Jesus Teaches Us That The Most Important Question Is Not
“What Do You Say To Enquirers?”
“How Do You Get Them To Enquire?”
Is your Christian life so compelling that people go out of their way to approach you with questions about Christianity or must you, like so many other Christians, chase people with the Gospel? We are called light and salt and these are elements that hungry searching people are drawn to. Unfortunately, it is not very often people ask us about God. It should be. That happened with Jesus on several occasions. A study of John 3 helps us understand why.
In John chapter 3 a very interesting exchange occurred between a priest of the Pharisees (Nicodemus) and Jesus. In fact, the whole chapter – 39 verses – is dedicated to Nic’s confusion and Jesus’ response.
What people don’t always point out is the fact that John chapters 2 and 3 go together. Both cover Jesus’ visit to Jerusalem for the Passover which means, of course, what happened in the 3rd chapter was influenced by events in the 2nd.
In chapter 2 Jesus did the appropriate but outlandish thing – He threw everyone and everything involved in commerce out of the Temple. With that action, plus the many miracles He performed, He had everyone guessing. In response many, the Bible says, believed. Everyone else was confused, challenged or chagrined.
What Jesus did was exactly what the common people wanted (I’m sure they cheered Him under their breath) but no one before Him had the courage to take action. Everyone, including the priests, was amazed or shaken. Some priests found Jesus aggravating and they dismissed Him. Others found Him compelling and were drawn to Him.
In response to all this Nicodemus did what he couldn’t avoid doing. He approached Jesus personally. He was one of the priests that found Jesus compelling and he apparently had questions that couldn’t be ignored.
Many think he was afraid because he came at night when the crowds were settled for the evening but that was probably the sensible thing to do. Being a priest he would have questions that needed a less crowded setting to consider thoughtfully and privacy served that purpose.
I don’t doubt the timing of this visit was also motivated by a bit of fear. His peers wouldn’t approve and approaching under the cover of darkness was a good way to avoid the conflict. Who knows, maybe Nic was so concerned he couldn’t sleep. There are many reasons other than fear to consider this the sensible thing to do.
Nic never got to ask his question but what he did say revealed a lot about his attitude toward Jesus. From his remarks we could judge him as “not far from the Kingdom of God” but not quite there yet. He was on the doorstep of belief.
He called Jesus “Master” (Rabbi) and teacher, both terms being reserved only for highly respected religious leaders. He was also humble and honest enough to admit that Jesus’ actions were clear indications that he came from God. There was no other way to see it. His words:
“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.”
These remarks, by the way, were evidence of repentance. He was admitting that Jesus was right and the system was wrong. That constituted a significant change of mind.
But, before he could ask a question Jesus interrupted and made His famous statement:
“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
I’m not convinced Nicodemus even knew what question to ask. Rather than being rude Jesus was saving him the embarrassment of stammering while trying to find something intelligible to say.
In any case Jesus targeted the real issue (the new birth) and Nicodemus didn’t immediately get it. He questioned Jesus (“…can a man enter the second time into his mother’s womb and be born?”) and Jesus repeated Himself giving enough additional information to indicate this was an immaterial birth (Spirit) not a physical one (water).
Nic’s final response was, “How can these things be?” and Jesus mildly chastised him for this. There were sufficient references to the New Birth in the Old Testament for religious leaders to at least be expecting something along these lines. For example:
I will give them a heart to know that I am the LORD, and they shall be my people and I will be their God, for they shall return to me with their whole heart.
And I will give them one heart, and a new spirit I will put within them. I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh.
And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.
Psalms 51:10 (David after committing adultery and murder)
Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.
The idea of a new heart (hence new nature) shouldn’t have been a surprise to any serious minded Israelite and certainly not to religious rulers. If he had been looking in the right direction he would have made the connection easily.
The Most Important Question
But, here is the real issue with this passage. The most important question to ask is NOT…
- What should we say to enquiring individuals?
- How do we get them to enquire?
One common response to this passage is to delve deeply into the concept of the new birth and ferret out every possible detail.
That isn’t a bad thing to do but becoming obsessive about it misses the point. Even Nicodemus, a well-studied religious leader, couldn’t understand it until he had experienced it. He shouldn’t have been surprised by it but there was no way he could “figure it out” without first owning it. That is actually the point Jesus made, “unless a person is born again he cannot SEE (understand)…”
And even then there are some things about the new birth we can’t explain. The parts we CAN understand aren’t that complex and the parts we can’t understand won’t become clear till heaven, if then. The study and articulation of the New Birth shouldn’t be all consuming. It is to be shared not micro-analyzed.
