Thursday, May 31, 2012

Why Doesn't the Teacher of Israel Know These Things: Thoughts on Holy Trinity

Nicodemus said to him, "How can these things be?" Jesus answered him, "Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony."
Christ Instructing Nicodemus, Crijn Hendricksz 1604
This is a curious interchange. It sounds like Nicodemus' standing as the teacher of Israel is at stake here. That as the teacher of Israel, Nicodemus should know, that he should understand these things. And that raises a question: why? Why should Nicodemus know this? What Scripture would have informed him?
Consider the life of Jacob. It begins in struggle. His parents struggle to conceive despite the fact that Abraham's servant met Rebekah beside a well, an image of fertility. Jacob struggles with his brother Esau in the womb. God declares, "The elder shall serve the younger." Jacob is a heel-grabber, a supplanter, a wrestler. He wrestles away Esau's birthright. He wrestles off the lid of the well to water Rachel's flocks. He wrestles with Laban for the right to have Rachel as his wife. He struggles to conceive with Rachel despite the fact that he met her beside a well. And finally, he wrestles with the Angel of the Lord at the River Jabbok. This is the defining event. This is where everything changes. Jacob is born again, born from above, born of God.

There is this consonantal play on Jacob's name throughout this account that highlights the problem. The problem is Jacob's name. He is a supplanter. He's a wrestler. These are the main words: ya'qob (Jacob), yabboq (Jabbok), 'abaq (wrestle), yaqa (be dislocated). Now the word for Jabbok (yabboq) comes from the word baqaq, which means "to empty." Thus the Jabbok is a stream that is not always full. A stream that empties, that dries up unless it is filled with water from above. It is beside this dried-up stream, an image of infertility and a summation of his family history, that Jacob wrestles with the Angel of the Lord.

And so under the cover of darkness, by night, Jacob wrestles with the Angel of the Lord at the river Jabbok. But at daybreak, the Angel of the Lord dislocates Jacob's hip finally ending the match but not without first receiving a blessing. He receives a new name: Israel for he has striven with God and with men, and have prevailed. There was evening and there was morning, a new day has come. Jacob is born again. He is born from above. He no longer is supplanter. He is the one who has prevailed. And so when Jacob meets Esau on the other side of the Jabbok, he no longer wrestles. He no longer supplants.

The events of Jacob's life repeat in the people who take his name for their own. In Hosea 12:2-6,
"The Lord has an indictment against Judah and will punish Jacob according to his ways; he will repay him according to his deeds. In the womb he took his brother by the heel, and in his manhood he strove with God. He strove with the angel and prevailed; he wept and sought his favor. He met God at Bethel, and there God spoke with us—the Lord, the God of hosts, the Lord is his memorial name: 'So you, by the help of your God, return, hold fast to love and justice, and wait continually for your God.'”
But will the Jacob of Hosea's day return? Will they be reborn as their father? In Hosea 13:13,
"The pangs of childbirth come for him, but he is an unwise son, for at the right time he does not present himself at the opening of the womb."
Might this have prepared Nicodemus (whose name eerily echoes that of Israel--the people's victory) for his conversation with Jesus about being born again, being born from above? Regardless, he doesn't get it. He doesn't receive the testimony of the Holy Trinity because he hasn't been born of water and the Spirit.

But he will. He will when he beholds the Son of Man lifted up just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness. For it is then, when Jesus was lifted up on the cross, when He hands down (παραδίδωμι) His Spirit (John 19:30) and pours out water from His pierced side (John 19:34), it is then that Nicodemus finally receives (λαμβάνω) Him (John 19:39-40). Nicodemus has the victory because he has the One Who conquers. He is born again. He is born from above. He is born of water and the Spirit. And there was evening and there was morning.
The Entombment of Christ, Badalocchio

Are we not all Jacob and Israel and Nicodemus? Are we not all wrestlers? Are we not all dried up, infertile, wandering in the waterless wilderness of this world? And yet have we not been born of God, born from above, born of water and the Spirit? Yes. We have. And so we, too, receive Him. We, too, receive His Body. And there was evening and there was morning, all things are new.


  1. This is excellent and profound, Jason. Thanks for your insightful thoughts, and for your hard work in rightly wrestling with these texts. Very helpful. A blessed Feast of the Holy Trinity to you and yours.

  2. I think Nicodemus should also know it from the very first chapters Moses wrote. That in the beginning, man was dead: "If you eat of the fruit of this tree, you will surely die."


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