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.

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