Commentary

 

What the Bible Says about Being Born Again

     

By Rev. John Odhner

Photo by Jenny Stein

I was talking recently with someone who was looking forward to becoming a father. He asked me, "Is it hard to learn how to be a good father? How did you deal with that change in your life?"

"One of the nice things about becoming a father," I said, "is that it happened one step at a time. First we got engaged, and then some time later we got married. During that time, talking about parenting helped prepare me mentally. A few months after our marriage, my wife became pregnant, and then we still had nine months before our child was actually born."

"Of course, having a new baby was a big change, but still there were many parenting tasks that came later. For example, discipline wasn't an issue for the first year, and it was two years before we had to help our son learn to get along with his new baby sister. Being a good father all at once would be impossible, but the Lord gives us a chance to learn slowly."

Most changes in our lives are gradual. An inch of growth may take a child half a year. It can take several years to learn to speak a new language or play a musical instrument. Two people can be married in a day, but the actual marriage of minds takes decades to accomplish.

Changes in our spiritual life are also gradual. They take place one step at a time, and spiritual growth will be easier if we know that it does not take place in a moment. It is an ongoing process. Jesus said,

"Unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God." (John 3:3)

Many passages in the Bible indicate that being born again spiritually will be just as much a step by step process as physical conception, gestation, birth, growth, and development. For example, Peter describes it in seven distinct steps:

"Add to your faith, virtue, and to virtue, knowledge, and to knowledge, self-control, and to self-control, perseverance, and to perseverance, godliness, to godliness, brotherly kindness, and to brotherly kindness, love." Only by completing this process can we be sure to enter the Kingdom of God. (2 Peter 1:5)

One reason why being born again must be a gradual process is that it involves a complete change of character. Paul describes it this way:

"If any one be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold all things are become new." (2 Corinthians 5:5)

Rebirth involves new knowledge, new habits, new activities, new loves, and new awareness of the Lord.

New Knowledge

Rebirth does not take place through a blind leap of faith, but through gradual education, study and enlightenment. Jesus said,

"If you continue in My Word, ...the truth shall make you free." (John 15:3)

Truth is the tool of change, the means to a new life. Jesus said,

"Now you are clean through the word which I have spoken unto you." (John 15:3)

Instead of accepting dogmas without question we must make sense of the truth in order to be reborn. Being "childlike" does not mean being childish in our beliefs.

"In malice be children, but in understanding be adults." (1 Corinthians 14:20)

In one of His stories, Jesus describes a good person as one "who hears the Word, and understands it, and also bears fruit." (Matthew 12:23)

Most important of all is the understanding of God. If God's nature is a mystery to us, we can hardly say that we are born again, or that we are His sons. (Compare John 15:15.)

Knowing God goes hand in hand with being born from Him. (1 John 4:7)

"The pure in heart shall see God." (Matthew 5:8)

When we are born again, God "shines in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the Glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ." (2 Corinthians 4:6)

New Habits

Anyone who is in the habit of doing or thinking evil things is living the "old" life, and is incapable of the genuine goodness of the person who has overcome them.

"Can the leopard change its spots? Then may you also do good who are accustomed to do evil." (Jeremiah 13:23) "He who commits sin is the servant of sin." (John 8:34)

Receiving the new life requires fighting against the old habits.

"Cast away from you all the transgressions which you have committed, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit. For why should you die? ...Turn and live!" (Ezekiel 18:21, 31-32.)

"Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean, put away the evil of your doing from My eyes! Cease to do evil, learn to do good." (Isaiah 1:16.)

This kind of repentance cannot take place merely by praying for forgiveness. It requires a struggle, an ongoing battle to overcome the old ways of life. Paul called this a struggle between the "flesh" and the "spirit." (Galatians 4:29, Romans 8:7.)

It is a battle that requires our greatest effort -- "all your heart and all your soul and all your might." (Deuteronomy 6:4)

Eventually, through constant effort, God gives us such power over our habits that we no longer would think of doing something evil. When this time finally comes, we can be called "born again."

