used (Rom 6:13, 1 Cor 6:11, 2 Cor 5:17, Gal 6:15, Eph 2:4-5, 1Pet 1:3, 1 Pet 1:23).
I think Romans 8:2 is a great verse to anchor our definition of regeneration as the reversal of sin and death.
For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.
Regeneration is clearly the work of the Holy Spirit. It deals with the heart problem and the fact that we are born into this world as dead people.
Why is regeneration important?
Simply put without regeneration no one can see (or inherit) the kingdom of God. Jesus made that clear in John 3:3-6:
I tell you the solemn truth, unless a person is born from above, he cannot see the kingdom of God.
The regenerating work of the Spirit also helps us combat the desires of the flesh and live for God now (Rom 6:13, 8:4, 13:14; Gal 5:16, 5:25).
Why did Jesus expect Nicodemus to know that regeneration was needed?
While there are many verses in the NT regarding the concept of regeneration, why did Jesus admonish Nicodemus?
Do not be amazed that I said to you, ‘You must all be born from above’
Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you don’t understand these things?
Nicodemus, like the other Pharisees and most Israelites, likely assumed that they were able to enter the kingdom of God based on their being physical descendents of Abraham. This is clearly seen in the narrative of John 8:31-38
“We are descendants of Abraham,” they replied, “and have never been anyone’s slaves! How can you say, ‘You will become free’?”
Jesus answered them, “I tell you the solemn truth, everyone who practices sin is a slave of sin. The slave does not remain in the family forever, but the son remains forever. So if the son sets you free, you will be really free.
Dealing with this belief is probably why Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be spiritually born from above, rather than rely on his physical lineage.
What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.
But how should Nicodemus know this? Several OT passages referring to regeneration are suggested as reasons why Nicodemus should have known this.
- Deuteronomy 30:6 – And the Lord your God will circumcise your heart … so that you may live
- Jeremiah 31:31-33 – I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts.
- Ezekiel 11:19 – I will give them one heart, and a new spirit I will put within them
- Ezekiel 36:25-28 – I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you.
Most scholars think that the passage in Ezekiel 36 was the one that Jesus was trying to help Nicodemus remember when He said:
I tell you the solemn truth, unless a person is born of water and spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.
The “water” of the John passage being the “clean water” in Ezekiel that will clean Israel from all its sins. The “spirit” in John is equated to “the new spirit” in Ezekiel that is placed in a person replacing their heart of stone.
These all (with the possible exception of Deut 30:6) refer to the New Covenant and a future work of God. Did Jesus expect Nicodemus to understand that the New Covenant was to accompany the Messiah? Or was Jesus expecting him to recognize the condition of the human heart and the need for regeneration?
I think Jesus was alluding to the Ezekiel 36 passage in John 3:5, but I also agree with the main point that C. Michael Patton, over at the Parchment and Pen, explores:
Nicodemus was rebuked not because there was a particular passage in the Old Testament that escaped his notice, but because he was unaware of humanities spiritual condition since Gen. 3. Nicodemus should have known that people must be born again in order to inherit eternal life and enter the Kingdom precisely because he should have know that they were dead. The only hope for a dead man is resurrection. The only hope for spiritually dead people is to be born again or “from above.”
Since this discussion occurred before Pentecost, how did Jesus expect Nicodemus to respond?
How were OT saints saved?
Several verses make it clear that NT saints (those who responded to God in faith) are reborn (John 1:12-13, 1 John 5:1, 1 Peter 1:23). What about those that lived prior to Pentecost?
To grapple with that question, we probably should consider the answer to the question – how does someone inherit the kingdom? The answer Jesus gave was they must be reborn. The next logical question is – how is someone reborn?
The answer given by John was (1 John 5:1 ESV):
Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God
Living after Pentecost we have an answer to the question. But if we lived prior to that event, how would the question be answered?
I think Paul addresses this in Romans 3:27-4:25. First he makes an assertion.
For we consider that a person is declared righteous by faith apart from the works of the law. (3:28 NET)
And then he uses Abraham to illustrate that salvation is by faith through grace, and always has been (even prior to Pentecost).
What then shall we say that Abraham, our ancestor according to the flesh, has discovered regarding this matter? For if Abraham was declared righteous by the works of the law, he has something to boast about – but not before God. For what does the scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” … For this reason it is by faith so that it may be by grace … (4:1-3,16 NET)
All people who want to be credited as righteous must have the same object of their faith. Their faith must be in God. Only the righteousness graciously given by God in response to faith will allow someone to inherit the kingdom. This is true both before and after Pentecost.
However, the content of that faith is different depending on when a person lives. A person living prior to Jesus coming during the first century would not be expected to believe that Jesus was the Messiah who died for our sins, was buried, and that He was raised on the third day (1 Cor 15:3-4). They would ultimately be saved on the basis of Jesus’ work but this was all still a mystery. Peter tells us that OT prophets struggled to understand the prophecies about the coming Messiah and the salvation He would bring (1 Peter 1:10-11).
Key components to the content of faith (both before and after Pentecost) would include trusting God to keep His promises, reliance on God to provide salvation that we can’t achieve on our own, and a promised Messiah. And the desired results of faith would be obedience to God.
Were OT saints regenerated?
If salvation was by grace and through faith before and after Pentecost, then we might wonder were the OT saints (those who responded to God in faith), regenerated? That is a difficult question. Not all agree on the answer.
I think there are several key things to consider:
- Is regeneration limited to those living under the New Covenant or did the Spirit renew the hearts of those living in prior ages? Do verses that say rebirth is through the resurrection of Jesus (1 Peter 1:3) mean that regeneration did not occur before this event (resurrection or Pentecost)? Or, rather than limiting regeneration to a certain time period, is this verse teaching us that regeneration (like salvation) is based on Jesus’ death and resurrection regardless of when one lives?
- Since no one will inherit the kingdom without being reborn, eventually the pre-Pentecost faithful must be regenerated. This either occurred when they exercised saving faith (like Abraham) or will occur sometime in the future (perhaps at the resurrection of the dead)?
- God appeals to the Israelites to “circumcise their hearts” in Deut 10:16 and Jeremiah 4:4. What was meant by these appeals? Were they meant to help the people realize their sinful condition and the futility of trying to live for God on their own (like the Law (Gal 3:24))? How were people expected to respond to these appeals? Were they actually calls for people to respond in faith to God which would result in receiving a circumcised heart?
- If the human heart is wicked (Gen 6:5) and in need of being renewed so that people can live for God then how did the OT saints do it without being regenerated? How could David be a man after God’s own heart without regeneration (Acts 13:22)? How could Noah, Daniel, and Job live righteous lives (Ezek 14:14)? And what of all the heroes of the faith mentioned in Hebrews 11? Either the heart is wicked and in need of remaking in order to be “alive to God” or it is not.
Do you think OT saints were regenerated when they exercised saving faith?