Category Archives: Difficult Bible Passages

Is Jesus Claiming to Be Eternally Preexistent in John 8:58?

Not according to Jehovah’s Witnesses, who believe that Jesus is not God, but the archangel Michael. Norman Geisler and Ron Rhodes frame the issue well in their book When Cultists Ask: A Popular Handbook on Cultic Misinterpretations.

In John 8:58 (nasb) we read, ‘Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was born, I am.”’ By contrast, the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ New World Translation reads, ‘Jesus said to them: “Most truly I say to you, Before Abraham came into existence, I have been.”’ This indicates that Jesus was preexistent but not eternally preexistent (certainly not as the great I Am of the Old Testament).

Has the Watchtower Society (Jehovah’s Witnesses) correctly translated verse 58? Have Christians been misunderstanding this verse for two thousand years? Geisler and Rhodes explain:

Greek scholars agree that the Watchtower Society has no justification for translating ego eimi in John 8:58 as ‘“I have been’ (a translation that masks its connection to Exodus 3:14 where God reveals his name to be I Am). The Watchtower Society once attempted to classify the Greek word eimi as a perfect indefinite tense to justify this translation—but Greek scholars have responded by pointing out that there is no such thing as a perfect indefinite tense in the Greek.

The words ego eimi occur many times in John’s Gospel. Interestingly, the New World Translation elsewhere translates ego eimi correctly (as in John 4:26; 6:35, 48, 51; 8:12, 24, 28; 10:7, 11, 14; 11:25; 14:6; 15:1, 5; and 18:5, 6, 8). Only in John 8:58 does the mistranslation occur. The Watchtower Society is motivated to translate this verse differently in order to avoid it appearing that Jesus is the great I Am of the Old Testament. Consistency and scholarly integrity calls for John 8:58 to be translated the same way as all the other occurrences of ego eimi—that is, as ‘I am.’

Finally, as noted above, I Am is the name God revealed to Moses in Exodus 3:14–15. The name conveys the idea of eternal self-existence. Yahweh never came into being at a point in time, for he has always existed. To know Yahweh is to know the eternal one. It is therefore understandable that when Jesus made the claim to be I Am, the Jews immediately picked up stones with the intention of killing Jesus, for they recognized he was implicitly identifying himself as Yahweh.

To Which Coming Did Jesus Refer in Matthew 16:28?

In Matthew 16:28 Jesus promises his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” What did Jesus mean? To which coming was he referring, because his Second Coming still has not occurred?

Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe offer three alternatives in When Critics Ask : A Popular Handbook on Bible Difficulties:

First, some have suggested that this may be a reference to the Day of Pentecost where Christ’s Helper, the Holy Spirit, came to descend upon the apostles. In John’s Gospel (14:26), Jesus promised to send the Holy Spirit, and, in the beginning of Acts (1:4–8), He tells them not to leave Jerusalem until they have received the Holy Spirit. But this hardly seems to fit the description of seeing Christ coming in His kingdom (Matt. 16:28).

Second, others believe this might be a reference to the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in A.D. 70. This would mean that He would return to bring judgment upon the city that rejected Him and crucified Him. While this is a possible explanation, it does not seem to account for the fact that Jesus appears to be coming for believers (those ‘standing there’ with Him), not simply coming in judgment on unbelievers. Nor does the judgment on Jerusalem in A.D. 70 adequately express seeing the ‘Son of Man coming in His kingdom’ (v. 28), a phrase reminiscent of His second coming (cf. 26:64). Nor does it explain why Jesus never appeared in A.D. 70.

A third and more plausible explanation is that this is a reference to the appearance of Christ in His glory on the Mount of Transfiguration which begins in the very next verse (17:1). Here Christ does literally appear in a glorified form, and some of His apostles are there to witness the occasion, namely Peter, James, and John. This transfiguration experience, of course, was only a foretaste of His Second Coming when all believers will see Him come in power and great glory (cf. Acts 1:11; Rev. 1:7).

The authors of Hard Sayings of the Bible differ somewhat from Geisler and Howe. Here is their approach to the question:

With the death and exaltation of Jesus and the coming of the Spirit on the day of Pentecost following, some of those who were witnesses of his mighty works in Galilee and elsewhere saw the power of the kingdom of God manifested on a scale unmatched during his ministry. Within a few weeks, the number of his followers multiplied tenfold; his kingdom was visibly on the march.

This, at any rate, is an interpretation of his saying about the kingdom of God having come with power which makes it intelligible to us. Whether or not this interpretation coincides with his intention when he spoke in this way is a question to which it is best not to give a dogmatic answer.

