A Leaky Bucket

After his encounter with Nicodemus, an insider, Jesus speaks with a Samaritan woman, an outcast. His tone is more gentle with her and the encounter is laced with grace. Instead of a late night visit, this meeting takes place in the blistering heat of the midday sun beside Jacob’s well. Jesus is parched and tired after walking for at least six hours. Breaking all social, religious and gender taboos of the day, he strikes up a conversation with the woman about water, a precious commodity in this desert region. Instead of shunning her, Jesus artfully exposes the desperate thirst in the woman’s heart, the driving force behind her disordered life. If her soul was a bucket, it was leaking badly.

John 4:1-26; 39-42

Now Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard that he was gaining and baptizing more disciples than John— although in fact it was not Jesus who baptized, but his disciples. So he left Judea and went back once more to Galilee.

Now he had to go through Samaria. So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about noon.

When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.)

The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.)

10 Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”

11 “Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? 12 Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his livestock?”

13 Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

15 The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.”

16 He told her, “Go, call your husband and come back.”

17 “I have no husband,” she replied.

Jesus said to her, “You are right when you say you have no husband. 18 The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.”

19 “Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. 20 Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”

21 “Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. 24 God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”

25 The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”

26 Then Jesus declared, “I, the one speaking to you—I am he….”

39 Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I ever did.” 40 So when the Samaritans came to him, they urged him to stay with them, and he stayed two days. 41 And because of his words many more became believers.

42 They said to the woman, “We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Saviour of the world.”

Rain can soak a leopard’s skin but it does not wash out its spots.

(African proverb)

Superficially, Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman couldn’t look more different. He has a designer life as an insider– a prosperous, respected, moral Jewish male. To use last week’s metaphor, his proverbial deck is well scrubbed. The woman by contrast, is a half-caste Samaritan defiled with Gentile blood and pagan worship practices, a female, socially despised and immoral. Her deck is in complete disarray– faded, cracked and warped. Rain could have soaked her skin but it would never have washed out its spots. No strict Jewish man would have come near her, as the woman points out (John 4:9). Only a woman full of shame would have visited the well at noon to avoid the virtuous women who filled their buckets early in the morning. We can surmise that this woman was rejected, used, disgraced and unloved if her string of sexual partners is anything to go by (John 4:17;18).

Not a son of his culture, but the Son of God

Group identity is nothing new to the planet! It was particularly rife in Jesus’ time. Humanity has always been divided into the haves and have-nots; insiders and outsiders; the virtuous and disgraceful; the powerful and the oppressed; those who are holding their lives together, and the junkies whose lives have unravelled. The African continent is repeatedly torn apart and impoverished by bitter conflicts and separation between different groups. But even though Jesus is fully aware of this woman’s nationality and her sexual immorality from the outset (John 4:17), he ignores typical distinctions based on gender, class, morality and ethnicity. Jesus is not a son of his culture, but the Son of God, a God who cares more about the heart than the outward appearance of a person (1 Sam 16:7). Instead of snubbing or recoiling from the woman in disgust, he connects with her by requesting a drink of water. This would have been an outrageous gesture for a Jewish man. But in Jesus’s eyes, Nicodemus the pious Jew, and the unclean woman from Samaria, are equally lost. Both need to be born again. Both need the living water that transcends all human categories.

Looking for water, finding Life

In the Limestone Hills around Sychar, life literally depended on finding water, and John 4:13; 14 is the pivot of this encounter: Jesus identifies himself as living water– God’s free gift to ALL who are thirsty. Jesus describes himself as an internal and eternal water source that wells up inside a person, giving life (John 4:14). The image is of a spring inside your body which keeps filling up and spilling over no matter how much of it you drink! This is an astonishing claim for anyone who knew the Jewish Scriptures.

The shock value is that Jesus is clearly identifying himself as Yahweh’s promised Saviour. Centuries before, Yahweh had promised that his people would draw water with joy from wells of salvation (Isa 12:3). He promised to pour water on a thirsty land, streams in the desert and an outpouring of his Spirit on future generations to enable them to flourish, like green grass in a lush meadow, like poplars planted by flowing streams (Isa 44:3; 4). Isaiah prophesied that Yahweh would bring his people home from captivity to “neither hunger nor thirst,” to be led beside springs of water and no longer to be scorched by the desert sun (Isa 49:10). The apostle John himself writes the last prophetic book of the Bible, Revelation, in which he identifies Jesus, the Lamb of God, as the source of this living water on the day of His return:

‘Never again will they hunger;
    never again will they thirst.
The sun will not beat down on them,’
    nor any scorching heat.
17 For the Lamb at the centre of the throne
    will be their shepherd;
‘he will lead them to springs of living water.’
    ‘And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. (Rev 7:16-17)

Meditate for a minute on this emotive picture of Jesus, the divine Shepherd-Lamb leading his people to life-giving springs, wiping away every tear from their eyes and erasing every misery. This is the image Jesus ascribes to himself as he talks to the woman!

