Posts Tagged 'born again'

The Greatest Stories Ever Told, Part 4

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The story of Jesus’ meeting with a Pharisee known as Nicodemus is, perhaps, one the most famous encounters in history. It is certainly a favorite of preachers and Sunday School teachers. And it’s a classic story. Here was man, whose very soul was in darkness, who came to Jesus in the dark of night to talk about spiritual realities. It was during this encounter that the well-known phrase, “you must be born again” is seen for the first time.

A private meeting

Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. (John 3:1 | TNIV)

Nicodemus was a Pharisee, whose name means “conqueror of the people.” His name is in stark contrast to his seemingly timid character. John adds that Nicodemus was also a member of Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council. He was a teacher and interpreter of the Scriptures. That he was a Pharisee shouldn’t be held against Nicodemus. Not all members of that group were hypocrites. Here was one who took his faith seriously.

And this man had everything: prestige, respect, power, and position. All that, yet he felt the need to visit Jesus under the cover of darkness.

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.” (John 3:2 | TNIV)

It’s noteworthy that his first word to Jesus was “Rabbi.” Jesus wasn’t formally trained; He didn’t attend Rabbi College. But Nicodemus heard enough of what Jesus had been teaching and seen enough of His ministry to know that God was a part of everything this Rabbi was doing. The compliment that he paid Jesus was genuine, and apparently he wasn’t the only Pharisee that could tell there was something different about this itinerant rabbi.

Nicodemus cites the “signs” or “miracles” Jesus was performing as indisputable proof that Jesus was a man from God. What’s really interesting about that single sentence is that the people of that time, including the Pharisees, didn’t doubt the miracles of our Lord. As Dr McGee noted, you have to be a professor in a seminary today to do that. Neither the friends of Jesus or His enemies doubted His miracles.

Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born again. ” (John 3:3 | TNIV)

When you read that verse, it seems like Jesus is talking to somebody else. Nicodemus came to Jesus and, so far, just paid Him a compliment. So why did Jesus say what He said here in verse 3? The key to this, and in fact the key to chapter 3, is something John wrote back in chapter 2:

But Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all people. He did not need human testimony about them, for he knew what was in them. (John 2:24, 25 | TNIV)

Nobody knows any man like Jesus does. John made the observation in chapter 2, and in chapter 3 He gives Nicodemus as His example; His “Exhibit A.” He knew exactly why Nicodemus came to Him, even though Nicodemus himself wasn’t sure.

It should also be noted that what applies to Nicodemus applies to all people. The word John used in both 2:25 and 3:1 (translated as “people” and “man”) is anthropos, a general, all encompasing word. So what is said about this anthropos Nicodemus is said of all anthropos. This is just one of several “universalizations” that can be found in John’s Gospel. Salvation is for “whosoever” (3:16), but all people are in need of being “born again,” or “born from above.” But this isn’t something only John wrote about:

for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. (Romans 3:23, 24 | TNIV)

Nicodemus was pretty sure Jesus came from God, but with a single sentence Jesus informed Nicodemus that only He (and no human being) can see God without being “born from above,” which was really God’s goal for Nicodemus and remains so for all human beings. Westcott made this observation:

Without this new birth – this introduction into a vital connection with a new order of being, without a corresponding endowment of faculties – no man can see – can outwardly comprehend – the kingdom of God. Our natural powers cannot realize that which is essentially spiritual. A new vision is required for the objects of the new order.

That statement from Bishop Westcott sheds a light on this exchange:

Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.” Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you I do not speak on my own authority. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work. Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the works themselves. (John 14:8 – 11 | TNIV)

This is exactly what was happening this night with Nicodemus. The theologian whose natural eyes were unable to see God were able to see Jesus, and that brought him one step closer to the Kingdom of God. But in order to get this man into the Kingdom necessitated a “born again” experience. That phrase comes from the Greek anothen, a word that has several meanings, including “from above,” and “again.” However it’s translated, what Jesus meant couldn’t have been more clear. If a person – Nicodemus in particular but all people in general – is to have eternal life, that life must come into that person. Put another way, we receive our biological life from our earthly parents and that life enables us to live in this world, but God’s life can only come from Him and it’s a “new life” from “above.”

An explanation

Nicodemus seemed to understand Jesus’ admonition as being “born again,” as his response indicates:
“How can anyone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!” (John 3:4 | TNIV)

The learned Nicodemus, for all his theological education and knowledge of the Scriptures, could not grasp what our Lord was getting at. Paul was somebody who would have understood exactly what was happening between the Pharisee and Son of God:

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.” (1 Corinthians 1:18, 19 | TNIV)

In order for Nicodemus to pass from being one of “those who are perishing” into one who is “saved,” he would have to experience this new birth Jesus was talking about, and at that moment, his spiritual eyes would pop open. But for now, what Jesus had said was, as Paul noted, simply “foolishness.” Nicodemus had no way to understand what spiritual rebirth was all about. He, like all unbelievers, didn’t have the capacity to comprehend it.

Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being 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.” (John 3:5 – 8 | TNIV)

These verses are a restatement and explanation of what Jesus had just said. You can’t read verse 5 without wondering what in the world Jesus meant by the phrase, “being born of the water and the Spirit.” The “Spirit” bit is easy. Obviously Jesus is referring to spiritual rebirth – a regeneration initiated by the work of the Holy Spirit. But “being born of water” is a little more difficult to understand. It could be that our Lord is referencing water baptism, especially since the Pharisees understood water baptism and were familiar with John the Baptist’s baptism, a baptism of repentance. Or it may be that Jesus was talking about physical birth, contrasting it with being born of the Spirit.
We’ll likely have to wait to ask Him personally to get His intended meaning, but what is clear is that every human being must, at some point in his life, be born of the Spirit if he wants to enter into the Kingdom of God. Some kind of “conversion experience” needs to occur; our spirits need to be set free and our flesh brought into submission to the Holy Spirit. Again, Paul helps us understand why this must happen:

The sinful mind (the flesh) is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those controlled by the sinful nature (flesh) cannot please God. (Romans 8:7, 8 | TNIV)

There is no future for our flesh, that is, our old and sinful nature. God has no plan to fix it or improve it. That old nature must be done away with because it cannot get into the Kingdom of God.

For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin—because anyone who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. (Romans 6:6, 7 | TNIV)

That’s what Jesus was trying to tell Nicodemus. And He used an illustration about the wind blowing. You can’t see the wind, but you can certainly tell when it’s blowing: You can feel it against your skin and you can see it moving tree tops and flags and so on, and you can hear it. What you can’t tell is where it started out from or where it will eventually end up. That’s Jesus’ way of saying nobody can control the wind; you can’t make it do what you want it to do, and you can’t really explain it or its behavior. The wind, as it were, has a mind of its own.

There’s a clever play on words here. The word Jesus used for “wind” here is pneuma, which also means “spirit!” The fact of wind is undeniable – even though you can’t see it or control it, you know it’s there. But there is also an element of mystery to the wind – there are things about it nobody can explain – yet that doesn’t stop people from noticing it or commenting on it or even making use of it, like in sailing a boat, for example. That also applies to the Spirit. Sure, it’s hard for anybody, even Jesus, to adequately explain the Spirit or things of the Spirit so that a sinful man may understand it. But that shouldn’t stop that same sinful man from experiencing what the Spirit can do for him. As one scholar noted:

The great mystery of religion is not the punishment, but the forgiveness of sin: not the natural permanence of character, but spiritual regeneration.

Your Amazing Faith, Part 3

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How amazing is your faith? It’s so amazing only you and other Christians possess it. No unbeliever has faith. Only Christians have faith because faith comes with a relationship with God through Jesus Christ. No unbeliever has a relationship with God. Granted, an unbeliever may say he believes in God – and he may mentally assent to the existence of God – but believing in God isn’t the same thing as being in a relationship with Him. I believe that Kim Kardashian exists, but I don’t have a relationship with her. This is the essence of Romans 10:17 –

Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ. (Romans 10:17 | NIV84)

So, faith comes from hearing the Word of God; the Gospel of Jesus Christ. When you couple that verse with another one, you’ll understand why unbelievers don’t possess faith:

For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. (Hebrews 4:12 | NIV84)

That’s why faith comes from the Word of God. And that’s why the unbeliever doesn’t have it; he doesn’t have the Word and therefore he can’t have faith.

Faith also has nothing to do with what you think or feel. Nor does it have anything to do with the circumstances you may find yourself in. Faith exists outside of your mind, emotions, feelings, and circumstances. Paul discovered that –

So keep up your courage, men, for I have faith in God that it will happen just as he told me. (Acts 27:25 | NIV84)

Paul, in the midst of a life-threatening storm at sea, was able to say that because his faith wasn’t in the sailors or the ship he was on or in his hope that the weather would change; his faith was in God. Too many Christians haven’t figured this aspect of their amazing faith out. They foolishly think that their circumstances indicate how much faith they have. Or, they allow their feelings to dictate how much faith they have. So when times are good, they “feel” like they have a lot of faith but during bad times, they “feel” like they have less faith. That’s crazy thinking. Our amazing faith has everything to do with God, not us or our circumstances. Our faith is objective, not subjective. And the Object of our faith is God.

That brings us to the third aspect of our amazing faith, and it’s found in Galatians 2:20 –

I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20 | KJV)

This single verse is the most significant theological statement on the new birth in the Bible. Let’s take a look at why Paul wrote it in the first place. The reason behind the verse makes it even more profound.

The old switch and bait

It all started back in Galatians 1:10 –

Am I now trying to win the approval of men, or of God? Or am I trying to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ. (Galatians 1:10 | NIV84)

Not only the Galatian Christians, but those in other churches of the day had been accusing the apostle of sacrificing the truth of God or of sugar-coating the Gospel so that he might win more people over to his way of thinking. In other words, Paul was being accused of lowering the standards of the Gospel of salvation; of making it too easy for Gentiles to become Christians.

The fact was, at one time Paul really did try to “please men,” particularly when he was running around persecuting Christians. But he stopped that when he became a servant of Christ. After his conversion, his concern was pleasing God, not man.

The essence of Paul’s preaching was freedom from sin – salvation by grace. Sinful man is freed from the clutches of this evil world by the power of Christ alone. You’d think people would be clamoring to hear a message like that. Some were, but many wanted him to shut up and keep his grace and freedom to himself. They did that by lying about what he was saying.

I want you to know, brothers, that the gospel I preached is not something that man made up. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ. (Galatians 1:11-12 | NIV84)

That’s his defense, and it’s a simple one. Not only was Paul not trying to please man in his preaching, but his sermons didn’t come from any other man’s notes and he didn’t learn it in school. His sermons – his message of grace and freedom in Christ – came directly from the Source: Jesus Christ. Beginning on that dusty road to Damascus and continuing through three years of seclusion in the Arabian desert (Galatians 1:17, 18). Paul was in no way a bandwagon preacher, glomming onto the popular ideas of the times and incorporating them into his preaching and writing, as happens so often today.

Now, he wasn’t the Lone Ranger evangelist, either.

