Writing – Part 3, A Heart for Truth

Searching His Word
Seeking His Heart

During the writing of “Ears to Hear,” I intertwined the character of Nicodemus into the plot, but I felt like he had his own story which called for a second book.

We have a little more Scripture about Nicodemus, so with those verses in mind, I pushed forward for round two.

A fun spot for me came in the chapter about Nicodemus’ visit with the spoiled boy next door. This boy reappeared throughout the book and into manhood, becoming a secondary antagonist.

In a dramatically draining chapter, Nicodemus’ father died. He loved his father dearly, as I did my own father. I wept right along with Nicodemus. I wrote this into the story as it was important that he learn from his brother how to prepare a body for burial. Later, Nicodemus would assist Joseph of Arimathea in preparing Jesus’  body.

All through the writing, I had definite high points in mind, but the details fell in place only a little at a time. The characters developed to a point where I anxiously went to the computer each day wondering what would happen next.   

About half of the story was written before I used the first Scripture where Nicodemus had his famous nighttime discussion with Jesus. I approached that scene with fear and trepidation. I felt like I didn’t dare put extra words in Jesus’ mouth. So the night conversation scene came directly from the Bible with a few gestures and positions added. It was a high and holy moment for me.

All through the Nicodemus story, I felt compelled to show him as the staunch, dictatorial Pharisee he likely was, steeped in the law and its practices, but bound to fulfill the words of Jesus—

“…everyone who exalts himself will be humbled…” Luke 18:14

Astute readers might see early in the story that his condescending attitude toward shepherds would be the very thing I could use to bring on his needed humility. He wanted to have a heart for truth, but it would come in a way he least expected, a pathway that would lead him to the Truth Giver, the Good Shepherd.

The burning desire that God placed in my heart from the beginning of this call to write, was to see, and to help others see, that the characters of Scripture are real; they have great abilities, but they also have challenges as we all do.

God wants to lead us, to show us great treasures for the purpose He has for us, but He demands willing hearts. Oh that our hearts might come to Him, prepared for those treasures.

Writing may or may not be the treasure he has for you. However, if you feel a leaning in that direction, I’d like to make you aware of the Kentucky Christian Writers Conference coming up June 21-23 in Elizabethtown, KY. To find out more, go to www.kychristianwriters.com

Meanwhile, as you’ve gathered from previous blogs, I’m working on book three about Matthew, the tax collector.

~ Joyce ~

  

Peter – Born Again

Searching His Word
Seeking His Heart

Back to Peter. Last time, we found Peter out in the boat with Jesus. He doesn’t catch fish all night, but at Jesus’ command, the boat overflows with the fish he hauls in.

This personal miracle seems to speak to Peter in a unique way. He is convicted of his sin, for he kneels at Jesus’ feet and cries out,

“Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!” Luke 5:8

Peter will have much to learn, but yielding to Christ is a beginning step of trusting.

The night Nicodemus comes to visit Jesus provides another understanding of who Jesus is. Possibly Peter could have been nearby as Nicodemus comes to ask his questions. Nicodemus says,

“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.” John 3:2

Jesus cuts right to the chaste of what Nicodemus needs to hear.

“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, He cannot see the kingdom of God.” John 3:3

Perhaps Peter thinks the same thing as Nicodemus. How can a man enter his mother’s womb and be born a second time? They soon learn that Jesus is speaking figuratively. We are born of flesh—born physically, but we must also be born of the spirit—born spiritually.

How to do that? Another part of the conversation includes John 3:16…

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have life eternal.”

Believe. Believe and not perish. Have eternal life. Jesus goes on…

“For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world should be saved through him.”John 3:17

Saved through him.

Little by little, Peter must internalize these words. He has the next three years to do so as he learns to trust what Jesus says and does. Jesus will correct Peter, lead him, empower him, teach him, rebuke him… forgive him.

But the first step for Peter—and for us all—is to be assured of spiritual rebirth.

How do we share the joy of believing and looking forward to life eternal with the Father?

I have a friend at the Y with whom I chit-chat at times when we end up on the recumbent bikes side by side. Last week, she was wringing her hands, so to speak, about all the weather disasters and the mass killings, etc. I said, “Oh I know, it’s awful. It makes us realize how much we need to depend on our faith.” She was getting off her bike, but at least I planted the thought.