"Whoever is born of God does not commit sin.... He cannot sin, because he is born of God." (1 John 3:9)

"Whatever is born of God overcomes the world.... We know that whoever is born of God does not sin, but he who is born of God keeps himself and the wicked one does not touch him." (1 John 5:4, 18)

New Activities

Along with new habits come new activities. A person who neglects to be useful cannot be born again, and cannot go to heaven. Jesus indicated that some Christians would not be saved because they lacked good works.

"Not everyone who says to Me, Lord, Lord, ' shall enter into the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in the heavens." (Matthew 7:21)

In one of His parables, Jesus told of some people who would go into everlasting punishment, not because they had lacked faith, but because they had failed to help people who were in need. (Matthew 25:41-46)

After death, the Lord "renders unto everyone according to his deeds." (Matthew 16:27)

A person who is born again is concerned for others, and orients his life around the work he can do to help others.

"Faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead... A person is justified by works, and not by faith alone." (James 2:17, 24)

To be born again, you must "bring forth fruits worthy of repentance." (Luke 3:8) Service and usefulness are marks of the new life.

New Loves

Even more than faith and more than works, the power that causes a person to be born again is love. Peter tells us that we are reborn by means of loving and for the purpose of loving others.

"Since you have purified your souls in obeying the truth through the spirit in sincere love of the brethren, love one another fervently with a pure heart, being born again...by the word of God." (1 Peter 1:22, 23)

John also makes it very clear that only those who love others can receive the new life:

"We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love his brother abides in death." (1 John 3:14)

"Everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love, does not know God, for God is love." (1 John 4:7-8)

New Awareness of the Lord

We must take it upon ourselves to have faith, to fight the evil impulses within ourselves, to serve others, and to love others if we wish to be born again. Yet in all these things we need also to realize that it is the Lord who is working within us.

"You have also done all our works in us." (Isaiah 26:12)

"There are many forms of work, but all of them, in all people, are the work of the same God." (1 Corinthians 12:6)

In the process of rebirth we come to realize that it is the Lord working within us that enables us to work, believe, struggle, and love. These abilities are His merciful gift. He says,

"I will give you a new heart, and put a new spirit within you...and cause you to walk in my statutes." (Ezekiel 36:26-27)

Patience

In order to be reborn we must renew our knowledge, habits, actions, loves and relationship with the Lord. All this takes time, even a lifetime. Just as childbirth and growth require patience and endurance, so does being born again.

"In your patience you will possess your souls." (Luke 21:19)

"Whoever endures to the end shall be saved." (Matthew 10:22)

God will give eternal life to those who seek it "by patient continuance in doing good." (Romans 2:7)

We cannot expect to be born again in a single moment. Again and again, the Bible advises steadfastness and endurance if we wish to gain the promise of heaven.

"It is good that one should hope and wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord." (Lamentations 3:26, 27)

For although it takes time, if we do our part, the Lord will certainly make it happen.

"Commit your way to the Lord, trust also in Him, and He shall bring it to pass." (Psalms 37:5, 7)

The Bible

 

Matthew 12:23

Study the Inner Meaning

              

23 And all the people were amazed, and said, Is not this the son of David?

   Study the Inner Meaning

Exploring the Meaning of Matthew 12      

By Rev. Dr. Ray Silverman

Chapter 12.

Lord of the Sabbath

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1. At that time Jesus went on the Sabbaths through the grain; and His disciples were hungry, and began to pluck the ears [of grain], and to eat.

2. And the Pharisees seeing said to Him, “Behold, Thy disciples do that which is not permitted to do on a Sabbath.”

3. But He said to them, “Have you not read what David did, when he was hungry, and they that were with him?

4. How he entered into the house of God, and ate the bread [that was] set out, which it was not permitted for him to eat, nor for those who were with him, except for the priests alone?

