The Nicodemus Paradox
John 3 (TNIV)
1 Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. 2 He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”The bolded text above was really quite insulting to a Pharisee. But of course, it wasn’t the first time Jesus insulted a Pharisee. Yet this was not spoken in response to a challenge, but to a display of ignorance— a shocking thing to say to the educated elite!
3 Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born again.”
4 “How can anyone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”
5 Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit. 6 Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. 7 You should not be surprised at my saying, ’You must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
9 “How can this be?” Nicodemus asked.
10 “You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? 11 Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. 12 I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? 13 No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven— the Son of Man. 14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”
16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. 19 This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20 All those who do evil hate the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. 21 But those who live by the truth come into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.
The Pharisees prided themselves on their great learning, on their command of the scriptures. Jesus never questioned their expertise on the letter of the law or their human intelligence. Yet they were blind to the spirit of the law; they couldn’t see the forest for the trees. A scientist can learn boatloads of facts about the human body by studying its various components under a microscope, yet this knowledge alone can never give a practical understanding of what the body is capable of or the person inside the body. Likewise, a person can know the scriptures inside and out, recite them in their sleep, and foil theological opponents with one arm tied behind their back, yet completely miss the whole point. This was Nicodemus’ problem, the same problem suffered by many today.
Jesus said, “What good will it be for you to gain the whole world, yet forfeit your soul? Or what can you give in exchange for your soul?” (Matthew 16:26) and “”Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God. You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone.“ (Luke 11:42). Paul said, ” If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.“ (1 Cor. 13:2)
It’s all about balance. We should throw out neither theology and doctrine nor the Spirit. They work together. The ”letter“ keeps us from heresy, while the ”spirit“ keeps us from becoming cold-blooded.
Laws, contracts, tax forms, etc. are necessary in the world because people want to get away with things. So I have to wonder about the motivation of those who take such an approach to the scriptures. The Christian should not be striving to see what can be gotten away with and still get to heaven. And the scriptures should never be used as a club with which to beat others over the head. Yet at the same time, the letter cannot be completely ignored. The scriptures were written for a reason, and we would do well to study them. Without ”the letter“, we would not know we are sinners, why and how Jesus could save us, and the way to salvation through faith in Him. The words are vital, but they must be used properly.
On the other hand, many approach the scriptures as a collection of inspirational tales, mere suggestions or guidelines. They ignore the context of the words and treat them as some kind of mystical chant by which the reader can get an ’experience’. They view the Bible as not the inerrant Word of God but a giant allegory to be treated however one chooses. They are typically the ones who suddenly become anything but gentle when encountering the legalists. Yet they do see what the legalists do not: the heart of God and his reaching out to people in spite of their hatred.
There are people on each extreme who are closed to the other extreme and cannot budge. It really doesn’t make any sense to try and reason with such. The challenge is to find people who are open, who will at least listen to the other extreme and consider the good and bad about it.
So the Nicodemus Paradox entails both extremes: looking at the Bible under a microscope but missing the big picture, and having a very vague and blurry view of the Bible as being only about love and not truth. Yet it seems that there are more open-minded (open-hearted?) people among the uneducated. Is it because education tends to fill us with pride? Does it make us feel self-sufficient? Surely education is a good thing overall, but it comes with a price. We must always strive for better understanding, but beware of the pitfalls.
And there’s probably no bigger pitfall than Power and Position. Romans 12:16 says, ”Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not think you are superior.“ To the Pharisees Jesus said, ”The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you say, ’Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners“ (Luke 7:34). We see that the elite, the powerful and respected with positions and titles, looked down on Jesus because he hung around with ordinary people. Jesus said it was these elite, who tended to also be rich, who would have the most difficult time entering the kindgom of heaven. The poor and lowly have nothing to lose, no reputation to guard, no collegues to impress, nothing to boast about.
This is exactly what the Institutional Church (IC) is all about. In a typical denomination, there are national presidents or bishops; then regional middle managers of one title or another; then The Head Pastor of each local congregation; under The Pastor are sub-pastors, deacons, and last of all: the lowly ”laity“.
This is wrong on so many levels. We are all spiritual siblings under one Shepherd, members of one Body with only one Head. Jesus is the Vine and we are all the braches. This is the structural model of the church as seen in the New Testament. In contrast, the IC is very much ordered after the corporate organizational chart, with a CEO, middle bureaucracy, and common workers. In the IC, there are positions of power, and the people holding these positions are almost guaranteed to fall to the pressure of prestige. It’s a sad fact of life. No matter how humble they may start out, it is almost inevitable that these people will become comfortable with the respect and sometimes paycheck that goes with their positions, not only in the churches but in society as well.
What to do?
Let’s first of all respect the Bible as the infallible written Word of God. Then let’s never forget to step back and keep the big picture in view, that Jesus died for sinners and rose so that we could spend eternity with him by faith alone. And then, let’s just go out and live the relationship.
Jesus had no office, no library, no formal training, no salary, not even a home. He talked with the Father as He would to a respected human father, not as a distant ”old man in the sky“. He kept company with blue-collar workers and railed against the religious elite. His ”congregation" included former hookers, the demon-possessed he had freed, the sick and lame he had healed, the uneducated masses. The early church grew rapidly without buildings, walls, pews, pulpits, choirs, programs, committees, bureaucrats, seminars, or collection plates.
Don’t do church, be it.