Thursday, June 29, 2006

John 3:1-21 (7)

We do not hear from Nicodemus anymore, but we get to hear Jesus continue in verses 11-13: “I tell you the truth, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? No one has ever gone into heaven except the One who came from heaven – the Son of Man.”

Who is “we”? Perhaps Jesus is referring to himself and his disciples as a group. Thus the meaning would be that the community of Jesus speaks from knowledge and authority about spiritual matters, while the community of Nicodemus rejects this testimony. Many scholars think this in unlikely, mainly because the disciples at this point in Jesus’ ministry could not be described as speaking of what they know and testifying to what they have seen. But as long as the disciples are close followers of the One who truly knows and who truly speaks with authority, then there is indeed a sense in which it is appropriate for Jesus to refer to the entire group as a unit, especially in contrast with the community of Nicodemus.

The simplest explanation for “we” in this verse is that Jesus is mimicking Nicodemus when he used plurals as he first approached Jesus. The plurals here do correspond to the plurals in verses 2 and 7, but it is unnecessary to suggest that Jesus is mimicking Nicodemus, adding insult to his already spiritual stupidity. So removing the mimicry accusation, it is likely that Jesus, by using “we,” is not speaking only to “you” (Nicodemus) in verse 11, but to “you people,” that is, the people identified by the “we” in verse 2 and the plural “you” in verse 7 (the Pharisees in Nicodemus’ company.

Then Jesus switches back from the plural in verse 12. He says, “I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things?” What Jesus has been saying thus far belongs to the category of “earthly things.” Of course the new birth, being a birth “from above,” is heavenly in its nature and its source, but it is “earthly” in the sense that it is something that happens to people on the earth. Now if Nicodemus and his company cannot believe Jesus when He tells them about what God does on the earth, they would find it still harder to believe what He says about what happens in the kingdom of heaven.

But when we look at verse 13, verses 11-12 come together. Jesus says, “No one has ever gone into heaven except the One who came from heaven – the Son of Man.” Here's a paraphrase: “No one has ever ascended to heaven (and come back) to tell you about heavenly matters, except for the Son of Man, who has come from heaven to speak to you about these things.” The “Son of Man,” of course, is a term taken from Daniel 7:13-14, and refers to the promised Messiah, Jesus Christ. Verse 13 explains who knows about these things (Jesus), why or how He knows, and why people should believe Him. Nicodemus (and his company) ought to believe what Jesus says about heavenly matters, because Jesus came from heaven! The phrase “what we have seen” in verse 11 mainly refers to the direct knowledge of Jesus about heavenly matters, which is what He testifies about in His ministry. This also explains why Jesus can use “we” in verse 11. Although the disciples might not yet have a direct knowledge about spiritual things, they have identified themselves with Christ by following Him. It is not as if they each have a similar testimony about heavenly matters based on an immediate knowledge of heaven, but that they – as we do now – testify about the revelation of Jesus Christ.

Before moving on, let's review verses 9-13 as a whole. By now Nicodemus has twice wondered at what Jesus tells him about regeneration, the heavenly birth that everyone needs in order to see and enter God’s kingdom. So Jesus gives His assessment of the situation. As one who has come from heaven, He has direct knowledge about heavenly matters. Therefore, His testimony about the works of God is true, and He speaks with authority about spiritual things. As trained scholars and religious leaders, Nicodemus and his colleagues appear to be in the best position to understand and believe this testimony, but instead they misunderstand and disbelieve it. This in turn underscores the necessity of regeneration, for unless a person is born again, or born from above, he can neither see nor enter the kingdom of God. When it comes to spiritual things, faith and understanding are connected, but the biblical connection between these is that you must be born again, so that you may both believe and understand. Faith and understanding promote and depend on one another, but both are impossible unless one is first born again. This in turn makes faith and understanding dependent on divine sovereignty and not human decision, as Jesus, John, and Paul repeatedly declare to us. Verse 13 says that the Son of Man, Jesus Christ, has come to us from heaven. Because of this, His testimony about both earthly (natural) and heavenly (spiritual) things are authoritative and reliable.

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