Conversations With Jesus: Healing at the Pool

After this there was a feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, in Aramaic called Bethesda, which has five roofed colonnades. In these lay a multitude of invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. One man was there who had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had already been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be healed?” The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, and while I am going another steps down before me.” Jesus said to him, “Get up, take up your bed, and walk.” And at once the man was healed, and he took up his bed and walked.

Now that day was the Sabbath. So the Jews said to the man who had been healed, “It is the Sabbath, and it is not lawful for you to take up your bed.” But he answered them, “The man who healed me, that man said to me, ‘Take up your bed, and walk.’” They asked him, “Who is the man who said to you, ‘Take up your bed and walk’?” Now the man who had been healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had withdrawn, as there was a crowd in the place. Afterward Jesus found him in the temple and said to him, “See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you.” The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had healed him. And this was why the Jews were persecuting Jesus, because he was doing these things on the Sabbath. But Jesus answered them, “My Father is working until now, and I am working.” This was why the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God (John 5:1-18).

Often when Jesus healed a person or brought healing to the life of a person we see a grateful, positive response. But not always. In this conversation with Jesus we see something very different, and it illustrates how Jesus continued to warn, love, and exhort those who were ungrateful, offended, and outright opposed Him.

Context

After the events in John 4, Jesus goes up to a feast in Jerusalem. John is not specific about which feast, and his phrase “after these things,” is not clear. In any case, Jesus comes to the pool of Bethesda, where many invalids would lay. The ESV brackets the real context as non-original (as do many modern translations); whether it’s original or not it does give at least a clue as to why the people are there:

[The people were] waiting for the moving of the water; for an angel of the Lord went down at certain seasons into the pool, and stirred the water: whoever stepped in first after the stirring of the water was healed of whatever disease he had.

We cannot and won’t comment as to whether this is original, a legend, or the truth. The point is that the people believed that’s what happened. And it may be that indeed there had been healings–after all, the word must have spread that something happened there. In any case, here we find the man at the center of this conversation with Jesus, having lain there for 38 years, the text says. We know little about him–what kind of ailment he had, whether he was born with it, his background, etc. John typically includes such details that highlight the point he is making.

A Rude Question?

Like the conversation with the woman of Samaria (John 4:1-26), Jesus begins this conversation. He does so with a simple question: “Do you want to be healed?” At first it seems this question is a bit insensitive. Who wouldn’t want to be healed? Who would desire to continue laying there day after day?

The man, however, gives neither an affirmative nor a negative answer to Jesus’ question. “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, and while I am going another steps down before me.” What kind of answer is this? It’s one that shifts the blame. Life was so cruel to him for placing him in this position, and now he has no one that would help him. As with the woman of Samaria, the answer reveals the condition of his soul. He has lost hope, grown cold and bitter toward the world.

This condition happens when one sets a goal for himself to attempt to meet some personal need. “I’ll be a whole person, significant and secure, if I can just be healed and get on with life. So, I must be healed. Here’s a way to do it.” When that goal is not reached, and perceived as unreachable, the person will often shift the blame in order to protect what little self-worth they still have–and to protect themselves from any future failure (“If I don’t try anymore I won’t fail.”)

Exposing the Holes

Jesus doesn’t directly engage the man as He did to the woman of Samaria. Instead, He simply says, “Get up, take up your bed, and walk.” When the man was healed, not only was his body healed, but his will was healed, for he did not hesitate to obey but stood up immediately and began to walk. For Jesus, the physical healing, of course, was not an end in itself. It was rather a way to expose the real need of the individual. And in this case, we see the true heart of the man after the healing.

Of course, the Pharisees are all over the man for breaking the Sabbath: “It is the Sabbath, and it is not lawful for you to take up your bed.” Like the blind man of John 9, this man also gives testimony to his healing. Yet, there is no thankfulness. It is again an attempt to shift the blame: “The man who healed me, that man said to me, ‘Take up your bed, and walk.’” So, it’s Jesus’ fault that this man was breaking the Sabbath.

The man is questioned about who it is that healed him and caused him to break the Sabbath. Jesus, however, has slipped back into the crowd, as He often does after teaching or healing in the Temple. But, Jesus apparently goes looking for the man (v. 14). The reason for the search is obvious from His words: he was concerned about the man’s spiritual condition. Jesus tells him, “Look, you have been healed. Stop sinning so that something worse will not happen to you.”

