9 Oct 2022
We are familiar with the passage in John 3 when Jesus had a conversation with Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews, a teacher of Israel, who came to Him by night to ask how one can see and enter the kingdom of God.
“Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (Jn. 3:3).
Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jew and one very familiar with the teachings of Torah, even a teacher of Israel, and probably one who endeavoured to keep the Law, could not understand what it means to be born again.
Believers today have the privilege to understand that Jesus was referring to ‘Regeneration’ by the Holy Spirit when one repents by faith and believes in the gospel – Union with Christ is then effected and one undergoes a ‘new creation’ in Christ and is adopted into the family of God as His child.
But what actually happens to us and in us after we are ‘born again’? Looking into this may help us tremendously to understand our Christian life and our pilgrimage here on earth; otherwise many misunderstandings and interpretation may hamper the outworking of our lives as individual believers and as a church.
It may also help us to understand why the preacher in Ecclesiastes, in his own time, sees life on earth ‘under the sun’ as meaningless, and why even someone like Nicodemus also could not appreciate what it means to see and enter the Kingdom of God.
In the new birth, God re-creates our disordered, self-centred, anti-God, anti-moral hearts in such a way that what we see perfectly embodied and expressed in the Lord Jesus’ earthly life and ministry has now become our personal disposition at the deepest level, natural and normal to us in the sense that we know only joy, peace, and contentment as we act out what we now find our heart desiring us to do – i.e. to behave in a Christlike way, forming habits of loving and serving God and neighbour, and resisting the tendency to sin and to disobey God, which is no longer natural and normal to our new creation in Christ.
If we do not appreciate what has happened to us in our new birth, we become careless about obeying and pleasing God and we desperately struggle against long-standing sinful habits that have become addictions to unrighteousness. Before we were born again, we were born sinners by nature, dominated and driven from the start by self-seeking, self-serving motives and cravings. Being united to Christ in our new birth through the regenerating work of the Spirit has so changed our nature that our heart’s deepest desire is a copy, faint but real, of the desire that drove our Lord Jesus. That was the desire to know, trust, love, obey, serve, delight, honour, glorify, and enjoy His heavenly Father.
The focus of this desire in Jesus was upon the Father, whereas in Christians it is upon the Father and the Son together. But the nature of the desire is the same. The natural way for Christians to live is to let this desire determine and control what we do, so that the fulfilling of the longing to seek, know, and love the Lord becomes the mainspring of our life. The equally momentous truth is that obeying the promptings of indwelling sin no longer master our hearts; it is not what we really want to do at all, for sinning becomes totally unnatural to us.
Being born again and united to Christ means we have a new nature with a new desire, and the nature of this desire is the same as that of Jesus, although it may be faint and not fully manifested. It is like a ‘seed’ implanted in us but the seed would grow and blossom fully into the ‘image’ of Christ as we journey in our pilgrim ways on this earth. God saves us, is saving us, and will save us fully culminated in the new heaven and new earth. The circumstances of life, even with their setbacks, can be used by God in this process of transformation – this explains the meaning of Romans 8:28 – “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to His purpose” (i.e. those born again, predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son).
For those born again, we are ‘citizens’ of both worlds – we are travelling as pilgrims to our heavenly home where our eternal citizenship abides – we no longer belong to this world although we are still in this world. In the meantime, life on earth is no longer ‘meaningless’; death is no longer to be feared, for Christ has overcome our last enemy (‘death’), and our hope of glorification and glory means we can have joy in the midst of suffering; peace and contentment in the midst of conflicts and persecution. for we know that Jesus assures us He would come again to bring us to the ‘mansions’ in His Father’s house, and our life on earth is ‘preparation’ for our life with Him in the new heaven and new earth.
Of course, there is no perfection on earth, even for believers; Jesus Christ is the only One who fulfils the Law completely and lives a perfect sinless life – but praise be to God – His righteousness on earth is imputed to all who are united with Him, and we, with the faint but real new nature in Him, and with the positional righteousness we have in Him, can look forward to the ministry of the Holy Spirit, with our co-operation, to mould us into the image of our Lord Jesus and to effect His righteousness into our beings. Having said that, it does not mean that the Christian life is no longer a life of struggle; it is, but it is enabled by God’s Spirit and helped with our new motivations and nature in Christ! This explains why Apostle Paul wrote: “to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph 4:23-34 ESV).
Mon, Oct 10, 10:57 AM (3 days ago)
to matthew, Andian, Douglas, me
In the previous sharing, we noted that when we are born again, we are united with Christ in new birth through the regenerating ministry of the Holy Spirit, resulting in our nature changed such that our heart’s deepest desire becomes a copy, faint but real, of the desire that drove our Lord Jesus. The nature of this desire is the same; Christians’ natural way to live is to let this desire determine and control what they do, in line with what God desires for His children.
It appears however that Christians are not sufficiently in touch with themselves to realise that, because of the way in which their nature has been changed, their hearts are now set against all known sin – so unfortunately, they hang on to unspiritual and morally questionable behaviour patterns, and rationalise that this adds to the joy of their lives, and encouraged by Satan, they conclude that this should be acceptable with God.
Deluded by Satan, they feel that to give up these things would be impossibly painful and impoverishing, so they know they should, yet they do not. Instead, they ended up being substandard Christians, imagining that they will be happier that way. Then they wonder why their whole life seems to become flat and empty.
The truth is that these believers are behaving in a radically unnatural way – one that is repulsive to the regenerate mentality – the regenerate heart cannot love what it knows God hates. So they are behaving unnaturally, occupied in activities against which their own inner nature revolts – such behaviour is always producing tension, sadness, and discontent, if not worse consequences.
