Sunday, October 11, 2009

Jesus and Nicodemus Part 6 (Jn. 3:13-15)

This is my personal summary of the preaching of Rev Dr Stephen Tong on 4th October 2009 in True Way Presbyterian Church. It was preached in Chinese with English translation.

Passage: John 3:13-15

The Jews studied the law for 1500 years. But at this time they were enslaved by Roman empire. On one hand they studied the Scripture but on the other hand they could not see the blessings of God upon them under Roman occupation. That built up deep desire to see the coming of the Messiah. Hence they were very sensitive to the power of God manifested among them.

Geographically the Jewish scholars were divided into 4 groups: Babylonian, Alexandra, Roman empire and Greek city, and Jerusalem. All of them studied about Messiah, e.g. what would happen to political situation when Messiah come. They prayed and waited for the coming of Messiah. How would Messiah appear? Is He man or God? They might disagree on some teaching but they had common ground in their understanding of the Messiah. They all knew that the Messiah is a great King. He must avenge the Israelites and get rid of all the imperialists. He would be the victorious Judge and King. But after His final victory, would He die? Some scholars believed He would live forever. Some believe He would die like any other human beings. But what would happen when He died? So the Jewish scholars continued to study into this topic.

Ironically, why would Jesus be the Messiah? He did not seem to fulfil the criteria of Messiah they had studied for so long. Before Jesus came, there had been many great warriors but in the end all died. None could revive the whole nation of Israel and defeat the enemies. They would not accept any of those as the Messiah. Then, about 400 years after prophet Malachi, suddenly somebody appeared in the wilderness and called out to people to repent. No one had ever brought people together in that way. When people heard the Kingdom of God was near, everybody went there.

However, John the Baptist did not cause them to go to Jerusalem, supposedly the important city of Israel. Thousands and thousands of people who were baptised did not go to Jerusalem. So the Jerusalem religious leaders did not believe John. They thought John was a heretical threat rather than an orthodox preacher. So they sent people to test and examine him. John was stern to rebuke these people. From the power of the message, nobody had influence like John. He was able to inspire the masses. But the Pharisees would not accept him and hated him.

Suddenly Jesus appeared and preached the same message as John’s, “Repent, for the Kingdom is near.” And Jesus also called his own disciples and they came from Galilee, not Jerusalem. This is very confusing to Pharisees. Why was Jesus and John the Baptist rude towards religious leaders in Jerusalem? They were not among those who worship market economy. They were not trying to please their audience. They were not involving themselves in hypocrisy. They were stern to preach the truth.

However, as a result of thousand of years of Israelite culture, the religious leaders had a different character. They were arrogant and thought that in the entire world they were the only one with revelation from God. The ark of God is in their temple and God dwelt in the Holy of Holies in the temple in Jerusalem. Not a single religion taught the will of God like theirs. So they were self-righteous and looked down on others. God saw this and had determined that He would forsake these people. But they could not sense it. They were still admiring their own success. This is the blindspot of culture and religion. They are blinded by their own success hence they have no future.

When you cannot see God, you are blind. At the height of their learning, the religious leaders were blind. All they could see was themselves. They are still not aware that God would abandon them. Nicodemus was the only Pharisee with conscience. He was awakened while the rest was blind. He recognised the work of God in Jesus Christ. His colleagues were all arrogant but he came to Jesus humbly.

Strangely, Jesus did not quite appreciate him. Jesus did not praise him or tried to please him. Instead, He gave Nicodemus very hard teaching. “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.” In effect, Jesus was saying, “You cannot see. You are asking for something you do not know. You call for something you do not understand. You are Israel’s teacher and yet you do not know this. It is not just by studying that you gain true wisdom. You need help from above.” The entire nation of Israel wanted to reach God from below but Jesus showed Nicodemus the grace that came from above.

However, Nicodemus found difficulties in understanding Christ’s words. They had different definition so they could not communicate. When Jesus talked about life, He was referring to spiritual life, but Nicodemus was thinking about physical life. Jesus tried to explain to him that flesh gave birth to flesh and spirit to spirit. He segregated flesh from spirit. Nicodemus still did not understand. Jesus said the wind blows wherever it pleases. And Nicodemus thought Jesus was talking about physical wind. When speaking about the wind, Jesus was refering to the Spirit who had had sovereign will. Many people segregate the Spirit with the Spirit’s will. The sovereign will of the Holy Spirit grant new life to whomever He pleases.