Imagine the climax of this encounter when the woman says, “I know that Messiah is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”

And, without a moment’s hesitation,  Jesus replies, “I, the one speaking to you– I am He …” (John 4:25; 26).

Looking for love, courting disaster

“I am he!”Jesus’s declaration was outrageous…unless of course it was true. Being able to tell a person their life story without any prior knowledge sounds a bit like something only God could do.

The woman may have been good at drawing water from Jacob’s well, but her soul was thirsty to the point of dehydration. She was looking to men to satisfy her thirst, perhaps in search of the one true love that would leave her feeling whole, significant and secure. Why else would she be shacking up with partner number six? (John 4:18) Yet, she was unloved and rejected despite their attention. Jesus knew all this about her without her saying a word.

He knew that her soul was a leaky bucket that kept drying up no matter how much she filled it with ‘love’. Today we might call it an addiction or dysfunction of some sort, but Jesus directs her to the thing that drives all addictions, even those that appear healthier than the woman’s. He puts his finger on the root of all our cravings which ultimately lead to disillusionment: FALSE WORSHIP. One of the most stark forms of false worship is the devotion to excess that we call greed, gluttony, jealousy and lust; the “I want more” reckless mentality which is rife in our world. Runaway desires that eventually lead to bondage, and ultimately to death. The endless seeking of pleasure…fame…approval…love, only to find disillusionment… emptiness…thirst…broken relationships. Jesus gently confronts the woman on this soul thirst (John 4:16; 17; 18). To mask her pain and guilt, the woman tries to sidestep the issue with a theological question about the proper location of the temple, a hot topic that still rages today (John 4:17). Jesus doesn’t dismiss her red herring, but rather uses it to reveal the disorder behind the woman’s leaky bucket. The cause (rather than the symptom) of her thirst is FALSE WORSHIP.

CS Lewis puts it well, “Love, having become a god, becomes a demon.” The Four Loves.

False worship

The Samaritan woman is a serial adulterer– a worshipper of her own desires, instead of the God who created and loved her. She is searching for redemption and love in all the wrong places.

But we cannot hold Scripture at arm’s length. We must ask the Son of God to direct the spotlight on our own hearts too. If Jesus is right, then false worship is the cause of our leaky bucket syndrome too! Every appetite can quickly become an object of worship that controls us, whether it is a socially acceptable desire, such as achievement, wealth, family and affirmation, or a less acceptable obsession like sex, drugs, anger or alcohol. If the beginning of soul emptiness is idolatry, the end is always slavery, as “a man is a slave to whatever has mastered him” (2 Peter 2:19). That is why Nicodemus is only a short walk from the woman at the well.

My grandfather was a humorous old Scot who spent five years of World War 2 in North Africa building bridges and roads for the Allied forces. At one point they marched for two days through the scorching desert and my grandfather nearly died of dehydration. The reason was that he had filled his water bottle with whisky, intensifying his thirst with every sip! This incident obviously left its mark on him because he often issued a grave warning to us grandchildren, “Whatever you do, NEVER EVER put whisky in your water bottle!” As though this was the greatest temptation we would face in life! My grandpa’s point was relevant to this devotion though: If we drink from a leaky bucket, we will find ourselves thirstier than ever. It is a simple matter of cause and effect, because we were created to worship the only true God.

True worship

If the cause of leaky buckets is false worship, Jesus proceeds to tell the woman about true worship. He says that true worshippers worship God the Father “in the Spirit and in truth”. The Father is seeking those whose worship is sincere and Spirit-filled, not those who are trying to put on a religious show (John 4:24). The real disgrace is not people like the Samaritan woman whose lives are in a mess, but those who play church to look respectable. Jesus sees into our hearts and cannot be fooled by empty rituals or super spiritual pretences of any kind. That is a form of false worship, and its deceptiveness makes it more perilous than any other kind. The picture Jesus gives of true worship is a beautiful reminder that God does not care about ethnic, gender, cultural, intellectual or denominational differences in his people. Those who put their trust in the Messiah must worship the Father as one, in the truth of the gospel, in unity and diversity, regardless of man-made distinctions (Gal 3:28).

But wait a minute, where does the woman’s temple question fit in? (John 4:20)

It’s not about location!

