Jesus Interview with Nicodemus, James Tissot (1836-1902)
(…continued) The positive influence of the missionaries is seen in a story that takes place many years after Abner Hale and the first generation of Christian missionaries had died. It is the story of a Hawaiian husband and wife who lived in an old shack back in the hills behind Honolulu. This couple provided refuge for a young Chinese man who had leprosy, and his wife and their children. Leprosy was a terrible disease that could be contagious, so lepers were quarantined to the island of Molokai. There they were left to live like animals, without law, without even lumber to build a hut, and without adequate provisions; until they died and rotted away where they dropped. People did need to be quarantined, but Molokai was a horrible place, and this young Chinese couple were trying to escape the authorities who had learned of the young man’s condition and were going to send him there.
This poor Hawaiian couple found them, took them in, hid them, and fed them from their own meager resources. They were ready to do this however long the man lived, but the authorities soon found them. The wife then went to Molokai to care for her husband, and then that same Hawaiian couple kept the young couple’s four sons and raised them as their own for the three years until the husband died and the wife returned for the children. They then again let her move in with them. She had no other home.
“Why did you do all this?” the widowed mother asked. They risked getting leprosy, they risked trouble with the authorities, they overcame the prejudice that many Hawaiians had against Chinese, and they provided a home for six strangers even though they were already poor. Why would they do all this, she asked. They replied, “Years ago when the missionaries told us about Jesus, they told us that Jesus was always kind to lepers. We believe in Jesus, so we believe we should be kind to lepers.” It was as simple as that. The blending of the old ways and the new was not always easy for the Hawaiians, but there was in Christianity some simple truths that even the poorest and least educated could understand and apply.
But Jesus doesn’t make it very easy here for Nicodemus, not at first, anyway. Nicodemus comes simply to get to know Jesus better, and Jesus right away engages him in a difficult theological discussion. “I tell you the truth,” Jesus says to him, “no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.” Born again? We’ve heard that phrase so many times that we might even think we know what it means. I used to think I had that all figured out. I learned in seminary what it meant for Lutherans. It means Baptism, and for the most part, I still go with that meaning. But for other serious, Bible-believing Christians it can mean something very different. For some, baptism has nothing to do with it. Rather, you become born again when you make your decision for Jesus. For others, you are born again when you repent and put all sin behind you. Actually, even with my Lutheran understanding, there is still a big part of me that is with Nicodemus when he said, “How can that be?”
Jesus begins to explain, and Nicodemus still doesn’t get it, saying again, “How can this be?” As I said, I used to think I knew for sure the precise meaning of all these verses, just as Nicodemus’s friends were so sure they knew what the scriptures meant. But then they were unable to fit Jesus into their carefully worked out system. I, like Nicodemus, want to try and keep an open mind. After years of reading how other Christians have understood these verses I am not so sure. And much of the Bible is like that. This difficulty can and does result in many different interpretations on many different issues. As I have grown older, I’ve tried to remain open-minded to the wisdom and insight that other Christians from other traditions bring to the table. And the more widely I read, the more richly I am blessed by this great variety of so many different people. But this has been an adjustment for this old conservative.
So is everything up for grabs? Can’t we know anything for certain? No, that is not what I am saying. Here, too, this discussion between Jesus and Nicodemus in helpful. After challenging the learned Nicodemus with some very deep theology, Jesus at the end gets around to the simplest, most basic, and most wonderful summary of the Christian faith you will find anywhere in the Bible, John 3:16-17: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to SAVE the world through him”
It can’t get any simpler. God loves us. He does not want to lose us. He does not want us to perish. Believe in Jesus and you will have eternal life. Simple. It doesn’t say ‘just believe in any old thing, and you’ll be all right.’ It says believe in Jesus. But neither does it say, believe in Jesus, AND believe in infant baptism, AND believe in the real presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper, AND believe in a seven 24 hour day creation in 4004 B.C., AND believe in the infallibility of the pope, AND believe in the doctrine of predestination, AND believe that it is evil to play cards, dance, or have a beer, AND believe in all the other interpretations that have been believed by various denominations over the years. Jesus does not here add any of that. From the Lord’s own lips it says simply, “Whoever believes in Jesus shall not perish but have eternal life.” Period. All those other things can be discussed, and we must make our decisions and live by what we believe. But we can disagree and still be a part of the same family living under God’s big tent. But at the center for all of us is this simple belief in Jesus as our Lord and Savior.
The Bible doesn’t say that Nicodemus ever did understand all that talk about being born again, I am sure it was never easy for him to fit all Jesus’ new teachings into his old-time Jewish religion. But the Bible doesn’t record any more of his thoughts on the matter. We do, however, see Nicodemus two more times in the Gospel of John, and both times he is taking a stand for Jesus. In chapter nine he speaks up in defense of Jesus at a meeting of the ruling council, and in chapter 20 he is there with another Jewish leader, Joseph of Arimathea, seeing to the burial of Jesus after his crucifixion.
Like Nicodemus, we don’t have to understand or agree on everything we say about Jesus, but we can determine to take our stand with Jesus and by believing in him, we shall not perish, but have eternal life.