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John 3:3 (NIV) Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”

A note for this verse in the NIV says, "The Greek for again also means from above; also in verse 7."

How should this phrase be interpreted?

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    Welcome to BiblicalHermeneutics.SE! Interesting first question. +1 – Richard Oct 21 '11 at 17:48
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    The ritual of baptism symbolizes life (above), death (submerged), and rebirth (above). Maybe there's a link. – The Freemason Jan 3 '14 at 18:02
  • I think a summary of most explanations is that "born again" doesn't really mean "born again". – user33515 May 14 '18 at 20:34
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This is a great question, and you're not the first person to have it.

Today, the phrase "born again" can have any one of a host of meanings. It can have meaning in the secular world, such as a "born again" politician who changes political parties, or in the religious world, where "born again Christian" is sometimes used to differentiate one from a "regular" Christian.

And in fact, the original hearer apparently had this same question as you, as you see in verse 4:

Nicodemus said to him, “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 ESV)

Before jumping into what Jesus's intention was, it may be helpful to take a step back to verse 2, to see how Nicodemus approaches Jesus.

This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.”
(John 3:2 ESV)

Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council (v1), was a man in a position of authority. As a ruler of the Jews and teacher of Israel (v10), he is coming from a position in which he considers a teacher like Jesus, and evaluates him. "We know..." he says, from a position of authority. By default this puts Jesus at an inferior position.

But this is not how man must come to God--he, the creator, is the judge, and man, the creature, is the one being judged. In fact Jesus will, in a few verses, answer Nicodemus in the same way that Nicodemus has approached him. Just as Nicodemus came as if speaking on behalf of the council saying "we know..." Jesus responds in v11 saying "we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen" in an almost tongue-in-cheek way of saying "we know a few things too, we do".

But at present, Jesus turns Nicodemus around, saying, in essence "You think you see what God is doing? Let me tell you, you don't have a clue. In fact, you couldn't see that unless..." and then there's that tricky phrase. Jesus tells Nicodemus that the only way to see what God is doing is by being "born again".

Nicodemus apparently misunderstands this (v2), and so Jesus rephrases the assertion in v5, stating that he must be born of water and spirit. As argued elsewhere, this phrase ("born of water and spirit") is simply another way of putting "born again" in terms that Nicodemus ought to understand--that he must have a purifying and transforming spiritual rebirth.

But while v5 is put in more spiritual terms, v3 is a bit more practical. It is a metaphorical way of saying that we are so weighed down by sin that we are blinded to what God is working for us. What can't see the kingdom unless we first shed all of our sin. But even if we were to never sin again, we have every past sin to weigh us down as well. In fact, I suspect that Nicodemus is not totally lost on the metaphor, but is continuing the dialog using Jesus's metaphorical language--saying in order to shed our history of sin, we would need to go back into our mothers' wombs to start over.

But, while he may have understood the metaphor, he ought to have seen that there is a way to shed all of our sin, that we can be made clean. As Jesus points out in v10, Nicodemus should have known this because he is the teacher of Israel. This means that he was well-acquainted with what we know as the Old Testament, where these themes are present (again, I'd refer you to this answer for more on that background).

  • Great answer. (+1) Too often people seem to view Jesus as "Captain Random" in His responses to people. But here again we see Him responding on topic -- to Nicodemus' error of thinking that he can see when in fact this is impossible because he has not yet been born again. – Jas 3.1 Jun 3 '13 at 4:44
  • Except to be born again is to be born into the breath. – Decrypted Sep 9 '14 at 21:44
  • The theological approach to answering this question is very fascinating, and I agree, true. However, I would like to throw in something my teacher just told me: John 3: 3 is explained or simplified by John 3: 5 which states "born of water and spirit". I automatically thought water in this sense brought the baptism angle. However, being baptized is not a requirement to enter heaven. My teacher says "born of water" actually means maternal birth as with all humans that were given dominion over the earth in Gen 1: 26 where God (plural) states that them (humans) rule earth (excluding God). – mugume david Apr 4 '16 at 6:30
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    @mugumedavid Unless born of water is indeed a requirement to enter heaven. That is what we see happening in the book of Acts. – TruthSeeker Jan 24 '18 at 2:23
  • Your "see what God is doing" seems to be a very weasel word paraphrase of "see the kingdom of God". I see what You are doing by avoiding the salvation angle. – Patrick Parker Jan 24 '18 at 15:50
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Jesus is not referring to what systematic theologians call "regeneration." In John 1, we learn that Jesus granted this birth to many who would already have been (by systematic theological standards) "regenerate." (Compare 1:11–13 with the calling of the disciples in 1:35–51.) He is telling Nicodemus, as a representative teacher of Israel that "you all," all Israel, must be reborn in order to enter the kingdom they are awaiting.

