Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth

Introduction: Learning from Nicodemus’s Questions

Probably the most often quoted Bible verse from the Bible is John 3:16, where Jesus responds to Nicodemus’s questions:

For God so loved the world, that He gave His [e]only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.

Nicodemus, a Man of the Pharisees

Many readers of John’s Gospel neglect to acknowledge the context of this verse, using it mainly to instruct people how to make Jesus Lord of their lives.  The verse itself is a result of Jesus’s teaching to a man named Nicodemus, who was a “man of the Pharisees”:

Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews; this man came to Jesus by night and said to Him, “Rabbi, we know that You have come from God as a teacher; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.” Jesus answered and said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (John 3:1-3)

In spite of Christ’s own severe condemnations of the Pharisees for their self-serving hypocrisy and perversions of the Scriptures (see Matthew 23), Nicodemus does not appear to follow the Pharisaical teachings and methods quite so closely, and John’s Gospel appears to cast him in a more positive role.

In John’s Gospel, Chapter 7, for example,  Nicodemus advises his colleagues that they need to hear from Jesus personally before condemning Him: “Our Law does not judge a man unless it first hears from him and knows what he is doing, does it?” (John 7:50).  In addition, Nicodemus provided an enormous amount of embalming spices (100 pounds) for Christ’s burial after the crucifixion (John 19:39).

Nicodemus Questions Jesus

John’s first mention of Nicodemus in Chapter 3, however, reveals a precise failing of Pharisaical teachings that Nicodemus appears to follow:

Jesus answered and said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”  Nicodemus *said to Him, “How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born, can he?” Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.

Generally, the Pharisees believed in strict obedience to the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, and that people would be judged by God based on their obedience to all the laws of God given by Moses.  Jesus strongly condemns the Pharisees, however, for He said:

 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others. 24 You blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel! (Matthew 23:23-24)

In their desire to closely follow the Mosaic laws, therefore, the Pharisees commanded obedience in the most specific ways, even while neglecting the broader intentions of the commandments.  They tithe the smallest amounts of spices, yet swallow a whole camel, neglecting the obvious intentions and meanings of the Scriptures.

Nicodemus reveals a similar approach as he questions Jesus’s statement about being “born again.”  Jesus clarifies his statement by denying the most literal understanding Nicodemus had, or entering a second time into his mother’s womb.  Instead, Jesus said, those who enter the Kingdom of God are not literally born again, but instead are spiritually born anew:

That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be amazed that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:6-8)

Jesus, therefore,  was not only correcting Nicodemus’s understanding of being “born again,” but also correcting his approach to understanding the totality of God’s wisdom as revealed in the Scriptures.

Today’s Pharisaism Exposed

Today, similar approaches to the understanding of the Scriptures are prominent in evangelical churches, where Christians are taught only to interpret the Bible literally.  Understandably, this advice is intended to prevent misinterpretations that have led to heretical teachings and even cults as believers follow false teachers.

However, such an approach, while well-intentioned, also promotes many of the same problems Jesus condemns in the Pharisees of His day, specifically legalism and the desire of teachers to be acclaimed as “teachers” or “rabbis,” as Jesus describes it.  Seeking to gain followers and the money they bring in, many leaders claim superiority based on their unique revelations, their seminary training and education, or their knowledge of certain books and doctrinal approach of past church teachers.  Those who do not follow their acceptable teachings or guidelines of doctrine are condemned or excoriated.

Again, while the overt motivations of these church leaders in demanding “literal interpretations” are commendable, not desiring the sheep to be led astray by false prophets or teachings, the consequent “straining at gnats” leads to “swallowing a camel.”

The Fallacies of Literalism

In some cases even the most literal interpretations of the Scriptures may be denied in order to promote their own ideologies.  For example, read what Peter says:

38 Peter said to them, “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 For the promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself.”40 And with many other words he solemnly testified and kept on exhorting them, saying, “Be saved from this perverse generation!”

Clearly, the promise of the “gift of the Holy Spirit” is given to all Christians of all ages and in all places on earth, not just those alive on the Day of Pentecost, the original apostles, as is so often proclaimed.

Are we truly to take Jesus’ words only literally when receiving the elements of communion, the bread of life and the cup?  Clearly, Jesus was not advocating the actual consumption of his fingers and toes!

Another example concerns the return of Christ, which many proclaim will occur before a seven-year period of great tribulation on the earth (the “rapture of the church”).  Read what Jesus said, however, in Matthew’s Gospel:

“But immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from the sky, and the powers of  the heavens will be shaken. 30 And then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky with power and great glory. (Matthew 24:28-30)

This statement stands on its own, without any need for minute and obscure theological discussions and arguments.

Obviously, therefore, we need to interpret and understand the Scriptures according to their most obvious and clear meanings, but doing so means taking them in their contexts, acknowledging their particular genres, and hearing from our Church Teacher, the Holy Spirit, as Jesus says in John’s Gospel:  “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you” (John 14:26).

A Final Word

Finally, our approach to growing in Christ and hearing from the Holy Spirit should focus on learning from the Scriptures, which were provided for our maturity and growth.  However, this does not mean that we must all attend a Bible Seminary or read the books written by theologians.  Instead, Jesus relates in Mark’s Gospel, that our approach to Him must be more simple, based not on intellectualism, but on a sincere desire for truth and simplicity.  We must not approach him as theologians but as children.  Jesus says:

“Permit the children to come to Me; do not hinder them; for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. 15 Truly I say to you, wthoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it at all (mark 10:14-15.

For more along the lines of Biblical interpretation and hearing from the Lord, click on the following links:




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