We need to be careful when considering these words. While they may indicate that the man’s condition was a result of sin, they may also simply serve as a warning to the man that in the future, his sin may lead to something more serious may happen to him. In John 9, Jesus specifically said that his blindness was not a result of sin. So we must be careful when developing doctrine from these passages.

Judging by his response, the man may have been offended. Instead of submitting in obedience, he goes back to the Jewish leaders and reports that it was Jesus who healed him, as if to cause trouble for Him, with some success. The Pharisees “persecute” Jesus, according to John (v. 16), though he is not specific as to what form that took. It’s obvious that the Jews charged Jesus with breaking the Sabbath, because Jesus’ reply is, “My Father is working even now, and I am also working.” It’s also clear that the Jews understood Jesus’ statement, for they sought “all the more to kill Him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.”

Takeaways From this Passage

What do we learn from this story? The primary message here is first that Jesus comes to all, no matter where they are. He comes to expose our deepest needs, but only so that He can fill them. He heals us so that we can turn to Him in obedience and trust, opening our hearts to Him. Finally, Jesus reminds us that He is the Lord of the Sabbath and places people over rules.

[Some of the material in this post has been adapted from my book That You May Believe: A Commentary on John, available on Amazon.]

The Shepherd’s Voice is the blog ministry of His Light Ministries. For more information, click here.

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Conversations With Jesus: From Faith to Faith

After the two days he departed for Galilee. (For Jesus himself had testified that a prophet has no honor in his own hometown.) So when he came to Galilee, the Galileans welcomed him, having seen all that he had done in Jerusalem at the feast. For they too had gone to the feast.

So he came again to Cana in Galilee, where he had made the water wine. And at Capernaum there was an official whose son was ill. When this man heard that Jesus had come from Judea to Galilee, he went to him and asked him to come down and heal his son, for he was at the point of death. So Jesus said to him, “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe.” The official said to him, “Sir, come down before my child dies.” Jesus said to him, “Go; your son will live.” The man believed the word that Jesus spoke to him and went on his way. As he was going down, his servants met him and told him that his son was recovering. So he asked them the hour when he began to get better, and they said to him, “Yesterday at the seventh hour the fever left him.” The father knew that was the hour when Jesus had said to him, “Your son will live.” And he himself believed, and all his household. This was now the second sign that Jesus did when he had come from Judea to Galilee (John 4:43-54).

One of the unique characteristics of John’s Gospel is the emphasis on the personal journeys of faith. We see people like Nicodemus, who talked to Jesus and then later became a disciple (whether immediately or later we don’t know). We see the woman at the well, who argued with Jesus but then asked, “Could this be the Christ?” (Again, John is silent on her ultimate fate.) The conversation we are going to look at in this post is another journey of “from faith to faith.” It also continues Jesus’ mission to be the Savior not to just the Jews, not to just the Samaritans, but to all the world.

Context

These events occur immediately after the events of John 4:1-42, the Samaritan woman at the well. John tells us that Jesus stayed with the Samaritans two days. After He left there, He continued His original trip to Galilee (v. 3). There are two things that set the scene here. First, John’s comment that “Jesus himself had testified that a prophet has no honor in his own hometown,” reminds us that Jesus was returning home, as it were (as much as He had one). Second, John makes a point to note that there were many Galileans at the Feast mentioned in John 2:13-25 (the Passover), and saw the signs that He performed. So of course when Jesus returned to Galilee, as John notes, they welcomed Him–Jesus implies later that they welcomed Him only because of the signs.

The “official” at Capernaum that is mentioned in this conversation is most likely a Gentile official in Herod’s court. This would fit well with John’s emphasis that Jesus is the Savior of all, not just to the Jews.

A Desperate Plea

Jesus in Cana, where He turned the water into wine (2:1-12). John, as is his pattern, does not specific why Jesus chose Cana. In any case, this official hears that Jesus is in the region and went to see Him. He comes with a simple plea: “Heal my son, for he is at the point of death.” Now, notice his son wasn’t just sick or ill. He was dying. At death’s doorstep, as it were.

He makes no case, no bargains with Jesus, no trying to convince Jesus that it was the right thing to do (“I’m a really powerful man, Jesus, and I could really help You out!”). He went and humbled himself with a simple desperate cry of the heart.

