Thinking Through Scripture

"but the word of the Lord remains forever"

Month: March, 2019

52 Reflections on the Gospel of John: #29. Conversing with Nicodemus (Part 2).

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Snakes and the Cross:

Normal people aren’t friends with snakes. Snakes and humans are natural enemies. Snakes are creepy and often dangerous and always make a good companion for a villain.  They certainly aren’t the hero of the story. That’s why Numbers 21 and John 3 work together in a fantastically ironic and beautiful way.

Jesus draws an incredible parallel between a snake and the crucifixion (John 3:14-15). If you remember Numbers 21, the children of Israel begin to complain against God…..again. This is a constant problem after the Exodus. They long to go back to Egypt. Back to slavery where they were miserable, cried and wept for deliverance, hopelessly labored without end, and had their children murdered and thrown into the Nile. You know, the good ol’ days. Well, during this complaint a plague of venomous serpents swarmed the camp and people started dying. They cried out to God, who heard them, and prepared a means of salvation. Moses was to fashion a serpent made of bronze, put it high on a pole, and all who were bitten could look up to the bronze serpent and miraculously be saved. God did not, by the way, rescue them by removing the snakes. That would have been by preference. Instead, he allowed them coexist with the snakes, but gave them a means of deliverance through it.

The serpent on a pole has long been a symbol of healing power, from Moses to Asclepius to Hermes even to the modern field of medicine. But Jesus sees this symbol from Numbers 21 as the prefiguration of a different kind of healing. Just like that rod with the bronze serpent was lifted up, so will the Son of Man be lifted up. Ironically, serpents were the cause of death in Numbers 21 but a serpent lifted high was the means of salvation. In our lives, death is the problem we all face but a death lifted high is the means of salvation. The death of Jesus. And it is that death to which we all must look. A beautiful life-giving death.

Just like those venomous snakes still existed to bite and spread death in Numbers 21, so sin and its lethal bite still exist in our world. But a means of salvation exists right alongside.  This sacrificial means of salvation is the clearest image of the love of God that can be seen: “For God so loved the world, that He gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him will not perish, but will have eternal life” (John 3:16).

Before the bronze serpent was made, the people were already bitten and dying. The bronze serpent had one purpose, to bring about salvation. Condemnation was already part of the story. So it is with the coming of Jesus. The world condemned itself on its own without Jesus’ help. He came not to condemn, but to provide a way out of it (John 3:17-18). To be a source of salvation out of the sin and death of the world. A focal point of deliverance and the love of God.

Light and Darkness:

Now the conversation with Nicodemus immediately shifts again to a major talking point in the Gospel of John: light and darkness. In John, “night”, “darkness”, and “blindness”, are all representative of a spiritual condition without Christ. Jesus came as a Light to shine in the darkness (John 1:4-5, 9). He twice describes Himself as the “Light of the World” (John 8:12; 9:5). The first time is a call to leave darkness and to have “the Light of Life.” The second is a description of his role in the world right before He heals a blind man. Giving sight to the blind, one who sees only darkness, is done by the Light of the World. Those who are in darkness need this light. Those who are blind need this light. And by the way, Nicodemus, those who come to Jesus “at night” need this light. Remember when Judas left to go betray Jesus? Guess what time it was? “So after receiving the morsel he went out immediately; and it was night” (John 13:30). Judas needed this Light.

In Genesis 1, light is the first thing God sends to the world of chaotic water and darkness. In John 1, Light is what God sends to the chaotic world of sin and darkness. Jesus came as a Light to enlighten the world, not to condemn it. But tragically the world preferred darkness. Imagine in Genesis 1, the world rejecting God’s act of creation. In John we see the world is actively rejecting God’s act of New Creation. But there are some that don’t. Some actually are born from above. Some see the kingdom as it truly is. Some come out of darkness into His marvelous Light. Some, Mr. Nicodemus, find eternal life.

Summarizing the Conversation:

This conversation has a lot of twists and turns, but I think the key to it all is in the first words Jesus says to Nicodemus: “Unless one is born from above, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). Jesus is bringing a kingdom. This kingdom is “not of this world” (John 18:36). It’s easy enough to see a worldly kingdom. The Roman Empire was so visible no one could miss it. But Jesus’ kingdom can be missed if you don’t look carefully.

Remember when Jesus is arrested, beaten, and paraded before the Jews with a purple robe and a crown of thorns on His head? He stood there, alone, bloodied in weakness and anguish while Pilate said, “Behold, your King!” That’s a kingdom moment. Most people who look, they don’t see the sacrificial love of God, they don’t see the Light of the world, they certainly don’t see a king. They see weakness and failure and a fool getting what He deserves. They see a false Messiah. A failed rebellion. A criminal who lost to the mighty Roman Empire. The kingdom of God is appearing right in front of them, and they walk by waging their heads.

But those who have been born from above have eyes that see. They see the kingdom and they behold their King. I wish I knew more, but the story of Nicodemus ends with a “perhaps.” Perhaps Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea give Jesus the burial worthy of a king (John 19:38-42) because their eyes have been opened. Perhaps birth from above is causing them to see things that they previously missed. Perhaps an entirely new life awaits them. Perhaps the same could be said of you. Perhaps.

