What is a Pharisee?
A Pharisee is a person who has spent his life studying the law; Someone who “knows” the first five books of scripture in all its ceremony. These boys would memorize vast portions of the law orally, and by the time they became men they were masters of the feasts and sacrifices. They lived out their entire lives teaching and learning in the synagogue.
We’ll come back to that in a minute.
Riddles. Who doesn’t like a good riddle? The play on words, the twist in the plot you didn’t see coming. We love that aha moment when the mental puzzle falls into place and we see what the riddle was hiding in plain view the whole time. Riddles are fun, and the very best ones teach us something. But there’s another kind of riddle—the kind that cannot be answered right away. There are riddles that only God can answer.
Meet Agur. He wrote the riddle of God.
Agur’s riddle is found in Proverbs, chapter 30. It’s a fascinating passage. His narrative is beautiful in style and metaphor just like many other Proverbs. But then, out of the blue, comes this: the part of the Proverb that scholars call a riddle— Agur’s riddle. See if you can spot the part that is a riddle.
Who hath ascended up into heaven, or descended?
Who hath gathered the wind in his fists?
Who hath bound the waters in a garment?
Who hath established all the ends of the earth?
What is his name, and what is his son’s name, if thou canst tell?
Now for the most part, a Pharisee could easily manage lines two, three and four of the riddle:
Who has the wind in his fists, bound the waters in a garment, and established all the ends of the earth? Easy, right? God. However, the riddle gets a little more perplexing with the first line and especially the last line:
“What is his name and what is his son’s name?”
Remember where this book sits in history. Agur would have been a contemporary of Solomon. Solomon lived approximately 900 years before Christ. So when Agur was asking, “Who is God’s son? What is his name?” It’s a mystery. Because, God’s Son (Jesus) had not stepped one foot onto earthen soil, yet. Needless to say, this passage would have been quite perplexing to a Pharisee. In fact, when we read this Proverb, we are reading what I imagine would have been one of the most perplexing riddles of the ancients. They did not know the answer to this riddle because God had not given the answer yet.
Now let’s fast forward 900 hundred years into the future. Agur’s riddle has perplexed every man robed and trained to receive the title of Pharisee for the past nine centuries. That, my friends, is a mental puzzle and a half.
Well, as God would have it, many years later, a man by the name of Nicodemus sought Jesus out. Guess what his occupation was? That’s right, Nicodemus was a true blue, born and raised Pharisee. As the story goes, he didn’t want the other Pharisees to catch him talking to Jesus. So Nicodemus got sneaky and went to Christ under the cover of night. Nicodemus had to have been nervous. The Pharisees’ relationship with Jesus was strained, to put it mildly. Jesus’s prior conversations with the other Pharisees had been harsh, and at times, even volatile. But not this encounter—not this conversation. Nicodemus wanted the truth, and Jesus wanted Nicodemus like a father desires a son. The kindness and time that Jesus took with Nicodemus is one of the most riveting conversations found in scripture.
Can we go there for moment? Let’s look at scripture and imagine…
The tension in the room is thick. Nicodemus is finally alone with the one called Jesus. He doesn’t have to be pious anymore. His friends are not around, so he can be honest. He can finally ask Jesus what his heart has been aching to ask.
“Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher, come from God. For no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.”
“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
“How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?”
I can’t help it, that question makes me smile every time. Nicodemus is struggling, but Jesus patiently continues.
“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, you must be born again.”
“How can these things be?”
“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. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?
Jesus is saying, I’ve done miracles right in front of your face. I’ve told you and your friends the truth over and over again and you still don’t get it. You won’t believe. Then Jesus does something astounding! When Nicodemus cannot come to where Jesus is, Jesus goes to where Nicodemus has lived and breathed since he was a kid. Jesus draws upon that disciplined life of law, ceremony and sacrifice. He uses the setting of scripture that is completely ingrained in the psyche of this Jewish man. And right there, in the middle of the night, in a secret meeting with a man too ashamed to be seen with him, Jesus gives Nicodemus a prize that any Pharisee would recognize and no Pharisee has ever managed to solve. He gives him the holy grail of riddles… Agur’s riddle.
