Posted by: stpowen | September 24, 2010

The New Birth (10) Its Propagation

The Propagation of the New Birth

‘And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up’ (John 3:14).

In our study of the New Birth, we have seen that it comes not by the efforts of men, but from God.  Paul wrote, So then it is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy’ (Rom 9:16 ).  So the question immediately arises, if the New Birth comes from God and from Him alone, what is there for us to do?  Are we just to sit back and wait God to do His work without us?  Not at all!  The God who has ordained the New Birth has also ordained the means of its propagation. ‘For since, in the wisdom of God, the world through wisdom did not know God, it pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe.  For Jews request a sign, and Greeks seek after wisdom;  but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness,  but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God’  (1 Cor 1:21-24).  God has given His servants a message to preach.  In itself, that message has no power to awaken lost sinners; the outwardly religious find it offensive while secular folk think of it as foolishness.  But when the Almighty power of God the Holy Spirit uses it to open the hearts of spiritually dead sinners , it becomes an irresistible clarion call to those who will believe.

Let us consider the case of Lazarus.  Lazarus is dead (John 11:14).  He has been dead for quite some time.  How shall we raise Lazarus from his tomb?  Well, we can point out to him the seriousness of his position.  Being dead is not a good state to be in, we might say.  We can tell him how much better it is to be alive and how much more fun he would have if he were.  We can even try telling him how much God loves him, how much He wants Lazarus to stop being dead and what a great plan God has for his life, but it won’t do any good because Lazarus can’t hear us.  He’s dead.

In fact, it’s even worse than that, because, quite frankly, Lazarus is a bit of a stinker (v39); he’s in a bad odour with God.  He’s not only dead, but he’s dead in trespasses and sins.  He has no right to come back to life.  There’s nothing that we can do for Lazarus in our own strength, but when the almighty Son of God declares, “Lazarus, come forth” (v43), then although he has died, and although he is bound hand and foot, Lazarus will indeed come forth from among the dead to new birth.  In this connection, John 5:25 is very helpful.  ‘Most assuredly I say to you, the hour is coming, and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God; and those who hear will live.’  This is speaking of the Gospel Age, inaugurated by the Lord Jesus.  His servants are to speak His words, the words of  life, and those who are dead in trespasses and sins will, if the Lord gives them new birth, hear the words and live (1). 

Returning for a moment to 1Cor. 1:21, we should not suppose that the ‘preaching’ referred to there is only of a formal kind, to be left to trained ministers and professionals, though that is certainly included.  There are several Greek words that are translated ‘preach’ in our Bibles and it is helpful to distinguish between them.  Let us look at the three most popular.

Κηρυσσω (kerusso) means to ‘announce formally’ or to ‘proclaim.’  The thought here is of a herald or a Town Cryer announcing a proclamation from the king.  It is not a discussion, but an announcement; not to be argued with, but obeyed.

Ευαγγελιζω (euangelizo) means to tell or to declare good news.  It is the word used in Luke 4:18 and 7:22. It does not invariably refer to the Gospel (1Thes 3:6), but that is its usual meaning.  It certainly can refer to formal preaching, but as we shall see below, that is not necessarily the case.

Λαλεω (laleo) means to speak, to chat or to gossip.  Here is a preaching that everyone can do.  Indeed, the great Gentile church at Antioch was founded by ‘chatting’ the Gospel. ‘Now those who were scattered after the persecution that arose over Stephen travelled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, preaching (Gk. λαλεω) the word to no one but the Jews only.  But some of them were men from Cyprus and Cyrene, who, when they had come to Antioch, spoke (Gk. λαλεω) to the Hellenists, preaching (Gk.. ευαγγελιζω) the Lord Jesus.  And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number believed and turned to the Lord’ (Acts 11:19-21).  Formal pulpit preaching should be undertaken only by those gifted to do it, but all of us should always be ready to reply to those who ask us about our faith (1Peter 3:15) and indeed to take the initiative and speak to friends and acquaintances about the Lord Jesus.  How can we not do so?  Their need is desperate;  they are without hope, whether they know it or not, and under the wrath of God.  How can we not share with them the words of eternal life?

