Christianity 201

May 31, 2018

John 3:16: Should God Send People to Hell for Not Believing Certain Things?

Should God send people to hell for failing to believe certain things? Some will point to John 3:16,

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” John 3:16 (NRSV)

Some object that God cannot be very loving if failure to believe results in punishment. Does the punishment fit the crime? However, John 3:16 will help us respond to the objection.

Before we get to 3:16, it helps to look at verses 1-15 where we are introduced to Nicodemus. Being a Pharisee and a member of the Sanhedrin, Nicodemus would have believed certain things about the way things are. He was no doubt well-versed in the Hebrew Bible and was looking forward to the coming Kingdom of God. He would have held onto certain beliefs about who would enter the Kingdom and how. You enter this kingdom by being born into the right family, the Jewish family, and doing the right thing, keeping the Jewish law.

Jesus challenges Nicodemus on his beliefs about these things:

Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” John 3:3 (NRSV)

Being born into the right family is not what is important for the Kingdom, but rather “being born from above”, or “born again”.  Nicodemus takes the latter meaning of the term but Jesus is referring to the same idea we were introduced to in John 1:

He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him.  He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.  But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God,  who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. John 1:10-13 (NRSV emphasis added)

To boil this down to essentials, you will see God’s Kingdom, not because you were born into the right family, but because of God’s work in you no matter what family you were originally born into. Jesus continues:

Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.  Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’   The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” John 3:5-8 (NRSV)

Nicodemus would have known where he, as a Jewish person ,came from; Jewish parents. However, with Kingdom people, you do not know where they come from. In other words,  a Kingdom person can be from any background or nation, as long as God is working in them. Nicodemus had certain beliefs about the Kingdom, but Jesus challenged him on them.

Jesus goes on to challenge Nicodemus on his beliefs about who he, Jesus himself, really is. Nicodemus already believes certain things about Jesus:

He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” John 3:2 (NRSV)

Jesus challenges Nicodemus to go deeper than that:

No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.  And just 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 3:13-15 (NRSV)

Jesus is not just a prophet with God’s presence, but the Son of Man coming from God. Nicodemus would likely have had Daniel 7 going through his mind at this point. He also would have been thinking of the passage of Scripture from Numbers where Moses is instructed to lift up a serpent so that everyone who looked to it could be healed from the consequence of their sin. The inference here is subtle, but important; namely, that Jesus is not like Moses, but greater than Moses. While Moses lifted up the serpent, Jesus is the One lifted up, meaning that he was to be crucified as a means of healing. Jesus is the One through whom healing comes, the One through whom we receive forgiveness for our rebellion against God. Which brings us to verse 16:

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

Jesus is challenging Nicodemus to move from belief that something is true, to trust in Someone. Nicodemus believed certain things, namely that you enter into the Kingdom first by being born into the right family. Jesus tells him that anyone can enter the Kingdom by trusting that God has done the best thing.

What does this have to do with our objection: “should people go to hell for not believing certain things”?

Even when I know where I am going, I like using my iPhone’s Maps voice guidance on Highway 401. It shows me the traffic and has occasionally led me off the highway in order to rescue me from an upcoming traffic mess.

Now suppose I don’t listen to the voice guidance thinking that I know better. When I slow to a stop, would I then ask my phone why it sent me into a traffic jam? I chose that route, and I chose to trust my own judgement rather than trust my phone which offered a better path.

God does not send people to hell for failing to believe certain things. People choose a path that leads to death and separation from God. When God offers forgiveness and a better path, they choose to not trust Him. Being separated from God for eternity is not punishment for disbelief. It is the natural consequence of a life of walking away from God. It is sin, not disbelief, that separates us from God. Eternal life is not about believing certain things, it is about trusting God. It is about trusting that God has dealt with our separation from Him through Jesus at the cross. It is trusting that through His grace, we are welcomed as children, born from above.


Clarke Dixon is the Pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Cobourg, Ontario, Canada.

 

clarkedixon.wordpress.com

 

March 24, 2018

Damascus Road, or Emmaus Road: You Need to Have the Experience

This is our fourth time with Canadian Presbyterian pastor Jeff Loach who writes at Passionately His. Because Jeff has been a longtime friend of Thinking Out Loud, I’m taking the liberty of running back-to-back articles from him today and tomorrow.  His title below for this article emphasizes a different aspect of his article than the title we chose, but both are things to consider as you read. Click the title below to read this at source.

Don’t be ashamed of the Name

I’m going to talk about a term that gets tossed around a lot – often with scorn attached – in the church and in the world.  It’s the term “born again”.