5. Or have you not read in the law, that on the Sabbaths the priests in the temple profane and are guiltless?

6. And I say to you that a greater than the temple is here.

7. But if you had known what [this] is — I desire mercy and not sacrifice — you would not have condemned the blameless.

8. For the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.”

9. And passing on thence, He came into their synagogue.

10. And behold, there was a man having a dried-up hand, and they asked Him, saying, “Is it permitted to cure on the Sabbaths?” — that they might accuse Him.

11. And He said to them, “What man shall there be of you who shall have one sheep, and if it shall fall into a pit on the Sabbaths, will not [take] hold of it, and raise [it out]?

12. Therefore of how much more value is a man than a sheep? So then it is permitted on the Sabbaths to do well.”

13. Then He says to the man, “Stretch forth thy hand.” And he stretched [it] forth; and it was restored, well like the other.

14. And the Pharisees took counsel against Him, going out, that they might destroy Him.

15. But Jesus knowing [it], withdrew from thence; and there followed Him many crowds, and He cured them all;

16. And admonished them that they should not make Him manifest,

17. That it might be fulfilled what was declared by Isaiah the prophet, saying,

18. “Behold, My Servant whom I have laid hold of; My Beloved, in whom My soul is well pleased; I will put My spirit into Him, and He shall pronounce judgment to the gentiles.

19. He shall not contend, nor cry; neither shall anyone hear His voice in the streets.

20. A bruised reed He shall not break, and smoldering flax He shall not quench, until He put forth judgment to victory.

21. In His name the Gentiles shall hope.”

22. Then one demon-possessed was brought to Him, blind and mute; and He cured him, so that the blind and mute both spoke and saw.

23. And all the crowds were amazed, and said, “Is not this the Son of David?”

24. But the Pharisees hearing said, “This [Man] does not cast out demons except by Beelzebub the ruler of the demons.”

25. But Jesus, knowing their thoughts, said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation, and every city or house divided against itself, shall not stand.

26. And if Satan cast out Satan, he is divided against himself; how then shall his kingdom stand?

27. And if I cast out demons by Beelzebub, by whom do your sons cast [them] out? Therefore, they shall be your judges.

28. But if I cast out demons in the spirit of God, certainly the kingdom of God has come upon you.”
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In the previous episode when Jesus said, “Come to Me all you who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest,” He aligned Himself with the One who created the Sabbath — the day of rest. It is appropriate then, that the next episode begins on the Sabbath day. “At that time Jesus went through the corn fields on the Sabbath. And His disciples were hungry and began to pluck ears of corn and ate” (12:1). When the religious leaders find out about this, they are outraged, and they promptly tell Jesus that His disciples are breaking the Sabbath law: “Look,” they say, “Your disciples are doing what it is not lawful to do on the Sabbath!” (12:2).

It is true that the Sabbath commandment, as given in the Hebrew scriptures, forbids any kind of work on the Sabbath. As it is written, “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God. In it you shall do no work” (Exodus 20:8-10).

The Hebrew scriptures are clear about the importance of observing the Sabbath, and the punishment for breaking this commandment is given in no uncertain terms. According to the book of Exodus, “The seventh day shall be a holy day for you, a Sabbath of rest to the Lord. Whoever does any work on it shall be put to death” (Exodus 35:2). And just to be clear about what is meant by “work” on the Sabbath, this important teaching is added: “You shall kindle no fire throughout your habitations on the Sabbath day” (Exodus 35:3). We also read of a certain man who was caught gathering sticks on the Sabbath, presumably to kindle a fire. As a punishment for his disobedience, he was stoned to death (Numbers 15:32-36).

The Law was clear, then, that no work of any kind was to be done on the Sabbath. But the religious leaders went a step further. Using their own reasoning, they explained how the Sabbath law prohibiting work might be applied to the most trivial acts. As a result, they spelled out numerous ways that the Sabbath might be violated. 1 Included in their list of prohibitions, is the act of plucking grain — which is precisely what the disciples did on this day. When the religious leaders saw this, they were infuriated. Their own traditions had taken on a sacred significance to them, and any violation of these traditions were equated with a violation of God’s law.