Just as in the conversations with Nicodemus (John 3) and the Samaritan woman (4:1-42), Jesus’ initial reply seems out of place, even harsh. He says, “Unless you [people] see signs and wonders, you will not believe.” In taking a closer look at His response, however, we see first that the you is plural in the Greek. Here Jesus is addressing the Galileans as a whole ore than just this one official. Second, since He knew that the Galileans had welcomed Him primarily because of the signs He performed at the Passover, His response was giving the chance for the official to separate himself from them. Jesus was waiting to see a true need, not just a desire for a miracle.

A Dilemma of Faith

Again, the official does not try to bargain, argue, or persuade. He simply repeats his plea: “Sir, come down before my child dies.” One can almost hear the desperation in His heart. Jesus then simply says, “Go, your way, for your son lives.” A simple command in response to the plea, really, but it put the official in the position of having to make a choice.

Will he choose to ask for a sign to authenticate Jesus’ words, and thus put himself in the camp of the Galileans? Or will he simply return home as Jesus said, acting in faith? This is arguably the harder of the two choices. John tells us that the official “believed the word that Jesus spoke to him and went on his way.” He chose the harder of the two roads. This is the kind of faith that Jesus looks for–a faith which He honors. We know the rest of the story. John relates,

As he was going down, his servants met him and told him that his son was recovering. So he asked them the hour when he began to get better, and they said to him, “Yesterday at the seventh hour the fever left him.” The father knew that was the hour when Jesus had said to him, “Your son will live” (vv. 51:53).

The official discovered it just as Jesus had said. The faith that he exercised in obeying Jesus’ command, I should point out, was not saving faith. He had simply asked for and received healing from Jesus. Yet, we can see the results. As with the Samaritan woman, Jesus uses the physical to open the door to the spiritual. John tells us, “And he himself believed, and all his household.”

When John uses this phraseology, it typically indicates what me might call saving faith. The official has moved from a basic faith in Jesus’ power to placing his life in Jesus’ hands. What’s the lesson here? The lesson is that the Lord will honor the simplest acts of faith, and will use those to draw men and women to Himself. One of the greatest catalysts of change in a person’s life is physical need. We must not overlook that when ministering to those around us. When we start at the point Jesus did, that too is an act of faith that He delights to honor.

[Some of the material in this post has been adapted from my book That You May Believe: A Commentary on John, available on Amazon.]

The Shepherd’s Voice is the blog ministry of His Light Ministries. For more information, click here.

Conversations With Jesus: High Noon at the Well

[Jesus] left Judea and departed again for Galilee. And he had to pass through Samaria. So he came to a town of Samaria called Sychar, near the field that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there; so Jesus, wearied as he was from his journey, was sitting beside the well. It was about the sixth hour.

A woman from Samaria came to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (For his disciples had gone away into the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?” (For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” The woman said to him, “Sir, you have nothing to draw water with, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob? He gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did his sons and his livestock.” Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I will not be thirsty or have to come here to draw water.”

Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come here.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband. What you have said is true.” The woman said to him, “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ). When he comes, he will tell us all things.” Jesus said to her, “I who speak to you am he” (John 4:3-26).

When talking to people, Jesus had two distinct habits. First, He constantly used earthly things as a means of opening doors to discuss spiritual matters. Second (and related), He refused to keep the discussions above the waterline, insisting that people needed to examine the real heart issues

The conversation Jesus had with the woman of Samaria (the woman at the well) in John 4 is no different. This conversation is one of several that Jesus had with Gentiles during His earthly ministry, and emphasizes His mission to be the Savior of all–including the Samaritans, who were despised by the Jews.

Context

The text tells us that Jesus left Judea and was returning to Galilee. The reason for this is that he “learned that the Pharisees had heard that Jesus was making and baptizing more disciples than John (although Jesus himself did not baptize, but only his disciples)” (vv. 1-2). He did not want to be in the midst of a popularity contest, an wanted no unnecessary friction. So, He withdrew Himself.

The direct path to Galilee would take Jesus and the disciples through Samaria, but observant Jews universally avoided that area in order to avoid being defiled. Jesus, however, “had to” pass through Samaria. He “had to” in the sense that He was to be the Savior of the world (John 3:16), not just the Jews. It would have been during the hottest part of the day (the sixth hour, v. 6, equates to noon), and Jesus was tired, so He sat down beside the well while the disciples went to buy food. It was most likely late spring or summer, and Jesus would have been thirsty.

