050 - But God ... Grace, Mercy, Love - Part 2 [B]
But God…Grace, Mercy, Love—Part 2
Ephesians Series #050
November 24, 2019
Dr. Robert L. Dean, Jr.
“Father, we are so thankful that we have Your Word that illuminates our thinking, gives us guidance, gives us discernment, gives us wisdom and helps us to understand that which we just barely comprehended when we trusted in Christ as Savior.
“It teaches us that which transpired that was not part of our experience in the sense that we didn’t feel it, we didn’t have some sort of special event take place internally other than a non-experiential rebirth. That we were made alive together in Christ, that we’ve been given new life—Your life—with the hope that we would grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ, mature and shine forth as lights in the midst of a wicked and perverse generation.
“Father today, as we focus on this event that transpired at the instant of our faith in Christ, help us to understand what took place and its significance for our lives. We pray this in His name, amen.”
Open your Bibles to Ephesians 2, we will be here for about the first half of the message, then we will go to John 3. The focus this morning is on regeneration: new life in Christ.
Ephesians 2:4–6 we read the heart of this opening sentence, which began in Ephesians 2:1–7,
“But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up together and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.”
We’ve been working our way through the first part of Ephesians 2, which talks about one of those many blessings that Paul referred to in Ephesians 1:3: we have been blessed with every spiritual blessing in the heavenlies.
The starting point of that is contained in Ephesians 2:5–6, that we’ve been made alive together with Christ, that we have been raised up together and seated together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.
There is so much here that we won’t even get a chance to talk about very soon, which is rarely probed by many pastors or theologians. But it is the foundation for understanding who we are as Church Age believers in Christ. For as I pointed out in our previous studies, we are seeing something new here.
That doesn’t mean that regeneration is something new—being born again is something new—for this has been a necessary reality since the fall of Adam and Eve. Since the fact that they were first penalized for their disobedience by spiritual death, there has been the need and the necessity of a spiritual rebirth in order to have an ongoing relationship with God and to have eternal life.
But in each dispensation it seems that there are different secondary features to regeneration. This confuses a lot of theologians because often you will see confusing and contradictory explanations of regeneration, because frequently they’ll go to some new covenant passage in Ezekiel or in Jeremiah, and take the secondary attributes that will characterize regeneration in the Millennial Kingdom and read them back into the present age or even into the Old Testament.
We have to understand that there is a primary thing called rebirth or regeneration, and then there are secondary features. What we see here is a description of those secondary features: we are made alive. That doesn’t mean that Old Testament saints weren’t made alive when they trusted in the gospel of a future provision of salvation in the Old Testament, but there’s something new added here.
“We,” that term, as we’ll see and as we studied referring to both Jew and Gentile in one body, is unique and distinctive now to this act of regeneration. We are not just made alive as in the Old Testament, but we are made alive together—Jew and Gentile. Unlike in the Old Testament it is being made alive together with Christ, “For by grace you have been saved.” Something new is added to a company regeneration in this Church Age, but we have to understand just what regeneration is.
It may surprise you, but this is a confusing topic for many theologians. I have a good friend who is part of this ministry; he and his wife do not live here in Houston, so they live-stream. He has a background in undergraduate biblical studies, and over the years he has taught many different Bible studies.
Although his profession is not in the ministry, he has carried out the ministry of a believer in his life, and has learned enough about Greek and Hebrew over the years to do some very good work in different studies. He likes to write out what he has studied, and does a good job, so I always appreciate that and he provides a good sounding board.
He’s written something of an extensive paper that’s still work in progress of well over 200 pages at this point on regeneration, and it’s not complete. And part of what he does as he’s gone through and he’s looked at what different well-known theologians have said about what regeneration is and how they’ve defined it, and it’s amazing.
Based on that you could say no theologian out there really understands what regeneration is other than that you’re given new life, you’re moved from spiritual death to spiritual life. There are quite a few that do have, I think, a biblically correct understanding, but there are so many that don’t. There are so many secondary and tertiary features that they import into the primary meaning that it’s just aggravating at times.
