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The next story that the apostle compiled is a further explanation of Jesus’ first sign regarding turning water into wine. The sign was ultimately about sonship, or how to become sons of God, as set forth earlier in John 1:12 and 13. Turning water into wine is about being transformed from soulish sons of Adam to spiritual sons of God.
Nicodemus was a perfect illustration of this, because the conversation he had with Jesus was all about how to become a son of God.
Nicodemus appears to be the first Pharisee to engage Jesus in a serious face-to-face discussion. It is likely that he came at the urging of his friend, Joseph of Arimathea. John 3:1, 2 says,
1 Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews; 2 this man came to Him by night and said to Him, “Rabbi, we know that You have come from God as a teacher; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.”
Nicodemus came with a great compliment, confirming (perhaps inadvertently) the prophetic name Immanuel that had been given to Jesus even before His birth ((Matt. 1:23). Immanuel means “God with us,” and Nicodemus recognized that God was indeed with Him.
This Pharisee stands in contrast to those in John 2:23 who believed openly at first but who later denied Jesus by siding with the chief priests in their condemnation of Him. Nicodemus started out believing in secret but in the end proved that his faith was genuine. History tells us that both Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea were later expelled from the Sanhedrin and exiled for their faith in Jesus.
John himself tells us that when Joseph of Arimathea claimed Jesus’ body after His crucifixion, Nicodemus brought spices in which to wrap His body (John 19:39, 40). These two Sanhedrin members thus openly showed their disagreement and disapproval of the verdict against Jesus. The stoning of Stephen (Acts 7) was the main turning point where they knew that they had to leave the city of Jerusalem.
In those early days, when the persecution of Christians came primarily from Jerusalem, Caesarea was the obvious place for a Christian to find refuge from the persecutions taking place in Jerusalem. Caesarea was a Roman city, built by Herod the Great from 25-13 B.C. and specifically named for Augustus Caesar. It was an administrative center for the Judean Province in the Roman Empire. During the time of Jesus’ crucifixion and afterward, the centurion in charge of the Roman troops was Cornelius (Acts 10:1).
Cornelius may have been converted by Philip, who went there after ministering in Samaria and after his encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:40). In fact, Philip lived and ministered in Caesarea for many years, providing a refuge for Christians fleeing Jerusalem (Acts 21:8). Paul himself was later taken to Caesarea for his own protection (Acts 23:23, 24).
Nicodemus also spent some time in Caesarea after leaving Jerusalem. John W. Taylor writes on page 63 of his book, The Coming of the Saints,
“At Caesarea we find (according to the ‘Recognitions’) St. Joseph of Arimathea, Nicodemus, St. Lazarus, St. Zaccheus, and the ‘Holy Women’—probably St. Salome, the mother of St. James, St. Mary, the wife of Cleopas, St. Martha, and St. Mary Magdalene. Such appears to have been, so far as we can gather, the earliest disposition of the disciples after the persecution which arose about St. Stephen.”
The Recognitions reference in the above quotation is known as the Recognitions of Clement (bishop of Rome from 88-99 A.D.). Some historians doubt that Clement of Rome was the actual author of these books, but their value as history is in no way diminished.
The point is that the Apostle John had known Nicodemus very well in the early years of the church. Hence, he knew Nicodemus’ story firsthand and included it in his gospel to give us Jesus’ own teachings on sonship and to show how these teachings supported the first sign—turning water into wine.
When Nicodemus came to Jesus by night, he was not alone in believing in Jesus. He said, “we know that You have come from God as a teacher.” Nicodemus was just one of those who knew. (Joseph was another.) Yet he stopped short of believing that Jesus was the Messiah, for it was too early in his investigation of Jesus’ ministry to commit himself to such an important and controversial position.
