Many different answers have been given to the question, “What does it mean to ‘receive Christ’.” Many passages of Scripture have been used and many interpretations have been given. Many illustrations have been used to try to visualize and explain what these two verses are saying.
As we begin our study of John 1:12-13, let’s lay aside previous building materials for now. Let’s start anew by clearing the land and digging deep to lay a firm foundation based upon the Person of Jesus Christ and the words that the apostle John is saying under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Let’s keep his purpose for writing in mind, as well as his reading-audience: their culture, historical background, and belief-system. By God’s grace let’s turn this plot of ground into a work of art that is straight and true, well-defined, attractive, and above all, glorifying to God.
I. THE TRANSITION:
Verse 11 sounds like a sad ending to a story, doesn’t it. “The world did not know Him” and “His own did not receive Him.” John’s approach seems to be: “First the bad news, then the good news.” Verse 12 begins with the little word “but”. John Phillips calls this little three-letter word a “hinge”. The door to this conversation may seem like it’s shutting but that “hinge” keeps the door open to even greater truths, revealing the power and sovereignty of God. What John said in verse 11 may have been true of “the majority”, but it was not true of “the totality”! We are seeing a shift from the unbelievers to the believers.
John now tells us who are invited to receive Christ. He uses the Greek word, “hosoi“. I personally like the translation “whoever“. Every person, without exception and without distinction, is invited to receive the Lord Jesus Christ. That includes both Jews and Gentiles.
I. THE PROCESS (verse 12)
The word translated “receive” in verse 11 is a different word from the word translated “receive” here in verse 12, though the two words are similar. Here in verse 12 the Greek word is “lambano”, whereas the word in verse 11 is “paralambano”. The word ‘para” means “beside” or “alongside”. We get our English word “parallel” from that word. For example, parallel lines go alongside each other and do not intersect. Why the use of this form of the word? It reveals a major reason why the Jews at the time of Christ did not receive Him. The apostle John will be sharing more examples of this failure to receive Christ on the part of the religious leaders and their followers as we study his Gospel. Literally, verse 11 is saying “His own (people) did not take Him alongside”, That doesn’t make any sense unless we realize that, over the years before the Lord Jesus Christ came to this earth, the rabbis had been putting their studies of the Law of Moses, along with their interpretations and applications of that Law into written form. They also added personal practices that became traditions. These writings and traditions, such as the Talmud, had become more important than the Law of Moses . They were often used to interpret the Law of Moses, and were sometimes used in place of it. They could not “take Jesus alongside” these traditions because He intersected with them, and this led to a growing opposition to Christ. I hope this explanation adds clarity rather than confusion.
Before we seek to determine what it means to personally receive Christ, let me present you with a situation which should be seen as a stark contrast. I rented a private room and bath in a private residence for a couple of months and learned the meaning of an “owner-tenant relationship”. The rules included paying the rent on time, keeping my goods in my assigned places in the refrigerator and kitchen cabinet, staying in my own area and common areas, cleaning up after myself, and not playing the music too loud. There were parts of the house that were understandably “off-limits”. As I hope you realize, receiving Christ is not the beginning of an owner-Tenant relationship (notice where I put the capital letter). Such a person has a misunderstanding of the meaning of these two verses, and Jesus Christ does not enter our lives under our terms and conditions.
In my quest to gain a better understanding of the word “receive” in verse 12, I’ve been refreshing my knowledge of Greek grammar. I believe that a basic lesson in Greek grammar will benefit us all. There are significant differences between Greek and English. In the English language, and in most other languages, the tense of the verb usually refers to the time of the action of the verb (past, present, or future time). In Greek, however, the primary consideration is the kind of action that the verb portrays. For example, the aorist tense conveys a simple occurrence in the past. It is like a snapshot because it captures an action at a specific point in time. The imperfect tense denotes continuous, ongoing, or repeated action in the past, like a motion picture or video tape. The perfect tense depicts a completed action in the past with results continuing into the present, somewhat like a snapshot which is followed by a video.
The word translated “receive” in verse 12 is the Greek word, elabon, the aorist tense of the word “lambano”. Therefore it conveys a “one-time, individual, personal-decision”.
