Truly, Truly! – Nicodemus

Truly, Truly! – Nicodemus

Truly, Truly! – Nicodemus. 

“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again from above, he cannot see the Kingdom of God… Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the Kingdom of God… Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak what we know and testify what we have seen, and you do not receive our witness.” (excerpts from the conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus; John 3:3, 5, 11).

There is a much-used Hebrew word in the Hebrew Bible that points to its root word “truth.” The Greek in the New Testament also picked it up and used it for “truth” as well. That common Hebrew word is “amen.”

Amen. This biblical word basically means: This is truth! I agree that this is true! Yes! We heartily accept and approve of what was said! We are assured that this is certainly true! So be it! We believe this is trustworthy and we take it to heart!

Amen! Amen! is often translated as Truly, Truly, or Verily, Verily in the New Testament. This double Amen is only recorded in the gospel of John, and is said by Jesus before He offers a statement, not after.  He is the only Person to say this, because He is the only Person who has the authority to say this before He says it. This double Amen, as opposed to a single Amen, must be an important distinction for Jesus, because He felt compelled to use this preface twenty-five times in John.  When Jesus begins a statement with that double “Truly,” He is intending to be doubly intense when He says it, and so He wants the listener to be doubly attentive. He wants to emphasize the importance of His words. He is saying, In all truth I tell you. He wants the listener to focus, and He is serious about preparing the listener to be receptive. When Jesus says Truly, Truly, He is saying: Most assuredly, what I am about to tell you is absolutely true and trustworthy. So listen up, because an eternal truth is coming to you now. In all sincerity, says Jesus, this is the solemn truth. Take these words in, says Jesus, and have them go into your mind and then straight to your heart. For these words of mine are double truth, they are doubly true. Jesus might as well have been saying… And you readers out there centuries from now, get ready to apply your hot pink highlighter, get ready to do some double underlining! Truly, Truly, what you are about to hear is the honest to goodness truth. This is True! Really True!

Nicodemus. He was a prominent leader of the Jews in Jerusalem, a leading rabbi and a member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council. A devout teacher of Torah, he wanted to ask this man Jesus some questions, probably both personal and religious. Nicodemus was well aware of some of Jesus’ miracles, and was convinced that Jesus enjoyed God’s power. So he wanted to meet Jesus discreetly at night, avoiding criticism and judgment from his religious peers, and avoiding any risk to his considerable reputation in religious circles. Nicodemus wanted to “interview” Jesus face to face and see what this man had to say for himself. Of course, it turned out that Nicodemus was the one being interviewed. We don’t know when Nicodemus became a believer in Jesus, but we do know that he came to the defense of Jesus with his Pharisee peers when Jesus badly needed an advocate. (John 7:50-52). At some point, Nicodemus became a secret follower of Christ after many more conversations together. Finally, after the death of Jesus on the Cross, Nicodemus made his faith public, and together with Joseph of Arimathea took the body of Jesus down from the Cross, covered His body with 75 pounds of myrrh, aloes, and other spices, and wrapped His body in linen sheets. (John 19:39-40). Nicodemus thought that astounding amount of spices was appropriate, something meant for royalty, the King of the Jews. Early Christian tradition maintains that Nicodemus was soon baptized by Peter, removed from the Sanhedrin, and forced to leave Jerusalem. His tomb is at the Chapel of St. Nicodemus, in a tiny backroom chapel connected to his Master at the Tomb of Jesus.

Focused and Intense. This secret nighttime conversation suggests a very forthright time together for them. They must have been leaning toward each other throughout their discussion. Nicodemus was the one who called the meeting, and was used to giving orders and getting his way. Jesus evidently was his usual gracious and accommodating self and agreed to meet in the dead of the night with no one around. But Jesus took over the meeting right away, answering a question that Nicodemus didn’t even have time to ask! Jesus knew what Nicodemus was thinking and got down to business. During this conversation, Jesus used His special double Amen three different times, underscoring the importance of what He was trying to convey to Nicodemus. Truly, truly, Nicodemus, you have got some solid truth coming your way, says Jesus. Listen to me carefully and try to understand this, Nicodemus, this is literally God’s honest truth! Sure enough, this rather short conversation near the beginning of Jesus’ ministry is sometimes called the most significant conversation in John. That would be debatable, of course, because John is full of significant conversations between Jesus and others. One of them is coming right up with the woman at the well!

