“You Must Be Born Again” – Pt. 1

1 Comment

John 3:1 – 8

3  1 Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. 2 This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.”

3 Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” 4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?”

5 Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦          ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦          ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Chapter 3 of the Gospel of John begins with a fascinating dialog between Jesus and one of the religious leaders named Nicodemus.  The entire dialog goes from verse 1 to verse 21, but I will split this up into three Bible study articles.  There are surprises in store for both Nicodemus and Jesus in this encounter as we will see.

Throughout the dialog, there are some very important themes raised, such as light vs. darkness, regeneration (or the “new birth”), earthly things vs. spiritual things, and the Jewish concept of Rabbi or “Teacher”.  I hope to touch on all of these themes in my three articles.  But first, to give us some context to this story, we must take a close look at who is this man, Nicodemus.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

There is a lot we can learn about Nicodemus in verses 1 and 2.  Immediately we are told that he was “a man of the Pharisees”.  There were many religious groups that existed during the time of Jesus and the most predominant one was the Pharisees.  In Katherine Barnwell’s book “Key Biblical Terms”, she writes this:

Some Pharisees were priests, but many were lay people. They were the party of the common people, in contrast to the Sadducees who were from the rich “upper class”. The leaders of the Pharisees were scribes, but most Pharisees were not trained as scribes; they were ordinary traders and workers.

Now although not all received formal training like the Scribes, most all of them would have received great quantities of informal oral training by literally sitting at the feet of older Pharisees who passed on the traditions of Judaism and their interpretations of the Old Testament scriptures.  In fact, to be a Rabbi, one had to have studied under other well recognized Pharisees.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Nicodemus though, is not just any average Pharisee; for John writes that he was “a ruler of the Jews”.  He is one of the top leaders of this religious group, very possibly a scribe and perhaps even a member of the Jewish ruling Council, the Sanhedrin.  And yet, notice how he comes to Jesus and approaches him.

We note that Nicodemus came to Jesus at night, and that he has great respect for him since he addressed Jesus as “Rabbi”.  This is quite surprising, seeing as the Pharisees would already have learned that Jesus had not been trained within the Pharisaical order.  Therefore, many scholars think that he came to Jesus during the night partly out of fear of being found out.

So we have a prominent religious leader meeting secretly with Jesus to discuss spiritual matters of great importance.  We learn from verse 2 that Nicodemus has seen (or at least heard about) some of the miracles that Jesus had performed in Jerusalem, and he states his belief that only a man who has been sent by God could perform such mighty acts.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Then in the next two verses, we see that Nicodemus and Jesus are definitely not on the same page together.  Jesus mentions “entering the Kingdom of God”, a very important topic to the Pharisees.  But Jesus says that a man must be “born again” to be able to enter in.  Nicodemus’ answer shows he lacks the ability to comprehend this statement by asking Jesus how it could ever be possible to re-enter a mother’s womb to be reborn.

Jesus goes on to tell us that there are two realities, the things that pertain to this life and this world (i.e. “the things of the flesh”), and there are things that pertain to spiritual life and the eternal realm (i.e. “the things of the Spirit).  Another way of looking at this is that the “flesh” deals with the physical and the external practices (which the Pharisees were so stuck on in their ritualism), while the “Spirit” deals with the spiritual and inner person.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Jesus is surprised that Nicodemus is surprised at this teaching.  Then Jesus ends this first part of the dialog by stating that while we cannot see a person become spiritually renewed, just like the wind, we can see the effects of a life that has been transformed and become brand new, or reborn as Jesus would say.

Let me ask you who read this article: does this all make sense to you?  Or are you feeling lost just like Nicodemus was?  Christianity is not a set of rules or regulations to be kept (as the Pharisees believed), but rather it is a relationship between God, who is Spirit, and us, who are also spiritual beings.  Being reborn in our inner self is our “entry ticket” into Heaven.

Advertisements

Hypocrite! Who Me?

Leave a comment

A Translation Challenge in Matthew

Last week I was working with the W. language team and checking their translation of the final eight chapters of the book of Matthew.  The translation was in very good shape, so we were able to proceed at a pretty good pace.  The goal we had set to be able to check these chapters in eight days was to check an average of 55 verses each day.  On the morning that we were finishing chapter 22 and starting chapter 23, we had checked and revised 44 verses.