In our study of our Lord’s conversation with Nicodemus, we have seen how this learned Pharisee showed himself to be utterly ignorant of the whole question of the New Birth.  “How can these things be?” he asked (v9).  Now the Lord Jesus, with great care, preaches Himself to Nicodemus as the God-Man and the crucified Saviour of the world.  “Most assuredly, I say to you,” He tells Nicodemus (v11), “We speak of what we know and testify of what we have seen, and you (plural) do not receive our witness.”  Nicodemus has admitted that Jesus was a teacher sent from God, but when He speaks from that heavenly knowledge which He possesses, He is rejected.  “If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe when I tell you heavenly things?”  If Nicodemus stumbles over things that apply to himself, like the New Birth, how will he or his colleagues be able to accept the truth of who Jesus really is?

 Now the Lord Jesus directs Nicodemus to two Old Testament passages which point, firstly to His Divine nature, and secondly to His mission as the Saviour of the world.  “No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of Man who is in heaven.”  This must have completely bamboozled Nicodemus!  Who is this Son of Man?  Where is He?  But Jesus is preaching Himself as the answer to the riddle of Agur, son of Jaker in Proverbs 30:4:-

 ‘Who has ascended into heaven, or descended?  Who has gathered the wind in His fists?  Who has bound the waters in a garment?  Who has established all the ends of the earth?

What is His name, and what is His Son’s name,  if you know?’

The answer to all these questions is the Lord Jesus Christ.  It is He who came from heaven and who has returned there to reign (Psalm 110:1).  It is He who has created the world and everything in it (John 1:3, 10).  And it is He who, even whilst He was on the earth, nevertheless remained Almighty God, reigning in heaven.

Our Lord’s second allusion is to Numbers 21:4-9.  He tells Nicodemus (vs 14-15), “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life.”  Num 21 tells how, because of their sinful behaviour, poisonous snakes had come into the camp of the Israelites in the desert and many people had been bitten by them and were dying as a result.  At the Lord’s command, Moses made a bronze effigy of a serpent and nailed it to a pole.  Then he lifted the pole upright and called to the Israelites to look.  And whoever looked at the serpent on the pole was healed of the snake bite.  Fifteen hundred years later, men took the Lord Jesus Christ and nailed Him to a cross;  then they lifted the cross upright and He hung between heaven and earth.  Our task as Christians therefore is to cry out, “Behold!  The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 2:29).  And whoever looks to Jesus in repentance and faith will be healed of the curse of sin and death.  The bronze serpent was a picture of sin, and a foreshadowing of  the sinless Lord Jesus who was made sin for our sakes (2Cor 5:21).

As we look through the New Testament, we can see that the subject of the Apostles’ preaching was that Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ.  They did not preach themselves, nor the Church, nor baptism, nor health and wealth, nor your best life now, but Christ crucified.  ‘Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ’ (Acts 2:36)(2).  This is the first and great necessity:  to preach he amazing truth that Jesus of Nazareth, the carpenter’s son, is in reality the Anointed One of God, and He before whom every knee will bow.  Without this, there is no Gospel.  But is this all that is required of the preacher?  The bald announcement that Jesus is the Christ?  By no means!  We are to reason with people, exhort, encourage and warn them.  ‘And with many other words he testified and exhorted them, saying, “Be saved from this perverse generation”’ (Acts 2:40).

Let us consider again the case of the Israelites in Numbers 21:4-8.  We are told that Moses made this bronze serpent and whenever anyone was bitten by a snake, if he looked at the serpent, he lived.    Now we know that many people refuse to look to the Lord Jesus Christ to be saved, so why might some of the Israelites not have looked to this serpent on a pole?  There are several possible reasons.

 1. Sheer unbelief.  They don’t believe they’ve been bitten; they don’t believe the snakes are poisonous; they think the whole idea of looking at this bronze snake is ridiculous.  In the same way today, there are those who don’t believe in the very concept of sin, and therefore they see no need of a Saviour.  Preachers need to reason with such people and show them their sinful condition. ‘Now as Paul reasoned about righteousness, self-control and the judgement to come, Felix was afraid’ (Acts 24:25).