Born Again. The concept of being “born again” wasn’t anything new to Nicodemus, since it is an old Jewish concept. According to Judaism at that time, a practicing Jew was said to be “born again” after each of these four occasions: after a bar mitzvah at 13 years of age; after becoming married; after one becomes a rabbi; and after one is named the head of a rabbinic school. After each of those occasions, one is pronounced “born again”. Nicodemus met all four of those requirements to be born again, but of course those requirements were a natural program designed by man. There was nothing supernatural about being born again like that, it was just a natural part of their faith. When Nicodemus heard from Jesus that he needed to be born from above, he didn’t know what to think. Born from above? Yes, said Jesus, only this time it is a spiritual rebirth from above, not an ordinary rebirth according to our religion. Being truly born anew is spiritual and supernatural. Now Nicodemus might be thinking, wait a minute, is God bearing children in His kingdom? Is that what you mean? Obviously, I can’t enter my mother’s womb a second time, so I can’t be born again that away! So Jesus prefaces His next remark with, Truly, truly, this is really important, Nicodemus, so try to understand what I’m saying.  Nicodemus was having a hard time tracking with Jesus, because he was stuck with the literal, earth-bound way of thinking, and not at that deeper level that Jesus was trying to engage.

Believing “into” Jesus Christ. “For God so loved the world, that He gave us His only begotten Son, that whoever believes into Him, should not perish but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16).

“En” and “Eis”. In the New Testament there are two little Greek words used constantly, en and eis. When “in” is intended, then the Greek term “en” is generally used. And when “into” is meant, the term “eis” is used. Eis literally means into or to, and implies motion into, union, and penetration.

With that in mind, this is how John 3:15-19, the most popular passage in all of Christendom, could be, and often is, translated: ”… whoever believes in (en) Him, should have eternal life. For God so loved the world (Kosmos) that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes into (eis) Him, should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into (eis) the world to judge the world, but that the world through Him might be saved. The one who believes into (eis) Him is not judged; but the one who does not believe has been judged already, because that one has not believed into (eis) the name of the only begotten Son of God. And this now is the judgment, that the light has come into (eis) the world, and mankind loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.”

Other examples of this fascinating way of translating eis is John 1:12, “To all who received Him, to those who believed into (eis) His name, He gave the right to become children of God.”

And here is 1 John 4:9, in which both en and eis are used, “In (en) this the love of God was displayed toward us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into (eis)the world, that we might live through Him.”

And how about this famous passage at the end of Matthew’s gospel before His ascension, “Go then and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them into (eis) the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”  (Matt. 28:19).

Believing into Him:  This is an apt phrase to use in the context because it implies action, not mere belief; it suggests entering into a union with Christ; it is not a passive phrase in which one believes in Christ’s existence, but then again won’t bother to embrace Him in everyday life, working His words practically into his heart and mind; this phrase implies a movement from a generalized belief that Jesus exists, into a personal commitment to Him; to believe into Jesus is to lean into Him, to intimately join together with Him, to trust Jesus enough to unite yourself into Him through active faith, to place yourself into the spiritual reality of Christ; to believe into Him is to desire have a permanent relationship with Him, finding your human identity in Him; believing into Jesus is to work His words into your heart and mind; it is to prove your allegiance to Him by the biblical standard of both hearing and doing, not just hearing. Believing into Christ means you have asked His Holy Spirit to enter your life, and for you to enter into His.

