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Rebirth – True Truth Continued   Leave a comment

This is part of a series What If Truth Went Viral. Check it out.

Nicodemus came to Jesus for answers and his first question was “How can I be right with God?” Jesus’ answer perplexed this teacher of theology. After saying “this is a true truth”, Jesus told him he had to be “reborn from above.”

Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter his mother’s womb and be born a second time, can he?” John 3:4

Nicodemus chose to understand Jesus’ words literally. He assumed the expression “reborn from above” must refer to some kind of literal re-birth. There are scholars who will insist that Jesus’s choice of words forced Nicodemus in that direction, but I agree with other scholars who say Nicodemus did not wish to pursue the implications of the only other direction open to him. It is easier to scoff at the physical impossibility of a grown man reentering his mother’s womb. Jesus’ words can be brushed aside as ridiculous and absurd, if taken that way.

We have an advantage over Nicodemus. Reading John’s gospel, we know he has already identified Jesus as God. The creation of life was His work in the beginning, and that included creating spiritual life. We have also read that those who become God’s children are those born by a divine act of creation (John 1:12). Nicodemus had not had those lessons yet, so he embraced a crass literalism and scoffed at Jesus’ words, not because Jesus was wrong, but because Nicodemus didn’t understand him.

Jesus answered, “I tell you the solemn truth, unless a person is born of water and spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be amazed that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows wherever it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” John 3:5-8

Once again, Jesus began His response to Nicodemus by indicating the true truth of what He was saying. He then answered Nicodemus’ objection Nicodemus: “… unless a person is born of water and spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (verse 5).

I believe we can safely reason that to be “reborn from above” is synonymous with being “born of water and spirit.” People ask, “What is meant by the terms “water” and “spirit”? Some take the term “water” to refer to natural birth, while they believe “spirit” refers to one’s spiritual re-birth from above. If this is what Jesus intended, then He said that a man must first be born naturally (“of water”) and then supernaturally (“of the Spirit”). According to my Bible guides, the support for interpreting “water” in this way is not strong and frankly I don’t see it as necessary for Jesus to argue the need for both physical birth and spiritual birth.

I personally favor understanding the terms “water” and “spirit” as one expression, “water and spirit,” which together refer to spiritual rebirth. Again, according to the Bible analysis I have available, several Old Testament texts seem to justify the conclusion that both “water” and “spirit” refer to one’s spiritual rebirth:

“’For I will pour water on him who is thirsty, And floods on the dry ground; I will pour My Spirit on your descendants, And My blessing on your offspring; They will spring up among the grass Like willows by the watercourses.’ One will say, ‘I am the LORD’s’; Another will call himself by the name of Jacob; Another will write with his hand, ‘The LORD’s,’ And name himself by the name of Israel” (Isaiah 44:3-5, NKJV).

“For I will take you from among the nations, gather you out of all countries, and bring you into your own land. 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. 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. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will keep My judgments and do them” (Ezekiel 36:24-27, NKJV).

This work of regeneration is also described in the Old Testament as the work of the “wind”:

Also 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 may live.”’” So I prophesied as He commanded me, and breath came into them, and they lived, and stood upon their feet, an exceedingly great army (Ezekiel 37:9-10, NKJV).

The New Testament describes God’s work of salvation as the “washing of the new birth and the renewing of the Holy Spirit”:

For we too were once foolish, disobedient, misled, enslaved to various passions and desires, spending our lives in evil and envy, hateful and hating one another. But “when the kindness of God our Savior appeared and his love for mankind, He saved us not by works of righteousness that we have done but on the basis of his mercy, through the washing of the new birth and the renewing of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us in full measure through Jesus Christ our Savior. And so, since we have been justified by his grace, we become heirs with the confident expectation of eternal life” (Titus 3:3-7).