I read an article yesterday in a well-known Bible dictionary on regeneration, and I spotted at least five factual errors in the way that they confused the meaning of a couple of Greek words. This is a well-published author already, and the editors of this dictionary didn’t catch it. It is just confusing!
I can imagine why people sitting in the pew have trouble understanding this if they’re reading or listening to some pastors and some teachers who really haven’t done an adequate job. Or they’ve put the pieces together, but they’ve sort of rammed, crammed and jammed them to make them fit, and they really don’t. I’m hoping that in our study this morning that things will smooth out a little bit for you.
Review so far in Ephesians 2.
- The Problem: our spiritual death—what we were, who we were, before we were saved. Ephesians 2:1–3
- The Solution: The solution starts with the grace of God—that God who is rich in mercy—is the ultimate ground or cause of our salvation, His love for us. What He did for us freely, graciously, without condition is outlined and explained in Ephesians 2:4–9, excluding works in putting the emphasis on God’s unmerited favor, His grace.
- The Purpose: Ephesians 2:10, that we are saved, created in Christ Jesus for good works. It’s not the good works that cause the salvation, but it’s the purpose. That now that we are now in Christ, if we walk by the Spirit, then we can truly produce a good works because they’re produced in us by the Holy Spirit and not on our own.
- Reviewing the problem—what we were before we were saved—we are identified by Paul is being spiritually dead. This applies to every single person. Today sin has taken on some kind of sense of super bad things: genocide, racism, the pope now wants to make up environmental sin as a category of sin.
There are all kinds of things that are elevated to the category of sin that may indeed be sins, but they’re grounded upon the basics of what we find in Scripture—foundationally arrogance, man’s self-absorption, his independence, and his rebellion against God.
That sin affects all of us; we sin. We sin in ways that we’re not conscious of. We sin in ways that we are conscious. We miss the mark. As I’ve been explaining in our study of sin and confession in 2 Samuel, looking at David’s sin and then his confession in Psalm 51, his joy of forgiveness in Psalm 32, sin basically means to miss the mark, to fall short.
Paul says in Romans 3:23, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
That phrase “the glory of God” is a circumlocution. Now you have to think a little bit this morning. “Circum” means you go around something, like the circumference of a circle. In other words, instead of saying it one way you go around it by saying another way.
When you sum up all of God’s essence, all of His attributes, everything that God is, that is what makes God distinctive. It’s what makes God unique, and what makes Him what should be the center or focus of everything in the universe.
One of the idioms that was used in the first century and in Judaism was to refer to the essence of God—Who He was, His being—as His glory. When Paul writes this, he’s not just saying we’ve fallen short of God’s righteousness, or he is not just saying we’ve fallen short of God’s justice, or we’ve fallen short of God’s holiness. We’ve fallen short of everything that makes up the attributes of God: we have fallen short of the glory of God. That is what sin is.
And it’s everyone, “all have sinned;” including himself. It is not a statement that is judgmental of people, but it is a reality that we must come to grips with if we’re ever going to understand the glorious gospel of our salvation.
Romans 3:10, “There is none righteous …”
This is a big problem. A lot of people think that they have done pretty good things and that somehow God ought to pay attention to the fact that they’re not as bad as any number of people out there. But we’re not good enough for God. The measuring rod, the standard, is God’s character, and He is absolute righteousness, He is absolute perfection.
The Scripture says there is none righteous. In fact, in the Old Testament, Isaiah 64:6, Isaiah said that all of our righteousness—not all of our unrighteousness, but “all of our righteousness—are as filthy rags.” We are unclean as far as God is concerned.
Job 14:4, he writes in the Old Testament, “Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean?” How can we as human beings who are sinners, who are, scripturally speaking, unclean—that is that we fall short of the glory of God, we’re sinners, we’re not righteous—how can we produce righteousness?
Well, we just can’t. It is impossible. There has to be a solution.
