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"...if anyone makes the assistance of grace depend on the humility or obedience of man and does not agree that it is a gift of grace itself that we are obedient and humble, he contradicts the Apostle who says, "What have you that you did not receive?" (1 Cor. 4:7), and, "But by the grace of God I am what I am" (1 Cor. 15:10). (Council of Orange: Canon 6)

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    Studies in John (Lesson 3: The In-Breaking of the Kingdom)

    I. The Laver

    After the children of Israel celebrated the first Passover, in which they applied the blood of the innocent sacrificial lamb to their homes so that the angel of death, having seen that substitutionary blood, passed over them without exacting the required death; they then went immediately out to the Red Sea, and, having passed through its waters, they were separated from all their enemies. Paul later tells us that, in this event, they were “baptized unto Moses” (I Corinthians 10:1-4). And it was only after this application of the blood and passing through the water that they were able to eat the manna which continually sustained them in the wilderness.

    Later, when God commanded that the tabernacle be built, he arranged it so that, first, one had to pass by the brazen altar, on which sacrificial blood was spilled; and then, he encountered the great laver, in which the priests cleansed themselves, before he arrived at the tabernacle in which was the table of the bread of the Presence.

    And so today, God requires that we first be absolved from guilt, by the blood of Christ; and also cleansed from impurity, before we may enjoy the continual sustenance of God’s abiding presence. We need forgiveness, because we are guilty; and we need cleansing, because we are defiled. And only Christ can provide us with those things, as we will learn from our text today.

    But first, let’s reflect a little more on the significance of the laver in the tabernacle courtyard: yes, it certainly symbolized cleansing, first and foremost – but the close connection, in the tabernacle imagery, of water and bread, following the substitutionary sacrifice, seem to indicate a need for the ongoing sustenance of life, even after life has first been granted at the altar. The laver, then, occupying the position it does, functions almost as the rain from the pure heavens – it comes down on the dirty, dusty earth and cleanses it; and at the same time, nourishes and gives it life.

    This dual symbolism, of the cleansing and life-sustaining properties of water, is frequently stressed in John’s gospel. Christ provides the necessary water of cleansing, as may be seen especially in the later crucifixion account: “But one of the soldiers with a spear pierced his side, and forthwith came there out blood and water. And he that saw it bore record, and his record is true: and he knows that he says truth, that you might believe” (John 19:34-35). The fact that there came out both water and blood from Jesus’ pierced body seems so important to John that he testifies very solemnly to its truth. This must be because he recognized a symbolic significance to this fact: the death of Christ provides both absolution from guilt, by the blood he shed to meet the demands of justice; and also, cleansing from impurity, by the water which came out with the blood.

    But also, the symbol of water as sustaining eternal life is frequently employed by John. This water of life comes from Christ, and springs up into everlasting life (John 4:14); and it is, more specifically, the Holy Spirit that Christ gives, who dwells within a believer, and ever sustains his life (John 7:37-39). And so, we learn from the laver, that God requires cleansing as well as forgiveness; and that, once one has been given new life, he requires an active principle to sustain it; which is a function that the Holy Spirit provides for us, ever nourishing and sustaining our spiritual life. And all of this, as the sacrificial blood, comes from Jesus’ substitutionary death. Now, let’s examine our text.

    II. Textual Analysis

    Turning the Water to Wine (John 2:1-12)

    The Sabbath-principle that God wrought into the very fabric of creation (Genesis 2:1-3), he later commanded the Israelites to observe as well (Exodus 20:8-11); and this, to signify that, after the labor of this life, there will come a rest and reward in the presence of God. This principle, that Jesus is our reward, our Sabbath-rest, is a most blessed truth for the Christian to remember (see Hebrews 3:10-15).

