“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.” – John 3:9-13
Have you ever been truly stumped? You know that place where your mind spins and spins and still comes to no logical or satisfying conclusion. I am often confounded by certain aspects of technology. I hit a roadblock and I know there is a way forward but, for the life of me, I cannot figure it out! Nicodemus was in that place. He was listening intently to all that Jesus said. He was trying to put the pieces together in his mind and follow the logic, but he kept hitting that wall, which is exactly what Jesus intended.
For those who assume that Jesus was always meek, mild, and gentle, this passage might become even more uncomfortable. Since this conversation began, Jesus has boldly challenged Nicodemus and all that he claims to know. Poor Nicodemus finally throws up his hands and asks: “How can these things be?” Instead of encouraging Nicodemus or affirming what he does know, Jesus questions whether he is truly “the teacher of Israel.” Notice again the significance of Nicodemus’ learning, his high status, his authority within the nation of Israel. Despite all of the prestige and responsibility entrusted to him, he was still missing the mark.
While Jesus’ words seem quite cryptic, they refer to an Old Testament teaching about new birth and new life in the Spirit. The prophet Ezekiel wrote these words almost six hundred years before the incarnate Jesus: “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and to be careful to obey my rules” (Ezekiel 36:25-27). As a teacher of the Law, Nicodemus was quite familiar with this passage of Scripture. He knew the prophecies about the coming Messiah and the work of the Spirit, work that would bring new life to God’s people. The life and person of Jesus ushered in this new covenant and the kingdom of God.
The promised Messiah had come and had dwelt among Nicodemus and the children of Israel. The problem was they did not have eyes to see and ears to hear. Though trained to know all of the Old Testament Scriptures that pointed to the Messiah, the teachers and leaders of Israel did not recognize Jesus when he stood before them. Like Nicodemus, they were so focused on earthly things that they could not perceive heavenly truths.
Only one person fully knew the truth and could illuminate it for his people. Jesus was the one who had descended to earth. He alone had dwelt in the eternal presence of the Father and the Spirit, and he alone could bear witness to these heavenly truths. Jesus was the only one who could move Nicodemus from the limitations of life in the flesh to new life in the Spirit. Jesus came from heaven to establish God’s kingdom on earth. Through his death, resurrection, and ascension, he also made a path for the transforming work of the Holy Spirit – flesh to spirit, earthly to heavenly, kingdom of this world to kingdom of God.
Like Nicodemus, all of us are invited to be completely stumped so that we can look beyond ourselves to the one who can truly illuminate a heart, mind, and spirit.
Reflect & Respond:
How are you challenged by Jesus’ words and posture? How do you think Nicodemus felt throughout this exchange with Jesus? How do you feel when you are challenged to see beyond the earthly and into the heavenly? We would love to hear your thoughts in the comments.
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