It is a compelling scene full of meaningful detail when a member of the Sanhedrin named Nicodemus, came to Christ by night. The first question we must ask is, why by night, rather than the light of day? Was he coming at this time of day to the astonishing young rabbi, whose works the rulers of the Jews had heard about, because he did not want anyone to know of this meeting or because he did not want it noised about? Did he think that somehow his position might be compromised if he took the words and works of Jesus seriously? We can assume this is the case and that John put the phrase “by night” in to indicate that Nicodemus didn’t want to openly meet with Christ.
His first words to the Savior are even more puzzling. “We know that thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him” (John 3:2). Who is this “we” to whom he refers? Is it other members of the Sanhedrin? Other elders of the people who do not want to openly acknowledge the possibility of Christ’s position? Again, we can’t be certain, but the “we” is intriguing, especially in light of the power and position the Sanhedrin held in Jerusalem.
The Bible Dictionary at the back of our scriptures gives us a brief but important look at this ruling body of the Jews. There we learn that the Sanhedrin was:
The Jewish senate and the highest native court in both civil and ecclesiastical matters. Under the presidency of the high priest is regulated the whole internal affairs of the Jewish nation…
It consisted of 71 members and had an aristocratic character, being drawn from the three classes of chief priests, scribes and elders. In the time of the Lord the Pharisees had the predominating influence upon it.
The powers of the Sanhedrin were extensive, for the Greek and Roman masters of the Jews granted them a considerable amount of self-government. From the New Testament we gather that it was the supreme court of justice in all cases, and that it had officers of its own who arrested accused persons and carried out its sentences and decrees. Questions involving life and death were removed from its cognizance 40 years before the destruction of Jerusalem.
It is clear, then, that it is no small thing that a member of the powerful Sanhedrin would lay pride aside and come to Christ, acknowledging that God was with him, and that Nicodemus, not only a ruler but a Pharisee, would ask doctrinal questions of him.
Jesus made a startling pronouncement to Nicodemus. “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). Nicodemus’s response seems almost simple, surely not the product of a sophisticated scholar of the scripture. “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter the second time into the mother’s womb, and be born?” (John 3:4) Yet, this was the most logical question for one trained to believe that having been born of Abraham’s seed gave the Jews a special distinction. Why would one ever need to be born again, when your lineage was already a chosen and promised one?
The Meaning of Born Again
Being “born again” is a central gospel concept. Much of the Christian world believes that you are “born again” merely by declaring Jesus as your Savior. Many suppose that it is something that happens in an instant.
Latter-day Saints see being “born again” differently. It is a process that begins at baptism. In fact, the very symbolism of baptism clearly teaches the idea. When we are immersed at baptism, symbolically the natural man is being laid into the grave, and then when we are brought again out of the water, we are born again. It is a process that began as we had faith in Christ, repented of our sins, and desired to take upon ourselves his name.
Just as when you are born to your physical parents, you take upon yourself your father’s name, so when you are born again at baptism, you begin the process of becoming one of the children of the covenant. As King Benjamin told his people, “And now because of the covenant which ye have made ye shall be called the children of Christ, his sons and his daughters; for behold, this day he hath spiritually begotten you; for ye say that your hearts are changed through faith on his name; therefore, ye are born of him and have become his sons and his daughters (Mosiah 5:7). We become spiritual children of Christ because we are made new and born again through his atonement.
We learn in Moses 6:59, “That by reason of transgression cometh the fall, which fall bringeth death, and inasmuch as ye were born into the world by water, and blood, and the spirit, which I have made, and so became of dust a living soul, even so ye must be born again into the kingdom of heaven, of water, and of the Spirit, and be cleansed by blood, even the blood of mine Only Begotten; that ye might be sanctified from all sin, and enjoy the words of eternal life in this world, and eternal life in the world to come, even immortal glory.” Notice that physical birth involves blood, water, and spirit, and being born again uses the same three elements—blood, water and Spirit. In this case, Christ supplies the blood and water through his atoning sacrifice in Gethsemane and on the cross, and we are born again as the Spirit acts upon us and gradually changes our nature.
When we are baptized we are born again as the children of Christ, but our birth is not only accomplished with this ordinance. It is the beginning of a journey.