I believe that the “water” of which Jesus spoke  here is also related to the “water” of baptism. The Pharisees are most concerned to know why John is baptizing (John 1:25). Immediately after Nicodemus’ meeting with Jesus, John’s disciples express their concerns to him about the rising popularity of Jesus. Jesus has been spending time with His disciples and baptizing (3:22). John’s disciples then protest to John: “Rabbi, the one who was with you on the other side of the Jordan River, about whom you testified—see, he is baptizing, and everyone is going to him!” (3:26). I believe the Savior’s baptism and John’s baptism are, at this point in time, one and the same. It is the baptism of repentance, in preparation for Messiah’s coming. Baptism was a part of the message and the ministry of both John and Jesus, and baptism by the Spirit is what John said distinguished the Messiah’s ministry from his own (John 1:33). Thus, to be born of water and the Spirit is to be “reborn from above,” to be saved.

Now let’s be clear (especially since we’re dealing in true truth here). Baptism is a good work that we perform as a result of salvation. It does not impart salvation and to push that theory would be to argue against what Jesus told Nicodemus. John’s baptism was viewed as preparatory to the coming of the Savior. It was a baptism of repentance. By being baptized, one testified that he or she was renouncing Judaism (law keeping) as the means of their salvation. This was precisely why unbelieving and unrepentant Pharisees refused baptism:

(Now all the people who heard this, even the tax collectors, acknowledged God’s justice, because they had been baptized with John’s baptism. 30 However, the Pharisees and the experts in religious law rejected God’s purpose for themselves, because they had not been baptized by John.) (Luke 7:29-30)

Jesus was very careful to identity Himself with John and his ministry. If a Pharisee or anyone else wished to enter the kingdom of God, they must do so through the means God had appointed—identification with John and with Jesus, the One of whom John bore testimony.

I do believe baptism was expected, but Jesus did not emphasize human action, but rather the sovereign work of God in salvation. To be born from above is to be born of God. To be born of God is to be spiritually born by the work of His Spirit (born from above). Jesus then described the sovereign saving work of God through His Spirit by using the analogy of the wind.

The effects of the wind can be seen, but the wind itself is not seen. Neither can the wind be controlled. The wind goes where it wishes and does what it will. Men do not control the wind. The Spirit’s saving work is like this. The Spirit goes about His life-giving work, and no man controls Him. No one, by his own works or manipulation can direct the Spirit in His work. But when the Spirit brings about the new birth, the effects are evident. We know it is the work of God’s Spirit, unseen and beyond man’s control. In this sense, neither Nicodemus nor anyone else can save themselves, nor anyone else for that matter. Salvation is the sovereign work of God, accomplished by the Holy Spirit.

Pharisaism saw itself as the guardian of the Law of Moses. It viewed itself as the pure remnant of Judaism – the “gatekeeper” of the kingdom, governit it by the rules and regulations it had added to the law through oral tradition (see Matthew 23:13-15). Like his peers, Nicodeumus felt as though the Pharisees had the kingdom under control. Jesus shocked him by saying that part from being reborn from above, Nicodemus and his fellow moralists would not be seeing heaven anytime soon. In fact, Jesus was set to blow this myth right out of the water.

Posted June 17, 2016 by aurorawatcherak in Christianity

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I Tell You True Truth   1 comment

This is Part 10 of a series What If Truth Went Viral? Check it out.

John the apostle wrote his account of Jesus’ life decades after the events. What are termed the synoptic gospels had already been written and were in circulation. As an elder in Ephesus, John no doubt read one of the traveling copies. Why did John feel he needed to write his own gospel? There is a theory that Luke asked him to and there is some evidence for Luke’s involvement (I’ll get to that someday).

John may have been the last of the apostles still living by the time he set pen to parchment. The others had all died in persecutions. Although he wrote his gospel later, he had to have written before AD 79 because there is no textual evidence that he knew about the destruction of the Temple. He speaks of the Temple as though it still existed. So it’s about 30-35 years after the events he wrote of, but he had the other gospels to refresh his memory and Luke may have been there as well. Luke was not witness to the events of Jesus’ life, but textual critics say his gospel evidences the skills of a historian.

I suspect John had found something missing in the other gospels. The other gospels were not inadequate for their own purposes, but John had a somewhat different message. Thus, his gospel (while a book of history) is really a book of theology. It focuses less on details of where Jesus traveled when and more on what Jesus taught.

Thus the exact chronology of the gospel may not be wholly accurate and that’s why the gospel is not “synoptic”. It doesn’t matter because it is a book of theology and not a historical text.

