June 23, 2014

Heart and Soul: Biblical Studies

I’m feeling a little nervous,” I told my college professor after class. I was a freshman, and this was my first presentation for Speech 101.

“Relax and just be yourself,” he suggested.

So I practiced a few times and began to feel overly confident. I envisioned receiving an A on this first speech and was shocked to get a D. I went to him and said, “Hey, you told me to just be myself! And this is what I get?”

He smiled and kindly remarked, “Did it ever occur to you that your ‘self ’ might need some improvement?”

Sometimes a message must be shared clearly and candidly. Tact has its place. But there are moments when words have to cut through the fog. Occasionally counsel must be given directly to the point. This happened when a man sought an interview with Jesus.

Night Visitor

“There was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews” (John 3:1).1 Who was this leader? He was a member of the governing council called the Sanhedrin. This assembly might be compared to the United States Supreme Court, or the president’s cabinet. People respected this wealthy teacher.

However, something drew this talented leader to Jesus; so Nicodemus sought Jesus in a night interview. Why this after-hours contact? Some suggest that he wanted an extended period of time to talk with Jesus. Christ was too pressed by crowds in the daytime. So a nocturnal visit would provide uninterrupted conversation.

But there seems to be a deeper reason that Nicodemus pursued Jesus after dark. As a highly respected ruler he was likely embarrassed to be seen talking with the lowly Man from Galilee. If the Sanhedrin found out that he admired Christ, it would mar his reputation and jeopardize his position. So after sunset, when the town was quiet, Nicodemus went looking for Christ.

John 2:24 tells us that Jesus “knew all men”—and Christ knew all about Nicodemus. He was not surprised or caught off guard. Jesus loves people looking for Him. Christ draws people to Himself, and He knows the heart of every seeker. Jesus knew the mind of Nicodemus before the secret visit ever took place.

The Interview

“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’” (John 3:2). The discussion opens with Nicodemus complimenting Jesus. Was he attempting to be polite, or did he feel awkward sitting before the Son of God?

Sometimes a message must be shared clearly and candidly.

“While . . . enjoying a transatlantic ocean trip, Billie Burke, a famous actress, noticed that a gentleman at the next table was suffering from a bad cold. ‘Are you uncomfortable?’ she asked sympathetically. The man nodded. ‘I’ll tell you just what to do for it,’ she offered. ‘Go back to your stateroom and drink lots of orange juice. Take two aspirin. Cover yourself with all the blankets you can find. Sweat the cold out. I know just what I’m talking about. I’m Billie Burke from Hollywood.’

“The man smiled warmly and introduced himself. ‘Thanks,’ he said. ‘I’m Dr. Mayo from the Mayo Clinic.’ ”2

Nicodemus must have felt apprehensive. Did it dawn on this respected teacher, after coming to Jesus, that he was sitting in the presence of the most brilliant educator in the universe? He tried to cover his feelings with flattering comments. He opened the interview by pointing to Christ’s gifts as a teacher and healer. But his efforts to express confidence in Jesus only pointed to his unbelief. Nicodemus was a seeker, but his heart was unconverted. He felt too secure in knowing about God, but he didn’t really know God.

Directly to the Point

Christ ignored Nicodemus’ accolades and looked directly into his heart. Jesus knew why this ruler had come searching. Instead of getting sidetracked by adulation, the Lord went straight to the point. Christ wanted to move Nicodemus from being a seeker to becoming a “finder.”

Jesus gets to the bottom line: “Most assuredly, I say to you” (John 3:3). It was as if Jesus leaned forward, looked into the eyes of Nicodemus, and kindly said, “I’m going to get right to the heart of our discussion. And what I am about to say is deep, straight truth. Listen carefully.”

Then Christ says: “Unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Wherever Nicodemus was headed in the conversation, Jesus turned it upside down. We have heard His words so many times that we miss the shocking effect they must have had on Nicodemus. He might have wondered, I came to have a safe theoretical discussion with Jesus, but He goes right for the jugular!

In essence Christ told Nicodemus, “You are a gifted teacher and have a lot of theoretical knowledge. But more intellectual concepts will not satisfy you. You have to be converted. You need a new heart.”

Sometimes people find false security in their knowledge of Bible truth. When things get too personal, there are those who create distance between their minds and hearts. Intellectualism becomes a buffer to calm convictions and avoid the voice of the Holy Spirit. Nicodemus was a man who felt a sense of security in his religion. He had, as it were, a Ph.D. in religious studies. He was a member of the highest court in the nation. He was rich. He gave lots of money to support “the cause.”

Confronted with truth and feeling uncomfortable, Nicodemus tries to take the spotlight off himself. “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” (verse 4). As a student of Scripture, Nicodemus knew what Jesus was talking about. But unless we open our hearts to the Spirit, spiritual truths are difficult to accept.

Jesus doesn’t argue with Nicodemus. He simply brings it home deeper. “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” (verses 5, 6). In other words, people who inherit the kingdom of heaven must have new hearts. It’s like being born all over. This birth is not physical, but spiritual.

Nicodemus’ heart begins to soften. He tries to grasp the meaning of Jesus’ message. He is trying to understand this process we call conversion. He asks: “How can these things be?” (verse 9).

Jesus replies: “Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not know these things?” (verse 10). Christ may sound pointed, but the kindness in His voice was calling Nicodemus to a critical move that we all must take if we are to receive salvation—the step of humiliation. Nicodemus had to acknowledge his pride and admit: “I need a new heart.”

Cursed and Crucified

Christ guided Nicodemus to see that the Messiah would take the sins of the world on Himself and offer His righteousness to us by becoming sin for us. “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” (verses 14, 15).

When the Israelites wandered in the wilderness they complained to Moses about traveling conditions and food. God allowed venomous snakes to get the attention of the people. When the Israelites cried out to Moses for help, the Lord told him to craft a bronze snake and put it on a pole. Then he told the people to look at the snake and they would live.

Why did God have people look at a snake? Why not have them look at a lamb or a dove? Hadn’t snakes been cursed in the garden? Exactly. That is the message of John 3. Christ became a curse for us so that we could have His perfect life. The snake on the pole represented Christ on the cross, cursed because He took upon Himself the sins of the worl
d. To be converted and receive a new heart, we must in faith look to the cross.

Look—and Live

Christ’s message to Nicodemus is pertinent to Seventh-day Adventists. Some don’t need more logical arguments. Some are drawn to theoretical discussions and mental stimulation. Unless they are converted, more ideas will do no good. Many intelligent members who grew up in the church may find it “safer” to talk theology instead of exploring the sinfulness in their lives.

If you identify with Nicodemus, then sit before Christ, listen with humility, and lift your eyes to the cross. Let the message of heaven come directly to the point and pierce your heart: “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” (verse 16).

  1. Scripture quotes in this article have been taken from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
  2. www.sermonillustrations.com/a-z/e/expert.htm.