It’s hard to teach people whose minds are made up.

by K.W. Leslie, 22 April

When you already know it all, you’re always gonna struggle with new knowledge.

John 3.9-13

Nicodemus had come by night to suss out Jesus, and Jesus began their discussion by talking about getting born again. Re-generated. (Resurrected, I believe, ’cause flesh and blood can’t inherit God’s kingdom. 1Co 15.50 But we can debate that.)

It’s a deep idea, and Nicodemus balked at it.

John 3.9-13 KWL
9 In reply Nicodemus told him, “How are these people able to be generated?”
10 In reply Jesus told him, “You’re Israel’s teacher, and you don’t already know this?”
11 Amen amen: I promise you we know what we’re talking about.
We saw what we’re testifying about—and none of you accept our witness.
12 If people won’t believe it when I tell you of earthly things,
how will you believe it when I tell people of heavenly things?
13 Nobody’s gone up to heaven but the one who came down from heaven:
The Son of Man.” [Who’s in heaven.]

There’s a regular theme we see in John: Jesus tries to teach people something, and the people can’t handle it. They can’t handle his teaching. Not because it’s hard to understand; Jesus uses a lot of metaphors, but the ancient Hebrews were thoroughly familiar with metaphor. (You’ve read Psalms, right? Metaphor-a-rama.) The issue wasn’t that Jesus was too deep for people, or went over their heads. It’s that he was pretty darn easy to understand—but they couldn’t handle what he taught them. Too challenging. Too contradictory to the stuff they grew up with, and took for granted. Too convicting.

And there’s another theme, which we see right here in this passage: Jesus found this rampant closed-mindedness really frustrating.

Yeah, he has infinite patience. It’s why he didn’t give up on ’em altogether, didn’t quit preaching, didn’t decide not to die for their sins, and didn’t instruct his students before he ascended, “Don’t bother with Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria. They wouldn’t listen to me, so they can all go to hell.” Ac 1.8 But he did vent from time to time: “I know what I’m talking about. So why won’t you listen to me?”

Here, Jesus uses the plural—“we know what we’re talking about.” No, this isn’t a reference to the trinity. He’s speaking of all the other prophets who legitimately hear from God. Like John the baptist—whom the Pharisees didn’t believe either. Mk 11.30-33 The Pharisees were too busy listening to their great rabbis to listen to God’s prophets. And they were gonna utterly miss God’s coming kingdom through their willful nearsightedness.

Yep, exactly like American Christians. Too often we’re too busy listening to the more famous preachers, authors, bloggers, even politicians. Not so much the bona fide prophets, who are trying to get us to repent and follow Jesus. Who are, like their Master, too challenging, too contrary, too convicting.

Some things never do change.

Clever but thick.

Christians tend to teach the reason Nicodemus struggled with Jesus’s teaching was because he didn’t have the Holy Spirit. It’s why we Christians totally get him (or think we do), whereas Nicodemus was stymied by the idea, “You want us to climb back into our mothers?”

Here’s the reality: When you show John 3 to a pagan, do they respond like Nicodemus does, “What does any of this mystical stuff even mean?” Only if they’re trying to not get it. But plenty of ’em have their eyes wide open, and understand just what Jesus is getting at: If you wanna see God’s kingdom, something in you has to change. You gotta have some sort of “born again” experience. That part’s pretty clear.

The reason we Christians insist this stuff is impossible for pagans to understand, is pride. We like to imagine we’re smarter. Or special. Or have supernatural insight. Or have secret knowledge. Whatever form it takes, we wanna believe we have a leg up on the pagans: We can understand Jesus just fine, but they can’t. They just can’t.

What’s our evidence for this belief? Well, Nicodemus. He’s Israel’s teacher, as Jesus put it, but he couldn’t understand Jesus. He was smart enough to recognize Jesus as a valid teacher from God, Jn 3.2 while the other Pharisees figured Jesus was too unfamiliar and non-traditional, and must therefore be working for the devil. Mk 3.22 He was some sort of prodigy. But he couldn’t make heads or tails of Jesus… and we can. So don’t we feel good about ourselves.

