Children of God

John opened his gospel about the life and ministry of Jesus Christ with a somewhat confusing statement about the nature of God’s only Son. John said:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. (John 1:1-5)

John referred to Jesus as the Word. The Greek word that John used, logos (log’-os) refers to something said and in this case signifies “the Divine Expression” (G3056). John connected Jesus’ divine expression with life in an absolute sense, life without end, “that life of bliss and glory in the kingdom of God which awaits the true disciples of Christ after the resurrection” (G2222). John went on to say:

The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. (John 1:9-13)

John used the phrase children of God to express the kind of relationship we have with God when we accept Jesus as our Savior. John indicated that we are born into the family of God in the same way that we are born into our biological family, except that we are not born “of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:13). Jesus described this transaction in his conversation with a man named Nicodemus. Jesus said:

“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, 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)

Jesus made it clear that our birth into the family of God is a spiritual birth and suggested that it will be like we are starting all over from the beginning. That’s why Jesus referred to it as being born again. The Greek word that is translated again, anothen (an’-o-then) means “from above” with regard to place. We are born from a higher place. “Hence spoken of whatever is heavenly or from heaven, and since God dwells in heaven, it signifies from God, in a divine manner” (G509).

Jesus talked about the believer’s relationship to God in his Sermon on the Mount. Jesus said, “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:14-16). Jesus’ instruction to let our light shine before others was intended to point out that we are not meant to keep our spiritual birth a secret. Eternal life is something that everyone would want to have if they knew that it was available to them. We know that eternal life is available to everyone because Jesus said, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 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 3:16-17).

Jesus made it clear in his Sermon on the Mount that spiritual life is not easy. In fact, spiritual life goes against our human nature and is only possible with the help of the Holy Spirit. Jesus told his disciples, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust” (Matthew 5:43-45). The Greek word that is translated sons, uihothesia (hwee-oth-es-ee’) means “the placing of a son, i.e. adoption…In the New Testament, figuratively meaning adoption, sonship, spoken of the state of those whom God through Christ adopts as His sons and thus makes heirs of His covenanted salvation” (G5206).

Jesus went on to explain in his Sermon on the Mount that if we have been born again, our behavior is important to our Father. God wants us to act like we are his children and he rewards us when we do so. Jesus warned his disciples, “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven…But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:1, 3-4). Jesus also talked about prayer and taught his disciples to address God as “Our Father” (Matthew 6:5-13). Jesus concluding his teaching about the believers relationship to God by stating, “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:14-15).

John went a step further in his first epistle in explaining our relationship to God by talking about the kind of love that we receive from God as his children. John said:

See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure. (1 John 3:1-3)

John said that when Jesus appears, “we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2). Even though believers become children of God through a spiritual birth, they are not immediately transformed into the likeness of Christ. The Greek word that is translated like in 1 John 3:2, homoios (hom’-oy-os) means “just like, equal, the same with: in kind or nature (Jude 7); in conduct, character (John 8:55); in authority, dignity, power (Matthew 22:39; Mark 12:31; Revelation 13:4)” (G3664). John indicated that the key to being like Christ was seeing him as he is. In other words, seeing Jesus in his glorified state will have such a great impact on us that we will not only want to, but also will be, immediately transformed into his likeness.

John’s comment about everyone who hopes in Christ being purified as he is pure (1 John 3:3) had to do with believers possessing a confident expectation of good things to come (G2192/G1680). One of the reasons why the Israelites had to go through a continual process of purification in order to have a relationship with God was that they weren’t able to do the things that they were expected to in order to remain in fellowship with him. God’s deliverance of the Israelites wasn’t based on their relationship to him, but their relationship to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

John the Baptist discouraged the Pharisees and Sadducees that were coming to him to be baptized from doing it because he knew they didn’t believe his message about salvation. John said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham s our father, for I tell you God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham” (Matthew 3:7-9).

The biological descendants of Abraham were used to thinking of themselves as the special people to whom God would grant eternal life. They didn’t understand that eternal life was connected to spiritual life and therefore, it was necessary for them to experience a spiritual birth. The closest thing the Israelites had to the concept of spiritual birth was the process of sanctification. Sanctification made it possible for the Israelites to become holy or pure. The LORD instructed Moses, “Consecrate yourselves, therefore, and be holy, for I am the LORD your God. Keep my statutes and do them; I am the LORD who sanctifies you” (Leviticus 20:7-8). The LORD’s emphasis of his expectation for the Israelites to be holy made it seem as though it was a permanent state that they were able to attain, but in actuality, being holy was impossible for anyone but God. The only way the Israelites could be holy was for them to be completely isolated from everyone and everything that was not dedicated to God (Leviticus 20:22-26).