We know little about the Samaritan woman who came to draw water. Midday would have been an odd time to draw water, being the hottest part of the day. She either came at this time of the day because she needed more water, or because she did not want to meet the other women of the village. Based on what Jesus reveals about her, it is likely she was shunned because of her lifestyle. It was unheard of in that day for Jesus to be talking to her. It was also socially improper for Him to have done so without her husband present (one reason for His statement, “Go, call your husband” in v. 16).

Water Seen an Unseen

Unlike in the conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus begins this conversation. he does so by politely asking for a drink of water–not an altogether uncommon request in those days. The woman, however, exhibits a bit of sarcasm in her reply–by the time of Christ there was deep animosity between the Jews and the people of Samaria (who the Jews considered half-bred and idolaters). The woman’s reply almost says, “You Jews stay away from us Samaritans–until you need something” (v. 9). It wasn’t His need that drew Jesus here, though. It was hers.

Jesus refuses to respond in kind, but instead moves to the spiritual. It is almost as though He may have smiled and said, “Ma’am, if you only knew….” If she only knew Who was speaking to her (“the gift of God”), she would ask and would receive not just physical water but living water–a phrase to be repeated later, just before another well-known encounter involving a woman (John 7:37-38, but that’s for a future post).

Like Nicodemus, the woman is focused on the physical–and as He did in the conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus insists on lifting the conversation higher, to the realm of the spiritual. The woman pointedly asks, “Just how are you going to get this living water? If you can do that, give me some too so I won’t have to come here anymore” (vv. 11-12, 15). The woman is still caught up in the physical need, though her desire to no longer have to visit the well may also be linked to the very reason she is here at noon.

The Real Issue Exposed

Before answering the question, Jesus tells the woman to go and get her husband. Not only was it socially improper at the time for Jesus to be speaking with her without her husband present (see above), but the statement is designed to lead to the real issue of her heart. She tells Him, “I have no husband,” sort of in a dismissive way. He responds by exposing what she has tried to keep hidden:

You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband. What you have said is true (vv. 17-18).

One can almost hear the woman gasp as the contrast between the truth of her soul and the living water He offers her is exposed. She was seeking something that only He can provide. And because she never found what she truly needed, the cycle continued over and over, through five husbands and her current “non-husband.” It is important to note here that Christ does not reveal her character in order to judge her. Rather, He does so to help her confront the real need of her soul–Himself.

Avoiding the Issue

The woman is suddenly uncomfortable (understandably so). So, she does what many do in the situation–change the subject. In her case, she switches to religion. She says, in effect, “Since you seem to be a prophet, answer this for me. Where is the right place to worship God? Here, or in Jerusalem as you Jews assert” (vv. 19-20). Religious discussions of this nature are always easier than dealing with the emptiness inside the human soul.

Jesus, however, refuses to engage in the debate, though He does seem to vindicate the Jews, at least to some extent. He sees Samaritan worship as, at best, confused (“you worship what you do not know”), but in the same breath says that all humankind–including Samaritans–will be able to worship God, as long as they do so in “spirit and truth” (vv. 23, 24).

What does this phrase mean? In the larger context of John’s Gospel, it implies two things: First, that true worship of God is more than just outward appearance, but springs from inside (i.e., the spirit). Second, that true worship is “in truth,” i.e., without hypocrisy or falsehood. In direct application to the woman, it also means the worshipper deals honestly with God, not evading or skirting the issues, as she had done earlier.

The woman’s answer comes across as a bit flippant, as though to say, “Whatever. When Messiah [the Christ] comes, He will explain everything to us” (v. 25). Jesus isn’t offended by her dismissive statement but gives the first public confession of His identity to her: “I am [he] that speaks to you” (v. 26). Since he is not present in the original Greek, the phrase could rightly be rendered “I am that speaks to you.” Christ spoke the same construction (Greek ego eimi, “I am”) to the Pharisees, and it is clear they understood His meaning enough to pick up stones (see 8:58-59).