Then after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Peter and stayed with him fifteen days. I saw none of the other apostles–only James, the Lord’s brother. (Galatians 1:18-19 | NIV84)

So Paul made it clear that while he wasn’t a loose canon, but his preaching wasn’t influenced by anybody or anything, either. He preached Christ and Christ alone. His credentials – his apostleship – didn’t descend from the mother church back in Jerusalem. He was called to preach by Jesus Christ. For Paul, Christ was truly was his all-in-all.

Peter’s problem

But not all the apostles were like that. Take the case of Peter. Paul certainly did and he raked his friend over the coals.

Once, on a visit to the church’s headquarters in Jerusalem to justify his ministry among the Gentiles, Paul dragged poor Titus along as an illustration of the kind of preaching he engaged in:

Yet not even Titus, who was with me, was compelled to be circumcised, even though he was a Greek. ˻This matter arose˼ because some false brothers had infiltrated our ranks to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus and to make us slaves. (Galatians 2:3-4 | NIV84)

And herein was the problem. These false brothers – Jewish troublemakers – thought that Paul should have been preaching elements of Judaism along with Christ to the Gentiles. These people – false brothers – believed that while law-keeping didn’t save a sinner and wasn’t necessary, it did bring about a higher state of perfection. That’s the point behind this verse in Galatians 3:3 –

Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort? (Galatians 3:3 | NIV84)

This was a big problem in the early church and the Judaizers, the false brothers by name, could have ruined the fledgling church by intimidating its members and it’s preachers into caving into their demands to introduce elements of Judaism, particularly circumcision, thereby making Christianity just another sect of Judaism.

Sounds crazy, right? Who’d be foolish enough to go along with that? Remember the aforementioned Peter? He was one who was intimidated by these Judaizers. Here’s how Paul dealt with Peter’s problem:

When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong. Before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray. (Galatians 2:11-13 | NIV84)

Paul opposed Peter in his unseemly behavior. I’d love to have been a fly on the way when that happened! Here was Peter, one of those closest to Jesus, the one so brash and rash in the early days of his faith, now cowering in the face of these false brothers. It’s astounding that a such a minority of people could wield such influence over so many. But that’s the way it’s always been with false teaching and certainly it’s the way it is today.

That’s the background in behind the verse that opened this message:

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20 | NIV84)

Paul’s perspective

Here’s the thing. Unlike Peter, Paul never gave into these Judaizers for a second. Paul’s perspective was the right one. He had a new life under Christ. He wasn’t that man that persecuted Christians years ago. This new life in Christ set Paul free from the hindrances of the law – that law that encouraged him to persecute Christians; the same law that insisted Gentiles be circumcised or obey other stipulations of Judaism!

That first phrase, “I have been crucified with Christ” sets the foundation for Paul’s perspective. When a person becomes a Christian, he is identified with Christ – His life and His death. This isn’t a clever turn of phrase, it’s a statement of faith. By faith, a sinner makes Christ’s death his own. What that means is profound. In the future sense, it means that a redeemed sinner will never face eternal death for his sins. Somehow, when Christ died on then Cross, so did the sinner. This spiritual fact is something we take on faith.

The present benefit is astounding. The power of sin is broken in the believer’s life because he died to sin with Christ. As Christ died to the world around Him, so we died to world around us. Our old, inner self, hopelessly addicted to sin and depraved by sin, doesn’t exist anymore. That’s an objective truth that must also be taken by faith because more often than not it feels like our old self is still alive and kicking. It isn’t. But sin still is and it’s up to us to live in such a way as to put truth to the spiritual fact that our old self is dead and gone.

The counterpart to dying with Christ is the second phrase: “Christ lives in me.” Paul and all believers are living a new life.

just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. (Romans 6:4 | NIV84)

Death to sin – death to the world around us – opens the door to this new life in Christ. The Greek is far more emphatic than our English translations. Here’s how one Bible scholar paraphrased what Paul was trying to get across:

I live no longer as I once did, but in a new way – no longer I. Now Christ lives in me – He is the Lord of my life.

I like that. Paul wasn’t the same man he was before he fell off that donkey on the road to Damascus. He was different; he was different because he was no longer running his life. Christ was now in charge of Paul the apostle.

In spite of that, he still needed faith. This wonderful new life in Christ is lived in the here-and-now, or “in the body,” as Paul put it. And to live a life worthy of Christ takes faith. Paul was justified by faith and now he must live by faith in Christ. Think about what that means. First, everything in the believer’s life comes from Christ. He is the source. In fact, His love for sinners caused Him to die for them. But secondly, Paul discovered that while salvation was free and and the result of God’s amazing grace, living the Christian life was entirely up to him. He couldn’t’ afford to attempt to live righteously by simply obeying a bunch of man-made rules or regulations. He wouldn’t do it, and he wouldn’t tell others to do it. Paul had discovered something every believer in Jesus Christ must: we live by faith in Jesus Christ and in what He did on the Cross.

Our Glorious Salvation, 4

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The Benefits of Salvation

Aside from the obvious one – going to heaven and not going to hell – we Christians are the fortunate recipients of certain benefits the come along with God’s gift of salvation through Jesus Christ.  But these benefits aren’t noticed all at once.  Becoming a Christian may happen in a moment, but being a Christian is a definite growing process.  That’s the reason for well-known phrases like these:  “babe in Christ,” which describes a new believer and “spiritual father or mother,” describing a more mature believer who may have had a positive impact on your development as a Christian.  Even the conversion experience was called “being born again” by our Lord!

