Sunday, January 29, 2012

When Jesus Shows Up

For the last couple of weeks we've been looking at the different parts of this conversation that Jesus had with Nicodemus. Today, we will finish that conversation. But to understand this last part you need to see it in the context of the rest of the conversation. So, what I'm going to do first is read the whole conversation. Then, I'll point out a couple of things about how the parts of the text fit together. And then, we'll focus in on the last bit.

Listen as I read John 2.23-3.21.

So, let's take a look at the flow of this text. John sets things up with those last verses of chapter 2. There were some who believed in Jesus, but he didn't believe in them. And the reason for Jesus' response to them is that there is believing, and then there is believing. Enter Nicodemus. He was one of those who believed in Jesus. But was it believing or believing? So, Jesus talks with Nicodemus about the necessity of the work of the Spirit. 'You must be born again/born from above.' Jesus' point is that the right kind of believing can only happen because of the Spirit. The Spirit's work results in a person believing in Jesus as the one lifted up, Jesus as the Savior. That’s the person who is restored to his Creator. Jesus next talks about the fruit of this believing. So, he tells Nicodemus that whoever believes in him will not perish but instead have eternal life. And that, of course, comes from the famous John 3:16. The fruit of believing is this different kind of life. But it's important to see that verse 16 is closely connected to verse 17. ‘For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.’ Here, we have Jesus' explanation about why God gave his Son. God's intention in this is to save the world. That's his goal: to save and not to condemn. And that's why Jesus was sent. 

But there is a problem. And this gets us into the section of this conversation that we are going to spend the rest of our time on. There is an obstacle to this goal of God. And the obstacle is unbelief. Jesus has come, but there are those who do not believe. And what makes this particularly troubling is that we are talking about the covenant people of God. Jesus has come, but they do not believe. But why don't they believe? What is the reason for this obstacle? The answer is simple: evil. 'And this is the judgment [that is, 'verdict']: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil.' This is not a new idea in John's Gospel. It's a development of what he wrote in chapter one. 'The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him.' Back in chapter one, John made it clear that the covenant people of God, 'his own people', did not receive Jesus. They did not believe. In chapter three John explains why. They loved the darkness because of their evil. 

So, step back and consider the situation. Everything was going along pretty well in Israel. The religious folk were confident that all was well with their souls. They were keeping God’s Law in all its detail. So, he must be pleased with them. What could be more obvious? But then, Jesus shows up. And that’s when what's really going on becomes clear. The prophetic words of Simeon to Mary are show to be true. 'Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed.' It was God's intention to save the world, starting with his covenant people, using them as a means to that goal. But the people of God loved the darkness. They loved evil. So they refused to come to the light. They refused to come to Jesus.

Let's linger a bit here. There are things to be learned. First, there is the nature of evil. I think that it's fair to say that for most, when we think of evil, we think of something that is obviously ugly. Everyone knows that you can tell what is evil is because you find yourself repulsed by it. Really? Is that true? Jesus defines the lives of so many of his Jewish contemporaries as evil. Were their lives ugly, repulsive? Consider the group that continually gave him the hardest time: the Pharisees. If you were there, what would you have seen in these people? You would have seen some very religious folk. They studied their Bibles like very few today do. They probed those Bibles so that they might live in a way that would please God. They constructed a way of life that was extraordinarily disciplined. Their motto might well have been: 'God said it. I believe it. That settles it.' They were very religious people leading very moral lives.  I'm quite sure that more than a few in the crowds were stunned when Jesus told them that their righteousness needed to exceed that of the Pharisees. These were people who lived very pious lives. You would have been impressed with them. But they were evil. And it became obvious that they were evil. Jesus showed up. When he did they refused to come to the light. They stayed in the darkness. They refused to believe in Jesus. They preferred to be religious people instead. So, first lesson: evil can hide in the lives of some of the most virtuous looking people. But the evil in their lives is made obvious when Jesus shows up. A person's response to Jesus will show what's really going on in his heart. So, once again we see that there is believing, and then there's believing.

Here's another lesson from this text. People know that they are evil. And that's why those Pharisees and others did not come to Jesus. 'For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed.' They knew that if they came to Jesus, their works, their lives, would be exposed as evil. 

Exposed. What a powerful word. The nuance is clear. A life exposed is a life that is shamed by what all can see. The reality behind the mask is seen. These religious folk, who, you would think, had every reason to be drawn to Jesus, hated the light because they knew that their hypocritical hearts would be exposed. Jesus isn't saying that they knew this on a conscious level. But still they knew - and so they hated. They hated the light. They hated Jesus. 