The Lightbulb

The woman must have pondered that for a bit, as the disciples arrived. She does finally make the connection between her assertion that Jesus is a prophet and His self-confessed identity. So, she takes off for town–and incidentally leaves her physical burden (the water jug) behind. She returned to the village, and she told the people, “There’s a man at the well who told me everything I’ve done” (v. 29). The implication seems to be “. . . and He still associated with me!” Though not a ringing endorsement, she tentatively asks, “Could this be the Christ?” It seems that the people who once shunned the woman did not hesitate to act on her information, for they immediately left the village and headed for Jesus.

This is Jesus’ method of evangelism. No hellfire and brimstone. Simply exposing the hidden needs of the human soul and offering Himself as the means of fulfillment. All human sin, while repulsive to God, is even more heartbreaking to Him, because it springs from needs and longings in the soul that He desires to meet. As we minister to those around us, let us remember that they are not just sinners; they are needy sinners. And we have the answer in Christ.

[Some of the material in this post has been adapted from my book That You May Believe: A Commentary on John, available on Amazon.]

The Shepherd’s Voice is the blog ministry of His Light Ministries. For more information, click here.

The Sin Behind the Sin

In a previous post (“The Root of the Problem,” 9/30/19), we talked about our underlying fear/belief that God is not as good as He claims to be. Now, as a believer, part of me wants to believe that He is. We are that God is good. We are encouraged to memorize Scriptures to learn that God is good. But still, we have this nagging belief that He is not.

Unfulfilled Longings

Now, if God is not good, how does that affect me? Besides the fact there is a God who I believe is not good who holds my eternal destiny in His hand, there is the fact that I need and want things, and God doesn’t give to me as I think He should. We were all created with longings in our soul, and we feel the ache in our soul when we feel that those longings are not being met.

Look at what Scripture says about the creation of man:

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth” (Gen. 1:26).

We can draw out two things from this verse about the nature of humanity. First, notice that we were created for relationship and community. God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” God exists as an Eternal Community (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). Each relates to the others in perfect love, connection, and harmony. Thus, when man was created in God’s image, part of that is necessarily a longing for relationship.

Second, notice that man was given a purpose: “Let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” We still have that purpose. We thus have a longing for impact, to be a part of the eternal plan, to make a lasting difference in our world.

The Root of All Sin

What does this have to do with our belief that God is not good? Remember those longings that we just identified? Those will only be fully met in a perfect world. We were designed for a perfect world–a world of no sin, corruption, or pain. In such a world we would be loved fully and conditionally, we would likewise love unconditionally and sacrificially, and we would find ourselves having impact on those around us and our world.

But, we don’t live in that world. We live in a world that is fallen–along with us. We experience hurt, rejection, and pain–and often cause the same to others. Worse yet, we experience the ache of these longings that will never be fully experienced until eternity. So, in our fallen state, we want those aches to go away. Now. And since we believe that God is not good, that He won’t provide what we think we need and want on our terms, we decide that we have to arrange for it ourselves.

That’s exactly the path that Eve and then Adam took. Eve decided that God wasn’t good, that He was holding out on her. She sought a way to provide for her own satisfaction. Likewise, Adam decided God wasn’t good because He had not (in Adam’s view) provided a way for Adam to deal with the confusion he now faced. He thus took matters into his hand, leading his wife down the path of self-gratification.

This is the root of all sin, no matter what form it takes. We want life to work. And we are determined to make it work for us, apart from God–because we view Him as not good. Even those of us who have been born again struggle with this. We want to take the principles of Scripture and make them rules. However, we forget that those principles (and we) were designed for a perfect world.

Moving Into Dependence

If all sin essentially boils down to living independently of God, making lie work in our own way, then the answer to the sin question does not lie in more Bible reading, prayer, accountability, etc.–though those are good and necessary things. I know that might shock you, especially if you come from a background that emphasizes this. “Oh, you’re struggling? Get into the Word and find the principles that you are not applying and apply them to your life. Pray more. Get involved in ministry more.” The truth is that those things are strong medicine for the soul. But, if we are using them to continue to make life “work,” then they are worse than a band-aid.

The answer to independence is dependence. We must acknowledge our deepest fear that God is not good, despite what the Bible teaches us. We must turn to Him in dependence and trust. Now, this is no easy task, because the times we must depend on Him the most are the hardest and darkest times of life–those times when we desperately seek answers to questions and relief from real pain.