As Jesus predicted (John 4:21), the Jerusalem temple and the temple at Mt Gerizim were soon destroyed, in 70AD and the second century respectively. But Jesus tells the Samaritan woman that it doesn’t matter, because soon worship of the invisible God will no longer be tied to a physical location in Jerusalem or anywhere else (John 4:23-24). With hindsight we can know why: In the Old Testament, the Temple was the meeting place between God and sinful people. It was the place for sacrifice and atonement for sin. The Holy of Holies was the ‘dwelling’ place of God on earth. John tells us at the beginning of his gospel that Jesus, the Son of God, became flesh and made his ‘dwelling’ among us (John 1:14). Jesus calls his body the new Temple of God that will die and be raised to life (John 2:19; 20; 21). Everything the temple embodied, was fulfilled by Jesus on the cross! He paid the final sacrifice on the cross. He was the perfect atonement lamb. He split the temple curtain in half to give us access to God the Father. He was the High Priest who reconciles us to God. He was the Jewish Messiah from the line of David. In other words, through Jesus’ death and resurrection, Jesus becomes the symbolic Temple of God, the supreme and final meeting place between God and sinners. The physical building becomes obsolete.

And it is because of Jesus’s death and resurrection that every Christian becomes the temple of the Holy Spirit who lives inside us (1 Cor 3:16). God’s living people are now God’s dwelling place on earth, not a physical building in a special location or an ethnic nation! This is a truly revolutionary announcement by the Messiah.

Looking forward to the new Creation, there will be no temple building, because the Lord God and the Lamb are its temple (Rev 21:22). All those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life will enter (Rev 21:27). Jesus said to the Samaritan woman, “I am He.” True worship is about the person (Jesus) and the way in which we worship (in the Spirit). It is not about a physical temple or church building. Worship of the Father takes place in the lives of ordinary Christians filled by the Holy Spirit.

Live it out!

1.     Thirst is not quenched by a stagnant pool

Jesus’ lack of prejudice, his gentleness and insight, his scandalous grace and the masterful way he directs the Samaritan woman to himself via the vacuum in her soul, are a prototype of how we should share the gospel with love. The eager response of the woman and people of Samaria is my favourite part of the story (John 4:39; 40; 41; 42). Only the Holy Spirit could have caused such a faith-filled harvest. Phillip, John and Peter later became missionaries to Samaria to build on the work of Jesus and the woman at the well (Acts 8:5-8; Acts 8:14-17). Anyone can make disciples through their sincere testimony. Discipleship starts by knowing Jesus and drinking deeply from his well every day of our lives. Only then will the living water spill over into love for others. The thirst of the world cannot be quenched by a stagnant pool. Is your spring flowing with oxygen?

2.     A shamed wife becomes beloved

The story of the Samaritan woman stuns me each time I read it. Especially in the light of Isaiah 54, which I read this morning in my own time with the Lord. When Jesus removes the woman’s disgrace, he fulfils Isaiah’s prophecy about the restoration of Israel, Yahweh’s unfaithful ‘wife’. Stunningly, she (Israel) is called “the wife deserted and distressed in spirit—a wife who married young only to be rejected”. (Isa 54:6) Could there be a more apt description of the woman at the well? Perhaps you can relate to this loneliness or the pain of broken relationships. Because of Jesus, the Suffering Servant, God says to anyone who is drinking from a leaky bucket, “Let the one who is thirsty come; and let the one who wishes take the free gift of the water of life (Rev 22:17).” “Do not be afraid; you will not be put to shame. Do not fear disgrace; you will not be humiliated. You will forget the shame of your youth…for your Maker is your husband— ” (Isa 54:4;5). Only Jesus, the great Bridegroom, can quench your spiritual thirst! Everyone who comes to him in faith and repentance is his radiant Bride, no matter what your past. But you must come and take the gift of living water for yourself.

Pray Ephesians 5:25-28:

Thank you Jesus, that you are the great Groom who will return to take me home as your Bride, holy and blameless in your sight. Father, thank you that because of Jesus, who gave up his life for me on the cross, I am cleansed and spotless, radiant and without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish. Help me to see myself like this and not to feel condemned by my sin in my weak moments. Thank you that you will never leave me or reject me because of your everlasting covenant with me. Help me to drink deeply of your living water and to quench my thirst only in you. May your living water spill out of my heart into love for those around me. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Worship as you listen to Chris Tomlin’s rendition of the hymn Come Thou Fount. (click here)

I would highly recommend the following books:

  1. Encounters with Jesus, by Timothy Keller.
  2. Addictions—A Banquet in the Grave, by Edward T. Welch.
  3. The Dynamic Ministry of Women in Early Christianity http://subspla.sh/ctpxc6k

1.     Further food for thought:

CS Lewis, Mere Christianity

“Most people, if they have really learned to look into their own hearts, would know that they do want, and want acutely, something that cannot be had in this world. There are all sorts of things in this world that offer to give it to you, but they never quite keep their promise. The longings which arise in us when we first fall in love, or first think of some foreign country, or first take up some subject that excites us, are longings which no marriage, no travel, no learning, can really satisfy. I am not now speaking of what would be ordinarily called unsuccessful marriages, or holidays, or learned careers. I am speaking of the best possible ones. There was something we have grasped at, in that first moment of longing, which just fades away in the reality. I think everyone knows what I mean. The wife may be a good wife, and the hotels and scenery may have been excellent, and chemistry may be a very interesting job:  but something has evaded us.”

