The Second Sunday in Lent March 8, 2009
356, 144, 388, 48
Dear Fellow Christians:
There are things you can know about others just by observing them, and there are other things that you cannot know unless you are told of them. Take your parents, for example. While you might well be able to learn from observation that your mom is kind and beautiful and your dad is strong and handsome, unless you were told you would probably never know, for example, just how creative your dad was when he was young. You might have to learn from, say, a grandmother that according to her son, a tree once moved out into the path and tripped him, which is why he spilled the pail of milk. Or that this same son was minding his own business, harmlessly throwing rocks into the farm pond, when a duck just happened to swim right in front of one of the rocks that he was throwing. There’s just no way a boy can be expected to account for sneaky trees and careless ducks.
On a much more serious level, there is knowledge about our God that has to be obtained from different sources. Some things can be learned from simple observation and personal experience. Most often these sorts of things are referred to as the “Natural Knowledge of God.” This natural knowledge reveals some of the most basic truths about our Creator—He is wise, powerful, generous, creative, and so on. There are also many more things that we simply cannot know about our God unless we are told—like how He has declared every sinner to be not guilty in Jesus Christ. Interestingly, there is even a third category of those things about our God that we simply could not grasp or comprehend, even if we were told.
Great damage is done in the Church and in individual human hearts whenever man confuses his own personal impressions or ideas with what has truly been revealed to us. When man assumes, for example, that since God is loving, he will therefore one day simply overlook sin, he errs greatly. The same is true when man assumes something like: “God wants me to be happy.” The “Revealed Knowledge of God,” in this case, teaches us that God values obedience above our happiness and that true happiness for a child of God can never be at odds with the will of God. In other words, God is never in favor of the sort of “happiness” that includes sin on the part of His children.
It is absolutely critical that we understand this about the Christian faith, since so much of that one path to eternal life is anything but logical or intuitive. Today’s text gives us a striking lesson in this truth. Here we learn that unbelief and Hell are actually logical, while faith and Heaven are anything but. The text that will guide us is found in that well-known third chapter of John’s Gospel:
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.” Jesus answered and said to him, “Most assuredly, 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?” Jesus answered, “Most assuredly, 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 the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus answered and said to Him, “How can these things be? Jesus answered and said to him, “Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not know these things? Most assuredly, I say to you, We speak what We know and testify what We have seen, and you do not receive Our witness. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of Man who is in heaven. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.”
So far the revealed Word and will of our God. With complete confidence that these are in fact the verbally inspired words of our God, so we pray: “Sanctify us through your truth, O Lord. Your word is truth.” Amen.
You've heard it before, probably many times: “Familiarity breeds contempt,” but not always, and not only. It can also breed understanding. A friend of mine once sent me a video clip of a lecture on higher math by a Nobel laureate mathematician and asked if I could make heads or tails out of it. The lecturer lost me in the first sentence—literally. Having taken a good bit of math in high school and some in college, I was somewhat surprised at how clueless I was. On the other hand, the mathematicians in the audience, who were busy taking notes and asking questions, obviously got it. Familiarity, in that case, bred understanding.
Realizing how lost I was in the world of higher math, a certain petty defensiveness kicked in. Embarrassingly enough, I remember thinking at the time, “Sure, but set those same guys down in the middle of a Wisconsin woods and the roles would be reversed! They would be lost and I would be right at home. In fact I bet they would have no idea how to do something as simple as removing a skunk from a fox trap.” Granted, it was a stretch, but defensiveness generally is. The answer, by the way, is to just dispatch the skunk from a very long ways away and come back much later. Unfortunately, they don’t give Nobel prizes for such things.
The point is that Nicodemus, a man who walked comfortably among the elite of Jewish society in Jesus’ day, found himself immediately and hopelessly out of his league and over his head when he met with Jesus—the event described in our text. Nicodemus came from a world in which everything probably made sense to his rational human intellect, including his general views on religion. Although we cannot know for certain, Nicodemus probably came to Jesus because something about Jesus conflicted with his sense of logic. He alluded to his problem in the opening verse of our text: “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.” [v.2]
See the problem? The Jews, and in particular their religious leaders, wanted to condemn Jesus as a false prophet; yet they were troubled by a logical inconsistency: How could a false prophet perform such extraordinary signs without the power of God working in and through him? And if the power of God is working in and through this man, how could he possibly be a false prophet?