We need to come to the place so beautifully described by King Benjamin’s people:
And they all cried with one voice, saying: Yea, we believe all the words which thou hast spoken unto us; and also, we know of their surety and truth, because of the Spirit of the Lord Omnipotent, which has wrought a mighty change in us, or in our hearts, that we have no more disposition to do evil, but to do good continually (Mosiah 5:2).
A Mighty Change in our Hearts
We understand, then, that to be “born again” is a process, not a moment. Empowered by the atonement and guided by the Spirit, we seek to move from being “natural men” to being truly children of God. Our hearts, however good they may seem to ourselves, must undergo a mighty change, for God is not trying to make us merely “nice” or “effective” or even “spiritually inclined.” He is trying to take us from where we are to where he is—in our capacities, our knowledge, our vision, our understanding, our love.
Apostle Parley P. Pratt said, “An intelligent being, in the image of God, possesses every organ, attribute, sense, sympathy, affection that is possessed by God himself. But these are possessed by man, in his rudimental state, in a subordinate sense of the word. Or, in other words, these attributes are in embryo and are to be gradually developed. They resemble a bud, a germ, which gradually develops into bloom, and then, by progress, produces the mature fruit after its own kind.”[i]
We sometimes mistake the process of being born again, to line upon line become like our Father in Heaven, as a do-it-yourself process. “If I try really, really hard, and check off everything on my list of things to do, and write down my New Year’s resolutions and somehow muster enough will to fulfill them, then I can become good.” That describes a fundamental flaw in thinking. Certainly, we obey the commandments, but the key to the process is submitting our will to God’s, seeking repentance and change through the atonement, and relying on revelation through the Spirit to lead us to that mighty change of heart. To bring to pass our immortality and eternal life are God’s work and his glory and he is capable of doing his work, if we will let him. If we will not resist him, but trust him and learn to follow his Spirit, he promises he can do great things with us.
How could we, who in this mortal state, cannot completely comprehend God, make ourselves like him, without his specific tutoring through his Spirit?
Alma asked, “And now behold, I ask of you, my brethren of the church, have ye spiritually been born of God? Have ye received his image in your countenances? Have ye experienced this mighty change in your hearts?” (Alma 5:14) This is a process, and in Alma’s next question, he directs his listeners to the key to that process. “Do ye exercise faith in the redemption of him who created you?”
We are called upon to make the atonement the centerpiece of our lives, draw on its power daily, pray to be taught through the Spirit, yield ourselves gladly to the experience that God provides for our growth.
Nephi teaches us:
And now, my beloved brethren, after ye have gotten into this strait and narrow path, I would ask if all is done? Behold, I say unto you, Nay; for ye have not come thus far save it were by the word of Christ with unshaken faith in him, relying wholly upon the merits of him who is mighty to save.
Where, ye must press forward with a steadfastness in Christ, having a perfect brightness of hope, and a love of God and of all men. Wherefore, if ye shall press forward, feasting upon the word of Christ, and endure to the end, behold, thus saith the Father: Ye shall have eternal life. (2 Nephi 31:19,20)
Consider some of the differences between the natural man, untrained by the Spirit and the one who is born again of God.
If the natural man is self-absorbed, relentlessly thinking about his needs, his own concerns and tasks, one who is born again has charity, can see beyond himself to the needs of others.
If the natural man is proud, focused on his own image, the rightness of his own opinion, the resume of his life, one who is born again is humble, teachable, willing to learn and submit to God’s tutoring, able to see himself as a work-in-progress.
If the natural man is anxious, fearful, distracted by the material world, one who is born again is full of faith and trust, able to see beyond the urgencies of this world to feel the inner light of another.
If the natural man seeks pleasure, immediate gratification, physical and material satisfaction before anything else, one who is born again has no desire to do evil, whatever the seeming immediate benefits.
If the natural man holds grudges, feels resentments, clutches anger like a friend, refuses to be healed, one who is born again freely forgives.
If the natural man cannot find time to pray or thinks it is a meaningless exercise anyway, one who is born again prays always.
Obviously, this list could go on and on, but it should be evident that moving from the natural man to one who is born again is a journey. In scripture, the wilderness journey of groups like the Children of Israel under Moses and Lehi’s family were both actual events, but also richly laden with symbolism that applies to the journey we are all on to be truly born again.