Many of the benefits of salvation come with maturity.  The Holy Spirit comes to dwell in us and makes us part of God’s family immediately, but from that moment on, our growth from “babes in Christ” to mature believers is a gradual, lifelong process that depends as much on our co-operation with the Spirit as it does on the work of the Spirit Himself in us.

Let’s take a quick look at some of the benefits of salvation.

We are made children of God 

John 1:12 – 13 

But as many as received him, to them gave he  power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name: Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.  (JKV) 

That phrase, “as many as” when paired with “to them” is awkward English but was a very common way of speaking in Aramaic.  While the Jews by and large rejected Jesus, there were others who accepted Him as Savior.  Those who accepted Jesus, whether they were Jews or Gentiles it didn’t matter, received the greatest of all spiritual benefits.   For the most part, the Jew failed to realize that in the Kingdom, established spiritually by Jesus at His first coming, there are no “special privileges” based on nationality or sex.  That’s why John used that Aramaic expression, which amounted to:  “Whoever received Jesus became sons of God.”  How that single statement, so precious to us today, must have galled the proud, nationalist Jew of John’s day!

John says a lot in these two verses, so I’ll stay out of the tall theological grass to focus on a single aspect:  transformation.  In an instant out of eternity, one is transformed into a son – a child – of God.  And yet, it is also a gradual process.  In the physical world, a baby born is a child, yet remains a child for years as it grows and matures into adulthood.  The principle is the same in the spiritual world.  We become a child of God the instant life from above enters the soul.  But many of the benefits of this new relationship won’t be realized for years to come, or even until we are set free from the bonds of the flesh.  This notion squares with what John wrote, years later, in his first epistle:

Yes, dear friends, we are already God’s children, right now, and we can’t even imagine what it is going to be like later on. But we do know this, that when he comes we will be like him, as a result of seeing him as he really is.  (1 John 3:2  TLB)

Romans 8:14 – 17 

For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.  And so we should not be like cringing, fearful slaves, but we should behave like God’s very own children, adopted into the bosom of his family, and calling to him, “Father, Father.”  For his Holy Spirit speaks to us deep in our hearts and tells us that we really are God’s children.  And since we are his children, we will share his treasures—for all God gives to his Son Jesus is now ours too. But if we are to share his glory, we must also share his suffering.  (TLB) 

In Romans 8, the word “Spirit” is seen some 20 times.  This fact prompted John Knox to write:

The Spirit is the theme of this culminating section of the argument which began at 6:1 with the question, “Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?” 

The only true and lasting solution to man’s sinfulness is not anything a man can do to help himself, but the sanctifying work of the Spirit.  That doesn’t absolve us of some responsibility, though.

So, dear brothers, you have no obligations whatever to your old sinful nature to do what it begs you to do.  For if you keep on following it you are lost and will perish, but if through the power of the Holy Spirit you crush it and its evil deeds, you shall live.  (Romans 8:12, 13  TLB)

We used to be obliged to follow our sinful nature, but now that the Holy Spirit is in us, our obligation is to follow the Spirit.  That obedience is the debt we owe the Holy Spirit.  This is sanctification in action; a gradual process of righteous living.  As Oswald Chambers was fond of saying:

We are to sacrifice the natural for the sake of the spiritual.

But, as we honor our obligation to follow the way of the Spirit, we don’t have to be fearful or scared, even of the occasional failure.  Fact is we have been adopted into God’s very own family, and the occasional mess-up on our part can’t change that.  Under grace, we have this close a relationship with God – it’s a familial relationship.  All this happened because of what Jesus did for us.  Because of Christ’s work, we are able to call God by the most personal name of all:  Abba.  How close is our new relationship with God?  Irenaeus put it best:

Jesus became what we are that we might become what He is. 

Jesus is the Son of God by nature, we by adoption.  R.C. Sproul noted:

Nobody is born into this world a child of the family of God.  We are born as children of wrath.  The only way we enter into the family of God is by adoption, and that adoption occurs when we are united to God’s only begotten Son by faith. 

1 Peter 2:9, 10 

But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; who once were not a people but are now the people of God, who had not obtained mercy but now have obtained mercy.  (NKJV) 

Peter is saying some remarkable things about Christians here.  We move from the notion of Christians as the adopted “children of God” to a different way of viewing them:  by way of their citizenship.  We have been adopted into God’s family and our citizenship has necessarily changed!  Peter was writing to fellow Jews who had become believers, so what he wrote about “a holy nation,” for example, may hold a more special meaning to them, but as God’s adopted children, it should mean something to us too!  We are as much His people as the children of Abraham are!

Think about these things:

  • A chosen generation.  Another way of saying it could be, “an elect race.” That may have reference to the Jews, but remember this:  we have been chosen, too.  He has chosen us.  We think we chose Christ, but the truth is He chose us first.
  • A royal priesthood.  This has reference to the Jewish priesthood.  But in Christ, we are all “ministers” because we can all minister to God and we can all enter into His presence.  And we can minister for God as we take His message to the lost.
  • A holy nation.  Well, we would have to concede that the nation of Israel has never been holy in terms of their conduct.  But the same could be said of the Church!  And yet, because of our relationship to God, we are holy because Christ has become our righteousness.
  • A special people.  In the KJV the word is “peculiar,” and maybe that describes you better than does “special.”  However you want to word it, what it means is this:  God acquired us and we are now His possession; we belong to God.

These verses tell us a lot about what God sees when He looks at this world we are living in.  There is a new nation here.  There are new people here.  The old order of things is slowly disintegrating but the new order is growing and growing.  You and I became part of this new order because God called us.  It wasn’t our idea to join it.  God called us and we responded.