    And, just as with the work of creation there was labor, and then a joyous rest in the perfectly completed work, so it is with the work of redemption. Creation itself, now that the curse has come upon it, is groaning and seeking a rest, when the work of redemption shall be complete (Romans 8:19-22). The final effects of redemption will be sufficient to reverse the curse, restore the earth to its original blessed condition, and usher in the final, eschatological “Sabbath-rest” in the New Jerusalem (see Isaiah 25:6-8). This Messianic Age, in which the cursed creation will be perfectly restored and enjoy a rest, is the blessed hope that the prophets all spoke of and longed for – but when and how would this new age, the culmination of which would be the final Sabbath, actually break into this still-cursed age?

    The first miracle that John records, the turning of the water to wine, is significant, because it symbolizes the in-breaking of the Messianic Age into this age of sin and the curse. True, its effects are not yet fully-realized, as they will be at the glorious return of our Savior – but the guarantee, in a sense, the first down-payment of the prophesied reality broke into this cursed world when Jesus began to teach and work miracles in Israel. This is what Jesus is teaching, when he speaks so often of the “Kingdom of Heaven” that has arrived. And, although John speaks much less than the synoptic gospels about Christ’s Kingdom teachings, still, in recording this miracle, he is demonstrating the same truth: the final, perfect Kingdom of Heaven has now broken into the kingdom of this age, and will grow by degrees until the entire world is renewed, at Christ’s second coming.

    It is notable that this first miracle takes place at a wedding. The culmination of Christ’s redemptive work, and the beginning of the eschatological Sabbath, is the Marriage Supper of the Lamb, at the end of history, when all the saints (Christ’s bride) sit down with him to a marvelous feast (see Revelation 19:6-9). It is also notable that the miracle involved the provision of wine, which symbolizes, more than anything else, the joy and fellowship of a wedding feast (see Amos 9:13-14; Jeremiah 31:11-14). It is as if Christ is saying, “By my coming here to this earth to do my work, I will accomplish a perfect redemption, which will result in the final Sabbath, when all my people will sit down with me to fellowship and feast – here is a first taste, so that you may understand what the true feast will be like.”

    It is also important that we notice how Christ accomplished this miracle. Elsewhere, I made the following assessment of this miracle’s symbolic significance:

    We must be careful not to overlook the manner in which this first miracle of Christ was carried out: first, he commanded that the vessels hitherto employed for the ceremonial washings of the Jews be filled to the brim with water. Then, at his command, the substantially inferior water became wine of the highest quality, and a great cause for rejoicing. We may learn from this that, just as the vessels for ritual cleansings were filled to the brim, so the time of elaborate ceremonial shadows was fully completed. The old pictures of blessed Messianic realities, that had never been effective in themselves, were hereby to be done away with forever. What was to replace them was the essence itself, the joyous truths behind the types and symbols. What was merely water in the anticipatory and imperfect state of the old dispensation was about to become true wine by the advent of Christ to this earth. Jesus’ coming had made old the Jewish waters of purification. The new wine of sweet fellowship with Christ was henceforth to flow instead in full bounty upon the world. The shadowy era of hopes and symbols is here giving way to the daylight of realized blessings in Christ. Jesus is just now beginning to bring to fruition the realities of his great redemptive task of making all things new.

    Finally, we must also notice John’s final comment about this “beginning of miracles”: and that is, that by it Jesus “manifested his glory,” with the result that “his disciples believed in him” (John 2:12). Just as we have already seen so many times, and in exact accordance with John’s stated purpose (John 20:31), the miracles of Christ were done to show his glory, who he truly is; and they were done so that those who were his would see and believe on him, and so have life.

    As we already noted, John usually couples Christ’s miracles with related teachings. It seems that, with this and the following account (the cleansing of the Temple) John is giving two events that are related to the two following discourses (with Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman); and furthermore, that the wedding miracle more closely corresponds to the discourse with Nicodemus, while the Temple-cleansing more closely corresponds to the discourse with the Samaritan woman. For this reason, we will leave the next portion of text (John 2:13-25) for next week, when we will discuss it together with the Samaritan woman discourse. And this week, we will move directly into chapter three, and the dialogue with Nicodemus.

