A new rabbi visits the Temple
I was well positioned to exert influence, being one of the senior judges and policy makers in our nation. I was also well educated and fully qualified to interpret the subtle nuances of Moses’ glorious Law and the details of the inspiring promises of hope found in the Prophets.
We had to avoid political upheavals any day of the year, but especially when tens of thousands descended on our city from all over the world for the three great festivals. Crowd excitement in the spacious concourses of the Temple here in the capital city would be pounced on in a trice by the Roman troops stationed up there in their barracks overlooking the temple courtyards.
That whole Passover week had been interesting, to say the least. A young rabbi had appeared on the scene for the first time. He certainly could draw an audience at the drop of a hat, and keep their attention for hours at a time. They were enthralled, for he performed a regular spate of very visual miracles of healing before their eyes. It felt as though God was showing personal concern for individual damaged lives.
It got our attention too, of course. Most of my colleagues are naturally deeply suspicious of any rabbi who sets out his stall initially during a festival week, if he is not officially trained for the ministry. But this one with a northern accent could not be faulted in his knowledge of the Law and the Prophets. The crowds loved his style – he was essentially a story-teller, not an orator or even a lecturer. Also, his moral values were what appealed to those of us on the holiness side of religion – us Pharisees I mean, who continually fast and pray and tithe, and who regularly attend synagogues to hear and discuss scriptural truths in detail.
What convinced us most of all was the fearless authority he displayed in cleaning up the Temple precincts of money changers and merchants selling cattle, lambs and doves to the visiting worshippers – at a profit. To be perfectly frank, we Pharisees had been disgusted for years at the constant racketeering that had been carried out there. It made many a quick shekel for the High Priest’s family and their cronies – those on the liberal wing of religion, the Sadducees. And our council was full of them, so what could we ever hope to do to reform the corrupt system?
One day during that festival I saw this rabbi pick up some long leather cords off the floor and plait them together. He cracked the air with them like a whip. His eyes flashed and his nostrils flared as he bellowed, ‘Get this black marketeering out of my Father’s house. As the prophet said: “You’ve made my house a den of thieves.” And another said it should be used as “a house of prayer for all nations.”‘ Then he threw over one money changer’s table after another – coins rolling everywhere between the feet of astonished onlookers. And he released the cattle, lambs and doves from their pens and cages. What an unholy commotion!
It was then that the thought occurred to me: this man has guts – he overflows with passion and courage. But he needs advice on how to tread the political tightrope. If he stirs up the fervour of the crowds, the main institutions of society – the priestly tribe, big business interest, and the army – will clamp down on him before his reforming movement can even get started. Oh how our nation needs a spiritual shake up like this. But he will have to pace himself.
 A one-on-one engagement
So, I called one of his followers aside – a muscular fisherman from Galilee. ‘Tell your master I’ll see him tonight after sunset – just the two of us – on the roof of my house. I know he’s just what our nation needs right now. And I can offer him some sound, practical advice – as an insider.’
We sat opposite each other in the evening breeze. To put him at ease I began. ‘My colleagues on the holiness wing of the religious powers-that-be here in Jerusalem have watched you closely all week. And we are impressed. Our nation desperately needs your unique ministry these days. You certainly are a teacher sent from God – a radical like John who’s been baptising Jews in the Jordan River getting them ready for a spiritual revolution. Neither of you pulls any punches. You both tell it like it is. Yahweh’s people need a new Moses to lead us back to God,
But, as a northerner without official religious training, you could drown very quickly in the sea of politics and religion and big business. Now, although I belong to the Pharisee party, I am open-minded. I read the Greek philosophers as well as the Hebrew scholars, as you might well guess from the fact that I was given a Greek name by my parents: ‘Victor of the people’, Nicodemus.
 How to understand the mystery
Humph! Put him at ease, did I say? This man was real cool – I mean Kool with a Kapital K! His reply caught me totally wrong-footed. ‘With all due respects, sir,’ he replied, fixing on me his clear, gentle, soul-searching gaze, ‘but no one – and I mean no one – can begin to understand the Reign of God unless he is re-born from above.’
So, that was me politely put in my place. This was obviously not going to be a mere meeting of equal minds, teacher-to-teacher. My degree in biblical studies and religious history still left me an outsider in the new revolution! This carpenter from Nazareth was about to tell me that I really hadn’t a clue about the basics of how to relate to God!