In the sense in which Christians use it, the term appears just in one place in the New Testament:  the story of Jesus’ encounter at night with Nicodemus in John 3.  Nicodemus confides that everybody who has been eyeing his ministry knows he has come from God.  Then Jesus tells him,

I tell you the truth, unless you are born again, you cannot see the Kingdom of God” (John 3.3, NLT).

Well, that kind of came out of left field, didn’t it, Jesus?  After receiving such a high compliment from such a high-ranking Jewish official, one would think he would demurely blush and say, “Aw, shucks” or something.  But not Jesus.  He jumps right into the challenge of the Kingdom:  to see it, you must be born again.

What did he mean by that?

As I noted, the term is fraught with baggage both inside and outside the church, and it’s often negative.  But the term that John uses for “again” in John 3.3 – anōthen – has a couple of similar meanings.  It can mean ‘again’, ‘from the very beginning’, or ‘for a long time’; or, as John tends to use it most, ‘from above’.  Some translations of the Bible have started using ‘from above’, because it is a correct translation, and perhaps also to try to steer away from the negative baggage that ‘again’ has caused over the year.

But they really all point to the same thing:

There must be some sort of new, supernatural birth that takes place in our lives before we can see the Kingdom of God.

Many well-meaning followers of Jesus have hammered away at this verse over the years as an antidote to the milquetoast teaching (or lack thereof) that suggests, “All you have to do is be good, and God will have you.”

I’m still not sure, after 30 years in this business, where people came up with that notion, but it sure wasn’t from the Bible, that’s for sure.

No, at some point in our lives – and it’s never too late! – each of us needs to come to terms with the reality that Jesus’ death and resurrection were not just historical events, but that they were accomplished for me.  For each of us.  And when God pours down his grace on us to enable us to make that confession of faith, something new happens inside us, and we experience new birth.  We are born from above.  We are born again.

It doesn’t have to have a dramatic testimony attached to it.  Instead of a Damascus Road experience, it can be an Emmaus Road experience.  Each must lead to the same conclusion, though:  at some point, we ceased living under our own strength and gave over the throne of our hearts to Jesus.  When you do, some people will label you as “one of those born again Christians.”  And when they do, you can give humble praise to the One who died and rose again for you, and who changes you within by the Holy Spirit.

It’s not about pride – far from it.  But you don’t need to be ashamed of the Name.

January 20, 2018

Born of Water and the Spirit

Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit.

Many of you are familiar with this phrase, found in a statement Jesus makes to Nicodemus in John 3. We found these comments on this at Biblical Hermeneutics. We’ve included the first two answers, but you may click on the title below to read more. The first answer is reiterated in #5 below.

What does it mean to be “born of water”?

In John 3:5, Jesus tells Nicodemus that to enter the kingdom one must be “born of water and the Spirit”. How is this phrase understood? Is it a single construct (i.e. one birth of both water and Spirit)? Or are two births in view (one of water and one of Spirit)? And what does it mean to be born of water?


“Born of water” does not stand alone here, but rather inseparably collocated with “and spirit”. Just as “raining cats and dogs” refers to one rain, or “this item is our bread and butter” refers to one mainstay item, “water and the spirit” refers to one birth.

In other words, we are not to take this is “first you must be born of water and then of spirit”; rather, “unless one is born of water and spirit” in v5 is parallel to “unless one is born again” in v3.

Although the phrase “born of water and of the spirit” is not found in the Old Testament, we do see water and spirit both tied to personal and covenantal renewal, notably in Ezekiel 36:25-27:

25 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from fall your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. 26 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 give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. (ESV)

Here water is used to explicitly symbolize cleansing from impurity, and spirit for the transformation of the heart to full obedience. All that Jesus has done here is add the concept of birth to further explain what he had said in v3.


Actually, after researching this more, there are multiple possible translations of this

1. Christian Baptism

C. H. Dodd reflects this interpretation when he asserts that

“the instructed Christian reader would immediately recognize a reference to Baptism, as the sacrament through which the Spirit was given to believers, and by which they were initiated into that new order of life described as the Kingdom of God, which was historically embodied in the Church.”
Dodd, Interpretation, p. 311.

Essentially, the idea is being “born of water” would have been immediate recognizable as meaning baptism. And since Jesus had been baptizing, it could be understood as this baptism.