In their eagerness to enforce the letter of the law, the religious leaders had forgotten its spirit. The Sabbath is intended to be a day of rest, both physical and spiritual. It is a day to remember that God alone is the doer of all things, the One in whom we live and move and have our being. In remembering this we have rest for our souls. In this state of rest we trust in God and let nothing disturb us. The raging fires of self-love, the flames of hatred, and the burning lusts of ambition are not kindled on this day, nor do we even gather sticks (complaints, irritations, etc.) to start such a fire. We remain peaceful, content, assured of God’s loving protection of our souls and His constant provision for every aspect of our lives. We spend a day enjoying the tranquility and peace of His presence. This is the Sabbath.

Up to this point in Matthew, Jesus has preached, healed, and shown His wondrous power in numerous ways. Although He has done things which have offended and upset the religious leaders, He has not done anything which directly violates their priestly code — until now. The plucking of grain, because it was a form of harvesting, was strictly forbidden on the Sabbath, and yet Jesus allows His disciples to pluck the ears of corn and eat.

It is true that Jesus has already done things He knows will upset the religious authorities, such as forgiving sins and eating with sinners. But now, in allowing His disciples to do something that is directly against their strict code of Sabbath day regulations, He incurs their greatest wrath. He then goes on to tell them that even David, when He was hungry, went into the house of God and ate the showbread — illustrating that the preservation of human life challenges their inhumane, overly strict observance of this Sabbath commandment (12:3).

Jesus then incites further indignation, referring to Himself as being even greater than their holiest place of worship: “I say to you,” He says, “in this place there is One greater than the temple” (12:6). Any human being is of more value than an inanimate object, but Jesus implies much more. He then returns to the ongoing theme of His ministry — the emphasis on mercy, compassion and forgiveness over the empty rituals and meaningless sacrifices of the temple priests: “If you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’” He says, “you would not have condemned the guiltless” (12:7). 2 And finally, He concludes with a most powerful assertion — so far — of His divinity: “For the Son of Man is Lord, even of the Sabbath” (12:8).

If the religious authorities ever wanted to establish a case against Jesus, and to accuse Him of blasphemy, Jesus is now giving them ample grounds to make that case!

But Jesus does not stop there. In the very next episode He goes directly into a synagogue where the religious leaders challenge Him with the question, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” (12:9). This, of course, is a trick question, intended to trap Jesus. In fact, the religious leaders have already ruled that it is unlawful to give medical assistance on the Sabbath. For example, if a man has a broken arm, or even a toothache he must wait until the Sabbath ends before he can do anything about it. 3

Jesus, however, introduces a new, more merciful way of understanding the Sabbath. He asks, “What man is there among you who has one sheep, and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not lay hold of it and lift it out? Then, of how much more value is a man than a sheep? Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath” (12:12). To further emphasize this point, Jesus turns to a man with a withered hand and says, “Stretch out your hand” (12:13). And as soon as the man stretches out his hand, it is healed (12:13).

One would think that the religious leaders would be impressed by this amazing miracle, and happy for the man who had been healed. On the contrary, they are outraged by what appears to them to be a flagrant disregard for their strict traditions. Because of this, they take counsel against Him, deliberating on “how they might destroy Him” (12:9). The irony is intense: the religious leaders take counsel to injure and destroy the One who has come to heal and to save.

While the religious leaders are secretly plotting His destruction, Jesus withdraws from the synagogue and openly continues His Sabbath work. “And great multitudes followed Him, and He healed them all” (12:15). It is noteworthy that Jesus does not confine his object lesson to healing just one person’s hand on the Sabbath. He heals “great multitudes”! It seems that He has a specific point to make, and He could not be making it more dramatically or in a more conspicuous way. He has said that it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath, and now He demonstrates it repeatedly: He heals the multitudes.

In the midst of the many healings He is performing on the Sabbath, a demon-possessed man who is both blind and mute is brought to Him. Jesus heals him immediately of this triple handicap much to the amazement of the multitudes. But when the religious leaders hear about it, their response is predictably cynical: “This fellow does not cast out demons except by Beelzebub, the ruler of the demons” (12:24). This is now the second time that the religious leaders have publicly accused Jesus of casting out demons by the ruler of the demons (see 9:34). The first time, Jesus did not respond. But this time it is different. Jesus contradicts them, saying, “If Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then can his kingdom stand?” (12:26).

