Was John the Baptist Born Again?

Within this article I will be exploring the theme of the new birth and its relationship to the old covenant. My position is that old covenant believers, including John the Baptist, did not experience the new birth during their lives, but came to share in the same inheritance as new covenant believers after the death and resurrection of Christ.

The New Birth and the Kingdom

Within evangelical thinking, the new birth is typically understood as synonymous with conversion, with attaining a true knowledge of God. It’s an experience which is said to be common to all believers throughout history, old or new covenant. However, the biblical depiction of the new birth is quite different from this. As Jesus says in the gospel of Matthew:

“Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” (Matthew 11:11)

This is a remarkable statement, since it seems to suggest that John the Baptist was not a member of “the kingdom of heaven”. What’s more, it contrasts being a member of the kingdom with being “born of women”. This suggests that to enter the kingdom of God means to be born in a new way, to enter into a new kind of identity. The connection between the kingdom of God and this ‘new birth’ is made clearer in John’s gospel, which directly associates being born again with entering into the kingdom (John 3:3, 5).

This “kingdom of heaven” or “kingdom of God” was undoubtedly a new reality, since John the Baptist could not be a member of it. Now, there is no question that the Gospels regard John as a righteous man who knew God. He was, after all, a faithful prophet sent by God (Matthew 3:7-10). But he was not, according to Jesus, born again as a member of the kingdom of God.

The New Birth in History

The other references to the new birth in the new testament bear this out. John 1:9-13 speaks of those who received Jesus when he came into the world being given the power of the new birth. This suggests that the new birth comes into history after the coming of Christ into the world. Later on, Jesus speaks of those who are “born of water and the Spirit” (John 3:5), an expression which hearkens back to Jesus’s watery baptism, in which the Spirit came upon him (Matthew 3:16-17). This places the new birth after the baptism and ministry of Jesus.

We see a similar pattern in the new testament letters. 1 Peter speaks of being born again “through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” and “through the living and abiding word” of the gospel of the risen Christ (1 Peter 1:3, 23-25). 1 John ties the reality of the new birth to the appearance of Christ in the flesh and to faith in the name of Jesus (1 John 3:8-9, 5:1). These are all new covenant realities, unavailable to old covenant believers.

Does this mean that faithful believers up to the time of John could never enter into the kingdom or experience its blessings? Not at all. Hebrews 11 lists many faithful old testament believers who trusted in the future promise of God’s kingdom; believers such as Abel, Abraham and Moses (Hebrews 11:4, 8, 23). These faithful believers “did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect” (Hebrews 11:39-40).

Yet, in the very next chapter we are told that in the kingdom of God, we encounter “the spirits of the righteous made perfect” (Hebrews 12:23). So even though they were never able to enter into the kingdom during their lives, they have now entered into those blessings through the coming of Jesus, and the “better covenant” that he brings (Hebrews 12:24).

Sons of God

In conclusion, none of the old covenant believers up to the time of John the Baptist were “born again”. It’s not that they didn’t know God, it’s that the new birth didn’t exist at that point in history. The new birth began with Jesus. In his resurrection from the dead, God pronounced him as his only begotten son (Psalm 2:7). And since we are united by faith with the risen Lord Jesus, we too have been born anew as sons and daughters of the living God.

“for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith.” (Galatians 3:26)

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