Yeshua’s* teaching about the new birth is a Midrash (explanation and application of an Old Testament text). In the text below, Jesus faults Nicodemus for not understanding the concept of the new birth already, even if he did not recognize Yeshua’s terminology. Thus the concept of new birth cannot be an original teaching of Jesus. Nor is its mysterious nature (like the wind) a new teaching.
If Jesus is teaching old material but adding a new phrase (“born again”) to describe that material, we must ask, “What verses did Yeshua draw upon?” My best guess is two passages in Ezekiel and one in 2 Samuel. Let me lay a foundation first.
The Old Testament typically uses the phrase “circumcision of the heart” to refer to regeneration (see Deuteronomy 30:6, 5:28-29 and 10:16 for the phrase or concept).
Look at the text from John 3:1-11 (NIV), verses that lead up to the well-known John 3:16:
Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus, who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”
Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”
“How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”
Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
“How can this be?” Nicodemus asked.
“You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony.”
Nicodemus was not just a devout Jew; he was a Rabbi who was also part of the “ruling council” known as the Sanhedrin. It is important to observe that Yeshua expected Nicodemus to be familiar with His teaching that a man must be born of water and the spirit. This implies that whatever Jesus taught was also seen in the Old Testament. To put it simply, God has always regenerated individuals in the same way.
The key to unlocking this mystery is the fact that both the Old Testament Hebrew word Ruach and the equivalent New Testament word pneuma, can both mean “spirit,” “wind,” or “breath.” The interpreter looks at the context to determine which of these terms seems most likely. In this instance, however, the translation is not so clear.
Since the word ruach incorporates all three of these definitions, Jesus plays on this ambiguity by saying that whom the Holy Spirit regenerates is unpredictable because the “wind blows where it will.” He adds, “so is everyone who is born of the wind” (or spirit).
Here are the passages I believe Jesus expected Nicodemus to recall as a teacher of Israel. These passages deal with being born of water and/or wind. The first is Ezekiel 36:25-27:
I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.
Note here that God is the one who causes all this to happen. God sprinkles with clean water, God cleanses, and God provides the new heart and spirit (regeneration). The result is that the person regenerated lives a life of obedience to God.
Although not incorporating the idea of a divine breath, Ezekiel 18:31 reads, “Rid yourselves of all the offenses you have committed, and get a new heart and a new spirit. Why will you die, O house of Israel?” This is the equivalent of telling a lost sinner that he must be born again! On the one hand, we know that God is the Sovereign who regenerates in a mysterious and unpredictable way (like the mystery of the wind), yet man is held accountable to acquire a “new heart and a new spirit.” Even in Ezekiel, we see the dual track of God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility.
The second passage is Ezekiel 37:9-10:
Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to it, ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe into these slain, that they may live.’” So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet—a vast army.
Here the mysterious wind of God blows and breathes breath into the slain, and the slain are brought to life. Although we often think of this as an end-time revival of the nation of Israel, it is also illustrative of the life-giving power of the “breath” (Spirit or wind) of the Lord. Remember that the terms breath, wind, and spirit are potentially interchangeable.
The third passage speaks of King Saul in 1 Samuel 10:6. “The Spirit of the LORD will come upon you in power, and you will prophesy with them; and you will be changed into a different person….” Although the destiny of Saul is a matter of debate, it appears that he was regenerated and was spiritually transformed.
In conclusion, we can see that Yeshua was illustrating an Old Testament truth when He spoke of the new birth. This truth was so evident in the Tanakh (Old Testament) that He expected Nicodemus to immediately connect the dots. Yeshua clarified the nature of the new birth, but His teachings on this subject were grounded in existing Scripture.
* “Yeshua” is our Savior’s name transliterated from Hebrew. Transliterated from Greek, it’s “Jesus.”