Nicodemus and Jesus must have talked about many things, but the apostle focuses on one particular part of their conversation: sonship. John 3:3 says,
3 Jesus answered and said to him, “Truly, truly, [“amen, amen”] I say to you, unless one is born again [gennao anothen], he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
The term “born again” is a common evangelical term used today to describe a genuine believer in Christ. The Greek words used here are gennao and anothen. As I have explained earlier, gennao has a double meaning, depending on whether it is applied to a man or a woman. When applied to a man, it means “to beget.” When applied to a woman, it means “to give birth.”
In John 3:3 it is unclear how to translate it. John may have been speaking of the process including both conception and birth. We know that sonship is not simply a matter of being begotten by the Spirit, for many later miscarry through neglect of the word or even deliberately abort this new creation man by renouncing Christ. To be a son of God ultimately requires birthing as well. Birth is the ultimate confirmation of conception, where one can see the nature of what was conceived.
Conception is achieved through the feast of Passover; growth and development comes through Pentecost by following the leading of the Spirit; birthing comes through the feast of Tabernacles.
The second term, anothen, means “from above, from a higher place.” Only rarely does it mean “repetition” or “again.’
This word implies conception through seed that comes from above and is heavenly, rather than earthly. In John 3:31 the apostle quotes John the Baptist, who uses this word anothen, who says,
31 He who comes from above [anothen] is above all, he who is of the earth is from the earth and speaks of the earth. He who comes from heaven is above all.
As we see, coming “from above” is equated to coming “from heaven.” So “born again” seems to strain the meaning and is probably based on the translators’ lack of sonship understanding. Hence, in my view Jesus was telling Nicodemus, “unless one is begotten/born from above, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
John 3:4 gives us Nicodemus’ response:
4 Nicodemus said to Him, “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?”
Though he was a respected member of the Sanhedrin, he did not understand how to become a son of God. He knew only about earthly conception and birth. Until Mary was impregnated by the Holy Spirit to bring forth the Son of God, spiritual birth was not known or revealed. It was prophesied in certain Old Testament writings, but it was veiled and hidden through types and shadows.
It is therefore likely that when the apostle penned Jesus’ words in John 1:12, 13, he was laying the foundation for the story of Nicodemus. Perhaps the apostle was paraphrasing Jesus’ own conversation with Nicodemus. Most likely, Jesus confided to His disciples what He had told Nicodemus in private. Whatever the case, the apostle did not see fit to repeat those precise words. His explanation to Nicodemus is summarized in John 3:5-7,
5 Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not marvel that I said to you, “You must be born again.”
This is a further explanation of what Jesus had told Nicodemus earlier. To be “born of water” is the equivalent of being “born of the flesh.” Moses’ name means “born of water” (Exodus 2:10). But to be “born of the Spirit” is obviously not a fleshly process.
It was known at the time that an embryo lives in water. Today we call it amniotic fluid, but it was water to Nicodemus. Water always accompanied a baby’s natural birth. Being born of the Spirit was qualitatively different, Jesus told him.
In John 3:3 Jesus spoke of seeing the Kingdom, but in John 3:5 He spoke of entering the kingdom. Both ideas are inherent in this process, but the difference appears to tie in with the two meanings of gennao. After conception, one sees the evidence of pregnancy as the woman’s belly grows, but only at birth does the baby enter the outside world as such.
One may also view it in reverse, of course. At conception, a baby enters the world, and at birth the baby is seen visibly. However we view this, it is clear that it is a two-step process not only in the natural but also in the spiritual.
Moses, for instance, saw the Promised Land (kingdom) but did not enter it (Deut. 34:4). In that way, Moses represented the Old Covenant, which can show men the kingdom of God but cannot give anyone entrance. Moses leads us to the kingdom, but Joshua (Jesus) must lead us into the kingdom through the New Covenant.
This is also seen in the name of Moses himself, for he was so named because he was drawn from water (Exodus 2:10). In the biblical types and shadows, Moses had been placed in an ark and put into the Nile River so that he might picture natural childbirth as he was “born of water.” This takes us back to John 1:17, where we read that “the Law was given through Moses; grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ.”
