In all things, Jesus is the center through the spirit
By Don Ruhl
(The idea for this article came from Eugene Peterson’s book, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places)
Who are you? How do you perceive yourself or how do you think others perceive you? Do you see yourself as rich or poor, educated or ignorant, respected or disrespected, good looking or ugly, or somewhere in between?
Who does the Lord say you are? How does He perceive you? I want to show you two narratives in the Gospel According to John that show Jesus welcomes everyone regardless of who you are or what you are.
Nicodemus (John 3)
This man was a Jewish Rabbi. He had much at stake. He was a Pharisee and a ruler of the Jews, making him a highly respected man in Israel. Then along came Jesus. Who was He? He was just a roving teacher, an itinerant preacher from a place called Nazareth that some people wondered whether anything good could come from there. Yet, something good was happening. This young man whom no one had heard of before, suddenly had the attention of the entire nation! What would the Pharisees and other rulers of the Jews do? Nicodemus went to talk to this new teacher, “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).
Did Nicodemus go to Jesus at night out of fear? Could a Pharisee befriend such a man as Jesus? An unknown teacher had everything to gain from association with a ruler of the Jews. A ruler of the Jews had everything to lose from association with an unknown teacher. Under cover of darkness, Nicodemus could escape notice from his colleagues. He did not appear to have a plan. He went for simple conversation, starting with a high compliment. Jesus was truly a teacher come from God, so the Lord with wisdom saw that Nicodemus had a question, something he wanted to know. Therefore, the Lord bypassed introductory pleasantries and went right to the heart of the Pharisee, “Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God’” (John 3.3).
Oh, this ruler of the Jews wanted to know about entering the Kingdom of God! How could that be? To be a Pharisee and a ruler, he had to know the Scriptures well, even knowing what scholars said about the Scriptures and what other scholars said about what the first set of scholars said about the Scriptures! What then was he doing meeting with Jesus, especially at night?
Nicodemus might have been humble. He truly wanted to know about the Kingdom from Someone who knew all about it.
As a leader, everyone looked up to Nicodemus. He knew what he was talking about. He lived the Scriptures.
Perhaps as a leader, he also had moments of disharmony. He knew what people thought he was, but he knew he did not live up to that image. The better he got as a Pharisee and ruler, the more he felt unworthy. He knew that he did not live all that he should. His knowledge of the truth exceeded his living of the truth. The more he grew in knowledge the greater the gap became between what he knew and what he lived. Nicodemus may have been unsure of his salvation. He did not necessarily need to know more, but he just wanted in the Kingdom. He wanted someone to accept him as the sinner he knew he was.
As a leader, he may also have been curious. Leaders have to know what is going on. They keep their influence by knowing how to deal with current trends, knowing ahead of time good and bad things on the way. Jesus was popular. How did He gain His success?
Then again, as a leader, nighttime may have been the best time for both of them. A leader gets so busy doing things that he has no time for other leaders. Therefore, nighttime is not only the best time, but the only time.
Amazingly, John only told us that Nicodemus approached Jesus by night. John did not tell us why. The Gospel, the Good News, is not about Nicodemus. It is about Jesus of Nazareth, the carpenter who also happened to be the Son of God! Nor does the Scripture text exist for our curiosity. The God of heaven does not preoccupy Himself with satisfying our curiosity! Jesus did not wonder about the motives of Nicodemus. John gave us no insight into the thinking of Nicodemus. It did not matter to Jesus why Nicodemus visited, except that his motives must have been pure. We do not need to know why Nicodemus sought this meeting, we only need to know what Jesus taught Nicodemus, because we all need the same thing.
After bypassing introductory matters, Jesus shook up the thinking of the Pharisee. Jesus informed this older man that he needed to be born again. “Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God’” (John 3.3).
Then Jesus added another startling picture, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3.5).
The teacher of Israel thought only in earthly ideas. Jesus thought in heavenly ideas. Then Jesus laid side-by-side the earthly and the heavenly, “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” (John 3.8).
For the moment, Nicodemus did not understand.
The Samaritan Woman (John 4)
Nicodemus met Jesus at night, but Jesus met a Samaritan woman in the clear light of day. The woman approached Jesus, but not because she was going to Him, rather He had stopped on his journey at the same place she was going to get water. Nicodemus met Jesus intentionally. The Samaritan woman met Jesus unintentionally. You never know when you will encounter Jesus or when He will confront you.
Nicodemus began with spiritual comments, and then Jesus kept the conversation spiritual but used earthly images. With the Samaritan woman, Jesus began the conversation with earthly comments.