We are declared righteous 

Romans 4:4 – 8  

Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt.  But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness…  (Romans 4:5, 6  NKJV)

The contrast between “as grace” and “as debt” can teach us a lot.  “Works” and “wages” go together as correlatives, while “faith” and “grace” go together.  Paul’s argument is logical:  If Abraham had righteousness counted to him, then works had nothing to do with it. Therefore it must have been an act of grace.   It follows that to be justified by grace through faith is to be given a righteousness which one doesn’t deserve.  Abraham, with his checkered history certainly didn’t deserve to be called righteous, but then neither do we.  That simple sentence is scandalous to works-based religions, of which there are plenty.  When God “justifies the ungodly,” God acquits the guilty sinner for reasons of His own mercy apart from any human merit, worthiness, or even need.  Justification is an act of God’s grace, plain and simple.

No wonder Martin Luther called this kind of righteousness “alien righteousness.”  He wrote:

Everything is outside us and in Christ.

That’s a good way to look at it.  It’s such a simple concept, this justification by faith, that it escapes so many people.

2 Corinthians 5:17 – 21 

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.  Now all things are of God, who has reconciled us to Himself through Jesus Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation, that is, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them, and has committed to us the word of reconciliation.  (2 Corinthians 5:17 – 19  NKJV)

These oft-quoted verses are stunning in their implications.  New converts quote them  all the time and preachers love to recite them during altar calls.  What do they mean, though?  When we are born again, at that very moment we are re-created.  We become a “new species of being that never existed before.”  Think about this for a moment.  As a Christian, you are NOT the same person you were before.  You may look the same and talk the same, but you are definitely NOT the same.  You are no longer associated with Adam, you are identified with Christ.   The fact that you may not feel different is irrelevant.  Nor can you base your new status on your salvation experience.  You are a new creation because God says so.

You, as a believer, have been reconciled to God.  This is God’s call to all lost men.  That’s what the “ministry of reconciliation” is all about:  God calling sinners to Himself.  Reconciliation is not salvation.  Reconciliation is all about changes; changes in relationships and changes within us.  Just about the only thing that doesn’t change in this ministry of reconciliation is God, because He never changes.  He changes us and He allows us to enter into a close relationship with Him.  Paul puts it another way in Colossians:

It was through what his Son did that God cleared a path for everything to come to him—all things in heaven and on earth—for Christ’s death on the cross has made peace with God for all by his blood.  This includes you who were once so far away from God. You were his enemies and hated him and were separated from him by your evil thoughts and actions, yet now he has brought you back as his friends.  He has done this through the death on the cross of his own human body, and now as a result Christ has brought you into the very presence of God, and you are standing there before him with nothing left against you—nothing left that he could even chide you for…  (Colossians 1:20 – 22  TLB) 

Through this great work of God’s, we have been reconciled to Him.  He has not been reconciled to us.  Remember, God can’t change.  We’re the ones that needed to change, and God makes those changes possible.

 

THE GOSPEL OF JOHN, 8

Jesus and Nicodemus, John 3:1—21

Chapter divisions are not part of the inspired text and they are sometimes inserted at awkward moments.  This is the case with chapter 3.  John wrote that Jesus “knew what was in man” in 2:25, and in the original language, without any artificial chapter break, he went on to write about a man, Nicodemus, a man whom Jesus knew well.  He may not have known the Pharisee personally, but He knew what was in Nicodemus’ heart.  Nicodemus, then, is given by John as a prime example of an individual in whom Jesus had perfect insight.  This whole exchange shows that Jesus had a thorough understanding of human nature; He could read people like no other man ever could.

Now while he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Festival, many people saw the signs he was performing and believed in his name.  But Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all people.  He did not need human testimony about them, for he knew what was in them.  John 2:23—25)

This group of verses is like a prelude that introduces three interviews Jesus had with three disparate kinds of people:  Nicodemus, a Pharisee; a Samaritan woman; and a royal official at Cana.

1.  Nicodemus, verses 1, 2

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.”

Nicodemus is introduced to us as a man of the upper class, very conservative in his religious beliefs and not at all hostile toward Jesus’ teachings.  He was a Pharisee, a very strict religious sect of Judaism in contrast to the other major religious sect, the Sadduccess, who were less strict in their views and very politically active.  He was also part of the “Jewish ruling council,” which meant that Nicodemus was keenly aware of the doctrinal trends of his day as well as the spiritual needs of his people.

The Pharisees were right on many points of doctrine—the understanding of God’s will, the moral accountability of man, and the immortality of the soul, the resurrection of the dead, the existence of angles and demons, rewards and punishments in the future life, for example.  They also produced some of the most renown theologians of all time—Gamaliel, Paul, and Josephus.  Their one overriding error was that they externalized their faith; the Pharisees had reduced their magnificent faith to a litany of complicated rules and regulations.

His interest in Jesus had been piqued by our Lord’s miracles, and so he came personally to talk to Jesus about them.  The name “Nicodemus” means “victor over the people,” and although it is a Greek name, he was probably not a Greek.

Nicodemus came to Jesus “at night.”  Scholars love to read all kinds of meaning into the fact that this religious leader came to Jesus under the cover of darkness.   In all probability, Nicodemus came at night because he wanted the most privacy possible while he and Jesus talked.

2.  Jesus opening statement, verse 3

Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born again.”

