June 21, 2015 Third Sunday After Trinity
A Failure of Faith
St. John 3:1-15
In Scotland, according to the lore, a drunken reprobate of a tradesman underwent a conversion experience so seismic it transformed him to the core. Worse yet, his new nature gripped him with such convulsive force that he told his co-workers what had happened.
This occasioned no end of ridicule. “Surely,” they said, “you don’t believe in miracles and that sort of rubbish. Surely you don’t believe Jesus turned water into wine.”
“Ach,” the convert answered, “I guess you’ve got me there. I can’t say for a fact what He did in Palestine way back when. But in my house and home He turned beer into furniture.”
Don’t worry; you’ll get it on the way home.
Nicodemus came to Jesus “at night.” In John, “at night” is an indication of spiritual and moral gloom. The evangelist has already identified Jesus as the “light”: “And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it” (1:5).
Nicodemus, educated but unenlightened, has not stepped out of darkness and so is a stranger to the light. As a ruler of Israel, he is representative of the willfully blind souls who form a majority in the nation, who will spurn their Messiah: “He came to His own, and His own did not receive Him” (1:11).
This leader of the people pictures for us those who are long on religion but come up short on faith. Jesus performed His signs that many might believe . . . but those signs are to be the beginning of faith and not the end of it. Nicodemus is so invested in the old ways that he cannot recognize the God who has come to make all things new.
Nicodemus saw that God was “with Him” – not an affirmation of Jesus as God the Son but only that He enjoyed a special relationship with God, as had, for example, Moses and Jeremiah. Nicodemus’ approach does not appear rude. He addresses the Lord as “rabbi,” a title of respect, and offers the conclusion that He is “a teacher come from God.”
But something is amiss.
As when He spoke to His mother regarding wine for the wedding party, Jesus seems to respond rather sharply. The overarching issue in question is, “Who is Jesus?” Nicodemus supposes he has the credentials as “a ruler of the Jews” to assess Jesus’ signs and draw conclusions . . . and he’s way off-base. “A teacher come from God” is something less than a prophet and miles short of God the Son.
Nicodemus, appearing humble – or at least respectful – has betrayed a fateful arrogance. He has positioned himself to discern whom God sends to teach and whom He does not. Is this Jesus a Teacher God has sent? Such magnanimity! Unless, of course, Jesus is God made manifest, God Himself. In that case, such disrespect!
As we have seen more than once already, Jesus’ reply seems to come out of left field. In fact, Nicodemus has not yet posed a question, but he is clearly grappling with the question of the day involving Jesus’ identity. Jesus wants it on record, here and now, that no one can read His signs unless and until he has been born again. Oh my, another misunderstanding.
It goes even deeper. The Jews know their God’s promise of the Coming One, Messiah. John the Baptist at least gets the question right: “Are You the Coming One, or do we look for another” (Matthew 11:3)
Rather than examining Jesus to test His credentials, Nicodemus should be studying his own preparedness for the coming of the messianic age. The “day of the Lord” is a time of great blessing and of great judgment. Then and now, all of those who profess love for God should be intent on their spiritual state: Am I ready for the coming of Messiah?
If today is the day, will He see before Him when he looks at me one who is living a righteous life? Am I living in the night or in the day? If this is He who comes to judge both the quick and the dead, will He assign to me a place with the sheep or with the goats?
Jesus, speaking to Nicodemus and to us, makes plain that if this is that great and terrible day, you will have no faculty to test it to determine whether or not the kingdom of God has arrived if you have not been born again.
Not long after my own conversion experience, I got a call from a friend in California. He had heard from a mutual friend that I had accepted Christ and was now singing a different hymn. He was wondering how serious a case I had caught. He applied the acid test: “Oh, so are you now one of those born-again Christians?”
What to say? This born-againness had been identified as the touchstone of a socially conservative brand of Christianity that many – tsk, tsk – associate with straw in one’s teeth and a corn cob pipe. And so the question was put to me in the starkest of terms:
Are you born again?
