Life Can Be Repeated
Author: Minister Dongjian Guo
I’m sure everyone has heard the term “chicken soup for the soul.” Chicken soup is nutritious, easy for people to digest, and often used to nourish the body. Therefore, “chicken soup for the soul,” as the name suggests, is a word that is easy for people to understand and at the same time can comfort and inspire the soul, or a short story. For example, some people say, “Life can’t be duplicated, life can’t be repeated, you must cherish yourself.” The original intention of such inspirational words is to remind people to cherish life and cherish time. The original intention is good. However, these words contain some ideas that are “paradoxical” or only partially true. It is said that life cannot be repeated. Is that true? The Bible tells us that life can be repeated because people can be born again.
Today we are going to look at the dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus about rebirth recorded in the Gospel of John (John 3:1-15) to think about the truth of rebirth in the Bible. From those scriptures, we can clearly see that there were only three rounds of the dialogue: Nicodemus said one sentence, and Jesus answered. The apostle John recorded this conversation very concisely, without the slightest sloppiness. I believe that there was a purpose for him to do so.
Based on the development of the dialogue, we can divide the passage naturally into three paragraphs, one for each exchange. Verses 1-3, the first round, say that a man named Nicodemus came to see Jesus at night. He said something to Jesus, and Jesus answered him — it’s that simple. However, Jesus’ answer was like “the bull’s head is not the horse’s mouth,” as if Jesus did not listen to what Nicodemus said and did not pick up Nicodemus’ words at all.
Why did Jesus unexpectedly say, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God”? We need to understand a little bit about the context of this passage. What drew Nicodemus to see Jesus that night? I think that’s what John chapter two tells us.
John 2:23-25: “Now when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing. But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man.”
The word “entrust” here means “trust” in the original text. That is, Jesus did not trust them because he saw people’s hearts and knew that their beliefs were superficial and only for their own good, rather than genuine repentance. Jesus Christ came to the world to solve the problem of humans’ sin, not to appeal to people’s hearts. Faith based on miracles alone is not enough.
I think Nicodemus was also drawn to the miracles Jesus did. Who was Nicodemus? The scriptures tell us that he was a Pharisee and a Jewish official. In later scriptures, Jesus called him the teacher of the Jews. Therefore, Nicodemus was an educated man who was very knowledgeable. In today’s parlance, he was a senior white-collar worker. However, we can see from the scriptures that Nicodemus was humble and sincere. He had a vague idea of who Jesus was; at least he realized that Jesus was sent to this world by God. Nicodemus approached Jesus to show that he wanted to seek the truth. When Nicodemus came that night, Jesus knew what he needed. Jesus ignored his praise and piety and directly told him what he needed most. Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
What Jesus said is like saying to Nicodemus, “You must be born again!” I believe that Nicodemus would have been confused when hearing this; so would many people who are living in the present age. In our minds, what kind of person needs to be born again? Of course, it’s those rascals and morally corrupt people. As a Pharisee, Nicodemus obeyed the strictest religious and moral standards, so he would not have thought that he needed to be born again.
What Jesus meant by these words was that a man must have a new life in order to enter the kingdom of God. “See the kingdom of God” written here is the same as “enter the kingdom of God” written later. In other words, the old life cannot enter the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God represents the holiness and righteousness of God. We often use the word “heaven” to represent the kingdom of God. That is to say, people must have complete life renewal; otherwise, they cannot enter heaven.
Nicodemus did not understand the meaning of being born again, as the later passages (verses 4-8) tell us. When Jesus told him that he must be born again, Nicodemus had no idea what that was like. Is rebirth a new birth? This word has this meaning, but it by no means refers to the rebirth of the flesh. Nicodemus first thought about physical rebirth because he placed great importance on outward actions.