N.T Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking heaven, the resurrection and the Mission of the Church

“One of the primary laws of human life is that you become like what you worship; what’s more, you reflect what you worship not only to the object itself but also outward to the world around. Those who worship money increasingly define themselves in terms of it and increasingly treat other people as creditors, debtors, partners, or customers rather than as human beings. Those who worship sex define themselves in terms of it (their preferences, their practices, their past histories) and increasingly treat other people as actual or potential sex objects. Those who worship power define themselves in terms of it and treat other people as either collaborators, competitors, or pawns. These and many other forms of idolatry combine in a thousand ways, all of them damaging to the image-bearing quality of the people concerned and of those whose lives they touch.”

Ernest Becker:

“Modern man is drinking and drugging himself out of awareness, or he spends his time shopping, which is the same thing.

A Polished Deck

According to my brother, who sold up all his worldly goods to sail around the world with his family, the three most important parts of a sailing vessel are the HULL to keep water out,  the RUDDER to steer, and the KEEL to keep the yacht upright. Although largely invisible, without these essentials below deck, the boat is doomed to sink. He assures me that a polished deck is of no use in a storm! The trouble with humanity is that we try to satisfy our soul needs and our longing for significance with the equivalent of a shiny deck. In his frank encounter with a moral, religious man called Nicodemus, a pillar of the Jewish community, Jesus shatters any delusions of a polished deck. The Son of God candidly tells Nicodemus that his best efforts are futile without a new spiritual trajectory and orientation. Self help and external renovations are false security for this world and eternity. Jesus loves Nicodemus enough to tell him the most important truth he will ever hear– that only spiritual rebirth through the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, can breathe life into the human soul. Only a spiritual remedy can heal a fatal spiritual condition, no matter who you are. I pray that as you step into this real life encounter, you will recognise Nicodemus in yourself and will hear Jesus of Nazareth, God’s own Son, speaking directly to your heart, as He speaks to mine.

John 3: 1-21

Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”

Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”

“How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”

Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”

“How can this be?” Nicodemus asked.

10 “You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things?11 Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. 12 I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? 13 No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man. 14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”

16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. 19 This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20 Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. 21 But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.

Unimpressed by the deck

Nicodemus comes to Jesus in secret and calls him ‘Rabbi’ and ‘teacher from God’. He is spiritually astute to recognise that no ordinary man could have performed the miracles Jesus did, but he also fears offending his peers whose hatred for the rabbi has already become evident. He is a spiritual seeker walking a dangerous political tightrope, hence his late night visit. Nicodemus was used to being treated with respect and he is obviously impressed with Jesus. Perhaps he wants to invite him into the inner circle of religion and end the animosity. Yet, Jesus is not impressed with Nicodemus or his quiet diplomacy! He does not even respond to Nicodemus’s flattering address (John 3:2). Instead, Jesus plunges straight through the veneer to the core of this man. He loves him enough to tell him the truth.

“Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again”(John 3:3).

In spite of his shiny appearance, Jesus knew the darkness in Nicodemus’ heart. In fact, he sees the sorry state of each of our hearts (John 2:25) to which we are often blind. Who of us obeys even the first three commandments God gave to Moses? 1. Have no other gods but the one true God. 2. Worship God alone. 3. Do not misuse God’s name. Jesus sees how we constantly look to something other than God to save us; how we put ourselves in the place of God (Rom 7:18); how we try to be our own saviour; how we deceive ourselves (Jer 17:9Prov 4:23); how casually we treat God; how our own desires determine the way we live. Jesus knows our mixed motives and pride in its many guises (1 John 2:16). He sees the offence to God in our misplaced worship and lack of gratitude. The Son of God sees below the deck and cannot be fooled by illusions of goodness that even we sincerely believe. Jesus knew that Nicodemus could not be improved, because he understood the true nature of sin. That’s why he cut through Nicodemus’s polished deck and prescribed the spiritual cure to a fatal spiritual problem:

New birth by the Holy Spirit.

Just in case we do not recognise ourselves in Nicodemus, Jesus repeats it three times (John 3:357) in a tone that is urgent and unequivocal. “You must be born again!” Belonging to God’s kingdom depends on it. Being born again is not the requirement of some strange Christian cult. It comes from Jesus’ own lips. The midwife of this rebirth is the Holy Spirit.