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52 Reflections on the Gospel of John: #28. Conversing with Nicodemus (Part 1)

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By Night:

It is not unimportant that Nicodemus comes to Jesus “by night.” Little details like that are rarely insignificant. They are intentional and need to be noticed. They shape the whole story. When Nicodemus is mentioned again after the crucifixion, he is described as “Nicodemus, who had first come to Him by night” (John 19:39). That passage links him to Joseph of Arimathea, who is described as “a secret disciple.” Joseph was like Nicodemus in many ways; a wealthy, powerful man who was also a member of the Sanhedrin and opposed the decision to crucify Jesus (Luke 24:50-51). But he was also unwilling to publicly put his faith in Jesus. Nicodemus put his faith in Jesus, but only at night. Joseph put his faith in Jesus, but only in secret. Following the crucifixion, however, they find themselves together, coming forward to honor Jesus as a king, regardless of what the public thinks.

They weren’t alone in their secrecy by the way. John 12:42, 43 explains, “Nevertheless many even of the rulers believed in Him, but because of the Pharisees they were not confessing Him, for fear that they would be put out of the synagogue; for they loved the approval of men rather than the approval of God.” Their silence is explained by two things: what they feared and what they loved. They feared reprimand. They feared expulsion from the synagogue, which would include loss of status, respect, and community.  This is the same thing that the blind man’s parents feared (John 9:23). This is the same thing that many in the early church feared, and they clung to passages like this to remind them, not to be motivated by fear, but love. Not love for the approval of men; that love makes you a slave. That love works hand in hand with fear. That love keeps you silent about Jesus. But love for the approval of God, which no hatred, persecution, or fear could ever take from you. Perhaps the cross was exactly what Nicodemus and Joseph needed to move beyond fear, and begin to show their love of Christ openly.

Born From Above:

One of the famous misunderstandings in the Gospel of John centers on the phrase γεννηθῇ ἄνωθεν, “be born again.” The multiple meanings of the word ἄνωθεν become the main source of confusion. The word could mean “again” and that’s certainly how Nicodemus hears it. But the word could also mean “from above” or “from heaven” which I think is how Jesus actually means it. In John 3:31, Jesus says, “He who comes from above is above all…He who comes from heaven is above all” Guess what that phrase “from above” is in Greek? ἄνωθεν. It’s the exact same word. There is a major theme in John about ascending and descending, up and down, above and below. Jesus comes from above, from heaven, so He brings a heavenly perspective to all his teaching. But those who come from below fail to grasp it.

“If I told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven, but He who descended from heaven; the Son of Man” (John 3:12-13). There is a difference between earthly things and heavenly things spoken by Jesus. The misunderstandings in John always occur when people hear the earthly thing instead of the heavenly. That’s why Nicodemus doesn’t hear the heavenly message about being born of God from above, he hears the earthly message about crawling back into his mother’s womb. But to be born from above is the same thing as being born “not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:13). God is above, God is Spirit (John 4:24), the one who is born from above, and is born of water and Spirit, is born of God.

That one who is born from above is also born of God, born of Spirit, and born of water is really interesting. We may think that water doesn’t seem to fit well with these other descriptions, water is not God, Spirit, or from above. But water does take on a significant spiritual role in the Gospel of John. Immediately following this conversation with Nicodemus water is linked with baptism (John 3:22-23). The phrase “because there was much water there” (John 3:23) seems like a peculiar detail to add, which means it probably shouldn’t be glossed over. I don’t see any way the early church doesn’t see baptism when they read John 3:5. But water is also connected to eternal life (John 4:10-14), sight for the blind (John 9:7), washing that gives you a part with Jesus (John 13:8), and the blood of Jesus (John 19:34). But most significantly for our passage, it is linked directly to the Holy Spirit, “Jesus stood and cried out, saying, ‘If anyone is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture said, “From his innermost being will flow rivers of living water.”’ But this He spoke of the Spirit, whom those who believed in Him were to receive; for the Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified” (John 7:37-39).

Spirit and Wind:

Jesus then uses another word that has a double meaning: πνεῦμα. This word means “wind” or “Spirit” and Jesus uses it to mean both in the very same verse! “The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8). Imagine Jesus and Nicodemus talking, late into the evening, on a gusty night. They can hear the wind but cannot predict where has come from or where it will end up, nor can they control it. Nicodemus is a man used to authority: making decisions, having control, running his own life. Jesus is telling Him, to be born of the Spirit is to give up control. You have as much control over the Spirit as you do the wind.

By the way, we should always be a little cautious when some teacher or preacher tries to tell us exactly what the Spirit can and cannot do or will and will not do. There is a lot of ambiguity to the work of the Spirit in the Bible. And I believe that’s intentional. To nail down the Spirit is like nailing down the wind (I mean, it’s the exact same word!). Good luck! It is better to watch and see what happens, than to try to control and confine.

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