This problem is stated in Ephesians 2:1 that we were dead in our trespasses and sins. This obviously isn’t physical death because Paul is talking to the Ephesians and says, “We were dead in our trespasses and sins …” They all are and have been physically alive, so this is a different category of death. It is spiritual death, which means that we’re separated from the life of God.
We don’t just pull that definition out of thin air. We get it from what the Scripture says, and in Ephesians 4:17–18 we have a definition. Paul is talking to the Ephesian believers,
“This I say, therefore, and testify in the Lord, that y’all—he was using a second person plural—y’all should no longer walk as the rest of the Gentiles walk—walking is a metaphor for living your life—in the futility of their mind, having their understanding darkened. He is talking about unbelievers, they’re “alienated from the life of God …”
That’s the phrase that helps us understand what spiritual death is: something was lost when Adam and Eve died spiritually, when they ate of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. God had said that, “in the day you eat of it you will certainly die.”
When they ate of the fruit, something happened. They didn’t die physically, but they were separated from God. Later, when God came to walk in the garden, rather than welcoming Him as they had every day, they were afraid and hid. They were now spiritually dead: they had lost that capacity to have a relationship with God.
- Spiritual death then applies to all: Jews and Gentiles.
This is evident in the pronouns we and y’all. It wasn’t just a Gentile problem. Paul, writing from the background of a pharisaical Jew, would have looked down on Gentiles as being inherently less than Jews.
After salvation, he recognizes that all have sinned—that Jews are just as sinful as the Gentiles. He emphasizes this in the way he uses these pronouns. That’s important to understand as you read through here. When he talks about “you,” he’s not simply talking to his audience of Ephesians, but he is talking to the Gentiles, because his contrast in here is between “you Gentiles” and “we Jews.”
For example, in Ephesians 1:12, “that we who first trusted in Christ should be to the praise of His glory.”
The “we” the, we there referring to “we Jews.”
In Ephesians 1:13 he follows up by saying, “In Him you all also trusted—you Gentiles also trusted—after y’all heard the word of truth, the gospel of y’all’s salvation; in whom also, having believed, y’all were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise.”
In the next section, Ephesians 2:11–13, Paul continues this distinction by saying, “Therefore remember that y’all, once Gentiles in the flesh …”
He’s not talking to them as Jews when he uses that second person plural. All through this part of Ephesians the “you” and the “we” refers to “you Gentiles” and sometimes “you Gentile believers” now, or “we Jews,” or in a couple places it could be “we together,” as we’ll see when we get into Ephesians 2:4–6 where he makes that shift.
Having gone back and read Dr. Lewis Sperry Chafer’s very small commentary, The Ephesian Letter, but I was pleased that he makes the same distinction. It is very popular today to not see this distinction until you get into the second half of Ephesians 2, but that just doesn’t make any sense.
Ephesians 2:1–3 lays down the fact that “you Gentiles are dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you once lived according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience, among whom—the sons of disobedience—we—Jews—all once conducted ourselves in the lust of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and we were by nature children of wrath, just as the others—that is, just as the Gentiles.”
One reason I’m emphasizing this is we’re going to go to John 3 in a few minutes, where Jesus is having a conversation with one of the foremost Pharisees of His day—probably the greatest teacher of the Law of Moses in his generation and was respected for that.
As part of the background, we must understand that Pharisees believed that just because they were descendants of Abraham, they were righteous. It didn’t matter what they had done. They were righteous because of the merits of Abraham.
Sounds a lot like what you find in Roman Catholic theology today, that somehow if you are in the Roman Catholic Church and baptized in the Roman Catholic Church, then you’re given the merits of Christ. What Scripture teaches is we’re not given the righteousness of Christ until we have faith in Jesus Christ.
Ephesians 2:4, the key section of our study and here Paul moves his meaning from us, “But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us …”
Is that still talking about just Jews? No. We know that because in Ephesians 2:5 he says, “even when we—that is all of us—were dead in trespasses, (He) made us alive together—the “together” means Jew and Gentile—made us alive together… raised us up together, and seated us together.”