Self-will cannot cast out self-will. Ego cannot cast out ego. Satan cannot cast out Satan. If, for example, we try to cast out selfishness by powerful exertions of self-will — leaving out God, our efforts can never succeed. The simple fact is that only God can cast out the spirit of selfishness, only the Spirit of God can cast out demons. As Jesus says, “If I cast out demons by the Spirit of God, surely the kingdom of God has come upon you” (12:28).

This episode, which is about “the Sabbath” ends with a description of how demons are cast out. Today we consider our “demons” to be anger, irritation, impatience, annoyance, and the many emotional disturbances that seem to destroy our inner peace, and often lead to our acting out against others. While these negative emotions may indeed have their origin in hell (“Satan”), we can remain secure and at peace when relying upon God. This is the true Sabbath. Whenever we choose to “rest in God,” the kingdom of God has come upon us. 4

Neutrality Is Not an Option

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29. “Or how can anyone enter into the house of the strong [one] and plunder his vessels, unless he first bind the strong [one]? And then he will plunder his house.

30. He that is not with Me is against Me; and he that gathers not with Me, scatters.

31. Wherefore I say unto you, Every sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven men; but the blasphemy of the Spirit shall not be forgiven men.

32. And whoever says a word against the Son of Man, it shall be forgiven him; but whoever shall say [it] against the Holy Spirit, it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this age, nor in that to come.

33. Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree rotten and its fruit rotten; for from the fruit the tree is known.

34. Brood of vipers, how can you speak good [things], being wicked? For from the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.

35. The good man out of the good treasure of the heart puts forth good [things]; and the wicked man out of the wicked treasure puts forth wicked [things].

36. But I say unto you, that every idle saying which men shall speak, they shall render a word concerning it in the day of judgment.

37. For out of thy words thou shalt be justified, and out of thy words thou shalt be condemned.”
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Peace is a great blessing. It is the inner reward that comes to everyone who lives according to God’s commandments. Trusting in God is not only the source of our peace, it is also the source of our inner strength; it is a mighty fortress against the destructive thoughts and feelings that would otherwise invade our mind, hold us captive, and steal our joy. In the prologue to the Ten Commandments, God says, “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage” (Exodus 20:1-2). In weak moments, when negative thoughts and feelings invade our minds, we are returning to the “house of bondage.” This captivity, or “spiritual bondage,” is what Jesus is referring to when He says, “How can anyone enter into a strong man’s house, and plunder his goods, except he first bind the strong man, and then he will plunder his house?” (12:29).

It is, therefore, necessary to remain steadfast in our devotion to God, to remain with Him always and not depart from His company. There is no middle way when it comes to the path of devotion. We can’t afford weak moments when we drop our guard, or half-hearted endeavors to do what is right. It’s all or nothing. We are either with the Lord, or we are not. Any chink in our armor, and weakness of character is an opening for the hells to burst through. Therefore, Jesus says, “He that is not with Me is against Me” and He adds, “he that gathers not with Me scatters abroad” (12:30).

Literally, “gathering and scattering” refers to Jesus’ telling His apostles to go forth and gather the harvest of good people everywhere, teaching them about the kingdom of God. The people who are lost and “scattered” must be gathered together and brought back to God. But if this work is not done, and if the traditions of men are taught in the place of the commandments of God, the people will be scattered further from God. On a more interior level, we too must gather what we have learned and put it to use; if not, evil desires and false thoughts will creep in, separating us further (“scattering us’) from all that is good and true.

