Regeneration Precedes Faith: Exegesis of John 3:1-21 (Part 3) Conclusion

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If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? (John 3:12) 

Jesus is saying in effect that if Nicodemus cannot understand what he is saying through the use of earthly analogies such as birth and wind, how will he be able to handle it when Jesus speaks directly about heavenly things which defy all earthly analogies? And this is precisely what Jesus is about to do in the next verse: hit him directly with the heavenly truth of his incarnation.18  

No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. (John 3:13) 

This is certainly a heavenly thing that defies all earthly analogies to explain. Jesus Christ is saying that he has descended from heaven! By this point Nicodemus’ head has to be spinning in circles. He has to be thinking, “Now to top it off he is telling me that he descended from heaven! What does that mean. Did he physically descend in bodily form as an adult?” Nicodemus has no earthly analogy to help him understand this situation. Jesus does not go into an extended explanation of the way he descended from heaven here, but we know from other parts of scripture that Jesus was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit in the womb of Mary and in this way he descended from heaven. If Nicodemus couldn’t wrap his mind around the analogy of normal human birth to explain being born again, he certainly wouldn’t be able to understand the mystery of the incarnation of the Son of God. And we need to remember this point as well. The fact that Jesus Christ is the second person of the Trinity, who is by very nature God and has eternally existed as the person of the Son of God, came down from heaven to take upon himself a human nature through the Miraculous conception in the womb of a young virgin, is a fact that defies all human reason and understanding. This doesn’t mean that this belief is illogical or irrational, but it does mean that this belief is one which we accept because of the authority of the Son of God and the Scriptures themselves. And there is no earthly analogy to help us wrap our mind around the incarnation. We can’t say, “You know, the virgin birth of Jesus Christ is kind of like…” What would you fill in that blank? What is there that we experience on this earth that approximates the miracle of the incarnation? There is no answer to that question because there is nothing that we experience that could be used as an analogy. The new birth of a Christian can be understood through the analogy of natural birth and wind, but this truth of Christ’s birth defies all attempts to explain it  by use of earthly analogies.  

And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 

 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. (John 3:14-15) 

After Jesus tells Nicodemus that he has descended from heaven, he then compares his future lifting up (which is a reference to his future crucifixion) to Moses lifting the serpent in the wilderness. This Old testament story is found in Numbers 21:5-9. The people of Israel rebel in the wilderness saying, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food”. (Num 21:5) God’s response to their complaining is to send fiery serpents into the camp which bite the people and many of them begin to die. (vs. 6). Then the people of Israel respond by going to Moses, confessing their sin, and begging him to intercede for them and ask the Lord to take away the serpents from them. (vs. 7) The Lord responds to Moses’ intercession by saying, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live. (Num 21:8) Moses then obeyed the Lord by making the pole with the image of the serpent on it and lifted it up that all who were bitten and looked at it were healed. (vs. 9)  

Jesus is paralleling his ministry with that of Moses in the wilderness lifting up the serpent so that all who looked upon it would be healed. In the same way, He would be lifted up so that all who believe in him would have eternal life. There are several things to point out about this verse. First, notice that in the Old Testament story, only those who were bitten by the snakes and realized that they were going to die looked to the bronze serpent on the pole. In the same way, only those who realize the poison of their depraved nature, the “flesh” that they are born with, will see their need to look to Christ lifted upon the cross. Imagine someone in the wilderness who was bit by the snake, Moses lifts the pole up and the man bitten says, “I don’t need to look at the pole, because my snake bite will not lead to my death. There is no problem here. I am not going to die”. In the same way, until the Holy Spirit opens your mind and heart to see the seriousness of the venomous nature of your sin that pumps through your blood and will lead to your death and judgment in hell, you will have that same attitude toward the cross of Christ saying, “I don’t need that. I ‘m not that bad of a person”.  

Next, the term translated “whoever” in the ESV needs to be examined for a moment. This the Greek term πaς o πιστεuων-pas ho pisteuon which literally means “All the believing”. The verb is a participle in the present tense, meaning that it is describing the ongoing action of believing, rather than a simple one time action of belief in the past. According to Wallace, the verb believe in the present tense is the primary choice of New Testament writers to describe true saving faith.19 Further, the term whoever can be confusing to the English reader because it sounds like Jesus is saying everyone has the inherent ability to believe if they so chose. The King James version translated this term “whosoever”, which over the centuries has created a tradition in preaching where you will here many preachers say, “Whosoever will may believe in Jesus Christ. This means that all have the ability to exercise faith in Christ.” But this is not at all what this passage or that same phrase in John 3:16 means. It simply is describing the class of people who will have eternal life. In other words, not all are given eternal life except “all the believing ones”. This verse says nothing about the sinner’s capacity or ability to believe, but simply states that all those who believe will have eternal life. We have already seen thus far in John 3 that one must be born again in order to see or enter the kingdom, and John 6, 8, 10 and 12 all have clear teachings that only those who are enabled to believe by the power of God are the ones who end up believing in Christ. Dr. James White has an excellent short You Tube video talking about this issue.20 Now to one of the most popular verses in the Bible.  