A Womanly Reference for Salvation. Talking about being born again brings to mind the birthing process of a mother. Somehow we are saved only after going through a birthing process with God. Interesting. It’s almost as if God Himself has a spiritual womb. One of the Hebrew words translated as mercy is rachem, which has a root word that means womb. So rachem is intended to mean mercy-womb. God formed each of us with rachem when we were mere unborns, and we were conceived and nourished within His rachem, the mother’s mercy-womb. The baby within the woman is the ideal time to extend God’s compassion to that human being inside of her. The developing baby utterly depends on a mercy-womb. And God wants Himself to be experienced as our womb-sanctuary, our safe place in Him, our refuge and shelter. God Himself yearns to be experienced as a womb of mercy for each of us, a refuge and shelter and safe haven. The purpose of our lives is to live in God’s rachem, God’s womb of love.

The Lord’s love for us is compared to both a father and a mother in Deuteronomy 32: 18, “You neglected the Rock who had fathered you, you forgot the God who had given you birth.” God’s parental love and their rejection of that love highlights just how thoughtless the sins of Israel truly were. This verse continues a thread through Scripture, that the Father has a mother’s love, that the Father has a maternal side to His love. Since the Hebrew word for mercy and compassion comes from the root word for “womb,” it is easy to believe that there is something motherly about the Father’s care and compassion for each of us. There is something motherly about salvation. God’s compassion is the same as that of a mother who loves the child she has carried and borne. Isaiah says this in 66:13: “As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you.” And also in Isaiah 49:15: “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you! See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands.” Even Jesus compares Himself to a mother hen in Matthew 23:37: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.” God is referred to as Father, but He often displays the heart of a mother.

Water and the Spirit. So once again Jesus prefaces His remark with a double Amen, truly truly, letting Nicodemus know that what Jesus is about to say is of utter importance. Put your thinking cap on, Nicodemus, it is vital that you understand what I tell you. To be born from above, your rebirth needs to be through the “water and the Spirit.” Once again, Nicodemus is befuddled. We can hardly blame him, though, because there are so many nuances to what Jesus said. There is a lot to consider with such simple words. Jesus is trying to explain the origin of salvation, so there is some mystery here. For 2,000 years now the scholars are still discussing the water and the Spirit and trying to fully understand it. Here are some different aspects to the “water and the Spirit” that can be biblically discussed:

(1.)  The Water of Baptism. The early church and ever since have believed that Jesus is declaring that “from above” means a birth brought about by vital spiritual sacraments, the waters of baptism and the anointing of the Holy Spirit. The new birth is understood to be found in our joining to Christ in baptism. “For in the sacrament of baptism, we die, going down into the water to be mystically united to Christ in His death, and then we live again, rising up out of the water in His resurrected humanity. In short, we are at this time born again.” (Orthodox Bible notes). As Paul said in Romans 6:4, in baptism “we begin living a new life.”

(2.)  The Waters of New Creation. Jesus’ mention of water and the Spirit bring to mind the creation story in Genesis 1. It is interesting to think about how Jesus might be suggesting that for salvation to occur, one must submit to the original creation in a way that brings new creation life. Being born from above could easily bring us to consider “the Spirit hovering over the water, the invisible moving the visible, a baptism into a new life” (MSG). To participate in our new creation, our being born again, is to be like Adam born from the breath of God, allowing the Holy Spirit to touch us with the finger of God’s right hand, touch us into new life so we can become new persons, born from above.

(3.)  The Waters of Regeneration. To regenerate is to bring about new life, so a synonym for regeneration has always been “new birth.” “According to His mercy, He saved us through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit.” (Titus 3:5). It seems Titus here is intent on directly paraphrasing Jesus’ words to Nicodemus. One also thinks of the classic regeneration passage in Ezekiel 36:25-27: “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean. Your filth will be washed away. And I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new Spirit in you. I will take out your stony, stubborn heart and give you a tender, responsive heart. And I will put my Spirit in you so that you will follow my decrees...” To most, the cleansing of regeneration occurs at the waters of baptism.