Jesus knows that the corrupt religious leaders have been leading the people astray — “scattering them” — through their misleading and false teachings. Therefore, Jesus says to them, “Every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the

Spirit will not be forgiven” (12:31). The blasphemy here referred to is the one which the religious leaders are committing at this very moment. They have just witnessed a great miracle of healing, and yet they refuse to attribute such a miracle to the Spirit of God. Instead, they attribute it to Beelzebub, the ruler of the demons. Thus, they interpret good as evil, attributing the power of healing to the demonic rather than to the Divine.

In interpreting good as evil, the religious leaders leave themselves without any hope for salvation or forgiveness, simply because they refuse to accept it. While God is pure mercy, love and forgiveness, none of these qualities can be experienced or received unless there is a sincere desire to receive them, and a willingness to live according to them. Jesus is the embodiment of these qualities. To reject Him is to reject all that He would freely give us.

In our own lives we do the same thing whenever we refuse to see the wonders that God is working in our lives at every moment, even when things appear to be going against our wishes. In practical terms, then, “to sin against the Holy Spirit” is to interpret the circumstances of our lives and the intentions of others as having some evil origin — similar to the way the religious leaders attributed evil motives to Jesus. We refuse to see any possible goodness that might be there, or how a particularly unpleasant situation could possibly turn out for the best. Whenever we do this, we sin against the Holy Spirit. We deny that God is working with us always, in every circumstance, to refine our spirits so that we might eventually be able to realize the greatest possible happiness.

Not everything that happens will please us, but everything that happens should be interpreted as leading, in some way, to a good end. 5 When we think in this way, striving to see the good intentions behind people’s actions, and striving to put a good interpretation on everything we see, we discover the key to peace and happiness. We begin to understand that God, in mysterious ways, is providing or permitting all things; and despite all appearances to the contrary, we are constantly being led into increasingly interior states of peace and joy. 6

Jesus then returns to the theme of being either for Him or against Him — either for good or against it. We cannot have it both ways; and neutrality is not an option. “Either make the tree good and its fruit good,” says Jesus, “or make the tree bad and its fruit bad, for from the fruit the tree is known” (12:33). It’s as if Jesus is saying, “Look, I just healed a man whose hand was withering away with leprosy. Can’t you see that what I have done is good? Or, do you see everything I do as evil because you are evil?” Jesus puts it more directly: “O generation of vipers,” He says, “how can you, being evil, speak good things? for out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (12:34).

Whatever is in our heart will eventually come out through our words and actions: “A good man out of the good treasure of the heart bringeth forth good things: and an evil man out of the evil treasure bringeth forth evil things” (12:35). There is no escape from this timeless spiritual principle. As Jesus puts it, “Every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment. For by thy words thou shall be justified, and by thy words thou shall be condemned” (12:35-37).

These are serious warnings. Is it possible that the religious leaders will take these warnings to heart? Will they repent and change their ways? Or will they remain entrenched in their stubborn desire to destroy Jesus, interpreting the good that He does as evil? The next episode will provide some important clues.

The Sign of the Prophet Jonah

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38. Then answered some of the scribes and Pharisees, saying, “Teacher, we will to see a sign from Thee.”

39. But He answering said to them, “A wicked and adulterous generation seeks a sign, and a sign shall not be given to it, except the sign of the prophet Jonah.

40. For just as Jonah was in the belly of the whale three days and three nights, so shall the Son of Man be in the heart of the earth three days and three nights.

41. The men of Nineveh shall stand up in the judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it; because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and behold, [One who is] more than Jonah [is] here.

42. The queen of the south shall rise up in the judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it, because she came from the uttermost parts of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; and behold, [One who is] more than Solomon [is] here.

43. And when the unclean spirit has come out from the man, he passes through waterless places, seeking rest, and does not find [it].

44. Then he says, ‘I will return into my house, whence I came out’; and coming, he finds [it] empty, swept, and adorned.

45. Then he goes and takes with himself seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and entering in, they dwell there; and the last [things] of that man are worse than the first. So shall it also be to this wicked generation.”

