03163_000_009The Savior’s invitation to rise above the commonplace of “earthly things” and reach for the uncommon possibilities of “heavenly things.”
Jesus gave us a living list of virtues through the example of his daily experience. One of those virtues that is especially needed in our routine contact with others—with family, friends, members, and nonmembers—is the rare ability to accept people for what they are, while lifting them toward what they can become. Whether dealing with devoted disciples close at hand, or publicans and prostitutes less familiar with such love, Jesus saw all of them as children of God. Some, he knew, were doing better than others, but all were in need of the higher, heavenly view he came to bring.
In his mingling with men and women of every background and station, Jesus demonstrated what could be called the “common touch.” His parables were directed toward the ordinary—toward fishermen and farmers, husbands and housewives, servants and shepherds. And he was particularly conscious of the needy, the hungry stranger, and the imprisoned debtor—those whom others might consider “the least” and most common among them. (See Matt. 25:35–40.)
Yet even as he walked and talked with the ordinary of Galilee and Judea, there was nothing ordinary about his impact upon them. Although he taught with a common touch, he elevated their lives in such remarkable ways that his must more properly be called an uncommon touch. There are many examples of his compassion linked with strong counsel, and of his patience coupled to urgent persuasion. Consider these few from the Gospel according to John.
Nicodemus was not so “common” in contemporary Judaic society. But he was one who nevertheless needed his vision enlarged and his life lifted. His need for the Master’s touch revealed how universal that need was. In the sight of God, all needed the “new testament” written in their hearts regardless of social standing or ecclesiastical significance under the law of Moses. (See Jer. 31:33.)
John describes Nicodemus as “a man of the Pharisees, … a ruler of the Jews” (John 3:1), a member of the powerful Jewish Sanhedrin. But in his groping toward the light he was, in a sense, as plain as all others darkened by apostasy and damaged by life lived without revelation.
Nicodemus was obviously haunted by what he heard and saw and felt coming from Jesus. On the other hand he was not quite confident enough to come by day, publicly, and acknowledge Jesus’ Messiahship. His first remark seems tentative, almost exploratory. “We know that thou art a teacher come from God,” he says, but in the record we have, he stops short of admitting the Savior’s Messiahship and shys away from asking what he must do to be saved.
Fortunately—as with others coming with other kinds of limitations—Jesus reached out to him, inviting Nicodemus to reach up: “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again [or, “from above”], he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
Nicodemus’s response is confused. Conditioned by his Pharisaic literalism, he was either unwilling or unable to grasp the Savior’s meaning and chose to give the reference to “birth” its most immediate meaning.
“How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb, and be born?” he asked.
Jesus patiently clarified: “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.”
Nicodemus must have looked either bewildered or incredulous because Jesus continued, bringing down to the rabbi’s level a teaching which apparently was too lofty for him to grasp otherwise. Master teacher that he was, Jesus seized on a double meaning of a Hebrew word and used it to lead Nicodemus from the temporal to the spiritual. In Hebrew the word “spirit” was rendered ruah, which also meant “puff” or “gust,” as a gust of wind. So, striving to teach of the Spirit, Jesus used the very word.
“Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again.
“The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.”
But Nicodemus seemed more confused than ever. “How can these things be?” he asked. Jesus answered, “Art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not these things? … If I have told you earthly things, and ye believe not, how shall ye believe, if I tell you of heavenly things?”
Indeed, how can anyone understand spiritual, eternal truths if he is muddled about physical, temporal facts? If he does not understand the whispering source of the Spirit, perhaps he will understand the whispering source of the wind as an earthly application of an otherwise heavenly teaching. We must come to understand heavenly things by starting where we are. (See John 3:1–12.)
This same lesson is repeated—twice—in the next chapter of John’s account. The geography, circumstances, and participants are different, but obviously a common need runs through the entire fabric of Judaic life. It is clear that all people will need the Savior’s uncommon touch if the scales of darkness are to fall from their eyes.
While traveling through Samaria among people intensely despised by the Jews of that day, Jesus and his disciples passed by the city of Sychar, “near to the parcel of ground that Jacob gave to his son Joseph.” (John 4:5.) This area, which included within its borders Jacob’s well, was uniquely symbolic of the Jewish-Samaritan animosity. Samaritans spoke strongly for their ancestral tie to Jacob—and the Jews denied them that assertion with equal vehemence. Did Jesus choose just such a location to lift the sight of both groups, too long limited by dark traditions?