At the age of 12, Jesus accompanied Mary and Joseph to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover with them. When His family left for home, Jesus stayed behind, His absence unnoticed. When Mary and Joseph returned to Jerusalem in search of Jesus, they found Him in the temple listening to the teachers and asking questions (Luke 2:46). It wasn’t long before they were asking Jesus questions, and they were amazed at His answers (2:47). Jesus was already an astounding teacher at 12 years of age, whose understanding of the Scriptures amazed Israel’s finest scholars.

Several years later, John the Baptist commenced his public ministry, proclaiming the Word of God and calling Israel to repentance in preparation for the coming of Messiah. The Jewish religious leaders took note of him and sent a delegation to inquire about his ministry and message. It is apparent that the Pharisees chose not to identify themselves with John and his preaching, as they refused to be baptized by him (Luke 7:30).

Nicodemus came to Jesus at night, but not to talk about himself or Pharisaism, but to learn more about Jesus, His message, and His relationship with God. What does Jesus say about Himself? Nicodemus opened the door by assuring Jesus that he sees Him as a man with a mission and a message from God. All Jesus had to do is pick up from here and tell Nicodemus what His mission is. I think Nicodemus was surprised where the conversation ended up.

Jesus replied, “I tell you the solemn truth, unless a person is [re]born from above, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

Jesus began by indicating to Nicodemus that the words He is about to speak convey a most solemn truth. He uses an expression unique to this Gospel, which in the King James Version is rendered, “Verily, verily …”  In essence, Jesus said “This is true truth” and then He swept away all that Nicodemus stood for and demanded that he be re-made by the power of God.

Nicodemus’ brand of Judaism did not know anything of re-birth. Quite frankly, the Pharisees thought one birth of the “right kind” was quite enough.

But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “Offspring of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit worthy of repentance! And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ because I tell you that God can raise up children for Abraham from these stones! 10 Even now the ax is ready at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matthew 3:7-10, emphasis mine).

To many Jews, to be born a Jew was to be born into the kingdom of God. We know the Jews also believed that Gentiles are born “lost.” Even the Jerusalem church leaders had to be forcefully convinced that God had purposed the salvation of Gentiles (Acts 10; 11:15-18), and even then, the practice of many Jewish believers did not match their profession (Acts 11:19). Paul, likewise, hit hard at this point. All Israelites are not true Israelites (Romans 9:6). Those who trust in the atoning work of Jesus Christ for salvation are true Israelites, whether their racial origins are Jewish or Gentile (Galatians 3:28; 6:16).

I can imagine the shocked look on Nicodemus’s face when Jesus told him that his natural birth (as a Jew) wouldn’t save him, and that he must be reborn from above. The implication was (and remains) clear: Unless Nicodemus was reborn from above, he would not see the kingdom of God. Here was a man who thought he had reserved seats on the blue line of heaven. Jesus told him that he was not even going to get into heaven as he was. He first must be born again, from above.

And that, folks, is Jesus’ brand of true truth.

Part 9 – Secret Meeting

Part 10 –

Secret Meeting   1 comment

This is Part 8 of a series – What If Truth Went Viral. Check it out.

When Jesus began His public ministry, the people who heard Him recognized a difference between His teaching and that of the Jewish religious teachers. Jesus taught as one having authority and not as their experts in the law. Our Lord’s authority was bolstered by His healing of the sick and casting out of demons. More than that, His authority was evident in the impact His words had on His listeners. The experts in the law taught with great dogmatism (Romans 2:17-20; 1 Timothy 1:6-7; 2 Peter 2:18), but their message lacked the power of Jesus’ message. His teaching rang “true” to His audience.