What else could I say? If we believe John 3, we believe that every one who is a Christian has been born again. To deny this regeneration, this rebirth, is to deny the Lord who makes it possible. I have been born again. I never heard from Dave again.
In the first century, the Jewish doctrine of which Nicodemus was a teacher held that all Jews, all members of the covenant people, would gain admission to the Kingdom of God save those who had committed unspeakable sins or apostasy.
Now appears “a teacher come from God” and what does He do put pile a huge condition on Israel’s hope. Enter the kingdom? You won’t even see it you are not born again. To stake a claim to a place in God’s regenerated world, you must first be regenerated.
As strange as this idea of an adult being born again sounds at first blush, it’s even more complicated. The Greek anothen can be translated “again,” as here, but it can also be rendered “from above.” Must Nicodemus be born again or must he be born from above?
He takes it in the first sense and Jesus does not correct him; “again” appears to be accurate. But, as we shall see, Jesus also teaches that the new birth is the work of the Holy Spirit, who comes from above, and John uses the word elsewhere in that way.
The safe course seems to be to take the term to mean both “again” and “from above.”
Who is subject to this requirement? Laborers and peasants? Indeed so, but the Lord is here addressing one of Israel’s great teachers, a Pharisee and a member of the Sanhedrin, the ruling council. The Pharisees were a charubah, a “brotherhood.”
There were never more than 6,000 of them in the nation and they entered the brotherhood by taking an oath before three witnesses that they would spend the rest of their lives observing every detail of the law. They were an exalted group. Nicodemus was a VIP, maybe an MVP. But even he must be born again.
Here is another case of misunderstanding resulting from an overly literal interpretation of Jesus’ words . . . and – get ready to duck – another curveball is coming. In addition to being born again from above he must be “born of water and the Spirit.”
But for a professor of the Hebrew Scriptures the idea should not be elusive. From Ezekiel 36 (24-27):
"For I will take you from among the nations, gather you out of all countries, and bring you into your own land. Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols.
“I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will keep My judgments and do them.”
Water cleanses from impurity, Spirit brings about heart change . . . in people who give themselves to God. When God imparts His nature to man from above, man begins again – in effect experiencing a new birth. Cleansing and renewal transform hearts of stone to hearts of flesh.
Would not Nicodemus, the teacher par excellence, have known the Hebrew Scriptures backward and forward? Would he not have grasped the Lord’s meaning rooted in Old Testament theology? Not if, like so many other Pharisees, he had placed his hope for salvation not in God’s mighty acts in history but in his own righteousness.
The candy-coated poison pill the devil held out in his day is the same as in ours – the belief that one can be good enough to save himself. Beloved, we have the New Testament, and especially Paul’s teaching on the depravity of the human heart in his Letter to the Romans. If Nicodemus had no excuse for his prideful blindness, we have less.
No one merited a pass into the Kingdom of God by his Jewishness. The covenant people, Israel then and the church now, enjoy a special place in God’s affections, but it affords no guarantee of your redemption. Only rebirth can accomplish that. You must be born again. If you are unsure, you probably aren’t. We need to talk.
Flesh begets flesh; Spirit begets spirit. The capital “S” is decisive. Only God the Holy Spirit can generate the child of God, the new man. As natural birth produces a being of flesh – not, as elsewhere, a sinful nature but simply a human nature – spiritual birth produces a spiritual being.
This is not a matter of reform but of regeneration, not of thinking loftier human thoughts but of grasping the thoughts of the God who dwells within you. Therefore . . . you have no reason to marvel at the Lord’s admonition that “You must be born again.”
The idea was not novel in Israel. The rabbis said a proselyte who renounced his former religion, who by prayer and fasting and confession of Yahweh as the one true God, became a Jew, was “like a new-born child.”
It was argued in the abstract that this new birth was so transformative that a man could marry his mother or sister because his old self had been annihilated and nothing remained of it.
It comes by the Spirit who moves like the wind. The wordplay Jesus uses is plainer in Greek than in English because the same word, pneuma, stands for both “wind” and “Spirit.” You see the trees sway and hear the whoosh and the roar but you know not where the wind began nor where it will end, when it will rise and when it will fall.
