I’ve been paddling in early John. There are a lot of pretty pebbles and shells to pick up in John. Treasures. You can spend a week sitting in the shallows exploring the striations on one beautiful stone. One Bible verse can be as fulfilling as multiple chapters, though in a different way. There’s satisfaction in hoeing into a hearty roast meal and being filled; but there’s also satisfaction in mindfully savouring one exquisite morsel of key lime cheesecake.
I’m eavesdropping, like John, on a private conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus. Nico has come to Jesus on the quiet. He’s on the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council; their public stance is that they Do Not Agree with Jesus. Not His teachings, not His ways, not the potential risk He and His fans pose to the delicately-balanced arrangement they have with Rome. And certainly not His competition. Privately, though, he says, they admit amongst themselves that only an agent of God could do the miracles Jesus has been doing. But their private admission is dissonant with their public stance, and is kept out of sight. As Nico has remained out of sight: an odd stance for a Jew with a Greek name bearing revolutionary overtones.
Jesus and Nico are talking about the spiritual versus the natural. “Even in the natural,” Jesus is saying, “you can see the wind but not its source or its destination. What it does doesn’t necessarily point to anything that you can really discern. Same with spirit life. You can’t discern its ins and outs because you’re not part of that world.” Show a medieval knight a smartphone, and ask him if it’s magic or science … he’s not dimmer than you are, but he doesn’t share your world, so “… how can you know?” Jesus goes on. “Well and good if the Sanhedrin thinks I may be a prophet; but who’s going to verify it? You can’t ask me to call a witness who’s been to Heaven, because, well, I’m it. So whose word is ever going to hold weight here? In the end you have to choose to either believe I’m telling the truth, and join me, or reject the ‘evidence’ of your own eyes.”
The conversation goes on, and it takes an interesting turn. Jesus, up til now in this gospel, has only dropped hints of His parentage. Nico is the first person who gets an explanation. And it goes like this.
“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. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through Him. Whoever believes in Him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son ….”
Back up a little. What is the name of God’s only begotten Son? Jesus, “God saves”. And Emmanuel, “God with us”.
I’m not altogether certain how the Law of First Mention works – whether you can apply it only to one Testament – but it’s a rule of thumb when interpreting the Bible, something like this: the first time something is mentioned, its context is good for the rest of the canon.
The first time we meet Jesus Christ in His incarnation is Matthew 1:1. “The genealogy of Jesus Christ …” The first time we meet the Son of God directly as a concept (rather than a theophany such as “the Angel of the Lord”) in the Old Testament is, I think, Isaiah 7:14: “The virgin will conceive and will give birth to a son, and will call Him Immanuel.” (I could be wrong about that being the very first, because the Psalms are sprinkled with cameos and all other books with types and shadows, but it’s there, and I think it’s the first direct prophecy. Anyhow, my argument for Matthew 1:1 stands.)
So the first mention of this actual man, leads with His name: Jesus Christ, Yeshua Ha’Mashiach or Christos. God saves; the Anointed One. And by implication, God with us, the Almighty-empowered burden-remover and slavery-destroyer.
Everything we read about Jesus from that point on, has to be coloured by the context not only of His inheritance as a son of David by direct descent in two lines, but by the very first pieces of information we have about Him: His names.
Names are identity. Modern naming does not follow this tradition as closely and, dare I say it, as superstitiously as the younger world did. Yet names remain powerful. Many, myself included, believe that story, history and destiny are encoded in a name. I think that is why sometimes people’s names are jarring: they’ve been given a name they weren’t intended for: “you just don’t look like a Susan!” “I’ve never met a mean Kellie.” And so on. Your name can be baptised, by the way. My name means, among many other things, “bound”. But rather than be a person trapped in bondage, I’ve chosen to give its weight over to God, to make me one who binds up the brokenness of others. (For more reading on the power of names, I recommend the brilliant “God’s Poetry” by Anne Hamilton.)
God sends us His Son, and sends His name ahead of Him. He comes first and foremost as Saviour. Not as teacher. Not as stellar example. Not as miracle worker or social reformer or even healer. He is the longed-for God-with-us and He is Saviour.
So when Jesus tells Nico that “whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son”, He’s not mucking around. He’s not just taking His bat and ball and going home like a spoiled child. The sending of Jesus was a fundamentally clear message: “I am with you, and I save.” To reject Jesus, therefore, is to reject His name: God saves. The identity of Jesus is inextricably entwined with the identity of the Godhead. “God saves” defines them both simultaneously. Rejecting Jesus is therefore calling God a liar, when He tells us He will save and He is with us. That’s why the only way to the Father is through the Son. The Son is the photocopy of God: and then God made flesh: what God looks like dumbed down on the ground, grainy and black-and-white, but unmistakably Him. Discounting one is discounting the other by extension. “Whoever has seen Me has seen the Father,” Jesus told His disciples. Jesus is the Son of God by name (onoma – brand – and the Logos, the living and animating testament) as well as by nature and appointment. To understand God, we look at His progeny, which has written all over it “I am Saviour and Redeemer, strength and refuge, a very present help in times of trouble.” Whoever has seen Jesus in action has glimpsed the identity of the Father: one who saves and is always with us.
You cannot be saved, Nicodemus, except through the Saviour, because you cannot be saved at all if you do not believe in salvation Himself.