A brand new baby

But why does Jesus prescribe a new birth? Aren’t there more dignified ways to enter God’s kingdom than as a howling newborn covered in blood and vernix? Isn’t this image a bit radical?

Imagine the life of a healthy unborn baby in the dark cave of a womb. Its experience is limited to the steady thump of mom’s heartbeat; whooshing of blood; stomach rumblings and incoherent sounds. The foetus peers through a fog of amniotic fluid for forty weeks before bursting into the world. Suddenly it is alive to vivid light, colour and distinct shapes, voices, facial expressions, adventures. Best of all, it is welcomed into the loving nurture of a family. The baby does nothing apart from accept its delivery into the world! It is naked and helpless, totally dependent on mom. This is the metaphor Jesus chooses to describe the radical transformation of every sinner who becomes a Christian and takes hold of life. The ‘labour’ belongs to the Triune God– Father, Son and Holy Spirit who play unique roles in the birth of a Christian: The Father loved us enough to send his own Son to die in our place (John 3:16). Jesus the Son willingly submits to the Father and dies in our place (John 10:18).  The Holy Spirit breathes life into a dead, dark spirit, like a wind kindling a fire (John 3:8). The work has been done. The ‘family’ that receives us is God’s people (John 13:34Eph 2:19.)

If you are ‘born of water and the Spirit’, you were like a newborn baby, delivered from a dark domain and transferred to the light, to the kingdom of God’s beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sin” (Col 1:13-14). Nicodemus, the concrete thinker, asks, “How can this be?” (John 3:9). He is baffled by these metaphors and still has many questions. Jesus explains that cleansing and a new spirit are an inside job.

An inside job: Water and the Spirit

Being born of “water and the Spirit” is something that happens on the INSIDE first, below the deck (John 3:5). We might be a bit confused by Jesus’ language, but he is speaking to a Pharisee who would have been able to recite this Old Testament prophecy of Ezekiel in his sleep:

25 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. 26 I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. 28 Then you will live in the land I gave your ancestors; you will be my people, and I will be your God. (Ezekiel 36:25-28)

It is mind blowing that 500 years before Jesus’ late night chat with Nicodemus, Ezekiel announced Yahweh’s wonderful restoration plan, which would bring great blessing to his people. It included:

A perfect cleansing of his people from all their sin and idolatry (Ezek 36:25).

The gift of a new, soft heart with new desires (Ezek 36:26).

God’s Spirit to move God’s people to live God’s way (Ezek 36:27).

It is a picture of homecoming and reconciliation (Ezek 36:28) between God and his rebel people. Nicodemus would have made the link as soon as Jesus spoke about being born of water and the Spirit (John 3:5-67-8). Water symbolises inner renewal and cleansing. (Unbeknown to Nicodemus, he would soon witness the death of God’s own Son in full and final payment for the sins of the world.) The Spirit regenerates the heart, steering its desires away from self destructive gods, towards God and his truth (Ezek 36:25John 3:21). This was spectacularly fulfilled at Pentecost (Acts 2:4) and in the heart of every believer. Just to be clear, Jesus goes on to tell Nicodemus about his part in being born again.

The outside story: Believe

“Whoever believes in him (Jesus) shall not die, but have eternal life.”

The outside story is that Nicodemus must give up his smug self sufficiency and surrender his veneer of virtue. He must expose himself to the light and stop hiding in the shadows (John 3:192021). He must live by the truth by trusting in Jesus instead of his efforts. The summative verse of the gospel and the whole Bible, is John 3:16. Life is ours if we rely on the sacrifice of Jesus who absorbed the judgment of God on our behalf (John 3:17).

To help Nicodemus understand his role in the new birth, Jesus astutely reminds him of a concrete Old Testament story: The Israelites had been wandering in the desert after being rescued from Egypt. Tired, grumpy and ungrateful, they complained incessantly to God and blamed him for everything. God sent a plague of poisonous snakes which killed many of them. The people begged Moses for God’s help. God told Moses to raise a bronze serpent on a pole. Those bitten by snakes only needed to look at the serpent on the pole and God healed them of their venomous bites (Numbers 21). That is the image Jesus applies to himself, soon to be lifted up on a Roman cross (John 3:131415). The bronze snake was just a shadow of the gospel promise, “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved (Rom 10:9).”