The “re” of “rebirth” has two meanings in the original text, one means “again” and the other means “from above.” Obviously, what Jesus emphasized here is the second meaning: rebirth comes from God, is the work of the Holy Spirit, and is accomplished by God through the Holy Spirit, not by man. It becomes clearer if you compare verses 3 and 5: “be born again” corresponds to “born of water and the Spirit.” Some people interpret “born of water” and “born of the Spirit” as “immersion in water” and “baptism of the Holy Spirit.” In principle, this explanation makes sense, but it is not what Jesus meant here. “Water” is often used as a metaphor for “God’s Word” and “God’s Speech” in the Bible. Water has a cleansing effect. Likewise, God’s Word can cleanse and renew a person’s spirituality.
1 Peter 1:23 says, “Since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God.” In fact, in the days of the Old Testament, God had already revealed the truth of rebirth to the Israelites. Ezekiel 36:25-27 says, “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleanness, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.”
These two passages in the Bible have explained to us what it means to be born again. To be born again means that at some point God puts His Spirit in you, and it roots deeply in your heart. From then on, new desires, new motivations, new strengths, and new life are planted in you. To be born again is not pruning the old life, but replanting. It’s a living change that enables people to break free from the bondage of sin and live by obeying God’s Word.
Nicodemus could not understand what it was like to be born again. In fact, we cannot understand the mystery of rebirth, either. Rebirth is a mystery because it is both visible and invisible. Jesus used the word “wind” as a metaphor for the mystery of rebirth. We cannot see the wind, but we can hear it and feel and see it blowing. The same is true of rebirth.
We don’t know how the Holy Spirit works in people’s hearts, but we can see the changes that the Holy Spirit brings to people. When we see a person who used to have temper tantrums become soft-spoken one day, we know God is working in his heart. When we see an arrogant man become humble one day, we know that the wind of the Holy Spirit is continuously blowing in him. This is what God does for all who come to Him by believing in Him. The power of the Holy Spirit changes them and changes their lives.
In the following verses, 9-12, Jesus told Nicodemus that rebirth is a heavenly thing and cannot be thought of in terms of earthly experience. If you think about it in terms of earthly experience, it will definitely not make sense. That’s why Nicodemus got stuck. He asked Jesus, “How can these things be?” Jesus responded in a tone of reproach, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?” Immediately after that, Nicodemus did not speak again. We never see Nicodemus speaking again until the end of chapter 3. He began to humbly listen to the teachings of Jesus.
In verse 12, Jesus said to Nicodemus, “If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?” What are heavenly things? The kingdom of God, heaven, and eternal life are heavenly things. The Lord Jesus said very clearly here that such things are beyond our understanding; that understanding comes from our experience, and there is no way to understand what we have not experienced. Only the Lord Jesus can tell us heavenly things because only Jesus came down from heaven and went up again.
Jesus told Nicodemus from the very beginning that one must be born again, or he cannot enter heaven and have eternal life. Rebirth is what the Lord Jesus taught us to do on earth. However, rebirth comes from God and cannot be achieved by human effort. Next, in verses 13-15, Jesus explained how rebirth becomes real. Here Jesus called himself “the Son of Man.” Nicodemus, a man who was familiar with the Old Testament, must have known “the Son of Man” was prophesied in the book of Daniel (Daniel 7:13-14). “The Son of Man” in the hearts of the Jews was the Messiah, the Savior. This was like telling Nicodemus that Jesus is the Christ who would come down from heaven to save the world.
Jesus said, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” Jesus quoted the story of Moses lifting the serpent in Numbers 21. In those days, the Israelites complained several times during their travels in the wilderness, which aroused God’s wrath. As a result, fiery serpents were sent to the Israeli camp and bit many people. In the cries of repentance from the people, God instructed Moses to make a bronze serpent. Anyone bitten by the snake could look at the bronze serpent and be healed.
The greatest meaning of the bronze serpent was to forecast the redemption of Jesus Christ. Jesus said he was like the serpent that Moses lifted! The bronze serpent was lifted up in the wilderness to save those who looked up. Jesus Christ was lifted up on the cross to draw people to Him. The difference is that Jesus was resurrected three days after his death, showing God’s authority and power to overcome death and showing the beginning of a new life as well!