The three Evangelists who record the saying (in varying terms) go on immediately to describe Jesus’ transfiguration, as though that event bore some relation to the saying (Mt 17:1–8; Mk 9:2–8; Lk 9:28–36). It cannot be said that the transfiguration was the event which Jesus said would come within the lifetime of some of his hearers; one does not normally use such language to refer to something that is to take place in a week’s time.

But the three disciples who witnessed the transfiguration had a vision of the Son of Man vindicated and glorified; they saw in graphic anticipation the fulfillment of his words about the powerful advent of the kingdom of God. Matthew, strikingly, in his report of the words speaks of the Son of Man instead of the kingdom of God: ‘there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom’ (Mt 16:28 RSV). This is an interpretation of the words, but a true interpretation. And Matthew follows Mark in saying that when the disciples had seen the vision, Jesus forbade them to speak about it to anyone ‘until the Son of man should have risen from the dead’ (Mk 9:9 RSV). His rising from the dead would inaugurate the reality which they had seen in the vision on the mount of transfiguration, and would at the same time herald the coming of the kingdom ‘with power.’

In my research on this question, most scholars follow Geisler and Howe: the transfiguration is the coming to which Jesus refers. However, a significant minority also note that Jesus’ resurrection and the Day of Pentecost are better answers to this question. We can agree that it is “best not to give a dogmatic answer.”

#2 Post of 2016 – Is the Story of Jonah Fictional?

Some Bible scholars believe that the Book of Jonah is a fictional tale written purely for teaching purposes by its original author. They argue that the original author never meant for the story to be taken as real history. While it may be impossible to know just based on the contents of the book itself, there is one important person who seems to have considered the events in Jonah to be historical: Jesus Christ.

Billy K. Smith and Franklin S. Page write, in Amos, Obadiah, Jonah: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture (The New American Commentary):

Finally, there is the witness of Jesus Christ, which apparently was the basis for the early church’s linking the historicity of Jonah’s experience with that of Jesus, especially his resurrection. Although it would be conceivable that Jesus might have been merely illustrating in Matt 12:40 when he associated his prophesied resurrection with Jonah’s experience in the fish, it is much more difficult to deny that Jesus was assuming the historicity of the conversion of the Ninevites when he continued in v. 41 (cf. Luke 11:32).

‘The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now one greater than Jonah is here.’

This is confirmed in the following verse (cf. Luke 11:33) when Jesus parallels the ‘men of Nineveh’ with the ‘Queen of the South,’ whose visit to Jerusalem is recounted in 1 Kings.

‘The Queen of the South will rise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon’s wisdom, and now one greater than Solomon is here.’

Clearly Jesus did not see Jonah as a parable or an allegory. As J. W. McGarvey stated long ago, ‘It is really a question as to whether Jesus is to be received as a competent witness respecting historical and literary matters of the ages which preceded His own.’

Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe, in When Critics Ask: A Popular Handbook on Bible Difficulties, add:

[T]he most devastating argument against the denial of the historical accuracy of Jonah is found in Matthew 12:40. In this passage Jesus predicts His own burial and resurrection, and provides the doubting scribes and Pharisees the sign that they demanded. The sign is the experience of Jonah. Jesus says, ‘For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.’ If the tale of Jonah’s experience in the belly of the great fish was only fiction, then this provided no prophetic support for Jesus’ claim. The point of making reference to Jonah is that if they did not believe the story of Jonah being in the belly of the fish, then they would not believe the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. As far as Jesus was concerned, the historical fact of His own death, burial, and resurrection was on the same historical ground as Jonah in the belly of the fish. To reject one was to cast doubt on the other (cf. John 3:12). Likewise, if they believed one, they should believe the other. . . .

Jesus went on to mention the significant historical detail. His own death, burial, and resurrection was the supreme sign that verified His claims. When Jonah preached to the unbelieving Gentiles, they repented. But, here was Jesus in the presence of His own people, the very people of God, and yet they refused to believe. Therefore, the men of Nineveh would stand up in judgment against them, ‘because they [the men of Nineveh] repented at the preaching of Jonah’ (Matt. 12:41). If the events of the Book of Jonah were merely parable or fiction, and not literal history, then the men of Nineveh did not really repent, and any judgment upon the unrepentant Pharisees would be unjust and unfair. Because of the testimony of Jesus, we can be sure that Jonah records literal history.

#5 Post of 2016 – Why Did Elisha Curse a Group of Young Men?