Throughout the book of Leviticus, the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are referred to as the children of Israel. God gave Jacob the name Israel after he wrestled with him all night. Genesis 32:24-28 states:

And Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day has broken.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then he said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” (Genesis 32:24-28)

The Hebrew name that is translated Israel, Yisra’el (yis-raw-ale’) means “he will rule as God” (H3478). The idea being that of equality. God gave Jacob the name Israel because he had striven with God and with men, and had prevailed (Genesis 32:28). The King James Version of the Bible translates it this way, “for as a prince hast thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed.” The Hebrew word that is translated power, sarah (saw-raw’) is “a verb meaning to persist, to exert oneself, to persevere” (H8280). The Hebrew name Yisra’el is derived from the word sarah and is also connected with the name Sarah which was given to Abraham’s wife after Isaac’s birth was promised to them (Genesis 17:15-16).

Jacob’s ability to prevail against God and man had to do with his attitude about life. Jacob believed that God had the power to save him from death (Genesis 32:30; H5337) and that God’s blessing would ensure that he obtained eternal life because he would be resurrected after his death (Genesis 49:29). When God called the Israelites the children of Israel, God was essentially reminding them of their relationship to Jacob and the encounter that Jacob had with him, as well as the blessing that Jacob received, even though he wasn’t Isaac’s oldest son. God often pointed out that the connection that kept the children of Israel in a state of blessedness was their common bond of sanctification (Leviticus 22:31-33), which was linked to the celebration of appointed feasts and more specifically, the holy convocations (Leviticus 23:1-2) that were intended to focus everyone’s attention on obedience to God’s commandments.

John contrasted believers who were purified through Christ with unbelievers that ignored God’s commandments by pointing out that habitual sin was evidence of being in an unregenerate spiritual state. John stated:

Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. You know that he appeared in order to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him. Little children, let no one deceive you. Whoever practices righteousness is righteous, as he is righteous. Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil. (1 John 3:4-8)

John distinguished the children of God from the children of the devil by their ability to practice righteousness. John said that “whoever practices righteousness is righteous, as he is righteous” (1 John 3:7). In other words, our righteousness is a result of our identification with Christ.

John said the reason why the Son of God was made visible to the world was to loosen the bonds of sin and wickedness that the devil had imposed on those who did his will instead of God’s. John indicated that anyone that is not a child of God is by default a child of the devil. John said:

No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him; and he cannot keep on sinning, because he has been born of God. By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother. (1 John 3:9-10)

John’s explanation of why someone that has been born of God cannot practice sin may seem like an over simplification of the believer’s ability to resist the devil’s temptations, but John’s use of the Greek term meno (men’-o), which is translated abides, reveals an important truth about the type of sanctification that comes through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. It is the indwelling Holy Spirit in Christians that actually keeps them from practicing sin (G4690). John referred to the Holy Spirit as “God’s seed” (1 John 3:9), indicating that He is the source of our spiritual birth in the same way that the sperm is the seed of conception to a woman’s egg, and John said that God’s seed abides in us, meaning that the Holy Spirit keeps us united with Christ in such a way that we are one with him in heart, mind, and will (G3306).

Paul explained in his letter to the Romans that it is our spiritual birth into God’s family that entitles us to share in Christ’s eternal inheritance. Paul said:

So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. (Romans 8:12-17)

Paul indicated that believers are heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, but also added the stipulation that we must suffer with our Savior in order to be glorified with him. Paul went on to talk about God’s everlasting love for his children and the fact that Christ is seated at the right hand of God interceding on our behalf (Romans 8:34) and then, Paul asked the rhetorical question, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” (Romans 8:35). Paul concluded by reassuring believers that our relationship with our heavenly Father is unbreakable. Paul stated, “For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).

God’s Family

“The apostle Peter was the most prominent disciple during the ministry of Jesus and had a tremendous impact on the early church” (Introduction to the First Letter of Peter). Peter’s first letter, which was written around 60 A.D., was meant to be an encouragement to the Jewish believers who were enduring intense persecution and to prepare all of his readers “for the difficult times ahead of them.” Peter began his letter with an important point about the purpose of salvation. Peter wrote, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (1 Peter 1:3-5). Peter said that God causes us to be born again. Peter’s used the term “born again” as a way of describing what happens when we accept Jesus Christ as our Savior. Jesus said that we must be born again in order to see the kingdom of God (John 3:3) and told a man named Nicodemus, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, 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).