(4.)  The Waters of Christ. Time and again Jesus would refer to the passages in the Hebrew Bible that focused on living water to be a sign of the Messiah. He maintained that He was the source of living water that will flow through eternity. He is our spiritual Rock providing fresh water for our souls. He is the fountain of living water. Let all who are thirsty, come to me, Jesus says, and you will never be thirsty again. We of course need to associate these words with the Holy Spirit, the very Spirit of Christ. In the famous promise of Jesus in John 7:37-39, He said, “He who believes in me, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.” But we can’t overlook John’s vital words following Jesus’ words… “But Jesus spoke this concerning the Spirit, whom those who believed in Him would receive.” There is a direct integration of water and the Spirit here. To drink of Jesus through the Holy Spirit brings new life. Water is clearly a symbol for the Holy Spriit. We can certainly point to the beautiful prophecy of Isaiah 44:3-4 in terms of its description of new life: “For I shall pour out water on the thirsty soil and streams on the dry ground. I shall pour out my Spirit on your descendants, my blessing on your offspring, and they will spring up among the grass, like willows on the banks of a stream.”  Born again in the baptismal waters of Christ with the renewal of the Holy Spirit.

(5.)  The Life-Giving Water of Scripture. Mixed into this idea of new life is the Word of God, in which Scripture gives new life, and we are cleansed from above in the Word through the work of the Spirit. “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her, that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word.” (Ephes. 5:25-26). “Of His own will He brought us forth by the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of His creatures.” (James 1:18). “Since you have purified your souls in obeying the truth through the Spirit in sincere in love of the brethren, love one another fervently with a pure heart, having been born again through the word of God which lives and abides forever.” (1 Peter 1:22-23). These passages present the possibility of the Word of God as being a cleansing tool of the Holy Spirit that can bring new life, a rebirth.

The Third Double Amen. Here in John 3:11 we have Jesus using His formula, Truly, truly… “We speak what we know and testify what we have seen, and you still do not receive our witness.” This is really important, Nicodemus, so please understand this… I include the Father in everything I do. That is why I say “We” here. I want to include my Father in our conversation because I don’t speak without the Father’s permission, without Him telling me what to say. I don’t speak of my own initiative, but I only do what my Father does, and only speak what my Father speaks. When you speak with me, you are speaking with my Father in Heaven. Now that you have seen me, you have seen the Father. We are in this together, all the way, my Father and me. (John 5:19; 7:16-17; 14:7, 24; 17:21).

The Son of Man. In 3:13-14, Jesus makes the surprising claim that He is the Son of Man. One wonders how Nicodemus responded to this.

“I kept watching the night visions, when I saw, coming with the clouds of heaven, One like a Son of Man. He approached the Ancient One, the Ancient of Days, and was led into His presence. To Him was given rulership, glory and a kingdom, so that all peoples, nations and languages should serve Him. His authority is an eternal authority that will not pass away; and His kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.” (Daniel 7:13-14). 

Jesus gave Himself the title Son of Man throughout His ministry as recorded in the gospels, more than seventy times. Son of Man was His favorite way of describing Himself, even though He never once heard that term applied to Him by His disciples. Practically all biblical scholars believe that Jesus, at least in part, took that title from a well-known vision of Daniel’s and turned it into a title for Himself. There is much controversy, though, about what exactly this title Son of Man means.

There were times in the gospels in which Jesus called Himself Son of Man in reference to His humanity. Jesus used the title in order to remind everyone of His humble condition as a flesh and blood, generic human being, in complete solidarity with all of humanity. Matthew 8:20 probably falls in line with that thought, “The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.” 

But then again, when Jesus called Himself the Son of Man, He was most likely declaring Himself to be the Messiah, the fulfillment of the Son of Man vision in Daniel 7. Many scholars claim that during Jesus’ time the Son of Man was the “highest term used in Jewish thought for the Messiah, the most exalted view of the coming Redeemer.” (Brad Young, Jesus, the Jewish Theologian). So when Jesus used that title, it was commonly understood by those who heard it that He certainly intended to suggest Messiah.

