Artistic masterpieces in museums, volumes of philosophy in libraries, and the cutting-edge research conducted in laboratories all evidence humanity's potential for brilliance. Although human beings are indeed capable of ugliness and destruction, they are also capable of decencies. Systems—legal, cultural, educational, and religious—have been established, premised on the belief that if only educated and refined, we are full of promise. Our endeavors to rein in boorish impulses and cultivate the more noble ones are long-standing. Human beings have long attempted to achieve mastery over base drives. Today, this deep-seated awareness that humanity needs improvement has become even more ubiquitous. Bookstores are lined with shelves of "self-help" books. For those with attitude problems, there exists a methodology behind attitude-improvement. For those whose marriages are failing, there exist entire professions and support networks to counsel troubled couples. And, with the New Year come "New Years resolutions," plans of attack whereby we aim to slough off ignoble behavior and strive to be better. So whether we espouse a certain ethic or merely make silent promises to ourselves, we strive for improvement.
A Righteous Man
The Bible gives us an account of a man named Nicodemus who also was preoccupied with self-cultivation. With this motive, Nicodemus one day approached Jesus Christ in hope of receiving teaching. Jesus, however, steered him away from the realm of self-improvement and led him to see his need for divine life.
At the time that Nicodemus approached Jesus, he could boast of many achievements. Not only did he hold a respectable political position (the Bible identifies him as "a ruler of the Jews"1), but he also was a Pharisee. The Pharisees formed an orthodox Jewish sect that aimed to keep the Jewish religion utterly pure and unadulterated. Repudiating all foreign influences that might contaminate their sacred religion, they rigidly adhered to the divine law. The fact that he was a Pharisee indicates that Nicodemus was extraordinarily well-educated and religiously zealous. With these accomplishments in view, Nicodemus certainly had reached a near-pinnacle of human attainment. Yet he sought more. Because of his culture and religion, he equated being godly with proper teaching. Hoping to further improve himself, Nicodemus came to Jesus for higher teaching.
The Kingdom of God
Jesus emphatically redirected his line of thought. Rather than give him any kind of teaching, Jesus responded to Nicodemus, saying, "Truly, truly, I say to you, Unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God."2 To the Lord, teaching and virtue were all irrelevant. He paid no attention to Nicodemus's catalog of attainments. Instead He pointed out the real need. He did not need flawless humanity; rather, he needed to be born anew into the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is a kingdom of life; it is a realm in which God's life dominates and that is full of the blessing and enjoyment of this life. To enter the kingdom of God, Nicodemus needed to have a life that matched the life of this kingdom: the divine life.
That night, after Jesus enlightened him of his need to be born anew, bewilderment befell Nicodemus. He supposed that Jesus was referring to a physical rebirth. Confounded at this prospect, he asked, "How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born, can he?"3 Certainly, a rebirth of this manner is impossible. Yet even if it were possible, a human delivery can only bring forth a human being. It is as Jesus stated: "That which is born of the flesh is flesh."4 Since we are born of human parents, that is, of a fleshly source, we can only be human. Birth into the human kingdom endows us with the human life, regardless of what kind of unusual behavior we take on. For example, should we force ourselves to gallop rather than walk, we would not become horses. And if we choose to bark rather than speak, we remain human beings. It is ridiculous to imagine that barking will bring us into the animal kingdom. Similarly, we are misled if we imagine that behavioral adjustments will usher us into the kingdom of God.
Like Nicodemus, we need to be born of a different source, that is, to be born again. We do not need another birth in time but another birth in nature. We need to be regenerated so that in addition to the human life that we receive from our parents, we possess the life of God. Human life, no matter how good or refined, is not able to enter into the divine kingdom. The life of God, however, is qualified.
The Divine Life...
Because Christ died on the cross and resurrected from the dead, His life is available to whomever desires to receive it. John 3:16 says "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that every one who believes into Him would not perish, but would have eternal life." The only begotten Son, who is the image of the invisible God, is the embodiment of God.5 While having the outward appearance of a man, Jesus contained the immeasurable and unlimited life of God. Motivated by God's profound love toward us, He died a humiliating death on our behalf, bearing our sins on the cross. In addition to dying for our transgressions, Jesus also became the life-giving Spirit in resurrection.6 His death enabled Him to release the divine life that was contained within His human form during his life on earth. As the life-giving Spirit in resurrection, He can enter into us as the divine life.7 The life of God does not exist in some distant, blockaded realm; on the contrary, it is available to us today.
...Becoming Our Life
We can receive this divine life simply by believing. John 1:12-13 makes it clear that by believing into the Lord's name we receive Jesus Himself: "But as many as received Him, to them He gave the authority to become children of God, to those who believe into His name, who were begotten not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God." Into in this verse not only indicates that we must believe that He exists, but it implies a subjective acceptance of Jesus as the Christ. Our human birth gives us human, but not divine life. To receive divine life, we must believe that Jesus is the Christ. One who believes that Jesus is the Christ, the Bible assures us, has been begotten of God.8 The Bible also tells us that whoever has the Son has the life.9 Not only do we receive a life that is eternal, uncreated, and indestructible, we receive a life that matches the divine life of God's kingdom.
A New Life
Realizing that self-improvement is irrelevant, we can put to rest our mental resolutions and retire our self-help books back to their shelves. Now cognizant of the fact that our need is the divine life, we can cease our attempts to better ourselves. Of course, that is not to say that we should behave recklessly; such conduct proves irresponsible both to ourselves and to others. How we ornament our human life does not bring us out of Satan's kingdom; receiving the life of God does. Whether we are good or bad, disciplined or uncontrolled, tempered or riotous, we need the life of God. Whether young or old, we can be born anew and experience a marvelous transfer out of the kingdom of Satan and into the kingdom of God. Simply by asking Him, we receive this life and pass out of death into life.10
1 John 3:1. (back) 2 John 3:2,3. (back) 3 John 3:4. (back) 4 John 3:6. (back) 5 Colossians 1:15. (back) 6 First Corinthians 15:45b. (back) 7 cf. John 11:25. (back) 8 First John 5:1. (back) 9 First John 5:12. (back) 10 John 5:24. (back)
If you wish to be born anew to receive the divine life of God, simply open your heart and pray,
Lord Jesus, I realize my need to be born of God. Thank You that Your precious blood cleanses me of my sins. Thank You that I can receive the divine life, which You made available to me in Your resurrection. Lord Jesus, I receive You as the divine life right now. Thank You that in addition to my human life, I now have the life of God. I love You, Lord Jesus!