Friday, July 28, 2006

Born Again, part 2

Now, for another misconception from the passage in John 3.

When we hear the phrase “born again,” we think of something very specific, how a person “
becomes a Christian.” But that is clearly not what Jesus has in mind here.

First, let’s look at the phrase. “Born” can mean “born of a mother” or “begotten of a father.” “Again” can mean “again” or “from above.” (In John’s gospel words often have double meanings.)

So here’s the context: Nicodemus says, “Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him.”

As I mentioned in the previous post, Nicodemus has just made what he considers a generous statement. There has been much debate about “where Jesus has come from.” Some have argued that Jesus could not come from God because he does not follow the rules of the Pharisees. So Nicodemus expects Jesus to respond in gratitude to this acknowledgement.

But Jesus turns the tables on Nicodemus. He twists his words around and uses them against him. He says, “No one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again (from above).” (Notice the repeat of “no one” and “can.”)

So what does Jesus mean? Does he mean that Nicodemus needs to pray the “sinner’s prayer” and “ask Jesus into his heart”? Doesn’t make much sense, does it? The atonement has yet to be made. The New Covenant has yet to be established in the blood of the Messiah.

What Jesus is telling Nicodemus is something more generic. He is saying that no one knows the first thing about the kingdom of God unless he has been enlightened to spiritual realities. And that can only happen through the work of the Spirit. (Later, Christian theologians would analyze the process of spiritual transformation and identify various stages they would name “regeneration,” “sanctification,” and “glorification.”)

Nicodemus has come to check out Jesus, and Jesus has put him on the defensive. Jesus has told him that he doesn’t know the first thing about the kingdom of God. (See verse 10.)

Bonus: Your Bible probably has verses 16–21 in quotations. The original Greek text did not have such things as quotation marks. In fact, the idea of a direct quotation is a very modern idea. It is my opinion that this paragraph is a commentary by John, not a quotation from Jesus. These words make much more sense from the pen of John after the death and resurrection of Jesus than they do from the mouth of Jesus near the beginning of his ministry.

Pastor Rod

“Helping you become the person God created you to be”

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Born Again

Our next misunderstood passage is John 3.

The first misunderstanding is the overall perception of what is happening in this exchange between Nicodemus and Jesus. It is commonly believed that
Nicodemus was obtuse and unable to understand what Jesus was getting at.

Here’s how the conventional interpretation goes.

  • Nicodemus visits Jesus at night.
  • He says that Jesus must be a teacher from God because of the miracles that he does.
  • Jesus answers that one must be “born again” to see the kingdom of God.
  • Nicodemus, thinking that Jesus is speaking literally, asks how that is possible.
  • Jesus repeats his statement in more detail saying that one must be born of the Spirit.
  • Nicodemus asks how that can be.
  • Jesus chides Nicodemus for his lack of understanding.
I want to suggest to you that this view misses what is really happening between Jesus and Nicodemus. To understand this encounter, we must remember that Jesus is an eastern teacher and that he uses methods different from those we are used to.

  • Nicodemus comes to Jesus with a conciliatory statement that he must be from God. There is a debate about this among the Jewish leaders. Any other teacher would have seen this statement as generous. But in saying this, Nicodemus has put himself and his colleagues in a position to judge Jesus.

  • Rather than respond in gratitude, Jesus makes an outrageous statement. “You haven’t the first clue about the kingdom of God. You can’t even see the kingdom of God unless you are ‘born again.’ You must start over from the beginning.”

  • Nicodemus is taken aback. He came here to investigate Jesus, albeit with a friendly disposition. Instead, he is being put on the defensive. He understands perfectly well what Jesus is saying. He is somewhat insulted that this itinerate teacher without any credentials is instructing him about the kingdom of God. So he replies in kind. “Surely you don’t expect a man of my age to start all over from the beginning as if he were a Gentile convert?”

  • Jesus explains that the kingdom of God is spiritual and that only those who have been “born of the Spirit” can perceive it.

  • Nicodemus expresses his confusion.

  • Jesus then chides him for his lack of understanding. The one who can to investigate Jesus is now being grilled without mercy. If he doesn’t understand the simple things how is he ever going to progress to the advanced material? And he calls himself a teacher?
So what do you think? Once you see this encounter from this perspective it is hard to ever interpret it the old way. (Try reading Matthew 15:21-28 using this same approach. See if it doesn’t make more sense.)

Pastor Rod

“Helping you become the person God created you to be”

Monday, July 24, 2006

Preaching to the Imagination

I’ve discussed the problems with Expository Preaching pointed out by David Fitch in his book The Great Giveaway. I also suggested that one of the reasons that most people resist acknowledging these problems is that they have a hard time imagining an alternative to expository preaching that doesn’t have even more inherent problems.