Isn’t it fascinating that Daniel’s vision reveals the “One like the Son of Man” to be in human form, but was also divine, given the sovereignty over all the earth. This majestic person in the vision is “like” the Son of Man, but then again it is obvious here that He is much more than that. When Jesus claims to be the Son of Man, He is referring to both His humanity and His divinity. Jesus claimed to be both aspects of the prophesied Son of Man in Daniel, completely human and completely divine. He claimed to be the glorious fulfillment of Daniel 7, coming in the clouds of heaven to approach God in His eternal presence. Yes, He was born of a human being, mother Mary. And yes, He was conceived by the Holy Spirit, God Himself. He was a Person, yet He received from God the kingdom of the earth. The Messiah, both human and divine. Jesus the Messiah. He wasn’t merely “like the Son of man,” He was as He repeatedly said during His ministry, “the” Son of Man.

Lifting Up the Snake. How did Moses do it? How did he continue putting up with all the grumbling and complaining of the wandering Israelites? It was a sign of his singular leadership, though, that he went so far as to intercede, to pray to the Lord earnestly for these disgruntled ones. Numbers 21 shows us another time of bitter complaint. Well, evidently God wanted to show them who’s boss, and He sent poisonous snakes, “fiery serpents,” to reveal God’s displeasure with their attitude. Many Israelites died from snake bites, and finally their hearts were struck, and the people repented. So during Moses’ intercession, asking God to forgive them, the Lord told Moses to fashion a bronze serpent and put it on a pole, high up in the air where all could see it. Whoever is snake-bit, all they have to do is look. That’s it, just look at the bronze serpent, and they will be healed.

What a dramatic image. So dramatic that Jesus Himself took this episode and, in his night-time talk with Nicodemus, made the bronze serpent a type, a picture of Jesus and His ministry. He told Nicodemus, “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in Him may have eternal life.” The mercy of God for Israelite whiners, a picture of God’s mercy for us through Jesus. Sure enough, this wasn’t the last time Jesus hinted at the bronze serpent. “Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out. But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.” He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die.’  (John 12:31-33). The bronze serpent on Moses’ pole is a picture of Jesus on the cross. Jesus, represented by a snake of all things! What a picture of Him, carrying the curse of sin for us on the Cross, as well as the healing of sin. Jesus, lifted up, brings healing and life to those bit by the serpent. And all we have to do is look and believe.

The Good News Summarized. “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.” (John 3:16-17). To “believe in Him” means to entrust one’s life to the God of Scripture, that what He said and did all through the Bible is true, that there is a commitment to put God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in charge of one’s life and destiny while leaning onto Him daily. “Everlasting life,” the promised eternal life, is all about quality just as much as quantity. Rabbinic tradition focused on the quality of life enjoyed for eternity, not just the idea of living forever. Jesus made it clear in His ministry that eternal life with Him begins the moment one begins to follow Him and accept Him into one’s life. God’s love for the world, everyone, not just the Chosen People, not just the church-goers, everyone in the world, is so deep and indiscriminate that He was willing to sacrifice His Son to death, even for those who might ultimately reject Him. The Greek word for “world” here is “cosmos.” When God says He loves the world, He means the whole wide world.

God’s Light in the World. The final thought given to Nicodemus in their secret meeting referred to God’s light in the world (3:18-21). Jesus Himself is the light of the world, for He embodies the Truth, He is full of grace and truth, He is the Author of Truth. For those who are following Jesus and obeying His words, the light of His truth is a welcome part of life. Believers don’t mind exposure to the light of Christ, for that  light is loving and forgiving and helpful. For those who ignore or reject the light of Christ’s truth, they tend to hide in the darkness. The worst mistake, the most tragic mistake, anyone can do is to dwell in utter darkness without the light of Jesus, to choose to live outside the truth of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.