Yeshua did not coin the term “born again.” In the Talmud, the rabbis use almost identical language to describe the legal transformation a Gentile (non-Jew) must undergo in order to complete a conversion to Judaism, i.e., to become Jewish. The conversion ritual involved a full body immersion into living water, a baptism. After the process of conversion and immersion, the Jewish community regarded the Gentile proselyte to be legally reborn as a Jew:
When he comes up after his immersion he is deemed to be an Israelite in all respects ... One who has become a proselyte is like a child newly born. (Talmud)
The Talmud speaks of a proselyte who has come out of an immersion as “one reborn.” When an individual enters the ritual immersion pool, it symbolizes reentering the womb, and when the individual emerges, it symbolizes being born anew. By this process, a Gentile could be “born again” as a Jew.
Nicodemus seemed to take the “born again” metaphor literally. He puzzled, “How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born, can he?” (John 3:4). According to the traditional understanding of the passage, Nicodemus was baffled because Yeshua used figurative language. The traditional interpretation assumes that Nicodemus had never before heard the metaphor and thought that Yeshua literally wanted him to re-enter the fetal state.
On the contrary, when Nicodemus objected and said, “How can a man be born when he is old,” he employed the same metaphorical terminology as Yeshua did. In that sense, Nicodemus objected to Yeshua’s statement, as if to say, “I am already Jewish. How can I be born again as a proselyte to Judaism?”
Yeshua affirmed his objection saying, “Amen and amen!” He clarified, “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God” (John 3:5). To be “born of water” refers to an immersion of conversion, as mentioned above. Yeshua indicated that immersion (baptism) was not adequate. A person must also be spiritually reborn. In other words, Yeshua told Nicodemus that simply being Jewish did not guarantee entrance into the Messianic Era. To be ethnically Jewish (or even to become a convert to Judaism) was not adequate for entrance to the kingdom of heaven. A spiritual conversion of the heart was necessary. In essence, Yeshua warned Nicodemus not to rely on his nationality (that is his legal Jewish status) for salvation. “You need to have a converted heart,” Yeshua told him.
Yeshua said “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:6). Jewishness can be inherited physically. A Jewish woman gives birth to a Jewish child. Right standing with God, however, cannot be inherited. Physical descent from Abraham is inadequate to secure a share in the resurrection of the righteous; one must also be born of the Spirit of God, and that requires a spiritual transaction. Yeshua calls for a radical spiritual transformation of the heart comparable to the legal transformation that a proselyte underwent as he emerged from his immersion.