Photo by LUTGRADIO on Morgue File.
You’ve been kidnapped and given a choice: would you rather be stranded on an island, dropped into an unknown forest, or locked in a strange building?
The thought of being kidnapped is not a pleasant one. I suppose I could go with the first option of an island. I could put my knowledge of the Tom Hanks’ movie Castaway into use; of course, I would also need several Fed Ex packages, especially a volleyball by Wilson and a dead body to provide me some shoes and a flashlight. But, wait a minute, the prompt only says stranded on an island, it does not specify it is a deserted island; maybe it could be the Hawaiian islands I am stranded on, that would not be too bad would it! If it were the second choice, a forest, I would have to rely on my watchings of Bear Grylls; of course, I would definitely need one of those multi-functional knives. The last choice would probably be the easiest; as long as it was not booby-trapped or something.
When I think of captivity, I cannot help but think of my life before I met Christ. The bible teaches us that before a person comes to know and accept Christ as Savior and Lord, the person is lost in their sin. Apart from Christ, we are dead in our trespasses and sins (Eph. 2.1). I have heard Christians talk about loved ones who are sin-sick; by that they meant, they were not believers, they were not Christians; but, you see, the bible pictures a far more ominous scene than that: it says, before I was a believer, I was not sin-sick, I was sin-dead. I was not struggling for breath. I was not hooked to life-support, fighting for my life. I was not in critical condition, hoping against hope for a miraculous recovery. I was not even terminal! Rather, I was dead . . . D E A D; I was past recovery, past hope, past any human ability or science to help me.
I know, not exactly an uplifting thought on a Sunday morning! This is not good news. If it is true, and I believe it is, this is bad, terrible, depressing news. I could cite many other biblical passages to prove the point, while I do not want to send someone over the brink, I will give a quotation from one other Pauline passage. The apostle, in the letter to the Colossians, said this: And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds (Col. 1.21).
Now, before we believe Paul distorted the more accepting, affirming, loving, graceful message of Jesus Christ, let’s see what he had to say. I’m sure most, if not practically everyone is familiar with the verse John 3.16 (For God so loved the world, he sent his One and Unique Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.) However, some people may not be acquainted with the context of that verse, its setting or the full dialogue that took place.
In John 3, Jesus is conversing with a Jewish religious leader named Nicodemus. Nicodemus was a Pharisee (Jhn 3.1). As a Pharisee, Nicodemus would have been well-versed and familiar with the Old Testament scriptures, what he would call the Hebrew bible (also known as the Tanakh), especially the first five books, the Torah. He would have been a highly educated man, a highly intelligent man, a man with zeal and fervor for the One, True God YHWH; the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He would have been a religiously devout man. A man who took his confessions and professions of faith seriously.
Then, he hears of this Man from Nazareth. Perhaps he had even been present at some of Jesus’ public sermons or witnessed one of his many miracles. Whatever reason there may have been, Nicodemus decided to go and talk to this itinerant preacher. He goes at night and engages Jesus by complimented him, saying, 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. (Jhn 3.2) Now, not all of his fellow Pharisees had such a high opinion of Jesus!
It is interesting to observe Jesus’ response to Nicodemus. He did not participate in pleasantries; instead, he answers a question that Nicodemus had not even asked! Nicodemus had not verbally asked the question, but Jesus (as God incarnate) knew his heart, he knew the question Nicodemus was asking in his heart. Indeed, this is the very reason Nicodemus had come to Jesus that night. Nicodemus had a nagging question in his heart; a question, that even with all his study and knowledge of the scriptures, he could get no resolution concerning . . . he could find no peace about it.
Jesus answered Nicodemus, saying, Truly, truly I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God. (Jhn 3.3) You see, the question that had been nagging Nicodemus, perhaps for years, was the question of eternal life. In short, he had pondered how he could know he had eternal life: that is, how he could know he would go to heaven, to God when he died. Had he done enough? Did he know enough? Would his good deeds outweigh his bad deeds in the end, to allow him to squeak into heaven? Had he given enough to the temple or to charity? Had he been nice enough to his parents or to the poor?
Jesus’ answer would have thrown Nicodemus for a proverbial loop; indeed, it did, as we can tell from his follow-up questions: How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born? (Jhn 3.4) Nicodemus was more perplexed now than ever before! He had come to Jesus, thinking he held the answer, he held the key to the riddle that had haunted him for so long; but now, now Jesus throws him a curve ball. Jesus gives Nicodemus an answer he never saw coming. Jesus did not follow Nicodemus’ preconceived notions or protocols.