I’ve been working on an illustration to describe what it means to “receive Christ”, but I’m having some difficulty fitting all the pieces of the illustration together. I just realized why I can’t describe it to you yet: In order to understand what it means to “receive” Christ, we must first understand what it means to “believe in His name”.. As verse 12 says, “Yet to all who received Him, to those who believed in His name, He gave the right to become children of God” (NIV). The believing comes before the receiving, even though the wording of the text seems to imply that the two responses occur simultaneously.
Now I’ve come to a potential “bend in the road”, so to speak, in this construction project. I’ve reached a point in my study of verse 12 where I’m asking myself questions about the term “receiving Christ”. Is it Biblically correct to use the term “receive Christ” or “accept Christ” when sharing the gospel message? What is the biblical justification for the use of those words? Can the use of these words be misleading and give a wrong understanding of what it means to become a Christian? Is praying a prayer and asking Christ to come into your life what the gospel message is all about? I’ve used John 1:12 almost every time I’ve shared the gospel message, and it was a verse that was used when I became a Christian. The reason I’m asking myself these questions, and sharing them with you, is that I’ve just come to the realization that the term “receive Him” is used only here in the New Testament. The context of verse 12 is the nation of Israel. The nation as a whole did not “receive Him”, that is, “welcome Him as their Messiah”, but there were exceptions among His own people who did welcome Him. We don’t find those words used again in John’s gospel, the other gospels, or the epistles. There is some question whether I John 5:11-12 or Revelation 3:20 might communicate that concept and I will be studying those passages also. The Scripture puts the focus on “believing” (repentance, trust, and commitment to Christ as one’s Lord and Savior). I invite you to consider these observations and questions also. Let’s get to the heart of the gospel message and follow the scriptural guidelines for communicating it. I do know that there are thousands of people who have “prayed a prayer to receive Christ” and their lives have not changed. I believe the greatest danger in evangelism today is not over-stating the gospel message, but diluting it. I also believe that, in most cases, it is being done unintentionally, but that is no excuse for continuing to dilute it.
With that in mind, let’s leave the word “receive” and study the word “believe” here in verse 12. The word is a participle, “believing”, and it defines and explains the word “receive” which came before it in the sentence. “Believing in His name” identifies the Object of faith. “His name” is not referring to the name Jesus. That was His earthly name. His eternal name is Lord (Yahweh, Jehovah), the Lord of heaven and earth. As the apostle John says near the end of his Gospel, “. . . that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, and that believing you may have life in His name.” The word “believe” is a word of complete trust and commitment to Him as Lord, because that is Who He is.
I think that the following two illustrations, when seen together, give us a picture of belief in the sense of trust and commitment.
During the terrible days of the Blitz (WW II), a father, holding his small son by the hand, ran from a building that had been struck by a bomb. In the front yard was a shell hole. Seeking shelter as quickly as possible, the father jumped into the hole and held up his arms for his son to follow. Terrified, yet hearing his father’s voice telling him to jump, the boy replied, “I can’t see you!” The father, looking up against the sky tinted red by the burning buildings, called to the silhouette of his son, “But I can see you. Jump!” The boy jumped because he loved and trusted his father, and landed in his father’s arms. (shared by Donner Atwood)
An evangelist was trying to help a woman understand John 1:12 and what it means to receive Christ. “Your last name is Franklin, isn’t it?” he asked. “Yes”, she said. “How long has it been that?” “Ever since my husband and I married 30 years ago”. “Tell me”, he said, “How did you become Mrs. Franklin?’ She paused, and then the realization came. “It was at the wedding. The minister said, ‘Will you take this man to be your lawful, wedded husband . . . ? And I said, ‘I will’.” (Our Daily Bread)
I hope that these two illustrations, taken together, have given you a clearer understanding of the word “believe”, as the apostle John uses it in this passage of Scripture. Of all the illustrations I read, these were the ones that communicated trust and commitment most clearly to me.
Here in the United States of America we need to have this concept of belief explained to us clearly because we usually don’t understand the cost of making that decision to commit our lives to the Lord Jesus Christ until later on. We don’t comprehend the cost to Jesus’ disciples when they made the decision to follow Him. In many other countries of our world, making the decision to believe in Jesus Christ and follow Him is a very costly decision in terms of the personal sacrifices that are made. When they choose to believe, they are counting the cost of the things they will probably lose: their jobs, their families, even their own lives.
