Monday, September 20, 2010

Theology in John 1-3 Part 3

Spiritual regeneration results in eternal life. That is the great truth of Scripture in chapter three. Chapter two of John ends with a description that Jesus knows the heart of every man and that He "had no need that anyone should testify concerning man, for He knew what was in man" (John 2:23-24). And what was in man was evil always (cf ). Man needs to be changed; he needs to be spiritually reborn.

This regeneration does not come by any means of man by or in himself, but rather by an external agent – God. And although all three persons of the Godhead participate in this regeneration, John concentrates in the early chapters upon one person of the Godhead and defines the means by which one is saved – by believing in His name; by believing in Jesus Christ, the Anointed Savior. The apostle John puts it this way, "But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name: 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). And it is chapter three that John provides the teaching of being born again – born of God.

The New Birth

John's gospel presents the doctrine of one who is born again by first presenting the miracle of turning water into wine. A fundamental transformation of pure water into a joyful drink suitable for the wedding occasion illustrating the point that Jesus had both the power and authority to perform the impossible when asked. The purpose for the miracle is said to manifest His glory; and His disciples believed in Him (2:11).

From this miracle and after cleansing the Temple, John moves to telling the story of Nicodemus. Nicodemus was a "man of the Pharisees," probably a member of the Jewish ruling council called the Sanhedrin, a teacher, and the Talmud lists him as being the fourth richest man in Jerusalem. He comes to Jesus by night and although he comes by himself, it is clear that the Jewish leadership sent him as he tells Jesus "Rabbi, we know 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).

It is at this point that Jesus leads the conversation. Nicodemus does not get a question in before Jesus says, "Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God" (John 3:3). Nicodemus responds with the question "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).

Next, Jesus defines what it means to be born again. He does this by defining a Spiritual rebirth, meaning a heavenly birth that involves the work of the Holy Spirit. He then turns to an illustration from nature – the wind, ending with an illustration from the Old Testament – the bronze snake. This illustrative teaching style continues throughout the book of John. That is, Jesus will present a theological teaching and do so with an accompanying relevant miracle. But before John moves to the miracles, Jesus has to define what it means to be born again and the reason why He came – to be the suffering servant who had to die on the cross.

The Need For Being Born Again

Jesus tells Nicodemus, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God" (John 3:3). This statement presents the reader with the ultimate exclusive presentation of the born again or new birth requirement. Notice the statement also speaks of the realm of the kingdom of God. There are two things to define; the new birth and the kingdom of God.

The Kingdom of God.

The kingdom of God is a distinctly Jewish thing. John had just given a presentation of John the Baptist's ministry of baptism and his testimony "this is He who baptizes with the Holy Spirit" (1:33). John the Baptist's message was "repent for the kingdom of God is at hand" (Matt 3:2; cf., Mark 1:14-15). John's message of repentance (Gr. metanoeo "to change one's mind") reflected the fact that the Jews were collectively in a state of apostasy and needed to line up correctly with Scripture instead of tradition.

"The concept of a coming kingdom was well known in Old Testament Scriptures. But the idea that repentance was necessary in order to enter this kingdom was something new, or at least it seems new to them, and it became a stumbling block to many Jews. They thought that as children of Abraham they would automatically be granted entrance into Messiah's kingdom." (Louis Barbieri, Bible Knowledge Commentary) This is what confused Nicodemus and to have Jesus reply with a new birth requirement really seemed to confuse him.

The kingdom of God has two phases; the first is a literal earthly reign of Christ for 1000 years. The second is the eternal kingdom in the new heavens and earth (Rev. 22:5). This kingdom has Christ present in His glory ruling with a rod of iron, meaning sin will be dealt with severely (Ps. 2:9; Isa. 11:1-5; Rev. 12:5; 19:5). His reign will be characterized by righteousness (Isa. 11:4-5; 32:1; 33:5). And as a result of Christ's righteous reign there will be peace (Isa. 2:4; 11:6-9; 32:18), a full knowledge of the Lord (Jer. 31:34), universal worship of the Lord (Isa. 2:2-4; 11:9-11; Ezek. 20:40-41; 40:1-46; Zech. 14:16), and fullness of the Holy Spirit (Joel 2:28-32).

The Jews understanding of who will enter the kingdom is clearly one of universalism, all Israel will be saved. The time of the kingdom will follow the Great Tribulation which will prepare Israel for the kingdom. Most Jews will die in the Tribulation but those who are left are called the remnant and all of them will enter the kingdom.

That is why they were confused concerning repentance and the requirement for a new birth in entering the kingdom. Jesus came the first time to be the suffering servant who came to be the Lamb of God who takes the sin of the world. The Old Testament spoke of this in Isaiah 53. He came the first time to die on the cross to take care of the sin issue. The next time He comes will come as King. They had forgotten the fact that all the Jews entering the kingdom were the faithful remnant and the requirement that all who enter the kingdom are born again. In John's terms, all who believe will be saved and conversely, "He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God" (John 3:18). In Old Testament terms believing in the Son of God and God are synonyms. That is one of Jesus' big points The Son and the Father have the same goal, honor is due both the Father and the Son (John 5:16-30).