In essence, what Jesus said to Nicodemus (and to us as well) is in stark terms: there is nothing you can do Nicodemus to get yourself into heaven! Nicodemus’ attention would have been where many of ours is: he would have been thinking in physical terms . . . things he could do, works he could perform: charity, reverence, good deeds, tithes, sacrifices, temple services, holy day observances, scripture study . . . etc. Jesus gave him a completely new paradigm: a spiritual one!
At first, Nicodemus does not get it. He is still thinking too linear, he is thinking of the physical world only. Thus, the idea of being born again (or being born from above) makes no sense to him. He is thinking a real, physical rebirth. This is utter nonsense to him. Thus, he asks, how he could, a grown man, re-enter his mother’s womb and be born all over again! Indeed, from his viewpoint this is absurd and ridiculous. At this point, he is probably regretting this whole little trip to talk to Jesus!
In the next few verses, Jesus emphasizes that eternal life is not a physical problem, but a spiritual one. This rebirth is not about re-entering your mother’s womb and taking a trip down the birth canal again; rather, it is a spiritual rebirth to a new reality, a new life. Jesus puts it in no uncertain terms: this spiritual rebirth only comes by accepting and believing in Jesus as Savior and Lord. (Jhn. 3.14)
You may be wondering, okay, but what does all this have to do with the captivity stuff? Well, we looked at a couple of Pauline quotations concerning that, now let’s see what Jesus says. Let us hear what Jesus says to Nicodemus right after that well-known and oft-quoted verse of John 3.16:
For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him[i.e. Christ] is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment: the light [i.e. Christ] has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil. (Jhn 3.17-19)
You see, Jesus is in agreement with Paul. Those who have not believed in Christ are condemned already; or, as Paul put it, are alienated (i.e. from God) and are hostile in mind. They are, as Nicodemus was, dead in trespasses and sins, without the life and light of Christ in them.
Again, not exactly great news? But the Gospel is called the gospel for a reason. The word gospel means good news. You may be asking, what is so good about all this? Again, if true, it is terrible, depressing news.
The good news is that God did in fact send his Son into the world as an answer to our alienation and hostility. He sent him as the Light and Life of the world as a solution to our dead-ness in trespasses and sins. Jesus, born of a virgin, lived a perfect sinless life and then gave that exemplary life vicariously for sinners, as a substitutionary atonement for our sins, he was then buried and three days later, God raised him from the dead. He was seen by many for several days and then ascended back to heaven, back to his Father and now sits in the place of authority and power, as a high priest for all who believe in him, making intercession for us.
Paul speaks to the same good news, but you see, you must believe the bad news before the good news is truly good! In the Ephesian text we quoted earlier, about being dead in trespasses and sins, Paul goes on and says, But, God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together in Christ—by grace you have been saved . . . For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. (Eph. 2.4-5, 8-9)
In the Colossian passage we cited, where Paul tells us we were alienated and hostile in mind toward God before trusting Christ, he goes on to say, he (Christ) has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless above reproach before him. (Col. 1.22)
There is the good news, in tandem with John 3.16. The good news, the gospel, is that yes, apart from Christ we are condemned; we are lost in our sins, we are dead in trespasses and sins. We are unable to do anything to solve our problem. We are as helpless as Nicodemus felt in thinking of being physically, literally reborn as a grown man! But, (and it is grace-filled conjunction!), but God did what we were unable to do, through his Son Jesus Christ. Christ lived and died in our place, so that through him, by confessing and believing in him as our Lord and Savior, we could be reborn: made right with God. In Christ, the riddle of Nicodemus’ quandary is answered: how do we gain eternal life? How do we know we are going to heaven? The answer is simple: Christ.
Yes, I have been a captive before; a captive to my sins. I was once condemned, lost, hopeless, in darkness, alienated and hostile towards God; but, God in mercy, love and grace offered me salvation through his Son, so I could be saved from my sins and reborn to newness of life, not physically, but spiritually.
This is indeed Good News: Gospel! This offer God has made to all who will receive his Son and believe on him.
Are you captive? Are you a slave to sin? The good news is that God has provided a solution! The solution is his Son that he gave to die for your sins, so you could live and be forgiven and set free!