There is this new identity, this new entity made of Jew and Gentile alike. And that’s the uniqueness and the distinctiveness of the Church in this dispensation. The Church is not a continuation of Israel. Israel was not the Church in the Old Testament, and the Church is not Israel in the New Testament. They are distinct entities in God’s plan.
3. The makeup of all human beings, three components; we have
- A human body
- A human soul
- A human spirit.
I’m speaking of the original creation, Genesis 1:25–27. When God created Adam and Eve, He created them in the image of God. In Genesis 2 we see the creation involved first a physical body, then God breathed life into Adam. As part of that immaterial breath, he received two things: A human spirit and a human soul.
These words “soul” and “spirit:” sometimes you’ve heard people teach this, and they try to make them technical terms where they always mean the same thing, and that’s confusing. It’s not correct, because sometimes the word “soul” or the word “spirit” are just used to refer to the immaterial part of man. There are two verses where it’s very clear that they are distinct. So you always have to just look at the context to judge.
1 Thessalonians 5:23, Paul concludes his epistle to the Thessalonians by saying, “Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you completely; and may your whole spirit, soul, and body be preserved blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Here he is very clear in distinguishing these three components or three parts that make up the saved believer.
Hebrews 4:12 also makes this distinction, I think, in a very powerful way talking about the power of God’s Word to penetrate into our innermost being. He says, “For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword …”
The sword he’s describing is like the one in front of the pulpit, the MAKHAIRA. We have tape on the edge of this sword, because when I received it, I could shave with it. So we knew that some little kid would be coming up here and run his finger along there and amputate something, so we put tape on it to protect it from somebody slicing off a finger.
That’s how sharp the Word of God is; it divides things. Part of what it divides is the soul and the spirit. This is very clear that Paul is saying the Word of God is going to distinguish between these two immaterial parts of man.
If we were to diagram this: we have a human body, and in that human body there is the soul. The soul is the real you. The soul is made up of
a) Your self-consciousness: you look in the mirror and on a good day you can identify yourself.
(As you get older that kind of changes a little bit; sometimes you wake up in the morning, you still haven’t had your coffee, and you look in your mirror and you see your father or your mother and it scares you, and you want to go back to bed.) That is your self-consciousness.
b) Your mentality—the ability to think, to reason, to use logic. Some people never quite activate that part of their soul.
c) Your conscience. This is where you store your norms and standards, where you have an understanding of what is right and what is wrong. If you’re not a believer, then you’re basing your standards on something else. We live in a culture in which their standard is that there is no standard—that everything is okay, that there’s no absolute right or wrong.
d) That aspect of our soul that enables us to make choices: our volition. The word “volition” emphasizes more than simply choice, it emphasizes personal responsibility and accountability for the choices that we make.
Our human spirit. I drew this so that it includes—it’s involved with—those 4 elements of our soul because it enables:
- Our self-consciousness to be God-conscious,
- Our mentality to understand and think about the things of God and to interact with the things that God has revealed,
- Our conscience to store the norms and standards—the absolutes, of Scripture,
- Our volition to choose that which is eternal; to choose to walk by the Spirit and to follow the Lord.
When Adam and Eve sinned, they lost that aspect: it either disappeared or it was rendered inactive. There’s a lot of debate over which it is, and you can go one way or the other. But it no longer functions, so that the unbeliever does not have the ability to understand the things of God, which the Scripture emphasizes in 1 Corinthians 2:14.
1 Corinthians 2:14 uses a keyword, I want to define first from Jude 19, “worldly-minded.” It’s crazy how translators will translate this Greek word in many different ways.
The Greek is PSUCHIKOS. The root is PSUCHE from which we get our word psychology and psychiatric. It refers to the soul, a word that has to do with the soul.
There is an appositional phrase after it, “devoid of the Spirit,” but this word is used in 1 Corinthians 2:14.