‘Pardon me?’ I queried softly, trying to regain my balance. ‘You can’t of course mean back inside my ancient mother to emerge as a baby all over again? Is there something I’ve missed in your figure of speech perhaps?’
He continued confidently, apparently unfazed by my status: ‘You can hardly become a feotus again, as you rightly said. However, unless you are born of water and of the Spirit you can’t enter God’s dynamic reign.’
Another riddle, I thought. ‘Born of water and Spirit.’ Did he mean John’s baptism of repentance? I puzzled. Possibly . . . Then, ‘Ah! Bingo! A light suddenly flared into flame inside my head. I know my prophets well. Ezekiel! Of course!
‘I will sprinkle clean water on you,’ says Yahweh, ‘cleanse you from all your impurities and idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you. I will remove your heart of stone. I will put my Spirit in you and move you to observe my laws carefully.’
Got it! So that’s what the prophet meant? Even we of the holiness party need a completely fresh spiritual start with a new attitude of heart – we too will have to be empowered by the Spirit of God himself from deep inside of us.
And here was I trying to help him to manage his new career as a rural rabbi – a novice in the city and temple, HQ of our national religious experts. Instead, he was helping me to see that a lifetime of religious education will not bring anyone under God’s rule experientially. It takes a miracle.
 The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind!
Just then a breeze ruffled our hair and our clothes. He drew my attention to it: ‘You can feel that wind as an experience, can’t you? However, it’s invisible and inscrutable. You can’t tell where the wind starts or finishes – it has a mind of its own. Everyone born of the Spirit is just as inscrutable.’
A miracle and a mystery! I thought. Or as your modern American friends would put it: You can’t nail Jell-O to the wall!
He’d really got me going by now. ‘Tell me how,’ I pleaded. This time it was not a here-and-now parable about the breeze, but an ancient Bible cameo that he offered – a picture from history.
‘Moses, you will recall, lifted up a bronze serpent on a pole in the wilderness – a replica of the plague of poisonous snakes that has bitten thousands and injected them with lethal venom. Those infected and dying could only recover their health by fixing their gaze on that snake on the stake.’ Similarly, the Son of Man will be staked out and hoisted up. Only those who focus their faith on him – not on their Jewish birth and circumcision and religious education, and rigorous observance of the laws of holiness – will be given eternal life – that quality birth-from-above life, distinctive spiritual life, God’s own life.’
Of course, I could not have figured out all these items of phrases ahead of time: Son of Man? Lifted up? God loved the world so much he gave his Son? So that any who believes in him will have – present possession – this eternal life.
But the bit I did take to heart there and then was his final sentences that etched themselves forever on my heart about those who ‘love the light’ – those with humble integrity. ‘New light has come into human society,’ he told me. ‘The humble are drawn to this light and begin to realise that any good they’ve ever done was essentially because of God’s enabling. The arrogant, on the other hand, will shrink back into the shadows of prejudice lest their hypocrisy be exposed.’
He’d certainly started me thinking in new ways. ‘Nicodemus,’ I said to myself, ‘something’s got to give. Watch this man humbly and honestly. A teacher sent from God, yes, but much, much more.’
I’d often talk with other open-hearted colleagues, like Joseph of Aramathea and Gamaliel. Was this the Messiah? we’d ask ourselves.
 Impaled on a pole . . . that was not the end.
Over those next three years, one phrase of his from that initial week would drift back into my mind: ‘Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.’ I actually noticed him tap his chest with his thumb as he said ‘this temple’ – a subtlety most of my associates would have missed. And I thought, ‘Your figures of speech will get you into serious trouble, young men. They’ll be the death of you, I fear.’
And they were! In fact, that was the one sentence they quoted – misquoted actually – at his farce of a trial. Again it was Passover week. They accused him of threatening to demolish Herod’s Temple. And, as a result, ‘lifted up on a stake’ he was indeed. He died to give us life – if we look to him hanging there. Afterwards Joseph and I embalmed his precious, badly bruised, earthly remains and laid the lovingly embalmed mummy to rest in Joseph’s pristine sepulchre as the sun was about to set for the grand Passover Sabbath to commence.
Ah, but he wasn’t there for long – just a Sabbath’s rest. And he’s still alive today. His is quality life with a capital Q and L. And I immediately came out of my closet after that and joined the revolution – the fellowship of his followers who share his life-from-above.