Signs in John's Gospel
Arlen L. Chitwood
Except a Man . . . . (1)
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 and said to him, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again [born from above], he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (John 3:1-3)
(This is the first of three chapters dealing with the birth from above, being brought forth out of God, in the gospel of John, 1 Peter, and 1 John.)
The birth from above is introduced in John’s gospel in the first chapter (vv. 11-13) and is expanded upon and dealt with more fully in the third chapter (vv. 3-8).
In chapter one, this birth is seen having to do with individuals being brought forth completely apart from anything connected with man, through a work connected solely and completely with God:
. . . not of [‘out of’] blood, nor of [‘out of’] the will of the flesh, nor of [‘out of’] the will of man, but of [‘out of’] God. (v. 13)
And this divine work, textually, has to do with those to whom Christ came 2,000 years ago — the Jewish people. Through receiving the Christ, believing, the Jewish people were given the “power [‘right’] to become the sons of God [Greek: ‘children of God’]” (v. 12).
Then in chapter three, the words, “from above,” are used relative to this birth, with the subject matter being signs, and the proffered kingdom (vv. 1-3). And, again, the Jewish people are in view.
Nicodemus, a Pharisee, a teacher among the Jewish people, had come to Jesus “by night.” Nicodemus referenced the signs being performed, acknowledging that he and others (apparently other religious leaders) knew that the One performing these signs in the presence of the people could only be “a teacher come from God.”
In His response, Jesus remained completely within the scope of the subject at hand, though He moved beyond the thought of signs and dealt with the heart of the matter. Jesus immediately dealt with the necessity of the birth from above (previously introduced as a birth out of God [1:13]) — an absolute necessity if an individual were to “see” that to which the signs pointed, the kingdom of God.
During Moses and Joshua’s day, and during Elijah and Elisha’s day, signs had been manifested in the presence of the Jewish people in connection with the Old Testament theocracy. In this respect, drawing from the Old Testament Scriptures, a manifestation of signs surrounding Christ’s first coming, of necessity, could only have had to do with the proffered kingdom (ref. chapter 3 of this book).
Nicodemus’ query and Jesus’ response emanated from a background and setting of this nature. Though Nicodemus may have understood the reason for signs and that which they portended, he didn’t understand what Jesus meant when He called attention to the birth from above as a necessity for seeing the kingdom. His thoughts shifted from that of “signs” to Jesus’ statement concerning the birth from above (3:3, 4), and Jesus then went on to explain the matter (vv. 5ff).
(“Seeing” the kingdom in v. 3 should not be understood as something different from “entering” the kingdom in v. 5. Though two different Greek words are used, the same word translated “see” in v. 3 [horao] is used farther down in the same chapter [v. 36] in a synonymous sense to “enter” — i.e., not seeing life in v. 36 can only, textually, be viewed as synonymous with not entering into life [cf. Matthew 5:20; 7:21; 19:17]. In this respect, John 3:5ff simply forms commentary for that which had previously been stated in v. 3.)
Thus, this birth in John’s gospel is seen as a birth out of God (1:13) and/or a birth from above (3:3, 7). And this is in perfect keeping with the manner in which this birth is seen in all of the other New Testament passages where it is referenced — 1 Peter 1:3, 23 and 1 John 2:29; 3:9; 4:7; 5:1, 4, 18.
In John 3:3, 7, the wording in the Greek text relating to this birth is different than it is in 1 Peter 1:3, 23 (two words are used in John, and a compound word is used in 1 Peter), but the English translation in both instances should be the same — born from above. Then, in 1 John, the translation throughout is seen to be the same as in John 1:13 — a birth, a bringing forth, out of God.
(Gennao, the Greek word for “begotten” or “bringing forth,” is used throughout the references in John, 1 Peter, and 1 John.
In John 3:3, 7, the word gennao appears with another Greek word, anothen, which means “from above.” Though anothen could be understood and translated “again,” this translation would not really follow the manner in which this birth had previously been introduced in John 1:13 [a birth out of God]. Thus, understanding anothen in its primary sense — “from above” [cf. John 3:31; 19:11] — forms a more natural flow of thought from that previously seen in the first chapter.
Then, in 1 Peter 1:3, 23, gennao appears in a compound form, anagennao. The preposition ana, which has the primary meaning of “up,” has been prefixed to the word. And though the preposition prefixed to the word in both verses is usually translated “again” in English translations [an acceptable and correct understanding and translation of the word in many instances], this would not really be in keeping with either the primary meaning of the preposition or the manner in which this birth [a bringing forth] is expressed in both the gospel of John [“out of God” and “from above”] and his 1 John [“out of God”].
The correct understanding and translation of anagennao in 1 Peter 1:3, 23 should be the same as that seen through the use of gennao and anothen together in John 3:3, 7 — born from above, a birth or a bringing forth that is introduced in the gospel of John and is continued in 1 John as being out of God.)
