Richard Exley Ministries

Relationships Not Rules
Posted on July 15, 2008

"...the way to know God is relationally, the way a child knows his parents or the way a man relates to his sweetheart."

The moon is full and high in the sky as Nicodemus approaches Gethsemane, causing the trees to cast deformed shadows on the ground.  Entering the garden he pauses to listen.  At first all he can hear is the sound of his own breathing, loud in his ears.  As he grows accustomed to the stillness of the night he begins to discern sounds – the breeze in the trees, a small animal rustling in the brush and the noise of insects.  Faintly he hears the sound of a man’s voice, the words indistinguishable to his ear.

Following the sound, he arrives at an opening in the trees. In the clearing a man is kneeling, his face lifted toward the heavens.  Obviously he is praying, but it is unlike anything Nicodemus has ever heard. There is no posturing, no careful turning of a phrase.  Instead there is a camaraderie, an intimacy in his prayer that generates a hunger in Nicodemus’s own heart, an ache really.  Involuntarily he finds himself thinking, Would that I knew God the way he does.

He cannot bear the thought of intruding on such an intimate moment but before he can slip away Jesus senses his presence.  Rising from the place of prayer he moves across the clearing toward him.  Recognition fills his face and he takes Nicodemus by the shoulders and greets him with a kiss.
“Nicodemus,” he says, “how good of you to come.” 
The warmth of his greeting causes Nicodemus to pause.  It’s almost as if Jesus were expecting him.  Yet, that could not be for he had discussed his plans with no one, not even his wife.  For a moment he is at a loss for words, but with an effort he recovers his composure.

Clearing his throat he begins, nervousness causing his words to spill out. “Rabbi, we know you are a special teacher sent from God.  There’s no other explanation.  I mean, how else could you do the miracles you are doing?” Not knowing what else to say he stumbles to a stop.

Jesus studies him intently, as if trying to discern his motives.  Finally he says, “I tell you the absolute truth and I do not exaggerate, you will never see the kingdom of God, let alone enter it, unless you are born again.”

“Born again!” Nicodemus exclaims, “What in the world are you talking about?  I’m a grown man.  I can’t return to my mother’s womb and be born a second time.  Teacher, I respect you but you are not making sense.”   

“Nicodemus don’t take my words so literal.  I’m not talking about returning to your mother’s womb.  I’m talking about being born of the Spirit. There is a natural birth and there is a spiritual birth.  The natural birth produces physical life and the spiritual birth produces spiritual life.  The natural birth can never produce spiritual life and without spiritual life you will never enter the Kingdom of God.”

What Jesus is saying makes a certain kind of sense, although Nicodemus is having trouble getting his mind around it.  The natural birth is easy enough to understand but what in the world is spiritual birth?  How does it happen?  What does a person look like when he is born of the spirit?  Is he two people or one?  And if he is only one person which one is he?  The natural man or the spiritual man?
His confusion must be apparent for Jesus says, “What I am talking about can’t be understood until you’ve experienced it.  Spiritual truth comes to the heart first.  Even then, even when you know it is more real than anything you’ve ever experienced, you will still have trouble comprehending it, let alone explaining it.  It’s kind of like the wind.  You know it is real even though you can’t explain it.  You hear the sound it makes when it blows but you don’t know where it comes from or where it is going.

“You’re a learned man, Nicodemus, a teacher in Israel, and yet you do not know God.  Why?  Because you have created a religion of rules.  You study the law but you do not know the lawgiver.  You know all about Him but you don’t know Him.
“What God wants, more than anything, is a relationship with you.  Why do you think He sent His only begotten Son into the world?  Not to condemn the world I can tell you that, but that through Him the world might be saved. 

“Stop trusting in the law.  Stop trusting in your own efforts.  Throw yourself on the love of God, for He loved the world so much that He gave His only Son that you might have eternal life.

“If you believe in me and the things I am telling you, you will not be judged and found wanting.  But if you do not believe you are already judged and found wanting for you have not believed in God’s one and only Son.”  

Having said that Jesus slips into the night, leaving Nicodemus with his thoughts and what a hodgepodge they are.  His purpose in coming tonight was to get some answers and what he has been left with is a whole new set of questions.  Has his entire life been wasted?  Does his devotion to the Law of Moses count for nothing?  Where does he go from here?  What does he do now?

Although he is more than a little confused, there is no denying what he feels when he is in the presence of Jesus. Jesus gives him hope. When Jesus speaks life seems to open up. It’s filled with possibilities. Studying the Law, on the other hand, leaves him feeling like a failure. No matter how hard he tries he can never measure up.

If he is honest with himself, he has to admit that the Law is out of reach.  Is that what Jesus is trying to get him to see?  That since he can never fully keep the Law it will always be a source of condemnation.  And even if he could fully obey the Law from this moment forward, which of course he can’t, it would not remove the sinful failures of his past.  Maybe that is the ultimate purpose of the Law – to convince him of his need of a savior.

Being an intellectual, he has always approached God cognitively but it hasn’t worked.  He knows a lot about God but he doesn’t know Him.  God is an abstraction to him, a theological concept at best, nothing more. 

If he understands Jesus correctly, the way to know God is relationally, the way a child knows his parents or the way a man relates to his sweetheart.  As a child, his family was not an abstraction he studied but a community into which he was born. He knew his parents because he was in relationship with them – he lived in their home, he ate at their table. There were family rules of course, but he never mistook the rules for his parents.            

Is that what he has done?  Has he mistaken the law for the Lawgiver?  So it would seem and what a fine mess he has made.  As men go, he is a morally good man but he has no relationship with God.  So where does he go from here?

Maybe it all boils down to what Jesus called being born again.  Maybe the only way he can ever really know God is to be born into His family, to live in His house and eat at His table.  If he could do that then maybe he could pray the way Jesus prayed – as if he were having an intimate conversation.  As if God were nearer than the breath he breathed and more real than life itself.


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Category: Ministry