I made a feeble attempt to sketch out some possible alternatives
in this post. Fortunately, David Fitch has made an excellent post at his site that gives a much more complete answer.

I’ll give you a summary here along with a few of my comments. He makes four suggestions for finding an alternative to expository preaching.


The primary task of the preacher is to proclaim the truth, not to explain it. It is interesting to know the details behind the making of a movie (as in a director’s commentary on a DVD), but we cannot enjoy a movie while someone is explaining how and why everything was done. The explanation gets in the way.
“Instead of dissecting the text making it portable so as to be distributed to isolated Cartesian selves for their own personal use, the preacher renarrates the world as it is under the Lordship of Christ and then invites people into it.”

We tend to see the Bible “as a propositional textbook of religious facts.” Instead, we should see it as “living and active” (Hebrews 4:12). The Bible is properly seen as a great drama.


Instead of giving individuals a list of steps, principles or lessons, we should be giving the assembled congregation an opportunity to respond liturgically to the Word. One of the best forms of response is the Eucharist (Communion).
“Each time I respond, each time I submit, each time I affirm the truth about the reality as it is under Christ, I am changed and I grow. Slowly I am formed over time through the faithful preaching of the Word and the ever hearing, responding, submitting, obeying, confessing, affirming and acting in faith.”

If preaching is disconnected from the community, it encourages each individual to handle the sermon as another commodity to be taken home in the form of notes or an audio recording. We take what we find helpful and set aside the rest.
“The violence comes when we put our own meanings or agenda onto Scripture. The violence comes when the preaching of the Word separates us as individuals over against one another armed with the interpretation we want because we do not come together in mutual submission to discern the Scripture’s meaning for our lives today. If preaching is to avoid this violence, it must foster communal practices among us that allow us to submit to one another in the work of the Spirit to interpret the Scriptures.”
I think David is on the right track. We read Peter’s sermon on the Day of Pentecost and see it as a long explanation of why Jesus was the true Messiah. But Peter was, in fact, telling the story of God’s dealings with the descendants of Abraham. And he was proclaiming the truth that Jesus of Nazareth fit into that story in a surprising way. Stephen’s message to the Sanhedrin is even more obviously a retelling of the story of Israel.

Of course there are facts behind the story. And those facts are of ultimate importance.
But we have been called to proclaim the story, not to give a commentary on the facts.

Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings works because it is a great story, a great story build upon the foundation of an abundance of facts. But those facts are not engaging; just ask anyone who ever tried to read the

Pastor Rod

“Helping you become the person God created you to be”

Friday, July 21, 2006

Foolishness, part 2

A second common misunderstanding of 1 Corinthians 1:18-31 is found in verse 21. Here’s how it reads in the King James Version, “For after that in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe.”

This sounds like God is saying that he has ordained preaching as the method of saving those who believe and that preaching is a foolish method from a human perspective.

But here’s how this reads in the NIV, “For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.”

Here’s one more version (The English Standard Version), “For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.”

What Paul is saying is that God has confounded human wisdom by proclaiming a message that seems foolish by human standards. What is that message? Paul says that it is “Christ crucified” (Verse 25). Of course there is more to the message than these two words. But this is the essence of the gospel message.

Paul is not saying that when he preaches the message of the gospel that “those who are perishing” have no idea what he is talking about. Rather he is saying that
they think his message is unsophisticated, simplistic and reckless.

This is not a statement about human reasoning ability. It is a statement about human pride.

And Paul is not saying that human reasoning is unable to process truth about God. He is talking about something very specific here. He is talking about the foolishness of saving creation by the Messiah dying the humiliating death of crucifixion.

Let’s follow this through. In verse 18, Paul says that the “message of the cross” is how God unleashed his power in defeating sin and death.
It was in the apparent defeat of Jesus that God won over his enemies.

Paul then quotes from Isaiah 29:14 where God says that he will “destroy the wisdom of the wise.” When Isaiah wrote this, God was talking about those who sought protection from Egypt (Isaiah 30:2), who tried to make their own arrangements and hide them from the Lord (29:15). But now, Paul is giving these words a new meaning. While God’s plan for protecting his people was “counter-intuitive” because it involved them being carried off into exile, the ultimate “foolish strategy” was allowing the Messiah to be crucified. In this apparent failure God demonstrated his power.

No wise man, biblical scholar or flashy orator could have come up with this plan.

But God’s seemingly foolish plan is superior to man’s most cunning strategy. God’s apparent weakness is far stronger than the greatest power humanity can muster. Paul is not saying that God is foolish or weak. He is only saying that he appears to be. He will pick this up again in chapter two.