Out of God, from Above
The birth “out of God” (John 1:13) or “from above” (John 3:3, 7) is almost universally taught in Christendom as having to do with a birth experienced by unsaved people, occurring at the moment they believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and pass “from death unto life.” That is, the Spirit breathing life into an unsaved individual, based on Christ’s finished work at Calvary, is looked upon as the birth “out of God,” “from above,” seen in these verses.
The problem is that this is not the manner in which the matter is introduced in John 1:13; nor is this the manner in which the matter is continued in John 3:3, 7; nor is this the manner in which the matter is seen in either 1 Peter or 1 John.
This is not to say that the divine work surrounding an unsaved individual believing on the Lord Jesus Christ and being saved is not to be viewed in the same manner, i.e., as being brought forth “out of God,” “from above.” Rather, it is to say that the verses being used (John 1:13; 3:3, 7; 1 Peter 1:3, 23; 1 John 2:29; 3:9; 4:7; 5:1, 4, 18) don’t refer to this initial work of God through the Spirit. Instead, they refer to subsequent works of God through the Spirit — subsequent works (pl.) because that which is connected with the bringing forth “out of God” is not the same in each instance.
The work surrounding an unsaved individual, “dead in trespasses and sins,” passing “from death unto life,” can only be a divine bringing forth “out of God,” “from above.” However, Scripture never uses the type of terminology seen in the referenced verses from the gospel of John, 1 John, and 1 Peter relative to this divine work, unless possibly a verse such as Isaiah 66:8 would be referring to this facet of Israel’s future acceptance of Christ.
There can be no divine work performed among man (either saved or unsaved man) apart from this work occurring “out of God,” “from above.” Such would be impossible. And, in this respect, the verses from the gospel of John, 1 John, and 1 Peter do describe the source of the work of salvation by grace (for it is the same, it has to be — i.e., out of God, from above), though these verses do not pertain to this work per se.
The problem, as previously noted, is that Christians have been quick to remove these verses from their respective contexts and misapply them, making these verses deal with something that the verses don’t deal with at all. And, through so doing, that work of God that the Spirit intended, as He moved men to pen these verses, is done away with.
The remainder of this article will show, in all places where the birth from above is referenced (the gospel of John, 1 Peter, 1 John), why the verses dealing with this subject must be looked upon as pertaining to different facets of God’s work among the saved, not to one facet of His work among the unsaved.
The Gospel of John
When Christ came to Israel the first time, He came to a people capable of spiritual perception and discernment, else He could not have appeared on the scene calling for the nation’s repentance and proclaiming the kingdom as being “at hand.” Christ came to a disobedient nation, though to a saved generation of Jews, to a nation that had been sacrificing and availing itself of the blood of the paschal lambs year by year. Christ was born King in the nation’s midst, presenting Himself as the God-sent Deliverer in this respect — deliverance from the consequences of centuries of disobedience (Leviticus 26:14-39; Deuteronomy 28:15-67).
Israel’s spiritual condition and position at this time was that of a son being chastened because of disobedience (cf. Zechariah 1:14, 15). Or, to place the matter within another frame of reference, it was that of God dealing with an adulterous wife who had been caught up in harlotry among the nations (cf. Jeremiah 3:1-3).
And, viewing the matter from either vantage point, it is evident that the whole of Christ’s message to Israel had to do with things beyond the thought of eternal salvation. His message had to do with deliverance relative to the nation’s condition, position, and the kingdom being proclaimed. And deliverance effected through receiving the Christ, believing, for the Jews at this time (whether in the offer of the kingdom preceding the events of Calvary or the re-offer following) must be understood accordingly.
(For more detailed information along these lines, refer to the author’s book, From Acts to the Epistles, particularly the first four chapters.)
Those Jews receiving the Christ at His first coming in John 1:12, 13, through believing on His name, were said to be “born . . . of God [‘brought forth out of God’]” and given the right to become “the children of God.” And, as previously noted, such an act centered around deliverance with the kingdom in view, not eternal salvation.
These were Jews, part of a nation that comprised God’s firstborn son (Exodus 4:22, 23), though a disobedient son, being given the right to become ”children of God” through receiving the Christ and being brought forth out of God. And acceptance, belief on the part of the people, could only have had to do with the manner in which Christ presented Himself to the Jewish people (a regal manner), along with the message being proclaimed (the kingdom being “at hand”).
It may at first sound strange to take one who is already a son and view him as a child, but not so. This is exactly the manner in which it had to occur in Israel then or must occur in Christendom today.
