Losing my Literalism: John 3

Allow me a moment to soapbox here. It is my understanding that the discussion between Jesus and Nicodemus takes place between verses 1 and 15, which everything after that being John’s commentary of what just happened. Does this mean that I believe John 3:16-17 ought to be in black lettering? Yes, it does. I am not attacking the validity of the most famous verse in the Bible though. Instead, I am attacking the decision of certain publishers to highlight certain verses over others for any reason not granted to them from the text itself. You cannot elevate any verse without implying that the black letters around it are to be reduced, even slightly.

My discussion in this post will focus not on the commentary, but on the literal lunacy of one Pharisee named Nicodemus. Nicodemus was close to the kingdom, and may very well be waiting to greet Christians today when we enter into glory. But the snapshot we get of him here shows the weakness of his training.

 John 3:1-2
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.”

As a ruler of the Jews, Nicodemus held a high office among the Sanhedrin, the group who oversaw all religious matters within Israel. It is telling that he came to talk with Jesus by night, as John explains later in the chapter that God’s light exposes evil, leading wicked people to do their actions in the darkness when they won’t be so easy to expose. Nicodemus wanted to avoid being seen speaking with a confrontational man like Jesus, but he still approached Jesus in humility. He also acknowledged that the leaders as a whole knew that Jesus was sent by God. The fact that they knew this but didn’t follow Jesus is damning! They were seeking a Messiah (anointed one) who matched up with their expectations! Which is merely an example of the very first temptation “You will be like God.”

John 3:3-4
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?”

Here we see the literalism of Nicodemus’s training. Any dispensational teacher would agree that Jesus was not suggesting a man climb back into his mother’s womb, but only because the interaction is well captured. In essence, Jesus said that all of humanity is born sinful, and we all require a new start. The way this was presented is as a new birth, and the only response this teacher of the law could come up with is one of amazement. I don’t believe he is being disrespectful here, but he is marveling about the perceived lunacy of such a statement. Not unlike those who thought Jesus was bloviating over how quickly the temple could be rebuilt.

One can only rise as far as his or her worldview allows and no further. When confronted with a saying, you will interpret it in a way that is consistent with your way of understanding the world. This is true in all sorts of interactions, whether they are religious, legal, or just complaining about the weather over the fence with your neighbor. It all filters through how you perceive reality. The training Nicodemus had received was enough for him to ascend to a position of authority, but it did not prepare him to understand the instruction from his own creator.

John 3:5-8
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.”

So Jesus takes this literalist and tries to develop categories of understanding for him. There is the water and there is the Spirit. The water is the natural birth that everyone holds in common. The Spirit is a new birth that was largely foreign to the people prior to the day of Pentecost following the ascension of Jesus. To enter the kingdom of God, one must be born of both water and Spirit, and neither birth is up to you. God intercedes to give you life and also to give you eternal life. It is out of your control and you can’t even accurately predict it. It is in the hand of God, not of man.

John 3:9-15
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.

In this nighttime encounter, Nicodemus has had his mind blown and was having a hard time coming to grips with all Jesus had said to him. His worldview was shaped by other Pharisees, who took their teaching alongside the Old Testament and applied both literally. So he tithed his dill and cumin while neglecting the weightier matters of the Law, justice, mercy and faithfulness (Matthew 23:23), all because he took literally the simpler matters while neglecting the harder ones.

Nicodemus was a teacher of Israel in the things of God, yet he couldn’t follow along an earthly metaphor. Nicodemus was (figuratively) snake-bit, just as we all are. Everyone born of water walks with the stain of Adam upon us. We are all crooked deep down. We all require someone to intercede for us, for our righteousness is in the negative integers. We need a savior who is worthy to be in the presence of God, and that savior is what was presented before Nicodemus. He left this meeting bewildered. But we catch glimpses of God’s work in him. John 7:50 shows him demanding the Pharisees deal with Jesus according to the Law and John 19:38-40 shows him respecting the body of Jesus after the crucifixion, making himself ritually impure during Passover.

Yes, literalism is frequently an error. But it is not damning and it does not complete the story of one’s life. Your trajectory is not defined by one moment, unless that moment is the one where Jesus confronts your error and you accept His words and seek to conform to His standard for His kingdom.

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Published by CoffeeSwirls