1 Corinthians 2:14 says “the natural man.” The New King James translates it “worldly-minded” in one place. The Greek word for worldly is KOSMOS; that’s not anything like it. Where in the world are they getting these ideas? It’s bad theology.
“But a natural man—PSUCHIKOS man—does not accept—does not understand—the things of God …” That phrase “the things of God” is used all through this passage going back to 1 Corinthians 2:9 and always refers to that which God has revealed.
They “… do not accept the things of God—that which is revealed—for they—what God has revealed in the Scriptures—they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them…” There is a problem: he can’t understand it—“… because they are spiritually appraised.”
Now he is going to be able to understand the gospel because God the Holy Spirit is going to make it clear to him. You know with unbelievers—maybe your own experience—you picked up the Bible when you were not saved and tried to read it and just couldn’t make heads or tails out of it, you are very confused, and that’s the idea.
You’re spiritually dead. You don’t have that human spirit, which has the capacity to relate to God and understand the things of God. This shows this contrast: the unsaved is the natural man, the saved is the spiritual.
Jude says that “… the ones who cause divisions are natural …” They are soulish.
That next phrase “devoid of the Spirit” literally in the Greek means not having spirit. It’s amazing the different ways people get around this, but that defines what a natural man is. That’s the same thing that Paul says in 1 Corinthians 2:14 contrasting the natural man with those who are spiritual.
I translate it this way, “These are the ones who cause divisions, soulish, not having a human spirit.” [~RD]
Genesis 2:17, the origin. God’s penalty for man was that if they disobeyed Him, Adam and Eve would immediately die spiritually. That’s the problem.
The solution has to be to be made alive, which is where Paul will start in Ephesians 2:4–6. The main idea of this whole section is this sentence, “But God … made us alive together … raised us up together and made us sit together …” But he starts off way back here defining the problem before He gets to the solution.
In the last lesson we looked at the solution to this starts with the grace of God, “But God, who is rich in mercy …” It’s important how many passages in the Bible that deal with regeneration and rebirth start with mercy: it is grace and action.
It’s the kindness or concern expressed for someone in need. It has that idea of compassion or clemency. It is unmerited or unearned favor. You don’t do anything to get it. That’s why Paul interrupts himself in Ephesians 2:5, “for by grace you have been saved …”
“God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love …” That’s the starting point; the cause of our salvation is found in the grace of God.
Titus 3:5 says the same, it’s “not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy—according to the standard of His mercy that—He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewal by the Holy Spirit.”
1 Peter 1:3, another key passage says “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His abundant mercy has begotten us again to a living hope …”
We’re not the cause of our salvation. We’re saved through faith, not because of faith. We’re saved because of God’s love for us.
Ephesians 2:4, “God who is rich in mercy …”
Ephesians 2:5, “made us alive together with Him.”
In the Greek, SUZOOPOIEO. It’s a compound word. The SU at the beginning is SUN, and that means “together.” Whatever it means, it’s something that happens together. ZOO means alive; POIEO means to make, so literally it means, “make alive together.” That is a different word than the words that are used in Titus 3:5 or the words that are used in John 3 or some other passages talking about regeneration.
Colossians 2:13 says the same thing: He has made us alive together with Him …”
This is talking about that act where at the instance of salvation, God either activates a dormant human spirit, or if it’s not there—I don’t believe it’s there—He generates it. That we’re born again emphasizes that something is coming into being that wasn’t there.
What you’ll find from a lot of commentators is that you’re given God’s nature, but where do they go with that? If you’re given God’s nature, then you’re not going to sin like you used to sin, and that leads to Lordship salvation and all kinds of other errors and problems. That’s not what we’re given. We’re given this capacity now to have a relationship with God and to have eternal life. It is ours and it’s not taken from us.
Slide 34 (Skipped)
Turn to John 3. This is a wonderful episode in Scripture, which many of us have taken time to read.