Now, again, what is really going on isn't always obvious. Hatred may not show in ways that we expect. It can be hidden. That word, hatred, brings up a picture of someone whose face is twisted in rage and who is ready to inflict whatever damage he can against the person he hates. That certainly is one way hatred shows itself. But it is not the only way. Do you think the faces of the high priests were twisted in rage as they laughed at Jesus hanging on the Cross? Again, what is key is not what you can easily see. There is more going on under the surface. And what is going on under the surface becomes obvious when Jesus shows up.

And that leads to another lesson. The problem Jesus faced was unbelief. But please note that this unbelief was rooted in the evil of the heart. This was not something true only in Jesus' day. It was true back in Noah's day: 'every intention of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually'. And it's still true today. So, the solution, if it is going to work, has to deal with the heart. The evil must be rooted out. Superficial change is just that, superficial. Real change has to do with a changed heart. And we're back to the necessity of the work of the Spirit not just at the beginning but throughout the life of a believer. Hearts must be changed, profoundly, at first, and then, bit by bit, day by day. But only the Spirit can change a heart.

God sent his Son not to condemn the world but to save it. So, he called for his people to believe in Jesus, to entrust themselves to Jesus’ care. But they would not. 'He came to his own but his own people did not receive him.' So, is it all a failure? No. There are some who do believe. 'But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.' And this is the companion to something else in chapter one. 'But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God…' But bear in mind how this happened. '…who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.' God was at work in them.

John was good enough to give us an example of one who did come to the light, one who did believe in his name: Nathanael. 'Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him and said of him, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!” Nathanael said to him, “How do you know me?” Jesus answered him, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.” Nathanael answered him, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” So, you see, there were some among the people of God who saw the light and believed. They saw Jesus, and they came.

Jesus' conversation with Nicodemus seems to come to a close without a clear ending. So, what happened? Well, if you think about it, what happens next is up to Nicodemus. It's as if Jesus were saying, 'So, Nicodemus, what are you going to do? It's time to decide. Will you be like so many and hate the light lest your life be exposed? Or will you respond like Nathanael and bow before me as Son of God and King of Israel? But, Nicodemus, as you consider how you will respond, bear this in mind.  Whoever believes is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.' And that's how John leaves it – at least for now. Everything seemed to be going along so well for Nicodemus, and then Jesus showed up. And now, Nicodemus has a very important decision to make.

Now, this might be just some interesting character sketch or an intriguing conversation except for one thing. Jesus has this habit of showing up. And when that happens, there are decisions to make. One really good example is when Jesus showed up for those seven churches in Asia Minor. John wrote about that also in the book of Revelation. Consider just one of those churches, the one at Ephesus. Everything seemed to be going along so well. They were eagerly protecting the orthodoxy of the faith, thinking that they were doing it really well. And then, Jesus showed up. 'I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name's sake, and you have not grown weary. But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.' Jesus showed up and put his finger on one particular of their lives. Did they come to the light repenting of their sin of lovelessness? Or did they love evil instead and keep on being the kind of church that they were? I don't know. But how they responded to what Jesus told them revealed what was going on under the surface. There's believing, and then there's believing.

Jesus shows up in the lives of churches and the people who make up those churches. And he speaks into those lives and then calls for a response. So, you see, coming to the light is not a once in a lifetime thing. The choice to come closer to the light is given each time Jesus shows up and calls for some specific way of believing in him. So, we're back to the image I’ve used before, the image of Jesus whispering in your ear, 'I want you to turn at the corner up here. Turn to the left.' It might be about your job, your family, your house, your education, anything. 'Yeah, I’m sure. Turn to the left.' Believing Jesus with the right kind of believing, the kind that the Spirit gave birth to, will show itself when you turn to the left at the corner.  Anything else is loving evil and trying to hide in the darkness. 'Whoever believes is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.'

Now, understand what happens when you do believe him in that specific area he puts his finger on, when you turn left at the corner. '… whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.' 

When you heed Jesus' call, what's going on in your heart will also be seen. But it won't be the love of darkness and evil being exposed. As you hear Jesus and work to obey him, it will become obvious that God has been at work in your life. Your obedience will show that you believe with the right kind of believing, the kind that is a result of the Spirit's work. So, for one thing, turning left at the corner as Jesus has told you to, results in assurance that Jesus is your Savior and that you are God's loved child. You really have been born from above. And what an encouragement that is! It will bear the good fruit of joy and confidence, as well as a greater willingness to obey the next command of Jesus. So, Jesus showing up will, for you, be something that results in so much good.

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