Another common response to this passage is to prepare Christians with rote statements and launch them on attack missions. All unsuspecting individuals beware! Ready or not, Gospel rocks and daggers will be hurled full force in the face of every unsuspecting passer-by. Those who follow this plan will be told they have been courageous and done their duty well.
And, yes, I agree, no one believes the Gospel without first hearing it but often people don’t believe in the Gospel until they first believe in the messenger. That is what happened between Nic and Jesus.
Shouting “Be born again, be born again, be born again,” before we have the attention and respect of those who hear us is not the strategy Jesus used or encouraged. I would say that is better than nothing but it is not a good model of what happened between Nic and Jesus.
In this situation…
- Nicodemus approached Jesus; Jesus didn’t approach Nicodemus.
- Nicodemus recognized Jesus as credible and knowledgeable, which is to say Jesus wasn’t entirely strange to Nicodemus.
- Nicodemus was looking for answers; Jesus wasn’t actively making an offer.
We do just the opposite. We treat humanity like a parade and use truth like confetti. “Better than nothing” maybe, but it sure isn’t what Jesus did.
The question is how do we reproduce the Nic-to-Jesus scenario in our own lives? We aren’t really believing what Jesus believed if we don’t do what He did. Taking a megaphone and running around town bellowing “you must be born again” is not an appropriate response.
I would suggest a few things in answer
- One, You need to be born again.
Only hypocrites encourage others to do what they haven’t.
- Two, You need to be able to tell your story.
People love to hear true stories. Formulate yours and be prepared to share it, when asked.
- Three, You need to let others know you are Christian.
Everyone agrees that Christians should make it known to others they are Christian but they don’t all agree on how this should be done.
Some have mistakenly suggested that we should reprimand non-Christians when they use foul language particularly if the names of God or Jesus are abused. I’m not so sure. Jesus said all form of blasphemy against Him or the Father would be forgiven. If He forgives it why should we do otherwise.
In my experience, the more you focus on the language issue the bigger it gets. Sometimes the best way to dissipate the problem is to ignore it.
Of course, there isn’t enough room in one post to give a full how-to statement for every possible scenario and I don’t want to get into the particular style of every segment of the Christian community but whatever you do in answer to this question must be characterized mostly with humility. We must do two things:
- Let others know we are Christian.
- Remain humble enough to be approachable.
Letting others know you are Christian is not a way to show off. Nothing in your manner should suggest superiority.
You should be as firm and forthright as your temperament will allow and always maintain a secure posture but arrogance, insult, accusation, condemnation and condescension should be completely purged from your attitude. Forthright is not synonymous with aggressive.
Jesus referred to us as fishers of men, which means we are enticing people with our lives and the Gospel. That is very different to attacking them. Good fishermen don’t throw bait at fish.
Like Jesus, we become accessible only when we put ourselves in public view (let others know we are Christian). That makes us vulnerable but that is what Jesus did. In a sense we are the bait.
- Four, You need to be convincing.
Credibility is the issue here. If you have told people you are Christian you mustn’t assume there is sufficient evidence for them to believe it? Your believing it is of little consequence. Who cares! And you really don’t need to convince God. If it is true He knows.
The declaration that one is Christian is often accompanied by the attempt to be miraculously spectacular or morally perfect neither of which is possible and both of which are really aimed at impressing God, the Christian community or both. Outsiders, however, see it as an expression of self-righteousness and react in many negative ways.
To be convincing we must be consistently honest about our own failures and gracious toward the failures of others. Living on a higher plane doesn’t preclude humility. Only insecure people hide their sins or react overbearingly to the sins of others.
This kind of honesty makes us vulnerable but it also makes us attractive. People are drawn to those they identify with. When we admit to being like them instead of above them others are more ready to admit their faults, an expression of repentance and a step toward salvation.
We are convincing not when we avoid life’s battles but when we demonstrate publicly the ability to manage them well. Suggesting that God pre-delivers Christians from these common difficulties is neither accurate nor impressive. If it moves people to become Christian at all, their motive is to get a better ride in this life (a free lunch) rather than to avoid the eternal consequences of sin. Neither happens.
No self-respecting person wants a free ride anyway and no honest person wishes to live captured by sin.
Knowledge of the truth makes us accurate not better. When we live out this principle others will ask us how we do it. When they do, we will be evangelizing like Jesus.