9. Still Hedging

Short Meditations in John 3:  9. Still Hedging

Jn 3:9,10    How can this be?” Nicodemus asked. “You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things?

We have considered previously the possible options that we (and Nicodemus) have when faced with an apparently impossible teaching from God and from His Son, Jesus.  We wrote off the possibility that Jesus has lost his mind and also that he’s made a mistake and really doesn’t mean what he says. He clearly does mean what he says because after the first analogy (being born of the Spirit) he gives a second one (of the wind blowing where it will) and he links the two together – “So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”

Now there is something else to be considered here: the maturity of listeners to Jesus and the openness or otherwise of their hearts. Supposing you were trying to convey a philosophical concept to a child, to an uneducated adult and to a mature, well-educated adult. I suggest you would use language appropriate to their level, because you wish them to understand. If you didn’t want them to understand you would use language beyond their present level of knowledge and understanding. So let’s ask a simple question: does Jesus want Nicodemus to understand? The answer has surely got to be yes, because in hindsight we can see that these things are not rocket science and Jesus is simply giving analogies that most people would understand. The end product may leave people wondering but they would understand childbirth and the wind and they would understand what Jesus was getting at, even if they didn’t see how such a thing could be.

It is often said that sin and self-centredness are blind and at this point we might be forgiven for starting to have negative feelings about the responses coming from Nicodemus – if only we ourselves weren’t so slow so often! But he still persists: “How can this be?”  Now it is not as if the Old Testament hasn’t got much about the Spirit, for it has, and Nicodemus ought to have learnt from its teaching that when the Spirit came on people they were empowered and became quite different – they were like different or new people. Look up the times the Spirit came on people in the Old Testament and you will see it again and again. It is clearly there to be seen – but Nicodemus doesn’t seem to have seen it; he’s too concerned with rules, the Law.

Jesus isn’t going to let him get away with this: “You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things?”  You are a leader, a Pharisee and you seek to teach others and yet you do not understand these very basic things I am saying to you? Implication? You should know these things!  And us?

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8. Another Example

Short Meditations in John 3:  8. Another Example

Jn 3:8    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.”

There is something I have noticed about God, about the way that He deals with us. It is that He is both gentle and persistent but often speaking in ways that are indefinite and require faith and trust of me to hang on in without full understanding. He loves us and gently prompts us to become thinkers, readers, those who come to gradual understanding, and if that is true of the Father, it is also true of Jesus.

Nicodemus has just stumbled with a bad case of literalism over the concept of being born again but Jesus has not abandoned him. Jesus does not say to us, “You stupid, slow-witted idiot, why can’t you see???” No, he understands us. Like the psalmist we can say, you have searched me and you know me.” (Psa 139:1)  He knows what we are like and knows we are sometimes slow to understand. Yes, there will be times when he chides us: “You of little faith” (e.g. Mt 6:30, 8:26) but more often he simply presses on with his gentle teaching.

So now here we find him using a further analogy with Nicodemus, one of the wind that comes without warning from who knows where and goes who knows where. It is a mystery to the human mind, is what Jesus is conveying here. Because it is a work of God we do not know what He knows and so we do not see what He sees and cannot see the hearts of men and women, hearts that may be changing as His Spirit works on them.

The uncertainty of the moving of the Spirit is the very thing that unnerves some people and makes them back away from such teaching, for deep within each of us is this desire to be in control, to decide what we will do and where we will go. To be told that Jesus and his Spirit go where they will without warning is unnerving. But that is exactly what this verse is saying and it must be really challenging and even more unnerving to a man like Nicodemus, a Pharisee committed to the Law, the predictable and certain law..

I know some who love God’s written word (as I do) and who love to play with its words (as I do) and who love to seek out the truth (as I do)  but who shy away from the uncertainty of the moving and working of the Spirit. He moves as the knowledge and wisdom of God (both of which are unlimited) to reveal a perfect course of action. He knows when a heart is opening to Him and He moves accordingly. He sees when a man or woman genuinely comes to a point of total surrender of their life to God (and why they do is a mystery) and He is there to enter and release new life and power and the individual is thus ‘born again’.

7. Why the Surprise?

Short Meditations in John 3:  7. Why the surprise?

Jn 3:7    You should not be surprised at my saying, `You must be born again.’

There are things in life – and in conversations – that are obvious, and we should not be surprised at the obvious. We are surprised at the obvious when we have given no real thought to the matter, or perhaps when we prefer not to think about the consequences of our beliefs. We show surprise in such cases almost as a means of self-defence, pushing away the thought that we have been lazy in our thinking or even purposefully negligent in our thinking because it’s safer that way.

