A Cautious Believer

Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council.  John 3:1-21

Oi!  John 3 gets about heavy-laden with truth and spiritual imagery as hay wagon when it’s full.  I won’t pretend to understand everything Jesus taught here because some things He says were culturally clear for His day but somewhat obscured by time, translation and cultural traditions changing.  Most of it is plainly stated, however.

John tells the story of Nicodemus coming by night to talk to Jesus.  Being a member of the Sanhedrin and a Pharisee, he couldn’t visit Jesus without arousing suspicion and anger from his colleagues so he went alone by night.  Traditional history indicates Nic was pretty wealthy, so wealthy in fact that he could have sustained the whole of Jerusalem for three years before his money ran out.  In Nic’s day they measured wealth by the amount of land and livestock you owned.  So this guy must have had it all by anybody’s estimation.

But something–or literally, someone–caught his attention and drove him to seek out a clue to better living.  He must have been looking around for something more–or may be he wasn’t and Jesus surprised him out of his complacency.  Some people don’t actually realize they are lacking until they see the more in the next valley.  As one historical parable goes, “A peasant is unaware of his poverty until he visits the palace of royalty.  Then his poverty galls him to discontentment.”  Nic had gained what everyone in the world who knew anything about anything wanted.  Jesus came along, poor, disrespected by the academia of the day, and turned them on their ear in one day.

Israel is a small country.  The events surrounding Jesus’ birth were probably widely known and wondered at; the miracle at Cana would have spread too because the family involved, being Jewish, would have been at the Passover.  Nic heard about or saw miracles and wondered.

First the cleaning up the of the temple courts must have aroused some irritation if he profited from it, and may be silent glee if he did not.  I believe the latter of him because he came sincerely seeking Jesus out and trying to understand His mission.  Being a politician, Nic begins with traditional political rhetoric, “Teacher, we know you are teacher who has come from God.  For no one can perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with Him.”

Oops!  Remember the point in the previous chapter about the leaders seeking a sign from heaven?  Nic kinda’ let the cat out of the bag here.  Being a part of the ruling council he would know what they said and in his introduction he said “we know” which puts the leaders of Israel kinda on the because they recognized who Jesus probably was.  They knew they were seeing a prophet of some kind or the Messiah.  John B was the son of priest in the temple and largely followed even by the Pharisees, so his declaration about Jesus would have been instantly reported.  We are deducing from the practices of man down through history and the habits and idiosyncratic behaviors displayed of those in power.  I’m a believer in the Sherlock Holmes statement (which I may not quote accurately but you’ll get the idea), “When we have eliminated all the probable conclusions from the evidence presented, the fact that remains, no matter how improbable, is the truth.”

We see a man coming to Jesus afraid of the powerful, even though he was a man of power.  They saw the miracles and couldn’t deny them, although they would concoct explanations for them later.  Nic came willing to dance around the issues, discuss or debate whatever was bothering.  Jesus on the other hand, true to His style, cut to the chase and told Nic what he really came for and needed to know, “You must be born again.”

Nic’s reaction puzzled me after a while.  It isn’t the fact that he reacted to Jesus’ statement with some incomprehension, it was the fact that the Jews of his day taught something similar about becoming a Jewish proselyte.  They would actually declare the person converted to Judaism “born again.” So why his reaction?

I think he didn’t like the symbolism even from his own countrymen.  From his reaction it must have been something that he just didn’t grasp as being a viable statement.  Nic sounds like earthy person here.  Like many Pharisees his world remained firmly rooted in a physical reality and, though he hoped for an afterlife, he didn’t think as much about it as his daily performance.  Nic was an intelligent man, by all accounts, and very observant.  A man doesn’t gain great wealth by being an idiot in every field, but here in the spiritual reality he found himself out of his depth.  Paul tells us, “Spiritual things are spiritually discerned, the unspiritual mind cannot comprehend them.”  Nic must have had some spiritual insight to be honest and courageous enough to seek Jesus out.

He just didn’t get this new birth thing.  He protested Jesus’ declaration with physical truth,  “How can a man be born when he is old?  Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born!”

Sound like a good argument?

Jesus deflected his reasoning with a spiritual answer, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit.  Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.  You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’  The wind blows wherever it pleases.  You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going.  So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”

In a chapter containing the most quoted verse in Christian history, Jesus blows us all away by making it clear that we cannot know the way of the Spirit without being born again.  Those who have been, know the mind of the Spirit after a time of following, though God is still beyond us and higher in thought, purpose and intent.  We can see the results of what He does but we don’t know and barely comprehend most of the time where He’s coming from or where He’s going with His will.  Only those born of water and the Spirit will have an inkling of what’s going on. S piritual things are spiritually discerned and cannot be interpreted by human standards or priorities.

No one can enter the kingdom of God without being washed.  Baptism symbolizes death to all things not of Christ for those cleansed by the Spirit of God.  That is what being baptised by the Holy Spirit means–cleansing of the past to make way for the new.  In God’s kingdom (and the root “king” here holds definite significance) the ways of sinful man are not welcome.  Those who identify with selfishness, greed, adultery, debauchery, self-indulgence, pride, sexual immorality and several others (read Gal. 5: 19-21) will not be welcome in God’s kingdom.  Does this mean those who do reach His kingdom are not sinners?  Not at all!  But John A says in 1 John that anyone who knows God does not continue to sin habitually–they begin to conquer their sinful nature.  We cannot remain in our sinful state and practices once we accept Jesus as Savior and Lord because our minds are being renewed to walk in the Spirit of God which is diametrically opposed to the ways of death.

Nic came as religious man who really was a decent fellow.  He probably didn’t lust after anyone, never stole anything, kept all the commandments of God to the best of his ability and sacrificed for his sins when he failed.  But he was just told he couldn’t enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit.  Bummer!  You mean all his good deeds meant nothing?  No, but these things didn’t make him a servant of God, merely a good man by human measurements.  Given a choice what would he choose?  God’s way or man’s way?  God’s righteousness or man’s righteousness?  God wants change in the inner most parts of us (Psalm 51), man wants to look good to himself and others.  God want definite radical change from the inside out; man wants to be good enough so that when he does something to indulge his sinful nature he can claim it as balancing out what he does wrong.

Jesus makes it clear anyone who knows the truth about Him and His mission will be held accountable for the knowledge and what they did with it.  They will be judged by how they handled truth.


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