Jesus explained that being born of the Spirit was an invisible process that resulted in membership in God’s kingdom. It is like our physical birth from the standpoint of coming into existence, but takes place in a much more mysterious, unexplainable way. Essentially, what happens when we are born again is that we become God’s children, we become members of his household and receive an inheritance that is equivalent to Jesus’. The Apostle Paul described this same process as adoption and said that in love God “predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will” (Ephesians 1:4-5). The difference between Peter’s description of salvation as being born again and Paul’s viewpoint of the spiritual transaction that takes place when believers enter God’s family most likely had to do with the audience that each of these men was writing to. Paul addressed his letter to the Ephesians “to the saints who are in Ephesus” (Ephesians 1:1). Saints was a general term that applied to all believers and usually referred to the collective body of Christ (G40). Peter’s letter was addressed to a subset of that group which he referred to as “those who are the elect exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia” (1 Peter 1:1). Elect exiles were the remnant of Jews that were scattered around the world after Jesus died on the cross. It makes sense that Peter would write to this particular group of people because he was directly responsible for continuing Jesus’ ministry after his death and resurrection. Jesus specifically stated that he was “sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 15:25) and his last instruction to Peter was “feed my sheep” (John 21:17).

Even though Paul never used the term born again, it can be assumed that all believers become members of God’s family through a spiritual birth when they accept Jesus as their Savior. Paul stated in his letter to the Ephesians:

Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands— remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God. (Ephesians 2:11-19)

The Greek word that is translated household in Ephesians 2:19, oikeios (oy-ki’-os) means a relative (G3609) and it can be assumed that if we are told to address God as our Father (Matthew 6:9), that we are his children.

The reason why the children of Israel and subsequently the remnant that became known as the Jews (Nehemiah 1:2) were considered to be God’s family was because Jesus’ physical birth was associated with the descendants of Abraham (Matthew 1:1), but God didn’t refer to the children of Israel as his children, he referred to them as his people. When he appeared to Moses in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush, the LORD told him, “I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus 3:7-8). The Hebrew word that is translated people, ‘am (am) means “a people (as a congregated unit)” and is used figuratively to refer to “a flock” (H5971). Jesus often referred to the Jews as the lost sheep of the house of Israel (Matthew 15:25) so that they would realize that God was still dealing with them as the descendants of Abraham which God promised to give the land “from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates” (Genesis 15:18) as an eternal possession. God indicated that a sign he would fulfill this promise was that he would deliver the children of Israel from slavery in Egypt. He told Abraham, “Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years. But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions” (Genesis 15:13-14).

Exodus 12:40-41 notes that “the time that the people of Israel lived in Egypt was 430 years. At the end of 430 years, on that very day, all the hosts of the LORD went out from the land of Egypt.” After everyone crossed over the Red Sea, Exodus 14:30-31 states, “Thus the LORD saved Israel that day from the hand of the Egyptians, and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore. Israel saw the great power that the LORD used against the Egyptians so the people feared the LORD, and they believed in the LORD and in his servant Moses.” The Israelites’ salvation from the hand of the Egyptians and belief in the LORD were considered to be indicators of them having a relationship with God, but even though they had a relationship with God, they didn’t think of themselves as being God’s children. That’s why when Jesus referred to himself as the Son of God, the Jews picked up stones to stone him (John 10:31-38). Jesus explained that one of the signs of his relationship to God was his miraculous ability. He said, “If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me; but if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father” (John 10:37-38).

A miracle that Jesus performed while he was on earth was feeding multitudes of people with small amounts of food (Matthew 14:16-21). Jesus’ supernatural provision of food was meant to bolster his disciples faith and to teach them a lesson about the way that God takes care of his family (Matthew 16:8-12). When the Israelites complained to Moses about their lack of food after they entered the desert, “the LORD said to Moses, ‘Behold, I am about to rain bread from heaven for you, and the people shall go out and gather a day’s portion every day” (Exodus 16:4). The Israelites named the bread from heaven manna. “It was like coriander seed, white, and the taste of it was like wafers made with honey” (Exodus 16:31). Jesus told the Jews, “Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but my Father gives you true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world…So the Jews grumbled about him, because he said, ‘I am the bread that came down from heaven” (John 6:32-33, 41). Jesus went on to say, “I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever” (John 48-51).

Jesus’ distinction between the bread from heaven that the Israelites ate in the wilderness and the living bread that gives eternal life was most likely meant to emphasize that receiving spiritual nourishment was not the same as being born again. God provided for the physical needs of his chosen people because their relationship to him was a material one. Peter’s letter to the elect exiles of the Dispersion pointed out that the Jews obtained their imperishable inheritance through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead and that it was being kept for them in heaven ready to be revealed in the last time (1 Peter 1:3-5). Peter said, “Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories. It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look” (1 Peter 1:10-12). In other words, the Old Testament prophets understood that there was a spiritual aspect to salvation that hadn’t yet been made available to God’s chosen people and even the angels were forbidden to talk about it until after Jesus was born.