When John and Paul spoke of “the law,” they often meant the Old Covenant, which is based upon the will of man and man’s ability to fulfill his vow of obedience in order to attain “life.” Such fleshly vows are incapable of imparting immortality, for men are unable to keep their vows, regardless of their sincerity. Immortal life, then, must come by grace (the will of God) and truth, that is, believing truth, which is the basis of genuine faith. Faith is the requirement for spiritual conception.
John 3:8 says,
8 The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born [gennao] of the Spirit.
Even as water represents natural, fleshly begetting and birthing, so also does wind represent spiritual begetting and birthing. Wind is pneuma in Greek and ruach in Hebrew. Ruach can be translated as wind, breath, or spirit. One may observe a river and see its source and where it ends, but one cannot do the same with the wind.
When one is begotten by the Holy Spirit (“wind”), it is through faith that comes through hearing the word (Rom. 10:17). One is begotten through the ear, and the seed of the word that is implanted in one’s heart is not always observable, apart from spiritual discernment.
This entire passage is designed to show us the contrast between natural and spiritual childbirth. Many do not understand the difference even today, for they still maintain that men are chosen by bloodline, or that men are saved by their own will, or that men are saved by the pronouncements and declarations of men. John clearly opposes such teaching, both in John 1:12, 13 and again in John 3:5, 6.
When Jesus told Nicodemus the difference between natural and spiritual birth, this prominent and well-educated member of the Sanhedrin did not seem to know anything about this. John 3:9, 10 says,
9 Nicodemus said to Him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered and said to him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and do not understand these things?”
Knowledge of the principles of sonship begins properly with the revelation of Christ’s own virgin birth after He was begotten by the Holy Spirit in Matt. 1:18-20. But Nicodemus had not heard of this—or if he had heard rumors of it at the time Jesus was born, he had long forgotten it. Perhaps he had dismissed it as superstition. Whatever the case, he certainly had no revelation of it.
Jesus continued in John 3:11, 12,
11 “Truly, truly [“amen, amen”], I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness of what we have seen; and you do not accept our testimony. 12 If I told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things?”
Jesus was speaking in judicial terms, as if he were ready and willing to provide testimony in a court of law only to have the judge refuse to allow such testimony. Proper testimony is based on telling the court what we know and what we have seen as eyewitnesses in a case. Hence, Jesus was telling Nicodemus that He was an eyewitness with firsthand knowledge to be testified under oath: “Amen, Amen.”
When Jesus said “we,” He was probably using formal terminology, but He was also implying that others could also give testimony in regard to spiritual birthing. His mother, for instance, was still living.
When Jesus said “you,” He was not just referring to Nicodemus himself but was including the entire Sanhedrin with its president and high priest, Caiaphas. We know that the Pharisees among the Sanhedrin had already sent a delegation to inquire about John the Baptist (John 1:24). John had borne witness to Jesus.
Perhaps Mary’s uncle, Joseph of Arimathea, had already attempted to introduce evidence supporting Jesus’ calling but had been refused. As fellow Sanhedrin members, perhaps Nicodemus had heard Joseph’s words and had been stirred to do his own private investigation. Was that why Nicodemus came to Jesus by night?
In verse 12 Jesus implies a longer conversation that John did not record here. “If I told you earthly things, and you do not believe” suggests more than was written in John’s record. What were those “earthly things” that Nicodemus found difficult to believe?
The foundational truth of fleshly and spiritual birth is set forth in the story of Israel’s deliverance and exodus from Egypt. This is the event which was then commemorated by the feast of Passover. John’s gospel, then, culminates with that final Passover where Jesus died on the cross to redeem not only Israel but the entire world. His redemption was not merely about delivering men from physical slavery but from spiritual slavery to sin.
My friend, Mark Eaton, wrote to me, saying,
“I heard a message from Dr. Michael Hiser this weekend… He shared that the book of John, chapter 3, is a direct commentary on the book of Exodus, chapter 12. Jesus said, ‘You are a teacher in Israel, don’t you know these things?” It was a direct reference to the passage in Exodus 12.”