Israel had been called out of Egypt under Moses as God’s firstborn son to rule at the head of the nations, with the nations being blessed through Israel. And this entire thought must be carried over into the deliverance that Christ was offering Israel as the One greater than Moses. God’s firstborn son was again being called forth for exactly the same purpose. But at this time, unlike during Moses’ day, a disobedient son was being dealt with.
The matter can be clarified through referencing two passages of Scripture — John 8:31-44 and Hebrews 12:5-8.
In the former passage (John 8:31-44), Jews rejecting the Christ were looked upon as children of the Devil (vv. 37-44). And Jews receiving the Christ, according to John 1:12, 13, had been removed from this position and given the right to become the children of God.
In the latter passage (Hebrews 12:5-8), sons are seen being trained from the vantage point of a child. The Greek word translated “chastening,” “chastens,” and “chastisement” (KJV) in this section has to do with child-training. The passage deals with sons presently being child-trained, with a view to Christ one day bringing “many sons to glory” with Him (Hebrews 2:10), or, as stated in Romans 8:19, a “manifestation of the sons of God.”
(For additional information on the child-training of sons, refer to the author’s book, God’s Firstborn Sons, chapter 3, pp. 27-33.)
John 1:12, 13 had to do with God taking His disobedient sons (individuals within the nation forming His firstborn son), performing an act similar to that seen in Colossians 1:13 (causing them to change sides with respect to two kingdoms), and then child-training His sons with a view to that which sonship implies — rulership.
And Jesus’ discourse to Nicodemus involved exactly the same thing. It was simply a continuation and expansion of another facet of that which began to be developed earlier in the account. Being brought forth from above in this passage, described as out of God in the previous passage, had to do with being brought forth “out of water and Spirit” (literal rendering from the Greek text).
In the type having to do with the Israelites under Moses, this could only have drawn from the experiences of the Israelites during the Red Sea passage and beyond. It could only have pointed to that seen on the eastern banks and beyond — resurrection life (removed from the place of death [from the waters of the Sea]), with God, through His Spirit, then leading them away from Egypt and the Sea toward another land.
(For additional information on John 3:5 and the typology of the Red Sea passage, refer to the author’s book, Search for the Bride, chapter 6, pp. 78-84.)
John 1:11-13 deals with the child-training of disobedient sons, and John 3:3-8 deals with particulars surrounding this child-training. A deliverance of saved individuals, a deliverance with regality in view, is seen throughout.
God bringing individuals forth in 1 Peter 1:3, 23 has to do with additional commentary on that seen in John 3:3-8. But, rather than the message being drawn from events surrounding the offer of the kingdom to Israel and having to do with a re-offer of the kingdom to Israel (as in the gospel of John), the message in 1 Peter is directed to the one to whom the kingdom of the heavens was offered after it had been taken from Israel (cf. Matthew 21:33-45; 1 Peter 2:9, 10).
The message in 1 Peter is seen directed to the one new man “in Christ,” to Christians. And it is a simple matter to see in both verses in 1 Peter chapter one (vv. 3, 23) that the birth from above — being brought forth from above, out of God — has to do with saved individuals, not with the unsaved.
1 Peter 1:3 should literally read:
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who, according to His abundant mercy, hath begotten us from above with respect to a living hope, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ out of the dead.”
Being brought forth from above in this verse is with respect to a living hope, made possible through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from among the dead. Christians have been saved for a purpose, and that purpose is seen in the entirety of this verse, along with the verses which follow (vv. 4ff). That is to say, Christians have been saved (a past bringing forth from above) with a view to their being brought forth from above (present aspect of salvation), which has to do with a living hope, a hope made possible through Christ’s resurrection. And this hope has to do with an incorruptible inheritance inseparably connected with the saving of the soul (vv. 4-10).
The salvation presently possessed by every Christian has to do with Christ’s death. It has to do with death and shed blood. This is the unchangeable manner in which matters were set forth in Genesis, beginning with chapter three. This is why Paul, when first going to Corinth and dealing centrally with unsaved individuals, proclaimed one message alone — “Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:1, 2).
The gospel of grace involves death and shed blood. Then, burial and resurrection form continuing parts of the overall gospel message and have to do with present and future aspects of salvation. Seen within the type beginning in Exodus chapter twelve, death and shed blood would have to do with that involved in the slaying of the paschal lambs and the proper application of the blood. The death of the firstborn, with God being satisfied, occurred at this point. But burial and resurrection are seen at points beyond — at the Red Sea passage, and on the eastern banks of the Sea.
Being brought forth from above in 1 Peter 1:3 has to do with resurrection, not with death and shed blood. It has to do with realizing a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from among the dead. Thus, it can only have to do with present and future aspects of salvation, not with the past aspect.
A different facet of the same thing is seen in 1 Peter 1:23. The begetting from above is accomplished “through the living and abiding Word of God” (NASB). And it is plain from continuing verses (vv. 24, 25) that verse twenty-three is referring to the written word, which is “living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword . . . .” (Hebrews 4:12a).