We must share our faith, even in simple ways, because there’s a world out there that hasn’t come to spiritual rebirth. Help us, O Lord, to be bold.

~ Joyce ~

Connecting

Two days until Valentine’s Day. Have you connected with your loved one this week? Figured out something that would mean a lot to a friend? In order to have genuine relationship, we search for ways to connect with those we love.

It works in the business world as well. If we have a product or service, we try to connect people’s needs to what we have to offer. Networking. Connecting.

We can apply this to life lessons. Let’s suppose your 16 year old seems oblivious to the seriousness of the speeding tickets he is receiving. Then one day his good friend is killed by a another teen in a speeding accident. Suddenly, your teen sees the consequences of speeding because it has entered his world of experience. He has connected.

This is probably a long way around to where I’m trying to “connect” you, but I find that Scripture makes more sense to me when I see the connections between the characters, the traditions, the way of thinking, the habits, even the geography. For instance, when Bible characters are going (down) south from Galilee to Jerusalem, they say they are going up to Jerusalem. They don’t mean north, as we would think, they literally mean up as in “up the hill,” because Jerusalem sits on a raised mound.

So, before we leave Nicodemus, there are a couple of “connections” I want you to think about. Early in the story of A Heart for Truth, we hear of a report from Bethlehem shepherds who say they saw a vision of angels. The angels told the shepherds that the Messiah had been born. Sure enough the shepherds search out the stables and find the baby just as they were told. They were excited to share their good news.

17 When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child. Luke 2:17

Since Bethlehem and Jerusalem are only about 5 miles apart, the news could have easily reached the Temple area where Nicodemus might have heard the report. Connection. We discover then the low opinion Pharisees and other Temple leaders have toward shepherds. This helps us to understand Nicodemus’ attitude later in the story when, in Nicodemus’ time of need, he is rescued (heaven forbid!) by a shepherd . Connection.

Another example of connecting scenes is when Jesus comes to the Temple as a twelve-year-old boy where he is:

46b …sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking questions. Luke 2:46b

We hear the teachers’ reactions to Jesus.

47 Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his questions. Luke 2:47

Rather than seeing this as an isolated incident, we can surmise that very likely Nicodemus could have been one of those teachers who heard Jesus’ questions and answers. Connection.  Could Nicodemus have reflected years later on this incident, remembering some of the things that were said? Possibly.

\ \\\\\\\\\\\\\\\NicodemusCoverRev

As you study the Bible, I encourage you to look beyond the immediate passage and see how it fits in the totality of the passage. Who is around around to hear or see what is going on? How does it connect to verses in another book of the Bible? Scripture is seldom isolated passages. One thing connects to another and another. It all fits together to bring the whole message. Seek out these connections. I’d love to hear some of your discoveries.

Meanwhile, think about your friend or loved one this week. Share your love with them in surprising ways that will connect you to each other more deeply.

~ Joyce ~

Commitment Indeed

Today we turn to the third and final mention of Nicodemus in John’s Gospel. We are at the tomb of Jesus. Joseph of Arimathea has come to bury his body. Like Nicodemus, Joseph is also a member of the high court. It will not set well with the Jewish leaders if they find out that one of their own has anything to do with Jesus. Therefore, it is a bold move on Joseph’s part to seek Pilate’s approval to bury the body.

38 Later, Joseph of Arimathea asked for the body of Jesus. Now Joseph was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly because he feared the Jews. With Pilate’s permission, he came and took the body away. John 19:38

 Matthew, Mark, and Luke also tell about Joseph of Arimathea. Only John reveals that Joseph had an accomplice—Nicodemus.

39 He was accompanied by Nicodemus, the man who earlier had visited Jesus at night. Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds. John 19:39

Wow—75 pounds! That would be the amount of spices used for a king. Hmm, yes, a king. Joseph and Nicodemus tenderly go about their task of preparing the body for burial.

40 Taking Jesus body, the two of them wrapped it, with the spices, in strips of linen. This was in accordance with Jewish burial customs. John 19:40

This scene, as well as the crucifixion, were two very difficult scenes for me to write in A Heart for truth. I tried to get into the scene and look around to see the setting, the blood, the people, the conversations or lack thereof, the emotions, the whipped flesh, the crown of thorns, the lifeless body—it was all very heart wrenching.

