When last we met, we were discussing John the Baptist’s statement in John 3. Where his disciples questioned him about his diminishing ministry and the subsequent rise of Jesus the Nazarene’s. Replying to his men, the Baptist explained in no uncertain terms the following truth:
- “A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven” (John 3.27).[i]
This statement by the Baptist identifies what many do not believe, fail to accept, or choose to ignore—we are incapable of getting anything in this life apart from our Heavenly Father giving them to us. I don’t think many Christians will find that truth problematic. However, where things get a bit hairy is when I tie this truth to salvation.
Complexities in our Language…
All words have meaning, and depending upon your background you will perceive the meaning of certain words a bit differently than others. This does not mean that words are undefinable. Nor does this truth imply that getting at the truth is impossible, but it should highlight us to the need of being aware of our own biases.
In other words, what people say is not always what you hear. Salvation is a gift. To receive something is to become a partaker of the gift. How you hear the word “receive” (i.e. how you define the term) will determine how you understand it. John the Baptist says that people “cannot receive even one thing” …apart from God. (This, then, would naturally include salvation.)
He uses the word “cannot” to describe inability. It is something that we as people are incapable of doing. Now suppose you don’t accept what I just said that “cannot describes inability.” Why do I say that? When I was a child and I asked for permission to sharpen my pencil in class how my teacher responded to the request was determined by how I asked the question:
- Q1: Mrs. So-n-So, “Can I sharpen my pencil?”
- Q2: Mrs. So-n-So, “May I sharpen my pencil?”
Question 1 is a question of ability. Is sharpening my pencil something I am capable of (can) doing? That was the wrong question to pose to my teacher, as they often corrected this tendency. Question 2 is a question of permission. Is sharpening my pencil something I am allowed (permitted) to do? Looking back at John the Baptist statement to his disciples, we should be able to see he emphasizes the inability of mankind.
Pay attention to categories of thought as you reread it. Is it impossible for a person to receive some things, most things or all things apart from God giving it? The Baptist points to “all things”: “A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven” (emphasis added).
Our understanding depends on where we lay the emphasis…
I realize that what really catches our attention is the word “receive.” What does it mean to “receive” something? Well, as I said last time it really depends on the sense in which the word is being used. To receive can either be in the active sense or the passive sense. How are we to know what sense is being meant by the Baptist specifically or John 3 in particular?
Context…context…context. If you want to find the answer to how John the Baptist is using the term pay attention to the flow of thought. What is the underlying issue that the Baptist’s disciples are concerned about? Jesus’ ministry is growing: “Rabbi, the One you testified about, and who was with you across the Jordan, is baptizing—and everyone is flocking to Him” (John 3.26; HCSB; italics added).
The point of contention is Jesus is baptizing Israelites in the Jordan. Technically, his disciples are the ones doing it (see John 4.2), but the practice is being performed in His Name. This led to a debate between John’s disciples and a fellow Jew (or Jews) over purification. Baptism is more than mere water dunking; it is a sign of new life, of one being purified from their sins. Jesus alluded to this truth earlier in John 3 in His conversation with Nicodemus when said one must “…be born of water and the Spirit” (John 3.5; italics added).
Both John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth were prophets of God. As prophets they understood the teachings of Scripture as they were sent as heralds of the truth to their generation. Jesus was greater than John since He came from above, but this does not diminish the importance of John the Baptist’s ministry[ii]. The reason we find both John and Jesus teaching baptism is because of what God promises to do for His people[iii]:
- “Thus says the Lord God: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations to which you came. And I will vindicate the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them. And the nations will know that I am the Lord, declares the Lord God, when through you I vindicate my holiness before their eyes. I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleanness, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and [I will] give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and [I will] cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God. And I will deliver you from all your uncleanness” (Ezek 36.22-29; emphasis added).
This is God’s Work…
One of the reasons that I kept the above quote so lengthy is because I wanted to highlight that the entire work of baptizing (cleansing the inner-man) is God’s action not persons. God does ALL the work the person being saved by this work merely receives it. Actively? Like Christmas or birthday presents or money being handed out…where I just grab ahold of them at take them? No, the Ezekiel text shows that man passively receives what God is giving.
This prophetic utterance of Ezekiel finds its fulfillment in Jesus the Christ. All this gifting of God that Ezekiel foretold is said to be received by the true children of God, but the reception of the gift is passive not active. God actively gives and people receive, but the reception of the gift is passively accomplished.
Baptism is a work of God—again not speaking of the mere sprinkling of water here, which serves as a sacramental sign. Baptism signifies new birth, a new creation. And according to Scripture all who are in Christ are newly created.
