by Shane Scott
The biggest deception in advertising is the phrase, “One size fits all.” Well, at least if you are a guy built like me! There are very few clothing items I have come across that are supposed to fit everybody that also work for a man of my stature. The first time I tried to baptize someone using “one size fits all” waders, I split them right up the seam, and got more wet than the new Christian did!
In John 4:42 some new believers in Samaria described Jesus as “the Savior of the world.” The world is an awfully big place. So many different kinds of people facing different challenges. How could a single Savior truly fit the needs of this diverse, sin-ridden world?
In John 3-4 the evangelist describes three very different kinds of people, from radically disparate backgrounds, each facing their own unique sort of issues. And yet the “Savior of the world” provides exactly what each of these people needed.
The Religious But Lost
John 3 tells the story of Jesus’ visit with a “ruler of the Jews,” a Pharisee named Nicodemus. This man had impressive religious credentials. As a Pharisee, he was part of the largest and most devout sect of the Jews. As a ruler, he possessed great prestige in society that treasured people of the status Jesus later afforded him, “the teacher of Israel” (John 3:10). In John 7 we learn that Nicodemus was even a part of the illustrious Jewish council, the Sanhedrin (7:50).
Did Nicodemus not want to openly risk his standing by coming to see Jesus during the broad daylight, and seek the cover of darkness by coming at night (John 3:2)? Perhaps. Regardless of what Nicodemus intended, given the heavy emphasis on the theme of light vs. darkness in the fourth gospel (see 3:19-21; 9:4; 11:10; 13:30), it is hard not to draw a negative inference from the fact that he came at night. And what is implicit becomes explicit when Jesus completely ignores the pleasantries extended by Nicodemus and says to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3).
Nicodemus’s fleshly accomplishments – his great learning, his family pedigree, his social standing – are completely irrelevant to the kingdom of God. All that matters is an inward transformation so comprehensive it is described as being born anew by the Spirit. “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:6).
The deeply entrenched religious rulers Jesus encountered were the least likely to respond to His message. John later explains that they did not openly acknowledge Jesus for “fear of the Pharisees” and that “they loved the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God” (12:42-43). But the Savior of the world came to save Pharisees, too. And throughout the gospel, there is a progression in the life of Nicodemus – from the dumbfounded inquisitor in John 3, to the fair-minded council member in John 7, and finally to the partner who helped Joseph of Arimathea bury Jesus in John 19. This suggests to me that faith had sprung up in his heart.
Jesus is the Savior of the religious but lost.
The Immoral and Outcast
The woman introduced in John 4 could not be more dissimilar to Nicodemus. He was a Jew; she was a Samaritan. He was a religious leader; she was an immoral woman (“You have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband,” v. 18). He was a man of standing; she was drawing water from a well for herself. But even though her background was completely different from that of Nicodemus, the Savior of the world came to save her as well.
In her case, Jesus initiated the conversation – “Give me a drink” (v. 7). The woman was confounded that a Jewish man would breech societal convention and speak to her (a sentiment shared by the disciples according to v. 27). And just as quickly, Jesus turned the conversation from literal water to the spiritual water she needed to quench her soul’s thirst.
But sometimes those who are dehydrated don’t really know how desperately thirsty they are – like this woman. And so Jesus made a simple request that at once sensitized her to her parched spiritual condition: “Go, call your husband” (v. 16). When Jesus then proceeded to describe all of the skeletons in her closet, the Samaritan woman realized she was in the presence of a prophet (v. 19), and immediately changed the subject (v. 20).
Every time I read this story, I am always amazed by Jesus. His ability to establish rapport and then shift the conversation to the kingdom is astonishing. And His mix of compassion and conviction is also incredible. He unhesitatingly confronted this woman with her sin, and her erroneous ideas (v. 22). But at the same time, He reached out to her, and gave her one of the few clear professions of His identity found in the gospel – “I who speak to you am he [the Messiah]” (v. 26).
Here is another case of a progression of faith:
-“Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet” (v. 19).
-“I know that Messiah is coming” (v. 25).
-“Can this be the Christ?” (v. 29).
-“Many Samaritans believed…because of the woman’s testimony” (v. 39; cf. v. 42).
Jesus is the Savior of the immoral and outcast.
The Desperate But Seeking
There is one more story in John 4, totally different from the account of a presumptuous religious official and sullied immoral woman. It is the story of a desperate father, an “official” (probably in the service of the government, i.e. a Gentile) in Capernaum whose son was at the “point of death” (v. 47).
This despairing father chose to travel the 14 miles that separated Capernaum from Cana in order to find Jesus and get Him to come back to intervene on the boy’s behalf. What an incredible gamble! What faith this man had to leave his child on his deathbed to find a total stranger and beg Him: “Sir, come down before my child dies” (v. 49).
If the trip to Cana required faith, though, the trip back home required far more, because Jesus did not return with him. Instead, He simply said, “Go, your son will live” (v. 50). And rather than scramble to find another healer, or insist that Jesus come to minister to his child in person, “The man believed the word that Jesus spoke to him and went on his way” (v. 50).
Since he did not arrive home until the next day (v. 52), this meant that the father had to spend a night away from his son, not knowing whether he lived or died. But when his servants finally reached him on his way home, he learned that his son began to get better at the very hour Jesus had spoken to him. “And he himself believed, and all his household” (v. 53). His initial faith that prompted him to go to Jesus, borne out of desperation, matured into deeper trust that Jesus was indeed the Savior of the world.
Jesus is the Savior of the desperate but seeking.
These three people had nothing in common but the one thing that matters most of all. They needed Jesus. And Jesus provided exactly what each of them needed. There are many religious people today who need to learn the full truth of who Jesus is and what it is to be in His kingdom. And there are many immoral people whose lives are a wreck and need to be lovingly confronted by Jesus. And there are many desperate people frantically dealing with crises and need the Savior who is unimpeded by time or geography. Jesus is what they need, and Jesus is what we need to give them. He alone is the Savior of the world.