2. John’s Baptism

The argument here is that when Nicodemus heard “born of water”, he would immediately think of John’s baptisms, since he had been causing a stir throughout Israel. Support from this comes from here:

John 1:23 (NIV)
I did not recognize Him, but He who sent me to baptize in water said to me, ‘He upon whom you see the Spirit descending and remaining upon Him, this is the One who baptizes in the Holy Spirit’

The argument is that John baptized with water but Jesus baptized with the Holy Spirit.

3. Natural (Flesh) Birth

This popular and well-thought out argument is supported by the quote from Nicodemus himself as well as later parallelism of Jesus.

John 3:4 (NIV)
How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”

The parallels can be drawn directly from Jesus two contiguous sentences:

John 3:5-6 (NIV)
5 Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. 6 Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.

Clearly, being “born of water and the spirit” relates directly to bineg born of “flesh” and “spirit” in verse 6.

Finally, it gains biblical support in that the term “water” has been used in reference to female organs in Song of Songs 4:12-15.

4. Word of God

This theory maintains that there are two elements required for a person to be “born again”: the Word of God and the Holy Spirit.

Support for this theory are found in the following two verses:

James 1:18 (NIV)
He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created.

1 Peter 1:23 (NIV)
For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God.

5. Double metaphor

Proponents of this theory state that Being “born of the water and of the spirit” are actually two ways to say the same thing. The argument is that Jesus said that you must be “born again” in previous verses and then “born of water and the spirit” in later verses. These two parallels, the argument goes, shows that being “born of water” is simply another way to say being “born again”.

6. Purification

This idea states that water and spirit are purification that must take place in order to be born again. This can be illustrated by the use of water in purification rituals. Furthermore, support for this can be found in Ezekiel:

Ezekiel 36:25-27 (NIV)
25 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. 26 I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.

This verse shows the connection between water and the spirit in purification and the new birth.

Summary

There are six traditional views of how to view this. Two views stand out as the most likely: The natural birth (#3) and the Purificaiton (#6). These two views have the strongest support for them, both biblically and traditionally. The other views each have strong problems with their views. (I add them solely for completeness.)


The answers which follow are also worth considering. Nobody said Biblical interpretation was easy! If you have time, especially consider the one which followed these. Once again, here’s the link.

April 2, 2014

Dumbest. Question. Ever.

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When Nicodemus comes to Jesus with questions, Jesus gives him a statement that then prompts one of the many comedic moments in the Bible:

John 3:1 (NLT) There was a man named Nicodemus, a Jewish religious leader who was a Pharisee. After dark one evening, he came to speak with Jesus. “Rabbi,” he said, “we all know that God has sent you to teach us. Your miraculous signs are evidence that God is with you.”

Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, unless you are born again,  you cannot see the Kingdom of God.”

“What do you mean?” exclaimed Nicodemus. “How can an old man go back into his mother’s womb and be born again?”

Seriously, Nicodemus, do you really think that’s what he meant?  Well, we have to forgive Nick, because Jesus is introducing a new terminology, and whether you prefer born again, or perhaps born from above, the fact remains that new birth was a foreign concept.

Why does Nick need a new birth.  Interestingly, the answer to John 3:4 is found in I John 3:4 —

I John 3:4 (NIV) Everyone who sins breaks the law; in fact, sin is lawlessness. But you know that he appeared so that he might take away our sins. And in him is no sin. No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him.

Sin has separated us from God, so we need a cleansing from sin so complete and thorough that we are no longer the same person we were.

Titus 3 combines the elements of washing and new birth into a single verse:

Titus 3:5 (NIV)…He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit

For Nicodemus this is too much to take in. Remember, he’s never heard this type of terminology before.

“How are these things possible?” Nicodemus asked.

The narrative ends with Jesus amplifying this in the familiar words of verses 16-21, but we don’t know anything about Nick’s response. But we meet up with Nicodemus — a character exclusive to John’s gospel — in chapter 7

49 This foolish crowd follows him, but they are ignorant of the law. God’s curse is on them!”

50 Then Nicodemus, the leader who had met with Jesus earlier, spoke up. 51 “Is it legal to convict a man before he is given a hearing?” he asked.

We don’t hear a response from Jesus, instead the crowd interrupts as the dramatically scripted Voice Bible makes clear:

Pharisees (ignoring Nicodemus’s legal point): 52 Are you from Galilee too? Look it up for yourself; no real prophet is supposed to come from Galilee.