    The Discourse with Nicodemus (John 3:1-21)

    If Christ has just announced the arrival of the Messianic Kingdom, then the question which naturally arises is this: what sort of kingdom is it, and who may enter it? Both of those questions are addressed in Jesus’ dialogue with Nicodemus, which John records in the next chapter. We have already talked about John’s purpose in writing: so that people might see who Christ is, and so have eternal life. But why is it that some do not truly “see” Christ, while others do? Why is it that some can enter his Kingdom, while others cannot? In this discourse, we will encounter an answer that must have been surprising to the scrupulously law-abiding Pharisees, such as Nicodemus.

    Nicodemus’ problem was, he thought he already “saw” Christ through his miracles (John 3:1-2). He was certain that he “knew” who Jesus was, because of what he had seen. But what he saw was much less than the truth – he just saw a mighty miracle-worker, and a powerful teacher. Jesus immediately knew Nicodemus’ problem, and addressed the heart of the matter: he could not see the Kingdom of Heaven, and he could not understand the spiritual realities about Christ, because he did not have a spiritual nature. Without the new birth, an impartation of a new nature that does believe in Christ, it is impossible for natural man to believe the gospel, and enter the kingdom of heaven (cf. I Corinthians 2:14). Without spiritual life, man cannot understand the gospel. But where does spiritual life come from? It can only come from the work of the Spirit, who gives a new birth, and creates a new heart of belief (as the prophets said he would do: e.g. Ezekiel 36:25-27; 37:11-14).

    As Nicodemus did not understand Christ’s teaching, he pointed out the impossibility of a crassly literal interpretation (an old man cannot re-enter his mother’s womb), in order to elicit more information. In response, Christ becomes very clear, and states quite certainly, that one cannot be a part of the Messianic Kingdom unless he has true cleansing and spiritual life – not just the old ritual cleansings, and inadequate attempts to follow the external matters of the law. And so Christ teaches that a man must be born of “water and the Spirit,” in order to have a part in the Messianic Kingdom, which is now a Kingdom that can only be spiritually-discerned (see Luke 17:20-21).

    But who is it that receives this spiritual birth, which enables one to believe and enter the Kingdom? The one who chooses? The one who seeks? No, Jesus’ answer is very clear: just as the wind blows where it pleases, and no man can make it blow here or there; so the Holy Spirit (in Greek, the word for “wind” is the same as the word for “spirit”) moves where he pleases, and imparts spiritual life where he pleases, and a person can feel the effects, but cannot control his work.

    So in sum, the Messianic Kingdom is a spiritual Kingdom, which cannot be seen in this age except by those who have spiritual life. And spiritual life can only come by the sovereign work of the Holy Spirit. Just as we saw in John 1:12-13, we learn the same lesson here. When the Spirit chooses to give a person spiritual life, then and only then does that person “see” and believe the Kingdom truths about Jesus. And only when that person sees and believes does he enter into the kingdom. So, when we ask why one person believes and is saved, and another person does not believe and is condemned, the reason always comes back to the choice of God, who sovereignly determines to whom he will give a new heart of belief and whom he will leave without spiritual life and understanding.

    At this point (verse 9) Nicodemus still does not understand. And this serves to illustrate Jesus’ startling teaching all the more: if he did not even understand this most basic of truths, which takes place here on the earth (the truth of spiritual regeneration, that Christ has been discussing), then how can he understand those truths about what sort of spiritual Kingdom it is that those who have been given new birth are able to enter? We must also notice that Jesus does not excuse Nicodemus because he was only a natural man, and could not believe: he tells him that he should have understood, because he had studied the scriptures. And so we always find that inability to follow God’s commands does not “get us off the hook” – we are responsible even though, because sinners, we are unable to please God, or even seek him (Romans 3:10-11).

