Structure, spirit, and truth

“The structure is the message,” J.I. Packer said in an address to the Evangelical Ministry Assembly in 1991. Nowhere is this more true of Scripture than in the fourth Gospel. The Beloved Disciple weaves his story together through simple yet profound structural relationships.

When Nicodemus, who comes to Jesus at night, fails to understand Jesus’ statement, “You must be born again,” Jesus responds, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?” (John 3:10b). This reaction is almost incredulous on the part of Jesus. How could the man who is supposed to be Israel’s teacher—an expert in the law and the prophets—be so utterly in the dark, that is, blind, to what those sacred writings say? If Nicodemus does not understand so simple a concept as being born again, how can he possibly teach the people the deeper mysteries of God’s redemptive plan?

Contrast Jesus’ reaction to Nicodemus with the Pharisees’ reaction to the testimony of the man born blind: “You were born in utter sin, and would you teach us?” (John 9:34). The Word of God is a sharp, two-edged sword, and nowhere is it sharper than when this episode is considered within the wider context that stretches back to the encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus. But there is yet more to that wider context. The main thrust of the former blind man’s “teaching” to the Pharisees is, “We know that God does not listen to sinners, but if anyone is a worshiper of God and does his will, God listens to him.” Here, the story connects back to another conversation, that between Jesus and the woman at the well (John 4:1-42). In that conversation, Jesus says, “But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:23-24).

True and false worship emerge here in as sharp a contrast as true and false teaching. The one naturally flows from the other. False and insincere worship—having the form of godliness but denying its power—leads to false and misleading teaching. The Pharisees demand of the man born blind, “Give glory to God,” is utterly ludicrous and hypocritical. They believe the only way to glorify (worship) God in this case is to deny that Jesus has the power of God to heal. The idea that God could become incarnate in Jesus and do a miraculous healing as a sign of the in-breaking of his kingdom did not fit in with the structures they had erected around their “worship” and, thus, was utterly foreign to their interpretation of the Scriptures.

But the man born blind does give glory to God by affirming Jesus’ power to heal. The Pharisees hear this, however, not as a testimony to the transforming power of God but as evidence of the man’s in-born sinfulness. They expel him from the synagogue, that is, from the place of worship. Jesus then seeks him out and asks him, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?”

The man responds, “And who is he sir, that I may believe in him?”

Jesus tells him, “You have seen him, and it is he who is speaking to you.”

Then, John ties together all the loose ends. “He said, ‘Lord I believe,’ and he worshiped him.”

As Nicodemus was unqualified to be Israel’s teacher because he lacked the basic knowledge of one who was truly “born again,” so the man born blind was eminently qualified to teach the Pharisees (Nicodemus himself being “a man of the Pharisees”) because he had been touched by the transforming power of God. As Jesus told the woman at the well that worship was not a matter of physical location but of spiritual orientation, so the man born blind, having been expelled from the place of worship, is able to worship without inhibition when he confesses his faith in Jesus.

Thus, Jesus’ declaration makes complete and perfect sense: “For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and those who see may become blind.”

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