Jesus said “If you cannot even believe what I speak of earthly things, how can you believe if I speak of heavenly things?” Nicodemus’ reply, “How can this be?” Here we see that the greatest scholar in the world knows nothing before God. When he spoke, he simply revealed his ignorance. Jesus rebuked him, “You are Israel’s teacher and you do not understand this?” In one sentence, Jesus summarised the irony of religion.

Do people who start church know what church is? When people start Christian school, do they know what Christian education is? Those who serve, do they understand why? Those who preach, do they understand?
Jesus said, “We speak of what we know, we testify of what we have seen. How can you qualify as a teacher? How can you testify when you do not see?” Things on earth are different from things of heaven. What Nicodemus had studied was of the world but Christ wanted to give him things of the spirit, of life.

After Jesus said this, he said nobody has gone to heaven except the Son of Man. Jesus declared He was the only One who came from the highest heaven. He was God who came from the highest. After Jesus said this, Nicodemus did not debate. He did not critique easily although he was expert in the Law. In contrast, many people who just studied theology for a year like to show off his knowledge.

John 3 and John 4 recorded very different stories. In John 3, Jesus spoke to a religious leader who had a lot of questions, who could not understand, needed a long time and might not have much time left to live. In John 4, Jesus preached to a Samaritan woman who repented immediately and brought the whole village to believe. Whilst Charismatics generally only focus on the second type, we want both type in reformed movement.

In the final part of conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus said the Son of Man must be lifted up like the way the serpent was lifted up by Moses. The serpent represents the Devil in Genesis. But God asked Moses to make a serpent and this serpent now represents Christ. Why? Satan entered the body of the serpent to tempt man into sin. The serpent poison people and many people died because of the serpent’s venom. When the venom is inside the blood, wherever it passes by there will be great pain and the body structure will be damaged.

Jesus came to the world and came in the flesh, and although He never sinned, he took the body of sinful man, as though he was poisoned, that the power of sin may be upon this frail body. And He used His infinite power to destroy the power of sin in this body. He gained victory over the power of sin. The venom of sin would kill us. In the same manner, Jesus took the body of sinner and bore the sin of mankind to give us salvation.

Why did the incident of lifting up the serpent happen in Moses’ time? Why did they need to look up to the bronze snake? It means that it does not matter how learned you are, what your religious background or status is, if you are poisoned by venom, you will die. It is not a question of knowledge, but of life and death. At this crucial moment, the solution is not in having knowledge, but if you look upon the Lord, in Jesus, the God in the flesh who Himself took upon the body of sinner and completed the work of salvation, you will be saved. Moses represented the Law but at that time we were already told to look to Christ. Through Moses, God taught Israelites the Law but in that era already commanded them to look at Jesus.

Genesis 3 is the first time we read about serpent. The Bible also recorded about serpent in a miracle performed by Moses and in lifting up the bronze snake in the wilderness. In the New Testament, Mark 16 writes about signs which accompanied those who believe, one of which was about about being bitten by snake unhurt. Peter did not go through all five signs. James only experienced certain signs. Paul experienced many of them. He was also bitten by snake but did not die.

When the Son of Man is lifted up, it represents how He gave us salvation. Those who look upon the Lord will be saved. This is no longer a matter of action or of the law. You are already poisoned. You must die. You cannot rely on the law or on new actions. The only solution is to look upon the Christ who was lifted up.

Speaking to Nicodemus, Jesus’ words were aimed to all Pharisees. When the Word in the flesh come, you still do not want to come to Me. You still want to stick to your study. You think in them you have eternal life. I have come to give you eternal life but you reject Me. The biggest problem is that you will die in the law but you are not willing to come to Me. The law should have guided you to Me but you grab hold of the law and refuse to come to Me.

They study the Scripture but they do not want the spirit. They hold on to the external form and reject Christ. It is like those who want the box but not the diamond ring inside.

As Moses lifted up the serpent, so the Son of Man would be lifted up.

Jesus ended the conversation here. Nicodemus thought over for many years and became a believer later on. After Nicodemus accepted the Lord, the Jews banished him. He had no more income. He was very poor when he was old. He followed the Lord for the rest of his life and gave up his status and power.

Jesus did not force him to believe. He went through a lot of struggles but in the end the words of the Lord did not return void. An intellectual like Nicodemus has a lot of obstacles and need a lot of time to decide. But if you plant the right seed, the seed will grow when the time is right. He gave up his great position and became a faithful Christian. When Jesus was crucified, he wanted to take His body. Nicodemus had changed.


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