Nicodemus and Joseph faced a very dangerous task. Their positions in the high court, their reputations, their very lives were at risk. If the first two scenes (Nicodemus’ night visit and his statement before the Sanhedrin) were not quite full commitment, this act of love was total commitment indeed.

I recently received an email from a dear missionary friend in a another country. She spoke of a terrifying incident as she and a friend were walking in a slightly wooded area. Suddenly a pack of wild dogs encircled the two of them, barking and lunging at them with evil-looking eyes. They managed by God’s grace to escape, but she reflected on how of late, evil seemed to be all around them. A fellow worker had fallen into depression. New believers were weeping over the way their families were treating them. Satan seemed to be haunting them at every turn.

I think of the easiness of my own life. I have challenges, but nothing like this, nor the great risks that men like Nicodemus and Joseph faced to stand in their faith. I think of today’s martyrs who sit in prisons because they profess belief in Jesus. How do they endure? As I study God’s word, try to understand, and seek to believe with greater depth, I wonder how strong and faithful I would be in the face of life-threatening danger. Would I have the boldness, the full trust, the commitment to stand firm in my faith? Help us, oh Lord. Help us to grow in our commitment to you.

~ Joyce ~

 

Standing Up in Challenging Circumstances

We have explored Nicodemus’ night time visit with Jesus in John 3. Today John gives us second scene in the life of Nicodemus. Jesus has come to the Feast of the Tabernacles in Jerusalem. He has been teaching at the Temple courts. We hear whispers in the crowd.

25Isn’t this the man they are trying to kill?”  26 “Here he is, speaking publicly, and they are not saying a word to him. Have the authorities really concluded that he is the Christ? ”  John 7:25-26

31 Many in the crowd put their faith in him. They said, “When the Christ comes, will he do more miraculous signs than this man?  John 7:31

The religious leaders had about had their fill of Jesus. His ways were not their ways. They had had their trick questions for him, but he always seemed to get the best of them. His popularity with the people in Galilee was one thing, but now here he was in Jerusalem stirring things up.

32 The Pharisees heard the crowd whispering such things about him. Then the chief priests and the Pharisees sent temple guards to arrest him.   John 7:32

Rome had Roman soldiers to take care of disturbances, but they allowed the religious leaders to have their own Temple guards to take care of religious concerns. The Temple guards have been called on to arrest Jesus. The Sanhedrin (high Jewish court) waits in their gathering chamber for the guards to bring him in. I can imagine, as they wait, they discuss again all the things they find distasteful about Jesus. At last they hear the  Temple guards coming, but they discover the guards are empty handed.

45 Finally the temple guards went back to the chief priests and Pharisees, who asked them, “Why didn’t you bring him in?” 46 “No one ever spoke the way this man does,” the guards declared.   John 7:45-46

I imagine the decibel level goes up a few notches as the hot-tempered Pharisees respond to these milk-toast soldiers.

47 “You mean he has deceived you also?” the Pharisees retorted. 48 “Has any of the rulers or the Pharisees believed in him? 49 No! But this mob that knows nothing of the law—there is a curse on them.”   John 7:47-49

Now what are they to do? Nicodemus has been sitting quietly taking all this in. He probably understands exactly what the soldiers were saying—”no one ever spoke the way this man does.” Nicodemus rises to his feet and patiently addresses the high court members.

50 Nicodemus, who had gone to Jesus earlier and who was one of their own number, asked, 51 “Does our law condemn anyone without first hearing him to find out what he is doing?”   John 7:50-51

Well, there it is. One short question. One obscure verse you may not have read before. Nicodemus is reminding them of their own laws. Does this slow them in their tracks? Hardly. Instead, they lash out at Nicodemus.

52 They replied, “Are you from Galilee, too? Look into it, and you will find that a prophet does not come out of Galilee.”   John 7:52

Actually, Jonah was from Galilee and other prophets could have been, but that’s beside the point. Nicodemus tried to diffuse their angry tempers. He stood up, not exactly to defend Jesus, but at least to bring the leaders back to who they purport to be.

We look at challenges we may face—the temptation to remain silent when we need to speak up or the challenge to diffuse angry, unhealthy talk. Can we stand up to be used by God? Can we speak up to bring calm, love, and reason to problem discussions?

This is still not a full commitment for Nicodemus, but we can see yet another step of development on his part. Unfortunately, it will only grow more difficult.

