Nick’s Know How

As Jesus made His way through the land of Israel, a great many people were affected. Some for better, some for worse. Overcome with curiosity, Nicodemus met with Jesus late one night to address some nagging questions he’d been storing up. One wonders if he expected that so early into the conversation Jesus would rebuke him for not knowing how the Holy Spirit did His work: Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? (John 3:10)

Do tell. What was Nicodemus supposed to know?

In the beginning…

Actually, let’s start with the Law (the Mosaic Covenant Ex 19).

God selected the Children of Israel to make a covenant with them. They willingly agreed to abide by His commands so that they be His chosen people (Ex 19:5-7). After ‘signing off on the preliminary agreements’, God and Moses went to the top of the mountain to hammer out the details of The Contract, starting with the Ten Commandments (ch 20), and all the ceremonial and moral laws they had to abide by (the rest of Ex, Lev, recapped in Deut).

The Law came with certain promise:
* Obey it completely and you’ll receive a mountain of blessings.
* Disobey it, and you’ll receive a mountain of cursings (Lev 26, Deut 28).

Moses didn’t have to be a genius to recognize early on that this was going to be a huge problem: there was absolutely no way to keep the Law!

The Situation

Despite God’s unquestionably sovereign hand in delivering them from the land of Egypt (Ex 10:1-3), no sooner did they finish singing His praises (Ex 15), that they turned to grumbling and complaining like nobody’s business (Ex 15:24; Ex 16:2, 17:2) – and that was before God offered them the contract in ch19!

Here’s what Moses said about his fellow Israelites:

6 Know, therefore, that the Lord your God is *not* giving you this good land to possess because of your righteousness, for you are a stubborn people. 7 Remember and do not forget how you provoked the Lord your God to wrath in the wilderness. From the day you came out of the land of Egypt until you came to this place, you have been rebellious against the Lord. (Deut 9:6-7, ESV)

13 Furthermore, the Lord said to me, “I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stubborn people. (Deut 9:13, ESV)

26 Take this Book of the Law and put it by the side of the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God, that it may be there for a witness *against* you. 27 For I know how rebellious and stubborn you are. Behold, even today while I am yet alive with you, you have been rebellious against the Lord. How much more after my death! 28 Assemble to me all the elders of your tribes and your officers, that I may speak these words in their ears and call heaven and earth to witness against them. 29 For I know that after my death you will surely act corruptly and turn aside from the way that I have commanded you. And in the days to come evil will befall you, because you will do what is evil in the sight of the Lord, provoking Him to anger through the work of your hands. (Deut 31:26-29, ESV)


But these are just a handful of the accusations that Moses makes against the Children of Israel. As you can imagine, it goes on and on and on, even well beyond Moses’ time:

44 And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I deal with you for my name’s sake, not according to your evil ways, nor according to your corrupt deeds, O house of Israel, declares the Lord God. (Ezek 20:44, ESV)

The Problem & The Solution

So what was their problem? Were they unique in their stiff-neckedness? Would God have done any better if He’d chosen a different people? That’s the million dollar question. And the answer is equally precious: they, like all the rest of us, have a bad heart. A heart of stone. A sin nature, if you will. The solution: a new/circumcised heart:

16 Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn. (Deut 10:16, ESV)

And as you might guess, there are a bazillion verses about that as well:

5 Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me. 6 Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being, and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart. 7 Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. 8 Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have broken rejoice. 9 Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. 10 Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. (Ps 51:5-10, ESV)

This Psalm is just a sample of the myriad of verses that spell out both the problem (sin and one’s heart) and the solution (a cure that can only come from God). Re-read all of Ps 51 and you’ll quickly see that David’s problem is an internal heart issue, not a matter of failure to make sacrifices or do any other such external behavior. Note also that God alone is capable of doing any and all restorative works to fix the heart of David and therefore find him acceptable in His sight.

This same theme is repeated again and again all throught the OT in many forms: positively (Ps 27, Ps 119, Jer 13), negatively (Job 14:4; Job 15:14; Ecc 7:20), deterministically (Deut 29:4), in absolute terms (Jer 17:9), even hypothetically (Job 25:4; Prov 20:9):

Who can say, “I have made my heart pure; I am clean from my sin”? Prov 20:9

The Source of the Solution

This, of course, segues into the need for a new heart made of flesh: The New Covenant. And how is this miracle going to happen? Only one way: by God, the Holy Spirit:

25 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. 26 And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. 28 You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God. 29 And I will deliver you from all your uncleannesses. And I will summon the grain and make it abundant and lay no famine upon you. 30 I will make the fruit of the tree and the increase of the field abundant, that you may never again suffer the disgrace of famine among the nations. 31 Then you will remember your evil ways, and your deeds that were not good, and you will loathe yourselves for your iniquities and your abominations. 32 It is not for your sake that I will act, declares the Lord God; let that be known to you. Be ashamed and confounded for your ways, O house of Israel.

33 Thus says the Lord God: On the day that I cleanse you from all your iniquities, I will cause the cities to be inhabited, and the waste places shall be rebuilt. 34 And the land that was desolate shall be tilled, instead of being the desolation that it was in the sight of all who passed by. 35 And they will say, ‘This land that was desolate has become like the garden of Eden, and the waste and desolate and ruined cities are now fortified and inhabited.’ 36 Then the nations that are left all around you shall know that I am the Lord; I have rebuilt the ruined places and replanted that which was desolate. I am the Lord; I have spoken, and I will do it. (Ezek 36:25-36, ESV)

Man’s problem is his heart. Without a ‘heart transplant’ (circumcised heart, new heart, heart of flesh – call it what you want), he will always fall short of the glory of God. Unless he gets a new heart (is born again), he has one destination: destruction. And history (and God’s Word) proves time and time again that there is nothing he can do about it. The change can only come from God, specifically, the person of the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit always has been and always will be the only one that regenerates hearts.

Nicodemus was expected to know this. Because he didn’t, he was rebuked.

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