Part of our quest to make life work for us is that we avoid or minimize the pain of life–especially relational pain. If we are to grow, to become like Christ, we must be willing to face that pain–even embracing it–so that He can show Himself good beyond our wildest imaginings and dreams of what “good” is like.

Conversations with Jesus: One Confused Guy (Part 2)

Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God” (John 3:9-21).

In Part 1 of this conversation with Jesus, we introduced Nicodemus and his obvious confusion. We saw that Jesus taught Nicodemus that when it comes to entering the Kingdom of God, mental assent to truths about God is not enough. The new birth is required. Jesus went on to explain the new birth to Nicodemus, who remained confused.

We see Nicodemus’ confusion, and perhaps a bit of frustration, in his question in verse 9: “How can these things be?” Jesus’ reply (vv. 10-12) seems at first glance to be a little harsh: “How can you call yourself a teacher of Israel? I’ve spoken to you of earthly things [concepts easier to understand] and you don’t believe, so how can you believe if I tell you of the truly heavenly concepts?” The reply, however, is meant to serve as a point of entry for Nicodemus to explore more deeply the truths that Jesus is teaching.

Truth #1: The new birth requires faith

The first truth that Jesus explains to Nicodemus is that the new birth reuires faith in Jesus. He says,

As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life (vv. 14-15).

The phrase lifted up is an obvious reference to His death, as is a parallel saying: “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (12:12; compare 8:28). Being born again, and thus entry into the Kingdom, requires that I believe in Jesus, that He died for me.

There’s no equivocation on Jesus’ part here. It’s not enough to believe that He is a teacher sent from God, that He has some great ideas, that He’s a good man. That simply will not do.

Truth #2: The new birth comes out of God’s love

Lest Nicodemus or anyone misunderstand, Jesus makes it clear that God’s goal is not one of condemnation or judgement. He tells Nicodemus,

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him (vv. 16-17).

God’s motive in this simple: love. When we are tempted to think of God as anything less than utter love, Jesus gives us this reminder.

Further, God didn’t send Jesus into the world to condemn the world, but to save His people. The truth is, Jesus has no need to condemn people. Why? Because they stand condemned already. He tells Nicodemus, “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God” (v. 18, emphasis added). So, without faith in Christ, one is already condemned. And that is the position that every human starts from.

Truth #3: The new birth requires coming to the light

The final truth that Jesus makes known to Nicodemus has to do with the fact that real change requires coming into the light. He says,

And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God (vv. 19-21).

There can be no true salvation for those who walk in darkness. Even for those of us who have been born again by faith in Jesus are told to remain in the light. If we do not confess our sin, the truth is not in us (1 John 1:5-10). The problem, Jesus says, is that evil men do not want to come into the light. They prefer the darkness, because they do not want God. They want to live life on their terms, not His.

Those who do come into the light, however, will find more than they bargained for. They will find not only cleansing, but life (John 5:40). They will find their hunger and thirst satisfied (John 6:35; 7:37-38). This is the truth that Nicodemus is missing. Salvation is not a way of life–it is life.

Takeaways from This Passage

Unlike some of the other conversations with Jesus that we’ll examine later, we do see Nicodemus again. In John 7, he gives a cautious defense of Jesus before the Sanhedrin (John 7:50-51). And we learn in John 19 that he helped Joseph bury the body of Jesus after the crucifixion (John 19:31-42). It’s interesting to note that Joseph is listed as a “secret” disciple, though Nicodemus is not. John is eerily silent on his fate. In any case, it appears that his time with Jesus indeed left a lasting change.

What we learn from this passage are the same truths that Nicodemus learned. We must believe that Jesus was sent from God to die for our sins out of His great love for us. We must be willing to come to Him in the light, casting all we have upon Him. That is the essence of the Gospel.

[Some of the material in this post has been adapted from my book That You May Believe: A Commentary on John, available on Amazon.]

The Shepherd’s Voice is the blog ministry of His Light Ministries. For more information, click here.

