Chapter OneThe Most Famous
In The Bible
He's waiting for the shadows. Darkness will afford the cover
he covets. So he waits for the safety of nightfall. He sits
near the second-floor window of his house, sipping olive-leaf tea,
watching the sunset, biding his time. Jerusalem enchants at this
hour. The disappearing sunlight tints the stone streets, gilds the
white houses, and highlights the blockish temple.
Nicodemus looks across the slate roofs at the massive square:
gleaming and resplendent. He walked its courtyard this morning.
He'll do so again tomorrow. He'll gather with religious
leaders and do what religious leaders do: discuss God. Discuss
reaching God, pleasing God, appeasing God.
Pharisees converse about God. And Nicodemus sits among
them. Debating. Pondering. Solving puzzles. Resolving dilemmas.Sandal-tying on the Sabbath. Feeding people who won't work.
Divorcing your wife. Dishonoring parents.
What does God say? Nicodemus needs to know. It's his job.
He's a holy man and leads holy men. His name appears on the
elite list of Torah scholars. He dedicated his life to the law and
occupies one of the seventy-one seats of the Judean supreme
court. He has credentials, clout, and questions.
Questions for this Galilean crowd-stopper. This backwater
teacher who lacks diplomas yet attracts people. Who has ample
time for the happy-hour crowd but little time for clergy and the
holy upper crust. He banishes demons, some say; forgives sin,
others claim; purifies temples, Nicodemus has no doubt. He
witnessed Jesus purge Solomon's Porch. He saw the fury.
Braided whip, flying doves. "There will be no pocket padding
in my house!" Jesus erupted. By the time the dust settled and
coins landed, hustling clerics were running a background check
on him. The man from Nazareth won no favor in the temple
So Nicodemus comes at night. His colleagues can't know of
the meeting. They wouldn't understand. But Nicodemus can't
wait until they do. As the shadows darken the city, he steps out,
slips unseen through the cobbled, winding streets. He passes servants
lighting lamps in the courtyards and takes a path that ends
at the door of a simple house. Jesus and his followers are staying
here, he's been told. Nicodemus knocks.
The noisy room silences as he enters. The men are wharf
workers and tax collectors, unaccustomed to the highbrow world
of a scholar. They shift in their seats. Jesus motions for the guest
to sit. Nicodemus does and initiates the most famous conversation
in the Bible: "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" (John 3:2 NKJV).
Nicodemus begins with what he "knows." I've done my homework,
he implies. Your work impresses me.
We listen for a kindred salutation from Jesus: "And I've heard
of you, Nicodemus." We expect, and Nicodemus expected, some
None comes. Jesus makes no mention of Nicodemus's VIP
status, good intentions, or academic credentials, not because they
don't exist, but because, in Jesus's algorithm, they don't matter.
He simply issues this proclamation: "Unless one is born again, he
cannot see the kingdom of God" (v. 3 NKJV).
Behold the Continental Divide of Scripture, the international
date line of faith. Nicodemus stands on one side, Jesus on the
other, and Christ pulls no punches about their differences.
Nicodemus inhabits a land of good efforts, sincere gestures,
and hard work. Give God your best, his philosophy says, and
God does the rest.
Jesus's response? Your best won't do. Your works don't work.
Your finest efforts don't mean squat. Unless you are born again,
you can't even see what God is up to.
Nicodemus hesitates on behalf of us all. Born again? "How
can a man be born when he is old?" (v. 4 NKJV). You must be kidding.
Put life in reverse? Rewind the tape? Start all over? We can't
be born again.
Oh, but wouldn't we like to? A do-over. A try-again. A reload.
Broken hearts and missed opportunities bob in our wake. A mulligan
would be nice. Who wouldn't cherish a second shot? But
who can pull it off? Nicodemus scratches his chin and chuckles.
"Yeah, a graybeard like me gets a maternity-ward recall."
Jesus doesn't crack a smile. "Most assuredly, I say to you,
unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the
kingdom of God" (v. 5 NKJV). About this time a gust of wind
blows a few leaves through the still-open door. Jesus picks one
off the floor and holds it up. God's power works like that wind,
Jesus explains. Newborn hearts are born of heaven. You can't
wish, earn, or create one. New birth? Inconceivable. God handles
the task, start to finish.
Nicodemus looks around the room at the followers. Their
blank expressions betray equal bewilderment.
Old Nick has no hook upon which to hang such thoughts. He
speaks self-fix. But Jesus speaks-indeed introduces-a different
language. Not works born of men and women, but a work done
Born again. Birth, by definition, is a passive act. The enwombed
child contributes nothing to the delivery. Postpartum celebrations
applaud the work of the mother. No one lionizes the infant.
("Great work there, little one.") No, give the tyke a pacifier not
a medal. Mom deserves the gold. She exerts the effort. She
pushes, agonizes, and delivers.
When my niece bore her first child, she invited her brother
and mother to stand in the delivery room. After witnessing three
hours of pushing, when the baby finally crowned, my nephew
turned to his mom and said, "I'm sorry for every time I talked
back to you."
The mother pays the price of birth. She doesn't enlist the
child's assistance or solicit his or her advice. Why would she? The
baby can't even take a breath without umbilical help, much less
navigate a path into new life. Nor, Jesus is saying, can we.
Spiritual rebirthing requires a capable parent, not an able infant.
