Learning From the Book and Beyond

I’ve been talking with a bunch of very cool people about the Gospel of John recently. It’s important to me to be fresh with what I’m talking about, so I’ve been burying myself in the first part of the book recently, more listening than reading this time, just for a new perspective. And indeed, I’ve heard things I’ve never seen in there.

I’ve been attracted to the very fascinating story of Nicodemus in John 3. There are so many interesting things in that encounter! Specifically, I’ve been watching how Jesus and Nick interact, and frankly, I’ve been sympathizing with Nick’s confusion in that conversation. We teach regularly from some of the content of that conversation. I’d like to look at the nature of the conversation itself, the context of it. 

A little background: Nicodemus is a Pharisee, which means he’s spent his life studying the Bible of his day, our Old Testament. Moreover, he’s “a ruler of the Jews,” which means that he’s been studying the Bible for a very long time, and that he has the additional weight of leading the People of God, by means of his immense knowledge of the Book. He’s probably a member of the Sanhedran, and he probably teaches teachers in Israel

I was taught from Sunday School on up that Pharisees are “the bad guys,” but Nick embodies all that is good about them. He comes to Jesus, seeking, recognizing God’s presence in Jesus’ miraculous ministry. He’s teachable! And so Jesus, who is the Word of God (John 1:1), teaches the teacher of the Word of God.

And Jesus is dropping some pretty heavy stuff on him. In a few short paragraphs (which may merely be a condensation of several of hours of conversation), Jesus introduces him to the concepts of being born again and being led by the Spirit. We think of these subjects as relatively foundational in the church today, but these would be revolutionary to a Pharisee who has only had the Old Testament to study. He’s studied the Word all of his life, but it hasn’t prepared him for the topics that Jesus is opening up to him. I’m impressed that he stays in the conversation; he doesn’t blow Jesus off, which tells me that he tastes some truth, some life, in it.

In the midst of this earthshaking conversation, Jesus drops in the fact that he, himself, makes visits Heaven while he’s on Earth (verse 13: “No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven,” whom he clarifies as being himself.) Even in our post-Resurrection era, the idea of visiting Heaven one is a bit of a stretch for many Christians. Fortunately, it allows us to experience a tiny bit of the paradigm shift that Nick was reeling under: this Man, clearly from God, is teaching some things that are waaaay outside the lines of Nick’s religious experience, just as most churches would consider visiting heaven at least “outside the lines” and possible “heresy.” This is what Nicodemus is dealing with.

This is no light conversation between Jesus and Nick. In this context we find the archetypal New Testament verse, John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” This is that conversation: foundational.

Let’s look at our context: Today, we live in a season that has a lot of this kind of conversation in it. For decades, even for generations, we’ve known what we believed; our theology was settled, grounded, not really subject to change. And then Jesus steps in and suddenly it shifts. Suddenly, those theological foundations are remarkably less solid than we thought they were. Nicodemus experienced that shift, and we are also dealing with the that kind of shift, as the Holy Spirit brings up new topics for us as well. Think about the subjects of revival, apostolic ministry, street-healing, visiting Heaven, even translocation; things these were even not part of the conversation a few years ago. Like Nick’s conversation, these also are topics that are not easily supported from inductive study. 

Then verse 10 of Nick’s conversation with Jesus hit me: “Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not know these things?’” Jesus acknowledged that he was speaking to “the teacher” of Israel (the definite article really is in the Greek), and knew that he was speaking of content that was not supportable from exegetical or inductive study of the Old Testament, but He expected the teacher to know anyway. The topics did not reveal themselves in the Word, but Jesus expected “the teacher of Israel” to know – or at least have some familiarity with them – anyway. 
If an Old Covenant teacher (“the teacher of Israel”) was somehow expected to understand things that were not directly supportable from the Scripture of the day, is it not reasonable that we who are teachers, leaders, thought-shapers of the New Covenant may likewise also be expected to draw some of our understanding from sources OTHER than strict didactic study of the Word? 

If we stop and say it slowly, it’s not quite as scary: “There are more places to learn things than the pages of the Bible.” But we have a hard time with the subject. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard, “Show me that in scripture!” (Comment: they said that to Jesus too. He gave them grief for it.)

Now, I am NOT suggesting that we teach – or personally hold to – any doctrine or practice about which the Word says “Don’t do it!” We don’t contravene scripture. End of story.  

Nor am I suggesting that we listen to every self-appointed spiritual authority out there. I’m suggesting that the Bible is about God speaking to us: let’s listen to God. I’m am suggesting that we allow ourselves and others to draw from non-Biblical sources – including personal revelation, supernatural encounters, and interesting conversations after hours – in order to correctly form our understanding of what the Spirit is doing and saying to the churches today.

Am I saying “The Bible is not enough”? Not quite. I’m saying, “Jesus seems to be declaring that there’s substantially more to learning than just the Bible.”

It looks to me as if Jesus doesn’t believe in the concept of “Sola Scriptura,” the doctrine that the Bible contains all knowledge necessary for salvation and holiness. The amazing thing about the Bible is that God is speaking. Why do we assume that just because we wrapped it in leather, He has stopped speaking?  The more I know Him, the more I am inclined to follow Him instead of the Book. And I'm coming to the radical conclusion that he has more to say than merely what had already been said and recorded

Personally, I am feeling challenged by the Spirit: that if I do NOT stretch my learning – more than just the Word, not replacing learning from the Word – at least in the data-gathering phase of my study, that I am short-changing what He can do in me and say to me. It is fine to teach from the Bible, to teach what God has said. But I suspect that we’ll be more and more relying on what God is saying. And I believe that’s the way it’s supposed to be.

The real issue with Nicodemus was that the Spirit alone can unlock scripture; Nick’s head knowledge could never reveal mysteries of the Spirit. You know, I really don’t want Jesus saying to me, “You’re my child, and you still don’t get it?” 

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