The salvation that Jesus died to give us changed the way humans relate to God because the birth that takes place when we are born again has to do with our spirits being regenerated or made alive. Peter indicated that the outcome of our faith is the salvation of our souls (1 Pater 1:9). The Greek word that is translated souls, psuche (psoo-khay’) refers to that vital force which animates the body and shows itself in breathing (Acts 20:10). “One’s understanding of this word’s relationship to related terms is contingent upon his position regarding biblical anthropology. Dichotomists view man as consisting of two parts (or substances), material and immaterial, with spirit and soul denoting the immaterial and bearing only a functional and not a metaphysical difference. Trichotomists also view man as consisting of two parts (or substances), but with the spirit and soul representing in some contexts a real subdivision of the immaterial. This latter view is here adopted” (G5590). It is the spirit that enables man to communicate with God. Jesus used the word psuche to not only refer to natural life, “but also to life as continued beyond the grave.” It is only in the Christian sense that a soul can be saved. The soul is delivered “from sin and its spiritual consequences and admission to eternal life with blessedness in the kingdom of Christ” (G4991).

Peter emphasized the need for believers to act like children of God if they call him their Father. He said:

Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” And if you call on him as Father who judges impartially according to each one’s deeds, conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile, knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot. (1 Peter 1:13-19)

Peter’s mention of being ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers (1 Peter 1:18) was most likely intended to bring to mind the Passover celebration that the Jews celebrated on an annual basis. The Greek words that are translated futile ways, mataios (mat’-ah-yos) anastrophe (an-as-trof-ay’) suggest that Peter was focusing on the meaningless rituals that the Jews had not only bought into, but also their expectation that God would save the Jews simply because they were descendants of Abraham (Matthew 3:9).

Peter talked about the living and abiding word of God being the imperishable seed that causes us to be born again. He said, “Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart, since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God; for

“All flesh is like grass
    and all its glory like the flower of grass.
The grass withers,
    and the flower falls,
but the word of the Lord remains forever.”

And this word is the good news that was preached to you” (1 Peter 1:22-25).

The apostles Peter and Paul seemed to agree that obedience was the earmark of a true child of God. Obedience to the truth means that we don’t just take in God’s word, but let it affect the immaterial parts of our being. Peter said that our souls are purified by our obedience to the truth (1 Peter 1:22). Purification had to do with the ceremonial cleansing that took place in God’s temple, but Peter was probably thinking of it as a ritual that involved the taking in of God’s word on a regular basis. Paul talked about this in the context of a process called sanctification in which the believer’s mind is renewed. Paul said that unbelievers are “darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them” (Ephesians 4:18) and went on to say, “But that is not the way you learned Christ! — assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, 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” (Ephesians 4:20-24).

Paul indicated that the way believers become like God is by renewal “in the spirit of your minds” (Ephesians 4:24). “The renewal here mentioned is not that of the mind itself in its natural powers of memory, judgment and perception, but ‘the spirit of the mind’; which, under the controlling power of the indwelling Holy Spirit, directs its bent and energies God-ward in the enjoyment of fellowship with the Father and with His Son, Jesus Christ, and the fulfillment of the will of God” (G3650). Peter took this one step further by stating, “Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart, since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God” (1 Peter 1:22-23). Peter indicated that our aim shouldn’t be to just change our minds about God, but to demonstrate the same kind of love that Jesus expressed while he was living on earth. Brotherly love is characterized by kindness and is associated with being friendly or what you might think of as being a good neighbor. The Greek word philos (fee’-los) is properly translated as dear and is supposed to express fondness in the context of a family relationship (G80/G5384). Jesus said, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).

Love

John’s first epistle focused on the characteristics of God that are expected to be seen in his children. John started out by saying that God is light and in him there is no darkness (1 John 1:5) and then stated, “If we say we have fellowship with him, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth” (John 1:6). John was pointing out that there should be similarities between Jesus’ behavior and our own. The way that we become like Jesus is by following his instructions and confessing our sins to God. John said, “If we live in the light as He is in the light, we share what we have in God with each other. And the blood of Jesus Christ, His Son, makes our lives clean from all sin.” (1 John 1:7, NLV).

John’s understanding of the transformation that occurs through spiritual rebirth was limited, but he saw Jesus as the pattern that all born-again believers were to follow. John acknowledged his limited understanding when he said, “Dear friends, we are God’s children now. But it has not yet been shown to us what we are going to be. We know that when He comes again, we will be like Him because we will see Him as He is” (1 John 3:2, NLV). John seemed to be saying that our eternal existence begins the moment we accept Jesus as our savior, but our likeness or similarity to Jesus is limited by our current physical form. John talked about seeing Jesus as if it was a requirement for the full manifestation of our eternal character to become operational.

John mentioned the quality of love numerous times in his first epistle. The Greek words agapao (ag-ap-ah’-o) and agape (ag-ah’-pay) appear more than 20 times in the second and third chapters of 1 John alone. John said, “Hereby perceive we the love of God, because he laid down his life for us: and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren” (1 John 3:16). John went on to say that our love for other believers should be demonstrated in tangible ways that can be measured (1 John 3:18) and then, he said about God, “And whatsoever we ask, we receive of him, because we keep his commandments, and do those things that are pleasing in his sight” (1 John 3:22).