Various Views of the New birth

There are various views of the new birth. The major views are shown in table 1.
Charts from Elmer Towns, 21st Century Biblical Commentary Series: The Gospel of John (AMG Publishers, 2002), pp. 30-31

There are some who believe that this is speaking of water baptism. That water baptism is required in order to be born again. This is an extreme view that misses the point altogether. I am not going to go through all the various points. I will, however, discuss the view I believe Jesus is teaching here.

The Method of the New Birth (John 3:5-13)

Jesus starts the explanation of His born again statement by describing the requirement of being born of water and of the Spirit.

I take "being born of water" as the natural birth for two reasons. First, the next verse seals the context, that is, "what is born of flesh is flesh" speaks of physical birth. The opening verses of the book describe this contrast between a physical birth and the spiritual estate of all men. "In him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it" (John 1:1-5). The word life here refers to physical life that Christ gives to everyone born, but not everyone has eternal life. All have physical life that Christ gives, but all lack eternal life and it is God who has to intervene in the believer causing a new birth that result in eternal life. Notice the play on words used here:

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?" 5 Jesus answered, "Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit." (John 3:4-6)

The Jewish parallelism is shown in table 2.

Notice the contrast between that which is physical - the flesh, and that which is spiritual. It is called a Jewish parallelism. That which is physical cannot penetrate the spiritual. They are two different realms. That is why man is made up of two parts the physical and the spiritual.

Another major point is drawn from the Greek word "born again" 'anothon' of verse 3. The word means "from above" and has as its root ano meaning "up," "upwards." This is not the common word for again (the common word is the Greek palin). The idea is either "born from above," i.e. born from heaven, or born up there (i.e. up in the womb) which is how Nicodemus seems to take it. But Nicodemus misses the point, Jesus does not mean born "up there," He means "born from heaven," or elsewhere "born of God," a common Johannine expression (cf. John 1:13; 1 John 3:9; 4:7; 5:1, 4, 18).

Being born of God, or the equivalent born of the Spirit, is the less controversial of all the interpretations. Almost everyone agrees that this refers to the Holy Spirit, and that this is speaking of a regeneration that is independent of man. This is the work of the Holy Spirit, a concept clearly taught in the Old Testament and related to the kingdom of God. For example, Ezekiel writes:

For I will take you from among the nations, gather you out of all countries, and bring you into your own land. 25 Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. 26 I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will keep My judgments and do them. 28 Then you shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers; you shall be My people, and I will be your God. (Ezek. 36:24-28)

Clearly, regeneration is an Old Testament concept and the indwelling of the Spirit is a New Covenant promise.

The Holy Spirit's Indwelling in the Old Testament

The doctrine of the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament reached its height in the hope of the kingdom. It pointed forward to Kingdom life (Ezek. 36). But the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament was temporary. The Holy Spirit was given to a person in order for that person to carry out a task. It seems to have been temporary. For example, the Spirit of God indwelt Saul but departed (1 Sam. 10:10; 16:14). Another important point is that the Spirit's indwelling was independent of one's spiritual condition. In other words the universality of the depravity of man is well established and God moves in man to accomplish His work independent of whether man wants to do God's work or not (cf., the pagan Cyrus Isa. 45:1).

The indwelling of the Holy Spirit is related to the New Covenant (Jer. 31). The New Covenant is the blessing portion of the Abrahamic Covenant. The Abrahamic Covenant consists of a land, a seed, and a blessing (Gen. 12:1-15:17). Ultimately, fulfillment of the covenant is found in the Millennial Kingdom which has the land promise as the land of Israel, the seed promise as the nation Israel and the blessing as kingdom living in peace. The New Covenant defines a time when all Israel will worship the Lord in truth and God will give them a new heart and His Spirit. This is clearly given to Israel and clearly has not reached fulfillment yet (New Covenant cf. Ezek. 20:37; 37:26; Isa. 49:8; 55:3; 59:21; Jer. 31:31-34; 32:40-41; Ezek. 16:60; Matt. 26:28; Rom. 11:11-32; 1 Cor. 11:25; Heb. 7:22; 8:6; 9:15; 12:24; 13:20.

The Holy Spirit's Indwelling in the New Testament

The indwelling of the Holy Spirit is related to the New Covenant and as such finds its initiation at Pentecost in Acts chapter two as the mystery of the Church, that new organization of believers that is made up of both Jew and Gentile and forms a partial fulfillment of the New Covenant (or as some say initiation of it). For the complete fulfillment of the New Covenant involves the Millennial Kingdom as is clearly described in Ezekiel 36 and elsewhere.

The Holy Spirit and Regeneration

Doctrinally, the Holy Spirit is the means of regeneration. Just as with physical birth you are birthed, that is, you do not participate (Greek passive voice). So, it is also with the Spirit birth or regeneration. The same verb is used for both the born (Aorist passive) of water and of the Spirit.