The Root of the Problem

 They tested God in their heart
    by demanding the food they craved.
They spoke against God, saying,
    “Can God spread a table in the wilderness?
He struck the rock so that water gushed out
    and streams overflowed.
Can He also give bread
    or provide meat for His people?”
(Psalm 78:18-20)

When we look at the history of Israel–how God chose them, delivered them, and set them apart for Himself–it seems that the nation really had it all. The people had seen God’s wonders in Egypt. They continued to see Him provide for them in the wilderness. They saw His mercy and grace in the midst of their disobedience. Yet, they continued to turn away from Him, finding other ways to satisfy their cravings.

Sounds a lot like us, doesn’t it?

Let’s be honest for a moment–at least the moments that it takes you to read this. When we are alone with our own thoughts, we often have this nagging thought that perhaps we aren’t doing as well as we would like to think or project to others. We’re not sure what the real problem is, but we suspect there’s one under there somewhere.

Sure, we’ve learned to curb those obvious outward behaviors. We are nice, respectable, helpful, maybe even kind. Underneath all that, though, we wonder about our motives. We wonder why our life is not better. Why isn’t God answering the prayers that we desperately–I mean humbly–pray? We easily proclaim that He is good, we trust Him, we surrender to Him–at least in the good times.

Could it be that we really don’t trust Him or believe that He’s as good as He says?

That was definitely the problem in Israel’s case. The Psalmist here tell us, “They tested God in their heart by demanding the food they craved.” Let’s take a look at that. First, they “tested” God in their heart. The Hebrew word here signifies asking for proof. In the same way, the Jews in Jesus’ day continually asked Him for a sign to “prove” His authority.

The only reason I need “proof” is that I have serious doubts.

Ever since the Garden, humankind has believed this root-level lie: God is not as good as He claims. That’s the lie the Eve fell victim to. “Eve, there’s something good for you on that tree and God doesn’t want you to have it. Therefore, He must not be good.” The Bible does say that the tree was “good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise” (Gen. 3:6). The truth is, however, that God knew (and knows) what’s best.

Adam believed a similar lie. Now, imagine this: Eve comes to her husband, and she has this piece of fruit from the tree. The one God said was off-limits. She starts telling him about the serpent and the conversation and how good the fruit was! Now, Adam is standing their with a wife who has been disobedient to God.

He hadn’t prepared for this.

Now Adam has to decide what to do. We humans hate confusion. We want to know what we should do so our plans will go as we want. No doubt Adam was confused. As I see it, he had three basic options:

  1. He could have separated himself from her. But “this is now bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.” It would have been like tearing himself apart (a good reminder about marriage, but that’s for another post).
  2. He could have counseled her and assured her of God’s goodness, and led her to God and a place of repentance. What might have happened if he had?
  3. He could have, and did, eat of the fruit, thus joining in her disobedience.

It’s interesting to notice in Gen. 3:7 that “both of their eyes were opened” only after “her husband . . . ate” (v. 6). He did have a choice, and his choice had consequences for him, his wife, and others (another good reminder for marriage, but again, that’s another post).

Now, why did he choose the third option? Based on what we know about human nature and its hostility to God, I believe he did so because he fell victim to the same lie: God is not good. And he had an even stronger case: God, you didn’t prepare me for what to do in this case! How can you call Yourself good when you don’t give me what I need?

Adam’s subsequent actions and responses tell the story of his belief. What was the first thing he and Eve did? They hid from God. Why? Because He’s not good, and He won’t understand why we had to do what we did. When questioned, Adam blamed the woman–and God. “This woman that You gave me . . .”

If we are ever going to be able to truly walk with Christ as He desires us to, we will have to learn that God is good. Not in the academic sense of “learn,” but in the real-world way. And it starts by going past the barriers we have put up and admitting to ourselves our fear that maybe God isn’t as good as He claims.

Once we come to that place, though, we are in a good place. Because then (and only then) can we really learn just how good He is.

The Shepherd’s Voice is the blog ministry of His Light Ministries. For more information, click here.

Conversations with Jesus: One Confused Guy (Part 1)

Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:1-8)

What might it have been like to have a conversation with Jesus? Can you imagine going over to the house Jesus is staying to have a chat with Him? One guy named Nicodemus found out. His conversation with Jesus is one of the most well-known events  in the New Testament, if not the whole Bible.

Context

This scene occurs right after Jesus attends Passover (John 2:13-25). At end of chapter 2, we read:

Now when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing (v. 23).