Nicodemus had not asked a question, yet Jesus gives him an answer to a question that was buried deep in the Pharisee’s heart.   Verse three is yet another one of Jesus’ many mashals that must have sounded like a riddle to Nicodemus.  According to Jesus, no human being could “see,” let alone “live in” the kingdom of God without being “born again.”  The Greek word translated “again” can also be translated “born from above.”  The metaphor Jesus used was brilliant.  Birth is how we human beings enter our world, and at our human birth we receive all the “equipment” needed to live in this world.  But the Kingdom of God is not of this world; to be part God’s Kingdom requires different “equipment,” so one must be born all over again, this time into the Kingdom of God.

3.  Explaining the unexplainable,  verses 4—8

“How can anyone 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 without being 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.”

By his answer, Nicodemus revealed that the meaning of the mashal had completely escaped him.  Most of us read verse 4 and assume Nicodemus was telling Jesus that he was an old man.  However, what Jesus said would apply to a person of any age, so to illustrate the absurdity of what Jesus had just said, Nicodemus states the most extreme case he can think of:  how can an “old man” be born when he is old?

Jesus’ answer has sparked some debate.  Why did Jesus shift from the necessity being “born again” to “being born of water and of the Spirit?”  In John’s Gospel, “water” is almost always seen as a symbol of the Law—the old order—with its emphasis on rituals like baptisms, purifications and cleansings (see 1:33; 2:6, 7; 4:6, 7; 5:2, 3; 7:38, 39).  As we read Jesus’ response to the Pharisee, we need to remember that Jesus did not come to destroy the Law but to fulfill it.  In each of the examples given, the old order represented by water was not destroyed.  For example, Jesus did not destroy the six stone water pots, He filled them with wine, representative of the new order He Himself had inaugurated.  The pots had been more or less “born again.”  In speaking to a “teacher of the Law,” it was as if Jesus had said:  being “born again” will make you even better than you already are.

The problem with the “old order” is that it could only reproduce itself.  A Pharisee’s teaching, for example, could only reproduce other versions of himself.  A human being could only produce another human being.  Sin begets sin; therefore a sinner can only bring another sinner into the world.   What Nicodemus wanted—entrance into the Kingdom of Heaven—could not be achieved with human means, like rules and regulations.  It requires a change on the inside.  Becoming a citizen of the Kingdom of God can only occur by a direct act of God, not by the outward behavior of those desiring it.

That this is hard to understand is underscored by the fact that Jesus mentions “the wind.”  It is impossible for a human being to track the wind, even though he can see what it does.  So it is with God and the new birth.   One may not completely understand it, but one can witness the change wrought in another’s life, it becomes obvious God has been at work.  The evidence of a changed life proves that the new birth has taken place.

4.  Expanding on the truth, verses 10—15

“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.  I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things?  No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man.  Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”

Verse 9 indicates that Nicodemus still did not understand what Jesus was patiently explaining.  Three times Jesus spoke of being “born again” (verses 3, 5, and 7), giving illustrations and yet the spiritual truth was not discerned by the Pharisee.  What is especially disturbing about verse 9 is that Nicodemus represented the very best in Judaism; if he could not wrap his highly educated mind around the Gospel, how could any other Jew?  This speaks to the spiritual deadness, darkness, and ignorance that characterized the old order of Jesus’s day and the humanistic, secular order of today.  It was to this order, as well as to Nicodemus, that Jesus came to give live (10:10).

Jesus’ use of “we” is unusual.  Some think He was referring to the disciples, although I think at this very early stage of His ministry, it is not likely He would refer to them.  Jesus certainly spoke with authority, but it was an inherent authority, not an authority derived from His station or rank in life.  Jesus’ authority descended from Heaven; He was the earthly representative of the Godhead, therefore the “we” could refer to the Trinity.  Another line of thought is that Jesus is linking Himself to the long line of prophets who, throughout the centuries, had preached God’s Word to the people, who continually rejected it.  In other words, the message of Jesus—being born again—was not really a new message at all!  It had been declared and rejected in the history of Israel.  As a teacher, Nicodemus should have understood.

The “earthly things” Jesus referenced were probably His illustrations, like the wind.  If Nicodemus could not grasp the meaning of deep spiritual truths when Jesus taught them using elements of this world, there was no way he would understand them if Jesus attempted to explain them as they really were in concrete terms!  Jesus was and remains the only one who has ever experienced the wonder of heaven directly; He was the only truly qualified to speak of spiritual truths.  Revelation—the Word of God—is the only basis for faith, not education or discovery.

Verses 14 and 15 seem out of place, yet they are at the very heart of God’s redemptive plan which Jesus is attempting to explain to Nicodemus.  By taking this Pharisee back to the Pentateuch, Scriptures he knew very well, Jesus was saying in a roundabout way that what He was teaching was nothing new, but as old as Judaism itself.   The plan of redemption had been revealed in type throughout the Old Testament dispensation; particularly the type of the serpent raised as a standard by Moses for all the people to see.

The story Jesus is referring to is in Numbers 21 and that chapter actually is the key to the interpretation of entire book of Numbers.   Although we wish Jesus had explained this in greater detail, Nicodemus probably had an understanding we don’t have.  There are several applications, however, we can glean:

  • The ancient Israelites were guilty of extreme disobedience.  They grumbled and complained continuously and had a thoroughly thankless spirit.
  • They were under the condemnation of God and were being punished for their sin.
  • The snake raised before them was an emblem and reminder of that judgment.
  • They were unable to rescue themselves.
  • The poison of the snake was deadly and there was no antidote for it.
  • Moses urged the people to look at the snake in order to receive life.

Jesus hinted to Nicodemus that He, just like the serpent, would be “lifted up.”  Of course He was referring to His crucifixion; the word translated “lifted up” is elsewhere translated in that way.

