Christianity Is Not an Ethnicity: What Jesus Really Meant When He Said "Born Again"

The most famous passage in all of Scripture is John 3 in which a Pharisee called Nicodemus visits Jesus at night.

During the encounter Jesus uttered the renowned verse sixteen stating, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” This is the foundation for Christianity. It is the gospel encapsulated in one sentence.

Photo by Janko Ferlič

But the impressive nature of the chapter is the deep subtext which eludes the average reader, but enriches the reading for those in the know. This is the amazing thing about scripture. It is multi-layered, complex, and beautiful, but not so technical that the common man cannot understand it.

Reading the scripture is like gazing on the turquoise waters of the Caribbean Sea. One needs no special knowledge to recognize the beauty of the ocean; she simply needs to cast her eyes on the water. Yet were she to collect a few drops of the sea and examine them with a microscope, she would no doubt find tiny life teeming within. Were she to study light refraction in the atmosphere, she would understand how the ocean gets its stunning blues and greens. Were she to inquire into the gravitational pull the moon has on our planet, she would understand the force behind the oceanic tides.

All of John’s writings are deep pools of breathtaking sea water begging to be examined further, but I’d like to home in on verse 3 of the third chapter. This verse records Jesus's words to the furtive Pharisee in which he says, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” This phrase “born again” has a familiar ring to our North American ears. It is as if those two words are actually one word with its own special meaning.


In fact, it’s so common that we rarely ponder its significance. As part of the Christian lexicon born again is just another term to memorize like communion, lent, or the sacred rite of potluck.

And though the exact phrasing and context of Jesus’s words may not have resonated with Nicodemus, he too would have found that term “born again” familiar. How so?

Why Nicodemus Wasn't as Dense as You Might Think

The Mishnah—the Jewish oral tradition laid down in writing around AD 200—details the process for those who wish to convert to Judaism in a tractate called Yebamoth.[1] The last step of the procedure requires that the proselyte be immersed in a ritual bath. When he or she arises from the water, the convert is “deemed to be an Israelite in all respects.”[2] At this point the conversion process is complete, and the man or woman is admitted into the religion. If you keep reading to the following chapter, and in at least two other places, the Mishnah teaches that one who undergoes this conversion is “like a child newly born.”[3] The proselyte is compared to a child because his new life as a Jew has just begun.

But if Nicodemus would have recognized Jesus’s reference to being born anew, why was he confused?

Because he was already a Jew.

He could not understand Jesus’s words in the same vein the Mishnah describes a proselyte—as a child newly born—because he had no need to convert. He was a descendant of Abraham, the man with the promises from God. And Israel was God’s chosen people.

So he had no option but to take Jesus literally, and he said, "How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born?” (John 3:4).

Jesus reinforced the Jewish conversion metaphor by referring to water. He said, “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5). But notice he added a second requirement. One must also be born of the Spirit.

Yes, one must be born of water, but that's not enough. One must also undergo a spiritual transformation; he must be born of the Spirit in order to enter the kingdom of God.

This Is What God Meant by His Promise to Abraham

We Christians take this concept for granted because we’re used to it, but in Jewish culture one is born into the religion. If you have a Jewish mother, you are Jewish. You are part of God’s people. Judaism is not just an ethnicity or a religion, it is an identity. And with that identity comes the inheritance of God’s promises. But Jesus explained to Nicodemus that famous night that no one can be physically born into the kingdom of God, not even Abraham’s descendants. Therefore even Jews had to be born anew into the kingdom, thereby reestablishing their identity in Christ.

Essentially, Jesus told Nicodemus that unlike Judaism, God's kingdom is not an ethnicity. No one can inherit the Kingdom or God's promises. Everyone must choose to convert. They must be born again.

This is amazing news for us gentiles because it means that even though we were not born into Abraham's family tree, we too can enter God’s kingdom when we are born again. Jesus, then, is the fulfillment of the promise God made to Abraham when he said, “All peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Gen. 12:3).

In fact the Old Testament, while often ignored or misunderstood, is really one giant arrow pointing toward Jesus. If you're interested, I've curated the most critical chapters of the OT and assembled them in a guide I call How to Read Through the Old Testament without Getting Lost or Dozing Off.

The best part? It's totally free, just enter your email address below to get a copy:

After meeting with Nicodemus, Jesus had a conversation with a Samaritan whom we know as “The Woman at the Well.” In their discussion, the Lord told the woman that salvation is from the Jews. While she didn’t understand it at first, Jesus was referring to himself. Christ, through the line of David, fulfilled the law and unleashed the kingdom of God on earth so that any who are born again may enter.

You and I did not choose to be born, but we must choose to accept Christ and therefore be born again. Salvation is not a means of inheritance, but rather of faith in Jesus and his work on the cross.

1. Also spelled Yevamoth or Yevamot
3.  (see yeb. 22a, 48b, 97b)