Friday, June 16, 2006

John 3:1-21 (3)

Now that we grasp that the text means “born again” and “born of God,” we must try to understand what that means. To be “born again,” to be “born from above,” is much more than to reform one’s habit and lifestyle. Above all–and this is the point that many professing Christians fail to grasp–it is not initiated or performed by the person’s own decision. The very idea of being “born” precludes this. Even with natural birth, one cannot give birth to himself, but someone else gives birth to him completely apart from his decision. In fact, that this person has any opportunity to decide anything at all is because someone has previously given birth to him.

That a person needs to be born “again” means that the first birth by which a person enters the world is insufficient for the purpose that Jesus has in mind. And that a person needs to be born “from above” further clarifies this. Jesus is referring to a different kind of birth altogether. Also, that the person is to be born “from above” again emphasizes the fact that this birth cannot be performed by another human person, and still less by the person himself. It is neither initiated nor accomplished by human relation or volition. A person reborn from above is “born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:13, NASB). Even that verse in John 1 is often misread. The one who receives Him is the one who has been born of God, and not of human decision.

Moving on, Jesus says that unless a person is born again or born from above, he can neither “see the kingdom of God,” nor, from verse 5, “enter the kingdom of God.” To Nicodemus, this meant that no one can participate in the messianic kingdom that every Jew expected (and still expects today) to come. The message of Jesus is shocking and offensive. Jesus is explaining here how one may inherit eternal life and escape death and condemnation, and He gets more into it as we go along (verses 16-18). But He’s given the answer: Be born of God.

So what does Nicodemus say to this? Does he know what it means? He asks in verse 4, “How can a man be born when he is old? Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born!” Nicodemus takes what Jesus says only in a physical sense, and responds with a rhetorical question that assumes a negative answer. Because Nicodemus understands the term “born again” as referring to a second birth, and because it appears he takes this in a purely physical sense, his response is to wonder incredulously as to whether a person can enter into his mother’s womb, and then be physically born for a second time. Could Nicodemus really be so spiritually dull? Our response here would be based on speculation about the private thoughts and motives of Nicodemus, and not on something that is explicit or implicit in the passage, or for that matter, any other biblical passage.

Most people assume that Nicodemus is not so spiritually dull. In fact, from this and other passages found in this Gospel, it is more than likely that one of John's intentions for this text is precisely to challenge this assumption. Moreover, consider the possibility that many people make such an assumption about Nicodemus because they make the same assumption about themselves. Is it possible for us to be so spiritually dull that we would fail to grasp even the most basic and necessary truth? Rather than interpreting Scripture based on what we think we know about human nature, we must interpret Scripture based on what Scripture itself teaches about human nature. What is possible or impossible for a man to understand must be defined by the Bible, and not from what we think we know about man apart from the Bible.

It does not surprise me at all that Nicodemus sounds as spiritually dull as he does. In fact, given all the biblical passages on spiritual dullness, it is puzzling that so many people reject the possibility! The effects of sin on the mind cannot be overcome by education, even by seminary education, but they can be overcome only when God’s Spirit enlightens the mind through Scripture. In any case, some commentators are more honest with the text. D. A. Carson writes, "A more realistic view is that Nicodemus did not understand what Jesus was talking about at all."

Nevertheless, examples from personal experience cannot prove anything – at best they can only illustrate what the Bible already teaches. Thus for us to arrive at a proper understanding about spiritual dullness, we should look at some of the biblical passages on the subject. Now, Jesus says in Matthew 11:25-27, “I praise You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because You have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this was Your good pleasure. All things have been committed to Me by My Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal Him.” We must realize the force of these words. Jesus is saying that true knowledge and perception about the Father and the Son are jealously guarded by Them, and even deliberately hidden by Them, except to those whom They choose to reveal Themselves. So it does not matter how much natural intelligence a person seems to possess – to know God without divine revelation, one must first overcome God’s omnipotence to hide Himself, but if one could accomplish this, then it would not be omnipotence that we are talking about. This passage alone should eliminate all questions as to whether someone with the learning of Nicodemus could be as spiritually dull as he appears. His ability to understand anything about the spiritual operations of God depends on whether God has chosen to reveal himself to him, and whether he has chosen to reveal himself at that particular time. In fact, Jesus says in our passage, “You have hidden these things from the wise and the learned,” so that human wisdom and learning cannot penetrate the barrier between natural and spiritual wisdom.

