I Corinthians 1-3 is a remarkably helpful passage for us when we want to understand the place of education for the Christian. It also helps us interpret other passages that are a little more difficult on first encounter.
Let me try to illustrate that conviction by reading John 3 in light of some things I think I’ve seen in I Corinthians 1-3.
John 3 is the passage where Nicodemus comes to Jesus “by night.” John tells us that Nicodemus was “a man of the Pharisees and a ruler of the Jews.” This matters, because it shows that Nicodemus is a leader in his society, he spends a good bit of time passing judgment on things important to the community, and he is a learned person.
No wonder his first words are, “Rabbi, we know…”
He continues by expressing his judgment: “We know that you are a teacher come from God.” Perhaps this makes you wonder, along with me, how many Pharisees, in the privacy of their own minds or in their furtive conversations, had a much higher opinion of Jesus than they were allowed to express in the day.
How do “we know that you are a teacher come from God”? What leads Nicodemus and whoever else is contained in “we” to this conclusion? He tells us: “for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.”
This is true.
In John 2, Jesus had turned water into good wine, the best of the evening, including alcohol. It wasn’t merely a miracle; it was a sign. No moralist would have done it. It told us what Jesus was like at many levels.
Nor could He have done it unless God was with Him.
So Nic at night is right. (Forgive me.)
But Jesus responds in a rather surprising way. “Verily, verily” which is the antiquated English for the Aramaic, “Amen, Amen,” and carries the Latin root of “veritas” or “truth”. I suppose the conventional “Most assuredly” captures the emotional element of it, but it seems to me that there is something more emphatic about it than just the idea that you can trust the speaker or be assured by what He says.
In any case, He asserts forcefully that, “I say unto you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
To which the attentive reader responds, “What?!”
What does being born again and seeing the kingdom of God have to do with knowing that Jesus is a teacher come from God?
Jesus has asserted an entirely new concept into Nicodemus’s mind. He is jolted, as evidenced by the virtual irrelevence of his response. Maybe he is asking wistfully, or maybe he just completely misses the point, but he says, “How can a man be born when he is old?”
Our Lord responds by spending the next 17 verses (interspersed with one frustrated response from Nicodemus) explaining the contrast between the way Nicodemus sees reality and the way he needs to.
Perhaps verse 12 is the key. There Jesus says, “If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things?”
Being born is an earthly thing. The wind is an earthly thing. Jesus is explaining heavenly things with these earthly analogies. But Nicodemus replies by asking, “How can these things be?” Since Jesus indicates that Nicodemus does not believe what he cannot understand (see verse 12 again), Nicodemus’s “How can this be?” is closer to that of Zacharias when he hears that his wife will have a child than that of Mary when she hears that she will give birth to the Son of God.
Jesus treats him like a man. He says, “Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not know these things?” One might suggest that there is an implied, “How dare you?” hidden in the question. Certainly, it is obvious that Jesus is telling Nicodemus that he is not equipped to be a teacher of Israel. He doesn’t understand something utterly basic to what Israel needs to learn.
He continues, “Verily, verily, I say to you, We speak what we know and testify what we have seen, and you do not receive Our witness.”
Nicodemus, like everybody, needs to make a judgment about Jesus. He needs to decide whether to receive His witness. In order to help Nicodemus understand what he is talking about, Jesus has described it by analogy to earthly things.
Now, let me interrupt my train of thought by remarking that this whole passage is difficult to understand, and that is what Jesus and John intended. It’s meant to humble us before the heavenly truth of who Christ is and what He has to tell us. That is why, I think, it is so early in his gospel.
John writes in quite simple language, because he is imitating his Teacher by expressing heavenly truths in earthly terms. But his gospel deals with heavenly things. Every chapter offers a stumbling block to those who demand simple clarity and immediate application. John is too busy saving the soul of his reader to give him simple analytical talks, with a thesis, three supporting points, and an application. He isn’t even particularly concerned about providing inspiration. He is trying to get the reader to “come to the light.” (John 3:21)
By putting this deeply challenging passage early in the gospel, he makes it clear that we have no easy path to walk as we come to the light through the rest of the gospel. It is rich and beautiful and overwhelming and ultimately attractive to the soul, but it is not easy for the mind to apprehend, to grasp, to take hold of.
“If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things?”
What does Jesus mean by earthly things? It seems obvious to me that we can count out anything sinful. In other words, He is not telling Nicodemus “worldly” things. Nor is he telling Nicodemus neutral (though dangerous) things, like how to succeed in business, how to make friends and influence people. No, He told him earthly things, it seems to me, in the sense that He has told him truths about the world he lives in.
OK, but that doesn’t seem to be the whole story either. He has spoken of birth and the wind, but not for the purpose of describing birth and the wind. Instead, He used birth and the wind to draw an analogy to a second, heavenly birth and to a heavenly wind. But that might go too far. Because in verse 12 he says, “How will you believe if I tell you of heavenly things.”
So, it would seem, He has not yet spoken of heavenly things. Or if He has, He hasn’t done it directly.
This is my suggestion: being born of the Spirit and being like the wind are earthly in two senses: one, they happen while we are on earth, and two, they are like common things that happen on earth.
But they are also, in another sense, heavenly things. They are divine mysteries. But we’re only getting a hint right now about what the “heavenly things” include.
Some people seem to think that Paul didn’t spend much time on the gospels and that he introduced a new doctrine in his epistles. I’m going to pause here for the sake of my kind reader. But in our next exciting episode I will explain that I I haven’t seen this inconsistency between Paul’s message and that of our Lord. Well, enough. More after this message. Er, wait. More later.