Consider the order of what has happened here. First Nicodemus has come seeking out Jesus at night acknowledging that Jesus has come from God as he seems to be exercising the rule of God. Taking the opportunity to impart some truth to Nicodemus, Jesus challenges the thought that anyone can exercise the rule of God by declaring that before you can see God’s kingdom manifest you yourself need to start all over again on a completely different basis, a spiritual basis expressed, he says, as being ‘born again’.  At that point Nicodemus focused on a literal interpretation of that phrase rather than keeping it in the spiritual sense. I put it that way because surely any talk of God’s kingdom takes us into the spiritual realm for God is spirit. Nicodemus avoided the big issue – of needing a fresh start; he didn’t want to go down that path, as many today similarly want to cast aside the concept of ‘being born again’ because it highlights their present need and their inability to do anything about it, and they would rather avoid that sort of thinking.

So Nicodemus exhibits this apparent surprise or confusion that comes from literally applying Jesus’ words instead of seeing the truth behind them. Do we sometimes ease ourselves away from the truth or the call of God on our lives by making excuses – I don’t understand this, the preacher wasn’t clear enough, I can’t see what he is really getting at, I don’t understand this call to ‘die to self’, or whatever other truth is being presented to us? Nicodemus has been doing just this. He is a spiritual leader, a Pharisee who almost certainly is well taught, so he ought to understand what Jesus is saying. A more open response would have been, “You mean I need a new start in my life, a new spiritual start somehow?” but he didn’t, he took a teaching that used picture language and tried to interpret it literally, which he must have known was wrong and couldn’t be.

So Jesus confronts him with this very simply: “You should not be surprised.”  The truths of this situation or this conversation are obvious, so why are you hedging?

5. Twofold Birth Required

Short Meditations in John 3:  5. Twofold Birth Required

Jn 3:6    Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit

Previously Jesus had said, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.” Thus now he explains that that means two sorts of birth, a natural one where the natural baby had been protected in water (in the womb), and now a spiritual one where the Holy Spirit surrounds and fills a person. Some suggest that the reference to water speaks of baptism but it is surely far more likely that Jesus parallels natural birth with spiritual rebirth. (The other interpretation is that Jesus means to be born again you need to be baptised in water and in the Spirit. Although true I think the simple parallel here is of natural versus spiritual rebirth and we will see that in the coming verses)

There is within this something far more obvious that we need to note in this illustration. One of the biggest problems that every human being has is that they are stuck with Sin, this propensity to be self-centred and godless. But we also have an ongoing sense that there is something better that we could be. Thus we find shelves of books on self-improvement in bookshops, or courses you can go on to improve yourself. People want to be different but for all their trying they know that still they are those people prone to getting it wrong and failing. Trying harder doesn’t seem to get us there.

More than this, people have a sense of the divine possibility, or a spiritual possibility, and thus we find all the religions of the world with most of them reaching out through various means to touch the spiritual – but failing, for the material cannot contact the spiritual. We need a part of us changing so that it can make contact with God otherwise we are just fruitlessly reaching out into the void. Somehow we need help from outside us to meaningfully be able to touch God.

However else we might put this, the simplest way is to say we need a new start, but not just a new attempt at doing things differently but our very being changed to be able to operate on a spiritual level as well as a material level. Unless the source of everything spiritual – God – can do something in us and actually change us, we will never be able to relate on the spiritual level despite all our yearnings.

This spiritual birth that Jesus is hinting at has to have its origin with God because we cannot do it ourselves. The best we can do is try harder but that will never enable us to move in the spiritual realm. No, we need God to do something in us that makes us spiritually receptive, able to communicate spiritually, able to communicate with a two-way communication with God Himself. This is what Jesus is working towards as he prompts Nicodemus.

4. You what?

Short Meditations in John 3:  4. You what?

Jn 3:4    How can a man be born when he is old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born!”

I remember many years ago a TV police series with Stratford Johns as a sceptical detective who pulled suspects in and interrogated them and his scepticism of their stories was always expressed as, “You what?” Those two words in that context were shorthand for, “You’ve got to be joking! You surely don’t expect me to believe that!” Now Nicodemus seeks to be very much more polite but that, essentially, is what he is saying.

Jesus has just made a statement which, if taken at its face value in a materialistic world, cannot possibly be true.  We know that human beings are born once and that is it. Once you’re here, you’re here! End of story! Nicodemus, I suspect, thinks of himself when he says, “How can a man be born when he is old?  I am an old man so how can this possibly apply to me? Whatever are you talking about?”

Now we have said this before in one of the earlier chapters in John, but it bears repeating. If you are listening to a teacher – and Nicodemus accepts that Jesus is a teacher – and that teacher says something that seems impossible, there are only a limited number of possibilities. First, he’s lost his mind. No, that doesn’t seem likely for Jesus is still quite rational in all other ways. Second, he’s made a mistake and really doesn’t mean what he’s just said. That, I would suppose, is where Nicodemus has got to. “Do you really mean that?”  Now if there were discussing quantum physics or philosophy, that might be a possibility but the language being used is simple and straight forward and easily understood, so it is unlikely that Jesus has been mistaken. Which brings us to a third possibility: Jesus is using ordinary language to convey truth about something else, so what can the ‘something else’ possibly be?

