It’s arguably the most well known Bible verse of all time. John 3:16. It’s found in football stadiums, on street corners and in wall hangings.
“For God so loved the world,” the verse begins, “that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
It’s a line from a conversation Jesus is having at a midnight rendezvous with Nicodemus—a Pharisee—a member of a religious elite at odds with Jesus. The Pharisees felt threatened by Jesus assertions and were offended by his assumptions. They thought he was a heretic and believed he was crazy.
But then, under the cover of night, Nicodemus shows up. Where Jesus’ teachings had turned off other Pharisees, they had intrigued Nicodemus. So they meet and Nicodemus asks questions. And Jesus responds with more questions. And the most famous Bible verse of all time emerges.
Sixteen chapters later, Nicodemus is back. Jesus has been crucified, and Joseph of Arimathea has asked for Jesus’ body to bury. But he isn’t alone. Nicodemus, the Pharisee, the man who had met with Jesus in the dark of night, is with him. Together they wrap Jesus in linen and spices, preparing his body for burial.
Reading the gospels, it’s obvious there was no love lost between Jesus and the Pharisees. Nicodemus was an exception. He seeks Jesus out, and in the end, Nicodemus tenderly, carefully, intentionally, cares for the body of a man the crowds demanded be killed, and the religious leaders plotted to be done away with. Which means, maybe it wasn’t the Pharisees themselves Jesus had a problem with. Maybe it was something about them.
What made Nicodemus different?
He was hungry for answers and understanding. And in a secret meeting, in the dark of night, he sought them out. He understood that for all he knew, there was even more he didn’t. For as set in his ways as he may have been, for as certain as he may have been convinced he was, he wasn’t discounting the possibility that Jesus was who he said he was—the Son of God.
Robert Capone writes of how we ought to have dead hands. He says when our hands are alive, they are reactive, they close up, they shut out, they keep white knuckled grips on what we think and what we believe. But Jesus’ message was one of death. At being at the end of our rope and finding grace there. Death, as Jesus so often pointed out, is the way to a fuller life. Having dead hands means they are open. They can’t grab or hold on to anything. They are in the process of receiving, not hoarding. Of listening, not demanding.
I think Nicodemus the Pharisee is an anomaly, because he had dead hands. Because he was a question asker, a conversation starter, a grace giver and a grace receiver. I think the things that bothered Jesus most about the teachers of the law, wasn’t the law itself—he came to fulfill it after all, not abolish it—but their locked down, closed fisted, very much alive, hands. It was that they asked questions only for purposes of interrogating. Started conversations, only as a means to lay a trap. Offered grace, but only with sanctions.
That’s what ticked Jesus off. Not a whole profession—or else Nicodemus never would have made the cut. But the posture, the positioning, the tone, those in that profession tended to have.
It’s hard to have a conversation with someone who is certain they are right.
It’s hard to exchange graces when anger and condescension are typed into your timeline.
It’s hard to ask questions, when the asker is fearful of being shamed and humiliated in the very asking itself.
It’s hard to live like Jesus if you insist on having living hands.
That’s true even if your close-fisted, white-knuckled grip is on the truth. The Pharisee’s didn’t believe badly, after all. They behaved badly. And they missed God in the process. And I think we’re in danger of the same thing happening to us, today.
Yes, we ought to pursue what we believe Jesus would have us to—in our political leanings and our moral convictions, but…
…if we are creating a culture where people can only ask questions and express uncertainty under the cover of night, we’re doing it wrong.
…if we are insistent on our way of seeing and understanding the world—and getting there on a timetable we determine—we are doing it wrong.
…if where we land causes us to have a posture that demeans those different thinking than us, condescends those who haven’t yet arrived at our brand of belief, and shames those into feeling fearful of even voicing where they are and how they arrived there, we’re doing it wrong.
These days, I wish I saw more people following Jesus living with dead hands. Who can post on Facebook saying,, “This is were I land. Tell me how you got where you are.” Or “Getting where I am took a long time. I haven’t always been here, so I understand if you aren’t there yet.” Or tweeting, “I believe the best in you. I’m going to believe there’s a reason you think what you do.” Or maybe most of all, “I’m not your Holy Spirit. Forgive me if I’ve acted like one. We’re both in process somewhere. Let’s be gracious to each other where we aren’t the same.”
When we are trying to communicate the truth, as we have come to understand it, but in the process are neglecting to remember where we once were ourselves, and the personal journey we took to get there, we are missing the point. No one arrives anywhere over night. No one is demeaned into having their mind changed. No one is strong armed into a new way of understanding. And no one is shamed into a new way of thinking. If we neglect to understand that, we are not only not winning any converts, we are discounting entire groups of people whose experiences haven’t landed them in the same place ours have. Yet.
Because isn’t that the crux of it? Learning to have willing hands when it comes to acknowledging the varying places we’ve landed right now? We all have different starting points. Some of us have taken a lifetime to land where we are. Others made an about face just a few years ago and are still learning what that means and adjusting our course because of it. We live on a spectrum. We are, all of us, in progress. Doesn’t our willingness to be led by the Spirit in our journey count, even if we haven’t yet arrived where others have? We’re all getting there. Can we extend grace as we figure out just where “there” is? Can we live with dead hands in our interactions with and understanding of others?
I am under no illusion that at the end of the day we could land at the same place theologically or politically. But I have to believe there is another end available to us. These days, since unity seems to be off the table, let’s at least go for kind. If not agreement, humble disagreement. If not sameness, grace. If not conformity, love.
We are all figuring it out. Maybe some of us are further along than others. Maybe those we are most frustrated with will one day have a change of opinion. Maybe God’s working on something else in them completely. Be patient. God knows He has been with us. And let’s try loosening our grip, if even for a second. And in the end, we may not change anyone else’s mind, but we may find people willing to seek us out for conversation, and not diatribes. For questions and not rants. For insight and not tirades. We may find ourselves friends with those we so vehemently disagree with. Not because anyone changed their opinion, but because we all changed our posture.
“For God so loved the world,” Jesus told Nicodemus.
Now, let’s go and do likewise.