Sometimes the answer is complex

Unless we want to force an answer onto the text, some questions have to remain open.

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One of the things I enjoy most in my line of work is having someone ask questions following a Bible study or sermon. Usually, questions are a good sign that someone (a) has been listening and (b) is thinking more broadly about what was said. [I’ve always had questions about your teaching and preaching. –Shive]

Of course, sometimes a simple question doesn’t have a simple answer and we’re reminded that we’re probing mysteries rather than solving problems. What follows is part of an exchange–slightly edited–I had with a member who was thinking through Jesus’ statements to Nicodemus in John 3. Unless we want to force an answer onto the text, some questions have to remain open.

MEMBER: Why did [Jesus] often respond to people with statements that they would not understand? His conversation with Nicodemus is one of those times. Here Nicodemus comes, asking honest questions and seems to be searching for the truth and Jesus keeps answering his questions with weird things about being born a second time and the wind blowing but you can’t see it. Just seems a bit mean. Like [my son] coming and asking me a math question and I give him a calculus explanation.

ME: Great question! The reasons Jesus had for talking over the heads of his audience varies depending on the situation & context. In the case of Nicodemus, I’d probably want to make two observations. First, Nicodemus approached Jesus as if he had some measure of spiritual knowledge to render judgments about Jesus (3:2–Rabbi, we know that you have come from God as a teacher…). But Nic’s confusion about things he actually should know (3:10) demonstrates that he doesn’t possess the spiritual insight he claimed. Jesus’ “incomprehensible” answer demonstrates that the wise are really not all that wise and puts them in their place. Second, notice that Jesus connects Nicodemus’ lack of understanding to unbelief (3:11-13) so that we should probably consider that Nic’s confusion is due to more than childlike ignorance.

MEMBER: But all of this “kingdom of God” talk most Jews acquainted with Jesus coming as their conquering king. Without the H.S. leading and guiding, should they really have known these truths about the Spirit’s indwelling and a second birth? Not sure which prophet speaks of the heart of stone being replaced with a heart of flesh and no one having to teach his neighbor about knowing God because all men will know Him. So I know the OT does speak a little to all of this but really not in a straight forward way. So, should Nicodemus have really been able to understand what Jesus was saying?

Again, just thinking in terms of my kids. If I want them to understand something that is vitally important ot their well being, safety, life, etc I don’t think I am going to speak in parables. I think I am going to flat out tell them as simply as I need to what I need them to know.

ME: I don’t know that there’s a one-size-fits-all answer since various explanations are found in John’s story line:

  • Some ignorance was due to hard hearts (Jn 5:39-40),
  • some things only Jesus’ sheep would hear/grasp (Jn 10:24-26)
  • some things could have been known but weren’t until after the fact (Jn 12:16),
  • some ignorance was the inescapable result of God’s work (Jn 12:37-43)
  • some things were spoken figuratively so as to keep things hazy until further revelation was given (Jn 16:25).

Ultimately, God grants insight/understanding as a gift according to his purpose (Mt 16:15-17; Mk 4:11-12; Luke 24:31, 44-45).

Author: Jonathan P. Merritt

Happily married father of six. Associate pastor for education at Edgewood Baptist Church (Columbus, GA). Good-natured contrarian and theological Luddite. A student of one book.

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