True transformation

Why is faith in Jesus crucial? Because as sinners we are incapable of being at peace with God. Jesus is the only one qualified to wash away our sin because He is the only perfect man who bore our sin on the cross. He is the only way humanity can know God (John 17:3John 10:9).  And once we become a Christian, continuing to believe the Son is how we satisfy our soul longings and need for significance (1 John 5:11John 8:36Rom 8:12). It is only Jesus who can give us life that is abundant and free, because He is the only one who can re-orientate us away from ourselves, —our selfish pride, greed and ambitions, our warped addictions and desires that destroy us (John 10:10). Best of all, Jesus is the only one who can give us eternal life beyond the grave.

How does a Christian know and trust Jesus today? By asking for his forgiveness and developing a relationship with him. Taking simple baby steps to get to know Him. Growing in the habits of grace he has provided, like reading God’s word, praying and meeting with God’s people.

Without spiritual rebirth and growth into mature faith in Jesus, personal or social transformation will fail in the long term. The centre cannot hold without the spiritual power of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit to change the human heart and its desires. Human effort alone is lifeless, like scrubbing the deck of a yacht without attending to what’s below.

But with the RUDDER of God’s SPIRIT steering us, our trajectory will progressively move towards light as we begin to see that God’s ways are best for us (Isa 48:17). Our HULL will keep the stormy waves outside our boat, as we learn to trust in the FATHER who loves us and gives us new life through his SON. And our KEEL will steady us through turbulent oceans, as we hope in His promises to make all things new. The Trinity continues to empower our Christian journey.

Whatever happened to Nicodemus?

For me, the most wonderful thing of all is knowing that Nicodemus didrespond to Jesus’ offer of life. We don’t know much about what happened after their clandestine meeting, but John tells us that Nicodemus tried to get a fair hearing for Jesus before the Jewish council (John 7:51). Who knows his torment at witnessing the injustice of the kangaroo court of his peers who condemned Jesus to be crucified. But later John describes Nicodemus as a ‘disciple’ of Jesus who took his body down from the cross with another rich Jew, Joseph of Arimathea. Together they lovingly prepared him for burial with 75 pounds of spices, wrapped his broken body in linen and placed our Lord in the tomb (John 19: 3839). How I pray that every person reading this devotion has responded to the Lord Jesus as Nicodemus did. Nicodemus stepped into the light and made his faith public at the crucifixion, despite inevitable persecution by his inner circle.

Just as Jesus frankly confronted him in the middle of the night, Nicodemus asks us the hard question, “What is it costing you to follow Jesus?”

Live it out!

  • Whether or not you are born again, if the Holy Spirit is stirring you today, Jesus is calling you to himself. Don’t ignore the wind of the Spirit when he blows on your heart. Go to Jesus. Make him your only Treasure, your one true desire. If you trust in Jesus, He will always satisfy you. If you fail Jesus, He will always forgive you. No other person or thing can do that for you.
  • Are you willing to love people with the truth as Jesus did with Nicodemus? Challenge yourself by listening to Love You With The Truth by Casting Crowns. (click on the link)
Lyrics of Love you with the truth, by Casting Crowns.
For the longest time, I believed the lie
That I’m not a strong enough believer
To be the friend that can take your hand
And lead you straight to Jesus
I’m waiting on the preachers, singers, and the teachers
To string the perfect words together
But every single time I have to say goodbye
I wonder will this be the last time
I can’t call myself your friend and walk away
When we love, we earn the right to speak the truth
When we speak truth, we show the world we truly love
I’m not pointing my finger, I’m holding out my hand
Let my life and my words be the proof
I’m gonna love you with the truth (Oh)

A Fragrant Gospel

The Namaqualand daisies are a multicoloured tapestry of desert blooms that defy the arid veld of the northern Cape after the spring rains. A honey-like scent diffuses the air for miles around. This striking display of beauty reminds me of what Christians should be like. Our spring rains have fallen! God’s kingdom has come to earth and it is our Father’s pleasure to give us the kingdom (Luke 12:32). We are his floral display, called to bloom and grow wherever on the planet He has planted us. As couriers of the best news the world has ever heard, we ought to be winsome bearers of a gospel that is both lovely and potent. Our lives and our lips (Heb 13:15-16) should diffuse a gospel fragrance, as we offer our bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God (Rom 12:1). In a new era, where people of every nation and tribe are forcing their way into God’s kingdom (Luke 16:16), Jesus calls us to diffuse the fragrance of the gospel both to our neighbours and the nations.

Our text today is Matthew 28:16-20:

16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17 And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted.18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Setting the scene

Three years after Jesus’ stunning synagogue announcement that God’s kingdom had come (Luke 4:14-21), the King was dead. Shamed as a criminal, blasphemer and bogus-king (Matt 27:37; John 19:2; 3; 15), Jesus was abandoned by everyone, even his friends. He was also God-forsaken (Matt 27:46).

