What comes down must go up

When Jesus taught or performed miracles, people often responded to him as one who exuded the authority of God. Nicodemus the Pharisee, an honest seeker of the truth, probably reacted the same way. He wanted to enter God’s kingdom, and when he saw Jesus in action, he thought: Surely, this man has the answers to my questions.

But as we’ve seen in recent posts, he struggled to understand what Jesus was trying to tell him.

down upHe knew God must have been “with” Jesus, empowering the signs he performed (John 3:2). But he did not yet understand Jesus as being from God the way John described at the beginning of his gospel: the eternal Word, the divine light come from God into a darkened world (1:1-9).

Having tried twice — unsuccessfully — to explain to Nicodemus what he meant by being “born from above,” Jesus says:

Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you (people) do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can 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. (3:1-13, NRSV)

Jesus’ words remind me of the inherent risk of all theology: how is it that earthbound beings like us can possibly understand or speak of heavenly things? We need to cut Nick a little slack, for we ourselves stumble enough over earthly matters, let alone the loftier ones. We must believe intelligently, but without sliding into the illusion that faith is itself an intellectual accomplishment.

Only one person is intrinsically qualified to give first-hand testimony of heavenly things — the one who descended from heaven, Jesus, the Son of Man, or if you like, the truly “Human One,” as the Common English Bible translates it. It’s a bit of a conundrum for us earthlings. The one who embodied true humanity, who showed what human life was meant to be, was from heaven. Born below, but from above, by the Spirit.

Hmm. No wonder Nick didn’t get it.

John doesn’t tell us if Jesus’ disciples were listening in on the conversation. But if they were, something about their master’s words may have rung a bell. Earlier, in response to Nathanael’s astonishment, Jesus had said,

Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these. Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man. (John 1:50-51, NRSV)

The language of heaven and the Son of Man, of ascending and descending, up and down. The imagery, as we saw in a previous post, is drawn from the ancient story of Jacob’s vision at Bethel. Jesus is declaring himself as the meeting place of heaven and earth.

And he’s telling Nicodemus that he too must be born from above.

All of this, I think, has important implications for the way we use the phrase, “Born-again Christian.” More on that in the next post.