Connections 05.27.2018: Elite Jesus

John 3:1-17

We sometimes hear people complaining about elites trying to run the country (and maybe the world), but I think they’re really talking about elitists. Elites are well-educated, well-qualified, and well-positioned to be in charge of things. Elitists think they deserve to be in charge because they’re better than other folks; they assume privilege and entitlement. Their lack of humility actually makes them less qualified to be in charge.

I for one want elites running things. I want the best-educated, most qualified people in charge of the important stuff. Last summer, I was in Baltimore representing Smyth & Helwys at a denominational meeting when I developed an eye issue that needed immediate attention. The ophthalmologist I saw had been educated at Johns Hopkins. I had no problem with that. I didn’t look for a less elite doctor out of fear that this one might think he knew more than I did about my eye. In fact, I wanted him to know much more about my eye than I did, just like I want Freddie Freeman (magnificent first baseman of the Atlanta Braves) to know more about hitting a baseball than I do.

Nicodemus was elite. He was one of Israel’s teachers and leaders. People respected and admired him. He went to see Jesus as an elite checking out an upstart. Maybe Nicodemus had an elitist attitude in approaching Jesus. He said nice things to Jesus when he met him, but that may have been attempted flattery.

But Nicodemus had no idea whom he was dealing with.

No one has ever been more elite than Jesus. He is the elite above all elites. Only he came from heaven to earth. Only he is the Son of God. Only he knows what he knows. Only he can do what he does. Only he is the Messiah.

Nicodemus may have come to Jesus intending to push him on his theology, but he found himself being pushed instead. Jesus told Nicodemus that, given his elite status as a teacher of Israel, he really should be able to handle Jesus’ statements better than he did. But to be fair, they were (and are) difficult statements. We kid ourselves if we claim to understand them fully.

Here is the grace of it: Jesus is elite without being elitist. He lived out of his identity as the Son of God. But he didn’t claim privilege or try to hold onto position; instead, he emptied himself, gave himself up, and died for love and God and people.

Jesus doesn’t require us to know everything he knows. But he does ask us to trust in him.

We can become elite followers of Jesus; that is, we can become well-versed and well-practiced at being Christians. As we do, we will become servants. If we become leaders, we will be servant leaders. Elitist Christians think they’re better than others people; elite Christians give themselves away, especially for the least of these.

Only Jesus knows what Jesus knows. But by God’s grace, Jesus came to share God’s love with us. And because we know Jesus, we can live in God’s way too—even as we live with the mystery of it all.

Discussion

1. Jesus came to Nicodemus by night. When do we come to Jesus? Why?
2. What role does understanding play in faith? What role does faith play in understanding?
3. What does Nicodemus teach us about the importance of thinking symbolically? How important is it that we learn to think symbolically and metaphorically?
4. How can we hold knowledge and mystery in balance in the life of faith?
5. How does John 3:16 relate to and help us think about the encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus?

Reference Shelf

3:1-4. The opening exchange. In the introduction Nicodemus is described as a significant Jewish Pharisee who was recognized as a ruler (αρχων [archon]) or member of the Jewish high council (SANHEDRIN), composed of the high priest and his seventy advisers (cf. 7:44-52). He came to Jesus by night (not merely a time notation in John but also a reflection of a spiritual state).

His polite assessment, based upon his supposed knowledge of Jesus’ role with God, received a startling response. He was told in no uncertain terms that he needed to be born ανωθεν [anothen] (“again” or “from above”) or he would not experience the KINGDOM OF GOD. His initial knowledge vanished with his question: how could he as an adult re-enter the tiny womb of his mother? It was illogical.

3:5-10. Clarification and confusion. Jesus’ response to Nicodemus’ question of logic was to present two levels of discourse based on the word ανωθεν [anothen]. Nicodemus understood the term to signify again (implying an earthly context), while Jesus meant that the newness or birth was from above (a spiritual context; cf. 3:31). Spirit and flesh are thus regarded as different realms.

Spiritual (new) birth here is identified with the combination symbol of water and the spirit. Spirit should not be capitalized in v. 5 as in NRSV because it usually results in the “and” being treated disjunctively (cf. Harris 1971, 3:1178, and Carson 1991, 191-96). This combination reflects the interconnection between the water of cleansing and newness of heart or new spirit in the OT (e.g., Ezek 36:24-27). Some scholars would argue that this verse reflects a baptismal concern and I have so argued, but the major focus of the text is not on an event or a sacrament/ordinance but upon spiritual life. Bultmann dismisses the baptismal question completely by attributing the words “water and” to a later ecclesiastical redactor (1971, 139). But such is unnecessary, if one understands the OT roots.

Flesh (σαρξ [sarx]) in John refers to the realm of humanity with all its weakness and mortality. The word here is not per se antagonistic to God as is the expression “according to the flesh” in Paul, which implies that a person has made this existence the center of life (cf. Rom 8:4-8). Here the spirit (πνευμα [pneu`ma]) is used to designate the empowerment of weak humanity by the Spirit of God (v. 6).

The expression “spiritual birth” thus should not lead the believer to puzzlement (v. 7) because an enlightened person should perceive the two levels of discourse, illustrated here by the fact that spirit and wind are the same word (πνευμα [pneu`ma]). Yet a teacher like Nicodemus, if he could not perceive the two levels, would remain confused (vv. 9-10).

Gerald L. Borchert, “John,” Mercer Commentary on the Bible (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1995), 1050-51.

Michael Ruffin is husband to Debra, father to Joshua (Michelle) and Sara (Benjamin), grandfather to Sullivan. A graduate of Mercer University and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, he has previously served as a pastor and as a university professor. He lives on the Ruffin Family Farm in Yatesville, Georgia. He is the Connections Series Curriculum Editor.

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