In 2 Kings 2:23-24, the prophet Elisha curses a group of young men, seemingly just for calling him names. Even worse, some translations indicate that these were small boys. What is going on here?

First, Hebrew scholars tell us that the words used to describe the boys can indicate an age anywhere from 12-30 years old. It is highly likely, given the context, that these were adolescent young men, at a minimum, and maybe even older than that.

Second, they weren’t simply calling him names. What they said was, “Go on up, you baldhead!” This was a direct reference to Elijah’s going up to heaven, and thus an insult to Elijah and Elisha’s ministry. The term baldhead could be a reference to the hair style worn by prophets of the day, but scholars aren’t sure. It could also refer to lepers who would shave their heads, indicating Elisha was an outcast just as lepers are outcasts.

In the end, God decided that the threat to Elisha and his ministry were serious enough to warrant an attack on the young men, causing 42 of them to be seriously injured and possibly even fatally wounded by two bears.

Norman Geisler and Tom Howe, in When Critics Ask: A Popular Handbook on Bible Difficulties, add these thoughts about the passage:

First of all, this was no minor offense, for these young men held God’s prophet in contempt. Since the prophet was God’s mouthpiece to His people, God Himself was being most wickedly insulted in the person of His prophet.

Second, these were not small, innocent children. They were wicked young men, comparable to a modern street gang. Hence, the life of the prophet was endangered by their number, the nature of their sin, and their obvious disrespect for authority.

Third, Elisha’s action was designed to strike fear in the hearts of any other such gang members. If these young gang members were not afraid to mock a venerable man of God such as Elisha, then they would have been a threat to the lives of all God’s people.

Fourth, some commentators note that their statements were designed to challenge Elisha’s claim to be a prophet. They were essentially saying, ‘If you are a man of God, why don’t you go on up to heaven like Elijah did?’ . . .

Fifth, it was not Elijah who took their lives, but God who alone could have providentially directed the bears to attack them. It is evident that by mocking this man of God, these young men were revealing their true attitudes toward God Himself. Such contempt for the Lord was punishable by death. The Scriptures do not say that Elisha prayed for this kind of punishment. It was clearly an act of God in judgment upon this impious gang.

Do Matthew and Mark Contradict Each Other’s Accounts of Jesus Walking on Water?

Both Matthew and Mark record the miracle of Jesus walking on the Sea of Galilee. Matthew, however, includes two details that Mark does not. First, Matthew reports that the disciple Peter also walks on water when Jesus calls him out of the boat. Second, Matthew reports that the disciples all confess Jesus to be the “Son of God” after seeing the miracle. Since Mark leaves these details out, are the two accounts contradictory or inconsistent? Michael Wilkins, in The Gospels and Acts (The Holman Apologetics Commentary on the Bible), discusses the divergent accounts:

The parallel accounts (Mark 6: 45– 52; John 6: 15– 21) do not mention Peter’s venture into the water. This would be a remarkable thing to omit, if in fact both Mark and John knew it to be a fact. Does their silence call Matthew’s truthfulness into question? The key to explaining their silence is to recognize each narrator’s freedom to pursue different emphases. Matthew has repeatedly emphasized Peter and continues to do so throughout this section (e.g., 15: 15– 20; 16: 16– 23; 17: 24– 27). It is common for different narrators to draw out different details from the same or similar events. The different details often highlight each narrator’s specific purposes in writing.

In this case, we see Matthew’s unique emphasis on Peter’s leading role and his sometimes impetuous behavior. Peter is rebuked in this story for having ‘little faith,’ which is a common Matthean complaint about Jesus’ disciples (6: 30; 8: 26; 16: 8; 17: 20; France 2007, 567). Jesus will later teach his disciples about the faith that moves mountains (17: 20), a faith that would have kept Peter safe on the water had he not let fear get the better of him. Matthew’s inclusion of this incident provides an ‘illustration of the vulnerability of the disciple who allows doubt, the natural human perspective, to displace the faith which relies on the supernatural power of God’ (France 2007, 567). Another likely reason Matthew included this interaction with Peter is that Matthew reveals Jesus as divinely powerful and as the sustainer of his people (Morris 1992, 382– 83). Peter calls out to Jesus as ‘Lord’ (kurios), the same title used elsewhere to address Jesus with respect (e.g., 8: 21) or as a false declaration of faith (e.g., 7: 21). But here it means far more. Jesus is walking upon the water in the middle of a furious storm, something that elevates him above any other figure that Peter has ever known.