Again and again in scripture we find figures of speech being used, that are not to be taken literally. Personification is not to be taken literally. Analogies are not to be taken literally, none of these figures of speech are to be taken literally. So, I ask the question I ask often in these studies because it needs asking of Christians: when you come across something difficult in the Bible do you ignore it or ask God for revelation? There is nothing wrong with being a questioner as long as we come with an open seeking heart. In fact that is the sort of heart that God demands of us. If we don’t understand something in His word, ask Him what it means and watch and listen and then rejoice in what you find coming to you.

3. Entry to the Kingdom

Short Meditations in John 3:  3. Entry to the kingdom

Jn 3:3    In reply Jesus declared, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again

Nicodemus has just mentioned miraculous ‘signs’. Such signs, for those with open hearts, point to God, such signs are an indication of the presence of the kingdom or reign of God and yet, says Jesus, no one can see this kingdom without being born again.

Now this is the first mention of this little phrase, about being “born again.” In some quarters this phrase is almost used derogatorily as if it is some weird Christian experience that those who might wish to be middle of the road should avoid, but that is as far from the truth as you could hope to be! It is a primary requirement of being a real Christian according to Jesus.

Moreover, this experience that Jesus is about to speak about, is key to seeing, understanding, or experiencing what Jesus refers to as ‘the kingdom of God’ which we suggested is another way of saying ‘the rule of God’. When Jesus performed miracles it was always God expressing His rule on His earth. Normally speaking, God has made this world to work by what we call materialistic scientific rules, or rules of nature, and we can do nothing to change them, but the One who made the world can! God can speed up healing processes, bring new life back to dead bodies, change water into wine, walk on water or do anything else He likes with His world, for He has the power to do that.

The challenge that Jesus now brings to Nicodemus is about transferring from a kingdom that uses words (where he is presently a ruler) to one where power is the currency, power to change and transform lives. One is man-inspired, the other is God-empowered, we shall go on to see. The big emphasis, we should see in this verse, is not so much about being born again, but on the reign or rule of God in and through us.

It is here that is the sticking point for many nice people who like traditional religion, who like to be in control of their lives. Talk about God ruling, God being the arbiter of all we do as ‘church’, God’s power transforming us, all this challenges the man-based life. Nicodemus is a human ruler who operates with human power and authority – what other people give to him. Jesus, on the other hand, deals with power to change the physical world, because he is the Son of God who has come to restore people to what God intended them to be originally, and that involves life-changing power, as we will go on to see as we follow this conversation along. The big issue that Jesus wants to bring before Nicodemus is God’s rule in our lives and that only fully comes about when the Holy Spirit enters a person and they are ‘born again’. That is why this is so important.

2. Open but Unsure

Short Meditations in John 3:  2. Open but Unsure

Jn 3:2    He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him.”

It is interesting to note how people approach other people when they are unsure of them. We noted previously the things Nicodemus had going for him – he’s a good Jew, a conservative believer who strongly defends the Old Testament and he’s a respected leader. But we also noted that such things can also be drawbacks and although Nicodemus, as a leader, probably knows how to deal with people he’s probably heard sufficient about Jesus to have a number questions and he doesn’t want to go like a bull in a china shop and make him defensive, hence he addresses Jesus as ‘Rabbi’ or teacher, a title of respect. He needs to move slowly with this man and feel his way along.

But there is another aspect of his coming to Jesus and that is in respect of those of his contemporaries who he has left behind. He’s fairly sure they would not be happy with him coming and talking with this man and it is probably for this reason that he comes after dark to seek out Jesus. This way he is less likely to be seen and the word get back to the rest of the ruling council. In the UK it’s a bit like a Labour MP going to have secret talks with the Conservative Chief Whip or, in America, a leading Republican going to have secret talks with the Democrat President. It’s all a bit under cover – at least from his side of things.

So Nicodemus comes like a diplomat, gently feeling his way: “we know you are a teacher who has come from God.” Always appeal to a man’s vanity – except if he is the Son of God, but Nicodemus doesn’t realise that yet, but he does realise there is something special about Jesus, “For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him.”  Yes, he’s heard and he’s willing to believe that much of what he’s heard may be true, and even if a bit of it is true, something special is going on here!

Now this is something that any seeker of the truth should face. Here we have a book – the Bible – filled with incredible accounts of the activities of God and of His Son, and then His church. If even only ten per cent of them were true that is incredible and would scream the truth, but when we look at these accounts rationally, we have no good cause to write them off. If we come with an open mind, as Bible translator-cum-sceptic, J.B.Phillips, said, they have a “ring of truth” about them. It was that “ring of truth” that brought Nicodemus as a seeker after the truth. Is that how you come?