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.

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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.

On Rebuilding: Adversaries Among Us

In the previous post (“On Rebuilding: Starting from the Ground Up”), we saw how Ezra and the Jewish exiles returned to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple—the centerpiece of all Israel. We mentioned that this is not unlike our own struggles to rebuild our lives, especially after things happen that rip life apart. We further mentioned that any such rebuilding must start by rebuilding the altar—turning our heart toward the Lord. We are so prone to run from Him, to try and manage life on our own that we have to turn back to Him for our rebuilding to be successful. What happens, then, after we have done that?

Continuing with the story of Ezra and the rebuilding of the temple, we come to these words:

Now when the adversaries of Judah and Benjamin heard that the returned exiles were building a temple to the Lord, the God of Israel, they approached Zerubbabel and the heads of fathers’ houses and said to them, “Let us build with you, for we worship your God as you do, and we have been sacrificing to him ever since the days of Esarhaddon king of Assyria who brought us here” (Ezra 4:1-2).

Now, notice two things that the text says about these people. First, they were adversaries of Judah and Benjamin. They were enemies of Israel. But secondly, notice that they claimed to worship Yahweh. They said, “Hey, we’re on your side. Let us help you.” Yet, the text identifies them as adversaries, and apparently the Jews recognized them as such. So, the replied,

“You have nothing to do with us in building a house to our God; but we alone will build to the Lord, the God of Israel, as King Cyrus the king of Persia has commanded us” (v. 3).

In this age of tolerance and ecumenism, that reply seems awfully harsh and close-minded. Aren’t we supposed to admit we need help and allow others to help us? Indeed we are. But the adversaries of God’s people are not here to help us. They come to distract us from what we are to be about. And they will use any tactics at their disposal.

We Come in Peace

First, the adversaries came in supposed peace. They acted like, “We’re one of you. We worship your God.” The wanted to get in the midst of the work to slow it down. This is often how Satan works today. People, even “good” people, come into our lives when we start on our journey of rebuilding. They want to help us. Maybe they even claim the name of Christ. Yet, they are put into our lives to distract us from the real work that needs to be done. They might suggest ways for us to cope with life, mask our pain or “just get on with life.” Perhaps they are so encouraging that they say, “You deserve so much better. You need to start living for your hopes and dreams.” The true helpers, however, who are sent by the Lord will always direct us back to Christ and the cross. Not ourselves, not other people. Christ.

Change in Tactics

Having failed to insinuate themselves into the rebuilding, the adversaries now changed their approach. We read,

Then the people of the land discouraged the people of Judah and made them afraid to build and bribed counselors against them to frustrate their purpose, all the days of Cyrus king of Persia, even until the reign of Darius king of Persia (vv. 4-5).

What did the adversaries do? They sought to discourage the exiles from their purpose. The bribed people to speak discouragement. In the same way, when we are rebuilding our lives, we’ll see those people who sought to be part of the work begin to discourage us. Perhaps they direct us to a “bribed counselor,” a person that will seem so knowledgeable but who will detour us from the real work of rebuilding and change. This tactic is often less subtle than the first. We hear the discouraging words. You’re just too broken. Nothing you do will ever be good enough. You need more help than your church can provide.

All-Out Assault

Apparently, not even the discouragement worked, for the adversaries decided they needed more extreme measures against the exiles.

“And in the reign of Ahasuerus, in the beginning of his reign, they wrote an accusation against the inhabitants of Judah and Jerusalem” (v. 6).

They launched an accusation against the exiles. What was the accusation?

[T]he Jews who came up from you to us have gone to Jerusalem. They are rebuilding that rebellious and wicked city. They are finishing the walls and repairing the foundations. Now be it known to the king that if this city is rebuilt and the walls finished, they will not pay tribute, custom, or toll, and the royal revenue will be impaired. Now because we eat the salt of the palace and it is not fitting for us to witness the king’s dishonor, therefore we send and inform the king (vv. 12-15).

First, they called Jerusalem a rebellious and wicked city. Second, they warned the king that if the city were rebuilt, there would be a decline in the royal treasury! The letter suggests that the Jews would not pay any type of tribute, toll, or custom. But see where the real motivation of the adversaries lay? “Because we eat the salt of the king’s palace.” What are they saying? “They are messing with my lifestyle! If the royal treasury suffers, then we’re going to suffer too.”

Do we not see the same thing today, in attacks against Christian people and churches? Are not these attacks the work of the same adversaries? Frustrated when they cannot gain ground in the midst of the rebuilding, they turn to discouragement. When that doesn’t work, they pull out the big guns. They file lawsuits, the accuse the faithful of crimes that will make themselves look like the victim.

The Warning

This post isn’t meant to suggest that the church adopt a spirit of isolationism. Many segments of the church have done that for far too long as it is. Nor is it mean tot strike fear into your heart as you discern whom to allow into your life as you continue the journey of rebuilding and healing.