The picture in 1 Peter 1:23 is that of the metamorphosis (cf. Romans 12:1, 2; Colossians 3:10) — the indwelling Spirit taking the implanted Word and effecting spiritual growth from immaturity to maturity (James 1:21). This work of the Spirit is spoken of in 1 Peter 1:23 as something brought forth from above (out of God); and this can be experienced only by the saved, for (1) the person must first possess spiritual life, and (2) the saving of the soul is in view (1 Peter 1:3-9).
(For additional information on the implanted Word and the metamorphosis, refer to the author’s book, Salvation of the Soul, chapters 3, 4.)
Individuals being brought forth out of God in 1 John 2:29; 3:9; 4:7; 5:1, 4, 18 has to do with additional commentary on that seen in both John 1:11-13 and John 3:3-8, along with being perfectly in line with that seen in 1 Peter 1:3, 23.
1 John though is slightly different than 1 Peter. Though it is evident that 1 John was written to Christians (as is 1 Peter), the book was also evidently written for the same purpose as the gospel of John. The structure of 1 John runs parallel with parts of John’s gospel, particularly the opening three chapters of the gospel, along with the stated purpose in chapter twenty (vv. 30, 31).
Note that John began his epistle as he had begun his gospel — taking the reader all the way back to the beginning (cf. John 1:1; 1 John 1:1). Then, after dealing with matters in this respect, along with singling out Christ and pointing to His true identity (exactly as seen in the gospel account), John immediately places matters within the confines of the typology of the tabernacle. He calls attention to sin, confession of sin, and forgiveness of sin.
Though it is not dealt with in so many words, there appears to be an allusion and call to Israel in this respect (paralleling the call for “repentance” in the gospel accounts). The Jewish people had sinned, but forgiveness could be forthcoming, if . . . . And this allusion and call to Israel continues at places throughout the epistle in matters related to being brought forth out of God.
Note, for example, that being brought forth out of God in 1 John 5:1-5 is identical to that seen in John 1:11-13; 20:30, 31. In both places, being brought forth out of God has to do with believing that “Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.”
This is exactly what the Jewish people were expected to believe in both the offer and re-offer of the kingdom. Both of the words “Christ” and “Son,” textually, have regal implications — the Christ (the Messiah, the One who was to rule and reign); and the Son (“Sonship,” implying rulership, for only Sons can rule in God’s kingdom). This was the One to whom God would one day give the scepter and place on His “holy hill of Zion” (Psalm 2:6, 7; Daniel 7:13, 14; Revelation 11:15).
The signs in John’s gospel were given to effect belief among the Jewish people that Jesus was the Christ, God’s Son, who would one day take the scepter and reign. This is seen connected with being brought forth out of God in John 1:11-13, and this is seen exactly the same way in 1 John 5:1-5.
In the preceding respect, 1 John, undoubtedly written during the time of the re-offer of the kingdom to Israel (as John’s gospel), would have to be viewed much like Romans 1:16 (cf. Romans 2:5-16) — “to the Jew first, and also to the Greek.”
(For information concerning the time of the offer and subsequent re-offer of the kingdom to Israel, refer to page 11 in chapter 1 of this book.)
Being brought forth out of God in 1 John (mentioned ten times in six verses [2:29; 3:9 (twice); 4:7; 5:1 (three times); 5:4; 5:18 (twice)]) has to do with exactly the same thing as seen in John’s gospel (chapters 1, 3) or Peter’s first epistle (1:3, 23). It has to do with works of the Spirit among the saved (which are not necessarily identical in each instance), connected with a child-training of sons.
For example, note that being brought forth in this manner has to do with believing the truth about Jesus being the Christ, God’s Son, in John 1:11-13 and 1 John 5:1, 5; and in John 3:5, 1 Peter 1:3, 23, and most of the references in 1 John, the thought of being brought forth in this manner has to do with maturity in the faith. Within the scope of being brought forth out of God in 1 John, only that which is of God will manifest itself.
This will explain why mainly perfect tenses are used in the Greek text throughout 1 John, pointing to a past, completed action, existing during present time in a finished state (eight of the ten usages in 1 John are in the perfect tense, as well as John 3:6, 8 and 1 Peter 1:23) — a tense structure showing present action among believers surrounding that which is out of God, based on a past divine work.
Also, this will explain why sin cannot exist within the scope of that which is brought forth out of God in 1 John 3:6, 9; 5:18. Anything connected with the world, the flesh, and the Devil must exist outside the scope of that brought forth out of God. And, conversely, things such as abiding in Him, keeping His commandments, and love must exist within the scope of that which is brought forth out of God.
The whole of the matter is really that simple and easy to understand.