Yet Jesus’ last words on the cross were, “It is finished!” (John 19:30)

What was finished? How could the light of the world lay dead in a dark tomb? How could his mission end in such epic failure? Were they blinded by his miracles?

Jesus’ followers must have been plagued with doubts and questions as they cowered in dark places, afraid for their lives. Yet, early on Sunday, when the women arrived at the tomb, they found the huge entrance stone rolled aside and the body missing. Two men in shiny clothes asked them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, he is risen! Don’t you remember how he told you the Messiah must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, be crucified and raised to life on the third day?” (Luke 24)

Jesus’ mission was accomplished! Andrew Patterson’s sings of how God rested on the Jewish Sabbath because his work was complete. Take a minute to meditate on the words of Patterson’s amazing song and thank Jesus for finishing his agonising work on the cross. His mission was to save the world by dying the death that every sinner deserves, and then rising to life. This is the true story of God’s unfailing love for the people He created. It is the only story that makes sense of our world and brings hope for now and eternity. It is literally a life-giving, life-saving story that Jesus tells his followers to announce to the world, as he stands on a mountain in Galilee. These are his last words to them as the risen Saviour. Directly afterwards, Jesus rises to heaven to take his place as King of the universe (Matt 28:18; Mark 16:19-20). Final words are important.

Honouring Jesus’ final words

The risen King’s final words are very clear instructions. Jesus appoints every Christian as a disciple, evangelist and discipler. In the original Greek, the imperative command is to “make disciples.” The secondary verbs “Go”, “Teach” and “Baptize” are the expressions of this primary command to make disciples.

Jesus’ Great Commission was not just for his faith-filled worshippers. I’m glad John mentions the doubters standing on the mountain with weak knees and glazed eyes, as I can see myself among them! (Matt 28:17) Not one of Christ’s followers is exempted from sharing the gospel, as this is how God has chosen to grow his kingdom. However, there is good news for the fearful– Your mission cannot fail, as its success does not depend on your own gifts or faith, but on two hard facts:

  1. Jesus has been given all authority in heaven and on earth (Matt 28:18).
  2. Jesus himself will be with you, even until the end of the age (Matt 28:20).

It is the presence of Immanuel – God with us—that enables us to fulfill the Great Commission. Thank God we are not on our own! But His kingdom will advance with or without us too.

“The Great Commission” was a phrase first coined by Hudson Taylor, the first missionary to China, who said, “The Great Commission is not an option to be considered; it is a command to be obeyed.”

Fragrance…or odour?

The problem arises in the manner in which Jesus’ final words are carried out. If we divorce the Great Commission from the Great Commandment of Jesus (Matt 22:37; 38; 39; 40), the gospel is no longer a sweet fragrance, but a pungent odour to those who hear it. There is nothing appealing about a pretentious, know-it-all evangelist. But there is something very winsome about a Christian who is personally moved by the gospel and whose witness is drenched in sincerity and grace.

Graciousness earns us the right to be heard (Col 4:6; 1 Peter 3:15) and reflects the nature of Christ and the gospel message. A fragrant gospeller does not assault with arguments or ridicule another person’s beliefs. Jesus knew his true enemy and never treated people as the enemy even if they were being used as Satan’s instruments. He did not ask his followers to defend His dignity. As Jesus taught in the synagogues, everyone praised him and was amazed at his gracious words (Luke 4:15; 22). The gospel may have offended many, but Jesus himself was not offensive.

If the person we are addressing does not see the love of Jesus in our eyes, our best arguments are futile. Without love, we will approach evangelism and discipleship as a great work we are doing for the Lord, like the self righteous Pharisees. Jesus described these zealots of his day as white-washed tombs (Matt 23:27). The odour of dead men’s bones is nothing like the fragrance of the gospel.

An unpretentious gospel

Helen Roseveare was a British doctor and missionary to Africa, specifically in the Congo for over 20 years. She passed away in 2016 at the age of 91. Helen trained nurses, ran a leprosy centre and a maternity hospital which still exists in the DRC. When civil war broke out, Helen was one of several missionaries held captive by rebel forces for over 5 months in 1964. She was beaten, terrorized, and brutally raped on more than one occasion.

From someone who sacrificed her whole life to be a fragrance of the gospel, this is her warning about mission:

“If you think you have come to the mission field because you are a little better than others, or as the cream of your church, or because of your medical degree, or for the service you can render the African church, or even for the souls you may see saved, you will fail. Remember, the Lord has only one purpose ultimately for each one of us, to make us more like Jesus. He is interested in your relationship with Himself. Let Him take you and mould you as He will; all the rest will take its rightful place.”