While his disciples went into the city to buy food (it was the noon hour), Jesus sat on the stone perimeter of the well and watched a Samaritan woman approach with her waterpot in hand. The woman must have been very surprised to hear this Jewish traveler speak to her as she was preparing to lower her waterpot for water. Not only was a man speaking to a woman he did not know, but more strikingly, he was a Jew addressing a Samaritan. Nevertheless he said to her, “Give me to drink.”
She questioned his request, as well she might, and Jesus had exactly the teaching situation he wanted.
“If thou knewest the gift of God,” he said, “and who it is that saith to thee, Give me to drink; thou wouldest have asked of him, and he would have given thee living water.”
Here the Savior instantly introduced a hint of his true identity, a revelation that could indeed be “living water” to this woman if she could grasp “heavenly things.” But she showed no such inclination, wondering aloud how this man could possibly give her any water—living or otherwise—when he had nothing to draw with from such a deep well. Like Nicodemus, she struggled here even to understand “earthly things.”
Jesus went on. Referring to temporal sustenance, he said, “Whosoever drinketh of this water shall thirst again.” Then he said, “But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life.”
This profound declaration so movingly spoken clearly captured the Samaritan woman’s attention. But she was still caught up in the common—rather than uncommon—possibilities. She could not see his higher purpose, but she was certainly interested in a perpetual source of water that would spare her these difficult daily trips to the well! “Sir,” she said respectfully, “give me this water, that I thirst not, neither come hither to draw.” (John 4:15.)
Jesus reached out one more time to help her understand. He tried to help by speaking of her most personal “earthly things” and asked her to call her husband. She replied that she had no husband. Jesus said, in effect, you certainly do not, and I include in that denial not only the man with whom you are now living but perhaps also the five who preceded him.
At this stunning revelation the woman cried out, “Sir, I perceive that thou art a prophet.”
Surely it is fair to assume that Christ would have preferred to talk to the woman about living water rather than bogus husbands. But with her, as with Nicodemus, he met the student where she was in order to take her where she needed to go. Indeed he took the most common of women in one of the most common, yet serious sins, and lifted her to uncommon opportunity. In response to her confession that “I know that Messias cometh, which is called Christ,” he replied powerfully and pointedly: “I that speak unto thee am he.” (See John 4:5–26.)
Jesus seized on earthly things the woman could understand in order to lift her toward “heavenly things” she did not understand.
But what of others closer to Christ and stronger of spirit? We might suppose that a tradition-bound member of the Sanhedrin and an unfaithful woman of Samaria might have considerable difficulty breaking away from the commonplace which held them down. But what of Jesus’ disciples? An answer to that question, at least in part, follows immediately in John’s narrative.
Just as Jesus was concluding his discussion with the Samaritan woman, his disciples returned from the village with food for a midday meal, “saying, Master, eat.
“But he said unto them, I have meat to eat that ye know not of.” (John 4:31–32.)
Obviously Jesus was referring to the “sustenance” of the experience he had just had with the Samaritan woman. He had, in a very few moments, lifted her from probable hostility and spiritual stupor to a state where she at least began to glimpse spiritual matters and heard in a wonderfully rare moment the Son of God declare himself to be the long-awaited Messiah. This was “meat” to one who fed on things of the Spirit—more so than a common crust of bread or literal cut of lamb so faithfully obtained in town by his brethren.
But very much like Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman before them, the disciples had not yet had enough experience to understand.
“Hath any man brought him ought to eat?” they asked in bewilderment. If he has had meat to eat we know not of, who brought it to him and why did he send us into the city? they wondered. Why would he have us make such an effort and then eat here with another before we return?
We smile slightly at this moment of confusion because we know what has transpired in their absence. Perhaps if they had known why Jesus was speaking to the woman and what it was he said, they would have more readily understood his reference to eating meat of quite a different kind. Christ’s “meat,” like his “living water,” would leave one filled for eternity. In his gentle, patient, uncommon way, Christ lifted his beloved followers from the commonplace.
“My meat is to do the will of him that sent me, and to finish his work.
“Say not ye, there are yet four months, and then cometh harvest? behold, I say unto you, Lift up your eyes, and look on the fields; for they are white already to harvest.”
Jesus had seen an opportunity with eternal significance and seized it. For him, the field was always ready to harvest. He saw past the traditions and the wrangling and the pettiness of men. Indeed, he had even seen past the woman’s very serious sins. What he saw was a chance to lift a life, to teach a human soul, to edify a child of God and move her toward salvation. That was his “meat” and his “work.” Certainly it was the will of his father which he had come to fulfill. Even these disciples who had become so close to the Master had yet to shed fully the scales of traditional darkness from their view. They, too, needed the uncommon invitation commonly extended to lift up their eyes to higher purposes, loftier meanings, more spiritual sustenance. (See John 4:27–35.)