    How grateful Nicodemus must have been that Christ did not stop at this point, but went on to explain the gospel truths that he should have recognized through his acquaintance with the Old Testament scriptures. We can be confident that, when Christ did proclaim the gospel, the Spirit then opened Nicodemus’ eyes, and gave him a spiritual nature that would see and believe (see John 7:50; John 19:39). And we must learn from this that the Spirit does not do his work of regeneration apart from the proclamation of the gospel (Romans 10:14). In our own day as well, people will not believe unless they have heard. And so we must remember to be faithful to preach the gospel, and leave the results in the sovereign hands of the Holy Spirit.

    What are those spiritual truths? Namely, that, just as in the wilderness, when the Israelites were being killed for their sins, God had Moses lift up an image of their sin on a pole – and, when they just “looked upon” this image, they were given life. Just as in that time, Christ was to become sin for the people, and he would be lifted up: and every one that just looked upon him, that is, turned to him in faith, would be given everlasting life. Nicodemus should have understood this from the Old Testament, but it was not until the Spirit gave him new life that he actually did come to understand.

    John 3:14-21 is one of the most rich and amazing expositions of the basic gospel message anywhere in the scriptures: here we see the amazing ultimate source of eternal life – God’s love. It is an unfathomably wonderful truth that God could love a world that is so dark and evil. This must have been especially surprising to Nicodemus, who would have expected God to love Israel, but certainly not the world at large!

    We also see the means by which this eternal life is accomplished, in the lifting up of Christ on the cross; and the means by which it is applied, through faith alone. We see the state from which men are saved – utter condemnation, because of their inherent wickedness before God, and inability to come into the light of true faith in Christ – and we see the ultimate source of application, that it is of God, who takes someone who is naturally unwilling to come to the light, and leads him to the truth. The natural hatred all men have for the light, that is, the truth of God in the gospel, proves that, whenever anyone does believe on Christ, it is only because God has done a prior work in his heart (verse 21). We could dwell much longer here, but our time is short.

    “He Must Increase” (John 3:22-36)

    Chapters two through four of John’s gospel lay out in several ways the passing of the old and the coming of the new. We have already looked at this with the changing of the water to wine; and here we see it in another area – the decline of the last great Old Testament prophet, John the Baptist, and the corresponding increase of Christ. John is just the friend of the Bridegroom; but Christ is the bridegroom himself, and he is the one who will rejoice forevermore with his bride.

    The remainder of the chapter emphasizes the truths we have already discussed: Christ, who alone came down from heaven with the spiritual truths of God, and was empowered by the Holy Spirit, has testified to the truth of the gospel, and brought the words of God to man. However, because men are evil, no one has believed him (John 3:32). But those who do believe him, which are only those to whom the Holy Spirit gives a new, spiritual birth, will receive eternal life. Again, this is why John is writing his gospel – so that people will believe in Jesus, and come into eternal life.

    Conclusion:

    We have encountered many truths in this lesson which are very difficult for us to accept, because of our human pride. We have seen that our hearts are naturally so wicked and darkened, and we so desperately hate the truth, that we cannot come to Christ and believe on him. It is impossible, because we love our wickedness too much. But praise be to God that, as he promised in the prophets, so he did with Nicodemus, and he is still doing it today – he is graciously taking sinners like you and me, and giving us a new heart, a regenerated nature, spiritual life, which does see Jesus, and believe in him. And then, in consequence of that belief that he alone has formed in us, he gives us eternal life through the blood of Jesus Christ, who was lifted up on the cross as sin for us. How marvelous is God’s wonderful plan of redemption! If we have believed on Jesus and been given life through his name, we can have no response but to praise God for his grace in salvation, from beginning to end. We will encounter many such difficult teachings, as we continue throughout the book of John; but they will be good for us, because as we learn to think less and less of ourselves, we must proportionately think more and more of Christ, the only Redeemer of mankind.

    Posted by Nathan on December 18, 2006 12:40 PM

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