The snake is seen by the Jews as an unclean animal and a symbol of sin. Being able to be saved by “looking at the bronze snake” sounds “absurd.” Likewise, the doctrine of the cross, considered foolish by unbelievers, is the power of God to us who are saved. Jesus left heaven, came to this world, took a human body, and died for human sins. Nicodemus asked Jesus: How can a man be born again? The answer Jesus told him was: believe. A man can be born again if he believes in Jesus Christ. We were born again by believing in Christ. No matter how sinful we may be, we will be redeemed if we look up to Jesus and turn back to God.
This sentence of Jesus broke the inherent concept in Nicodemus’ mind and broke the dogma of other religions in the world. People usually think that entering heaven depends on their own efforts: doing good deeds and self-cultivation. As long as a man does well enough, he will definitely go to heaven. However, making up for human sins by doing good and accumulating virtue makes people self-righteous, complacent, and proud! So, the Bible says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9) Salvation is the grace of God, and the only thing we can do is to accept it by faith.
Faith is not what you feel, and faith is not “understandable but indescribable.” The Tao Te Ching says, “The Way that can be told of is not an Unvarying Way.” It means that the Way that can be said is not the eternal Way. However, the truth of Christianity can be expressed in words. “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” (Romans 10:17) “Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.” (James 1:18) Here we see the relationship between faith and rebirth: hearing the word believing the word being born by faith (rebirth). Faith comes from hearing. We have a new life by believing the true word and accepting the salvation of Jesus Christ. This process is rebirth; rebirth is a process, and it does not happen instantaneously.
Regarding how sinners are born by the Holy Spirit, many brothers and sisters believe that sinners must confess their sins and repent first, and then the Holy Spirit will regenerate them. In fact, the Bible teaches otherwise. Confession of sin and repentance are not prerequisites for rebirth, but the results of rebirth. Sinners repent because they have a repentant heart, and a repentant heart is a gift from God. When the words of God enter our hearts, the Holy Spirit moves us to confess our sins. The process is: knowing sin confessing sin repenting sin being disgusting by sin renouncing sin. Confessing and repenting sin until being cut off from sin must begin with knowing sin.
The Lord Jesus said: What is born of the Spirit is spirit. Just as a person who loves cleanness must clean the room when he enters a dirty room. Because the Holy Spirit is holy, when the Holy Spirit enters a sinner’s heart, the Holy Spirit will surely awaken him, make him realize his sin, and make him realize God’s hatred of sin. He will be ashamed of his sin, then repent. A person who is willing to confess his sins and repent may not necessarily know Jesus, but a person who knows Jesus will surely confess his sins and repent. Nicodemus’ first sentence when he saw Jesus was: I know that you have come to be a teacher. Jesus said: You will never be born again if you think that I am just a teacher who teaches you how to save yourself and not a savior who will accomplish everything that you cannot do for yourself.
Has Nicodemus been born again? I believe he has. There are two other references to Nicodemus in John’s Gospel. One is in chapter 7, when the Jewish leaders tried to arrest Jesus; Nicodemus came out to defend Jesus. Another is in chapter 19, after Jesus was crucified, Nicodemus took myrrh and agarwood and, along with one of Jesus’ disciples, wrapped Jesus’ body and buried Him. As a Pharisee and the leader of the Jewish Sanhedrin, Nicodemus originally belonged to a group of people who were hostile to Jesus. However, because he knew Jesus, Nicodemus lived a life different from other Pharisees.
The world says that life cannot be repeated, but Christians say that life can be repeated! From the day we believe in the Lord, the Holy Spirit puts a new life in us; this life is a new beginning, and it grows up gradually. As Paul said, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” (2 Corinthians 5:17) I hope we Christians don’t just say we have been born but live a regenerated life!
Author：Minister Dongjian Guo