Next week, we will look at the final picture John gives us of Nicodemus.

~ Joyce ~

God So Loved

Today we conclude Nicodemus’ night time discussion with Jesus. Jesus has been discussing the Spirit and now he turns to the subject of belief, namely belief in Jesus as, not just the Son of Man, but also the Son of God. Jesus refers to an Old Testament event where the Israelites wandered in the wilderness and were bitten by poisonous snakes. To save the people’s lives, Moses lifted up a bronze serpent. If they looked at the serpent they lived. Jesus uses this as an illustration of how he will be lifted up (on a cross) not just for life here, but also for eternal life through him.

14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up,  15 that everyone who believes in Him may have eternal life.    John 3:14-15

Nicodemus probably doesn’t equate the idea of being “lifted up” with crucifixion at this point, but Jesus goes on to say one of the most memorable verses in the Bible. Connect verse 15 to verse 16 and you will understand the word, “For”.

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.   John 3:16-17

My pastor summarizes that powerful verse like this, “God loved. God gave. If we believe, we receive.” It is a picture of God’s mercy to us—we who are undeserving. By contrast, the next verse demonstrates God’s justice.

18 Whoever belives in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.   John 3:18

It is not complicated. Believe, receive eternal life. Don’t believe, receive condemnation (eternal death.) Nicodemus must still have a blank look or a frown on his face because Jesus once again illustrates with one of his favorites—light and darkness. Why does a child go off in the darkness to do his bad deeds? Because he doesn’t want anyone to see what he’s doing, of course. Jesus compares himself to the light and evil to the dark.

19 This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men 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 his deeds will be exposed.   John 3:19-20

Jesus is the essence of light—truth, God’s righteousness, wholeness, deep abiding joy. If we follow that light and walk in that light, our good deeds will not be of ourselves. Instead, it will be His light shining through us. It is as if Jesus is telling Nicodemus, “You have come to seek the truth about me. Trust me, Nicodemus. Believe in me, Nicodemus.”

21 But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God.  John 3:21

This is a key, culminating, convicting thought for Nicodemus. Much of what he does is driven by the desire to be seen upright in the eyes of men. It is a defect that Jesus often criticized in the Pharisees. Jesus knows that Nicodemus needs a change inside of him. Only the Spirit can make that change, but Jesus must also see that Nicodemus desires to know the truth. Look how many times he mentions it.

3 In reply Jesus declared, I tell you the truth…

5 Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth… “

11 “I tell you the truth… “

21 “But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light…”

Jesus must have seen a man who was struggling deep in his soul and a man who wanted to know the truth. Thus the title of my book—A Heart for Truth. At this point, we have no indication that Nicodemus has made any commitment yet, but his mind has been stretched. Jesus has planted seeds of truth in his heart. Next week, we move to another incident with Nicodemus.

Joyce

Born Again

 

Last week we learned that Nicodemus was a part of the upper crust of Jewish religious society in Jerusalem. Let’s see what he says to Jesus in this one-on-one discussion.

2 He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him.” John 3:2

Is Nicodemus just buttering him up or stating an observation? We don’t know. It feels like there is a question coming to me. But before Nicodemus can say another thing, Jesus steps right in to the conversation. As he often does, it appears that Jesus goes off in a different direction, but he always has insight into the bigger picture. He knows what Nicodemus needs.

3 In reply Jesus declared, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.” John 3:3

“Born again.” No that phrase didn’t originate during Jimmy Carter’s presidential campaign, it came from this scene with Nicodemus. It is the essence of what Nicodemus needs, but doesn’t know. Of course, in the literal mind of Nicodemus, he takes offense at what seems a ridiculous statement. It takes him completely off guard.

4 “How can a man be born when he is old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born!” John 3:4

Jesus is talking about spiritual things while Nicodemus is thinking with his physical mind. Every day a good Jewish man gets up and recites the shema from Deuteronomy that he must love the Lord with heart, mind, and soul. Perhaps “soul” has just become a word to Nicodemus. Jesus spells it out.

5 Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. 6 Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit [capital “S”] gives birth to spirit. [lower case “s”] 7 You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ “ John 3:5-7

Nicodemus’ blank look must necessitate further explanation, so Jesus gives an illustration, typical of the parable-teller.