Luke 5:17 records the Pharisees quickly take note of Jesus. In fact, Pharisees from the entire nation of Israel gather to observe His ministry and teaching. We know from Luke’s words that Jesus was performing miracles at this time. John’s gospel is not as chronological as the synoptic gospels, so we don’t know if this occurred before or after Jesus’ with Nicodemus, but it seems logical that Nicodemus would have sought Him out around this time. Nicodemus came to Jesus by night. Why at night? It may simply have been the only time that Jesus had for a private chat. Scholars have argued for centuries about whether Nicodemus’ original mission was on behalf of the Pharisees or if it was a private meeting for Nicodemus’ own sake. The Pharisees were hard pressed to speak critically of Jesus or His ministry. How could His teaching be criticized? How could anyone speak against Him when He performed miracles openly, and so many people were watching? Jesus made the Pharisees look bad, and there seems to be little they could say against Him. Later, they would throw caution to the wind because Jesus refused to comply with their rules and He didn’t have much good to say about them:

Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have not come to abolish but to fulfill. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth pass away not the smallest letter or stroke of a letter will pass from the law until everything takes place. So anyone who breaks one of the least of these commands and teaches others to do this, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches others to do so will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness goes beyond that of the experts in the law and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:17-20).

Jesus performed His first sign at the wedding in Cana of Galilee, but very few even realized what had happened. The cleansing of the temple captured the attention of the religious leaders (John 2:18-22), while the signs our Lord accomplished in Jerusalem caught the attention of many others (John 2:23-25). Contrary to popular interpretation, the Pharisees were not the ones who caught the brunt of Jesus’ purge of the Temple. They were not the ones behind the merchandising which took place in the temple courts. The priests and Sadduccees were the hosts of the market. It’s entirely possible the Pharisees stood by as Jesus cleansed the temple, looking on with great satisfaction as the priests and Sadducees were publicly humiliated.

These events seem to have riveted the Pharisees’ attention on Jesus. One highly-impressed Pharisee who was named Nicodemus. As I said, scholars argue over why Nicodemus sought out Jesus. Some think he was there on behalf of the Pharisees, perhaps hoping to co-opt Jesus into their order. They suggest Nicodemus came with a memorized script, and when Jesus interrupted him, he was totally disarmed and disoriented and allowed Jesus to talk.

Other scholars hold the view that I do. Jesus was a virtuoso of sorts and Nicodemus had heard Him preach. He recognized His genius and wanted to understand this young man whom he admired. Nicodemus was an elite Jew – a Pharsee, a renowed Scripture teacher, and a member of the Sanhedrin — yet, when he heard Jesus teach, he heard the answers to questions that had bothered him for years. He watched the crowds as they listened to Jesus, and he knew he had never held the attention of an audience like Jesus did. Jesus spoke in simple terms, but His message had (and still does) great power. Nicodemus observed the miracles Jesus performed, knowing he had never performed so much as one miracle. By nearly any standard, Nicodemus couldn’t hold a candle to Jesus.

1 Now there came a man of the Pharisees whose name was Nicodemus, a member of the council. 2 He came to Jesus at night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could do the miraculous signs that you do unless God were with him.”

Nicodemus could not overlook the weight of the evidence. His fellow Pharisees quickly found alternative explanations for Jesus’ success, but Nicodemus could not set aside his personal conviction that Jesus had some kind of divine mission, and that He possessed divine authority by which He spoke and healed.

I am now inclined to believe that Nicodemus volunteered to go speak with Jesus, but if he had a predetermined agenda for this interview, he never got to it. He simply told Jesus that, from what he had personally observed, he had concluded that Jesus had come from God on some divinely inspired mission. Nicodemus’ words evidence a great respect for Jesus. Nicodemus called Jesus “Rabbi,” which was the same title used to address Nicodemus, for he was a teacher of the law as well. He further referred to Jesus as “a teacher come from God.”

When Nicodemus spoke to Jesus, he does not say, “Rabbi, I know that You are a teacher who has come from God,” but rather “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God.” To whom is Nicodemus referring when he says “we”? It must be his colleagues the Pharisees (who, by the way, represented 1 in 5 Jewish men at that time). Was Nicodemus speaking for his fellow Pharisees here, expressing their point of view? Some scholars believe Nicodemus came as the official spokesman for the Pharisees and that it is certainly possible. However, it wasn’t the Pharisees’ style to act in such a secretive manner. In the cases above (John 1:19-25; Luke 5:17), the Pharisees made their moves very publicly, as if they intended to be seen. They wanted to be viewed as the accrediting agency for all those who taught the law.

