Tuesday, June 27, 2006

John 3:1-21 (5)

Now verse 6 says, “Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.” Keep in mind that this continues Jesus’ answer to what Nicodemus says in verse 4. Now Paul regularly uses the word “flesh” in a sense that keeps man’s depravity at the forefront, so that the NIV translates “flesh” as “sinful nature.” But John uses it most often with a different emphasis. Namely, it is not the sinfulness or evil of it that John stresses, but the feebleness or weakness of it, especially when it comes to spiritual things.

For example, Jesus says in John 6:63, “The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life.” The verse speaks of what the Spirit can do that the flesh cannot do, but the emphasis is not on the sinfulness of the flesh. John 1:13 mentions “the will of the flesh” (KJV, NASB). Again, “flesh” here refers to that which is natural or physical, and not necessarily that which is sinful. Of course man is sinful, and of course John acknowledges this, but we are noting the precise meaning that John has in mind when he uses the word “flesh.”

Jesus reminds Nicodemus that there are two basic categories of reality, or two realms of existence. They are the flesh and the spirit, and each gives birth to its own kind, so that the flesh produces flesh and the spirit produces spirit. This being the case, a person who is born by flesh has the life of flesh, but he has no spiritual life. He can improve the flesh, educate the flesh, and dress it up, but it is still flesh, and it remains spiritually lifeless and impotent. No matter what you do to the flesh, you cannot make it into spirit. In other words, the difference between flesh and spirit is not one of degree, but one of kind or category. Therefore, it will not do, as the rhetorical question in verse 3 suggests, for a man to undergo a second birth of the flesh. He can do that for a thousand times and he will still be flesh. He will still have no spiritual life. For there to be spiritual life, he must be born by the Spirit.

A central concern in the Gospels, including this one, is to show that the Jewish people must not trust in their natural lineage as their guarantee to salvation. They tend to think that they have special favor with God just because they are the natural descendents of Abraham. But John corrects this by stating that God has chosen people from all over the world (v. 16), and not just the people of Israel. In addition, elsewhere he shows that the Jews have misunderstood what it means to be the children of Abraham in the first place. We see that exchange in John 8:39-47 as the Pharisees said to Jesus, “Abraham is our father.” “If you were Abraham’s children,” said Jesus, “then you would do the things Abraham did. As it is, you are determined to kill Me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. Abraham did not do such things. You are doing the things your own father does.” “We are not illegitimate children,” they protested. “The only Father we have is God Himself.” Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love Me, for I came from God and now am here. I have not come on My own; but He sent Me. Why is My language not clear to you? Because you are unable to hear what I say. You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desire. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies. Yet because I tell the truth, you do not believe Me! Can any of you prove Me guilty of sin? If I am telling the truth, why don’t you believe Me? He who belongs to God hears what God says. The reason you do not hear is that you do not belong to God.”

They say, “Abraham is our father,” and Jesus does not deny this (8:37), but as He says elsewhere, “the flesh counts for nothing” (6:63). Of course they are Abraham’s natural descendents, but are they like Abraham? Do they believe the same things, exhibit the same characteristics, and perform the same works? Do they welcome the Son of God with gladness and reverence, as Abraham would? No, they are ready to murder the Son of God. They are nothing like Abraham. So then they assert, “The only Father we have is God Himself.” But Jesus brings them back to the same point: Are they anything like God? Do they believe what He tells them? Do they exhibit His characteristics? Do they perform His works? Now here comes something very interesting, something very straightforward, and ties back to our exposition on John 3:4 about spiritual dullness. Jesus says in John 8:43, “Why is My language not clear to you? Because you are unable to hear what I say.” Why are they unable to hear? He says, “You belong to your father, the devil.” Then, He continues, “If I am telling the truth, why don’t you believe Me? He who belongs to God hears what God says. The reason you do not hear is that you do not belong to God.”

Can anything be plainer? Jesus tells them the truth, the truth about spiritual things, using simple and direct language. Why do they not understand? Why do they not believe? “The reason you do not hear is that you do not belong to God.” The devil is their father, but the devil is a liar, and this is why they cannot understand or believe the truth. They cannot process something that is not in their spiritual nature to grasp. For a person to understand and believe the truth, he must first “belong to God,” be the child of God rather than the child of the devil. Just because they are the natural descendents of Abraham does not make them the spiritual descendents of Abraham, nor does it make them the spiritual children of God. So to believe the gospel of Jesus Christ, God must give birth to them – they must be “born again.” One must first “belong to God” in order to believe the truth, so that regeneration, the new birth, must come before faith.

This interpretation refutes the so common teaching of today, that we are born again by faith, that we are born again because we believe. If the condition of your soul is such that you can have faith, why would you need to be born again? Jesus says that these people have the devil as their father, and they do not “belong” to God, so that they cannot believe, they cannot have faith. We are born again by a sovereign act of God, completely apart from human decision or human effort, and it is after we are born again that we are able to believe the gospel. This means that we are entirely at God’s mercy when it comes to salvation.

Paul teaches the same thing in his letters. He writes, “A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a man’s praise is not from men, but from God” (Romans 2:28-29). Paul re-iterates what Jesus said, that it means nothing for a person to be a Jew in a merely outward and physical sense. In fact, when it comes to spiritual things, Paul bluntly states that such a person “is not a Jew” at all. What matters, he says, “is circumcision of the heart.” This is not something initiated by human decision or performed by human effort, but it is done “by the Spirit.” Paul is just saying in a different way the same thing that is taught in John’s Gospel. Flesh is flesh, spirit is spirit. A man can enter the kingdom of heaven, a man can believe the gospel, only when he is “born again” by the Spirit, and only when the Spirit directly acts within him to perform what Paul calls the “circumcision of the heart.”

And this should not be new information to Nicodemus, for the teaching is already present in the Old Testament! Thus Jesus says in verse 7, “You (Nicodemus) should not be surprised at My saying, ‘You (all people) must be born again.’” Here He does not limit the necessity of regeneration to Nicodemus. The first “you” is in the singular, but the second instance is plural. The NIV indicates this in the footnotes. The significance is that regeneration, to be born again, is a universal necessity. The teaching is already expressed in another way in verse 3, where Jesus says, “No one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.”

Jesus finishes his explanation of the new birth in verse 8, proceeding to reveal even more about the nature of this spiritual birth. It says, “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.” The word translated “wind” is also the word for “spirit.” It seems clear that Jesus intends to say that a man can detect the effect but not the cause of spiritual birth. Therefore, it is usually agreed that “wind” is the correct translation, rather than “spirit,” and that Jesus is making an analogy between the wind and the Spirit’s work in spiritual birth. Moreover, it would not be surprising if this double meaning of wind and spirit is intentional, as we have already mentioned that the Gospel of John uses words that carry multiple meanings to convey theological ideas.


Anonymous said...

Since I haven't done a close comparison, I can't tell for sure, but isn't this Vincent Cheung's material? If so, you should cite the source.

Chip Crush said...

My apologies....

I have done a thorough study of Vincent Cheung's recent series of blog posts on this particular passage and found it to be an excellent resource for my teaching notes. I have made a number of amendments to his original series, including additions of my own thoughts and thoughts of other commentators, etc..., nevertheless, I am undoubtedly indebted to him for the material and should have begun the series by citing his blog as a primary source. Likewise, I don't pretend to be knowledgeable enough to exeget Scripture like many of my mentors - namely, those listed under the links category of my blog. Thus I will edit the original post in this study of John 3 to make note of Cheung's material.

Thanks for noticing!