8 “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.” John 3:8

The Spirit is not something to be dissected and discussed like an oral law. The Spirit works in the inner man, in his very soul.

9 “How can this be?” Nicodemus asked. John 3:9

I think I hear Jesus giving a sigh at this point which comes forward as a rebuke. They tended to be very straight forward, plain-spoken, even abrupt in their culture – not like our southern hospitality style.

10 “You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and you do not understand these things? 11 I tell you the truth, 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?” John 3:10-12

I have to wonder how many times Jesus looks at me with a sigh and a shake of the head, wanting to share the jewels of heaven with me, but I’m occupied with the plastic jewelry of this world. How many times have I quenched the Spirit because my head and my heart are preoccupied with the mundane?

Draw us close, oh Lord, that we may sense your Spirit moving in our lives, moving strong and forceful, gentle and caressing – like the wind.

~ Joyce ~

 

 

 

Who Was Nicodemus?

Last year, while leading a small group session at a conference, I asked the question, “What do you know about Nicodemus?” One person responded that Nicodemus was a Pharisee; another said he went to see Jesus at night. Then a lady spoke up and said, “He was short.” I stopped in my tracks for a moment. Where did she get this? Did I miss something in all those months of research? Then it dawned on me that she was thinking about Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector who was short and climbed a tree in order to better see Jesus coming down the Jericho road. To my chagrin, this conversation has been repeated many times. Some of us know just enough Bible to be dangerous! Granted, there is much to know. When we get things mixed up, we just have to laugh about it and learn in the process. We will spend this month checking out the biblical passages about Nicodemus. No, I will not spoil the book (A Heart for Truth) for you. I’ll just give some extra commentary. John is the only gospel writer who gives us any information about Nicodemus. We find him mentioned first in John 3.

1 Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said… John 1:1

So, Nicodemus was a Pharisee. That tells us a lot about him. There were about 6000 Pharisees scattered over Israel with a heavy concentration of Pharisees in Jerusalem where Nicodemus lived. They religiously kept the Mosaic laws, but added to the laws to further define them. You may be most familiar with the way they took the law about resting on the Sabbath and developed a wide variety of man-made laws to enforce that one law. Sometimes I think we give the Pharisees a pretty bad rap. They certainly were religious to the core. They did much to maintain and preserve the commandments, but their attitudes did not follow Jesus’ teachings about love. In fact, of all people (sinners included), Jesus was most critical of the religious leaders, Pharisees in particular. They allowed their man-made laws to hold as much, if not more value than the original laws. This laid heavy burdens on the common man to try to observe, much less know, all these rules. As I studied the intricacies of these many rules in the Mishna, I found myself thinking, what does it matter? In addition to being a Pharisee, Nicodemus was also part of the elite Jerusalem ruling council called the Sanhedrin. These 70 leaders, plus the High Priest, made up this powerful group. Israel was under Roman oppression at the time, but Rome did allow the Jews some leeway in governing themselves in the realm of their religious matters. Nicodemus, then, was in the upper of the upper echelon of Jewish society. As Jesus popularity grew, so grew the Pharisees’ disdain for Jesus. “He doesn’t do things the way we do. Listen to the things he says. Who does he think he is, the Messiah?” Indeed! So for Nicodemus, a prestigious Pharisee, to seek out Jesus at all was quite a dangerous feat. No wonder he chose to do it in the cloak of night. The religious leaders were always full of questions for Jesus, not in order to learn from him, but to trick him and show how ignorant he was. Quite possibly Nicodemus came with many questions, perhaps even with a desire to truly understand Jesus and his strange teachings. But Jesus ends up doing most of the talking in this very well-known discourse in John 3. Next week we will examine the actual dialogue between the two of them. For application of today’s description of the Pharisees, I am reminded of those who are very religious in their beliefs today. They may be very moral and hold to high biblical standards, but have a demeaning, critical spirit. It may be that you even agree with them about certain values, but their demeanor is such that you shudder to be seen or associated with them. A loving attitude is simply not there. Jesus might call it a self-righteous attitude. Oh that we would guard ourselves against such. Oh that we would be strong in our convictions, but stronger in the caring way we convey them. Think on such things this week. I’d love to hear your ideas. Click on “Comment” below. You won’t see your comment right away, but after I  okay it (for reasons of possible spam), it will be seen.

~ Joyce ~