John implied there was a connection between obedience to God’s commandments and getting answers to our prayers. John clarified what he meant by keeping God’s commandments when he stated, “And this is his commandment, That we should believe on the name of his Son Jesus Christ, and love one another, as he gave us commandment” (1 John 3:23). Basically, what John was saying was that all God requires us to do in order to be blessed by him is to be born again and to love each other, but according to John, our ability to love others isn’t even dependent on us; it’s dependent on the indwelling of the Holy Spirit (1 John 3:24).

Jesus connected being born again with the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and made it seem as if these two aspects of spiritual life were essentially one and the same. Jesus told Nicodemus:

Whatever is born of the flesh is flesh. Whatever is born of the Spirit is spirit. “Do not be surprised that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wants to and you hear its sound. You do not know where it comes from or where it goes. It is the same with everyone who is born of the Spirit of God.” (John 3:6-8, NLV)

Jesus indicated that the only requirement for being born again was to believe in him. He said, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).

John identified God as the source of agape or unselfish love and went so far as to say that apart from God it is impossible for us to love each other the way God loves us. He stated, “Dear friends, let us love each other, because love comes from God. Those who love are God’s children and they know God. Those who do not love do not know God because God is love.” (1 John 4:7-8, NLV). John indicated that God demonstrated his unselfish love toward us by sending his son Jesus into the world to be the propitiation for our sins (1 John 4:9-10) and then he stated, “Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another” (1 John 4:11).

Chosen

Jesus used the parable of a marriage dinner to illustrate the process God is using to populate his kingdom. Jesus began by stating, “The kingdom of heaven is like unto a certain king, which made a marriage for his son, and sent forth his servants to call them that were bidden to the wedding: and they would not come” (Matthew 22:2-3). Initially, the family of Abraham, which later became the nation of Israel, was chosen by God to be his heir and was given the land “from the river of Egypt unto the great river, the river Euphrates” (Genesis 15:18). After 400 years of slavery in Egypt, the Israelites entered the Promised Land and occupied it continuously (except for the 70 years they were in captivity in Babylon) until Jesus, their Messiah was born. Jesus’ arrival on Earth was similar to a wedding because it signified the joining together or physical union of God and his chosen people.

Jesus indicated in his parable that when it was time for the wedding, those who had been invited wouldn’t come (Matthew 22:3). The word Jesus used that is translated bidden in Matthew 22:3, kaleo suggested the wedding invitation came in the form of a public announcement. Jesus may have been referring to his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. When he rode into town on the back of a donkey, Jesus was not only making an intentional effort to fulfill an Old Testament prophecy about Israel’s Messiah (Zechariah 9:9), but he was also acting out a tradition that he knew would be recognized by everyone that was of Jewish descent (1 Kings 1:33). The important thing to note about Jesus’ parable was that the intended guests made a conscious decision to not attend the wedding. He said, “But they made light of it, and went their ways, one to his farm, another to his merchandise: and the remnant took his servants, and entreated them spitefully, and slew them” (Matthew 22:5-6).

Jesus explained in his parable of the marriage dinner that God planned to use an alternate method to populate his kingdom. He said:

But when the king heard thereof, he was wroth: and he sent forth his armies, and destroyed those murderers, and burnt up their city. Then saith he to his servants, The wedding is ready, but they which were bidden were not worthy. Go ye therefore into the highways, and as many as ye shall find, bid to the marriage. (Matthew 22:7-9).

Jesus depicted the spreading of the gospel as a type of roundup in which everyone that was available was invited to come to his wedding. In ancient times, highways represented a “a course of conduct” or “way of thinking” (G3598). In Jesus’ parable, the servants may have been sent to the highways in order to find people that were seeking a godly way of life or perhaps to look for individuals that were on a quest to find the meaning of life. The travelers on the highway were shown to be in active pursuit of something when they were contacted and invited to the wedding.

After stating that a man was cast into outer darkness because he wasn’t wearing the designated wedding garment, Jesus concluded his parable by making the point that certain types of individuals would be removed God’s kingdom. He said, “there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth. For many are called, but few are chosen” (Matthew 22:14). The primary difference between the Greek words translated called, kletos (klay-tos´) and chosen, eklektos (ek-lek-tos´) appears to be the conscious choice of selecting a favorite. What I believe Jesus meant by this was that the free gift of salvation entitles an individual to entrance into heaven, but it doesn’t exempt that person from meeting God’s standards or the expectation of appropriate conduct in heaven. When a person is born again, he must exhibit genuine repentance and want to be changed in his character. The evidence that I have not only been invited into the kingdom of heaven, but have also been chosen by God to be there is that I will behave like the Bible says a Christian should.