With regard to Matthew’s inclusion of the disciples calling Jesus “Son of God,” Wilkins writes:

This confession of Jesus’ deity is not present in the parallel accounts (Mark 6: 45– 52; John 6: 15– 21). If the confession really occurred, how could Mark and John choose not to include such an important saying? This is the first time that the disciples use the title ‘Son of God’ to address Jesus, and it is uncertain just how much they truly understand, for it was only at the resurrection that they became fully gripped with the radical truth of Jesus’ divine identity and ontology. The three accounts in the Gospels are witness to their growing, yet imperfect understanding of Jesus’ identity.

Mark’s account shows that the disciples still had only rudimentary understanding of who Jesus was as Messiah. Mark narrates, ‘They were completely astounded, because they had not understood about the loaves. Instead, their hearts were hardened’ (Mark 6: 51– 52). John’s parallel account says simply, ‘Then they were willing to take Him on board, and at once the boat was at the shore where they were heading’ (John 6: 21). Matthew’s eyewitness account focuses on both their growing yet imperfect understanding.

The three parallel accounts are historical testimony that allows us to see that, at the time of this event, it was still too much for the disciples fully to understand Jesus as the incarnate God. But their understanding is certainly increasing, because Matthew tells us that they worship him in response to his calming the sea. Recognizing Jesus to be God’s Son will be part of the continuing divine revelation that is expressed later in Peter’s climactic confession: ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God!’ (16: 16). They are understanding more clearly that Jesus is uniquely related to God the Father, as those at Jesus’ baptism heard, and they will hear themselves at the transfiguration (3: 17; 17: 5).

To summarize, divergent accounts do not entail contradictory or even inconsistent accounts. Each of the Gospel authors were emphasizing different aspects of Jesus’ life. They each had different goals and purposes in mind when writing their biographies. Before we cry “contradiction” when we see differing accounts of the same events, we need to dig deeper to understand why there may be differing perspectives among the four Gospel writers.

Was It Right for Jesus to Conceal Spiritual Truths by Using Parables?

In Matthew 13 Jesus explains to his disciples that he is using parables to teach truths about the kingdom of heaven. However, because parables are allegorical or metaphorical in nature, they are often difficult to interpret without further explanation. Jesus is only willing to explain the parables to his followers, but not to the crowds that were assembling to hear him speak. Why would Jesus do this? Wasn’t he putting up unnecessary barriers? Shouldn’t he have explained the parables to the crowds?

Michael Wilkins, in The Gospels and Acts (The Holman Apologetics Commentary on the Bible), explains what Jesus was accomplishing by speaking in parables:

First, he tested the hearts of listeners. Parables act as a spiritual examination, prompting a response that indicates whether the listener’s heart is open to Jesus’ message, or whether it is hardened. If the listener is hardened to Jesus’ message, the parable stimulates confusion or outright rejection and prompts him to turn from Jesus and the truth (13: 11– 15). If the person’s heart is instead open, he will come to Jesus for further clarification about the parable’s meaning— as the disciples do (13: 10)— and eventually understand the truth embedded in the parables (13: 51).

Second, the parables give instruction to those who are responsive. The parables reveal and instruct Jesus’ disciples on the nature of the kingdom of heaven, showing how it operates in this world in a way very different from what the religious leaders and the crowds expected. By use of parables Jesus gives indications of the development of the kingdom (sower: 13: 18– 23, 36– 43; tares: 13: 24– 30; mustard seed: 13: 31– 32; leaven: 13: 33), the incomparable value of the kingdom (treasure: 13: 44; pearl: 13: 45– 46), membership in the kingdom (net: 13: 47– 50; cf. vineyard: 21: 43; two sons: 21: 28– 32), and service in the kingdom (teacher of the law: 13: 51– 52).

The positive response of the disciples is seen in their asking for further explanation (13: 10, 36), the reward of which is Jesus’ explanation of the parables (13: 18– 23, 37– 43) and parabolic teaching directed to them that reveals additional truth about the mysteries of the kingdom (13: 44– 52). While the disciples are not perfect in understanding, they possess the potential and desire to progress. Ultimately they will understand because they have been obedient to listen and hear (13: 51).

Jesus wasn’t excluding anyone who wanted to understand his teachings and follow him. He was, however, excluding those who were listening to him in order to confirm their own rejection of him. There is a volitional side to understanding. If you tell me something that I don’t like or that I don’t want to be true, then I will not attempt to understand nor embrace what you have to say.

Can Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount Be Reconciled with Luke’s Version of the Sermon?