After noting a few such incidents, it becomes clear that this same lesson is taught by the Savior again and again. Jesus spoke of TEMPLES and the people thought he spoke of temples. (John 2:18–21.) He spoke of BREAD and the people thought he spoke of bread. (John 6:30–58.) And so on. And these were not merely parables in the allegorical sense of multiple applications of a single saying. They were in every case an invitation to “lift up your eyes,” to see “heavenly things”—specifically to see and understand Him. But they are also repeated manifestations of his willingness to meet people on their own terms, however limited that understanding, and there lead them on to higher ground. Ultimately, if they would, it would lead them beyond time and space altogether, into eternity.
As a reminder of the obligation for us to do likewise, consider this final application.
Following Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, the plight and disarray of the disciples were perhaps best phrased by Peter’s declaration, “I go a fishing.” Thinking perhaps their gospel task was concluded with the mortal conclusion of Christ’s life, the other disciples said, “We also go with thee.” (John 21:3.) In short, they went back to earthly endeavors.
But after a night’s unsuccessful work with the nets, the disciples saw morning break and Jesus standing on the shore. After they returned to shore to be with him, he lifted them with his uncommon touch yet one more time.
To Simon Peter, chief Apostle and he to whom the mantle of the mortal ministry and leadership had been passed, Jesus said: “Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me more than these?” Peter quickly reassured his Master, “Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee.” (John 21:15.)
Again a second time Jesus asked, “Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me?” Peter, now more troubled, reaffirmed anxiously, “Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee.” (John 21:16.)
But still a third time the Savior asked, “Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me?” and Peter, now openly grieved that the Savior would doubt him so, replied, “Lord, thou knowest all things; thou knowest that I love thee.”
Perhaps it is both unnecessary and unfair to probe too deeply into this exchange. The great commandment given to Peter and the disciples here was to feed Christ’s sheep, the little flock of followers that had already accepted him plus the multitude beyond their immediate circle who yet had need to hear and accept the gospel message. Clearly Peter was to be a fisher of men for the rest of his life and would need to forsake his nets at Galilee. Perhaps that is all that needs to be read here.
Furthermore, it may be sufficient to note that the thrice-repeated query and response could simply have served to reinforce the great significance of this task. Peter may have been particularly pained at three reminders after having denied association with the Savior thrice (see Matt. 26:34), but we have no reason to doubt the genuineness of his declared love. However, the New Testament language employed here does give one more powerful invitation to move from the commonplace of “earthly things” to the uncommon possibilities of “heavenly things.”
Although Jesus and Peter were not speaking Greek (they would have been speaking Aramaic), the account we have of John’s gospel record comes to us in that language. Two different Greek words for “love” are used in the exchange. In both the first and second inquiries, Jesus’ question of Peter’s love is asked in terms of agape, the highest form of love—what we would call “Christlike” or “sacrificial” love. But in reply, Peter’s reassurance of love is rendered both times a different, lesser word—philos, or something more like “brotherly love.” Then it seems significant that in his third inquiry, Jesus himself uses the equivalent of philos, not agape, and Peter for the third time replies with philos.
It seems most appropriate that one of the great reminders in this final chapter of John’s account is that Christ loves us where we are, even if that is not yet where we ought to be. Peter’s “brotherly love” was acceptable, even though Jesus took this very setting to prophesy how much sacrificial, Christlike love Peter would soon be called upon to display and how magnificently he would do so. (See John 21:18–19.)
But that achievement for Peter—like Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman, and the other disciples—would come another day. What he and they could do was start now, where they stood, with what they had—common as it was. And through the miraculous touch of the Master’s hand, they could be led to uncommonly exalted moments.
Wherever we are, we too can be on the way to “heavenly things” if we seek and accept the Savior’s patient, ennobling uncommon touch.
Let’s Talk about It
After reading “Lift Up Your Eyes,” you may wish to discuss some of the following questions:
1. Consider the Savior’s ability to be compassionate and patient while dealing with people who needed counsel and correction. Are there times in your own life when you could treat others with greater compassion while counseling or teaching them? If your children are at times slow to understand, do you treat them with Christlike understanding as illustrated in this article?
2. Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman, and the disciples had a “common view” of the heavenly things the Savior was trying to teach them. Evaluate your own view of spiritual insights offered in scripture. Is it possible that careful study and prayer could open up greater meanings behind “ordinary” verses?
3. In what other ways can we become more receptive to the ennobling uncommon touch of the Master’s hand in our lives?
Jeffrey R. Holland, president of Brigham Young University, serves as a Regional Representative.