I just wanted to give Jesus some practical advice
I was well positioned to exert influence at that time, being one of the senior judges and policy makers in our nation. I was well educated and fully qualified to interpret the subtle nuances of Moses’ majestic Law and the details of the inspiring promises of hope recorded in the fluent poetry of the Prophets.
We had to take great care to avoid political upheaval any day of the year, but especially when the tens of thousands descended on our city from all over the world for the three big festivals. Crowd excitement in the spacious concourses of the Temple here in the capital would be pounced on in a trice by the Roman garrisons stationed right there – their barracks overlooking the temple courtyards.
That entire Passover week had been interesting, to say the least. A young rabbi had appeared on the scene for the first time. He certainly knew how to gather an audience and keep their attention for hours. They were enthralled by his regular spate of evident miracles of healing that he demonstrated before our very eyes. It felt as if God was showing personal concern for individual damaged lives.
And it got our attention too, of course. Most of my colleagues are naturally deeply suspicious of any rabbi who sets out his stall for the first time during a festival if he has not been officially trained for the ministry. But this one with the 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 appealed to those of us on the holiness side of our religion – we Pharisees regularly fast and pray and donate our tithes, and continually attend synagogues to hear and discuss scriptural truths in detail.
And what convinced us most of all was the fearless authority he displayed when he cleaned up the temple precincts of money changers, and merchants selling cattle and lambs and doves to visiting worshippers – at a profit. To be perfectly frank, we Pharisees had been disgusted for years with the constant racketeering there, that made many a quick shekel for the High Priest’s family and their cronies – on the liberal wing of our religion, the Sadducees. And our Council was full of them, so what could we Pharisees ever hope to do to reform the corrupt system?
One day during the festival I saw this rabbi pick some long leather cords off the floor, plait them together and crack the air with them like a whip. His eyes flashed and his nostrils flared as he bellowed, ‘Get this black market syndicate out of my Father’s House! As the prophet said, “You have turned my house into a den of thieves.” And another prophet told you 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 finally he released the cattle, lambs and doves from their pens and cages. Phew! What an unholy commotion!
So, I called one of his small group of followers aside – a muscular youth from Galilee. ‘Tell your master I’ll meet him tonight after sunset, just the two of us, on the roof of my house. I know he’s just what our people need right now. And I can offer him some sound, practical advice as an insider.’
Well, 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 have watched you closely all week. And, I’ll tell you, we are impressed. Our nation desperately needs your unique ministry in these difficult 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. But, as a northerner without official religious training, you could get out of your depth up here and drown very quickly in the sea of national power – politics and religion and big business. Now, although I belong to the party of the Pharisees, don’t assume I’m a dinosaur. As you might well have guessed from my Greek name – Victor of the people, Nicodemus – I am also well versed in the philosophers of the Greek world too.
Hmph! Put him at ease, did I say? This man was real cool – I mean Kool with a capital K! His reply caught me totally wrong-footed. ‘With all due respects, sir,’ he replied, fixing me with 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 first of all re-born from above.’
Ha, ha, ha, ha! So, that was me put politely in my place. This was obviously not going to be a meeting of equal minds, teacher-to-teacher, as I had imagined. My degrees in biblical studies and religious history still left me as 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 figures of speech, perhaps?’
He continued confidently, apparently unfazed by my status: ‘You can hardly become a foetus again, as you so rightly said. However, unless you are born of water and of the Spirit you can’t possibly enter God’s dynamic reign.’
Another riddle, I thought. ‘Born of water and of the Spirit’ – did he maybe mean John’s baptism of repentance? I puzzled. Possibly . . . Then, Ah bingo! a light suddenly flared into flame inside my head. I knew my prophets well, and I said, ‘Ezekiel, of course!’
‘I will sprinkle clean water on you, says YHWH . . . cleanse you from all your impurities and idols . . . and give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you . . . remove your heart of stone. I will put MY SPIRIT within you and move you to observe my laws carefully.’
Got it! That is what the prophet was saying – even we of the holiness party needed a completely fresh spiritual start with a new heart attitude; we also will have to be empowered by the Spirit of God from deep within. 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 religion experts. Instead, he was helping me to see that my lifetime of religious education would never bring me under God’s rule experientially. I needed a miracle!
Just then a breeze ruffled our hair and our coats. He drew attention to it: ‘You can feel that wind as an experience, can’t you? However, it’s invisible and inscrutable. You cannot tell where the wind starts or finishes – it has a mind of its own. Every one born of the Spirit is just as inscrutable.’
So, I need a miracle to become a mystery! I thought. 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 he gave me an ancient Bible cameo – a picture from our national 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 had bitten thousands and injected them with lethal venom. Those infected and dying could only recover their health by fixing their gaze on the 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 privilege of Jewish birth, and circumcision, and religious education, and rigorous observation of the laws of holiness – will be given eternal life, that quality of Birth-from-Above life, distinctive spiritual life, God’s . . . own . . . life.’
Of course, I could not have figured out all these phrases ahead of time: Son of Man? Lifted up? God loved the world so much that he gave his . . . Son? So that anyone who believes in him will have – present possession – this eternal life.
But the bit that I did take to heart there and then was his final sentence in our conversation – it etched itself forever in my memory – about those who ‘love the light’, those with humble integrity. ‘New light has penetrated the darkness of society,’ he told me. ‘The humble are drawn to the light and begin to realise that all the good they have ever accomplished 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 told myself, ‘something’s got to give. Watch this man humbly and honestly. A teacher sent from God he surely is, but much, much more.’
I would often talk with other humble, honest colleagues, such as Joseph from Aramathea and Gamaliel. Is this the Messiah? we would ask ourselves.
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 lost on most of my associates. And I thought, ‘Your figures of speech will get you into serious trouble, young man. They’ll be the death of you, I fear.’ And they were.
In fact, that was the one sentence that they kept quoting – misquoting actually – at his farce of a trial. Once again it was Passover week. They accused him of threatening to demolish Herod’s glorious temple. As if! And ‘lifted up on a stake’ he was indeed. Died on a cross to give us life – provided we look to him hanging there.
Afterwards, Joseph and I embalmed his precious, violently bruised body and laid it to rest in Joseph’s pristine sepulchre as the sun was about to set, announcing the start of the grand Passover Sabbath.
Ah but he wasn’t there for long – just a sabbath’s rest. And he’s still alive today with his quality life with capitals Q and L. And I immediately came out of my closet and joined the revolution – the fellowship of his followers who share this life-from-above.
By the way, we pray a lot when we get together, but I try never to advise the Lord when we do. I learned that lesson from day one!
I rest my case before any devoutly religious observers who have kindly listened to my first-hand testimony.
Hugh Thompson (15.07.02)