In both cases, the people had to make the wilderness journey in order to truly understand their dependence on God, to see their own weaknesses more clearly, and learn that God is able to do his work. The very starkness and challenge of the desert environment demanded that of them. Those who would not learn found the wilderness journey to be a miserable experience. Those who, instead, sought God, found him.
Each of us is on a wilderness journey called mortality. The sand blows in our face, sometimes we are hungry or thirsty, we can only find the “more fertile parts of the wilderness” with God’s help. And sometimes following his directions to the “most fertile parts” appears to be leading us to the bleakest part that the desert offers. On this journey we learn trust. It is customized for our own growth. God wants us to throw off the natural man and be born again.
Nicodemus could not comprehend all that we do with the addition of modern scripture, but it is clear that to be “born again” is the object of our existence.
The Samaritan Woman
The time was nearly noon when Jesus and His disciples arrived in a city of Samaria on their way to Galilee. The journey had been mountainous and long, and Jesus was wearied as He sat down at the very well dug by Jacob, the father of the tribes of Israel. Having sent His friends to the city to buy food, Jesus was alone when the Samaritan woman came to the well.
The Samaritans were hated by the Jews, considered “as a mongrel lot, unworthy of decent respect. When the Ten Tribes were led into captivity by the king of Assyria, foreigners were sent to populate Samaria. These intermarried with such Israelites as had escaped the captivity” and began to change the religion of Israel to suit their purpose, saving some form of Jehovah worship but adopting rituals the Jews regarded as unorthodox. The Jews would take long detours around Samaria just to avoid contact with these people. They would not purchase anything they manufactured, considering it filthy. To a Jew, a Samaritan was the lowest kind of Gentile, regarded as the bottom of the heap.
The most direct route from Jerusalem to the Galilee was through Samaria, but it was the custom of the Jews to take the long way around, avoiding the land. How surprising, then, that Jesus had chosen to come this way and that He would speak to a Samaritan, especially a woman. Jews didn’t speak to Samaritans. Jewish men didn’t speak to Jewish women much in public. Certainly women were not taught the gospel in public by men. But Christ’s smallest choices were always filled with meaning. None of these social conventions spoke to him, and in his teaching her, a fallen woman of Samaria, we understand that he is the Savior to all of us, and that we cannot fall out of his love. His atoning sacrifice is a gift for even the most lowly who will repent and turn to him.
In this water-deprived desert of a land, water was life, and the drawing of it was a constant, daily burden. Water is heavy, hard to pull out of a well, a burden to carry back to your home. Traditionally, it has been the job of women to be the water bearers, and a thankless, miserable job it was.
Water would usually have been drawn from the well in the early morning or evening. When we have visited developing nations, where water is still drawn from wells, the women gather very early in the morning to pull the water from the well. It is their first job, and it is an hour to talk together, reprieve their work with social interaction.
So it is significant that this woman came at noon, during the heat of the day, when no one else would have been present at the well. This timing emphasizes her despised and outcast position. She is obviously hoping to avoid the disdain of others.
With all of the above factors at work, no wonder she was surprised when Christ asked her, “Give me to drink” (John 4:7). Why would, he a Jewish man, ask this of her? He told her, “If thou knewest the gift of God, and who it is that saith to thee, Give me to drink; thou wouldest have asked of him, and he would have given thee living water” (John 4:10). What a perfect way for Christ to teach her, for while she may not have yet understood the gospel, she certainly understood the burden of drawing water from a well in a dry land. Could this man offer her something that would lighten her daily task of drawing water? He offered much more, a well of water springing up into everlasting life, “which gift is the greatest gift of all the gifts of God” (John 4:14).
When He asked her to get her husband, she replied that she had none. Then He told her something that struck her to the heart. He knew that she had had five husbands and that the man she lived with now was not her husband. How could this lowliest of women be so well known to the Lord? “Sir, I perceive that thou art a prophet, “ she said. The Lord told her more in the first outright declaration of His identity: “I who speak unto thee am [the Messias]” (John 4:26). The woman ran with joy into the city, leaving her earthen waterpot and old life behind, and many believed her words.
Here is one last, interesting note. Verse 24 in John 4 has always been a source of confusion on the nature of God to the Christian world. It reads in the KJV “God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.” The JST gives us a clearer understanding, JST John 4:26. For unto such hath God promised his Spirit. And they who worship him, must worship in spirit and in truth.”
[i] Parley P. Pratt, Key to the Science of Theology, (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book) p. 61.