Even though Jesus used the snake in the wilderness as a type of Himself, He, being the Antitype, though similar, is very different.

  • In Numbers, the people were faced with physical death, in John man is viewed as spiritually dead in sin.
  • In Numbers, the brazen serpent had no power to heal; in John Christ has this power.
  • In Numbers, physical healing is emphasized:  when the people looked to the brazen serpent, their health would be restored.  In John it is not physical healing but spiritual life that is emphasized—it is given to those who place their faith and trust in Christ.

The lifting up of Christ was never an option.   His crucifixion is not a remedy; it is the only possible remedy for man’s sinful condition.  And though Christ is lifted up in the sight of all, He does not save all.  Only those who believe in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

The brazen serpent, another reference to the old way, once again shows the superiority of  Christ.  That serpent was not real; it had no power in itself; it was just piece of brass.  But through faith in Jesus Christ, the New Way, believers gain eternal life.

(c)  2010 WitzEnd

Faith For Salvation

What Jesus told Nicodemus in John 3:14—21

We are such a narcissistic society today. Judging by how many pharmacies there are even in small towns and villages, and looking at the number of clinics that have popped up in recent years, an outsider would have to conclude that either there is something terribly wrong with most Americans or most Americans spend way too much thinking about themselves! Add to that all the diet plans, fitness centers, self-help seminars and books, and not to mention a president who has written not one but two memoirs before the age of 45, and it becomes painfully obvious that the most important person to some people is themselves.

That’s not to say that you aren’t important. In fact, a good self-image is important. Where do you get your sense of self-worth? What is it about you that makes you loveable? These are actually important questions because people who have a realistic and positive view of themselves fair much better than those who are discouraged and overly critical about themselves.

This group of verses in John’s Gospel is the most significant statement of man’s self-worth because it shows what he is worth to God.

1. Setting the scene

In John’s Gospel, the Pharisees are portrayed as the prominent Jewish leaders, and Nicodemus was “a ruler of the Jews,” that is, he was a member of the Sanhedrin, the highest Jewish court. Something about Jesus piqued this man’s curiosity, and so he approached Jesus “at night.” Much has been written about why Nicodemus visited Jesus at night. Some have suggested that he was afraid to be seen with Jesus; afraid of what his peers might think of him. Perhaps all he wanted was some privacy to talk to this man without interruption. The important question, to me, is not why did Nicodemus come to Jesus at night, but why did he come at all? He was surely curious about Jesus and His teachings, but it was a great risk for him to be seen with the this “religious upstart.” Perhaps the reason this Pharisee came to Jesus at night is better understood by looking at this verse, which could best be called a “reverse action:”

As soon as Judas had taken the bread, he went out. And it was night. (John 13:30)

The man who betrayed Jesus, his friend, for money left the Light of God for a world of darkness. Nicodemus, a man who never had the Light, is seen here emerging from the darkness.

Nicodemus recognized that there was something special about Jesus—He was “a teacher from God.” Oddly enough, he based this opinion of Jesus not on what Jesus taught, but on what he saw Jesus doing—the “signs” and miracles that surrounded Jesus’ ministry. In response, Jesus simply said this:

“I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.” (3:3)

The Greek is ambiguous, Jesus meant either “born anew” or “born from above,” but in either case, this statement perplexed Nicodemus, who was thinking on a purely earthly plain. For the next few verses, Jesus explains what spiritual re-birth entailed, yet Nicodemus still seemed unable to grasp the concept. We can almost hear the frustration in Jesus’ voice when He said—

You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? (3:10)

Jesus was teaching nothing new, a man of Nicodemus’ education and standing should easily understand what the “new birth” was all about, but he didn’t, and so Jesus had to take Nicodemus back in time to Moses. The incident alluded to by Jesus in verse 14 may seem strange to us, but Nicodemus would have immediately recognized Numbers 21:4—9:

They traveled from Mount Hor along the route to the Red Sea, to go around Edom. But the people grew impatient on the way; they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the desert? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!”

Then the LORD sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned when we spoke against the LORD and against you. Pray that the LORD will take the snakes away from us.” So Moses prayed for the people.

The LORD said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, he lived.

2. Jesus’ interpretation, 3:14—15

Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.

There are several aspects to this Scripture that Nicodemus would have been familiar with, given that a Pharisee would have spent most of the day studying the OT.

· The Israelites were guilty of disobedience, grumbling, and were unthankful to both God and Moses for their deliverance.

· They were living under the condemnation of God and were being punished for their sin.

· The object elevated before them was a sign of their judgment.

· They were unable to rescue themselves.

· There was no antidote for the poisonous snake bites.

· They were urged to look at the serpent in order to receive life. (Merrill C. Tenney)

The words “As Moses…so must the Son of man” tell us that the event in Numbers 21 is a type, or foreshadow, of the lifting up of the Son of Man. There are four points of comparison implied in John 3:14—15:

· In both Numbers 21 and John 3 the punishment for sin is death.

· In both cases, it is God Himself who, in His sovereign grace, provides a way out.

· In both cases, this remedy consists of something (or Some One) which must be lifted up for all to see.

· In both cases, those who, with a believing heart, look at that which was (or Who was) lifted up, are healed.