So I think that Nicodemus was acting independently, without the sanction of the Pharisees. Why “we” then? I think there were other Pharisees, maybe not as brave as Nicodemus who stood behind him. We know from Acts that many Pharisees later became Christians. It’s also likely that Nicodemus thought in terms of his membership in the Pharisees. This explains Jesus’ answer that sought to show  Nicodemus that his system of religion does not, because it cannot, save anyone.

When you read the Gospels, you see Jesus returning the disrespect of the priests, scribes and Pharisees with a disrespect of His own. He refused to accept their authority over Him and He criticized them in harsh terms. Nicodemus sees another side of Jesus — the gentle teacher Who explains salvation to a willing pupil. Nicodemus came wanting to learn more from an inspired rabbi, but he was about to meet God Incarnate and learn a truth he was not expecting to learn.

Part 9

Bold Truth   2 comments

This is Part 8 of a series – What If Truth Went Viral. Check it out.

Digging through Jesus’ truth statements in John brought me to Nicodemus. When I opened a study guide to get help with the Greek, I encountered a surprise. A lot of our theology books used to belong to actual Biblical scholars or pastors who need the same help I need. When they trade up, sometimes we get their old books. This guide belonged to our friend Alan before it belonged to us and he had saved a newspaper article about a speech given by the president of a well-known university to a group of influential businessmen and civic leaders.

The president told of a recent experience which he, his audience, and the newspaper reporter found humorous. While shopping during the Christmas season, he happened to pass by a Salvation Army volunteer, ringing a bell for a “donation kettle”. As he paused to make a donation, the woman volunteer asked this educator: “Sir, are you saved?” When he replied that he supposed he was, she was not satisfied and pursued the matter further: “I mean, have you ever given your full life to the Lord?” The president told his audience that he felt he ought to enlighten this persistent woman concerning his identity: “I am the president of this major university and, therefore, president of its school of theology.” The lady considered his response for a moment, and then replied, “It doesn’t matter wherever you’ve been, or whatever you are, you can still be saved.”

The tragedy here is that both the seminary president and his audience actually thought his story was amusing. I know why Alan — who is coincidentally a seminary professor nowadays — used this article as a bookmark for the section on Nicodemus. Nicodemus was the equivalent of a university president, the “cream of the Jewish crop” — a Jews, a Pharisee, a member of the Sanhedrin (the highest legal, legislative and judicial body of the Jews), and a highly respected teachers of the Old Testament scriptures. One can imagine that if Nicodemus had been confronted by this Salvation Army volunteer, he would have thought—and said—just about the same thing as the university president.

Can you imagine being Nicodemus and having Jesus tell you that all of this is not enough to get you into the kingdom of God? That is precisely what Jesus told him when they met. Talk about camels being strained through the eyes of sewing needles! If a man like Nicodemus is not good enough for the kingdom of God, then who is?

That is the question, and Jesus has the answer, which John recorded for us. For everyone who has been taught that there are many ways to heaven … no, there are not … not according to Jesus. If you say you are a Christian, but do not listen to the message Jesus brought, then you need to examine your faith. Start by reading Jesus’ own words:

Now there came a man of the Pharisees whose name was Nicodemus, a member of the council. He came to Jesus at night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could do the miraculous signs that you do unless God were with him.”

Jesus replied, “I tell you the solemn truth, unless a person is born from above, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter his mother’s womb and be born a second time, can he?”

Jesus answered, “I tell you the solemn truth, unless a person is born of water and spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be amazed that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows wherever it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

Nicodemus replied, “How can these things be?”

Jesus answered, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you don’t understand these things? I tell you the solemn truth, we speak about what we know and testify about what we have seen, but you people do not accept our testimony. If I have told you people about earthly things and you don’t believe, how will you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven—the Son of Man. Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.”

For this is the way God loved the world: he gave his one and only Son that everyone who believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world should be saved through him. The one who believes in him is not condemned. The one who does not believe has been condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the one and only Son of God. Now this is the basis for judging: that the light has come into the world and people loved the darkness rather than the light, because their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil deeds hates the light and does not come to the light, so that their deeds will not be exposed. But the one who practices the truth comes to the light, so that it may be plainly evident that his deeds have been done in God. John 3:1-21

Discussion to follow.

Part 9

Posted June 3, 2016 by aurorawatcherak in Christianity, Uncategorized

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