Sound interpretation of the passage requires understanding that "kingdom of God" and "kingdom of heaven" are not generic terms referring to "heaven, the destination of the saved," but to the reign of God in the Messiah that arrives in Jesus' ministry. (This is why Jesus speaks in Mt 11:11 of "the least in the kingdom" being greater than John the Baptizer, which would be nonsensical if "the kingdom" were supratemporal or ahistorical.)

This kingdom is something that can only be "seen" if (Jesus tells the teacher of Israel) one is "born again" or "born from above" (the Grk term means either or both, and John loves that sort of ambiguity).

Jesus says that this "rebirth" can only take place by "water and the Spirit." Every Jew would have recognized the role of water, as it was used in all sorts of levitical baptisms; and while the Hebrew Scriptures repeatedly speak of various actions of the Spirit, preeminently, the Spirit is viewed with eschatological anticipation, reflected especially in such passages as Ezek 36–37 and Joel 2.

The former passage is particularly intriguing, as it depicts Israel as a valley of dry bones, who are brought to eschatological life when the "son of man" prophesies the "breath" (same word as Spirit) over them and they receive revivification. By taking the title of "Son of Man" to Himself (which Jesus frequently does in John including in 3:13, 14), one thing Jesus is doing is assigning to Himself the fulfillment of the role played by Ezekiel in his eschatological vision. Through His action, the eschatological Spirit will bring life to the dead people of God.

Along a similar vein to Ezek, Isa 32:15 foretells that in the time of the "king who will reign in righteousness" (32:1), the Spirit will be "poured upon us from on high," bringing fruitfulness, righteousness, justice and peace.

The upshot of all of this is that Jesus appears to be using a birth metaphor in place of the resurrection metaphor of Ezek 37, but with a similar idea. He is claiming that the eschatological event long sought, the kingdom/reign of God in His Messiah, has now arrived—but that enjoyment of this kingdom is not something automatic; it requires (as foretold) the entrance into the kingdom by baptism, and correspondingly the life-giving gift of the eschatological Spirit. (The role of baptism in this text is further confirmed by the baptismal controversies in the passage immediately following, Jn 3:22ff; the baptismal theme continues through 4:2.)

  • I find it interesting that people vote down my response without bothering to comment why. – Tim Gallant Jun 3 '13 at 2:31
  • Why indeed? We all know the feeling. Sorry about that. Hopefully they'll come back and explain their reasoning. – Matthew Miller Jun 3 '13 at 3:23
  • I have not seen this interpretation before. It is interesting to say the least. Do u have any references for it? Thx – user5197 Aug 9 '13 at 7:43
  • I missed this useful answer first time round, thanks for the thoughtful and interesting contribution. – Jack Douglas Nov 1 '13 at 17:09
  • FIRST COMMENT: Thanks for pointing out the role of baptism. In that culture the Jews knew water baptism well. Both John the Baptist and the disciples of Jesus were still baptizing at that time (see chapter 1 and 3:22-4:2). There was also a procylite baptism practiced in that culture where willing Gentile males were baptized into a new life of Judiasm. Baptism in that culture represented an initiation into a new life. Unfortunately, this passage of scripture is often interpreted through western eyes with presuppositions without considering the background. – Jesus Saves Nov 2 '13 at 17:13
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The term "born again" in the Greek is "gennao anothen" which in straight English means "born from above." It does not actually translate into "born again" but "born from above" meaning born of God. We can also see this...

John 1:12-13 12 But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.

This is what theologians call regeneration, meaning that the Spirit of God has come into a person and renovated him, the picture here being one like renovating your house. It is still the same house, but the countertops are now polished stone where the were once wood; a wall has been knocked out to make a larger dining room; the one car garage is now a two car garage; and there is an island in the center of the kitchen where before there was none. Or, like a computer up-grade...the Spirit giving us what we need in order to have intimate communion with God one-on-one, where before man did not have this level of intimacy with Him.

In verse 5 Jesus says that we must be "born of water and the Spirit" in order to see (experience - NOT see or understand) the Kingdom of God. This is because baptism (born of water) is how we enter into the New Covenant, and one must be in Covenant with God in order to be in His Kingdom. Regeneration (being "born from above") is a promise of the New Covenant and can only be experienced by entering that covenant, for the promises of the Covenant only belong to those participating in that Covenant.