Because the New Testament contains four biographies of Jesus (the four Gospels), there can be up to four parallel accounts of the events recorded about Jesus’s life. These accounts will contain similarities, but also differences, to each other because each of the four Gospel authors had different intentions and purposes when composing their biographies.

An example of this is the Sermon on the Mount, as recounted in Matthew 5-7. There is a sermon recorded in Luke 6 which bears clear likenesses to Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. How can we reconcile these two accounts? Michael Wilkins, in The Gospels and Acts (The Holman Apologetics Commentary on the Bible) analyzes the popular scholarly attempts to relate these two sermons.

He first notes the similarities:

[B]oth sermons come in the context of Jesus’ widespread speaking and healing ministry among the crowds (4: 23– 25; Luke 6: 17– 19); both begin with beatitudes; both give significant ethical teaching on love and judging; both emphasize the necessity of bearing fruit; both conclude with the parable of the wise builder.

But there also differences:

Matthew does not include the ‘woes’ of Luke’s beatitudes (Luke 6: 24– 26); Luke does not include the majority of the antitheses found in Matthew (5: 21– 48); Luke’s version of the ‘Lord’s prayer’ does not occur in his sermon but elsewhere (Luke 11: 1– 4); Luke 6: 17 puts the setting in a ‘level place,’ whereas Matthew describes a ‘mountain’ setting (5: 1).

Wilkins then examines three hypotheses about how the two sermons are related:

First, the similarities lead some to assert that Matthew and Luke present two distinct summaries of the same sermon (e.g., Bock 1994, 553; Carson 2010, 154; Osborne 2010, 160– 61).

Second, the differences lead others to suggest that Matthew and Luke record two different sermons, which Jesus gave on separate occasions but included similar content (e.g., Blomberg 1992, 96; Morris 1992, 93). Any good preacher will repeat effective illustrations and preaching points, a fact that lends support to this view.

Third, still others propose that either Matthew or Luke (or both) gathered together teachings that Jesus gave on separate occasions and presented them as if they were given in one sermon (e.g., Betz 1995, 44– 45; France 2008, 154– 155; Guelich 1982, 35; Hagner 1993, 69). The latter is usually suggested because there are parallels to Matthew’s sermon scattered throughout Luke’s Gospel (e.g., cf. 5: 13 in Luke 14: 34– 35; 5: 14 in Luke 11: 33, etc.; see Hagner 1993, 83, for a complete listing).

Wilkins’ take on these three hypotheses follows:

Since Matthew and Luke both imply that their sermons were given on one occasion, the third view is least likely. The first view is strengthened by observing the same general context, the general order, and the similar geographical setting (a mountainous area can feature flat spots) of both sermons. The second view is strengthened by recalling that Jesus went about teaching and preaching all through the countryside of Galilee for nearly two years, and he almost certainly repeated much of the same content on numerous occasions. Since nothing of great importance relies on the solution to this question, it may be best to say that until further insight is gained either the first or second view is preferable.

We don’t conclusively know how the two sermons are related, but we have some good ideas. As Wilkins says, the first and second views are preferable, but we need more evidence to decide between them.

What Does “Born of Water and Spirit” Mean in John 3:5?

In John 3:5, Jesus tells Nicodemus, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” There has historically been much scholarly debate over the phrase “born of water and the Spirit.” Was Jesus referring to two births or one birth? Was he referring to baptism?

D. A. Carson, in The Gospel According to John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary, breaks down the different interpretations and then concludes with his preferred interpretation. Interpretation one:

Noting that v. 6 describes two births, one from flesh to flesh and the other from Spirit to Spirit, some interpreters propose that ‘born of water and the Spirit’ similarly refers to two births, one natural and the other supernatural. Natural procreation is not enough; there must be a second birth, a second begetting, this one of the Spirit. To support this view, ‘water’ has been understood to refer to the amniotic fluid that breaks from the womb shortly before childbirth, or to stand metaphorically for semen.

But there are no ancient sources that picture natural birth as ‘from water’, and the few that use ‘drops’ to stand for semen are rare and late. It is true that in sources relevant to the Fourth Gospel water can be associated with fecundity and procreation in a general way (e.g. Song 4:12–13; Pr. 5:15–18), but none is tied quite so clearly to semen or to amniotic fluid as to make the connection here an obvious one. The Greek construction does not favour two births here. Moreover the entire expression ‘of water and the Spirit’ cries out to be read as the equivalent of anōthen, ‘from above’, if there is genuine parallelism between v. 3 and v. 5, and this too argues that the expression should be taken as a reference to but one birth, not two.

