Friday, November 30, 2012

The Parable of the Sower and the Danger of Temporary Faith

Without denying the truth of the perseverance of the saints (i.e., that the elect will persevere in faith and definitely be saved), it is important for Christians to know that it is possible for faith to be temporary. This is a truth that Jesus taught in the parable of the sower in Matt 13:1–9, 18–23 (see also Mark 4:1–9, 13–20; Luke 8:4–8, 11–15).

A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Satan can snatch the word of God from people’s hearts before it has time to take root (Matt 13:4, 19).

Some seed fell on rocky places, where there was not much soil. The seed sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. The seed sown among the rocky soil symbolizes those who hear God’s word and who receive it joyfully, but when trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away, because the word of God has not been received deeply into their hearts (Matt 13:5–6, 20–21).

Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. The seed sown among thorns symbolizes those who hear God’s word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth end up strangling the life out of them, making them unfruitful (Matt 13:7, 22).

But some seed fell on good soil, and it grew up to produce a crop, a hundred, sixty, or thirty times what was sown (Matt 13:8).

Out of these four different types of soil, it was only the good soil that allowed the seed to produce a positive harvest. This represents the person who hears and understands the word of God (Matt 13:23).

In three out of the four soils mentioned by Jesus there was some kind of growth, some kind of response to God’s word. In three out of the four soils the seed germinated and was alive for a certain period of time. But only in one of these three situations was there enduring life and growth to maturity that resulted in the positive outcome of fruitfulness.

Because faith can be temporary, encouraging his disciples to persevere in the faith was an important part of Jesus’ ministry.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Understanding the Flesh versus Spirit Distinction in John 3:6

The content of John 3:6, where Jesus says “that which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” is supposed to be understood in the context of Jesus explaining further to Nicodemus the concept of Spiritual rebirth, which Nicodemus had misunderstood as if Jesus were talking to him about a literal rebirth. Being born again physically will not help anyone. Even if being born again could literally happen, a person born again could live another lifetime, but in the end would still have to die, or else endure a cycle of multiple deaths and rebirths. The reality of the death of what is flesh is implied in Jesus’ statement that what is born of the flesh is flesh. Human beings born into the world have no hope of eternal life unless they have God’s Spirit in their hearts; and since the fall, ordinary human nature is devoid of God’s Spirit.

The important thing for true human existence, therefore, is whether or not a person “is spirit” in the sense of possessing the Spirit. The determining factor for salvation is having God’s Spirit, for “the Spirit gives life” (John 6:63; see also Ezek 37:14; 2 Cor 3:6). A person who is born physically will die, but one who is born of the Spirit is spirit in the sense that he or she cannot die (the second death), and so will live forever (John 1:13; Rom 8:6).

Therefore, the flesh versus spirit distinction in John 3:6 (as generally throughout Scripture where a flesh versus spirit framework is applied to human beings) is not to be understood in terms of Greek philosophical dualism, where flesh and spirit indicate the corporeal and incorporeal realms of existence respectively. The Bible can talk of human beings as being either spirits or spiritual wherever human nature is energised in a salvific way by God’s Spirit (e.g., 1 Cor 3:1; 15:44–45; see also Rom 8:9). The biblical presentation of flesh versus spirit can be summarized as follows:

human(ity) - God’s Spirit = flesh 

human + God’s Spirit = spirit

Jesus’ point is that regeneration by God’s Spirit is what transforms a person from flesh to spirit. God’s Spirit transforms a person destined to die into one who can live forever in the presence and blessing of God.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Meaning of the Phrase ‘Born of Water and Spirit’ in John 3:5

Jesus’ statement in John 3:5—“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God!”—is an amplification of Jesus’ prior statement to Nicodemus in 3:3 concerning the condition for seeing the kingdom of God. The equivalent of being born again or being born from above is literally being born of water and spirit. In the context of John 3:6, 8, where Jesus is arguably talking about the Holy Spirit, it makes sense to translate the phrase born of water and spirit (γεννηθῇ ἐξ ὕδατος καὶ πνεύματος) in John 3:5 as born of water and the Spirit, where Spirit indicates the Holy Spirit.

To be born of water and the Spirit means, therefore, to experience Spiritual regeneration, which ultimately is the work of God. This is the primary idea in John 3:5, but a question remains concerning to extent to which the term water in John 3:5 indicates water baptism. In regard to this issue, the structure of the phrase of water and spirit, where two co-ordinate nouns are governed by a single preposition (i.e., ἐξ), suggests a close connection between water and Spirit. Since Gentile converts to Judaism were considered to become like newborn children through proselyte baptism (which was performed in order to cleanse them from their Gentile impurity), it is quite likely that the word water would have conveyed the idea of baptism, or at least some kind of ceremonial washing, to a Jewish audience, including Nicodemus. Elsewhere in John’s writings where the concepts of spirit and water are placed in close proximity, namely, in 1 John 5:8, spirit refers to the Holy Spirit, and water to Jesus’ baptism.