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16) 

The Greek word that begins this verse is the word οuτως-outos which is “an adverb from the near demonstrative οuτος (this); in this manner, in this way, thus, so;”.21 This first phrase could be literally rendered, “In this way” or “In this manner” God loved the world. Now who did God love according to this verse? He loved the world, which is the Greek word κoσμον-kosmon. This is a very important term to understand because many Christians uncritically accept the idea that Jesus is saying that God loves all people without exception in the exact same way. They will say that the term “world” means that God loves everyone and Jesus died for everyone. There are two considerations to think about in response to this claim, one exegetical, the other theological.  

First, exegetically we have to look at the context of John chapter 3. Remember, John 3:16 is a contrast with John 3:14-15. What was Jesus just talking about two verses earlier? He was talking about the children of Israel in the wilderness and how Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness for them. Would we say that when Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness that this was done for the entire world or just for the nation of Israel? Of course the answer is that Moses lifted up the serpent only for the Israelites who were wandering in the wilderness and had been bitten by the serpents. This serpent was not lifted up for the sake of the Amorites, the Canaanites or the Philistines, but this serpent was lifted up on behalf of the Jews who had been bitten by the serpents. Why is this important to understand? Because Jesus is making a comparison between his lifting up on the cross and the lifting up of the serpent. What Jesus is saying by using the term “world” is that his crucifixion is going to be on the behalf of “…every tribe and language and people and nation, (Rev 5:9)”, rather than only for the nation of Israel. Or,  “…that Jesus would die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but also to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad” (John 11:51-52). In other words, God is displaying his love to all people without distinction: without distinction in contrast to the lifting of the serpent in the wilderness in which there was certainly  a distinction in that it was only done for the nation of Israel. Literally thus far we could paraphrase the verse, “In this way God showed his love for all people without distinction, not only the Jews”.  

Theologically, one runs into a major problem if they make the naked assertion that God loves the world (ie all people without exception) in the exact same way. First, does it not follow that if God has saving love for all people without exception then all people will be in heaven? Does it not follow if God loves all people without exception in the same way that there cannot be a hell? Is the person who thinks this verse refers to God’s love upon all people without exception prepared to assert that God’s saving love will rest upon those who spend an eternity in hell? Or, from another angle, if God has this universal saving love upon all people without exception, then why are not all people saved? Is God not able to save them? Does God’s love fail? Is God like a frustrated Father who has deep love for his rebellious son but does not have the ability to bring this son into a saving relationship with himself? But these are the very theological problems that one runs into if they attempt to make the term “world” in this verse mean “all people without exception”.  

However, I think the simple and most straightforward interpretation of this term “world” is that in the giving of Jesus Christ, his only Son, God is displaying his love not only for the nation of Israel as he did in the wilderness through Moses lifting up the serpent, but is displaying his love “for every tribe and language and people and nation, (Rev 5:9)”. God’s love in Christ is not limited to one group of people, but is to be announced and displayed to all people without distinction. This issue of limiting the  work of Christ to only the Jewish nation was even a major issue in the early Church, as can be seen in the controversies recorded in the books of Acts and Galatians. 

Another way to make clear what the term “world” refers to is to look at the next part of the verse, where a limitation is placed upon the term “world” and who will have eternal life. It is clear that only those who believe will not perish but have eternal life. So God the Father, by his giving of the Son displayed his love to all people without distinction between Jew and Gentile, that those within that group called “world” who believe will have eternal life. Only “the believing ones” will have eternal life. In other words, a limitation is immediately placed upon the term “world” by the phrase “in order that all who believe will not perish but have eternal life”. So from within this larger group called “the world”, it is only those who respond to Christ in saving faith who will have eternal life. Then the question has to be raised, how is it that someone comes to have this true saving faith in Jesus Christ? From our study of John 3 thus far it should already be clear. It is only those who are born again that have saving faith. It is only those who are born again that have the ability to “see” or “enter into” the kingdom of God. Also elsewhere in John, especially John 6:35-71, Jesus does answer the question of why it is that some people believe in him and others don’t, and he does this by clearly attributing the origin of saving faith to the sovereign work of the Father in drawing the sinner to the Son. 