Exodus 12 is about Israel being redeemed from Egypt on the feast of Passover. When God instructed Moses to lead Israel out of Egypt to the Promised Land, He said in Exodus 4:22-23,
22 Then you shall say to Pharaoh, “Thus says the Lord, ‘Israel is My son, My first-born.’ 23 So I said to you, ‘Let My son go, that he may serve Me;’ but you have refused to let him go. Behold, I will kill your son, your first-born.”
Hosea 11:1 bore witness to this, saying,
1 When Israel was a youth, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called My son.”
Jesus, too, was taken to Egypt in order to fulfill this prophecy of Israel (Matt. 2:15). In other words, the earthly event where God physically birthed Israel out of Egypt (the “mother” of Israel) was fulfilled prophetically in Jesus Himself. The difference was that Israel was fleshly, while Jesus was spiritual.
Israel’s Father was God; Israel’s mother was Egypt. This was based on the pattern of Ishmael, whose father was Abram and whose mother was Hagar the Egyptian. Paul discusses this more extensively in Galatians 4, telling us frankly that the earthly Jerusalem was “Hagar,” who represented the Old Covenant. Jerusalem’s “children” (fleshly Jews) were thus Ishmael, not through genealogy but by their lawful status in the eyes of God.
Jesus’ Father was God; Jesus’ mother was Mary, a true believer. His birth, therefore, followed an upgraded pattern, for though she was yet flesh and blood, she was of the New Covenant, for only the New Covenant can give birth to the inheritors, the sons of God. Mary was not a “Hagar” but a Sarah, the heavenly Jerusalem, “our mother” (Gal. 4:26).
Gen. 16:12 tells us that Ishmael was to be a “wild donkey-man” (pereh awdawm). A donkey is an unclean creature and its firstborn cannot be given to God directly. The law in Exodus 13:12, 13 tells us that a donkey must be redeemed with a lamb and that for this reason, all of the firstborn of Israel had to be redeemed. In other words, they were spiritual Ishmaelites, born of an Egyptian mother. That is why they had to be redeemed by the Passover lamb in order to become the sheep of God’s pasture.
But Jesus was born of Mary and thus had to fulfill the prophecy of Egypt in another way. He was thus taken to Egypt to escape from Herod’s paranoia. Egypt, then, was only His stepmother, so to speak.
These are deep spiritual truths, revealed in the law and by the prophets and through history. Nicodemus was unfamiliar with these things, because they were unknown to the rabbis. The Apostle Paul understood this, however, as we see from Galatians 4. No doubt John understood this as well, for the conflict between Christianity and Judaism was an ongoing manifestation of the conflicting claims of Isaac and Ishmael, who were the sons of different cities and covenants.
The real question was whether Hagar-Old Jerusalem was to be the mother of the inheritor, or if Sarah-New Jerusalem was to be his mother. Scripture tells us to “cast out the bondwoman and her son, for the son of the bondwoman will not be an heir with the son of the free woman” (Gal. 4:30).
Nonetheless, no Jew believes this today, and few Christians as well. Hence, Nicodemus was not alone in his ignorance.
John 3:13-15 continues the theme of Passover, saying,
13 No one has ascended into heaven, but He who descended from heaven, even the Son of Man. 14 As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; 15 so that whoever believes may in Him have eternal life.
In the big picture, Christ “descended from heaven” to die on the cross, and then He “ascended into heaven” forty days after His resurrection. John was looking back at that event, for it occurred many decades before John finished writing his gospel.
Jesus then ascended when He was “lifted up” on the cross to fulfill the type of the serpent that was “lifted up” in the wilderness in the time of Moses. There is an obvious parallel between His being lifted up on the cross and His ascension to heaven. Jesus’ words show us that He already knew that He had come to die on the cross, but it was far too early to reveal this to Nicodemus. So Jesus veiled it through the type and shadow of the serpent in the wilderness (Num. 21:9).
The term “serpent” used in Num. 21:9 is nachash, which has a numeric value of 358. The nun is 50; the chet is 8; the shin is 300.