I became a Christian while stationed in Thailand in the Air Force. While in Thailand I had the privilege of sharing my testimony at a Thai church. I learned that these Thai Christians were disowned by their Buddhist families who had a funeral service for them and considered them dead. Most of these Christians lost their jobs also. But I was so amazed and impressed by their joy, their love for the Lord Jesus Christ, and their love for one another. They shared that what they gained by believing in Christ was much greater than any of the things they lost.
II. THE RESULT (verse 12)
The result of salvation, given here in verse 12, tells us more about what true belief encompasses. When we believe in Jesus Christ as Lord we are entering into a relationship where we become “children of God”. The Greek word, tekna, refers to “little children”, children who are still totally dependent on their parents. That is the relationship we are entering into when we become children of God. As Jesus said in Matthew 18:3, “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (NIV) As God’s little children, we will always be dependent upon our heavenly Father for everything, just as Jesus was totally dependent upon His Father while He was here on this earth. True belief means a commitment to exchange your life of independence for a joyful life of complete trust and dependence upon God for everything. I know that this biblical perspective has not been communicated very clearly in my presentation of the Gospel message. How about you? Is this your understanding of saving faith?
III. THE DIVINE PERSPECTIVE (verse 13)
In verse 12 the apostle John has given us a glimpse of the faith-process and its result. He will be giving much more detail, and has recorded many examples of people who responded to Jesus Christ by placing their faith in Him. Here in verse 13, John wants us to understand the new birth from God’s perspective. The new birth through faith in Jesus Christ is a work of God from beginning to end. He uses a series of negatives in order to emphasize his point. Then he ends the verse with the only true source of the new birth in Christ.
“not of blood” – the new birth is not based on human descent. Just because my parents are God’s children does not make me one of God’s children.
“not of the will of the flesh” – it’s not based on human desire. No amount of wishful thinking can make me a child of God. I might wish I were the child of a millionaire, but wishing doesn’t make me one. I may even live in a fantasy world where I convince myself that I am a child of a millionaire, but it’s still a lie.
“not of the will of man” – it’s not based on human methods. My parents may have me baptized as a baby, but that does not make me a child of God. I may try with all my might to live a good life and perform my religious duties, but those things, no matter how earnestly and fervently they are performed, will not impart new life.
“but of God” – We must be “born of God”. We must come to Jesus Christ on His terms, as He has told us here in His Word. Genuine repentance, acknowledgement of Christ as our Lord, and placing our trust in Him and our lives in His hands are all spiritual miracles of God, and the resulting changes in our lives mentally, emotionally, socially and spiritually are all evidences of those miracles (Ephesians 1:7-8; 2:8-10; II Corinthians 5:17; and many other passages of Scripture).
THE APPLICATION TODAY:
As was the case with many of the Jews during the lifetime of Christ on this earth, many people in the world today do not want to acknowledge Jesus Christ as Lord and follow Him. They are either in love with their sins and don’t want to change, or, in their pride, they think they are good enough to go to heaven and don’t want anyone to tell them otherwise. But there are people today whom the Spirit of God has convinced of their sinfulness and need for a Savior. Maybe you are one of those people. Don’t put it off! Admit your sin and your helplessness to God. Decide to turn from your sinful ways. Acknowledge that Jesus Christ is the God-man, the Lord of Heaven and earth, trust Him with a child-like faith and let Him take control of your life and change your life more and more into His image and likeness. Only then will you experience the freedom of forgiveness and the joy of being a new person and having a new life. Only then will you experience what it’s like to be a true child of God.
If you are a Christian, please don’t give up on people. Even if others criticize or make fun of you because of your faith in Christ, continue to pray for them and let the light of Christ shine out unhindered by you. When you have the opportunity to share the gospel of Christ with others, make sure you clearly explain from the Scriptures what it means to “believe”, and let the terms “accepting Christ” or “receiving Christ” be dependent upon genuine belief and be the result of belief (John 3:14-15; 11:25-27; I John 5:13).
Let’s reflect upon the words of the apostle John in I John 3:1, and be amazed and forever grateful: “Behold what manner of love the Father has bestowed on us, that we should be called children of God.”