Wednesday, May 4, 2011

That Most Needful Thing (John 3) Part 1 of 5

Sitting under some convicting preaching about the Resurrection on Easter Sunday, the teacher (a gentleman named Bill) touched on a few verses in John chapter 3 that set me to serious thinking. This series of posts is the result of meditating on John 3, and I pray that the results are mutually beneficial. I expounded verses 1-21, which contains the whole of the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This section is an amazing passage in which the gospel is clearly, plainly, and vividly given to Nicodemus. Let us see what else there is to see, God willing.

3:1-2 There was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews: The same came to Jesus by night, and said unto him, Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him.

The third chapter of John begins with John giving us Nicodemus’ credentials. He was a ruler of the Jews; he was a Pharisee. The Pharisees were renown among their own people as being experts in the law. They were the answer men, the pious among the already God-chosen Jews, and as such were elevated to an esteemed status among their own people. Paul, before his conversion to Christianity, was a Pharisee and confesses that he is the son of a Pharisee. As far as vocations went in ancient Israel being a Pharisee was a great career choice. Many likely chose such a vocation for the same reason men and women today choose to enter the ministry; they aren’t really called of God to do so; many of them in fact may not even be born again. Some have sparse biblical knowledge, or even disbelieve that the Bible is truly God’s word, or at least God’s only word given to man. Such pursue the career of a minister to their own destruction, for they are meddling with God’s eternal word and plan of salvation as though they were choosing what to wear for the day.

But such was not Nicodemus. The question here is not whether Nicodemus was even saved. The Old Testament saints were not born again like Christians. Being born again by the coming of the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit was a new thing when the church was established on the day of Pentecost. I do not know for certain if Nicodemus was saved; it was intimated that he admired or respected Jesus. He helped Joseph bury Jesus after His crucifixion. But something vital was lacking in the life of this Rabbi, this leader of the Pharisees and elder of the people, and Jesus was about to make it clear what Nicodemus lacked; even though the man did not even know that he lacked it until Jesus informed him. The burden was irrevocably shifted onto Nicodemus at this point.

He obviously came to Christ seeking more light and God was not remiss; He gave the Pharisee clear light. In fact, Nicodemus was privy to one of the finest sermons about spiritual birth ever mouthed, and that from God Himself. What he did with that light was his responsibility. Did he respond to it in faith upon hearing it? Or did he withdraw from God’s drawing? The same response is impressed on every one of us who hears the gospel: do we respond in faith to its message? Or do we refrain because it isn’t for us? Since you don’t know when you will die it seems the height of foolishness to put off the only choice in existence that bears eternal consequences.

Anyhow, verse one opens with John’s introduction of Nicodemus; so far as we know the only man present when this sermon was delivered to him. Jesus was yet in Jerusalem because it was the Passover, John 2:13. Nicodemus found Jesus by night; not because Nicodemus was a coward, but because everywhere the Lord went crowds thronged Him, and this was likely the Rabbi’s only chance of getting some “one on one” time with Jesus. The problem began at once. Nicodemus clearly understood that something supernatural was at work in Jesus, and he rightly attributed this work to God. But he failed to perceive that the reason Jesus could perform the miracles He did was evidence that God walked among them. The dead were raised. The lame were healed. Those missing limbs were restored. The blind saw. Thousands were fed. Demons were subject to His authority; an authority that clearly reached beyond this world into the unseen world of eternity.

These signs as Nicodemus called them were what we call miracles. Nicodemus construed the signs as evidence of God at work in Christ. Christ performed miracles to demonstrate that He was God. Man’s Creator had descended to earth and tabernacled with men. He could heal the body perfectly because He created the body. The miracles were to supplement His words, so that if we rejected His words the evidence of the miracles would convict us regarding the outrageous claims Jesus made: namely that He was God. As C. S. Lewis pointed out, this claim cannot be ignored, and if false it was tantamount to a man claiming to be a poached egg. He was either a deranged lunatic (which nullifies His ability to be a good moral teacher for those who want to stop there) or He was God come as a Man. His words and deeds speak today, and one must weigh the evidence very carefully, because if Jesus spoke truth then His greatest claim was that all humanity must be saved through Him alone. No other way to God was sufficient, because every other way to God was man’s invention or effort. Only this way, Christ’s way, was God’s effort to bring sinful man to Himself; and being such it was perfect and would succeed. Nicodemus was about to receive the surprise of his life.