Interpretation two:

Many find in ‘water’ a reference to Christian baptism (e.g. Brown, 2. 139–141). For Bultmann (pp. 138–139 n. 3) and others who have followed him, this is so embarrassing that he suggests the words ‘water and’ were not part of the original text, but added by a later ecclesiastical editor much more interested in Christian ritual than the Evangelist himself. There is no textual support for the omission. At the other end of the spectrum, Vellanickal (pp. 170ff.) suggests that when the Evangelist received this account there was no mention of water, but that he added it to provide an explicit reference to the rite of Christian initiation. Added or not, the simple word ‘water’ is understood by the majority of contemporary commentators to refer to Christian baptism, though there is little agreement amongst them on the relation between ‘water’ and ‘Spirit’. After all, reference is made in the near context to Jesus’ own baptismal ministry (3:22; 4:1), and John has connected water and Spirit in a baptismal context before (1:33, 34). Moreover John’s alleged interest in sacraments in ch. 6 encourages the suspicion he is making a sacramental allusion here. Many accordingly suggest the Spirit effects new birth through water (= baptism) (e.g. Ferrarro, Spirito, pp. 59–67).

Those who adopt this position, of course, are forced to admit that John’s words could have had no relevance to the historical Nicodemus. This part of the account, at least, becomes a narrative fiction designed to instruct the church on the importance of baptism. What is not always recognized is that this theory makes the Evangelist an extraordinarily incompetent story-teller, since in v. 10 he pictures Jesus berating Nicodemus for not understanding these things. If water = baptism is so important for entering the kingdom, it is surprising that the rest of the discussion never mentions it again: the entire focus is on the work of the Spirit (v. 8), the work of the Son (vv. 14–15), the work of God himself (vv. 16–17), and the place of faith (vv. 15–16). The analogy between the mysterious wind and the sovereign work of the Spirit (v. 8) becomes very strange if Spirit-birth is tied so firmly to baptism. . . .

The entire view seems to rest on an unarticulated prejudice that every mention of water evoked instant recognition, in the minds of first-century readers, that the real reference was to baptism, but it is very doubtful that this prejudice can be sustained by the sources. Even so, this conclusion does not preclude the possibility of a secondary allusion to baptism (cf. notes, below).

Interpretation three:

A variation on this view is that ‘water’ refers not to Christian baptism but to John’s baptism (Godet, 2. 49–52; Westcott, 1. 108–109, and others). In that case, Jesus is either saying that the baptism of repentance, as important as it is, must not be thought sufficient: there must be Spirit-birth as well; or, if Nicodemus refused to be baptized by the Baptist, Jesus is rebuking him and saying that he must pass through repentance-baptism (‘water’) and new birth (‘Spirit’). ‘To receive the Spirit from the Messiah was no humiliation; on the contrary, it was a glorious privilege. But to go down into Jordan before a wondering crowd and own [his] need of cleansing and new birth was too much. Therefore to this Pharisee our Lord declares that an honest dying to the past is as needful as new life for the future’ (Dods, EGT, 1. 713).

The argument presupposes that John the Baptist was so influential at the time that a mere mention of water would conjure up pictures of his ministry. If so, however, the response of Nicodemus is inappropriate. If the allusion to the Baptist were clear, why should Nicodemus respond with such incredulity, ignorance and unbelief (3:4, 9–10, 12), rather than mere distaste or hardened arrogance? Even if John’s baptism is mentioned in near contexts, the burden of these contexts is to stress the relative unimportance of his rite (1:23, 26; 3:23, 30). If John’s baptism lies behind ‘water’ in 3:5, would not this suggest that Jesus was making the Baptist’s rite a requirement for entrance into the kingdom, even though that rite was shortly to be superseded by Christian baptism? Moreover, as Dods sets out this proposed solution, it is assumed that Jesus is recognized as the Messiah who dispenses the Spirit, but it is far from clear that Nicodemus has progressed so far in his appreciation of Jesus.

Interpretation four:

Several interpreters have argued that Jesus is arguing against the ritual washings of the Essenes (a conservative and frequently monastic Jewish movement), or perhaps against Jewish ceremonies in general. What is necessary is Spirit-birth, not mere water-purification. But ‘water’ and ‘Spirit’ are not contrasted in v. 5: they are linked, and together become the equivalent of ‘from above’ (v. 3).

