John chapter 3 tell two stories about two men. One is Nicodemus – a Pharisee, a member of the Sanhedrin, the Rabbi of Israel, living in Jerusalem. The other one is John the Baptist – a charismatic prophet living in the wilderness.
I wish I were more like John the Baptist. But I am Nicodemus.
Nicodemus knew the Scriptures. He would have them memorized, beginning to end. Genesis through Malachi, always on the tip of his tongue and the front of his mind. Nicodemus had it all figured out. He knew what God wanted, how God wanted it, when God wanted it. He ate right, prayed right, worshiped right, and lived right. He knew the system. He worked the system. He loved the system.
John the Baptist didn’t simply know God’s word, he knew God. He knew what a relationship with God was all about and that God couldn’t be manipulated into owing us anything for our good behavior. John came to let God out of the box.
Nicodemus had a curiosity about Jesus. But he was about as curious of Jesus as I would be about a new store that opened up in the mall. He came to Jesus at night, when no one would be watching, just to check things out. Immediately, he defaulted into his old rabbinical suck-up mode, trying to flatter Jesus while making himself look better.
John the Baptist wasn’t just curious about Jesus, he was consumed by him. John was teaching people nonstop that Jesus of Nazareth was the Lamb of God, sent from heaven, who has come to take away the sins of the world. John was attempting to work himself out of a job. If he pointed enough people to Jesus, eventually John would have no more followers.
Nicodemus knew all the ins and outs of Scripture, but he didn’t know what it all meant. When Jesus challenged him to go to a deeper level of faith and understanding, Nicodemus responded with wit and sarcasm. When his system began to break apart, he fell back on his old defense mechanisms to soften the blow. But the damage was already done. Jesus had completely upended Nicodemus’ whole world. His precious “system” was laid bare. The true light had revealed it for what it was – empty, shallow, and deserving of death.
John the Baptist simply and humbly said, “Jesus must increase and I must decrease.” Did you catch that “must?” In other words, there was no other way it could ever work out. This is what must happen. It’s not that John was resigning his post because he couldn’t compete with Jesus. It’s that John always knew his was a “losing” position. Everything John had worked for up to this point he gladly and willingly surrendered to the cause and message of Jesus the Messiah.
Nicodemus scurried back into the darkness like a cockroach escaping the light.
John the Baptist remained in the limelight, proclaiming the kingdom of God and the Messiah, until it cost him his head.
I think the church is full of people like Nicodemus, and I’m one of them. We are curious about Jesus so we will show up on Sundays, while it’s still socially acceptable. Then we scurry off back to our homes and out of the light. We are content to simply be admirers and respecters of Jesus but nothing more. We can’t afford to have Jesus completely flip our world upside down. No, we would much rather remain curious about Jesus than consumed by him.
We think our flattery, our admiration, and even our worship of Jesus is enough to get us “in.” We do all the right things in the right ways at the right times with the right people. We’ve followed the “5 Steps of Salvation” and we participate in the “5 Acts of Worship.” We have a system, and our God fits very nicely into our system. We’ve got it all figured out.
We memorize and teach our kids John 3:16 because it fits nicely and neatly into our system. Yet we completely skip over 3:8, “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
Now what are we supposed to do with that, Jesus? That doesn’t fit our system. You mean the Spirit moves people to live and to go and to preach and to work wherever and whenever He chooses? But Jesus, you must realize that everything must be done “decently and in order.” That’s just crazy talk, Jesus.
Or what about 3:14-15, “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”
Whoa, now Jesus. Rein it in a little bit. It can’t be that simple. I mean, sure, all the people had to do in Moses’ day was look up at the metal snake-on-a-stick and they were saved. But we can’t have just anybody walking in our church doors on Sunday claiming that they are already saved. We have to have some sort of litmus test, something we can control, something we can monitor so that we can decide and know for sure who is in and who is out. How else are we going to know who can and who can’t serve on the Lord’s Supper table or say a closing prayer?
You’ve got to think inside the system, Jesus.
Your answer is “No?” You’re telling me, Jesus, that it doesn’t “work that way?” Well, that’s okay I guess. We can just do church without you.
…and Nicodemus scurries back out into the night.