I remember one of the first times it really became conscious to me. I knew the story. I had heard it. I had grown up in a good teaching church. I knew the basic emphasis. I think I was 16 years old, on a canoe trip with Camp Peniel going up to Colorado.
We were camped out at this campground and it wasn’t very crowded. It was in June, and there was s a young man camped a couple of campsites over. One of our leaders was a man who was very significant in my early Christian life, Mike Turnage. He was going over to get the water from one of the hand-cranked waterspouts over there and this young man was there.
We were getting packed up, and all of a sudden, “Where’s Mike?” We looked over there and Mike was sitting down with this guy at the table; he’s got his Bible out and he’s giving the gospel to this young man.
When they had finished, he lead the young man to the Lord. We asked him what was going on, what he asked, what he said. The way Mike started the conversation was, “Have you ever been born again?” Then he just took him through this particular passage.
That was a different era in a different time. If you’re old enough to remember it, you know that Jimmy Carter made a big deal about being born again when he was running for president, and that term took on a lot of weird meanings for a lot of different people.
At one time when I was in seminary, I was talking to somebody who was dating my cousin, and I made the mistake of asking him if he’d ever been born again and he referred to some psychological experience that he had had. So we have to be very careful now how we use these terms because Satan always comes in and distorts biblical terminology.
Jesus had a conversation with Nicodemus, described here as a Pharisee. His name is interesting because in the Greek it looks like it could be from a combination of the Greek NIKE meaning an overcomer or a ruler and DEMOS which means the people. So it could be a title meaning “ruler of the people.”
But in the Greek it is NAQDIMON. A NAQDIMON is mentioned in the Talmud 200 or 300 years later, based on Jewish legend, who was a very wealthy Pharisee at the time of Jesus, who later lost all of his wealth and, according to the Talmud, it was because he had become a Christian. This is the Aramaic term, and what is said there seems to fit what we know of Nicodemus in the Scriptures.
There are a couple of people: Arnold Fruchtenbaum in his study on Yeshua the Messiah and Alfred Edersheim, a 19th-century man who was in training for the rabbinate then converted to Christianity, wrote a classic huge book, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, which is another outstanding study.
Both they and some others think that the Talmud specifically mentions this Nicodemus. He’s identified for us as a Pharisee, and that tells us a lot. If you talk to somebody you say, “Well, they’re Baptist, or they’re Presbyterian, they’re Calvinist, or they are an Arminian,” just that one-word description tells you a lot.
This tells us that he was a man who held to three basic fundamental beliefs.
- The belief in a universal salvation for all Jews: all Israel has a share in the world to come. This is taken right out of the Mishna.
- No Jew would see eternal punishment.*
I put an asterisk there because this got modified later after Christianity came on the scene, so that if you were to have become a Christian, then you would not have a place in the world to come. You would have forfeited your position as a Jew.
- Anyone circumcised would not enter the gates of Sheol.
In the second century they came up with a workaround for those who converted to Christianity. They said an angel gave you a spiritual foreskin; and therefore, you would not go into the world to come. There are a lot of really strange ideas that you run into with the rabbis.
He is a Pharisee who is well trained in the Scripture. Most of the Pharisees could have quoted for you the entire Torah—the entire Old Testament—from memory. We think we do well if we memorize 15 or 20 verses. By the time they were 14 or 15 years old, they would have memorized almost all of the Old Testament. By the time they were 8 or 9, they would have memorized all the Torah, and that would’ve been true for the Apostle Paul as well.
Pharisees were not the upper echelon elitists, the elite of the aristocracy, like the Sadducees. They weren’t necessarily wealthy, though Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea both were. They were working-class people. Every Pharisee had to have a trade, and they made their living through their trade.
If the Talmud is right—that the NAQDIMON mentioned there is this Nicodemus—then he was a well digger. He had a business where he dug wells; it was quite profitable for him, and he was extremely wealthy.
He is also primarily called a ruler of the Jews. Later, Jesus refers to him as the teacher of Israel. John 3:10, “How is it that you the teacher of Israel …” That doesn’t mean he’s just a Sunday School teacher, but that he was considered to be one of the top if not the top teacher of the Law in Jerusalem.
He is showing that he’s not saved. He still holds these ideas that somehow all Jews are going to go to Heaven because of the inherent righteousness that they receive —this overflow of righteousness from Abraham. So they benefit from that, and that’s why all Jews are going to go to Heaven.
He comes to Jesus at night. Some people think that this just means they were both very busy, and this is the only time they could meet. But there is this contrast, all through John, between light and darkness. So the fact that he’s coming at night seems to have a bit of a negative overtone, and he says, “Rabbi—he is recognizing Jesus as a teacher—Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God …”
That’s interesting. He’s heard of the miracles, perhaps he has seen some of the miracles, he’s heard Jesus teach, and he knows that He’s distinctive. There’s not another Rabbi like this. He must come from God. So, he recognizes that at this point, “… for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.”
Then Jesus answers him in John 3:3. Jesus cut right to the chase, and He said, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
What is interesting is that the phrase “he cannot” is a very strong statement, “he is not able to” literally in the Greek. He’s not able to see the kingdom of God.
What does it mean to be born again? The word translated “again” is an ambiguous word. In many places in John, it has the idea of something from above. Jesus says, “I came from above.” He uses the word ANOTHEN. In other places it has the idea of something “in addition to” or “again.”
I think that John uses a lot of words that have a double meaning to emphasize both aspects—it’s called a double entendre. So when he uses this particular word ANOTHEN, he’s saying you have to be born a second time, but it also includes the idea that this birth comes from above.
We know that “again” must be part of it because the primary word translated “regeneration,” only used twice in the New Testament, is PALINGENESIA. PALIN, the prefix, means “again,” so that word literally means to be born again. That’s what Jesus is saying to him.
As a Jew, as a Pharisee, Nicodemus believed that you could be born again six different ways.
- When a Gentile converted to Judaism, it was like he was born. Notice that word “like;” it’s a simile. “Like” he was born anew. But that didn’t apply to Nicodemus because he could never be a Gentile converting.
- When a person was crowned king, it was like being born anew. That wouldn’t apply to Nicodemus: he wasn’t from the tribe of David, so he could never be king.
The next four all would apply to him.
- At 13 a Jewish boy has his bar mitzvah and would have been said to have been like one born anew. That was when he officially became a man.
- At marriage a Jew would be said to be born again. Since Nicodemus was a member of the Sanhedrin and required to be married, that would’ve applied to him. He would be like a man born anew.
Notice every time I say this, it’s a simile; it’s “like” that. It’s all physical.
- When ordained as a rabbi. Nicodemus was a rabbi, it was as if he was born anew.
- When a rabbi became the head of a rabbinical school. He would be; he is the teacher of Israel.
He hears what Jesus says about being born from above, born again, and he thinks, “1, 2, 3, 4 … well, the first two I can’t ever do, the next four I’ve done, but that’s not what He’s talking about. How in the world can I do this?” He’s just flummoxed.
Then Jesus explains it to him. In John 3:4 Nicodemus asks, “ ‘How can a man be born when he is old?’ ”
The only thing he can think of is somehow going through physical birth again. It’s physical, physical, physical. That’s important for understanding what Jesus says next.
John 3:5, “ ‘Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.’ ”
I’m won’t go through all the various different interpretations I’ve heard of what water describes and of what Spirit describes, but you have to understand two contexts. The context of the role of water in this process in how it was used in Judaism: it was a euphemism for semen in the conception process.
Also, the whole context here’s been talking about that which is physical not that which is spiritual. This is talking about two kinds of birth:
- One that is physical, you have to be born physically first before you can be born spiritually.
- The second is a birth from the Holy Spirit.
The background for this: later Jesus says, “How can you as a teacher of Israel not know these things?” He assumes Nicodemus should have something from the Old Testament that would give him some clue as to what this is all about.