For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. (John 3:17) 

God had no need to send Jesus to condemn the world because the world is “condemned already” (3:18). Our union with Adam that we have by nature is enough to condemn us. (See Romans 5:12-21). God the Father sent Jesus Christ to this earth to save all people without exception: Jew and Greek, Slave and Free, Rich and Poor, Black and White. This is what the term “world” means in this context. The amazing thing about the coming of the Messiah that almost all of the Jews of his time missed, was that when he came, he would bring salvation not only to those within the nation of Israel, but also to those within every nation on earth.  

A quick note about the term “saved” that occurs in this verse. The Greek term for salvation is the word σoζω-sozo. This world has the primary meaning of “rescuing” someone from danger. “save, preserve from harm, rescue; (1) of natural dangers and afflictions; (a) in relation to acute physical danger deliver, save, rescue (AC 27.20); (b) in relation to a stressful and threatening situation save, bring out safely (JN 12.27); (c) in relation to sickness and disease heal, cure, restore to health (MT 9.21); (2) in a religious sense, in relation to spiritual dangers and threat of eternal death; (a) save, rescue from sin, bring to salvation (RO 5.9; EP 2.8)”.22 We still use this term in that way today. Someone might say, “I was saved from the burning building by the firefighter”. This means that the person was rescued from the immanent danger of the fire by the firefighter. 

What then is the main danger that Jesus Christ saves or rescues us from? Many Christians will quickly answer one of three common things in response to that question: Sin, Satan and Self. While all these answers may be correct in a secondary way, they are wrong if they are answering the question about the primary danger. The main danger that Jesus rescues us from is the Wrath of Almighty God. He steps in and rescues us from the just condemnation that should fall upon us because of our sin against the Divine Majesty. God the Father sent God the Son to save us from his own Justice and Wrath which must be satisfied in order for a guilty sinner to be forgiven. This connection between salvation and God’s condemning wrath is made clear if we connect this to the next verse. 

Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. (John 3:18) 

Clearly the problem is that of someone does not have faith in Jesus Christ they walk in condemnation now and will be condemned under the just wrath of God when they die. The glorious good news of the gospel is that if one clings to Christ in true faith then he will not face condemnation, but will have eternal life. What does it mean to believe? We have already noted above that true saving faith is a present tense idea, in other words, one must be continually believing in the Son of God to be saved. It is not enough to simply have believed one time in the past. This is an important thing to note in an American Church where so many people have prayed the “sinner’s prayer” one time and thereby think they are saved, but their lives don’t give evidence of a continual and growing faith in Jesus Christ.  Paul Washer has been one of the men of God on the forefront of confronting this issue of people thinking they are saved because they said a prayer one time in Church but have no continuing and abiding fruits of faith.23  

What is the characteristic of faith? What does it do? “…especially with God or Christ as the object of faith believe (in), trust; (a) with the object in the dative have faith in, believe (AC 16.34); (b) especially denoting the exercise of saving faith, with the object expressed by using εiς or eπi and the accusative, believe in or on (JN 3.16; AC 9.42); (c) as denoting relying on God for help have confidence, believe (MT 21.22);24 Notice the emphasis on having trust or placing confidence in something. Faith is more than merely agreeing with something in your mind, as if you say “I believe that this coffee is good”, but it is to place trust and confidence in the object that your mind ponders on.  

I read a great analogy to make this point that faith is more than just mental agreement with facts. Imagine you are walking around Niagara Falls and see a crowd forming. A man walks up to you and says, “There is a man walking across a tightrope over there!” You walk over to see the tightrope stretched across the falls. You look over to see a man walking across this tightrope! You are amazed that the information that the man gave you was correct. So in your mind you have agreed with what the man said because you saw it for yourself. When the tightrope walker comes back across the falls, to everyone’s surprise he grabs a wheelbarrow and walks across the tightrope while pushing this wheelbarrow across. You start cheering as does the rest of the crowd who has gathered. He successfully goes back and forth with the wheelbarrow and when he gets he calls out to the crowd “Do you think I can do that again?” You respond by yelling out, “Yes!” He says again to you, “Do you believe that I can walk that wheelbarrow across the tightrope again?” You answer, “Yes I do”. Then he looks straight at you and says, “Then get in the wheelbarrow!” You hesitate, step back and say, “Well, I don’t know about that”.  

Do you see what happened in that analogy? There is a helpful little acronym to remember the 3 elements of saving faith: KAT. This stands for knowledge, assent and trust. In the analogy you had knowledge of the man walking the tightrope, both because someone told you about it and you saw it with your own eyes. You assented or agreed with the knowledge you were presented with because you witnessed the man walking across the tightrope. However, did you trust in the man to successfully take you across the tightrope? No. You lacked that third element of trust. You did not place your personal trust in the man to successfully wheel you across the falls. Now what if there was a flame of fire that was racing toward you and your only hope of survival was to entrust yourself to this man and jump into the wheelbarrow. That may change things a bit! 