So Paul is not saying that God has ordained
expository preaching (or any other type) as the ultimate means of proclaiming the gospel.

Paul is not saying that “those who are perishing” are unable to logically process the claims of the gospel.

He is saying that God works through weakness and humility. And if that is so they should not be jockeying for prestige and power within the church. (Notice the context of this passage.) “Let him who boasts boast in the Lord.”

Pastor Rod

“Helping you become the person God created you to be”

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Misunderstood Passages

Many things that are commonly believed are wrong.
There are also many things believed about the Bible that are not so.
In the following series of posts, I want to address some commonly misunderstood passages in the Bible.

In some cases there are passages that are misunderstood by people without a deep understanding of the Bible. (The misconceptions listed above would fall into this category.)

In other cases there are passages that are misunderstood by people who believe that they have an excellent grasp of the Bible and what it teaches. This latter group would take issue with my interpretation. But I intend to show how their interpretation is misguided.

Let’s start with one of these passages from
1 Corinthians 1:18-31.

This short passage has several misconceptions.

The first one is found in verse 18, “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”

This has often been understood to be saying that a non-believer cannot understand the things of God and the gospel in particular. It is coupled with 1 Corinthians 2:14, “The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned.”

But if one reads the passage carefully, it becomes clear that what Paul means is not that an unbeliever is unable mentally to process the statements about Jesus and the gospel. He is saying that
the unbeliever thinks they are silly.

This is made clear in verse 22-24, “Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”

The Jews wanted some miraculous proof that Jesus was indeed the Messiah. (The irony is that he gave them plenty of proof, but they did not recognize it.) A Messiah who gets crucified is a blatant contradiction to a Jew of Paul’s day. That would be like saying the
Chicago Cubs are the world champions even though they are 20 games below .500.

In the Greek world, there was a group of itinerate philosophers (turned orators) known as
Sophists. They boasted that they could convince anyone of anything. To them it was all about the skill of the person presenting the argument.

But Paul says in 1 Corinthians 2:1, “When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God.” In verse 4 he continues, “My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words.”

Rather than denying their ability to understand what he was saying, Paul is claiming that he came with a simple message that was perfectly clear: “Jesus Christ and him crucified” (verse 2).

Paul is not saying that unbelievers cannot understand the gospel.
He is saying that they can understand it all too well and that they dismiss it as foolishness.

(To keep this post from getting too long, I’ll save the second misconception for later.)

Pastor Rod

“Helping you become the person God created you to be”

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Same but Different

At the heart of the Pharisees “separatism” was the idea that they were different than other people. Of course, by “different” they meant “better.”

Jesus seems to accept the “sinners” and even identify with them. However, this wouldn’t have much significance if he wasn’t clearly different from them in some important way. If Jesus were just another “sinner,” his presence would be unremarkable. So Jesus identified with “sinners” (“I am the same as you.”) while maintaining his distinctiveness (“I am different than you are.”).

This theme of “same but different” runs throughout the Bible. (A more technical term could be “continuity and discontinuity.”) The Gospel is the same as the Law in many respects, yet something entirely different. The resurrection body has several things in common with the earthly body, but is something brand new. (Jesus’ resurrection body had scars from his crucifixion.) Those who are in Christ are called “saints” (literally, “holy ones”) even though they still exhibit many characteristics of “carnality.”

So what does this have to do with radical hospitality?

If we are going to practice the radical hospitality of Jesus, then
we must identify with the outcasts while exhibiting qualities that clearly show we are significantly different.

What should these qualities be? Some Christians have defined these qualities by
what they wear (or don’t wear). Other Christians have defined these qualities by the things they don’t do.

I would suggest that the only important visible difference between those in the Body of Christ and those outside should be the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23).

Unfortunately, many outside the Body of Christ have more of these qualities than many within the Body of Christ. This should not be!

  • We have Christians who think that defending the truth (as they see it) is "being kind" even if it involves personal attacks and harsh language.
  • We have Christians who think that beating people over the head with the truth of the gospel is "being compassionate" because "their eternal destinies are at stake."
  • We have Christians who think that fighting the culture wars is more important than loving people the way they are right now.
But on the other hand, some Christians have taken relevance so far that they engage in crude and unwholesome behavior themselves. (They use language that Paul condemns in Ephesians 5:4, for example.) They have become like undercover cops who break the law in order to win the trust of the criminals they are trying to arrest.

As Christians we must love people with God’s radical love. And we can do that without copying every one of their behaviors.
We must be the same, yet different.

Pastor Rod

“Helping you become the person God created you to be”