Jesus teaching Nicodemus…
If we look back at John 3 in its entirety, we find that this is what is being taught. In fact, the apostle John’s teaching (not the Baptizer) flows from Jesus’ discussion with Nicodemus to John the Baptists discussion with his disciples. The first speaking of being “born-again” or “born-from-above.” The second speaking of baptism which draws attention to the need of being purified (i.e. reborn) from sin; which, is the result of the new life gained by the life-giving Holy Spirit.
Nicodemus came to Jesus at night and said to the Lord, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him” (John 3.2). What did Nicodemus just say? That it is impossible for any man to do the sort of things that has been reported about Jesus unless it has been given from above—i.e. “unless God is with him.”
Is Nicodemus a believing man? At first blush it appears so, but not according to the Lord. Yes, it is true that Nicodemus professed that Jesus must be “from God,” but so do the demons in the first century: “And demons also came out of many, crying, ‘You are the Son of God!’ but he rebuked them and would not allow them to speak, because they knew that he was the Christ” (Luke 4.41; cf. James 2.19). But what was the Lord’s immediate response to Nicodemus?
- “Jesus answered him, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again [Grk. from above] he cannot see the kingdom of God’” (John 3.3)
Oh no, there’s that pesky man “can-not” do statement again. Jesus says it is not possible for man to “see the kingdom of God.” Without delving deeply into a debate about another subject, I will merely point out that “kingdom of God” speaks of the rule of the king and not a physical location (cf. Matt 6.9-13; see 12.28). This helps us understand that the word “see” does not refer to physical sight as much as it does comprehension and understanding. Not to be limited to a mental form of comprehension or understanding, because again demons can do that, but spiritual comprehension (cf. 1Cor 2.8-14).
While, Nicodemus chokes on that statement the Lord hits him with another one:
- “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3.5).
Once more we find man’s inability highlighted by Jesus. This time he refers to entering in.
No one can enter into the kingdom unless something else happens first. What is it? He must be “born of water and the Spirit.” Here Jesus draws from the prophet Ezekiel’s teaching (quoted above). A person must first be reborn through the waters of purification by the Spirit’s power before they can enter into the kingdom as a rightful citizen.[iv] Again, not location, but pertaining to “rule.” The rightful citizen desires to be obedient to the rule of the king.
Jesus offers a clear explanation of what he means when he speaks about being born-again,
“That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes or where it goes. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit” (John 3.6-8; emphasis added).
In other words, you cannot receive something unless it has been granted to you. Using an illustration of the wind to drive His point home, Jesus says, “so it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” Just as the wind blows where it wishes coming from one direction to the next without our knowledge, so too it is with the Holy Spirit’s activity in the world. He does as He sees fit, and the only way we know He has been active is by paying attention to the results (i.e. hear [His] sound).
A Necessary Tie-In…
The use of “birth” language is especially important here. Our being born into this world is what we might consider a predominately fleshly activity. From an earthly standpoint we are the byproduct of parental coupling; the union of man and woman (cf. John 3.6a). From a heavenly standpoint we are brought into the world by our Creator’s sovereign decree (cf. John 3.6b). For God has “…determined [our] appointed times and the boundaries of where [we] live” (Acts 17.26b; cf. Deut 32.8). However, in both cases we receive life (passively) and all the bounty that pertains to it (time, wealth, and power) as a gift. Not because we asked for it, but because it was granted to us—an act of grace.
“You mean, God does not consult our wishes in the matter???” If he did, what would be the result?
[i] All Scripture unless otherwise noted shall be of the English Standard Version (ESV).
[ii] The difference between what John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth were doing was in terms of ability. John could only baptize with water pointing to a supernatural work of God; whereas, Jesus the Christ would baptize with the Spirit. Why? Because they were gifted according to their calling as the Baptist explained to his disciples (cf. John 3.31-36). John could not do what Jesus did, for he did not receive this ability from God above.
[iii] Please note as a rule of thumb that any doctrine found being taught on in the New Testament had its foundation laid in the Old Testament. These are not new teachings in the sense of never having been taught before. They are new in the sense that they are updated and perfected (in meaning and application) in Christ Jesus. The book of Hebrews probably illustrates this truth in detailed and thought out format more exhaustively than any other New Testament document.
[iv] You should ask yourself the following question: Why is that necessary? Why does man need to be purified? What does he need a new spirit within him? Again, Jesus says this is true, not Kris; although, I do concur. Not that the Lord needs my concurrence, but He does require my humility (as well as yours) on this subject.