Just as you cannot do anything about how you are born (verse 6 – Greek perfect passive), that is, it is complete and out of your control – you are a passive participant; where you are born, when you are born, what status you are born into and etc. So, it is with the spiritual birth as the same word is used for both in verse 6. The one being saved is a passive participant in the action. He or she is being saved by God. To further highlight the point, Jesus gives an illustration from nature – the wind.

Jesus' Illustration From Nature

Jesus gives an illustration of how this works by using a symbol that no one can control – the wind. The Greek word for wind, pneuma is the same word for "spirit" and "breath." Jesus says, "The wind [pneuma] blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit." (3:8)

Not only is this a play on words, but He means to describe the absolute hopelessness of mankind to save him or herself. Salvation is an act of God. Just as man cannot control or know where the wind comes from, so he cannot control his own salvation. God is the one who controls the wind (cf. Gen. 8:1; Ex. 10:13, 19; Ps. 135:7, & etc). Nicodemus should know the great wise saying from Ecclesiastes 11:5, "As you do not know what is the way of the wind, or how the bones grow in the womb of her who is with child so you do not know the works of God who makes everything."

But this illustration of the wind also serves to point to a very important millennial prophecy concerning all Israel – the prophecy of the dry bones of Ezekiel that God makes alive by the breath of God that comes from the four winds (Ezek. 37:9):
1 The hand of the LORD was upon me, and He brought me out by the Spirit of the LORD and set me down in the middle of the valley; and it was full of bones. 2 He caused me to pass among them round about, and behold, there were very many on the surface of the valley; and lo, they were very dry. 3 He said to me, "Son of man, can these bones live?" And I answered, "O Lord GOD, You know." 4 Again He said to me, "Prophesy over these bones and say to them, O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD. 5 "Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones, Behold, I will cause breath to enter you that you may come to life. 6 I will put sinews on you, make flesh grow back on you, cover you with skin and put breath in you that you may come alive; and you will know that I am the LORD." 7 So I prophesied as I was commanded; and as I prophesied, there was a noise, and behold, a rattling; and the bones came together, bone to its bone. 8 And I looked, and behold, sinews were on them, and flesh grew and skin covered them; but there was no breath in them. 9 Then He said to me, "Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath, Thus says the Lord GOD, "Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they come to life." 10 So I prophesied as He commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they came to life and stood on their feet, an exceedingly great army. (Ezek. 37:1-10)
What a profound illustration! Can you imagine Nicodemus' response "How can these things be?" What the teacher of Israel should have been searching is the prophetic Scriptures for the signs and sayings of the coming Messiah. But he missed the teaching.

Jesus' illustration from the Old Testament

With Nicodemus missing the teaching of the unknowable wind, Jesus moves to another illustration from the Old Testament. The illustration comes from the book of Numbers chapter 21 – the bronze snake. Jesus says to Nicodemus:
"No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of Man who is in heaven. 14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life." (John 3:13-15)
This story from Numbers 21:4-9 recounts the Jews who cursed God in their wilderness wanderings. They cursed the one who provided for them in the desert, who cared for their every need. So the story goes….
And the LORD listened to the voice of Israel and delivered up the Canaanites, and they utterly destroyed them and their cities. So the name of that place was called Hormah. 4 Then they journeyed from Mount Hor by the Way of the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; and the soul of the people became very discouraged on the way. 5 And the people spoke against God and against Moses: "Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and our soul loathes this worthless bread." 6 So the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and many of the people of Israel died. 7 Therefore the people came to Moses, and said, "We have sinned, for we have spoken against the LORD and against you; pray to the LORD that He take away the serpents from us." So Moses prayed for the people.
8 Then the LORD said to Moses, "Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and it shall be that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, shall live." 9 So Moses made a bronze serpent, and put it on a pole; and so it was, if a serpent had bitten anyone, when he looked at the bronze serpent, he lived. (Numbers 21:3-9)
This was a hard saying. The people repented of their cursing God when He brought the snakes in to bite them and Moses prayed for them. Those who had been bitten by a snake were to look upon the bronze snake on a pole with faith to save them from death and were saved, and those who did not, died there in the desert. This story in the wilderness served as an important prophecy that Jesus will fulfill as He is lifted up on the cross to take the sins of the world upon Himself and anyone who looks upon Him and His death on the cross as a propitiation for their sins will be saved.

The word for lifted up (Gr. hypsoo) is carefully chosen. "It denotes not only a literal lifting up in space but also exaltation in glory" (F.F. Bruce, The Gospel & Epistles of John). This reflects the argument sandwiched between the two illustrations (3:11-13) concerning the one from heaven – the Son of Man who was lifted up on a cross, but also served to present exaltation to the One raised from the dead. This is the One who is from heaven and the only One who you can trust will save you, the One who gives you the gift of eternal life. So the saying:
"that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. 16 For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. 17 For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved. 18 He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God." (John 3:15-18)
This story has to end here, for the theological discussion that follows possibly the most quoted New Testament verse has to wait for another full article. Truly God so loved the world that He gave Him only begotten Son, a gift to the world. Salvation, what those who believe in Him receive needs to be defined next time.