Rather, the message of these chapters of Ezra is to warn us to be mindful of the people we let into our heart in our season of rebuilding. We need people. We were not designed to go it alone. But we need His people. Not just anyone will do. Our closet friends, counselors and confidants should come from the household of faith. Those people that turn us to Christ and His cross are the people who we should allow to come alongside us as we join in His rebuilding.

On Rebuilding: Starting from the Ground Up

 They shall build up the ancient ruins;
    they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
    the devastations of many generation
s (Isa. 61:4).

If we look at the world around us today, we will see so many people in the midst of pain, brokenness, and darkness. Their lives are coming to an end, it seems. The statistics that report the number of people currently on medication for anxiety, depression, and other such problems are frightening. Those statistics are not limited to “the world,” though. The church is beginning to finally come to terms with the numbers of truly hurting people that sit in our pews every Sunday. We are all, in some ways, in a season (a lifetime) of rebuilding–and that includes the author of this post. A group of Jews experienced the same stresses and anxieties when it came to rebuilding their existence over 2,000 years ago.

Lives Ripped Apart

If you recall some history, the nation of Israel had been split in two after Solomon’s rule. The Northern Kingdom (Israel) continued her downhill spiral, and was finally sent into exile in 722 B.C. The Southern Kingdom (Judah) fared somewhat better. Judah did have some leaders who feared the Lord and sought Him. In the end, though, Judah also turned from the Lord and was finally sent into exile in 586 B.C. The Temple was destroyed, the ark was lost, and many of the treasures of the Temple were taken. It seemed that Israel’s history was over–a shining star for a few hundred years, then to fade to black.

The exile, however, would not be permanent. The Lord revealed that the exile would last 70 years, and then He would bring the people back, and they would worship Him. And that’s exactly what happened, as we read in Ezra. Notice the reference to the word of the Lord:

In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, the Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom and also put it in writing:

“Thus says Cyrus king of Persia: The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever is among you of all his people, may his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem, which is in Judah, and rebuild the house of the Lord, the God of Israel—he is the God who is in Jerusalem. And let each survivor, in whatever place he sojourns, be assisted by the men of his place with silver and gold, with goods and with beasts, besides freewill offerings for the house of God that is in Jerusalem” (Ezra 1:1-4).

Notice that Cyrus gives credit to the God of Heaven, and then names Him (Yahweh). God used this pagan king–even to the extent that the king recognized the true God–to accomplish His purposes. So, the rebuilding began.

Rebuilding Begins with Turning to God

After gathering all the materials needed, what was the first thing the people did? Rebuild the wall of the city for protection? No. Rebuild the structure of the Temple? No. the first thing that was done was this:

Then arose Jeshua the son of Jozadak, with his fellow priests, and Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel with his kinsmen, and they built the altar of the God of Israel, to offer burnt offerings on it, as it is written in the Law of Moses the man of God (Ezra 3:2).

The first thing the people did was rebuild the altar of the Lord. Why? In the Old Testament context, “returning to the Lord” meant to get rid of any altars to any other god and offer offerings to the Lord on His altar. It was an act of both repentance and faith (see the post on Toward Christ: Ingredients for Change). The next verse tells us why felt it was important to build the altar first:

They set the altar in its place, for fear was on them because of the peoples of the lands, and they offered burnt offerings on it to the Lord, burnt offerings morning and evening (v. 3).

They were afraid of the people in the land. Can you imagine? That was their land, given by God to them. Yet, now they were in foreign territory, it seemed to them–almost like they had been thrown back in time to the period of the Judges. The people in the land were not Jews. They were inhabitants from other places. The Babylonians, Medes, and Persians would often do that. They would take conquered people and disperse them throughout their empire to erase a sense of national identity. Yet the Jews had not forgotten theirs, and God preserved them.

They knew that if they were to accomplish God’s will in the midst of enemies.they must first turn to Him and seek His face. So, they rebuilt the altar and offered the sacrifices of the Lord.

What does this mean for us today? As we mentioned above, we are all in some stage of the rebuilding process. As with the Jews of old, so it is with us. All rebuilding of our lives must start with the Lord. We must turn to Him and “rebuild the altar” first.

What does that mean? We don’t have a physical altar. Instead our altar resides in our heart. Remember that the heart, in biblical thinking, is the center of the being, and the attitudes of the heart direct our behavior. When we are faced with a life that has been ripped apart, we must first see to our altar. Is my heart turned toward the Lord? Do I still believe He is good? Once we have rebuilt our altar–looking to God–then we can begin the task of allowing Him to rebuild and restore our lives. In the end, it is the Lord who does the rebuilding anyway.

The journey of rebuilding can be long, difficult, and painful. And it won’t be complete until the Day that we see Christ face-to-face. But make no mistake: It will happen. If you feel like you are sitting in the midst of ruins today, know that there is hope and healing before the throne of grace.

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