Then, we read in Matthew 16:5-12: “When they went across the lake, the disciples forgot to take bread. ‘Be careful,’ Jesus said to them. ‘Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.’ They discussed this among themselves and said, ‘It is because we didn’t bring any bread.’ Aware of their discussion, Jesus asked, ‘You of little faith, why are you talking among yourselves about having no bread? Do you still not understand? Don’t you remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many basketfuls you gathered? Or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many basketfuls you gathered? How is it you don’t understand that I was not talking to you about bread? But be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.’ Then they understood that He was not telling them to guard against the yeast used in bread, but against the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” When Jesus mentions the “yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees,” He is not referring to food but to their doctrine. If His own disciples could misunderstand something like this, why are we surprised that Nicodemus would fail to understand what Jesus means by “born again”? Certainly, here the disciples are not being sarcastic or clever – they really think that Jesus is talking about food. And what Jesus says in His rebuke confirms that the disciples are genuinely deficient in understanding.

Now comes the crucial point. Jesus does not attribute the misunderstanding to mere miscommunication. He does not say that His statement is too vague, and neither does He say that the disciples have a general deficiency in reasoning skills or in understanding language. Instead, He blames the misunderstanding on their lack of faith – He says that this is a spiritual problem. If they would have the faith to recall and realize that Jesus could multiply food, then they would not be saying among themselves that Jesus is concerned about food. Jesus says that it is precisely a lack of faith and not an abundance of faith that makes them irrational, prevents them from reasoning from true premises to their necessary conclusion, and hinders them from perceiving and understanding the truth.

This is one of the reasons why a person who lacks faith cannot reason correctly about spiritual things. He cannot employ the needed premises in his deductions as long as these premises are spiritual propositions. His mind cannot process them. It is not that spiritual things are irrational, but the problem is that his mind is defective. That’s why the spiritual man asks with Jesus, “Are you still so dull?” (Matthew 15:16), and exclaims in frustration, “O unbelieving and perverse generation, how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you?” (Matthew 17:17).

Matthew 16:13-17 is also relevant, where Peter declares that Jesus is the Christ, and Jesus replies that God the Father revealed that truth to him. In Luke 18:31-34, we read: “Jesus took the twelve aside and told them, ‘We are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written by the prophets about the Son of Man will be fulfilled. He will be handed over to the Gentiles. They will mock Him, insult Him, spit on Him, flog Him and kill Him. On the third day He will rise again.’ The disciples did not understand any of this. Its meaning was hidden from them, and they did not know what he was talking about.” This is remarkable! And it proves the point that a person can be as dull about spiritual things as Nicodemus appears in John 3. He could even be a biblical scholar, but without the Spirit’s illumination, there can be no understanding. Here Jesus tells His disciples plainly and directly, without using figures of speech, about what would happen to Him. But “the disciples did not understand any of this.” Many people really do not understand the seemingly simple spiritual truths. Let’s look at one more and get back to John 3.

1 Corinthians 2:14 aptly summarizes the explanation concerning the unbeliever’s intellectual deficiency: “The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned.” The verse says that the natural man, the man without the Spirit, “cannot understand.” The natural man rejects spiritual truths not because he is intellectually superior, but because he is intellectually inferior, and this intellectual inferiority has a spiritual cause as its root. As Paul says, “For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom” (1 Corinthians 1:25). This is why even the greatest natural intellect is still far too feeble to grasp the lowest spiritual truths. He is only wise according to human standards (v. 26) – that is, when compared to other unbelievers, to other fools. But the Christian has received wisdom from God.

If a person is surprised by the lack of understanding in Nicodemus, if he thinks that Nicodemus should surely be further down the road than he appears, then he is utterly out of touch with what Scripture teaches about man’s condition. But those who acknowledge what Scripture teaches realize that Nicodemus already represents the best of unregenerate humanity. In both learning and religion, he represents the best that man can attain apart from regeneration, from the new birth, and yet he is exactly as shallow and dull as he appears. At this point, Nicodemus is still a natural man, a man without the Spirit. This is why he fails to understand, and this is why he needs to be born again. And that’s exactly what Jesus tells him.

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