Wednesday, June 21, 2023

Semi-Random Musings (30)

“When iniquities prevail against me, you atone for our transgressions.”

This first phrase nicely encapsulates the condition of the believer. Iniquities do not characterize him. Iniquities do not magnetically draw him the way they once did. Iniquities are not his goal or the meaning of his life. Iniquities are an enemy with which he is perpetually in contention.

Occasionally iniquities even prevail. For a moment only.

Thank the Lord that iniquity is not our permanent state of being. For the believer, sin is a brief and unnatural interruption in a life of love, service and worship. When iniquities exert their temporary sway over him, he is reminded that the atoning work of Christ has released him forever, not to chasten him and beat him down for his failures, but as one is who is chosen and brought “near, to dwell in your courts”, to be “satisfied with the goodness of your house”.

*   *   *   *   *

When Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night in John 3, among many other well-known and spiritually significant observations, the Lord says the following:

“Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?”

The underlying Greek here is not a one-for-one literal rendering, but translators assure us each of the five final yous in these two verses is plural. (The first, “I say to you”, meaning Nicodemus, is singular.)

That tells us a few interesting things I had never really stopped to consider:

First, the Lord is not chastising Nicodemus for personal obduracy or dullness. That makes sense. To tell someone he does not receive the Lord’s testimony and does not believe might be of long-term spiritual help, if true (though hurtful in the short term), but hardness of heart seems unlikely from a man who had come secretly to meet with the Lord, and had begun his inquiry with “We know that you are a teacher come from God.” The plural yous make this explicit in case we might miss it.

Second, the Lord is not indicting the Jewish people more generally, of whom Nicodemus was surely a representative, for unbelief or rejection of his testimony. The Lord had in his own company many Jews who did indeed receive his testimony, who unquestioningly accepted and believed the things he told them. Only two chapters back, Nathanael greets him with the words, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” It’s hard to picture a more enthusiastic, believing reception than that, and the Lord rewards him with the compliment “an Israelite indeed”.

Third, the Lord is not talking about modern Gentile readers (or even modern Jewish readers) at all. That is not his subject.

So then, the Lord is speaking to Nicodemus as a representative of the Jewish religious establishment. That’s really the only option left to us.

This story comes in the earliest moments of his ministry, while John the Baptist is still baptizing and has only just born witness to him. Already, in those early weeks and months, the Lord is calling out individuals from an obdurate Jewish leadership, recognizing they will never respond to him en masse, in an appeal akin to the one in Revelation (“If anyone hears my voice and opens the door”) where he invites individuals from a thoroughly compromised church into personal fellowship. Already, in those early weeks and months, he is speaking of the cross as an inevitability and anticipating the failure of the Law to bring men into fellowship with God. Already (and most importantly of all), in those early weeks and months he is talking about the kingdom of God as something one cannot enter into apart from the new birth.

In any harmonized version of the gospels, Nicodemus’ secretive visit falls well before the Sermon on the Mount. Knowing what the Lord had said privately to Nicodemus some time previously, Matthew 5-7 then reads as an extended illustration of the utter futility of attempting to enter the kingdom through law-keeping. That’s the only way it works, given that salvation by faith was already on the table when the Lord Jesus preached it. It is the same lesson the Lord taught the rich young ruler, except over and over and over again: that you can’t get there with works, because there will always be some area of your life in which works fail.

So then, to repurpose the Sermon as the standard for Christian living, as both John MacArthur and John Foster do, is essentially to take the same position as the Judaizers in Antioch: it is to lay a yoke on the neck of new disciples that Israel was not able to bear.

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