  • Is reveneration a typo for regeneration or renovation? I presume the former, but the latter would also fit well. – Peter Taylor Nov 27 '11 at 23:10
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    Welcome to Hermeneutics.SE! Your handle is intriguing since we have no less than three "Pastor Dave"s at our church. I'd never heard the literal Greek translation of "born again" despite hearing many sermons about the concept. Thanks of the answer! – Jon Ericson Nov 28 '11 at 17:59
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    It can also be translated literally as "born again" --- and that is exactly how Nikodemos' ears understood since he asked, "How can a man enter a second time into his mother's womb...?" "Second time" --> "again." For an instance where it clearly means "again," see Gal. 4:9. – user862 Dec 22 '12 at 8:03
  • Nice job linking verse 3 to verse 5. Regarding "water" = "baptism", check out this Q&A when you get time. – Jas 3.1 Jun 3 '13 at 4:51
  • You said you cannot experience the Spirit without entering into the covenant through water? But the first gentiles recieved the Holy Spirit before being dipped in water in the book of acts. – diego b May 7 '18 at 18:53
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I like the note by the NET Bible ... quoted below:

8 tn The word ἄνωθεν (anwqen) has a double meaning, either “again” (in which case it is synonymous with παλίν [palin]) or “from above” (BDAG 92 s.v. ἄνωθεν). This is a favorite technique of the author of the Fourth Gospel, and it is lost in almost all translations at this point. John uses the word 5 times, in 3:3, 7; 3:31; 19:11 and 23. In the latter 3 cases the context makes clear that it means “from above.” Here (3:3, 7) it could mean either, but the primary meaning intended by Jesus is “from above.” Nicodemus apparently understood it the other way, which explains his reply, “How can a man be born when he is old? He can’t enter his mother’s womb a second time and be born, can he?” The author uses the technique of the “misunderstood question” often to bring out a particularly important point: Jesus says something which is misunderstood by the disciples or (as here) someone else, which then gives Jesus the opportunity to explain more fully and in more detail what he really meant. sn Or born again. The Greek word ἄνωθεν (anwqen) can mean both “again” and “from above,” giving rise to Nicodemus’ misunderstanding about a second physical birth (v. 4).

It seems to be further confirmed when looking at Jesus' further explaination concerning "water and spirit" in His next statement ...

The NET note there explains that "water and spirit" further explain "from above".

12 tn Or “born of water and wind” (the same Greek word, πνεύματος [pneumatos], may be translated either “spirit/Spirit” or “wind”). sn Jesus’ somewhat enigmatic statement points to the necessity of being born “from above,” because water and wind/spirit/Spirit come from above. Isaiah 44:3-5 and Ezek 37:9-10 are pertinent examples of water and wind as life-giving symbols of the Spirit of God in his work among people. Both occur in contexts that deal with the future restoration of Israel as a nation prior to the establishment of the messianic kingdom. It is therefore particularly appropriate that Jesus should introduce them in a conversation about entering the kingdom of God. Note that the Greek word πνεύματος is anarthrous (has no article) in v. 5. This does not mean that spirit in the verse should be read as a direct reference to the Holy Spirit, but that both water and wind are figures (based on passages in the OT, which Nicodemus, the teacher of Israel should have known) that represent the regenerating work of the Spirit in the lives of men and women.

And, as already pointed out earlier ... this conversation just amplifies what was stated earlier in:

John 1:12-13 12 But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.

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    to be fair, a legitimate note was offered against the "born from above" meaning and favoring the "born again" meaning by stating what most people believe: That Jesus and Nicodemus were having this conversation in Aramaic ... not Greek. And, as such, Nicodemus (misunderstanding or not) operated on the assumption that Jesus meant "born anew". It's worth the note. – RichWalt Jan 27 '14 at 22:20
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The literal meaning of regeneration is reborn or born again. Titus 3:5 has the term παλιγγενεσία, often translated regeneration but literally born again. Apparently, Paul got this concept from Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus in John 3:3. Otherwise, where did he get this concept? Another question is why does John 3:3 have ἄνωθεν (from above, from the beginning) instead of πάλιν (back, again)? RichWalt has a good explanation from the NET Bible about the significance of ἄνωθεν. One might question the significance of Jesus using a word with a double meaning since Nicodemus was a Pharisee and Jesus would have likely conversed with him in Aramaic/Hebrew. However, this verse in the Syriac (basically Aramaic) Peshitta translates ἄνωθεν with the word (ܕ݁ܪܻܝܫ) having the same root as רֹאשׁ. Words based on this root mean the head, the beginning (Genesis 1:1) and the top. This Hebrew word is used for the top of the ladder reaching to heaven in Jacob’s dream (Genesis 28:12). The word is used for the beginning of the year to express the Hebrew New Year (Rosh Hashanah), i.e. used for new. Thus, this indicates there is a possible Hebrew term that has the ambiguity of ἄνωθεν. The word ἄνωθεν is used for the top of the curtain in front of the Holy of Holies in Matthew 27:51. The NET Bible’s explanation still applies.

