Monday, May 9, 2011

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

3:9-10 Nicodemus answered and said unto him, How can these things be? Jesus answered and said unto him, Art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not these things?

Nicodemus asked an honest question that might have been simply the first thing that happened to escape his lips. Remember that this man was a Rabbi (teacher), Pharisee and elder. He was an Old Testament scholar of sorts. But Jesus was showing that behind the Old Testament physical realities there was a spiritual truth lurking that the message was intended to convey. The juxtaposition of physical birth (born of water) and spiritual birth (born of wind), coupled with the unseen activity of said wind left him speechless and fumbling for words. Perhaps Nicodemus was prepared to talk about Sabbath keeping or dietary laws or washings. Jesus cut right to the heart of the matter and began to extrapolate with a series of comparisons that left the Rabbi filled with questions.

Mind you, there was nothing essentially wrong with the question Nicodemus posed. The problem was not the question, but the status of the man asking it. When addressing the Hebrew Christians about the fundamentals of the Christian faith, the writer said, “For when for the time ye ought to be teachers, ye have need that one teach you again which be the first principles of the oracles of God; and are become such as have need of milk, and not of strong meat,” Hebrews 5:12. The Hebrew Christians had been saved for probably a good count of years, and the time was long past that they ought to have gone on to being teachers of the faith, not students. There are those who spend all of their lives in college; it seems that their whole career is centered in being a life-long student. God does not want us here, brethren. We are to go to the school of the Holy Spirit, and though in some sense we never depart, we are to learn the elementary principles of Christ, grow in faith, and take this knowledge, coupled with maturity and faith, and go into the world to make disciples. Numerous times throughout the New Testament we are warned not to remain like children in our spiritual growth. Be like children in our hearts toward God? Yes. Be like children in our heads regarding knowledge? No. Be harmless as doves (child-like) but shrewd as serpents.

Here was the conundrum of Nicodemus. He was an elder, a teacher of God’s own people, and he did not know the truths Jesus was revealing! Was it possible to know them before the mystery of the church age was fully disclosed? Paul did affirm that this age was a mystery for those prior to Pentecost. But there were some who had more light, even before the church age. John the Baptist preceded Jesus; he was the light that was to lead men to Christ. In this regard he was like a visible forerunner of the Holy Spirit’s activity of drawing men today. Only John’s mission was to prepare a select people: Israel. There were also Simeon and Anna during the days of Jesus’ infancy who were clearly taught by the Holy Spirit that the Christ had arrived. Messiah’s coming was a teaching of the Old Testament that was designed to instill hope to the Jews, Romans 15:4.

This was a mild rebuke to Nicodemus. The Rabbi had been in ignorance until this time. But Jesus was about to deliver such a potent barrage of truth that Nicodemus could no longer pretend at being ignorant after that night. Note however that Jesus did not write the man off as hopeless. Here is a valuable lesson for every one of us: Nicodemus was old; he was a teacher, an elder, a Pharisee. He was also in need of further teaching. If you ever reach the point where you believe that you no longer need to be taught or no one has anything to teach you, you are no longer useful to God because you are no longer listening to Him. I believe Nicodemus was willing to listen, partially because he was still standing there after Jesus imparted some hard truth to him. It was more than could be said of some crowds that followed Him and became angry when He taught them displeasing or contrary things. It doesn’t matter if it pleases us or not. God never asked my opinion when He established the gospel as the truth. He never wanted to know if I agreed, liked it, or found it palatable. He merely presented it to me through a witness and said “Here it is; take it or leave it.” I took it, by God’s grace, and found myself conformed by its message, and the Spirit who lives in that message. I pray only the same for everyone reading.

3:11-13 Verily, verily, I say unto thee, We speak that we do know, and testify that we have seen; and ye receive not our witness. If I have told you earthly things, and ye believe not, how shall ye believe, if I tell you of heavenly things? And no man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven.

Did your parents ever tell you to wash your hands before a meal when you were a child? Did you stop to question them, or did you simply obey? We wash our hands before a meal at first because our parents tell us to. They are a figure worthy of trust, and so when they tell us something we do not hesitate as children to obey their command. As we mature we begin to understand that there were reasons behind their commands apart from “because I said so.” In this case there are invisible organisms that abound called germs. These germs, if they are on our hands while we eat, will transfer to our food, enter our body, and make us ill. If we listen to our parents we can largely avoid this problem, though we may not know why they tell us to. As we mature and comprehend the reason why they told us to it serves to deepen our trust in them as we honor the wisdom of their seemingly needless command. Their command was to protect us from something we cannot see or combat otherwise; in due time as we matured they knew that we would eventually enter a state of understanding; we would know the reason for washing our hands. Obedience comes first, and understanding follows.