Likewise, the Hebrew term Messiah has a numeric value of 358. The mem is 40; the shin is 300; the yod is 10; the chet is 8.
Therefore, when Jesus compared Himself to the serpent in the wilderness, He was revealing that He was the Messiah, though few (if any) would have recognized this at the time.
The serpent (nachash) was also the tempter in the Garden of Eden (Gen. 3:1). It seems strange that the Messiah would be identified numerically with the tempter. This does not mean that they are one and the same. When Jesus died on the cross, all the sins of the world were imputed to Him, even as the high priest would lay hands on the lamb or goat to transfer the people’s sins to the animal before killing him. This was legal guilt, not actual guilt, for the lamb was actually innocent, though legally guilty.
So also is it with Jesus, the Lamb of God. He was a Lamb without blemish and “spotless” (1 Peter 1:19), yet He was willing to become legally guilty of the sin of the entire world. He was willing to be declared to be the nachash—the devil himself.
Likewise, being lifted up on the cross defined the Hebrew word ga’al, “redeemer.” It is spelled gimel, aleph, lamed. The gimel literally means “camel,” but it carries the idea of being lifted up. The metaphor literally pictures a camel kneeling down so that a man can mount it, and then the camel stands up, lifting the man high into the air. In the negative sense, gimel can refer to man’s pride, but in the positive sense, it can refer to exaltation.
The last part of ga’al is aleph and lamed, which is the word for “God.” Hence, ga’al literally means “to lift up God.” When Jesus was lifted up on the cross, the people did not realize that He was the great Redeemer of all that had been lost through Adam’s debt to sin (Gal. 3:13). Furthermore, the Redeemer is identified as “God,” for Isaiah 12:2 says “Behold, God is my Yeshua.” Again, Isaiah 62:12 says,
12 And they will call them, “The holy people, the redeemed of the Lord” [Yahweh]. And you will be called, “Sought out, a city [New Jerusalem] not forsaken.”
God is often said to be the great Redeemer. Christ then descended from heaven, showing His pre-existence, and as the Father’s Agent, He died on the cross as “the only begotten God” (John 1:18). This brings us back to the early verses in John’s gospel, showing that Jesus Christ is the Logos who was “in the beginning with (THE) God” and also Himself “was God” (John 1:1, 2).
In the days of Moses, Israel was judged for its sin when God sent fiery serpents among them. Moses built a fiery serpent made of bronze and put it upon a pole (with a crossbar), so that anyone who looked upon it would be healed. This was a prophetic type and shadow revealing how the Messiah would one day be lifted up on the cross, so that anyone who looks upon Him will be given eternal life.
Jesus was lifted up on the cross, not only as a sign of His death but also of His ascension and glorification (John 3:13). Later, on the night before He was to be crucified, His prayer equated His crucifixion with being glorified by His Father (John 17:5). Being lifted up on the cross was the ultimate way in which He manifested God’s name (John 17:6) to His disciples and the world as a whole.
If Jesus had been killed with a sword, or if He had been merely stoned, He would not have been “lifted up” in His death. The “ascension” theme would have been missing or lost. Neither would He have fulfilled His prophetic role as the serpent in the wilderness.
Yet because He was indeed lifted up and glorified in His death, He was able to save the world from the painful bite of the serpent that had brought death to all men.
The incongruity between crucifixion and glorification is explained by the story of the fiery serpents in Num. 21:6, where the term used is seraph nachash. The Hebrew word seraph is singular for seraphim. It literally means “to burn.”
In Isaiah 6:1-3 the prophet saw seraphim around the throne of God, each having six wings. They were declaring, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory.” These burning ones were manifestations of the glory of God. When Jesus was lifted up on the cross as the antidote to the fiery serpents in the wilderness, He was being manifested as a seraph and as nachash at the same time. He became sin for us, yet in so doing, He declared God’s fire and glory.
