Friday, January 1, 2010

Born Again Into Misunderstanding

At this point in our New Testament studies, we are following the Gospel of John through a stretch of passages which are not recorded in the other three Gospels. Jesus turned water into wine, cleared the Temple in Jerusalem of moneychangers the first time (more on this later), and said that He would destroy the Temple and rebuild it in three days.

Born Again into Misunderstanding
Imagine being omniscient to everything that has even happened. Imagine knowing every action, every thought, and every feeling of every living being that has ever been. Imagine being God, which in Christianity also means being Jesus and the Holy Spirit. You would think you would know human behavior very well; what motivates them and what leads them to learning versus what leads them to confusion. Well, that does not seem to be the case.

In John 3:1-12, you find the story of how Nicodemus, a prominent Pharisee, meets with Jesus one night. Nicodemus tells Jesus that the Pharisees know that He is from God because of the miracles He has performed. It's not known if Nicodemus was acting like an ambassador of good will for the Pharisees, nor what the real purpose of the visit was, nor why the visit happened at night.

All of these questions are swept aside with how Jesus replies to Nicodemus. According to John 3:3, it went like this:
In reply Jesus declared, "I tell you the truth, no one can see the Kingdom of God unless he is born again." NIV
It is interesting to note that while Jesus thought being “born again” was essential to Salvation, you will not find a single mention of it in the other three Gospels. Strange, no?

Jesus does not feel the need to elaborate, so Nicodemus questions how a man can be born again (John 3:4).

Jesus replies in John 3:5-8 saying that a man needs to be born of the “water and the Spirit” to enter the Kingdom. Jesus tells Nicodemus that he should not be surprised at His saying that a man must be born again, and then goes on to point out that Nicodemus cannot explain the mysteries of wind, and that is how it is with born again people.

The big question to answer is why Jesus does not understand Nicodemus' surprise. You see, the Bible appears to reveal that there are possibly three integral parts to any person; body, soul (1 Samuel 1:10), and spirit (Psalm 31:5). However, note that often soul and spirit are often used interchangeably, muddying any sort of distinction between the two (Job 7:11). All three (or perhaps just body and a unified soul/spirit) are tied together upon birth. So based on the Bible, flesh gives birth to flesh, plus soul, and plus spirit, not as Jesus said, that flesh only gives birth to flesh (John 3:6).

Most Christians take this to mean not a literal birth, or creation, of the spirit at that time. Instead, it is considered to be a spiritual awakening. That is not a difficult concept to convey. Consider how well Ezekiel 11:19 does so. You would think that Jesus could have explained it as such to make it clear to Nicodemus. Nope. Instead Jesus uses vague metaphorical language and then marvels that Nicodemus does not understand what He is talking about. Obviously, Jesus was not a really good teacher.

Nicodemus, still (understandably) confused, asks Jesus to clarify what He means (John 3:9).

Does Jesus, the good teacher, explain any further? Not at all. Instead, Jesus marvels some more, and possibly mocks Nicodemus; amazed by the fact that Nicodemus is “Israel's teacher” and yet he does not understand what Jesus is saying (John 3:10). Jesus then brags about His credentials (John 3:11) and then goes on to say that if Nicodemus cannot believe the earthly things Jesus has said, how can he possibly believe any heavenly things Jesus might speak about (John 3:12).

Normally, most Christians remark that this episode shows how flawed the thinking of the Pharisees was at that time. They were so mechanical, so ritualistic in their worship and understanding that they could no longer grasp the spiritual component of their relationship with God. That is a rather short-sighted explanation for the episode which does not explain the whole dialog. For example: it does not address Jesus' treatment of Nicodemus.

There are a few possible explanations to explain Jesus' actions.

The first is that Jesus did not have any real desire to teach the Pharisees. He chose to give Nicodemus a couple of metaphors which he could not understand, and then mocked him for not being able to understand them. That seems rather mean-spirited, but it does follow a Biblical pattern because it is similar to how Sampson told a riddle which he knew nobody could answer in order to win 30 pairs of linen clothes (Judges 14:8-19).

The second is that Jesus did not want to everybody to understand, and therefore purposely gave out vague metaphors instead of being clear. There is supporting evidence for this opinion, as we will see in a later study on why Jesus spoke in parables (reference Matthew 13:10-17). Plus, despite Nicodemus asking for an explanation, Jesus simply dodges the inquisition and comments about how he does not understand. This plays into the theme of Gnostic Christianity, that there is a certain knowledge to be sought in order to be Saved, or perhaps more properly, Enlightened.

The third is that Jesus simply did not understand what leads people to learning versus what leads them to confusion. This is supported by the context of this tale, as we see relayed by Jesus' marveling at Nicodemus' misunderstanding. It is as if Jesus is saying “I explained it so fully that anyone can understand, and yet you do not. How is that possible?” Yet from the information which is recorded, Jesus' message is far from being robust in communication.

So, take your pick: Jesus wanted to exclude the Pharisees. Jesus wanted to exclude lots of people. Or Jesus does not understand how we think. None of these are very appealing options for God. They make Him either unforgiving or non-omniscient.

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