Personal testimony

Jesus’ healing of the man born blind provided an opportunity for him to give his personal testimony to the religious leaders that denied Jesus was the promised Savior of God’s people. When the man was asked how he had received his sight, “He said unto them, He put clay upon mine eyes, and I washed, and do see” (John 9:15). This straight forward account of what happened left little room for the Pharisees to question the man any further. As usual, the religious leaders were divided about the authenticity of Jesus’ miraculous power. John recorded, “Therefore said some of the Pharisees, This man is not of God, because he keepeth not the sabbath day. Others said, How can a man that is a sinner do such miracles? And there was a division among them” (John 9:16). In an attempt to discredit the man who was healed, the Pharisees brought in his parents to see if they would corroborate his story or deny that a miracle had taken place.

The parents of the man that was healed refused to put their own reputations on the line, but instead claimed that their son was old enough to testify on his own behalf (John 9:23). It says in John 9:24, “Then again called they the man that was blind, and said unto him, Give God the praise: we know that this man is a sinner.” The Pharisees’ persistent haranguing of the man who was healed did little to shake his confidence in what had happened to him. In what appeared to be a sarcastic jab at the Pharisees ignorance, “He answered them, I have told you already, and ye did not hear: wherefore would you hear it again? will ye also be his disciples?” (John 9:27). This man’s courageous personal testimony left the Pharisees with little choice but to ban him from their synagogue in order to prevent him from influencing others into believing in Jesus. In a final attempt to convince the Pharisees he was telling the truth, the man said:

Why herein is a marvelous thing, that ye know not from whence his is, and yet he had opened mine eyes. Now we know that God heareth not sinners: but if any man be a worshipper of God, and doeth his will, him he heareth. Since the world began was it not heard that any man opened the eyes of one that was born blind. If this man were not of God, he could do nothing. (John 9:30-33)

After the man was cast out, Jesus found him and encouraged him in his faith. Jesus told the healed man that he was the Son of God and gave him the opportunity to be born again (John 9:35). Immediately, the man committed himself to Jesus, “And he said, Lord, I believe. And he worshipped him” (John 9:38). The commitment the man made to Jesus was not based on the miracle he done for him, but an understanding of who Jesus really was, God in human form. Jesus allowed this man to worship him because he knew his faith was genuine.

Spiritual relationships

Everyone is born into a family. Although their structures can vary greatly, families usually consist of a father and mother, and at least one child. Jesus made his disciples aware of the fact that those who had been born again also had a spiritual family. There may not be much difference between our physical and spiritual family, except that membership is optional, or chosen, in God’s family. While Jesus was teaching a crowd of people, his relatives came and wanted to speak with him. It says in Matthew 12:47-48, “Then one said unto him, Behold, thy mother and thy brethren stand without, desiring to speak with thee. But he answered and said unto him that told him, Who are my mother? and who are my brethren?” It appeared that Jesus’ mother, along with his brothers and sisters, came to listen to him preach and wanted to gain access to the place where he was teaching, but there wasn’t room for them inside. The Greek term that is translated “stand without,” histemi (his’-tay-mee) means “to make to stand” and “to appoint” (2476). Another way of looking at the situation would be to say that Jesus’ mother and siblings had to stand outside because they weren’t important enough to gain access to the building.

Jesus’ reaction to the situation might have looked as if he was indifferent to his family’s request to speak with him, but I believe the point he was trying to make was that his biological family members were no more important to him than those in his spiritual family. It says in Matthew 12:49-50, “And he stretched forth his hand toward his disciples, and said, Behold my mother and my brethren. For whoever shall do the will of my Father which is in heaven, the same is my brother, and sister, and mother.” Jesus was conveying to them that his disciples were of equal importance to him as his own family members, meaning that they were as close to him as anyone could get. This was an important distinction because in the Jewish religion, family relationships were the basis of all spiritual activities. Anyone that was not a member of Abraham’s family was excluded from God’s blessing. The key to understanding Jesus’ distinction between his biological family members and the members of his spiritual family was the statement, “Whosoever shall do the will of my Father which is in heaven, the same is my brother, and sister, and mother” (Matthew 12:50). What Jesus was saying was that doing God’s will was the deciding factor of who gained access to him.

Paradigm shift

An important change that happened in the way Jesus’ disciples thought about their relationship with God compared to the rest of the Jews was their freedom from religious regulations. After sharing a meal with some of the outcasts of Jewish society, Jesus was asked, “Why do the disciples of John and of the Pharisees fast, but thy disciples fast not?” (Mark 2:18). This question was intended as a criticism of Jesus’ leadership and showed that the freedom his disciples experienced was perceived to be sinful behavior. Taking it a step further, Mark said about Jesus, “And it came to pass, that he went through the corn fields on the sabbath day; and his disciples began, as they went, to pluck the ears of corn. And the Pharisees said unto him, Behold, why do they on the sabbath day that which is not lawful?” (Mark 2:23-24). These two incidents captured the paradigm shift that began to take place almost immediately after Jesus’ ministry started. Jesus’ response to the criticism he received was his first attempt at explaining a key aspect of Christianity; the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.