The phrase “believed in His name” is a key theme in John’s gospel. John tells us that the people saw the signs that Jesus was doing (though here he is not specific) and believed in Hm. What specifically they believed is not certain, however, as we see people who “believed” in Jesus begin to argue with Him and deny His teachings.

We know little about Nicodemus. We know he was a member of Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council. We know he was a Pharisee. We also know he became a disciple of Jesus. John calls him a secret disciple, and his cautious defense of Jesus in John 7 show a man who was deeply impacted by this encounter. In connection with this, much has been made of Nicodemus coming to Jesus by night. As a member of the Sanhedrin and an important teacher, Nicodemus would have been busy during the day. We should avoid ascribing motives to him when the text is unclear.

The Opening Observation

Nicodemus opens the discussion with an observation:

Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him (v. 2).

He starts by calling Jesus “Rabbi,” a courteous expression of respect, meaning “Teacher.” Throughout the brief dialog, there is no hint of disrespect in Nicodemus, though there is obvious confusion. The use of “we” in v. 2 suggests that he is linking himself to the people who believed in Jesus’ name” as a result of the signs they had seen (2:23). He acknowledges at least that Christ is a “teacher come from God,” and he, like the people, bases his conclusion on the fact that no one could do such things apart from God (v.2).

So, Nicodemus makes what most people would consider a fair observation. He’s polite, respectful, acknowledges that Jesus is a Godly teacher. Then we read Jesus’ reply:

Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God (v. 3)

What was that, Jesus? Can’t you see Nicodemus scratching his head trying to figure out exactly what Jesus is trying to say? But if we look back at this brief exchange, perhaps the statement is not as cryptic as it seems. Nicodemus has already admitted that Jesus is come from God as teacher. He’s got incomplete belief, and his belief, like much of the people, is at the level of mental or intellectual assent: “Yes, I believe Jesus is come from God. Yes, I believe Hawaiian pizza is the best pizza ever.”

In that light, Jesus’ reply would seem to say, “Nicodemus, if you want to see the kingdom of God, mental assent is not enough. There must be a fundamental change in your nature, through the new birth.”

A Clarifying Question

Ever the Pharisee-lawyer, Nicodemus takes Jesus’ words at face value—literally. It’s clear he is confused. So, he kind of scoffs at the idea by asking,

How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born (v. 5)?

Jesus then proceeds to elaborate on His previous statement. He says, “unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (v. 5). Now, let’s stop right there for a moment. Many are confused by this verse. Is Jesus teaching, as some believe, that baptism in water is necessary for salvation? Taking into account the whole of the New Testament teaching on salvation, that position just is untenable.

What, then, does Jesus mean by the statement? In the whole passage of John 3:3-9, it is clear Jesus is talking about a spiritual birth (otherwise, Nicodemus would not be so confused). Therefore, v. 5 must be taken with the context in mind. The key to the verse is found in the word translated “and.” The Greek word for this is kai, which is often just a connective word. However, in many instances it can (and should) be translated by “even” or “indeed.” Translated this way, the verse would read, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water, even [or indeed] the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” The interpretation of this then is that Jesus is using an earthly symbol (water), something Nicodemus would understand, to represent a spiritual concept or entity (the Holy Spirit).

Another example of this is found in verse 8, where Jesus compares the new birth (those born in the Spirit) to the blowing of the wind. We cannot see the wind, only the results of it blowing. Likewise, we cannot see the Spirit change a person on the inside, but we can see the results of the new birth. One obvious conclusion to be drawn from this passage is that one who has been born again will experience change, as 1 John makes clear.

Nicodemus still has one final question to ask and we will look at that next week in Part 2 of this interview with Jesus.

Takeaways from This Passage

There are two primary ideas that we should take from this passage. First, mental assent is not the same thing as biblical faith. Biblical faith goes far beyond that, causing us to trust our very lives to God and His goodness. Second, it’s not enough to see Jesus as a great teacher (and He certainly is the best of any teacher). That is really the root problem that Nicodemus had. His eyes were blinded to the truth about Jesus, and thus he couldn’t understand the deep spiritual truth of which Jesus was speaking. Next week, we’ll see this interview come to a climax—and a close—with Jesus revealing Himself to Nicodemus.

[Some of the material in this post has been adapted from my book That You May Believe: A Commentary on John, available on Amazon.]

The Shepherd’s Voice is the blog ministry of His Light Ministries. For more information, click here.