 2. A low view of sin.  They admit that they have been bitten, but they don’t see that the bite is fatal.  They think they’ll get better on their own.  So people today have a low view of sin and they can’t believe that God hates it so much in all its forms and will punish it.  We need to preach what the Puritans called the sinfulness of sin and teach men and women about the holiness and justice of God.  ‘You [God] are of purer eyes than to behold evil, and cannot look on iniquity’ Hab 1:13).

 3. A high view of man.  They think they can suck the poison out of the wound themselves or treat themselves in some other way.  Many folk today will admit that they’re not perfect, but they think they can make themselves right with God by their own efforts.  We have to admonish these folk.  ‘Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may become guilty before God.  Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin’ (Rom 3:19-20).

 4. Synchretism.  They think that looking at the serpent is fine for those who want to do that, but that there are many ways to be cured of snakebite.  In the same way many people will say that they admire Jesus and Christianity greatly, but believe that all religions are equally good.  We need to warn such people. ‘Nor is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name given among men by which you must be saved’ (Acts 4:12).

 5. Despair.  They really do believe that they’re dying from snakebite, but they can’t believe that just looking at a serpent can help them; they’re too far gone for that.  So there are people who accept that Jesus Christ really is the Son of God, but, can’t believe that he would shed His blood for someone as evil as they are or that God would ever let them into heaven.  We must exhort these poor folk to trust in our all-sufficient Saviour.  ‘Seek the LORD while He may be found; call upon Him while He is near.  Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts.  Let him return to the LORD and He will have mercy on him; and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon’ (Isaiah 54:6-7).

 So in our lifting up of Christ crucified before the world, we must not be content merely to state facts.  We must reason with men when they are argumentative, teach them where they are ignorant, warn them if they are complacent, admonish them when they are slow to come and exhort them if they are hesitant.  Paul went even further in his appeals to sinners:  ‘Knowing therefore the terror of the Lord (3) we persuade men…….Now then as ambassadors for Christ, as though God were pleading through us, we implore on Christ’s behalf…….as co-workers, we also plead with you (4) not to receive the grace of God in vain’ (2Cor 5:11, 20; 6:1).

 Paul’s final word to Timothy, and to us (2Tim 4:2) is to preach the word.  Again, this preaching is not to be merely a bald statement of fact.  ‘Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and patience.’   He is to do this ‘in season and out of season’ – whether people want to listen to it or not.  The reason that the longsuffering and patience is necessary is that, by and large, people will not listen to sound Gospel preaching (vs 3-4).  But for that reason, Timothy was not to soften the message nor to abandon it for something more acceptable.  ‘But you be watchful in all things, endure afflictions, do the work of an evangelist, fulfil your ministry’ (v5).  If we would be the Timothys of our generation and faithful servants of our Lord, we must not water down the Gospel, nor leave out those parts that men find objectionable, nor adulterate it with spurious additions (cf. Prov. 30:5-6).  Let us preach it everywhere we can and though many find it foolishness and others take offense and abuse us, let us continue to preach the word and distribute it as we have liberty, with much prayer and supplication, and God will surely use our efforts to give new birth to those whom He is pleased to save.    

 Notes.

(1) John 5:28-9 refers to a very different time;  the end of the Gospel Age, when the Lord returns in judgement. 

 (2) See also in this respect, Acts 3:13; 5:30-31; 8:5, 35; 9:20, 22; 10:36; 11:20; 13:38f;  16:31; 17:3, 18, 31; 18:5, 28; 20:21; 26:23; 28:23; Rom 1:3; 1Cor 2:2; 2Cor 5:20; Gal 3:1; Col 1:28 etc.  

 (3) That is, the terror there will be in the hearts of the unconverted when the Lord Jesus returns in judgement.

 (4)  The word ‘you’ is not present in the Greek text.  In this passage, Paul is not making an appeal to the Corinthians, but describing his preaching method.  It might therefore be better to substitute ‘men’ here instead of ‘you.’

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