  • Tim Gallant's answer appears to be based on Matthew 19:28. However, Nicodemus understood Jesus to be referring to him as an individual. Jesus did not correct Nicodemus's application to the individual. – Perry Webb Jan 24 '18 at 9:55
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The expression means that besides body, which can neither be born anew (John 3:4), nor be renovated in its earthly course, but naturally withers as the time passes, we possess a more fundamental aspect of our being, which can be called "soul", or "character", or "self", or "person", and which, albeit being created and natural, can participate in the Uncreated and Supra-natural, in the very Spirit of God, in the very Grace of God and, thus, get invested, "infected", saturated, clad (whatever verb you may choose for expressing the inexpressible mystical happening) in what is Divine and Uncreated, becoming "newly born" in this way.

To give an analogy: as a piece of iron attached to a magnet is magnetized, becoming, as it were, itself a magnet by participation, so also we, having received the Spirit of God in our created selves, become divinized through conscious and intentional participation and co-working with the Creator Spirit, re-creating ourselves into "new creation", investing ourselves with authority of being "sons of God" (John 1:12), brothers and sisters of His Only Begotten and, thus, uncreated natural Son, becoming His co-heirs by adoption, receiving the boldness and authority through the Spirit of sonship, who is the Holy Spirit, to call God "Father" (Romans 8:15).

And what is this new birth? What is this becoming the "new creation" or deification of our human essence? It means that we shall no more have the proclivity towards sin that we have due to the consequences of our fallen condition, to the effect that we do God's will out of sense and knowledge of duty, but in the depth of heart we feel unhappy for that, because the desire of heart inclines towards a sweeter prospect of performing sin (Romans 7:15-20), like in an English proverb "a good man dreams about what a bad man does". However, after the second birth in the Holy Spirit those very innermost depths of our sinful natures will be cleansed and transformed, transfigured through the working of Grace, so that we shall already start loving and desiring divine will as sweet and inviting, just as we desired the sweetness and invitation of sin before, in our "old man" state (Romans 6:6), and even more so, for life of Grace not only counterbalances the death of sin, but thoroughly eclipses it and vanquishes it altogether (1 Cor. 15:55-57). And thus we shall, as the newly borns in Spirit, have life in superabundance an excess (John 10:10), the "excess" meaning the divine life, that does not pertain to humans qua humans, but humans as partakers of God, which was closed even to the highest prophets (Luke 10:24), but now accessible to all through Jesus Christ.

Eventually, this birth is accessible in any age, even for children and even for very old people, for Spirit blows where He wishes and of course He wishes to come to those who themselves wish to accept the Spirit, who is not blocked by such a trifle and naughtiness as is the flux of time, wrinkles on a face or a natural loss of the "flower of youth", which is idolized now by mass media and advertising culture that knows not Spirit and is thoroughly anti-human as a matter of fact.

"An aged man is but a paltry thing,

A tattered coat upon a stick, unless

Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing

For every tatter in its mortal dress" (W. B. Yeats "Sailing to Byzantium") -

indeed, the old age can be even a better opportunity to not get dispersed in non-eternal interests and more thoroughly commune with the Spirit of Lord, to start singing the divine songs, during life, and after life also, for all eternity, for we are to inherit the Eternal Kingdom (Luke 12:32).

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As noted in other answers, the Greek ἄνωθεν [anōthen] means either again or above. As C.K. Barrett in his commentary states:

ανωθεν is capable of two meanings and here it probably has both. It may mean "from above", but also "afresh", "again". The birth which is required here is certainly a second birth, but it is not (see v. 4) a mere repetition of man's first birth, but a begetting from above, from God.1

Since Jesus uses the word twice, each meaning can be applied:

A person must be born again to see the Kingdom of God
A person must be born from above to enter the Kingdom of God

This sequence elaborates on the central theme of the Prologue:

But 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 ) [ESV throughout]

A person has the authority to become a child of God. This authority is not from earthly rights or privileges. It is from the will of God. People who become children of God are born again from (God) who is above.