You observe the effects of the wind without knowing their cause. Likewise the Holy Spirit. You can neither understand nor harness Him but for all that He is no less real and you cannot deny the results of what He does.
But some do. Those in whom He has not wrought the new birth cannot grasp and certainly cannot accept His power and His production. Many of these will pooh-pooh His effects and even His very being. While God judges us, those of the one birth only judge God. Pray for them.
Having alluded already to Ezekiel’s 36th chapter, the Lord, we believe, now harkens back to Ezekiel 37, where we find the wind-slash-Spirit – one word serves for both in Hebrew, too – whooshing through the valley of dry bones and the dry bones coming to life.
So it is for those who are dead in their trespasses and sins. The unseen Spirit operates with great force, producing life, and we can but gasp in wonder, knowing not the why of it or the how. And Nicodemus, with his “Ph.D.” in Old Testament studies, knows nothing of rebirth? Will the scales never fall from his eyes?
If we did not proceed beyond this passage in John’s gospel we might give Nicodemus up for lost. This man, now fashioned “the teacher of Israel,” has taught others the requirements for entry into the Kingdom of God. He has instructed them in following God’s commandments and living the upright life.
But now comes a Galilean rabbi to add a condition of which he was unaware, this new birth. Jesus’ rebuke suggests Nicodemus is not seeking truth but doubting the accuracy of the Lord’s words.
Well, we’re done with him for now. He fades out of the dialogue and Jesus proceeds to elaborate on what He has already said, telling Nicodemus, “and you do not receive Our witness.” His failure of intellect is not the main thing; he has demonstrated a failure of faith that is far more profound.
The Messiah, God-in-the-flesh, has appeared in the creation just as Yahweh had promised by His prophets. “The teacher of Israel” has stood face-to-face with Him and has managed nothing deeper than a woodenly literal appreciation of His words.
I’m reminded of Pontius Pilate’s implacable refusal to know the Truth for who He is . . . but Pilate, a gentile, had no knowledge of the Hebrew Bible. Nicodemus earned the stinging rebuke he received.
If he could not manage the revelation that new birth – an “earthly” thing because it takes place within the natural world – is the port of entry into the Kingdom of God, why should Jesus go on to develop the picture of the “heavenly things” above? One who cannot clear customs will never admire the dazzling sights and experience the indescribable joys in the realm of glory.
Jesus alone is qualified to speak of the heavenly things because He alone has known them and brought the knowledge of them to earth. The Lord again flashes back to the Old Testament to illustrate His teaching, this time to the Book of Numbers.
Yahweh sent a plague of snakes to judge His covenant people for their faithless ingratitude and constant kvetching in the wilderness. He also provided the means of deliverance, the bronze serpent Moses held aloft on a pole.
Looking up at it, the Israelite who had been bitten and was bound for death could find new life – new physical life. Could not this same God deliver the means of new spiritual life?
So He has done. Nicodemus could not have understood all God did but he should have known of the coming passion of the Lord, not least from the Suffering Servant passage in Isaiah. Those who lift their eyes to gaze upon Christ lifted up upon His cross and believe will discover spiritual life, rebirth. And the Son of Man will rise to the glory He once shared with His Father above.
This new life offers salvation unto eternal life. It comes by belief in Him. Centuries after Moses lifted up the bronze serpent in the desert, King Hezekiah destroyed it because the people of Israel had made of it an idol.
They sought life in it, refusing to see that it had no life, neither in Moses’ day nor their own. New life comes from God’s grace; the bronze serpent was nothing more than the instrument He used to dispense it.
Jesus Christ is categorically different. He is “the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25) and believers in Him have life in Him
“How can these things be?” Nicodemus asked. They can be because of what Jesus who is the Christ will do on the cross. He will be lifted up, and all who look upon Him and believe will have eternal life in Him.
For the believer, the life of eternity is not withheld until natural death. It begins in the here and now. It begins in the Word. “In Him was life,” we read in the prologue (1:4). In the eternal Word is eternal life. Look upon the Lord who as the Word died upon His cross . . . and believe . . . and live. Amen.