The passage that hints at this—gives some information—is not talking about regeneration in the Church Age. It’s a New Covenant passage; it talks about two things.
It states what will happen when “regeneration”—one of the places where the word PALINGENESIA, regeneration, is used is in Matthew when Jesus is talking to the Sadducees. He says “in the regeneration …” a technical term for the Messianic Age—the world to come.
This comes from Ezekiel 36:24–25, where God promises that in the future He “… will take you—the Jews—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 …”
That’s the first thing: there is a cleansing from sin that’s part of this.
Ezekiel 36:26, “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you …”
That’s distinctive to regeneration in the Millennial Kingdom. That’s not what happens in our regeneration—don’t get confused on that. I’m just pointing out two things. It involves these two aspects of cleansing and renewal.
That’s what Paul talks about in Titus 3:5, “through the washing of regeneration—that’s the cleansing—and renewal by the Holy Spirit”—that’s getting the human spirit and being made alive.
Jesus then explains, “that which is born of flesh is flesh—“the water” = born of flesh—that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. You don’t save yourself. Do not marvel that I said to you. ‘You must be born again.’ ”
Then Nicodemus asks for an explanation, “How can these things be?”
John 3:13, He gives an illustration from the Old Testament that a lot of people skip over when they start talking about faith. It’s very simple. Jesus says, “No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of Man who is from heaven.”
By referring to Himself as the Son of Man, He is using a messianic title from Daniel 7; He is claiming to be the Messiah.
Then He interprets the episode with the Israelites in Numbers 9. They’re out in the wilderness rebelling against God, so God disciplines them by sending poisonous vipers into the camp. And if they were bitten, they would die fairly rapidly, a very painful death. They are called fiery serpents, which probably refers to the impact of the bite.
God told Moses to make a bronze serpent and put it on a pole, lift it up, and that anyone who just looked at that pole—the reason they would look at it is because they would believe what Moses said—that if you look at the pole God will heal you and you’ll recover. This is the illustration of the gospel that Jesus is giving.
John 3:14, “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him ...”
In the Old Testament they believed Moses, and they looked at the serpent raised up on the pole. Now if you believe in Jesus, you’re looking at the Cross and you’re believing that Christ died on the Cross for your sins.
John 3:15, “… that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”
John explains this. He says, “For God so loved the world …” That’s not the best translation. It should be “for God loved the world in this way”, or, “for God in this way loved the world.” “… that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”
He starts by saying you have to be born again, He ends by saying you believe and you will have everlasting life. So being born again is related to receiving eternal life.
This is what Paul is talking about in Ephesians 2:5, that “when we were dead in our trespasses—” What happens? We believe. We trust in the gospel. “For by grace you have been saved …” Paul says.
Ephesians 2:8–9, “For by grace you have been saved through faith …”
You’ve believed the gospel. You believe that Jesus died on the Cross for your sins, and instantly you are given new life. You were made alive together with Him.
Next time we will look at the next two elements: What does it mean to be raised together with Christ and to be seated together in Him?
“Father, we’re thankful for this opportunity we have to go through this important passage, studying these details, understanding that we all have a problem, we’re born with a problem, we’re born spiritually dead, we’re born separated from You, alienated from You, alienated from the life of God.
“And the only way to have eternal life, to get Your life given to us is to trust in Jesus Christ. We must be born again. We must trust in Christ, and then we’re given this new life, and we in this age are made alive together with Christ.
“Father, we pray that You would make this clear to anyone who’s here, anyone who’s listening, that they would recognize that good deeds have nothing to do with it. It’s not by works of righteousness which we have done.
“It has nothing to do with our background, our morality, it has nothing to do with how good we are or how bad we’ve been, it’s simply that Christ died in our place. By looking to Him in faith, then we are given eternal life, we’re made alive together with Him. Father, we pray that You would make this clear.
“For those of us who’ve understood this that we might understand it better and understand that this is the groundwork for living a life serving You, living for You, glorifying You in every aspect of our life. We pray this now in Christ’s name, amen.”