However, the fact that He would talk to her shocked her. His words shocked both her and Nicodemus. “Then the woman of Samaria said to Him, ‘How is it that You, being a Jew, ask a drink from me, a Samaritan woman?’ For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans” (John 4.9).
Nicodemus did not show shock that Jesus would speak to him. Nicodemus was a man, a Jew, a leader, an accepted man. At the well, Jesus met a woman, a Samaritan, a follower, a rejected woman. She questioned why a Jewish man would ask her for something.
Did she mistrust Him? The Jews despised the Samaritans and the Samaritans returned the favor.
Did she mistrust Jesus because of the life she lived? In verse 18, we learn that she had been married five times and the man with whom she currently lived was not her husband.
Did she see herself as a failure?
Did she think men only wanted to use her?
Was she emotionally scarred?
Perhaps it was the opposite.
Did she have five husbands and now a sixth man because she used men?
Did she think this stranger might be another man to use?
Did she use men to acquire power, advancement, pleasure, possessions, or money?
We like trying to figure out the inner workings of people, which is why psychology has become popular, because it purports to give us insight into human personality, motives, and living. We want personality and motive theories because they help us to understand behavior, or so we think. With theories we can pigeonhole a Nicodemus. With psychological insight we can figure what moves the Samaritan woman. We want to be the first to give insight on what moves people like the Pharisee and the Samaritan woman.
Yet, the Lord, who could discern the thoughts and intents of the heart, revealed nothing in these cases. The Holy Spirit, who searches all things, even the deep things of God and man, did not move John to write anything of this woman’s thinking.
Jesus dealt with her and the Pharisee as they were. The narrative is not about the woman or the Pharisee. John used these people to show us that we should put our hands in the hand of the Man who stilled the waters and troubled hearts, for when we do, we look at ourselves as we truly are and then we look at others as the Man from Galilee did.
After the woman showed shock that a Jewish man was humble enough to ask water from a Samaritan woman, He said, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who says to you, ‘Give Me a drink,’ you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water” (John 4.10).
Jesus used a figure of speech again. With Nicodemus it was “birth,” “water,” and “wind.” With the Samaritan woman it was “water.” Jesus changed the conversation from water for His body to water for her spirit, saying further, “Whoever drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst. But the water that I shall give him will become in him a fountain of water springing up into everlasting life” (John 4.13, 14).
Then Jesus brought up an idea that He brought up with Nicodemus. “God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4.24).
Spirit! Nicodemus, you must be born of the Spirit. Woman, you must worship God in spirit. Jesus knew the messed-up life of the woman, and she quickly diverted attention to the arrogance of the Jews for saying that worship must be in Jerusalem. Preventing the discussion from becoming a debate over the place of worship, Jesus introduced a new world to her, just as He did with the Pharisee, the world of the spirit. The woman understood at that moment. The wise, educated, has-it-all-together ruler of the Jews, did not understand right away. He did later.
The Heart of the Action
John put two lives before us, and the connecting point was the Spirit of God. The Spirit of God was the heart of the action. The Spirit of God entered the lives of these people in ways that breath, wind, or water never could. The Spirit of God entered their thinking through the ordinary images of life.
Look at these two people whom Jesus welcomed.
One was a man; the other a woman, because gender is nothing in Christ.
One was in a city; the other out in the country, because geography is nothing in Christ.
One was respectable; the other was not, because background is nothing in Christ.
One opens a conversation with religion; the other with the mundane.
One time the person started the conversation; in the other Jesus started it.
The man risked his reputation by association with Jesus; Jesus risked his reputation by association with a Samaritan.
He was an insider; she was an outsider.
He was a professional; she was a layperson.
He was conservative; she was liberal.
He took initiative; she let things happen.
He was named; she was unnamed.
Humanity took a risk; deity took a risk.
Spirit was common to both. The Spirit puts us in the spirit, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3.6). Once in the spirit, we continue to live in the spirit and we worship in the spirit. The picture was not of the man and the woman. The painting was of Jesus. The man and the woman provided the backdrop, but Jesus was the diamond. We gaze upon Him, not them. Jesus and the Spirit of God occupy the heart of the action.
What I am saying to you is what Jesus said on another occasion found in John 6. Thousands of people saw Him as a source of free food, because He had just fed them by making bread miraculously. He refuted their thinking and He rebuked their desire, saying, “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing. The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life” (John 6.63).
Do you believe these things? Are you like the Pharisee? Are you like the Samaritan woman? Are you somewhere in between, or a little of both?
If you believe in Jesus and want Him and the Spirit of God to be the heart of the action in your life, He accepts you, regardless of what extreme you come from. Be born again right now!