-Helen Roseveare

You will be inspired and humbled by the story of this remarkable woman who carried the fragrance of the gospel into new frontiers with humility and love. Read this link or listen to this podcast on the Extraordinary Life of Helen Roseveare.

“When the rhythm of the music changes, the dance step must change also.”

(African proverb)

While the truth of the ancient gospel story never changes, a fragrant gospeller prays for avenues to show the real face of Jesus in unique contexts. The gospel is not a generic formula, and we need the Spirit’s creativity to find points of contact which hit home.

The ministry of Paul demonstrates how skilful a Jewish Pharisee could be in dancing to the cultural rhythms of Greeks, Jews, Romans, slaves, prison warders and women.

Christine Dillon, a contemporary missionary in Asia, tells the story of the Bible in simple English, using oral narrative rather than reading. This is a creative way of sharing the gospel in Africa, which also has a tradition of storytelling. Click on the links to Christine’s websites here and here to see how it can be done.

Live it out!

Here are three practical ways we can match our dance step with the rhythm of today’s music:

  1. Don’t sound religious or use theological language with unbelievers who are Biblically illiterate or have bad memories of Church. Concepts like ‘sin’ and ‘atonement’ may be utterly foreign to those moulded by a ‘tolerance’ mindset. Rather  enquire about the ripple effects of alienation and discord visible to them personally and socially. Ask them the penetrating question, “How is life working out for you?” This common experience of brokenness is often the connection, which points to the effects of sin and our desperate need for redemption. Use their own vocabulary and concrete analogies to explain how Jesus offers life.
  2. Steer the conversation to the heart as the source of outward behaviour, moving from the symptoms to the cause. Don’t be afraid to admit your own tendency to serve gods that cannot save you and show how this idolatry is the root of your sin (Rom 1:18). A fragrant gospel shines its beam on God’s solution to a fatal heart disorder. If we are guided by genuine love as we speak, the Holy Spirit will give us the right words and expose our own blind spots, which are also our points of contact with unbelievers. As CS Lewis said, “Evangelism is just one beggar showing another beggar where to find food.”
  3. Practise the art of questioning. We will find points of commonality if we ask probing questions and listen long enough to hear the source of hunger in an empty soul. That is exactly what Jesus did. Next week we will look at the probing questions Jesus asked Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman in John 3. He presented the same gospel, but Jesus customised the message for his hearers.

It takes prayer, effort and time to find common ground, as Paul did (1 Cor 9:19; 20; 21; 22; 23), while remaining true to the Bible. Fortunately we do not have to be perfect evangelists, as we are not the builders of the kingdom. God is the Master builder. His mustard seed kingdom WILL become a kingdom of cosmic greatness (Mark 4:30; 31; 32). We are just called to scatter the seed (the word) on the soil (the hearts) of those we meet (Mark 4:1-20). One of the best ways to get the word into the soil is simply to read one of the New Testament Gospels with a friend. Don’t underestimate the power of words spoken in love to an unbeliever. God’s word will not return to Him empty (Isa 55:11).

Preach, teach, serve

The King himself is our role model and showed us that the gospel transforms every frontier of life. Jesus announced the gospel of personal salvation. He also preached the Sermon on the Mount and decried injustice and oppression, using parables like the Good Samaritan. He healed the sick, cast out demons and spoke truth to power. The gospel cannot be reduced to personal salvation alone, as Saints are needed to radiate the Kingdom of God in every sphere.

We diffuse the fragrance of the gospel by loving what God loves and hating what he hates, whether at home, in our neighbourhood or on mission. We care for orphans and widows in their distress. We get to know the Bible for ourselves and teach it on to others (Matt 28:20). We nurture younger believers to live out their new identity over a lifetime (Matt 28:19). The focus of Jesus’ Great Commission is to MAKE DISCIPLES, and this should be the focus of every local church. It is a long term project. A social, political or self-help gospel is a flimsy band aid which hides the gaping wound of the human heart, but is impotent to save.

Bloom and grow

Christians cannot love God or obey Him perfectly. Only Jesus did that. The aroma of his sacrifice was pleasing to God as he traded our sin for his perfection (Eph 5:2). We cannot do a single thing to add to the work of Jesus. It is finished. But the gospel calls us to a life that pleases God in all we do (2 Cor 5:9). To bloom and grow wherever we are. When ordinary believers are infused with the gospel and live to please their King, they diffuse the fragrance of the gospel throughout the world (2 Cor 2:15). Don’t underestimate the appeal of common daisies blooming in the desert. We are those daisies.

Pray Hebrews 13:20-21:

Our Father, the God who brings us peace, thank you that you resurrected our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of your eternal covenant. We ask you to equip us with everything good that we may do your will, working in us that which is pleasing in your sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.

I am indebted to the following wonderful Gospel resources: