About fours months ago, maybe five, I began reading through the book of John needing something obvious and known. It's been a while since I started re-reading the book of John that I can't remember the true catalyst outside of God impressing upon me to read John and I thought, "Great; something familiar and almost light." John certainly isn't Leviticus or Job, requiring heavy concentration and frequent studying of relating sources. Or is it?
Using my normal approach to reading God's Word, I spent a morning in each chapter so day three into reading the book of John came with it an early, unexpected and abrupt stopping point. Even if you're not a follower of Christ or a regular church attending person, many people can quote John 3:16 nearly by rote. The verse is expected, nearly ordinary and routine. I remember as a kid growing up, there was always a man wearing a rainbow colored, afro wig, sitting at sporting events right within the camera's main shot, holding a poster that read "John 3:16" as if this were some magical Bible verse with the power to impact people upon reading it. This scene was always curious to me that a man dressed as a clown, carrying a poster with a Bible verse had some spiritual intent, yet to me, it always made God look silly. Why do we portray God as expected or ordinary or unknown or silly especially with this verse?
"For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life."
Most people, especially Christians, can rattle this verse off. It's so familiar to us that we think, "I got this; I know what it means" in almost a "big deal; now what?" approach. So when God revealed a little something in John 3 that caused me to put on the breaks so early in my reading of the book of John, it was alarming. What stopped me? Some simple observances. "Hey... John the Baptist just said the very same thing to his student followers that Jesus said to Nicodemus? How did John know these truths and yet Nicodemus didn't? And John called God "Father"; I thought Jesus was the only one to call God "Father" until He explained it to everyone? This has to be in the Old Testament so, where in the Old Testament are these truths because they have to be there? Jesus knows the truths. John does. And, Jesus is telling Nicodemus he should know them because he's Israel's teacher; because Nicodemus has studied the Old Testament Scriptures so well that he has memorized Genesis to the prophets. What's happening here?"
So, I began to break it down and spent months looking for the relating scriptures in the Old Testament, determining the meanings of words, reading commentaries on sections of John 3, trying to understand the context of the discussions. I came to the conclusion, although I still have many questions and reasons to continue to research, John 3 is considerably more pregnant with meaning than we teach in current Christianity. And, these things aren't hidden messages. These truths were well known and common day when Jesus spoke of them. It's why John the Baptist readily "got it" and why Jesus challenged Nicodemus for not knowing these truths. However, in Nicodemus's defense, Jesus was introducing a radical approach to God that was promised long ago but not delivered until then. After waiting so long and trying to anticipate what that new approach would look like, Nicodemus and others didn't recognize it. Was that because Nicodemus, the Pharisees and members of the Sanhedrin couldn't recognize the fulfillment of the promised truths or wouldn't recognize them? Perhaps a little of both and we should reflect and take heed, as well.
The crux of what both Jesus and John the Baptist are saying is: faith in God's promised Son is the only way into God's kingdom. That seems very obvious and known, almost a matter of fact without being an earth-shattering revelation yet, during a time when faith was placed into a religious system of do's and don'ts, the last thing anyone expected was relying on something uncontrollable to be deemed in right standing with God. Jesus said that in order to see God, which meant to be with God in His kingdom and to see Him operate here on earth, a person needed to have his soul (heart, emotional, intentional self, his being) washed clean from sin by God Himself and have God place His Spirit within that person. Without this action from God, no one would see God and be a part of His kingdom. A few supporting Old Testament Scripture verses pointing to this promise: "Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me," Psalm 51:10. And Ezekiel 36:24-28 "...I will cleanse you from all of your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you;..."
Earlier in His ministry, Jesus said during His sermon on the mount that people with pure hearts towards God, (not falsehoods towards God but, a right attitude towards God), would see and live with God, and therefore should be happy to know this fact. Jesus explains to Nicodemus that God's actions of washing clean a person's character towards God and placing His Spirit within the person to guide him, caused a person to be "born into God's people; His kingdom" or "born from above" or "reborn into righteousness" and a person couldn't enter into God's kingdom without being born into His kingdom. He explains that a person cannot control this process like the system of sacrifices and Jewish requirements had become; this action is God's doing. It's similar to your original birth. You couldn't control being born into this world as a human so, why expect to control being born into God's kingdom? Just like the wind is uncontrollable and unseen however, the evidence of the wind can be seen, a person would know he is a member of God's kingdom by seeing the evidence in his life. This is an act of trust in God; an act of faith and belief in God that He will and wants to clean, remake and restore you. Jesus reminded Nicodemus of a similar reliance of trust in God during an uncontrollable situation. The Jewish people were wandering in the wilderness having left Egypt. Many people were bitten by poisonous snakes and without an antidote at that time, the people bitten faced certain death. God asked the people to trust that He could cure them. So God had Moses make a bronze sculpture of a viper, placing the snake sculpture on pole, lifting that pole upright so that people could look at it; if the person was bitten by a poisonous viper and was dying from that bite, God said through Moses that looking at the snake sculpture on the pole, believing God could cure them, was the only way to live through the poisonous bite. It makes no sense yet, it's what God said to do believing He would save their lives and He did just that for those that believed God could work through faith.
The Law of Moses was to cause people to reflect on the condition of their being, their character and attitude towards God, all in their lives keeping them separated from God. Reflecting on the Law should cause people to turn to God asking Him to change their being - to permanently clean them of sin and restore them to God. With that reflection, God now washes the person's heart clean and breathes His Spirit into the person to give that person new and eternal life. Just like God originally formed man out of a lifeless thing - dirt - and breathed into Adam's nostrils His breath of life making Adam alive, God would do the same for our souls so we can live eternally with God, be guided by Him, as He intended and desires. The action is like a birth... a birth into God's eternal kingdom.
Jesus's examples and explanations heavily point to the Scriptural promises of the Old Testament and, for a man who was considered at that time Israel's greatest living teacher who memorized the entire catalog of Scriptures and Jewish doctrinal writings, Nicodemus should have recognized Jesus as the promised, anointed One from God - the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of Man, God's Lamb to fulfill His promises. Yet, Nicodemus had placed his faith, his trust, his belief, into a system of religious practices. The meaning of those practices had waned and the practices themselves had been elevated to a status beyond their purpose. The system God had given the Jewish people was to cause His people to know who they were as God's people, who they were when they were outside of God's kingdom, how to relate in community, and their current state as a people in need of permanent salvation from an ultimate death sentence. However, by Jesus's time on earth, those practices designed to produce reflection became a means to being in right standing with God; a means to righteousness that individuals could administer and control.
Jesus said "not so" and pointed back to the nature of God and His desire to have each and every person born into this world to be born into His kingdom so each and every person could live life with God as He intended before human beings separated themselves from God through sin. What is sin? It's the belief that you don't need God in your life, or leading your life, that you can live life without God, that you deserve all that God provides in life without gratitude towards God for the provisions, and that you are better than God and better without God; and worse, that you can be God. These thoughts form the basis of sin and cause us to act out in ways that are sinful in nature. When we are born into our human nature, we are born with the thought capacity bent on sin - bent on living a life without God and without recognizing God. John even provides a simple explanation for sin when he addresses his students' question about Jesus having more followers than John; "A man can receive only what is given to him by God...." In other words, our desire to take something that we want (lust for) when that something isn't ours and was given to someone else by God, is sinful in approach. We don't appreciate what has already been given to us by God.
It's incorrect to believe that a person can gain God's approval to enter heaven through a system of do's and don'ts that allow a person to earn his way into heaven. This belief puts a person into a frame of mind that God considers you "bad or good" and rewards you that way. That based on the status of your life, you can determine if you're in right standing with God or not; that if you follow the rules you will earn God's approval to enter His kingdom. Jesus again says "not so" and instead, Jesus says every human being already stands condemned due to human nature being against God's standards. But God... but God does not desire to leave us in our already condemned state. God loves us so very deeply and without condition, wants us to know Him and live with Him so He will provide a way to be considered His people and enter into a relationship with Him and into His kingdom. God Himself will administer that way. He will justify that entrance. He will clean us from our sinful nature. He will place His Spirit - His breath - within us to guide us into the right standard of living. And that "process" comes through the belief in His promises manifested into His Son who will pay the way for entry into God's kingdom. All we must do is believe that God can do this and did it through His Son whom we're to follow out of gratitude.
Again; this conclusion seems obvious and expected however, it's far from being these things. The best way to understand what Jesus is saying, is to read it in common language with expounded parts. After studying, this is how John 3 reads to me.
Now there was a member of the Pharisees named Nicodemus. The Pharisees were a legalistic group who strictly tried to follow the law of Moses and the traditions of the elders; it is truly impossible to follow the Law of Moses so their attempts were self-justified in nature. Nicodemus was a member of the Jewish religious ruling council called the Sanhedrin which was comprised of Pharisees, Temple Chief Priests, Scribes of the Law (lawyers), and Saducees who were more worldly and politically minded, and were theologically unorthodox as they didn't believe in the resurrection. The Sanhedrin were considered the Supreme Court of Israel and debated the Law and its application. This group had the final authority on Jewish Law and any elder that went against their decisions was put to death for being rebellious. Nicodemus visited Jesus at night because it was considered to be the best time of the day to learn about God, and potentially Nicodemus wanted to speak with Jesus without the disruption of the crowds following Him. At the time, he was considered to be Israel's greatest, living teacher and Nicodemus said to Jesus, "Rabbi (Teacher with authority to interpret Jewish Law); we know you are a teacher who has come from God and I'm one of the ones who believes this, within the Sanhedrin; I'm on your side. Some of us think this because no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if you weren't sent from God. (How do You fit within the Law of Moses and the Prophets?)
In reply Jesus said, "I'm telling you the truth. You think your self-justified actions of following the Law of Moses, as you interpret it, will earn your way into God's kingdom when in fact no one can see the kingdom of God unless that person is born into God's kingdom." Jesus said this because He knew that, as a Pharisee and Israel's greatest, living religious teacher, Nicodemus believed he was guaranteed entrance into heaven through his religious practices to adhere to the Law of Moses and the traditional interpretations of the elders. Nicodemus believed that his status among the Jewish people and nation was proof that he is considered righteous by God thereby qualified to enter God's kingdom upon death on earth.
"Seriously? How can a man be reborn especially when he is old like me?", Nicodemus asked. "Surely you're not suggesting that a man re-enter his mother's womb in order to be reborn?"
Jesus answered, "I'm telling you the truth, absolutely no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit (unless God washes the man's soul clean and places His Spirit into that man). It is nothing that you do; you cannot earn your way into God's kingdom. Think of it in natural terms. Humans give birth to human nature, and the Spirit gives birth to spirit nature. You should not be surprised when I say that you must be born into God's kingdom. This action is done to you and for you. This is something you cannot control, just like the wind in uncontrollable. The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sounds, you see the evidence of the wind, but you cannot tell where it originated from or where it is going. Being born of the Spirit is just as uncontrollable.
"How can this be?" Nicodemus asked. "How can access into God's kingdom be uncontrollable by us; by we religious leaders?"
"You are Israel's greatest, living teacher and you don't understand these things?" said Jesus. "I'm speaking to you about truthful things, things we know from our history, things we've seen and testify to having happened; things God has spoken about through Moses and the prophets. I have spoken to you about commonly known, earthly things and you don't believe me; how will you believe if I speak to you about heavenly things? You know this. No one has ever gone into God's presence except the one who came from His presence - the Son of Man.This is faith, trust in what God has said He will do. This is not something you do or can administer or control. Just as Moses was directed by God to craft a bronze snake, affix it to a pole and told to lift it up while in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up as a way to cure the imminent sentence of death, that everyone who believes in him many have eternal life."
"God is not judging the world by what each of you do. God loves the world and each person in it. God so loves the world that He has sent His one and only Son to represent His authority, that whoever believes in His Son will not completely perish but be spared from that sentence of death and instead have eternal life with God. For God did not send His Son into the world to judge the world, to condemn the world - each person is already condemned as not being a part of God's kingdom - but the Son was sent to rescue the entire world through what the Son will do for the world. Whoever believes in the Son as being the true Son of God; whoever believes in what the Son will do for the world's benefit will be spared from that condemnation. But, whoever refuses to believe in the Son and what the Son has done for the world will remain in his already condemned state; the sentence will remain on that person for being against God and not belonging to God, not being a member of God's kingdom. That condemned person has not believed in the authority of God's one and only Son and the duties bestowed upon Him by God the Father to represent the Father in His actions of saving the world from the sentence of death. And what is that verdict already in place? This is the verdict, and you know this. A revealing light has come into this dark, blind world but, men love the cover of darkness instead of the revealing light because men's actions are evil in nature. Everyone who does evil things hates the light and will not step into the light because they fear their actions will be exposed as evil and against God. But whoever accepts and lives by God's truth, steps into the revealing light so he can see clearly to follow God, so that it may be witnessed by others that what the person has done, he has done through God."
After this conversation took place, Jesus and His student followers went out into the Judean countryside, where He spent some time with His students and His students baptized people. Now John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim, because there was plenty of water, and the people were constantly coming to be baptized. (This event happened before John was arrested and thrown into prison.) An argument developed between some of John's student followers and a certain Jew about the correct way to do ceremonial washing; obviously this certain Jew argued that baptism wasn't a proper way to do ceremonial washing. His students came to John and said, "Rabbi (teacher with the authority to interpret scripture), that man who was with you on the other side of the Jordan - the one you testified about being the Lamb of God - well... He is baptizing and everyone is going to Him. He has a bigger audience than we do! What are you going to do?"
To this comment, John replied, "Listen. A man can only receive what God has given him. I cannot take something that wasn't given to me. You yourselves can testify that I said, 'I am not the Messiah, the Christ, but I was sent ahead of Him to prepare people to receive Him and the things He would be telling us.' Think of it this way. The bride belongs to the groom and I am not the groom therefor His audience of followers do not belong to me. However, the friend that attends to the groom (the best man), listens to and serves the groom, and the friend is so happy for the groom especially when he hears the groom's voice utter how happy He is. That friend's joy for the groom's happiness, that joy is mine. That is what was given to me from God and now, I'm fulfilled and my role as friend to the groom is completed. The Messiah must become greater than me, and I must become less than Him."
"The one who comes from God's presence, who comes from above, who comes with God's authority, is above all, has authority over all and speaks with God's authority. The one who comes from the earth (that's me) belongs to the earth, and I speak as someone from the earth, with the wisdom and authority limitations of the earth. The one who comes from God's kingdom has the authority given to him from God. He testifies to what he has seen and heard, what God has told him to say and do, but no one accepts his testimony. However, the man who accepts the sent one's testimony, has certified that God is truthful. For the one whom God has sent speaks the words of God, on behalf of God, and God gives the sent one the Spirit without limit. The Father loves the Son and has given His Son the authority to represent Him in His business, His action to rescue the world from its inevitable end. Whoever believes that the Son of God has completed these actions by God has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son and what the Son has done on this person's behalf will not see an eternal life with God, for the eternal judgement and sentence, for not being a person belonging to God, remains on each person."
A few things struck me in this recounting of time between John the Baptizer and his student followers. Because they were arguing the correct way of ceremonially cleansing a person, baptism was probably a public act of recognizing a sinful condition and needing God's atonement to be permanently cleansed. In this case, baptizing both done by Jesus and His disciples and John and his disciples followed the discussion between Jesus and Nicodemus about God being the One to permanently cleanse someone of sin and placing His Spirit into that person. Perhaps, this public act of baptizing is related in some way.
John the Baptizer told his student followers the exact same thing that Jesus told Nicodemus consequently, who Jesus is and what He came to do as God's Lamb and Son, and His relationship to God was predicted in Scripture so therefor, since John knew, Nicodemus should have known. John spoke about God's desire to cleanse all of us, that judgement already was upon us for our sinful nature. That Jesus's purpose was part of the act of permanently cleansing the world which was complete as compared to the temple sacrificial actions which were repeated regularly. Those sacrifices didn't permanently cleanse a person from sin but pointed towards what God would ultimately do for everyone. Jesus had the authority to represent God the Father in God's business and, simply believing in what God through Jesus is doing was part of the permanent cleansing act for us to be guaranteed eternal life. Plus, John called God 'Father' and referred to Jesus as 'God's Son'. That struck me a curious because I thought Jesus was the only one to call God Father, while Jesus was alive on this earth. If John knew from Scripture that God was to be called Father, and viewed as a father to us or at minimum to Jesus, then why didn't any other religious leader make that connection?