Their process of rationalisation can even include finding scriptural verses and apparent examples to buttress their unacceptable behaviour.
Here, we need to be aware that accurate interpretation of Scripture is so very important in the application of the truth in our Christian life.
I have come across young Christians, who are even involved in leadership in youth groups, coming to me for counselling when they were indulging in unacceptable sexual behaviour, telling me that it is okay since king David himself was involved in adultery and murder, in the incident with Bathsheba. I was obviously taken aback by their way of rationalising.
It is important to realise that a half-truth treated as the whole truth becomes a complete untruth. In one sense, there is at least a grain of truth in every heresy, and that views which are partly wrong are also partly right. We need to bring all views to the touchstone of Scripture – we need to test all the words of men by the authoritative Word of God, to receive only what Scripture endorses, and to reject all that is contrary to it.
And here we may encounter something not so obvious to us: as an illustration, the book of Job is in the canon and is indeed the Word of God in teaching us about suffering; however, in this book, the counsel of Job’s three friends seem superficially in order – they claimed that since Job suffered so intensely, he must have sinned seriously against God. When we read their counsel to Job, we may go away accepting their counsel as the Word of God; however, at the end of the book, God appeared and rebuked these three friends for not saying what is true of Him – in fact, God asked them to request Job to pray for them lest they be judged by Him.
The Bible is God’s revelation to us; it is God’s Word, but not everything recorded, in particular words by unbelievers or by ignorant believers, in the Bible are directly God’s Word in the sense that God desires us to follow them and imitate them in our lives. There is therefore a need to depend on God’s Spirit and much diligence in studying, exegesis, and interaction with fellow believers, in arriving at a right interpretation and also application in our lives. Perhaps, the book of Ecclesiastes is another book we need to approach prayerfully and carefully in seeking to apply God’s truth in our lives.
In the previous sharing, we have noted that a half-truth treated as the whole truth becomes a complete untruth. We also realised in other sharings that the Bible is God’s revelation to us and He speaks in the Bible; however, we must also note that God’s revelation takes the form of a story (real and non-fiction) and He ‘speaks’ to us through the writings of many humans through many years in history, and the story has to do with man’s covenant relationship with Him, first ruined (through Adam and Eve) and then restored (through Jesus Christ, the one messenger and mediator of the covenant, Jesus the God-manl, prophet and king, priest and sacrifice, the Messiah of Old Testament prophecy and New Testament proclamation).
In the story, we see also recorded in the Bible words and examples of various individuals in the various epochs of history – not all the words and examples of these individuals are necessarily the Word of God, in the sense that God desires us to follow the examples and testimony of these individuals, and that their words and statements are in fact what God Himself declares and affirms. We saw, in the book of Job, that God revealed the ‘mystery’ of human sufferings, but the counsel of Job’s three friends are not the direct counsel of God to us believers – God does not endorse that retribution is always correct, in fact, God reveals in this book that bad things can happen to good people and good things may happen to evil people – and in the context of Job’s situation, there was no understanding of the presence of the evil one – hence leading to Job’s conclusion that his sufferings were due to God’s targeting him, and he was understandably puzzled as to why God did this, even though he was not conscious of serious sins in his life that warrant such sufferings and ‘punishment’.
In the last sharing, we pointed out that the book of Ecclesiastes may possibly be in the same category, and we need to be careful and prayerful in applying what is declared in this book to our life as believers.
May we suggest that the book of Ecclesiastes shows that an accurate measure of evil, injustice, and uncertainty within the context of this fallen world is part of godly wisdom. Much of this book does not come from direct commendations of the truth or celebrations of God but from showing how bleak an outlook wrongly limited to what ‘under the sun’ is. The preacher was so thorough in his appraisal of life’s bleaker themes; yet the picture he presents is profound not because it is all the truth but because it is an extremely important part of the truth. Note that he was not presenting ‘half-truth’ but he was ‘painting’ a picture and a conclusion based on all his observations and experiences of life under the sun, and we must not forget that in his context, there was no clear understanding of Jesus Christ’s life on earth, death and resurrection, as understood by us believers in our current context.
In our applications, we cannot take the statements made by the preacher in many instances as God’s truth to us and our need to apply them without qualifications. Although the whole tone of Ecclesiastes is ‘pessimistic’, the Christian’s optimism is that we do not fit in this fallen world (life under the sun). However, without an honest look at the curse of death and the futility of life in this fallen world, we miss a key-piece of the puzzle that no amount of feel-good optimism can adequately replace (hence the statement ‘enjoy what you can, while you can, in this short meaningless life of fallen man’ by the preacher).
The book is powerful because it presents the tension and struggle between the sense of futility and meaninglessness (for the fallen man in the fallen world) and faith in the God who is true (for those who believe in Him and hope for His salvation); between the way things are in the fallen world, and the way that they ought to be (in the recreation in the new heaven and new earth).
The preacher’s honesty about sin, the Fall, and its consequences helps us understand why the world is like it is, and how we should respond to it?
There is more to life than what we find ‘under the sun’, and God has not made us to be satisfied with this world alone (hence the conclusion by the preacher that nothing satisfies and all is meaningless and vanity).
Even for unbelievers, God has placed ‘eternity’ in their hearts and the heart’s desires stretch infinitely beyond the horizon – eternity goes beyond the sphere of what is under the sun.
Only with God do we have a clear and true perspective that gives meaning to live; this is the perspective we must have and we can only have it if we know and believe in the God who is the creator and giver of life.