Another feature of this burning fire was that it fulfilled the principle of sacrifice, especially the burnt offerings in the law, which were burnt up entirely upon the altar. While some have misunderstood the law of sacrifice to mean that the penalty for sin is a burning hell, I see the fire as a manifestation of the glory of God in the seraphim.
If the fire were meant to teach us about an unending fiery judgment, then of necessity Jesus would still be in hell today to pay the penalty for sin. But instead, we find that the wages of sin is death (Rom. 6:23). Death and hell are not the same thing, because “hell” is the grave and is translated correctly in the only passage in all of Paul’s writings where the word is used: “O death, where is thy sting? O grave [hades, or “hell”], where is thy victory” (1 Cor. 15:55, KJV).
Paul was not a hellfire and brimstone preacher. Instead, he presented Christ as “the Lord of glory” in His crucifixion, and the spiritual “fire” seen in the seraphim. For example, 1 Cor. 2:8 says,
8 the wisdom which none of the rulers of this age has understood; for if they had understood it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.
As for the “fire,” we find that the angels of God minister as “a flame of fire” (Heb. 1:7). All of our works will be tried in the fire of His holy standard, and if they fall short of His glory, they will be burned up. 1 Cor. 3:13 says,
13 each man’s work will become evident; for the day will show it, because it is to be revealed with fire, and the fire itself will test the quality of each man’s work.
So when Jesus fulfilled the prophetic type of the seraph nachash (“fiery serpents”), He was lifted up on the cross not only to take upon Himself the penalty for man’s sin but also to manifest His love, His mercy, His heart, and His goodness, which is His glory.
John 3:16 continues this thought, saying,
16 For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.
Putting this verse in context, we see that Christ was lifted up on the cross to die and to manifest the heart of God toward His creation, so that they may “have eternal life.” The next verse completes the thought, for we read in John 3:17,
17 For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world should be saved through Him.
Christ did not abolish judgment, for that, in effect, would disrespect the law of God, which defines His holiness. Instead, He took upon Himself the full penalty of the law so that the world would not be lost. To use the previous metaphor, God did not tell Moses to put the bronze serpent on a cross to judge or condemn those who had sinned; the serpent was lifted up in the wilderness “that the world should be saved through Him.”
Such is the love of God. What seemed to apply mainly to the Israelites in Moses’ day had a greater application for the entire world in Christ’s fulfillment of this prophetic type. As we see in the time of Moses, many Israelites experienced the judgment of God in that they were bitten by the fiery serpents; yet that judgment was designed to motivate the people to look upon the serpent that was lifted up for all to see, thereby healing them.
The universal application of this prophecy is clearly seen later when Jesus again refers to the serpent in the wilderness. John 12:32, 33 says,
32 “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself.” 33 But He was saying this to indicate the kind of death by which He was to die.
In other words, lifting up Christ was not a matter of praising Him, as so many have interpreted it today, but was rather to show the manner of His death by crucifixion above the earth. It was to manifest the glory of the seraphim, the burning fire of God’s holiness, set above the earth as a flaming torch by which men might be drawn to the light.
The success of this plan is assured, for the result is that He will draw “all men” to Himself. The word “draw” is from the Greek word helko, “to drag.” The word does not mean “to woo” or “to entice,” as if the results were uncertain. This statement is actually a preview of the final result seen in the eighth sign in John 21:11,
11 Simon Peter went up and drew [helko] the net to land, full of large fish, a hundred and fifty-three, and although there were so many, the net was not torn.
When fish are caught in a net, they are dragged to the boat according to the will of the fisherman. The fishermen (or fishers of men) do not ask the fish for their opinion, nor do they give them a choice. They overrule the will of the fish. Hence, the 153 fish, representing the sons of God, are brought to Christ, as we read in John 1:13, not “of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.”
The will of the fish is not abolished, but it is certainly overruled by a stronger will. So also, because Christ was indeed “lifted up” on the cross, He will drag all men to Himself. He does not abolish their human will, but He certainly overrules the will of all flesh and all men in the end. This ensures success in His plan to save “the world” and “all men.”