46. And [while] He yet spoke to the crowds, behold, His mother and brothers stood outside, seeking to speak to Him.

47. And someone said to Him, “Behold, Thy mother and Thy brothers stand outside, seeking to speak to Thee.”

48. But He answering said to those that told Him, “Who is My mother, and who are My brothers?”

49. And stretching forth His hand to His disciples, He said, “Behold, My mother and My brothers.

50. For whoever shall do the will of My Father who is in the heavens, he is My brother, and sister, and mother.”
---

As the next episode begins, it seems that the religious leaders might be relenting somewhat in their campaign to destroy Jesus. Addressing Him as “Master,” they say, “We want to see a sign from You” (12:38). But, Jesus, who knows their every thought, is not fooled by their pretended interest. “An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign,” Jesus says, “and no sign will be given to it except the sign of the Prophet Jonah” (12:39). Jesus goes on to recount how Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a whale, just as “the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (12:40).

While the story of Jonah traditionally signifies Jesus’ burial and resurrection, it also represents the wonder of human regeneration. 7 The only real sign of regeneration is the living experience of inner change that comes over people as they strive to keep the commandments, putting away selfish concerns and materialistic pre-occupations, gradually becoming kinder, gentler, more peaceful human beings.

Spending “three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish” represents the dark times of inner struggle and turmoil that we go through in the process of our regeneration. The number “three” is a symbolic term, meaning a complete cycle of time, as in “morning, noon, and night,” and because of this, it represents a full period of temptation with a “beginning, middle, and end.” 8

This process cannot be faked or side-stepped. And there are no shortcuts. Jesus warns that a momentary change of mind will do us no good if not accompanied by a change of heart. In the case of the religious leaders, Jesus sees through their hypocritical requests for more “signs” of His divinity. A shallow religious faith is based on signs and miracles; deep faith comes about through a repentant heart. So, Jesus takes them back to the story of Jonah who taught repentance to the people of Ninevah: “The men of Nineveh shall rise in judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it because they repented at the preaching of Jonah.” Jesus then adds, referring to Himself, “a greater than Jonah is here” (12:41). He then talks about Solomon, the great king who was a universal symbol of wisdom, adding, “a greater than Solomon is here” (12:42).

Jesus is telling them, in no uncertain terms, that no one is greater than He is. These are not the claims of an ordinary person. He then tells them a seemingly disconnected story about an unclean spirit that leaves a person and roams about looking for a place to rest. But finding no place to rest, it returns to the person, bringing along with it seven more spirits even more wicked than itself. These spirits now reenter the person and dwell there, “and the last state of that man is worse than the first” (12:43-45). Jesus is saying, “Look, even if I gave you a sign and it caused you to temporarily believe in Me, it would do you no good. In fact, it would be worse for you because you would return to your prior condition, seven times more adamant in your unbelief.” All this is contained in Jesus’ brief statement reminding the religious leaders that a mere sign cannot fundamentally change a wicked heart: “Even so shall it be also unto this wicked generation” (12:46).

Regeneration, then, not signs and miracles, is the only way. And there is no regeneration without temptation. Each of us will go through numerous times of temptation in our lives, and each time it will feel like a death and a resurrection. Each time something of our selfish nature will die; at the same time, if we turn to God, applying His truth and praying for His power — something new will be born in us. This is our resurrection to new life, a gradual process that begins in this life and continues throughout eternity. This is what is meant by the miracle of regeneration — and this is “the sign of the Prophet Jonah.” 9

Regeneration comes about through living according to the will of God. There is no other way, and no miracle that can take its place. The path is simple and direct, and those who choose to follow it are “born again” to new life. For this reason, this section of the narrative closes with a brief episode in which Jesus’ mother and brothers seek to speak with Him. Jesus uses this as an opportunity to introduce people to a new and higher perspective on family relationships. Stretching out His hands towards His disciples, He says, “Here are My mother and My brothers. For whoever does the will of My Father in heaven is My brother and sister and mother” (12:50).