Upon reflecting on baptism; both Jesus and John and their student followers were all baptizing people who recognized the need to be cleansed permanently of sin. Immediately following Jesus's conversation with Nicodemus concerning salvation coming from God and not through something men controlled and administered, Jesus sets out to baptize so this action must be an illustration of what He just taught Nicodemus because Jesus's student followers probably overheard the discussion He had with Nicodemus. John the baptizer received his name and reputation through baptizing. Jewish people (leaders) argued with John about the real meaning of ceremonial washing - as part of the prescribed Law of Moses no doubt which appeared not to include washing in a river away from the temple. However, what Jesus told Nicodemus about salvation, what John told his student followers about God's salvation through Jesus must be related to the public act of baptism. Scripture is God inspired so, if items are together within a passage of scripture then those items must be related. Could baptism be an example of what God is doing for men? Is it a response of a heart reflection by men? Is it a sign of a God-made promise fulfill? I now think yes to all.
Jesus told Nicodemus that God would save men from their sins and that men could do nothing to earn salvation nor administer prescriptions for the absolution of sin. God alone would wash a man clean from sin, remove his dead heart, and impart His Spirit into that person to become eternally alive with God becoming part of God's people. John told his students that Jesus has God's authority on earth to administer God's absolution, God has given Jesus the authority to speak on His behalf, to administer God's plan, and God has given Jesus His full Spirit to represent Him fully. Whoever accepts what Jesus has done on behalf of men, will be absolved by God.
There are two actions within God's process of forgiveness and reconciliation. First, God will clean a person completely from his sinful nature and the affects of sin in his life. Second, God will impart His Spirit into the person in order to bring that person from the state of condemned death to the state of resurrected or reborn life. Just like God breathed His Spirit into Adam beginning life on earth, God will breathe His Spirit into a person to begin eternal life.
If Jesus walked on earth to fully represent God fulfilling God's plans for mankind, then Jesus's actions are related to that responsibility. When Jesus began His public ministry, He began with baptism. He walked into the Jordan River where John the Baptizer was preaching about the need for recognizing the sinful condition of people's hearts, and baptizing people who responded to that message; John was preparing people to receive God. John was speaking publicly, telling people to reflect on the state of their hearts, recognize their condition and that they were separate from God and under His judgement for that condition. People who responded to those messages, where walking up to John in a state of reflection - a state of repentance, of turning to God for a solution to the now-seen problem, "I'm a sinful man and unworthy to be your people; cleanse me, oh God!" As John is baptizing people, he sees Jesus who he recognizes as the fulfillment of those promises by God and says, "Behold! The Lamb of God who will take away all sins!" Jesus steps into the Jordan River, wades out to John to have John baptize Him. John asks Jesus to baptize him rather than the other way around as John recognizes the fulfillment of God's promise. However, Jesus responds to John saying he should baptize Jesus to fulfill what was promised - to show that God will now fulfill His promise to mankind to wash mankind permanently clean from sin and deposit His Spirit into mankind. Upon that baptism, the Spirit of God physically descended upon Jesus and He begins His public ministry.
So, baptism is a public acknowledgement of the fulfillment of God's promise to cleanse people completely from our sinful nature and the affects of sin, and to replace our dead hearts with God's heart - with His Spirit - which births us into an eternal life with God Himself. Baptism itself doesn't do the cleansing. Instead, baptism is the acknowledgement that God Himself is cleansing you clean from sin and its eternal punishment, and that God has placed His Spirit within you causing you to become His child, a member of His kingdom.
We should have known this promise to be cleansed by God. We should have known this promise to receive God's Spirit to initiate and guide an eternal life with God. This should have been obvious to us and yet, it's not by our own doing.
Isaiah 44:3, 4:4, 32:15, 55:1
Matthew 5:6, 5:8, 5:10, 19:16-22, 9:14-17
John 7:37-38, 13:8,
Psalm 24:3-6, 51:10