Jesus’ mention of water and spirit is also to be understood (as it most likely would have been in a Jewish context) in the light of the Old Testament prophecies concerning the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in the new covenant age. The Old Testament prophets foresaw a time when God would work through his Spirit to bring Israel back to himself in covenant obedience (see Deut 30:6; Jer 31:31–33; Ezek 36:24–27). In particular, Ezekiel 36:24–27 pictures the future work of the Spirit as being like water sprinkled upon Israel to cleanse her from her uncleanness. Therefore, understanding the phrase born of water and spirit in John 3:5, in conjunction with the idea of the kingdom of God, on Jesus’ lips, in a Jewish context, leads us to take the phrase born of water and spirit to be referring to conversion or baptism by the Holy Spirit.

But it should be noted at this point that baptism in the Holy Spirit was viewed by the early church as ordinarily taking place at the point of Christian (water) baptism (e.g., Acts 2:38; 1 Cor 12:13; Tit 3:5), following the model of Jesus’ baptism, in which there was a conjunction of water and the Spirit (Luke 3:21–22). Exceptions to the rule of the conjunction of water and the Holy Spirit in baptism only happened at special stages in God’s plan of salvation, such as at Pentecost (Acts 1:15), at the conversion of the Samaritans (Acts 8:14–18), and at the conversion of the first Gentiles (Acts 10:24–48), matching the pattern of the evangelistic mandate in Acts 1:8, where the gospel was to be preached in Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth (i.e., to the Gentiles). Apart from these exceptions, at least as far as adult converts were concerned, baptism in water and baptism in the Spirit were considered in the early church as taking place together. This led to the view in the early church that the eschatological gift of the Spirit was received through faith at the time of conversion, i.e., at the point of Christian baptism.

It is most likely, therefore, that John’s audience, both Christian and non-Christian, would have understood the phrase of water and spirit in connection with Christian baptism, which marked the point of conversion to Christianity. Conversion to Christianity is the necessary condition for entering the kingdom of God, where entering the kingdom of God is itself a metaphor for coming into the possession of salvation, which involves having the right to live in the presence of God and to experience his blessing. All in all, the significance of Jesus’ teaching in John 3:5 is that Christian conversion, which formally takes place at Christian baptism, which marks the official reception of the eschatological gift of the Holy Spirit on the part of the baptizand, is necessary in order for individuals to experience salvation in the kingdom of God.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Born Again or Born from Above? The Concept of Spiritual Rebirth in John 3:3

When Nicodemus came by night to visit Jesus, he had only just offered his greetings to Jesus when Jesus spoke to him about the condition for salvation in the kingdom of God. Jesus said: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). As a pious Jew, Nicodemus would have been greatly interested in this issue; but Jesus’ raising of this topic so early in his conversation with Nicodemus definitely highlights the importance of it in Jesus’ thinking.

Unpacking the meaning of Jesus’ statement, the expression truly, truly, I say to you occurs 25 times in John’s Gospel, where it usually introduces sayings of Jesus of particular significance. The use of this expression by Jesus also highlights the fact that Jesus has come into the world to speak the truth (e.g., John 8:40, 45–46; 14:6; 17:17; 18:37).

The word ἄνωθεν, which is often translated as again as in the phrase born again also means from above. In a Jewish context it would be most natural to take ἄνωθεν as being a Jewish circumlocution for from heaven or ultimately from God. It is clear from Nicodemus’s response in John 3:4, however, that ἄνωθεν could also mean again, and this is primarily how Nicodemus understood it. As far as Jesus’ use of ἄνωθεν is concerned, it is likely that Jesus used the word in John 3:3 with deliberate ambiguity but at the same time with the sense of from above primarily in mind. This is apparent from the substitution of the expression by water and spirit for ἄνωθεν in Jesus’ explication of his statement in John 3:3 in John 3:5. The concept of being born again in a spiritual sense should have been familiar to Nicodemus as a reference to conversion, given that Jewish rabbis spoke about Gentile conversion to Judaism as the beginning of a new life.

The expression to see the kingdom of God simply means to experience, to be a part of, the kingdom of God. It is a synonymous concept with entering the kingdom of God (see John 3:5). New birth, a spiritual rebirth engineered from above, is the condition of salvation. This teaching could have been rather controversial for Nicodemus, had he understood Jesus’ intended meaning, because the implication of Jesus’ teaching was that more is needed for the Jews to be right with God than adherence to the law of Moses. A new birth, connected with faith in Jesus, is what is needed in order to experience salvation in the kingdom of God.

In terms of the wider context of the Jewish-Christian polemics relevant to John’s readership—where Christian Jews were facing opposition from many non-Christian Jews—Jesus’ teaching would clearly have been quite controversial. In effect, Jesus was stating that Jews need to be converted out of Judaism (symbolized in its purest form in Jesus’ day by Pharisaism, of which Nicodemus was an adherent) to Christianity, which was distinguished from traditional Judaism by the belief that Jesus is the Messiah.