As we go about our daily lives, striving to do the will of our Father in heaven, we might notice small changes arising in our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. We might notice that we are becoming more patient in situations that might have annoyed us at one time; we might find ourselves becoming less defensive, and more inclined to consider the perspectives and feelings of others; we might find ourselves less invested in having things done our way, and more concerned about meeting the needs of others. Whatever it might be, these moments of “new life” that arise in us are a result of the regeneration process. These are some of the many ways we experience “the sign of the prophet Jonah.”

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Footnotes:

1. The Jewish Encyclopedia lists 1,521 activities that were not permitted on the Sabbath day. These included plowing, reaping, writing, hammering, squeezing lemons, clapping hands, tearing paper, making mental calculations and plucking fruit (to name a few). Vol. 10 (New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1910), 536. 2. See also Matthew 9:13 where Jesus quotes the same passage, suggesting that is a central theme in Matthew.

3. This prohibition is known as “refuah” (medical treatment). We read, “On the Sabbath you must not induce vomiting, or straighten an infant’s limbs, or set a broken bone” (Mishnah Shabbat 22:6). “On the Sabbath you must not gargle and spit out vinegar to cure a toothache” (Mishnah Shabbat 111a). 4. The Hebrew word for Sabbath is) שַׁבּתָ Shabbat), which means “rest.” So, a true Sabbath is “resting in God.” 5. Arcana Coelestia 8455: “Peace has in it confidence in the Lord, that He directs all things, and provides all things, and that He leads to a good end.”

6. Arcana Coelestia 1079: “They who are in charity scarcely see the evil of another; instead, they observe all his goods and truths, and put a good interpretation on what is evil and false. This is the nature of all the angels, for they have this quality from the Lord.” See also Arcana Coelestia 1085: “They interpret for good and excuse with all their might.”

7. Apocalypse Explained 706:6: “Asking for a sign here means that they wanted a convincing proof through which they would be persuaded and believe that the Lord was the Messiah and the Son of God who was to come; for the miracles which the Lord wrought in great numbers, and which they saw, were no signs to them, because miracles, as said above, are signs only to the good. Jonah was in the belly of the whale three days and three nights, and this was taken for a sign, because it signified the burial and resurrection of the Lord, thus the complete glorification of His Human, three days and three nights signifying completeness.”

8. Apocalypse Explained 532: “The number ‘three’ signifies in the Word what is full and complete, and thence an entire period, greater or less, from beginning to end.”

9. Arcana Coelestia 8403:2, 3: “Let it be known that no one can be regenerated without temptation, and that a person undergoes very many temptations, following one after another…. A person cannot be regenerated without conflict, that is, without spiritual temptation, and a person is not regenerated by undergoing a single temptation, but only by undergoing very many of them. For there are numerous kinds of evil… that cannot be subdued on one occasion and all together. They cling stubbornly to the person, for they become deeply rooted in his forebears going back many centuries and are for that reason innate in him. They have also been made stronger since early childhood by the evils of his own doing. All these evils are diametrically opposed to the heavenly good that is to be instilled and that must constitute the new life.”

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From Swedenborg's Works

Explanations or references:

True Christian Religion 137


References from Swedenborg's drafts, indexes & diaries:

De Domino 10

Related New Christian Commentary

  Stories and their meanings:



Bible Word Meanings

said
As with many common verbs, the meaning of “to say” in the Bible is highly dependent on context. Who is speaking? Who is hearing? What...

Resources for parents and teachers

The items listed here are provided courtesy of our friends at the General Church of the New Jerusalem. You can search/browse their whole library at the New Church Vineyard website.


 If Satan Cast Out Satan
Worship Talk | Ages 7 - 14

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Suggests illustrations for the ten blessings. Quotes each blessing and then paraphrases it as one might explain it to children.
Project | Ages 4 - 14

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Two disciples talked to Jesus while walking to Emmaus, but did not recognize Him. The Lord talks with us in His Word but like the disciples, we do not always recognize Him.
Sunday School Lesson | Ages 11 - 17

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Use names from a word bank to identify people in the Word who obeyed or who disobeyed the Lord. Story references are provided to help you.
Activity | All Ages

 Why We Worship the Lord on Sunday
Worship Talk | Ages 7 - 14


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