Knowing Jesus is not knowing about Jesus
“There was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews.”
If you have been reading or watching the religious news lately you probably know that the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life recently released the results of a test they did--and Christians did not do well on the test. The survey asked 3,400 Americans questions about their religious knowledge, and on average their answers were correct only 50 percent of the time. So that is the first bad news. Most Americans flunked the test. Only 47 percent of Americans know the Dalai Lama is Buddhist. Less than 40 percent identify Vishnu and Shiva with Hinduism. Only about 27 percent know that most Indonesians are Muslim, even though Indonesia has the world's largest Muslim population.
Other polls rank the United States as one of the most religious nations in the world. On a different Pew Forum poll, 60 percent of American adults said religion is "very important" in their lives. However, after the test the Pew Forum said its "U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey shows that large numbers of Americans are uninformed about the tenets, practices, history and leading figures of major faith traditions - including their own."
But it gets worse. The second bit of bad news from the test is that Atheists did better than anyone else. Atheists and agnostics correctly answered about 21 of the 32 questions, followed by Jews and Mormons, who each had about 20 correct answers. Protestants averaged 16 correct answers; Catholics about 15.
Roman Catholics make up the largest single religious denomination in the United States, but the survey found that 45 percent of Roman Catholics answered incorrectly when asked about one of their faith's core beliefs, that the bread and wine of the Mass do not merely symbolize Christ but actually become his body and blood. That is the Roman Catholic doctrine of Transubstantiation, but almost half of American Catholics do not know it. Protestants did not do any better. 53 percent of American Protestants could not correctly identify Martin Luther as the historical figure whose writing and teaching inspired the Protestant Reformation. And 43 percent of American Jews were unable to identify Maimonides as one of the most influential rabbis in Jewish history.
So what does this say? Apparently most people do not know much about religion. Should that bother us? Well, yes it bothers me. We ought to know as much as we can about the Bible and about Christianity. Knowledge is always good. Contrary to the old sayings ignorance is not bliss, and what you don't know can hurt you.
But having said all that, but I should be careful to add that religious knowledge is not the way of salvation. To put that another way, knowing about God is not the same as knowing God. Knowing about religion is not the same as believing in religion. This is true of all religions. For example, I know that Muslims believe that the Koran was written by the prophet Mohammed that they pray 5 times a day and observe the fast of Ramadan. And Yes I did know that Indonesia is the largest Muslim country, but knowing that does not make me a Muslim. I believe in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. That makes me a Christian.
Knowing and believing are fundamentally different from each other. It is not that one is superior to the other. We need both, and failure to understand this is what has led to the war between faith and science. Some scientists try to bring scientific methods into religion and that does not work. Some believers try to take religion into science class and that does not work either--because religion and science have different ways of discovering truth.
But let us get back to the Pew Forum Test. The Christians did not do as well as the atheists on the questions about Christianity. They say that leads to a new joke, if you want to learn about Christianity, do not ask a Christian, ask an atheist. Should we be alarmed? Maybe we should all come to Bible Study on Wednesday night where we have been doing some Bible trivia games. Should we be alarmed? Not necessarily.
Let me make what for some folks will be an astounding statement. Knowledge of the Bible does not make me a Christian. You can memorize every verse in the Bible, every verse in the KJV of the Bible, and that would be very commendable, but that does not make you a Christian.
You may know that it is our custom to ask a potential member several questions when they meet with the Session. But I usually explain to the person involved that we are not giving them a theological examination. The questions are just a way of affirming their faith in Jesus. A Christian, by definition, is not a person with some sort of an academic degree in Bible or church history or theology. A Christian is a person who believes in Jesus Christ. More than that. A Christian is a person who has encountered Jesus and that encounter has changed their very soul. So a Christian has a certain knowledge, a spiritual knowledge that is not available to others.
Let me illustrate it this way. A doctor, a medical doctor, may got to school and learn all about Kidney stones. She may attend a lecture on kidney stones, she may read articles about kidney stones, and we might say she knows all about kidney stones. She is a kidney stone authority, but she does not know. She does not know about kidney stones in the way a person knows who has a kidney stone. The doctor may have also sorts of factual knowledge about kidney stones, but unless she has had a kidney stone herself, she does not really know about kidney stones.
In the same manner, you may know about Jesus, but you do not know Jesus until your soul encounters his spirit. The story of Nicodemus in John 3 illustrates what I am talking about. We are told in v1 that he was a ruler of the Jews. That is, he was a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin, which was their supreme governing body, and he was learned in the law. In Judaea at that time no difference existed between secular and religious law. The law was the Torah, the first 5 books of our OT. Nicodemus was a Pharisee and a scholar, a man of authority in Jerusalem. So he is certainly a person of knowledge. Had he taken the Pew Forum test, he would have passed with flying colors.
But we are told in v2 that he came to see Jesus. He came at night--for obvious reasons. Jesus had powerful enemies. Nicodemus was a prudent man. He did not wish to anger his fellow members of the Sanhedrin. He did not wish to be publicly identified with Jesus. But in spite of that Jesus welcomed him and encouraged him Maybe there is a lesson here. However timidly we come to Christ, Jesus always welcomes us with open arms.