Who is this parent? Check the strategically selected wordagain. The Greek language offers two choices for again:
1. Palin, which means a repetition of an act; to redo what
was done earlier.
2. Anothen, which also depicts a repeated action, but requires
the original source to repeat it. It means "from above,
from a higher place, things which come from heaven or
God." In other words, the one who did the work the first
time does it again. This is the word Jesus chose.
The difference between the two terms is the difference between
a painting by da Vinci and one by me. Suppose you and I are
standing in the Louvre, admiring the famous Mona Lisa. Inspired
by the work, I produce an easel and canvas and announce, "I'm
going to paint this beautiful portrait again."
And I do! Right there in the Salle des Etats, I brandish my
palette and flurry my brush and re-create the Mona Lisa. Alas,
Lucado is no Leonardo. Ms. Lisa has a Picassoesque imbalance to
her-crooked nose and one eye higher than the other. Technically,
however, I keep my pledge and paint the Mona Lisa again.
Jesus means something else. He employs the second Greek
term, calling for the action of the original source. He uses the
word anothen, which, if honored in the Paris gallery, would
require da Vinci's presence. Anothen excludes:
He who did it first must do it again. The original creator
recreates his creation. This is the act that Jesus describes.
Born: God exerts the effort.
Again: God restores the beauty.
We don't try again. We need, not the muscle of self, but a
miracle of God.
The thought coldcocks Nicodemus. "How can this be?" (v. 9).
Jesus answers by leading him to the Hope diamond of the Bible.
so loved the world
that he gave his one and only Son,
that whoever believes in him
shall not perish but have
A twenty-six-word parade of hope: beginning with God, ending
with life, and urging us to do the same. Brief enough to write
on a napkin or memorize in a moment, yet solid enough to
weather two thousand years of storms and questions. If you
know nothing of the Bible, start here. If you know everything in
the Bible, return here. We all need the reminder. The heart of the
human problem is the heart of the human. And God's treatment
is prescribed in John 3:16.
The words are to Scripture what the Mississippi River is to
America-an entryway into the heartland. Believe or dismiss them,
embrace or reject them, any serious consideration of Christ must
include them. Would a British historian dismiss the Magna Carta?
Egyptologists overlook the Rosetta stone? Could you ponder the
words of Christ and never immerse yourself into John 3:16?
The verse is an alphabet of grace, a table of contents to the
Christian hope, each word a safe-deposit box of jewels. Read it
again, slowly and aloud, and note the word that snatches your
attention. "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and
only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have
"God so loved the world ." We'd expect an anger-fueled
God. One who punishes the world, recycles the world, forsakes
the world . but loves the world?
The world? This world? Heartbreakers, hope-snatchers, and
dream-dousers prowl this orb. Dictators rage. Abusers inflict.
Reverends think they deserve the title. But God loves. And he
loves the world so much he gave his:
No. The heart-stilling, mind-bending, deal-making-or-breaking
claim of John 3:16 is this: God gave his son . his only son.
No abstract ideas but a flesh-wrapped divinity. Scripture equates
Jesus with God. God, then, gave himself. Why? So that "whoever
believes in him shall not perish."
John Newton, who set faith to music in "Amazing Grace,"
loved this barrier-breaking pronoun. He said, "If I read `God so
loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that when
John Newton believed he should have everlasting life,' I should
say, perhaps, there is some other John Newton; but `whosoever'
means this John Newton and the other John Newton, and everybody
else, whatever his name may be."
Whoever . a universal word.
And perish . a sobering word. We'd like to dilute, if not
delete, the term. Not Jesus. He pounds Do Not Enter signs on
every square inch of Satan's gate and tells those hell-bent on
entering to do so over his dead body. Even so, some souls insist.
In the end, some perish and some live. And what determines
the difference? Not works or talents, pedigrees or possessions.
Nicodemus had these in hoards. The difference is determined by
our belief. "Whoever believes in him shall not perish but have
Bible translators in the New Hebrides islands struggled to
find an appropriate verb for believe. This was a serious problem,
as the word and the concept are essential to Scripture.
One Bible translator, John G. Paton, accidentally came upon
a solution while hunting with a tribesman. The two men bagged
a large deer and carried it on a pole along a steep mountain
path to Paton's home. When they reached the veranda, both
men dropped the load and plopped into the porch chairs. As
they did so, the native exclaimed in the language of his people,
"My, it is good to stretch yourself out here and rest." Paton
immediately reached for paper and pencil and recorded the
As a result, his final translation of John 3:16 could be worded:
"For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten
Son, that whosoever stretcheth himself out on Him should not
perish, but have everlasting life."
Stretch out on Christ and rest.
Martin Luther did. When the great reformer was dying, severe
headaches left him bedfast and pain struck. He was offered a
medication to relieve the discomfort. He declined and explained,
"My best prescription for head and heart is that God so loved the
world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth
in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life."
The best prescription for head and heart. Who couldn't benefit
from a dose? As things turned out, Nicodemus took his share.
When Jesus was crucified, the theologian showed up with Joseph
of Arimathea. The two offered their respects and oversaw Jesus's
burial. No small gesture, given the anti-Christ climate of the day.
When word hit the streets that Jesus was out of the tomb and
back on his feet, don't you know Nicodemus smiled and thought
of his late-night chat?
Born again, eh? Who would've thought he'd start with himself.