But Jesus Christ far transcends His OT type. In Numbers, the people are threatened with physical death, in John all mankind is eternally dead because of their sin. In Numbers it is the type that is lifted up—a brazen serpent with no power to heal. In John it is the Son of God, who does have the power. In Numbers the emphasis is on physical healing, in John it is spiritual life—everlasting life—that is granted to those who trust the One who was lifted up. (Hendriksen)

The lifting up of Christ is not just a remedy for sin; it is the only cure, for in this way alone can God’s righteous demands be met. Jesus knew that He “must be lifted up.” The necessity of the Cross was two-fold. First, the kind of world into which Christ came demanded the Cross. His birth necessitated His atoning death because of lostness of the world; there was simply no other way to save man. And secondly, Christ love for lost humanity demanded the Cross. That kind of sacrificial love is, in reality, an expression of God’s nature; the kind of nature that would exert the supreme effort to reach down and redeem lost men who are quite literally the walking dead. As Joseph Mayfield so eloquently noted, the whole figure [of the Cross] is a kind of paradox that says, Though it be an instrument of death, there is life in the Cross.

But what does John mean by his use of the phrase “lifted up?” In Numbers, of course, it refers to the brazen serpent standing upright so everybody could see it. In John’s Gospel, the term “to be lifted up” always refers to the Cross. But, it is significant that John also uses the verb in connection with Christ’s exaltation—that is, in reference to things like His resurrection and His ascension. In other words, for Christ to be “lifted up” the whole story of redemption must be told.

The last phrase of verse 15 is significant for it indicates that though Christ is lifted up for all to see—both literally on the Cross but also figuratively as He is preached—He does not save all. In order for the ancient Israelites to be healed, they had to look at the brazen serpent. We know from 2 Kings 8:4 that that serpent had no healing powers; God’s blessing was appropriated by the people in their obedience in looking at it. Likewise, man gains everlasting life by looking to Jesus in faith. This brings us to one of the most profound passages in the entire Bible.

3. The Gospel in summary, 3:16

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

With verse 16, we read the very first mention of God’s love in John’s Gospel, even though it is the dominant theme. It took over three chapters to get here, but what a magnificent declaration! We can learn much about God’s love from this single verse. Obviously, God’s love is universal; it is for everybody who would believe. This declaration explains why God did what He did: He loved! The Greek word is egapesen; the kind of love that moves in the interest of others with no thought for ones’ self. This is the kind of love that is willing to risk everything for one person. The verb is in the aorist tense, telling us that God’s act of unselfish love is timeless, yet also complete. In other words, God’s love is absolute.

Also, consider what else we learn about God’s love:

· We learn about its character. To elaborate on the Greek aorist, God’s love is timeless, and therefore it shows that God’s love in action stretches back into the ageless past, and rocketing forward, coming to its climax at Bethlehem and Calvary. God’s love in action, though, is not to be regarded as a series of events, it is ONE fact.

· We learn about its author. It is God the Father who loved. God is not some abstract thought, like a giant brain hanging out in space. He is a real Person, so take the best and greatest human virtues, raise them to the nth degree and then you can get, perhaps, a glimpse of the God’s the Father’s love.

· We learn about the object of God’s love. God loves the world. What is meant by that term:

1. This verse is for “whoever believes,” so birds, animals and trees are not included.

2. Humanity here is not viewed as “the realm of evil,” since God is holy and can have nothing to do with anything or anyone evil.

3. The term “world” must refer to mankind in a very broad sense, meaning all people, though burdened down and lost in their sins and exposed to the judgment of God, are still objects of His concern. Mankind as created by God was perfect, but is now horribly marred and disfigured by sin. However, the Master Creator can still recognize His work and desires to save it.

4. God’s love is not just for Jews, but as the context demands, it is directed toward all people, everywhere.

· We learn that God’s love is a gift. The original language is striking: “…that he gave his Son, the only one he gave…” The emphasis in on greatness of the gift: the Son. That this gift is great is obvious from the fact that there was only one to give. Once again, the tense of the verb indicates an absolute and complete giving, with nothing held back.

· We also learn that this gift must be accepted. In fact, all of God’s gifts and goodness must be appropriated; He will force His love on no one. But the word “believe” consists of merely accepting something, not doing something. The result of simply believing is that the believing one receives the gift, which is eternal life, and is able to live in a relationship with his heavenly Father in total honesty, for he no longer fears his real self exposed (Tenney).

Given that God’s gift of love must be accepted, man is forced to make the decision himself, no one can make it for him. There are only two options: believe of perish. Eternal life, which is accepted by believing, is a gift from God and brings with it multiplied blessings that only God can give. To perish does not mean to cease to exist, it means to be utterly lost, to fail completely, to experience the misery life can bring with no hope. A perfect illustration of one who did not accept God’s gift is seen in John 17:12—

While I was with them, I protected them and kept them safe by that name you gave me. None has been lost except the one doomed to destruction so that Scripture would be fulfilled.

Nicholas Berdyaev said it so well when he wrote these words:

Man is free to choose torment without God rather than happiness in God; he has a right to hell, as it were.

4. The purpose, 3:17

For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.

This is a confusing verse for some people because we know, in fact, that Jesus did come to judge (another translation of the word “condemn”) the world, as evidenced by a wide variety of Scriptures. Is this a contradiction? Or does John have something else in mind? Simply put, the purpose of God’s gift—His love expressed in eternal life—was not to bring men to judgment but to salvation. God’s purpose in His gift was positive, even though judgment is inevitable, it is man who brings it upon himself when he stubbornly refuses to accept God’s gift.

God must never be thought of as a suspicious God looking for an excuse to judge and condemn the very people He created in His own image! His purpose in sending Jesus into the world was to show to all people His love and to draw all people unto Himself. If, after the two millennia since Jesus came, people are still lost and living in their sin, it is because they have chosen to be that way.

(c)  2009 WitzEnd


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