Again: Can pagans read Jesus’s teaching and understand it? Sure. It’s why we give out free copies of John as an evangelism tool: The gospel isn’t hard to understand! But the reason people like Nicodemus won’t understand it, is because they don’t wanna understand it. Like the LORD told Isaiah:

Isaiah 6.9-10 KWL
9 He said, “Go. Tell these people, ‘Hear, hearers’—yet they’ll understand nothing.
‘See, seers,’—yet they’ll know nothing.
10 Grow fat, hearts of this people. Be heavy, ears. Be blind, eyes.
Lest there’s seeing in their eyes, hearing in their ears, understanding in their hearts,
and they repent and get cured.”

It’s not that God didn’t want people to repent and get cured. He did send his prophets, after all. The problem is the people didn’t wanna repent and get cured. They didn’t want knowledge and understanding. Their “hearts were fat,” a metaphor for their minds being closed, same as heavy ears and blind eyes. They chose to be dense and unthinking.

Jesus quoted this bit of Isaiah centuries later, when he explained to his students why he told parables. Mk 4.10-13 He wasn’t trying to hide the kingdom from anyone—his parables kept beginning with, “Here’s what the kingdom’s like,” and anyone with hearing ears could listen. But the people didn’t really wanna listen. They already imagined they knew what the kingdom’s like. Really, if Jesus flat-out point-blank hard-core taught the kingdom’s details, it’d land him in trouble faster than it was already landing him in trouble.

Nicodemus was a smart guy. But when he met with Jesus, he only brought one insight with him: Jesus came from God. And that’s all. He didn’t come expecting Jesus to teach him, which is why he struggled with Jesus’s teaching. He likely still had the attitude of “I’m the teacher, and Jesus is this new guy.” In reality Nicodemus, after a lifetime of flawed Pharisee traditions, had to start over from scratch under the Master. Not what he was expecting. He was used to old ideas, the stuff the Pharisee elders taught. He was used to being right. Something none of us are.

Hence Jesus’s quick diagnosis of Nicodemus: “I know what I’m talking about, yet none of you accept it. And I have so much more to teach you.”

Beyond Christianity 101.

Nothing Jesus teaches is speculation on his part. He’s not spitballing. He knows this stuff. He’s the authority. Trust him.

But if we can’t trust him, we can’t move forward. And Jesus wants to move forward. He steps beyond the things of earth to discuss the things of heaven. He wants us to follow him there. No, he’s not stepping beyond our intellect; he knows how to keep it simple enough to understand. The only reason we don’t understand him? Tiny faith.

Nicodemus had tiny faith. He trusted the Pharisees more, as they trained him to. If Jesus taught stuff the Pharisees didn’t, he knew better than to assume Jesus was wrong—but it was still a huge learning curve.

In our day, we do likewise. Lots of people won’t believe stuff unless they’ve already heard it before, or something like it. If you’ve read TXAB long enough, you already know I regularly question Christian popular culture. I get so much pushback because of it. Doesn’t matter if I back up my point of view with bible and reason: “I’ve never heard such a thing before” gives people all the excuse they want to ignore everything I tell ’em.

And I’m not even telling ’em to follow me. Investigate this stuff for yourself. Prove me wrong. (I might be wrong! I’m hardly infallible.) But no, that takes too long, and they don’t care enough about truth to pursue it. Easier to just dismiss me, and return to their comfortable worldview.

Well, we and the Pharisees have to embrace Jesus as our worldview. As our authority. As our Master. Otherwise we’re gonna have the darnedest time understanding him. And following him. That’s the stumbling block set before everyone: How far will we trust Jesus? All the way? Or till he tells us something our fat hearts can’t handle?