Previously we saw that a disciple follows and emulates the life and teaching of the master. That disciples are called for God’s purpose and that purpose has to do with the establishment and extension of God’s kingdom. Today we consider the miracle of regeneration that achieves this end and the observable and evidential difference this makes in every disciple and in the church, the community of Christian believers.
In a wonderful chapter of John’s gospel in which Jesus comforts his disciples, that in seeing him they are seeing the Father, that in knowing him they know the way to the Father, that the Holy Spirit would come and be their constant companion, “another Counsellor,” another like Jesus who would indwell them and walk with them through this world, in the midst of this intimate discourse Jesus declares:
“Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or else believe on account of the works themselves. Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater things than these will he do, because I am going to the Father.” (John 14:11-12 ESV)
It is an astonishing promise and we must come to terms with it if we are to be true disciples. Some like to make this verse about miracles, gifts of the Spirit. There is no mention specifically of miracles here and the NIV is unhelpful when it translates ergon as miracles. The word translates “works, toil, labour” not miracles, and refers to all that Jesus had done.
Jesus ‘works’ are much broader than miraculous acts, including all his activities of teaching, praying, evangelism, reaching out to the disenfranchised, sharing the travails of the suffering, deeds of mercy and compassion (Mt.25:34-46) doing his Father’s will (Jn.4:34) This is the evidence that he is sent by God (Jn.5:36; Jn.17:4) and this includes miracles (Jn.17:4)
Jesus is comparing his limited to one short lifetime ministry to the on-going ministry of the church across generations. We see this worked out already at Pentecost (Acts 2:41) He is talking about the whole ministry, of the whole church to the whole world. In this, believers will do greater things by imitating his ministry. But how is a fallen humanity going to achieve this?
The New Adam
What did Jesus do that we should do greater? He walked the earth the new Adam. The New Testament leader Paul explains that because of the disobedience of the first Adam sin and death entered our world. But Christ is the new Adam and brings salvation and life, through faith in him. (Rom.5:12-21)
Jesus deals with this issue in his conversation with Nicodemus in John’s gospel.
Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, "Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him."
Jesus answered him, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God."
Nicodemus said to him, "How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born?"
Jesus answered, "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."
Nicodemus said to him, "How can these things be?"
Jesus answered him, "Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
‘Born-again” isn’t a brand name, isn’t a denominational tag, it isn’t simply a term that identifies those who have decided to follow Jesus and clean up their act. Such people may impress others but they are not Christians in the biblical sense. Don Carson, in his excellent book The God Who Is There describes it like this:
“To talk about the new birth as if it is primarily a metaphor for a specific religious commitment is slightly bizarre. The child about to be born does not make a commitment to come out of his mother’s womb. As far as I know, it is the other doing all the work and pushing the little tyke out. The source of new birth comes from the parents. New birth language is strangely chosen if it is primarily referring to the commitment of the one so born.” (The God Who is There, D. Carson, Baker Books, 2010)
As Carson goes on to point out, it is not a question of whether Jesus was to bring the kingdom, but of whether we qualify to enter it. Any honest person will admit, given the lives we live, the compromises we make, the bargains we strike with circumstances no one qualifies, and all the talk in the world about wiping the slate clean doesn’t cut it, doesn’t deal with reality. We’ve gone wrong and we can’t go back.
Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote, “"Ah, for a man to arise in me, That the man I am may no longer be.”
But there is no such man, is there? Nicodemus cannot see how there could be but Jesus insists there must be.
“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to him, "How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born?"
Jesus answered, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. (Jn.3:3-5)
…otherwise we can neither see nor enter the kingdom of God.
To be “born of water and the Spirit” is to be born again. Jesus chides Nicodemus for not understanding this and, as a scholar, a teacher of Israel, he should have understood Jesus’ teaching as a fulfilment of the prophecy of Ezekiel:
“I will give you an new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statures and be careful to obey my rules.” (Ez.36:26-27)
This is an act of God! “I will give you a new heart…a new spirit…I will put my Spirit within you, and [I will] cause you to walk in my statutes…”
To be born again is to be regenerated, transformed, made that man Tennyson writes about. Such a man, or woman, is distinguishable from unbelievers by a changed life and lifestyle. We must walk in this world as new creatures born again into God's family, descendants of the new Adam, a new human race. We are to be a peculiar people, with new hearts and spirits, holy and righteous before our God, as the first Adam was to be.
A New Humanity
It is as this new people of God that we are to love God, our neighbour, each other and go out telling the good news of what Christ has done and what God is doing in the world, and make disciples. Evangelism and discipleship aren't optional extras in the life of a Christian but integral to being a disciple.
Jesus promised, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments, and I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of Truth...” (John 14:15-17)
Another Helper means, literally, another of the same kind, so having the Spirit in your life is like having Jesus alongside you as a discipler. This is how it is achieved. What is achieved?
“In that day [when you see me] you will know that I am in the Father, and you in me, and I in you.” John 14:20
That sounds like the way it was at the beginning, doesn't it? Unity within the godhead and unity between the godhead and creation? What does it look like when we are doing it? Paul, in his letter to the Colossians, gives us a start when he writes:
“Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.” (Col.3:1-4)
Having died to ourselves and been raised with Christ, we are now citizens of another kingdom altogether, the kingdom of God. Our new hearts and minds will be set on the progress, the service of that kingdom and in this way they become capable of loving with all our hearts, souls, mind and strength, because they are heavenly hearts, heavenly minds.
What do we see when we set our hearts and minds on things above? We see Christ sitting on the right hand of God. We see the One to whom we are apprenticed:
“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created; things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” (Col.1:15-19)
Take a breath for a moment, take another look at that powerful description of Jesus and consider this: you did not chose him, he chose you. Astonishing, isn't it? So now we have our eyes on him we need never, dare not take them off him again because he is the way (Jn.14:16) and he is the light (Jn.1:1-4) Jesus is the truth lived out and demonstrated for the world to see and we are the living evidence that this is so.
The original disciples spent a lot of time with Jesus and eventually were also sent to live out the truth among the people the way Jesus did, to do greater things. So the way to be a disciple is to have our eyes on Jesus and follow him, like an apprentice following and copying the master strokes of the craftsman and live as children of the light in a darkened world. Paul describes this way of learning by copying in this passage:
“For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not simply with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction. You know how we lived among you for your sake. You became imitators of us and of the Lord; in spite of severe suffering, you welcomed the message with joy given by the Holy Spirit. And so you became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia.” (1 Thess.1:5-7)
Did you get that? You know you have been chosen by God when your faith is worked out in power and conviction and the indwelling Spirit. If you are a disciple you will imitate the mature lives of others and of the Lord and you will , in turn, become an example to others. Furthermore, this life of fixing our eyes on Jesus, imitating him and the good examples of others brings us peace. “Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me – put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.” (Philip.4:9)
Disciples of Jesus spend time with Jesus and encourage one another in the things of the kingdom (Acts 2:42-47) Discipleship is not a solitary enterprise but is practised in community. That is why we need to learn to love one another. We are going to spend eternity together and we will spend it in the kingdom of God so we had better learn to love. The sooner we set our hearts and minds there the better prepared we will be for his coming and for that time when nothing will ever again get in the way of our knowing and worshipping him, knowing the kingdom of God among us.
The miracle of the gospel is not that God brings order to a disordered society but that God creates anew a society of saved people, disciples, out of the confusion of the lost. Who wouldn't want to be a disciple in such an enterprise, to such a Saviour?