So when we gathered after lunch to continue doing the checking, I was feeling optimistic that we would be able to easily reach our goal, and surpass it.  But then we hit the “Woe” sections of chapter 23 of Matthew.  Seven times Jesus gave a strong warning to the Pharisees and the Scribes, two of the religious groups that existed during the times of Jesus and the New Testament.  And both groups knew all the rituals and regulations of the Jewish religion, but they only gave lip service to God rather than serve Him out of their hearts.

There is no question that these “Woe” sections of Matthew 23 are difficult to translate across different languages.  There are many concepts that are rather foreign to people who are subsistent jungle farmers.  How do we translate “Kingdom”, “temple”, “altar”, “tithing”, “proselytizing”, etc.  We did find ways to handle these difficult concepts, but there is one more term in this section that has caused us to discuss it at length.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

The term I am referring to is the word for “hypocrite”.  I have had the privilege to work with a number of Papuan languages and have checked the books of Matthew and Mark a couple of times.  And I am fascinated by the variety of ways in which different languages can handle the same term or phrase.  And this is definitely one of them.

When translating the term “hypocrite”, I have seen that it usually has to be expressed as an idiom or as a longer descriptive phrase.  For example, I have seen “hypocrite” translated like “the lying person”, “the two-mouthed person”, “the two-tongued person”, “the pretending to worship God person”, and what the W. language decided to use, “the person who lies and says, ‘I am a good person.'”

The common thread here is that a hypocrite is one who basically lies, pretending to be one thing when in fact they are the opposite.  They are people who deceive others by saying one thing, but their behavior shows that their values do not match their behavior.  As the idiom in English says, they in effect speak out of two sides of their mouth, which is very close to the Papuan idiom of being two-tongued or two-mouthed.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

In effect, these are nasty, lying, deceiving people who not only are trying to fool men into believing they are good people, but some are even thinking they are pulling the wool over God’s eyes.  And of all possible kinds of hypocrites, perhaps the worst ones of all are the religious hypocrites.  By their words and actions, they try to elevate themselves as someone better than other religious people, and in the end, they tarnish the name and reputation of God, and the true believers who worship God as He requires, out of a heart of humility and selflessness.

No wonder Jesus used such harsh language against the Pharisees and the Scribes in His day.  Not only should they have known how to properly approach God and worship Him, but these men were the religious teachers of the people.  But Jesus calls them to the carpet to challenge their hypocrisy for what it was, and as He said, they were like “white-washed tombs with nice decorations on the outside, but on the inside they were full of dead men’s bones and all kinds of ritual impurities.”

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

And yet, when I really study this word and all that it implies, I need to be careful before I brand someone else with this word–hypocrite.  True, it is very obvious in Scripture that the Pharisees and the Scribes were very bad men, but am I that much different.  In degree, yes.  They were fierce and terrible opponents to Christ, and they ultimately had Jesus crucified out of pure jealousy against Him.

But in nature, I am a sinner just as much as they were.  And am I not guilty in many instances of some level of being a hypocrite.  I tell people I will pray for them, and do I follow-up on my promise to do so?  Not always.  Do I dress in my nicest clothes and put a smile on my face when I go to church, sending the message that I am well-to-do and that my life before God is all in order, when in fact I may be falling apart inside, and having doubts about God’s goodness?

We are encouraged in Scripture to make the most of every opportunity (referring to share Christ), but often I have no desire to talk to the person next to me on the airplane.  Do I turn away and pretend not to notice the poor man coming my way who is asking people for a quarter?  Can I truly call myself a “follower of Jesus”, when I act in so many ways that would be contrary to how Jesus would act?

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

These are tough questions that do not have quick easy answers.  Each situation is unique.  But sadly, I think I must say that our modern and comfortable Christianity is something we wear on Sundays, and don’t do much with during the middle of the week to demonstrate we are Christ’s disciples who are carrying out His mandate to “seek and to save the lost”, and “to love our neighbor as ourselves.”

Dear Readers, I know that I, and perhaps you too, still have a lot to learn in the School of Discipleship.  Jesus has set a good example, and He is our Headmaster.  Let the school of humility, selflessness, love for others, and self-sacrifice begin.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