Questions Jesus Asked 4 | Signal to Noise Ratio…

You are a teacher in Israel and you do not understand this? (John 3: 10)

It doesn’t seem like Jesus was implying here that being a “teacher in Israel” was a bad thing. Nor do I think that we was trying to rap his night visitor for being a bad teacher.

Nicodemus with Jesus in the Night: Rembrandt
Nicodemus with Jesus in the Night: Rembrandt

This was not about Nicodemus’ personal shortcomings; Jesus wasn’t trying to shame him. The framework of knowledge through which he was pursuing God was simply not capable of integrating, explaining, or even noticing something very important.

Jesus is challenging Professor Nicodemus to step back from his self-perceived “identity” as a biblical scholar and listen to the wind of the Spirit, to hear the voice of Jesus. Though the disciplines that he (and, we ourselves) commit to are designed to lead us toward a place we can hear from God, we are asked to hear God’s voice as it speaks from outside that discipline. This had to be rather disconcerting to the teacher. It was time, now that he was hearing from Jesus directly, not to abandon his studies, but to recognize their limitations. It was time to allow them (and everything else) to be relativized before a personal dialogue with the Master.

Study for Nicodemus Visiting Jesus, Henry Ossawa Tanner
Study for Nicodemus Visiting Jesus, Henry Ossawa Tanner

We as well locate ourselves (usually to our own comfort and all too often to the discomfort of others) within our own disciplines, schools of thought, denominations, confessions. “You’re a seminary professor in systematic theology and you do not undertand…?” “You’ve got your PhD in physics, and you aren’t able to grasp…?” “You’re such a great entrepreneur, you see every opportunity, yet you’re unable to…?”

Sunrise. Larnaca, Cyprus March 2015
Sunrise. Larnaca, Cyprus March 2015

It is both in our nature and in accordance with God’s design for us that to seek and accumulate knowledge. And it seems to be an inevitable by-product of our cognitive design that we are driven to organize, to systematize. And, insofar as we believe that we have gained skill, mastery, or knowledge in a given sphere, we may even be so bold as to teach (both the system and its content) to others. But then, Jesus catches you in a quiet moment, holds something so simple before you… and asks you how it was that you missed it.

Mill Pond sunbeam. August 2014.
Mill Pond sunbeam. August 2014.

I don’t believe Jesus intended Nicodemus to leave his teaching as a result of this deficiency… nor do I think that Nicodemus went home to tinker with his syllabus in order to bring the knowledge Jesus imparted about the spirit and birth from above neatly into his academic corral. Instead, the question leads him to recognize the shortcomings of even his chosen vocation, his passion, his “skill set”… and realize that there was no way he was ever going to develop a system that would explain everything there was to know about the Eternal Creator, his Spirit of Holiness, and his Sent One without remainder. God is always speaking to us from the outside.

Window. Izola, Slovenia, July 2015
Window. Izola, Slovenia, July 2015

Whatever your “framework,” evangelical or Orthodox or reformed or Baptist or whatever, God probably isn’t trying to rip it apart. But insofar as one’s identity is in the “label” or the “brand name,” it’s quite likely that Jesus is going to draw you aside to show you something of the mysterious movings of his Spirit. I imagine Jesus with an ironic turn to his lips as he speaks, gently pointing out what we’ve been missing while we were allowing our frameworks and disciplines to become shutters instead of windows.

Andriivskiy Cathedra. Kyiv, Ukraine. July 2015
Andriivskiy Cathedra. Kyiv, Ukraine. July 2015

A good way to build dialog with others is to listen and learn from them in their areas of expertise. Don’t try to impress people that you know a little about the things about which they know a lot. Particularly as you engage people from a standpoint of wanting to bring the truth and power of the gospel into contact with their lives. Instead, be yourself – look at the simple things with which God has touched your heart, your life. Each of us is walking through life, like Nicodemus, with “missing pieces” in our worldview, things we don’t know, can’t explain, or have shrugged off as insignificant. Every discipline, every life approach uses the principle of “picture and background,” of “signal and noise.” We pick out as significant certain things… and push the rest aside as being “background noise,” much as I pick out the ballgame on the radio on a faraway station from the static. A good, well-timed question can do something amazing: it can bring knowledge out of what one had thought was noise.

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