This was, in fact, the very reason that God the Father worked those miracles through his Son—to create, at the very least, a logical inconsistency for those who encountered Jesus. Repeatedly Jesus pleaded with the Jews: “Believe Me that I am in the Father and the Father in Me, or else believe Me for the sake of the works themselves” (John 14:11). So it is that we find Nicodemus slinking from the darkness of his own logical doubts and uncertainties and emerging into the light of that One who came to bring the light of understanding into our dark, logical world. Remember how John, earlier in this same book, described Jesus as “the true Light which gives light to every man coming into the world.” He went on to observe, “He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him. He came to His own, and His own did not receive Him” (John 1:9ff).
Nicodemus had no idea who Jesus was and he was clearly out of his league. Clearly these were uncharted waters for this Jewish VIP and the result was that he said some things that were every bit as silly as anything I could have said in a lecture on higher math. Nicodemus began with, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born?” [v.4] and ended with the rather pathetic, “How can these things be?” [v.9]
The point here was that Nicodemus was thinking logically and his human logic failed him miserably. Human logic always fails when it comes to understanding Christ Jesus and the Christian faith. If Nicodemus didn’t somehow get knocked off of the rational camel he rode in on, it would carry him straight to Hell—all the while remaining absolutely convinced that such a beast would instinctively know the right way.
So it was that Jesus promptly knocked him off by throwing his world into logical turmoil. He did this by first speaking in words that could not be understood and then concluded with words that could not be misunderstood. So it was that while Nicodemus just didn’t get the spiritual concept of being born again and raised up like the bronze serpent in the wilderness, he could not possibly miss the meaning of that great Gospel promise in verses 16 and 17.
That is not to say that understanding the Savior’s words was the same as coming to saving faith in Jesus as Lord and Savior. Conversion is the work of the Holy Spirit, never a rational decision by man. By God’s grace we are later given an indication that such saving faith may well have been created in Nicodemus, for he later not only defended Jesus in the Sanhedrin (John 7:50 ff.), he also openly cared for the Savior’s body following the crucifixion (John 19:39 ff.)
So much for Nicodemus. What does any of this have to do with you and me? Much in every way. You and I also live in a world where logic and the rational reign supreme. You and I will also, therefore, be tempted throughout our time of grace on earth—tempted to try to force our beliefs to conform to our human standards of logic and reason. We experience it every time a scientist claims scientific evidence for evolution or genetic justification for homosexuality. Even worse, we are continually plagued by our sense of fair play in connection with sin. Damning reason will always tell us that a human being can only make up for evil by doing good, that he can only make himself lovable to God by living a certain way or fulfilling some code of conduct. How difficult it is, as Luther put it, to “pluck out the eyes of our reason” whenever that reason stands in the way of Bible truth.
Yet there is nothing at all in life that is more important than putting our own flawed human logic in it’s place, for logic is a well traveled path to Hell. Logic will always abandon Jesus Christ and Him crucified in favor of that which man must supply. Human beings just feel more righteous and lovable when we are “good” in the way that the world defines good. Jesus warned us that “unless our righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, we will by no means enter the Kingdom of Heaven” (Matthew 5:20). The only sort of righteousness that exceeds the civic goodness of the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, which outwardly was flawless, is the righteousness supplied to us by Jesus Christ. The Christian faith is, therefore, based on the completely illogical teaching that God punished his Son in our stead, “laying on Him the iniquity of us all,” as the Prophet Isaiah put it (cf. Isaiah 53:6). The result was the even more irrational truth that a human being is seen by God as absolutely sinless when saving faith is present in his heart—faith that despairs of our own goodness and trusts instead in the goodness of Jesus as our sin payment.
This is the one path to heaven, but know full well that it will very likely never feel quite right to our natural sense of logic and fair play. Why would God the Father punish his own Son for what He did not do and then turn around and reward me with what I have in no way earned? This, however, is the simply, irrational glory of the Gospel itself. It is the key—the one key—to eternal life, summed up by Jesus himself in our text: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.” [vv.16-17]
Doubt it not because it makes no sense to your sin-riddled human intellect. Rejoice instead in the unimaginable gift of life eternal that you have been given. Is it logical? Never! and thanks be to God that it is not. Logical and rational would have rightly called for eternal death in Hell for every single sinner. Logical and rational would have required that we spend an entire lifetime trying to do what we nonetheless were and are powerless to accomplish.
We pray then that God the Holy Spirit would never allow us to forget the illogical and irrational nature of that one path to heaven and the inheritance that is now ours through faith in Jesus Christ. Amen.
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