Carson mentions other less popular interpretations and then proceeds to offer what he thinks is the most plausible interpretation:

The most plausible interpretation of ‘born of water and the Spirit’ turns on three factors. First, the expression is parallel to ‘from above’ (anōthen, v. 3), and so only one birth is in view. Second, the preposition ‘of’ governs both ‘water’ and ‘spirit’. The most natural way of taking this construction is to see the phrase as a conceptual unity: there is a water-spirit source (cf. Murray J. Harris, NIDNTT 3. 1178) that stands as the origin of this regeneration. Third, Jesus berates Nicodemus for not understanding these things in his role as ‘Israel’s teacher’ (v. 10), a senior ‘professor’ of the Scriptures, and this in turn suggests we must turn to what Christians call the Old Testament to begin to discern what Jesus had in mind. . . .

Far more important is the Old Testament background to ‘water’ and ‘spirit’. The ‘spirit’ is constantly God’s principle of life, even in creation (e.g. Gn. 2:7; 6:3; Jb. 34:14); but many Old Testament writers look forward to a time when God’s ‘spirit’ will be poured out on humankind (Joel 2:28) with the result that there will be blessing and righteousness (Is. 32:15–20; 44:3; Ezk. 39:29), and inner renewal which cleanses God’s covenant people from their idolatry and disobedience (Ezk. 11:19–20; 36:26–27).

When water is used figuratively in the Old Testament, it habitually refers to renewal or cleansing, especially when it is found in conjunction with ‘spirit’. This conjunction may be explicit, or may hide behind language depicting the ‘pouring out’ of the spirit (cf. Nu. 19:17–19; Ps. 51:9–10; Is. 32:15; 44:3–5; 55:1–3; Je. 2:13; 17:13; Ezk. 47:9; Joel 2:28–29; Zc. 14:8).

Most important of all is Ezekiel 36:25–27, where water and spirit come together so forcefully, the first to signify cleansing from impurity, and the second to depict the transformation of heart that will enable people to follow God wholly. And it is no accident that the account of the valley of dry bones, where Ezekiel preaches and the Spirit brings life to dry bones, follows hard after Ezekiel’s water/spirit passage (cf. Ezk. 37; and notes on 3:8, below). The language is reminiscent of the ‘new heart’ expressions that revolve around the promise of the new covenant (Je. 31:29ff.). Similar themes were sometimes picked up in later Judaism (e.g. Jubilees 1:23–25).

In short, born of water and spirit . . . signals a new begetting, a new birth that cleanses and renews, the eschatological cleansing and renewal promised by the Old Testament prophets. True, the prophets tended to focus on the corporate results, the restoration of the nation; but they also anticipated a transformation of individual ‘hearts’—no longer hearts of stone but hearts that hunger to do God’s will. It appears that individual regeneration is presupposed. Apparently Nicodemus had not thought of the Old Testament passages this way. If he was like some other Pharisees, he was too confident of the quality of his own obedience to think he needed much repentance (cf. Lk. 7:30), let alone to have his whole life cleansed and his heart transformed, to be born again.

Did Jesus Drink Alcoholic Wine?

In John, chapter two, Jesus converts approximately 120 gallons of water into wine during a seven-day wedding feast. By performing this sign, was Jesus condoning the drinking of alcoholic wine? Biblical scholar Andreas Köstenberger tackles the issue of Jesus and alcoholic wine in The Gospels and Acts (The Holman Apologetics Commentary on the Bible). First, he explains the different kinds of wine that existed in first-century Palestine.

Fermented wine (oinos; e.g., Eph 5: 18; not from the most recent harvest) was usually mixed in the proportion of two or three parts of water to one part of wine (b. Pesahahim 108b). New wine (oinos neos; e.g., Matt 9: 17; Mark 2: 22; Luke 5: 37– 38; cf. Hos 9: 2; Hag 1: 11; Zech 9: 17; 1QS 6: 4– 6; 1QSa 2: 17– 18, 20; 1QH 10: 24) was made from the most recent harvest and was not fermented. Finally, there were wines that were non-alcoholic due to the process of fermentation being stopped by boiling the unfermented grape juice (called ‘must’). Wine was also, though less frequently, made from pomegranates (Song 8: 2) and raisins (b. Baba Batra 97b) along with apples, dates, honey, herbs, and figs.

Did Jesus drink fermented (alcoholic) wine?  Köstenberger argues “yes.”

The Gospels clearly portray Jesus as drinking fermented wine (Matt 11: 19; Mark 14: 25). The latter passage also intimates that wine will be drunk in heaven. In stark contrast to the portrayal of John the Baptist, Matthew and Luke indicate that Jesus ‘came eating and drinking’ and was promptly accused of being ‘a glutton and a drunkard’ (Matt 11: 19; Luke 7: 34). This shows that Jesus was known to have drunk fermented wine regularly while associating with his contemporaries.

