“Seeing is not believing – it is only seeing.”
― George MacDonald, The Princess and the Goblin
Our modern society loves material. Not necessarily materialism–like watches and necklaces and boats–but physical matter to touch. We are a people that like to have our feet firmly planted on the ground.
In John 3, Jesus has a very revealing conversation with the Pharisee Nicodemus about salvation and the nature of human belief. Jesus chooses to use the metaphor of rebirth to illustrate what must take place for a person to be saved:
“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3)
“How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” (John 3:4)
Nicodemus was a very learned man, so it is highly doubtful that he was asking how to physically crawl back into his mother’s womb. Instead, the text implies that Nicodemus was asking a much more penetrating question: “how can an old man like me, who is set in his beliefs, ever come to understand the Messiah differently.” It’s as if Nicodemus was stating that it is more likely for him to be physically reborn than spiritually reborn.
Jesus’ response to Nicodemus is enlightening: “Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit” (John 3:6).
In other words, Jesus tells Nicodemus that the only way for his to have salvation is for him to believe in the work of the Holy Spirit. Of course, this posses a challenge for Nicodemus (as it does for us all) because the Spirit is not physical like the flesh. There is an aspect of faith that must accompany belief (in fact, the Greek work for belief in this case denotes physical action–not just a state of mind).
Jesus continues to Nicodemus by saying:
“You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man.Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him” (John 3:10-15).
Jesus presses the spiritual leader hard by pointing out his inability to see the truth that is standing in front of him. Nicodemus asks the penetrating questions, but his presuppositions (or dogmas) keep him from seeing the truth. Jesus compares himself to the snake that Moses held up on the pole in the desert in order to heal the Israelites–a story which Nicodemus would have been very familiar with. This comparison further illustrates that Nicodemus understands the physical aspects of faith but fails to make the symbolic connections that they are tied to. In other words, Nicodemus understands the healing of the Israelites by Moses (earthly things) but is unable to understand the symbolic connections to Jesus (heavenly things).
The scriptures are unclear whether Nicodemus very believed that Jesus was the Messiah. He defended Jesus in front of the Pharisees, and he helped place the dead body of Jesus in the tomb, but his beliefs are never mentioned. Regardless of this point, Jesus’ words obviously made and impact in the life of Nicodemus.
We would be good to follow the wisdom of Jesus in this story. Not that we must understand earthly things before we understand heavenly things; instead, we must believe in the heavenly things before the earthly things become clear.
Here is a short dramatization of G.K. Chesterton’s writing on dogma and faith that I believe illustrates what Jesus was trying to teach Nicodemus: Revelation often aways comes before reality.