In John 3, Jesus introduces the concept of being born from above with a Pharisee named Nicodemus. Most modern English translations of the Bible translate John 3:7 as, “you must be born again” in reference to the new birth of a believer. The Greek word translated “again” is “anoethen” and its basic meaning is from above or from a higher place. Of the thirteen times it appears in Scripture, John 3:3 and 7 are the only times when it is translated “again” rather than “from above”. It is my conviction that Jesus was referring to a birth that only could come from heaven and not earth and His intention was to emphasize this fact. The new birth is the result of the Spirit of God coming into a person’s life and establishing a spiritual life in the midst of the natural life.
Nicodemus’ question to Jesus in verse 4 indicates that he did not understand what Jesus was saying, so Jesus explained it further. In verse 5, Jesus clarifies the issue for Nicodemus by qualifying that the natural birth is of water while the spiritual birth is of the Spirit. Then in verse 6, He makes a profound statement that is intended to bring about a new understanding of the natural birth and natural life in comparison to the spiritual birth and the spiritual life. The natural birth and life are derived from the flesh, of the earthly, while the spiritual birth comes from the Spirit of God, from above and the spiritual life is allowing the Spirit to direct our lives just as the wind blows where it wishes in verse 8.
The battle for control
Man is a trichotomous being (three parts), made up of body, soul and spirit. The body is the physical, material part, while the soul and spirit are immaterial. I don’t want to get too technical, but the soul is defined by the mind, heart, emotions, conscience, and self-consciousness (awareness of self). The human spirit is the place in man that can commune with the Holy Spirit. The human spirit died in Genesis 3 when Adam and Eve fell and it remains dead in each person until the moment of the new birth, the moment that one decides to accept Jesus as God and believe (trust) in Him for his future.
There is a battle for control of each believer as illustrated in Galatians 5:17-18, “For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, so that you may not do the things that you please. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Law.” This “war” between the flesh (meaning the soul) and the Holy Spirit is about control. The soul wishes to be in charge and make all the important decisions while the Holy Spirit is looking for the human spirit to reign. The soul can be religious by doing what it can to live up to the Ten Commandments (the Law) and its religious requirements, but the Holy Spirit is looking to lead the believer apart from the Law. This puts God in charge.
The spirit of man
This battle between soul and spirit centers on the Word of God. In Hebrews 4:12, the Bible tells us that the Word of God is like a two-edged sword and is able to divide that which is of the soul from that which is of the spirit and is a judge (“kritikos” – critic) of the thoughts and intentions of the heart. The Word defines for us where our thoughts and intentions come from – the soul (natural man) or the spirit (from the Holy Spirit).
In the New Testament, there are three particular verses that speak to the human spirit, being referred to as the “inner man”. In Ephesians 3:16, “that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in the inner man.” The power of God moves from the Holy Spirit into the human spirit to give the believer a life of abundance. In 2 Corinthians 4:16, “Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day.” This renewal is the work of the Holy Spirit within the believer as we agree with His Word and His work. And in Romans 7:22-23, “For I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man, but I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members.” The victorious life comes from the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus who has set me free from the law of sin and death (Romans 8:2).
Tower of Babel
In John 3:13, Jesus tells us that “no one has ascended into heaven, but He who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.” The spiritual life is the result of God coming to us and not man reaching God. This is the exact mistake that the people of Babel, led by Nimrod, made in trying to “make for ourselves a name.” The tower of Babel was man’s attempt, through human effort to bridge the gap between earth and heaven. Man always tries to accomplish things, even religious matters, by human effort, without God’s help. In this way, man can take credit for his work. This is why salvation is a work of God alone and it is the Son of God that delivers salvation to man by grace from heaven to earth. No matter how good man’s efforts may be, they can never measure up to the standard God’s justice demands (Isaiah 64:6).
The old covenant provided an opening for religious man to make himself righteous through the exercise through adherence to the letter of man created or less important laws to make them appear spiritual to the masses. Jesus exposed their basic difficulty in Matthew 23:23, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others.” The weightier provisions of the law represent His heart: justice and mercy and faithfulness and the Pharisees were not after His heart. The religious Jew misses the mark because he wishes to establish his own righteousness (Romans 10:3). The new covenant provides no room for self-righteousness.
Justified apart from the Law
In Romans 3:20-21, “because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin. But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets.” The works of the Law, human effort to maintain the laws of God apart from God, cannot satisfy God’s standards of justice. Righteousness, representing the standards of God, comes to man apart from human effort to maintain His standards. It comes by faith (“pistis” – being persuaded, having a conviction, trusting) in the person and the work of Christ. And this same opportunity to be righteous is not restricted to any particular group of people, but is offered to all in the same way, without distinction. The old covenant gives the false impression that it is the result of human effort, while the new covenant depends completely upon the work of God, Himself in Christ whom fulfills His just demands and invites those who become tired of their efforts apart from God to trust in God’s work alone.
According to John 1:12, God’s offer to become children of God is a right or privilege reserved for those who receive or accept Him strictly on the basis of faith in what God has done and not any effort associated with the will or the flesh. Being born of God means accepting the free gift of salvation on God’s terms. In 1 John 5:1-4, John writes again about this experience of being born of God and the effect it has on a believer to transform from the inside. Our faith in who Jesus is provides the vehicle God uses to bring us into the beloved (Ephesians 1:6), the place where I love and am loved and this faith also gives us the victory to overcome all the obstacles that the world throws our way.
A new heart and spirit
The prophet Ezekiel was given a vision of the new covenant relationship with God would look like in the Kingdom Age. In Ezekiel 36:25-27, “Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. “Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. “I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances.” Since Jeremiah’s original promise of the new covenant was intended for the Jews during this same period, this passage in Ezekiel also applies to believers in the New Testament age. It tells us that God is the one who makes our hearts clean and gives us a new spirit so that we will be able to walk in His statutes and be careful to observe His ordinances.
In Genesis 28, the focus of God’s plan now focuses on Jacob as the patriarch instead of his father, Isaac. Jacob leaves his father, Isaac’s house to go back to Haran to find a wife for himself with his uncle Laban. This event is the beginning of God’s focus on Jacob as the patriarch instead of Isaac, who is elderly now. After leaving Beersheba, he travels the entire day and needs to find a place to stay for the night. This is Bethel, meaning “house of God” since Jacob had a profound experience with God. God gives him a vision of a ladder going between earth and heaven, giving Jacob encouragement that God would honor him as the new patriarch in spite of his shortcomings.
This ladder, with angels ascending and descending on it is a picture of this new relationship with God that the New Covenant provides. Man is weak and continues with his sin nature after salvation, yet God is still with him in his humanity. In 2 Corinthians 4:7, Paul tells us that “we have a treasure within the earthen vessel, so that the surpassing greatness will be of God and not from ourselves.” This ladder speaks of the riches of the life that we can have with God within the earthen vessel (human weakness) so that we recognize His power and ability and rely on that instead of our own strength. Being born from above allows us to experience life in the Holy Spirit and all the benefits it provides.