Continued from Part 3.
2. The Badgering of Nicodemus
Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicode’mus, a ruler of the Jews. 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.” Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicode’mus 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?” Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, `You must be born anew.’ The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes; so it is with every one who is born of the Spirit.” Nicode’mus said to him, “How can this be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand this? Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen; but you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? (John 3:1-12)
Why it’s mean
Nicodemus: I think you’re great.
Jesus: Trees have fingernails.
Jesus: I said trees have fingernails.
Nicodemus: I don’t get it.
What it means
Maybe to you and me, “you must be born anew” isn’t quite as bizarre as “trees have fingernails,” but to Nicodemus it was. He’d never heard anything like it, since no one had ever heard anything like it. And yet Jesus says it to him, and expects him to understand, and yells at him when he doesn’t.
What’s going on? Well, there are two details worth mentioning: Nicodemus goes to visit Jesus at night. You can jump right into an allegorical interpretation and talk about what night might symbolize, and discuss Nicodemus’s “dark night of the soul” or something, or you can calm the hell down and realize he came at night because he was embarrassed and didn’t want to be seen talking to Jesus. THEN you can do your symbolism stuff if you want to for some reason. Second, realize that Nicodemus, as Jesus points out, is a “teacher,” so more is expected of him, both morally and intellectually.
So Nicodemus coming at night is already a disappointment. But it wasn’t an utter failure – he still came, after all. That being the case, Jesus doesn’t call him all the hilarious names he calls the other Jewish leaders in other parts of the Gospel. His goal isn’t to make an example of him because he’s a lost cause. Jesus wants to teach him directly. So he meets Nicodemus where he’s at, and shows him where he’s at is a stupid place indeed.
Yes, Jesus is a “teacher” as well, and he has “come from God” because “God is with him.” But you can say that about a lot of people, and Jesus isn’t a lot of people (cue Nestorian-Hunters theme song). Jesus didn’t just come from God, he IS God. God isn’t just with him, he IS God-with-us.
So how do you take someone who sees Jesus as just a regular Joe-shua and show them he’s way, way more than they could ever guess? Apparently by confusing the hell out of them. There’s something beautifully Socratic about this: Nicodemus’s first step in understanding and accepting a deeper truth was to be shown how little he knows, and this happened when Jesus challenged him to face his own ignorance. Another name for all this is “Negative Theology,” which is a much better thing than it sounds like.
It’s better to be really confused than confident and wrong.
1. Peter is Satan for Trying to Help
From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me; for you are not on the side of God, but of men.” (Matthew 16:21-23)
Why it’s mean
Imagine your friend told you he’s going to die. Your natural instinct, if you’re the decent chap you pretend to be on your Tinder profile, would be to express some sort of sorrow. And the violenter the death, the sorrier the sorrow you should express.
Jesus tells his friends that he’s going to die a violent, suffering-filled death soon, and Peter, faithfully fulfilling his role as Captain Obvious, hopes that doesn’t happen. Then Jesus calls him Satan.
Satan. For trying to help.
What it means
As it turns out, the cross is the heart of the Gospel. It’s where Jesus put his money where his mouth was, and enacted the kind of love he taught in so many sermons, and prefigured in so many acts of healing. It can be stupidly satirized as “what a mean God, letting his Son die like that,” or “what a weird suicidal Messiah” or some other such stupid thing. But for sin to be forgiven, something serious had to happen. Had God simply said: “you know what, don’t worry about it; all is forgotten,” then the implication would have been that sin wasn’t a big deal. But sin is a big deal. It destroys us and everyone around us. But if God had required us to pay for our own sins, we would all be in a very, very warm place. So he took the punishment upon himself.
What’s Peter’s problem with this? Well, the Cross is admittedly hard to understand. But literally from day one, Jesus was called “the Lamb of God.” This doesn’t mean Jesus is the cute cuddly fluffy thing of God. It means he’s the Sacrifice. So maybe Peter was able to guess where everything was heading.
In fact, maybe Peter did guess what was going on, and that’s exactly why he said what he said. From one perspective, what he said was just right: I wouldn’t want anyone taking my punishment upon himself, Jesus or otherwise. To not object at all, to say “you know what, yeah, go ahead and die for me Jesus; you bleed to death and I’ll reap the benefits,” is pretty psychotic by any standard.
But maybe that’s not why Peter objected. Maybe he objected because he also knew the same fate would come to him, and that Jesus’ Sacrifice wasn’t a self-contained act that omitted anyone else’s participation, but a paradigm for everyone following him: “He who does not take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” In fact, it’s hard to imagine Peter seeing Christ’s Sacrifice in any other way.
So Peter objecting wasn’t so much concern for Christ’s welfare as for his own. Still, nothing wrong with that, except by this point he also knew that the salvation of the human race depended on this sacrifice happening. And yeah, putting your own comfort ahead of the salvation of mankind is pretty Satanic. Good thing he repented. Eventually.
Don’t avoid the cross.
I’m sure there are plenty of other mean-Jesus moments I’m forgetting or neglecting, as well as some other stuff from other people in the Bible (my favorite is God in the Book of Job). You can be mean and mention them in the comments to make me feel stupid.
The point of all this, if you were wondering, is this: Christ would rather be helpful than nice, and sometimes love means being truthful in a tough way. And that means sometimes we might have to do the same with those we love.
On the other hand, if you’re really happy about the idea of giving “tough love,” you might just be a jerk, so unless you love as Christ does (hint: you don’t), be careful, and as much as possible, be gentle. Yes, Christ was mean when he had to be, but James – someone else who didn’t pull any punches – says “the anger of man does not work the righteousness of God.” (James 1:20). So calm down.