Finally, we meet Nick for the last time in chapter 19:

38 Afterward Joseph of Arimathea, who had been a secret disciple of Jesus (because he feared the Jewish leaders), asked Pilate for permission to take down Jesus’ body. When Pilate gave permission, Joseph came and took the body away. 39 With him came Nicodemus, the man who had come to Jesus at night. He brought about seventy-five pounds of perfumed ointment made from myrrh and aloes. 40 Following Jewish burial custom, they wrapped Jesus’ body with the spices in long sheets of linen cloth. 

Clearly, at this point, Nicodemus is a disciple; a follower. Because common names existed, John goes out of his way in chapter 7 and chapter 19 to say, in effect, ‘Make no mistake, this is the same guy.’  I think that’s important because of the way we’re left hanging at the end of John 3. John knows who Nicodemus is and what becomes of him, but rather than telegraph that early on his gospel, he brings Nick in and out of the story culminating with the concern that Jesus’ body be properly anointed for burial.

But Nick’s “dumb” question sparks an answer from Jesus that also includes verse 16, probably the most-known and most-quoted verse in all the New Testament.

So what’s become of your story? Following your initial encounter with God, long after your initial questions, where you do return to the center of God’s story? In what places does your story intersect with His story? At what point in your life would you say you experienced the new birth?


 

Go deeper: Father Dave offers what I believe to be a sermon transcript based on the late night conversation with Jesus and Nicodemus.

 

November 3, 2011

Those 3-D Computer Generated Picture Things at the Mall

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You know the ones? They look like an explosion at the pixel factory, unless you stand just so far away and refocus your eyes just right and for just long enough that a 3-D panorama leaps out, thrilling and amazing all.


Except me. I can’t do it. I’ve tried starting with my nose almost touching the glass and slowly backing away. I’ve tried gently relaxing the muscles in my eyes. I’ve tried defocusing, unfocusing, disfocusing — everything. My husband and kids go from one to the next, saying, “Hey, cool! This one’s a cow! This one’s a space ship! This one’s the ceiling of St. Peter’s Basilica, complete with Michelangelo, paintbrush in hand!”

I’m still standing there crossed-eyed and headachy looking at an explosion at the pixel factory.

I think it would have been better if I didn’t know. At face value, they’re visually interesting; a collage of images and colours, almost a pattern, but not quite. I could enjoy them that way.

But I do know and I’m missing something. Something my family sees, but I don’t. They tell me it’s there and, for them, it is. But not for me. I want it to be. I’d like to get it. They patiently try to help and advise. They really want me to get it, too. So I keep looking.

Nicodemus was like that.  John, who was one of Jesus’ closest friends while he was on earth, tells us that Nicodemus was a Pharisee; one of a group who were deeply passionate about their faith. They knew the good that God had for His people and how much He loved them. But they had some very real and legitimate concerns about how the Jews could be drawn away from God by philosophical and religious influences of other nations and cultures. Pharisees worked hard at guarding the hearts of God’s people. We like to dump on them for working too hard. Making too many rules, making the whole thing cumbersome. Getting uptight at little things. We call them “legalists” and thank God that we’re not like that.

But Nicodemus, and others, were not entirely stuck in the mud. They were wise enough, humble enough, to know that they didn’t have God all figured out and someday He’d have more to say than 10 commandments and a whole lot of rules, and they’d better not be asleep at the switch when it happened.

Nicodemus and friends found Jesus very interesting. There was definitely something going on there beyond cool stories and sleight of hand. He wasn’t just a nice guy who knew a lot. He was extremely 3D.  N & Co. realized that and they went to work trying to refocus in order to figure out the picture. They listened and followed and asked questions.

Everything they saw fit with everything they heard. Jesus wasn’t a fake. He wasn’t loopy. But he might be dangerous.

These guys cared genuinely about keeping people in line with God and Jesus was saying things just different enough to make them nervous.

All we know about Nicodemus is that 1. he went to the trouble of getting alone with Jesus and asking some questions, 2. he risked his reputation to give Jesus a fair hearing and 3. when it came down to it, he made the choice to step up and take ownership of his respect and love for, and relationship with Jesus. We don’t hear anything else about Nico.

Tradition says he became a Christ follower and given John 19, I think he probably did. If so, he would have sacrificed a lot: prestige, power, family maybe, reputation. Maybe, in those three turning point moments, he found himself wishing he didn’t know. Life was good before Jesus. Obeying the rules was easier. Simpler. Walking through this relationship is a whole other layer of paint.

But in exchange, he would have fulfilled his mission as a true Pharisee. To know God’s voice and obey.

To look into the depths of God and see what’s hidden there. Love. Truth. Life.

~Ruth Wilkinson