The focal point of Jesus' teaching Nicodemus is rebirth as children of God. Later Jesus teaches there is a different type of rebirth:

He said to them, “You are from below; I am from above (ἄνω). You are of this world; I am not of this world. (John 8:23)

First, Jesus is from above ἄνω [anō] which means from on high or of time, formerly. As with anōthen both meanings apply. Jesus is anō, from above and from before.2

Next, the others are from below. The word here is κάτω which means below or beneath either of place or temporal succession [katō]. As with anōthen and anō both meanings can be applied. The others have been "reborn" from below:

You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father's desires... (John 8:44)

This explains the distinction Jesus made with Nicodemus. There is a difference between seeing and entering the Kingdom of God. Seeing the kingdom of God does not mean entrance, because those who are from below also see the Kingdom of God, but their perspective is negative. It something they oppose:

And if I cast out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your sons cast them out? Therefore they will be your judges. But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. (Matthew 12:27-28)

Therefore the complete teaching to Nicodemus is:

Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again [either from above or from below] he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (3:3)

Every person born again [either from above or below] will see the Kingdom of God

Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You (plural) must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (3:5-8)

Only people born of water and Spirit from above will enter the Kingdom of God


Notes:
1. C.K. Barrett, The Gospel According to St. John, S.P.C.K., 1962, pp. 171-172
2. The word anōthen used in the discourse with Nicodemus, is from ἄνω used in John 8. Thus Jesus is not from above anōthen (again/above). Rather Jesus is from above anō (before/above).

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Thanks to the prophets, up to and including John the baptizer and the preaching of Jesus and his disciples the question on every Jew in Jerusalem's mind was how to prepare for the imminent arrival of the messiah and the kingdom of God. They People (Jews) were sick and tired of Roman rule and pined for the messiah to come and rescue them:

NIV Luke 2:38 Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption [freeing] of Jerusalem.

The primary confidence that a Jew had was their genealogy - that they were descended from Abraham. Their greatest confidence was literally in their flesh:

Php 3:4  Though I might also have confidence in the flesh. If any other man thinketh that he hath whereof he might trust in the flesh, I more:  Php 3:5  Circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, an Hebrew of the Hebrews; as touching the law, a Pharisee;  Php 3:6  Concerning zeal, persecuting the church; touching the righteousness which is in the law, blameless.

The other ground of confidence for the Jew was Torah observance as in the Philippians passage above and in this exchange below:

Luk 18:18  And a certain ruler asked him, saying, Good Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?  Luk 18:19  And Jesus said unto him, Why callest thou me good? none is good, save one, that is, God.  Luk 18:20  Thou knowest the commandments, Do not commit adultery, Do not kill, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honour thy father and thy mother. 

This is because of the promise in Deuteronomy 8:

Deu 8:1  All the commandments which I command thee this day shall ye observe to do, that ye may live, and multiply, and go in and possess the land which the LORD sware unto your fathers.

Jesus undercuts confidence in genealogy by telling Nick he must be born over. "Born over" is one of John's play on words in that the greek "anothen" has both the sense of "reborn" as well as "born from over you" (IE: of God). He must also:

  • be born of water: repentance and mikveh (aka "baptism")
  • be born of spirit and power

For the Jews of that time mikveh was non-optional:

Mar_16:16  He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.

Act_2:38  Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.

Mat_28:19  Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost:

The promise of Jesus' baptism of the spirit and power is not to be confused with Paul's baptism into Christ by the spirit. The outpouring of Pentecost was related to the approaching kingdom and the last days of the Israel-centric age:

Joe 2:28  And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions:  Joe 2:29  And also upon the servants and upon the handmaids in those days will I pour out my spirit.  Joe 2:30  And I will shew wonders in the heavens and in the earth, blood, and fire, and pillars of smoke.  Joe 2:31  The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before the great and the terrible day of the LORD come.  Joe 2:32  And it shall come to pass, that whosoever shall call on the name of the LORD shall be delivered: for in mount Zion and in Jerusalem shall be deliverance, as the LORD hath said, and in the remnant whom the LORD shall call.

So to be "born over" was specific to the last days of the Israel-centric program and preparation for the arrival of the messiah and the kingdom of God (glorified Israel). The arrival and rescue did not occur however because the Jewish leadership rejected the messiah and the purposes of God:

Act_13:46  Then Paul and Barnabas waxed bold, and said, It was necessary that the word of God should first have been spoken to you: but seeing ye put it from you, and judge yourselves unworthy of everlasting life, lo, we turn to the Gentiles.

This fulfilled what Jesus predicted:

Mat_21:43  Therefore say I unto you, The kingdom of God shall be taken from you, and given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof.

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