The indwelling of the Holy Spirit is the action by which God takes up permanent residence in the body of a believer in Jesus Christ. Jesus used two common staples of Jewish life to illustrate this concept. He said, “No man also seweth a piece of new cloth on an old garment: else the new piece that filled it up taketh away from the old, and the rent is made worse. And no man putteth new wine into old bottles: else the new wine doth burst the bottles, and the wine is spilled, and the bottles will be marred: but new wine must be put into new bottles” (Mark 2:21-22). The old garment and old bottles could have represented the nation of Israel; and the new cloth and new wine, the gospel message Jesus brought to God’s people. Likewise, the old garment and old bottles could have represented individuals such as the scribes and Pharisees that were unable to receive salvation because they weren’t able to let go of their religious traditions. But, more than likely, Jesus was referring to the sinful human heart as the old garment and old bottles that would tear or burst if God were to try and take up residence there.

The prophet Jeremiah said of the sinful human heart, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9). In the discourse in which he stated, “the soul that sinneth, it shall die” (Ezekiel 18:4), the LORD directed his people to “Cast away from you all your transgressions, whereby ye have transgressed: and make you a new heart and a new spirit” (Ezekiel 18:31). Later, in a prophecy to Israel, God said through the prophet Ezekiel, “A new heart also will I give you: and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments and do them” (Ezekiel 36:26-27). Jesus’ presence on earth and constant fellowship with his disciples was only a foretaste of what would be possible after his death. Although it wasn’t until after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension into heaven that his followers were filled with the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:1-4), all those who believed and were baptized were “born of the Spirit” (John 3:6); meaning they were given a new heart that enabled them to discern spiritual truth.

Living water

Jesus used an everyday experience to teach an important lesson to a woman that no one else would have dared to interact with. She is identified only as “a woman of Samaria” (John 4:7). Samaria became the capital of Israel after the nation was split into two separate kingdoms (Israel in the north and Judah in the south) following the death of king Solomon (1 Kings 16:29). Samaria was later destroyed when Shalmaneser king of Assyria defeated Israel and took its people into captivity (2 Kings 18:9-11). It says in 2 Kings 17:24, “the king of Assyria brought men from Babylon, and from Cuthah, and from Ava, and from Hamath, and from Sepharvaim, and placed them in the cities of Samaria instead of the children of Israel: and they possessed Samaria, and dwelt in the cities thereof.” The animosity between the Jews and Samaritans was evident in the Samaritan woman’s response to Jesus’ request for a drink of water. She said, “How is it that thou, being a Jew, askest drink of me, which am a woman of Samaria? For the Jews have no dealings with the Samaritans” (John 4:9).

Jesus’ open discussion with the woman of Samaria showed that he was willing to invite into his kingdom anyone that recognized him as Israel’s Messiah and the savior of the world. Pointing out her ignorance of God’s plan of salvation, Jesus said to the Samaritan woman, “If thou knewest the gift of God, and who it is that saith to thee, Give me to drink, thou wouldest have asked of him, and he would have have given thee living water” (John 4:10). The Greek words translated living water, zao (dzah´ – o) and hudor hudatos (hoo´ – dor hoo´ – dat – os) literally mean to live (2198) and water (as if rainy) (5204). What Jesus was referring to was the spiritual birth or eternal life that he associated with water baptism. In essence, Jesus saw God’s gift of salvation as an opportunity for everyone to experience a spiritual birth or as he explained it to Nicodemus, to be born again. In the same way that Jesus clarified the difference between a physical and spiritual birth to Nicodemus, he told the woman at the well, “Whosoever drinketh this water shall thirst again: but whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life” (John 4:13-14).

The concept of eternal or everlasting life was not new to the Israelites, but Jesus’ description of this kind of life as a well of water springing up inside the person was meant to convey eternal life as something that was a continual, ongoing gift from God that never ran out or dissipated. Rather than seeing salvation as a one-time transaction that merely entitled the recipient to entrance into heaven, Jesus wanted the woman of Samaria to understand that the gift that God wanted to give her was something that was available to her immediately and it could be replenished without limit. Jesus also revealed that the key that unlocked this everlasting fountain of life was worshipping God “in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24). Jesus’ reference to spiritual activity in the physical realm linked together the gift of eternal life and its source, the Holy Spirit. Although the Holy Spirit was not available to believers until after Jesus’ resurrection, Jesus was preparing the way for his arrival and also letting his followers know that there was another person (Holy Spirit) involved in God’s plan of salvation.