What about the miraculous sign at the wedding in Cana?

The current passage in John recounts Jesus’ turning a large quantity of water into wine (oinos) at a family wedding in Cana of Galilee. This is Jesus’ first of a series of messianic signs selected by John for inclusion in his Gospel. There is no indication in these verses that Jesus would have turned the water into non-alcoholic wine. Instead, the use of oinos combined with Jesus’ use of fermented wines throughout the Gospels leads to the conclusion that Jesus turned the water into wine containing alcohol. That the chief servant made comment about the tendency of hosts to set out the ‘inferior’ wine last, after the guests have ‘drunk freely,’ confirms this conclusion, for if guests have drunk freely from non-alcoholic wine, they would not be duped by the inferior wine that followed (John 2: 10).

Whether a Christian today should drink alcohol depends on many factors that are outside the scope of this essay, but it seems unwise to argue that Jesus mandated abstinence from drinking alcohol. The evidence for this position, according to Köstenberger, is simply not there.

Does Matthew 3:16-17 Support Polytheism?

The doctrine of the Trinity simply states that God consists of three persons in one essence. The three persons are the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In Matthew 3:16-17, all three are present at the same time and in the same place. So, do these verses support the doctrine of the Trinity or do they instead point to tritheism, the idea that there are three distinct and separate gods (the position of Mormons)?

Michael Wilkins, writing in The Gospels and Acts (The Holman Apologetics Commentary on the Bible), argues that tritheism is not supported by the totality of the biblical witness.

At this early date of Jesus’ ministry, Matthew is only hinting at what will later be made clearer in his Gospel and in the rest of the NT— that there is one God, but within that oneness of essence there are three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Tritheism is certainly not a biblical option. The OT repeatedly affirms that there is but one God: ‘Listen, Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is One’ (Deut 6: 4), and both Jesus and the apostles repeat this truth (Mark 12: 29; 1 Cor 8: 4, 6). Likewise, Jesus will emphasize the divine nature of Father, Son, and Spirit, and Matthew will begin pointing to this stupendous truth.

As Morris states, ‘Matthew has certain trinitarian interest’ (Morris 1992, 68). Matthew concludes his Gospel with another trinitarian allusion in Jesus’ instruction that new disciples are to be baptized in the singular name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (28: 19). This is the oneness of God in three personal distinctions.

Matthew lays out a clear picture of Jesus’ deity by drawing upon OT prophecies. Prior to the incarnation, the strong divine language of some of the prophecies could not be adequately understood, leading to diverse views concerning the nature of the Messiah (see Kaiser 1995). But for Matthew, the reality of the incarnation now makes clear God’s revelation through the prophets: Jesus is God the Son, who is in vital relationship with his Father God, in the power of the Spirit of God. That all three members of the godhead share the same essence does not lead to an expectation that they cannot be present and active in the same scene. If they could not simultaneously participate in a scene such as this, they would in fact not be three persons.

Norman Geisler and Ron Rhodes add in When Cultists Ask:

Matthew 3:16–17 supports the doctrine of the Trinity, though in itself it does not prove the doctrine. Trinitarians base their understanding of the nature of God on the accumulative evidence of the whole of Scripture. Taken by itself, all that the passage proves directly is that there are three different persons in the Godhead. It does not show that these three persons all share one and the same divine essence. . . .

Scripture taken as a whole yields the doctrine of the Trinity that is based on three lines of biblical evidence: (1) evidence that there is only one true God; (2) evidence that there are three Persons who are recognized as God; and (3) evidence for three-in-oneness within the Godhead. Scripture uniformly teaches that there is only one God (Deut. 6:4; 32:39; 2 Sam. 7:22; Ps. 86:10; Isa. 44:6; John 5:44; 17:3; Rom. 3:29–30; 16:27; 1 Cor. 8:4; Gal. 3:20; Eph. 4:6; 1 Thess. 1:9; 1 Tim. 1:17; 2:5; James 2:19; 1 John 5:20–21; Jude 25). Yet Scripture also calls three persons God—the Father (1 Peter 1:2), the Son (John 20:28; Heb. 1:8), and the Holy Spirit (Acts 5:3–4). Scripture also indicates three-in-oneness in the Godhead (Matt. 28:19; 2 Cor. 13:14). The accumulative evidence of the whole of Scripture indicates that God is a Trinity.