The New Birth is an Old Truth

The ‘new birth’ Jesus describes in John 3 was a concept which Nicodemus should have recognized and understood from his knowledge of the Old Testament

The Old Testament is a Christian book. While many throughout the history (and even today) have been embarrassed by it and have sought to downplay its significance, outright reject it, or suggest that we “unhitch” ourselves from it, the Old Testament nevertheless is a Christian book. This is because if we begin to unhitch ourselves from these inspired writings, we will find ourselves unhitched from the very gospel that Jesus himself and his Apostles preached.

Jesus repeatedly used scriptures and concepts from the Old Testament to validate his identity (Luke 20:41-44), his authority (Luke 19:45-20:18), and his mission (Luke 4:16-21); he said, “it is they that bear witness about me.” (John 5:39; also Luke 24:27, 44-47). The symphony of the Gospels resounds with the truth that the Lord Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of all the hopes and expectations of the entire Old Testament, from Moses to the Prophets.  But even the message that Jesus came to proclaim—the good news of the kingdom of God and salvation by his grace—is a message found in the pages of the Old Testament.

“Are You the Teacher of Israel?”

Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus contains one of the most clear-cut presentations of gospel: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). Here, Jesus is proclaiming the truth that one must be spiritually reborn—made completely new, transformed, and given new life from above—in order to enter into and experience God’s saving rule. This is the doctrine of regeneration, first mentioned by John in his prologue: “To all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:12-13). It’s the miraculous change from spiritual death to spiritual life, a change entirely accomplished by God the Spirit.

When Nicodemus heard this, he marveled at Jesus’ words and asked, “How can these things be” (John 3:9)? Jesus, however, rebuked him: “Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’. . . Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?” (3:7, 10). Nicodemus was the premier teacher of Israel, an established religious authority, which explains why Jesus likewise marveled at his failure to understand this concept. In other words, the ‘new birth’ was a concept which Nicodemus should have recognized and understood from his extensive knowledge of the Old Testament scriptures!

The New Birth in the Old Testament

The new birth is well-attested to in the Old Testament, particularly in the prophetic writings of Isaiah and Ezekiel. It involves the idea of Israel’s return from exile and new birth as a nation—though they rejected Yahweh as father, the God who gave them birth (Deut. 32:18)—but also the concept of a new covenant with all its promised blessing of clean hearts and inner transformation.


In Isaiah, God declares that he is about to do a new thing among his people (Isa. 42:9; 43:19) in spite of their repeated idolatry and transgression of the covenant: “Thus says the Lord who made you, who formed you from the womb and will help you: Fear not, O Jacob my servant, Jeshurun [my beloved] whom I have chosen. For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour my Spirit upon your offspring, and my blessing on your descendants” (44:2-3). Here we find the images of both water and the spirit, two images which Jesus refers to in his conversation with Nicodemus (John 3:5). Isaiah even uses the vivid imagery of a woman crying out in labor to illustrate the anticipation of the new things God will do for his people (42:14). The following chapters go on to describe Israel’s return from exile and their new birth as the faithful people of God, and even the restoration of creation.


Continuing to develop this idea of the rebirth of the people of God, Ezekiel (as well as Jeremiah) elaborates on the promised new covenant. He reveals that this covenant will involve cleansing with water, a new heart, and a new spirit:

I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, 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. You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God (36:24-28; see also 11:19-20; 16:60).

These new covenant realities are then graphically illustrated for Ezekiel in an apocalyptic vision, where he witnesses a valley full of dry bones come to life. The bones represented the hopeless and cut-off people of Israel which, at the word of God, miraculously come together, are covered with sinews and flesh, receive the breath of God, and live (37:1-14).

You Must Be Born Again

With this background in place regarding the old truth of the new birth, Nicodemus surely should have understood Jesus’ teaching on the necessity of being born again. Given the repeated failures of Israel throughout their nation’s history, due to the depravity of all mankind—a radical corruption still evident today—a new birth from above is the only remedy for the heart of sinful man. No amount of religious ritual, pious service, or good intentions are sufficient to cleanse us from all unrighteousness and bring us from death to life (Eph. 2:1-3).

Nicodemus may have been the teacher of Israel, but apart from God’s sovereign grace, he was dead in his sins. But the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared when he sent his Son into the world to save us, “not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life” (Titus 3:5-7).

The Old Testament is a Christian book. It is the inspired word of God that makes us “wise for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ” (2 Tim. 3:15). While we ought to give ourselves to the study of the Old Testament to more fully understand the gospel of Jesus Christ, we must remember that a mere head knowledge of God’s word is not sufficient to enter the kingdom of heaven. No; we must be born again.