A True Story (John 20:30-31; 3:9-15)

John was Jesus’ closest disciple. For him, Jesus was a teacher, a leader, a best friend. But most significantly, Jesus was the Son of God. The Roman postal system was highly advanced, allowing early Christians to distribute information with surprising speed—what one scholar calls the “Holy internet.” This meant that stories of Jesus had spread rapidly, though their meaning had yet to catch up. Peter and Paul had tended Christianity’s fragile soil, but both men would die before seeing it blossom. In John’s own city of Ephesus, Christians were limited to the traditions of John the Baptist (Acts 18:25). Caught between a fading past and an uncertain future, the need arose to record not only the facts of history, but also their significance.

“Jesus performed other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples…But these are recorded so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20:30-31)

John’s message is therefore uniquely suited to a culture like our own. For the first time in recent memory, Western society has re-emerged as a mission field. In the modern world, scholars sought to reconcile a Biblical “Christ of faith” with the so-called “Christ of history.” The gospels’ supernatural elements proved too much to accept, and so scholars such as Gotthold Lessing found themselves standing at the edge of an “ugly broad ditch,” unable to make a “leap” of faith. But today’s postmodern world is vastly different. We’ve crossed Lessing’s ditch only to find ourselves standing in a hall of mirrors. If the modern world was asking: “Should I believe in Jesus or not?” the postmodern world asks: “What kind of Jesus should I believe in?”

John’s purpose, therefore, doesn’t leave this question up to the individual, but anchors it in objective history. To read the Bible, therefore, is to surrender our expectations of who we think Jesus is, and to worship him as he actually was.

A STORYTELLING GOD

In John 3, we see this through the eyes of an elderly preacher. Earlier, Jesus had attracted attention by overturning the tables in the Jewish temple, a symbolic gesture that rang out with a singular message: The Messiah is here. Jesus’ arrival had been less an act of worship than an act of arson. Yet Nicodemus had yet to sift the gospel’s brilliance from the ashes of dead tradition. He comes to Jesus expecting another Rabbi, another scholarly debate. Jesus’ response lays him flat. You must be born again.

Yet Nicodemus fails to comprehend this message. His teeth chip on the stark literalness of it; he can’t digest the underlying meaning.

Nicodemus replied, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you don’t understand these things? I tell you the solemn truth, we speak about what we know and testify about what we have seen, but you people do not accept our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you don’t believe, how will you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven—the Son of Man. Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” (John 3:9-15)

In 2005’s V for Vendetta, Stephen Rea portrays a government inspector seeking to unravel a massive conspiracy. As he closes the gap between himself and the truth, he connects with a mysterious informant. “I believe you have some information for me,” he says. “No inspector,” the informant replies. “You have all the information already. All the facts are inside your head. What you want—what you really need—is a story.” Nicodemus didn’t need another sermon or debate. His head already contained more Sunday School lessons than anyone else in Israel. No; what he needed was a story, some means of bringing these plot points into a cohesive whole.

Jesus tells him the story of the snakes in the wilderness. Israel, during her years of wandering, fell victim to a plague of poisonous snakes. To deepen the nation’s trust, God has Moses craft a bronze serpent and attach it to his staff. If you were bitten, you had only to look at this staff and be cured. What is Jesus saying? He’s saying that there’s something deep within us—something dark and venomous—that can’t be cured by altering our behavior. In other words, Jesus says, You’ve been thinking of sin all wrong. Origen, a writer from the earliest days of the church, said that “everyone who enters the world may be said to be affected by a kind of contamination.” Our hearts are darkly flawed and profoundly selfish—just ask anyone who’s ever worked retail. Altering behavior may serve to bandage sin’s wounds, but it’s the poison that’ll kill us.

Do you see now the necessity of rebirth? Like wine stains on carpet, you don’t need spot remover; you need a time machine. Religion may conceal my past, but only the gospel promises forgiveness and transformation.

With all the wildness of the wind, the gospel takes the human heart by storm. When Jesus is “lifted up”—that is, exalted in his death and resurrection—he draws the poison from our hearts and replaces it with the pure “water” of his Spirit. And into man’s heart, God speaks a wisdom unsearchable, a love unthinkable, a grace incalculable, and a mercy unending. It’s no wonder, then, that Luther once wrote that “the cross alone is our theology.” For there is no other answer, no other remedy for the human condition, save for the cross of Christ. In the first exodus, Moses lifted up his staff. In Jesus’ new exodus, he lifts up himself. In his humiliation, he is exalted. In his death, life flows free.

 

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