Born again

The effect of Jesus’ teaching was evident from the start. In his first public appearance at the temple in Jerusalem, when he declared his intent to rise from the dead, John tells us of Jesus that “many believed in his name” (John 2:23). Although the religious leaders were probably already plotting to kill Jesus, one man had the courage and conviction to find out for himself what exactly the term basileia (bas – il – i’ – ah) ouranos (oo – ran os’) or “kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 3:2) meant. Nicodemus was a ruler of the Jews, a member of the group that eventually condemned Jesus to death. He came to visit Jesus at night for one of two reasons, either Nicodemus didn’t want anyone to know he was there or he intended to have a lengthy discussion with Jesus and wanted to speak to him when he had more time available. Nicodemus stated plainly the reason for his visit. He said to Jesus, “Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him” (John 3:2).

Nicodemus wanted to know the truth. He believed that Jesus was a prophet, but was obviously still struggling with the possibility that God had actually kept his promise and had finally sent his Messiah, Jesus to save his chosen people. Jesus explained to Nicodemus that the reason he couldn’t make sense of what was happening was because he hadn’t been born again (John 3:3). Nicodemus’ response indicated that he was looking at things from a human or material perspective. He asked Jesus, “How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb, and be born?” (John 3:4). Jesus then explained to Nicodemus that being born again had nothing to do with the physical realm. He wanted Nicodemus to understand that in order to see the spiritual realm or kingdom of heaven, one had experience a spiritual birth, a birth just like or similar to the birth that brought him into the physical world, but completely different in its effect upon his life.

Jesus’ lengthy conversation with Nicodemus centered around the fact that a requirement for entrance into God’s kingdom was belief in him. He told Nicodemus, “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved” (John 3:14-17). Jesus’ repetition of the statement “whosoever believeth in him should not perish” placed the emphasis on everyone, both Jews and non-Jews, being able to be saved as long as they believed in him. This declaration made it clear to Nicodemus that God’s chosen people were those who would by their own volition make a conscious choice to receive salvation through Jesus Christ. The great truth that motivated God’s plan of salvation was that he wanted to save the world, and therefore, made it possible through a process of spiritual adoption for everyone to be born again (Ephesians 1:4-5).

Baptism

John’s baptism was meant to cleanse sinners from the stains upon their spirits that caused them to separate themselves from God. Just like Adam in the garden of Eden, everyone that commits a sin against God knows that he is guilty and deserves to be punished for what he has done. The key to understanding the effect of John’s baptism was to realize that God didn’t want people to live with the guilt they felt for the rest of their lives and had made a way for their sins to be removed from their spiritual awareness. The description of John’s ministry found in Mark 1:4 states, “John did baptize in the wilderness, and preach the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins.” The Greek word translated remission basically means freedom, but it also has a legal connotation that suggests a pardon, such as when a prisoner is set free and is forgiven of his offense. Although John’s baptism was welcomed and there were many who took advantage of his offer of forgiveness, John made it clear that he was preparing the way for Israel’s Messiah, Jesus. “And he preached, saying, There cometh one mightier than I after me, the lachet of whose shoes I am not worthy to stoop down and unloose. I indeed have baptized you with water: but he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost” (Mark 1:7-8).

John’s baptism of Jesus is recorded in all four of the gospels; Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Although the details vary, there is one aspect of Jesus’ baptism that is the same throughout, the arrival of the Holy Ghost or Holy Spirit on the earth. Mark described it this way, “And straightway coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens opened, and the Spirit like a dove descending upon him: and there came a voice from heaven, saying, Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Mark 1:10-11). The baptism of the Holy Spirit was different than John’s baptism because it signified the beginning of a new life. Not only did God intend to forgive the sins of those who accepted his Son as their Savior, but he also wanted to enable believers to live a life similar to that of Jesus Christ, one that would be consistent with his commandments. The Holy Spirit, who is also God in the same way that Jesus is, dwells within believers and causes them to be convicted or aware of their sins. The Holy Spirit’s job is to cause believers to repent and to seek out God’s will for their lives. Only through the Holy Spirit can one really understand what it means to be a child of God. Without the help of the Holy Spirit, no one can realize what Christianity is really all about.

John recognized that Jesus did not need to be baptized by him, because he had no sins to repent of. John tried to forbid him from doing it, but Jesus persisted, “And Jesus answering said unto him, Suffer it to be so now: for thus it becometh us to fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15). What Jesus was saying was that the Holy Spirit needed to be introduced to humanity through his own baptism. You could say that Jesus’ baptism was symbolic of the baptism of everyone that would follow in his footsteps. As the Holy Spirit descended upon him, Jesus represented all of mankind in its sinful state being reborn by the power of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit appeared immediately after Jesus was raised up out of the water (Mark 1:10), because it is the Holy Spirit’s presence that regenerates the believer’s heart and makes him alive spiritually or what we think of now as being “born again” (John 3:3). In his first gospel message, Jesus said, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye and believe the gospel” (Mark 1:15). Jesus’ instruction to believe the gospel was intended to be a reminder that repentance was not enough. In order to be truly born again, one must believe that a new way of life is possible.