In the same way, many people have knowledge of Jesus Christ. They have been to church many times; they have heard what Jesus did and know the basic facts of the Christian faith. Many more go a step further and assent to or agree with what Jesus did and who he is. They agree with the basic facts of the Christian faith. They would not deny such basic teachings as the resurrection of Christ from the dead, the authority of the Bible and the reality of final judgment. However, the key is, have they placed and continue to place personal trust in Jesus Christ to rescue them from the wrath of God? Have they jumped into the Wheelbarrow, so to speak, and are placing their hope for salvation on the works of Christ and not on their own works? Are they clinging to Jesus Christ and his righteousness as their only hope in standing in the presence of a Holy God? Believing in Jesus means to trust in him, especially his perfect life of obedience to the Father and his substitutionary death on the cross where he took upon himself the full wrath of Almighty God for his people. Now how does someone come to exercise this true and saving faith? Is it primarily an effort that comes from within the human heart, where we just need to try really hard to be sincere and put great effort into getting faith by our efforts? The next three verses answer this question: 

And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. (John 3:19)  

Another possible way to translate the first part of this verse is, “And this is the way the judgment works” or “This is the reason for judgment”. Jesus is giving us the reason that the just judgment of God falls upon sinful humanity. The reason is that men “loved” darkness rather than the light. The light appears, but instead of coming out into the light and embracing it, men instead love darkness. And why do they love darkness according to this verse? It is because their works were evil. They have a love for darkness because it hides their evil deeds. It is like a criminal who is on the run and loves fleeing into another country that cannot extradite him because they can hide from the light of justice. Sinners by nature love the darkness because it enables us to avoid having our sinfulness exposed in the presence of a Holy and Just God.  

For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. (John 3:20)   

Jesus now further explains the relationship sinners have to the light. Everyone who does wickedness “hates” the light. We have strong language here from Jesus describing the natural spiritual condition of men in Adam. They are not indifferent or just neutral when it comes to their opinion of the light, but they hate it! And why do they hate the light: Because if they stepped into it, their deeds would be exposed before a Holy God. By nature, humans have a love for the darkness and a hatred for the light. Jesus is giving us yet another reason to believe in the necessity of the new birth in order for any spiritual good to take place in the life of a fallen sinner. If we have hatred for the light, then God must do something radical to change our nature so that we love the light. Conversely, if we love the darkness, God must do something radical in order to change our nature into one that hates the darkness. What must happen for us to come out of this state of loving darkness and hating light? Do we simply just need to make a decision for Jesus? How can we simply make a decision to love something we hate? The answer is that we can’t. So what does Jesus say happened when one does finally come into the light? 

 But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.” (John 3:21) 

Look carefully at this. The person who does come to the light is the person described as one who “does what is true”. This person steps into the light so that one thing might be clearly seen and illuminated by that light. What is seen? That the works he has done “have been carried out in God”. The tense of this verb εiργασμeνα-eirgasmena, which is translated here “have been carried out”, is in the perfect tense, which can designate an action that occurred in the past, but has abiding results in the present. If a person steps into the light, when did these works happen that brought him into the light and who is responsible for these works? The answer is that these works happened in the past and God is the one who worked them in the person who comes into the light. This is once again a reference to the new birth. What is the deciding factor as to who steps into the light, and who remains in love with the darkness? Is it the free-will of man? Is it a human choice that cooperates with God’s grace? No. we have already seen that this passage of John 3:1-21 is designed to take human decision out of the equation. This is about the power of the Sovereign God to do a miraculous work and bring a dead sinner who loves darkness and hates light, and change them into a person who comes out of the darkness, steps into the light, and gives God the glory for working this miracle into their hearts through the new birth.  

As this admittedly brief verse by verse exegesis of John 3:1-21 draws to a close, I hope that it has helped you to see that Jesus teaches very clearly that being born again is absolutely necessary for one to see or enter the kingdom of God, and that this new birth is a sovereign work of God himself that is not caused or under the control of the human will any more than your first birth or the wind is under human control. The claim that our choice to accept Jesus “accomplishes” the new birth does not square with the verse by verse exegesis of this text and many other texts within the Gospel of John. I think I have made the case the new birth is actually that which “accomplishes” one seeing, entering into and believing on the Lord Jesus Christ. Further exegesis is needed of key texts like John chapter 5:1-47, John 6:1-71, John 8, John 9-10 and John 11-12 to further cement in this Biblical teaching that it is the sovereign and supernatural work of God, unaided by the will of man, to bring about spiritual life within a paralyzed (John 5), unable (John 6), Satan bound (John 8), blind (John 9), lost (John 10) and dead (John 11) sinner.  

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