God does not stop to explain Himself when He commands. His policy tends to be “do it and then I will show you.” Our policy as men tends to be backward; “show me and I will do it.” The Old Testament is replete with commands that serve a practical, earthly function as well as a spiritual application that is for God’s children as they matured. The Mosaic Law was the command for Israel; Judaism is the foundation of Christianity. Christianity is the fulfillment of the Mosaic Law; it is the maturity of reason and understanding that God anticipated when He laid down the rudimentary laws in the Old Testament and simply said, “Do this and I will show you.” Now the mystery is revealed, the symbolism behind the Law explained, and the tutelage of the Old Testament covenant understood. Its purpose was to train those who were disciplined by it to be made ready for greater truth.

If someone is failing general math you cannot hope to successfully teach them trigonometry. Jesus was relating to Nicodemus in earthly terms, and the Rabbi was apparently in a state of unbelief. It was pointless then to elevate the conversation to higher degrees of truth unless a tutor was to be found that could educate Nicodemus properly. Such a one stood right in front of the old Rabbi. Jesus was informing him that He alone was qualified to teach Nicodemus about heavenly things because He had come down from Heaven; He was the Son of man in Heaven. If you want an expert on a particular region when you have never been there you talk to a native. Christ was saying that He was a native of Heaven, so He could speak of heavenly things with absolute certainty and authority. As a native He carried the dialogue of Heaven. What was the thing most talked of in Heaven? What was the buzz on the street in that celestial place? Apparently it was Christ. The citizens of Heaven were preoccupied discussing the infinite scope and majesty of our Creator God.

Jesus was about to give Nicodemus a lesson on heavenly dialogue, so to speak. He was informing this Jewish Rabbi that He had been in Heaven, descended to the earth in the incarnation, and was qualified as a teacher in heavenly things. Here we come to the fulcrum of this lesson: the gospel. Jesus was making Nicodemus ready to receive the gospel. He was preparing this man to hear and accept the words of life that would bring one from death to life and make them an adopted citizen of Heaven. Many people are patriotic, and speak well of their native countries. It is an insult to them when you speak poorly about their homeland. Christ wants to make rebels into patriots by pouring His life into them. He wants children zealous to seek the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and who will not be satisfied until we find and enter that city with foundations, whose builder and maker is God.

3:14-15 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.

To get the full effect of what Jesus is presently saying it is necessary to quote the whole passage from Numbers. “And they journeyed from mount Hor by the way of the Red sea, to compass the land of Edom: and the soul of the people was much discouraged because of the way. And the people spake against God, and against Moses, Wherefore have ye brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? for there is no bread, neither is there any water; and our soul loatheth this light bread. And the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and much people of Israel died. Therefore the people came to Moses, and said, We have sinned, for we have spoken against the LORD, and against thee; pray unto the LORD, that he take away the serpents from us. And Moses prayed for the people. And the LORD said unto Moses, Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live. And Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived,” Numbers 21:4-9.

For the third time Jesus uses a physical-to-spiritual comparison to teach Nicodemus. The first was natural birth verses spiritual birth. The second was the lesson of the wind. The third one Jesus actually applies a passage from the Torah that Nicodemus is likely very acquainted with. Nicodemus asked how these things could be, and Jesus was now in the process of answering him.

Just as the fiery serpents bit the people of Israel and they died from the bite, so too has the serpent called sin bitten you and I and death is inevitably the result. Why do men die? Because sin is in this world. Moses was commanded to erect the bronze serpent. It was an exact representation of the very thing that was killing the Jews. I would like to believe that this serpent, erected on the pole as it was, was placed near the tabernacle high enough for anyone, if they stepped out of their tent, to see it from anywhere in the camp of Israel. Likewise Jesus our Lord was literally made to be sin for us, 2nd Corinthians 5:21. When the darkness covered the land during the last hours of Jesus’ crucifixion God was pouring out the sins of mankind upon Christ. Christ became the very thing God hates: sin.

God punished sin in Christ, and the Father separated Himself from the Son those few eternal hours on the cross while Jesus bore the burden of mankind’s sin alone. Those who look to the cross and the One that is lifted up on it in faith will be saved. Why do you think Jesus used this phrase, John 12:32? Jesus now likened His forthcoming death to the famous incident in the wilderness, assuring Nicodemus that they would have similar, but yet radically different, results. Similar in the regard that the Jews of Moses’ time and the people who lived after the cross would both be saved by faith. The difference being that the Jews who looked on the bronze serpent received physical deliverance; anyone who looks on Jesus Christ in faith receives spiritual, eternal deliverance.

That is the essence of why Jesus followed this comparison with verse 15. He wanted to leave no room for misunderstanding between Him and Nicodemus. The comparison was valid in that the bronze serpent and Christ were both deliverers; but the salvation Jesus offered was eternal life to all who looked on Him in faith. Such faith will preserve the recipient from spiritual death, and physical death merely becomes a door through which we enter Heaven and God’s presence forever. Truly, the sting of death has been removed in Jesus Christ, Romans 6:23; 1st Corinthians 15:56-57.

1 comment:

  1. Nicodemas even believed that Jesus came from God, but Jesus insisted more was needed. It is fascinating how much this chapter alone brings out.

    Great post.


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