Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Hope for the Religious (John 3)

Both the sinner and the self-proclaimed saint have a problem with pride. The sinner must accept sin as sin and cling to Christ, and the so-called saint to accept that there is no human merit, only abandonment to Christ.

Nicodemus is the quintessential religious person. This kind of person has a mind towards the things of God, an understanding of theology, he gravitates towards morality, and even has the potential to be well-respected in society precisely for his religion. Here Nicodemus is "a leader of the Jews" (Jn. 3:3). He is "the" teacher of Israel (Jn. 3:10). He does what needs doing, and has influence doing it - there is no evidence of malice or insincerity in him.

And that is his very problem (John 3). All this does not indicate favor with God but a love for self - he does not know Jesus nor salvation. For this all he gets from Jesus is rebuke, no commendation (v3, v7, v10). In Nicodemus' conversation with Jesus, What drives his thinking is human ability, where Jesus' corrective is to describe the need for supernatural intervention in his life. He begins with genuine praise for Jesus' works, which Jesus rebuts with his real need - "unless you are born from above, you cannot comprehend the kingdom of God" (v3)
  • from the outset Jesus pinpoints the problem as showing his human merit as garbage, because it does not help "seeing" or "comprehending" the kingdom of God. Obviously, Nicodemus' logical, intellectual and theological prowess could not help him in this comprehension.
  •  "birth" itself in a purely natural sense is one of helpless inaction - a baby has no will in the matter.
Yet, Jesus having explained this, Nicodemus demonstrates how entrenched his deed/merit mentality is. Rather than the response "help me do/understand this", he immediately computes using his "deeds model" and tries to understand how he can do this himself. Self-sufficiency, self-love. Thus the conundrum - the seemingly childish v4 - "can a man enter his mother's womb a second time?". Nicodemus has only one way of thinking - "I must do this", and that's why he's mentally and spiritually stuck. The leader, the teacher, the moralist, is helpless. As helpless as a child, yet unable to see it.

It is there that Jesus explains further:
  • To enter the kingdom, one must have a spiritual nature (v5)
  • Natural birth is insufficient (v6)
  • This transformation, spiritual birth is not visible but it is observable, but it is ultimately the prerogative of the Spirit, who "blows where He will" (v7-8)
This would throw any thinking person into desperation, and it is necessarily the case by design - the breaking of pride and the breaking of the merit mentality go together (which is why a prideful Christian is a contradiction). That which is required is impossible to do (what the Pelagiuses of this world find impossible to accept). Thus, the final picture that Jesus offers is this: snake-bitten people, dying in the wilderness, offered a hope that goes beyond their comprehension or ability (because there is no ability) - absolute, desperate faith in God's remedy (v14). "As Moses lifted us the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up" - this is the object of faith - the Glorious, crucified Christ. The scope: "whoever" - anyone (v15a). The means "belief". (v15b) The result of abandonment to faith (v15c) - "everlasting life".

Those who reassure themselves of the love of God by their morality, by their piety, by their theology, by their any deed, they must see this: John 3:16 - God's love precedes your deeds OR your faith. His already existing perfect love for the world is why he "gave his only Son". Nothing about your salvation merits his love, it is all a result of his love. You can know God because He loved you, and the only way to know him is to cast yourself on his mercy, like a dying, snake-bitten desert nomad, lost and hopeless. A disciple of Jesus works not to win love, but works as a result of winning love, by the life-giving Spirit of Christ.

And the good news is that no matter how entrenched you may be in religion, merit, human effort and the tyranny of pride, God is able to help you become a helpless, faith-filled child born of God, which is the only way to enter the kingdom of God (Mark 10:15). See, there is evidence of God working in this very man. This same Nicodemus fought for Jesus' defense (John 7), he was there at his death and burial as one of his own (John 19). Indications are that the "Spirit who blows where he will" moved in him, and Jesus became his life.

There is hope for the religious as much as for the sinner, because they are both the same. Cry out to him in your true desperation, "Jesus, save me." And he will.

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