Paul tells us that “love never fails” (1 Cor. 13:8). Imperfect love fails to achieve full success, but the love of God never fails. In the end, He will drag all men to Himself at the Great White Throne. He will summon all who have ever lived to appear before Him, and when He manifests His love and His glory, every knee will bow and every tongue will profess Him as Lord (Phil. 2:10, 11).
In other words, all will experience His irresistible and unfailing love, and all will then know the truth. As Spirit-filled believers, they will then enter a time of judgment wherein the baptism of fire works within their hearts to cleanse and purify them of the “chaff” (flesh) that John the Baptist talked about in Matt. 3:11, 12. This is the “river of fire” in Dan. 7:10 as those resurrected from the dead are judged by God’s verdict, based on the standard of His own holiness seen in the seraphim. When His sentence, the river of fire, has been issued, it forms the “lake of fire” in Rev. 20:14, 15, for it is the outworking of the divine sentence over a period of time.
To become a believer is only the first step toward full salvation. It is a salvation on a Passover level. To be Spirit-filled is salvation on a Pentecostal level, and this is what takes time to bring men to spiritual maturity. So also those who bow their knees and profess Christ will not receive immortality until they have grown to maturity in that final Age. That Age will end with the Creation Jubilee, where any remaining debt to sin will be cancelled by grace alone, and all men will finally return to their lost inheritance.
But the final Jubilee is yet a long way off. Meanwhile, there is indeed judgment through God’s “fiery law” (Deut. 33:2, KJV). Judgment is the process by which God drags all men to Himself. The “fish” do not like it at all, for it causes them fear, but the love of God continues to drag them to Christ in spite of their opposition.
John 3:18 says,
18 He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.
This is why we ought to believe in Christ now, rather than waiting for the Great White Throne. Those who believe in this lifetime may avoid the judgment altogether. Those who do not believe, those who do not claim the death of Jesus Christ as payment for their own sin, are responsible and liable to pay for their own sin. In other words, “he who does not believe has been judged already.” These carry the liability for Adam’s sin, which is why they are born mortal; and they are also liable for their own sin, making them subject to the second death.
John 3:19-21 continues by defining the reason for this judgment:
19 This is the judgment, that the light is come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the light; for their deeds were evil. 20 For everyone who does evil hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. 21 But he who practices the truth comes to the light, that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God.
In the end, the love of God will save all men and drag them to Himself. Meanwhile, however, the will of man opposes the love of God for as long as it can withstand His irresistible love. Jesus said that their motivation is that their deeds are evil, so they do not want those deeds to be exposed by the light of truth. Hence, they prefer darkness. So also, the “fish” try to avoid the net for as long as they are able.
But those who love truth are drawn to the light. This too is a fishing metaphor. The disciples often fished at night (Luke 5:5), using a lamp to attract the fish to the boat. In John 21:3, 4, the disciples caught nothing all night, but as the day dawned, Jesus told them to cast their nets on the right side of the boat. Then they caught 153 large fish.
Such night fishing provided the metaphor of men who are drawn by the light of truth, men who do not love darkness, men who know that their deeds are “wrought in God.” These are the sons of God, represented by the 153 fish.
Jesus’ teachings in John 3 (in connection to the story of Nicodemus) are explanations of the first sign that Jesus did to manifest the glory of God. It is all about the manner in which the sons of God are transformed into the image of Christ. They are transformed from water to wine. These sons of God are those who, even now, are attracted to the light of truth. They no longer avoid the net but willingly come to the disciples in the boat who are shining the light of Christ across the sea of humanity.
These sons of God will not be judged. They are the first fruits of creation (James 1:18), for we know that all of creation is awaiting the manifestation of the sons of God (Rom. 8:19). The first fruits always sanctify the whole harvest, and when creation as a whole sees the first fruits presented to God, it rejoices, because it proves that the divine plan actually works and that they too may follow that path.
This will be the signal to begin the greater harvest of saving the whole world.