3:3-4 Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. Nicodemus saith unto him, How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter the second time into his mother's womb, and be born?

Now remember that we established that Nicodemus was not a two-bit philosopher or ignoramus. He was an elder Rabbi in the Pharisees. He knew the law backward, forward and every other “ward” you can think of. I wager that were he alive today he could out quote many of us from the Old Testament without the benefit of verse breaks that we possess today. So, Nicodemus commends Jesus as a Man sent by God and demonstrated that by the signs Jesus performed. Jesus’ answer then shifts the subject to what the Lord felt was of paramount importance for Nicodemus, and for us. He told the Rabbi that he must be born again. There was a fact of spiritual truth: a man must be born again to so much as see the kingdom of God. What is the kingdom of God? Heaven, the eternal kingdom that God will create when He is finished with our present world. If a man or woman wants to partake in this eternal kingdom, the kingdom of God, they must be born again.

Now this was revolutionary for Nicodemus. You can hear the incredulity in his voice when he poses his question. Have you ever been taken off guard when someone told you something important that you didn’t yet know? And they told you in such a way that you ought to have known? Did Jesus think Nicodemus should have known the truth He was presently expounding? It seems so, especially when you peruse a few verses ahead to something Jesus asks the Rabbi. The coming of the new birth was prefaced in the Old Testament. As God says, He does nothing without first revealing His secrets to His servants the prophets, Amos 3:7. First God revealed the secret of the new birth, and then with Christ’s descent to our sin-ravaged world He began to initiate this new thing. Christ had come to open the way through His sacrifice so we might be partakers of His life through the new birth.

Where was the new birth foretold, you might ask? I feel that it was shared in one passage for certain by the prophet Ezekiel. “Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean: from all your filthiness, and from all your idols, will I cleanse you. A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments, and do them.” Ezekiel 36:25-27.

Jeremiah has a similar passage. "Behold, the days come, saith the LORD, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah: Not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt; which my covenant they brake, although I was an husband unto them, saith the LORD: But this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; After those days, saith the LORD, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people. And they shall teach no more every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the LORD: for they shall all know me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith the LORD: for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more." Jeremiah 31:31-34.

Nicodemus answers with a question. Namely: how? How can I do this? Today it is an equally valid question that is answered in a variety of ways that serves to confuse and disillusion many people from approaching Christianity. They look to see if we have answers, see the disarray the church is in, and turn from us because they don’t see Jesus Christ; they see a thousand men with a thousand conjectures and convoluted explanations. If this is all Christianity means to anyone who professes it, repent and get right with God so you can actually be useful to Him. I am surrounded daily by quite a number of people burned by what they perceive as Christianity, and they want nothing to do with the Jesus I offer them. Too often we take Christ and dissect Him, keeping what we like and adding bits of our own that we think supplement Him. The end is a hideous Frankenstein-like caricature that is nothing like the Man presented in Scripture.

Nicodemus hit a wall. He had a blind spot that Jesus perceived and addressed. He answered the problem in a way He alone can; and this is where we as Christians must arrive at. If we are fighting the Lord’s battle in the flesh we are not giving the people the solution, we are not presenting Jesus Christ. Is the light that shines forth from this lamp, from this vessel of clay, the Holy Spirit? Or is it dead theology and biblical knowledge sanitized by pride? The Pharisees were renowned for this routine. When someone asks the hard questions (like Nicodemus just did with Jesus) we, like our Lord, must be ready to give an answer, 1st Peter 3:15! If you do not know, tell them that; being ignorant of the answer can be refreshing; but do not remain ignorant. Find the answer and supply it to them. As it was Nicodemus just opened a door for Jesus to advance the conversation to the next level as it were.

1 comment:

  1. When people are interested enough to ask serious questions, it is safe to assume the Holy Spirit is working. In the book of Acts, those who received Christ nearly always asked for more information. As you mentioned that opens the door for more in depth teaching.

    Great start to the series.


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