Nicodemus said, “Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him.” Now Nicodemus knows all about religion. He knows all about the Bible. He can quote verses with Jesus, but none of that matters, he is not slipping into the presence of Jesus by night to talk about politics and sports. This is very personal. Nicodemus is concerned for his soul. He calls Jesus “rabbi,” which means teacher. He recognizes Jesus as a teacher “come from God.” Nicodemus recognized the divine authority of Jesus. So he knows quite a lot about Jesus. He probably knows that Jesus came from Galilee, maybe even that Mary and Joseph are his father and mother. Many people in Nazareth knew that much. But Nicodemus has gone beyond that. He knows that Jesus is from God. Jesus is from the Father of lights and fountain of truth.
It is interesting that Nicodemus said, “we know,” not “I know.” Who are the “We” he mentions. Does Nicodemus mean that other members of the Sanhedrin know about Jesus but are afraid to admit it. Unfortunately, this is not clear, but Nicodemus goes on to tell us how he has come to the conclusion that Jesus is from God. “No man can do those miracles that thou doest, except God be with him.” So Nicodemus knows a lot about Jesus. He admires Jesus miracles, he acknowledges that Jesus was a godly man, and that is all well and good, but that is not what Nicodemus needs. So that is why Jesus said in v3: “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
Probably like many Jews, Nicodemus expected the kingdom of the Messiah to come soon. He expected it to appear in external pomp and power. He may also believe that this Jesus, who works these miracles, is either the Messiah or his prophet, and he hopes to obtain some share in this kingdom. But Christ tells him that he can have no part in the kingdom, unless there be a change of spirit, a change of mind and attitude, equivalent to a new birth.
And this is what Nicodemus needs. What Nicodemus needs is not to know some things about Jesus. He needs a new life. Birth is the beginning of life; to be “born again” is to begin all over again. We cannot patch up this building; we must tear it down to the foundations and start over. We must have a new nature, new principles, new affections, new aims. This new nature receives its beginning from heaven, and thus it tends toward heavenly things. To be born again is to be born to a divine and heavenly life, a life of communion with God.
Now Nicodemus wants to argue a little with Jesus. In v4, he says, “How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter the second time into his mother's womb, and be born?” He takes what Jesus said literally and physically, and gives us this absurd picture of an adult trying to crawl back into his mother's womb. Obviously this is not what Jesus meant. I have wondered if Nicodemus was being deliberately dense. Jesus must have wondered also, because he says down in v10, “Art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not these things?” In any case, Jesus is speaking of spiritual things and not physical things.
Many among the Jews did not believe that human beings have a soul at all. They believed that if they kept the law God would be with them in this life and when they died, that was it, that was all. But we are told in v1 that Nicodemus was a Pharisee and the Pharisees did believe in the soul.
And say this for Nicodemus, he was willing to be taught. He argues with Jesus but he does not turn away from Jesus. He is asking questions because he needs answers for his soul. And Jesus does not give up on him in spite of his absurd question about climbing back into his mother's womb.
Jesus emphasizes in vs5-8 that to be born again is to be born of the spirit. The change is not something wrought by us, using our own wisdom and power. This spiritual change is accomplished by the power and influence of the Holy Spirit.
And notice that this change is not optional behavior. We cannot enter the kingdom of God, we cannot see God unless we are twice born. V5: “Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” The water Jesus refers to is the water of the womb, our physical birth. Our second birth is of the spirit and that opens to us the Kingdom.
This is an important concept, so important that Jesus repeats it a third time in v7, saying, “Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again.”
Christ has said it, and said it again and said it yet again. How many times does he need to say it? He is the great Lawgiver; he is the great Mediator of the new covenant, he who is the great Physician of souls. He knows our condition, knows what is necessary for our cure. Christ has said it, you must be born again. And this gift of the new birth is available for the asking.
Let me close then with this illustration. There is an old story from the Civil War about a man who was riding down a road in West Virginia. Suddenly a soldier, clad in a dirty and tattered Confederate uniform, sprang out of a thicket, seized the horses’ bridle, and demanded, "Give me bread! Give me bread! I don’t want to hurt you, but give me bread – I’m starving." The man replied that he did not have any food, but he said, “There is a Union army camp about a mile up the road and you can go there and they will feed you.” the Confederate replied, “Are you insane. They will shoot me.”
The man on horseback exclaimed: “Don’t you know the war is over? Robert E. Lee surrendered and the first thing General Grant did was to order that all Confederates should be fed. So go on over to the Union camp and you can have all the food you want and then you can go on home.” The man took a newspaper from his pocket, and showed the starving soldier the account of Lee’s surrender and President Lincoln's proclamation of amnesty. With a shout of joy, the soldier dropped the bridle of the horse and ran for Union camp.
Now think about that little story, the starving soldier did not know the one thing he most needed to know. He did not know the war was over. He did not know that the bread for which he hungered had been available to him for some time and could have been had for the asking.
Nicodemus was spiritually like that soldier. Jesus is bread of life, of spiritual life. Our souls thirst for that bread, but the bread is freely available and can be had for the asking. We do not have to know a lot about it. We do not have to take a test or fight a war. All that we have to do is believe.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
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