Remember the first sentence of Agur’s riddle?
Who hath ascended up into heaven, or descended? (Proverbs 30:4)
Jesus is still laying the ground work, but He casually answers the first line of the thousand-year-old riddle like it is no different than any other riddle.
“No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.”
Now this really gets Nicodemus’s attention. This man’s life is building toward a divine moment that is all but pregnant with anticipation. Jesus, the carpenter’s son, has been patient up to this point. But Jesus, the Son of God, is just about through with dropping bread crumbs for this man. The cat might not be out of the bag yet, but make no mistake, the bag is open. Jesus gives Nicodemus one last hint as to who this “Son of Man” could be.
“And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”
Nicodemus stops in his tracks. Eternal life? He knows the passage of the riddle like the back of his own hand. Any Pharisee worth his salt knows of Moses and the serpent being lifted up in the wilderness. But eternal life? What is that about? And who but God could do such a thing? His head rockets through Israel’s history, from the Patriarchs to the mass Exodus, to the Judges, through Israel’s kings, to Agur’s riddle and all the way up to this most auspicious moment with this teacher, called Jesus. He’s so close! I don’t know how Jesus could stand it. What a thought… a man searching for God is close enough to reach out and touch the face of God. Nicodemus searches on, drawing on every ounce of understanding that a lifetime of study and accumulated knowledge can bring to bear. He struggles to figure out who this “Son of Man” could possibly be. So close…
Can you see it? Can you see the mental puzzle falling into place for this Pharisee? I can’t help but wonder at the smile that must have been playing at the corners of the Savior’s lips. How fun is that? How much did Jesus love this man?
Let’s go back over Agur’s riddle, easy parts first, then the last and unsolved part. I’ll fill in the blanks that Nicodemus must have filled in mentally.
Who hath gathered the wind in his fists? GOD
Who hath bound the waters in a garment? GOD
Who hath established all the ends of the earth? GOD
What is his name, and what is his son’s name, if thou canst tell???
Nicodemus’s mouth drops open as Jesus, the Nazarene carpenter, lets the cat out of the bag, right in front of him. Nicodemus is given the final answer to the 900-year-old mystery— the answer is standing right in front of him! And Jesus’s smile broadens. Oh, it gets better! The final two pieces slam together in Nicodemus’s head with no less than the force of the greatest revelation in human existence.
He stares at the rough hands of the carpenter, rehearsing by memory, Agur’s riddle. Who hath ascended up into heaven, or descended? His breath quickens as he relives miracle after miracle performed by this man. He’s seen the miracles with his own eyes! He looks again into the weathered, sun-tanned face of the man from Nazareth? He knows! Oh he’s wrestling with it, but he knows.
Jesus’s smile broadens into a full-blown toothy grin as the last sentence of Agur’s riddle drives the point far past Nicodemus’s head, all the way into Nicodemus’s heart.
“What is his name, and what is his son’s name, if thou canst tell?”
Oh it gets even better! As if gifting one curious Pharisee with the answer to the prophecy of the ages, (Agur’s riddle) were not enough, Jesus graces Nicodemus with an honor that no one, save Nicodemus himself, can claim, and it’s a doozy! Jesus has been waiting His whole ministry to share this moment with someone. He says to Nicodemus,
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
John 3:16. Maybe you’ve heard of it? The message that changed the world? Yeah, that’s the one. And that’s who the Lord of Glory chose to give it to—a man too embarrassed to be seen in public with Him. A man who hung out with the people who hated Him. One man…. Let that sink in for a second. The message that changed the world was the answer to one man’s question—the only man amongst the Pharisees bold enough to ask. Why Nicodemus? Why not John, Peter or maybe Paul, or any of the twelve, for that matter? I don’t know, really. But could I suggest that maybe, just maybe, there’s a whole lot in Nicodemus that we can identify with — maybe even more than the twelve. And maybe, like Nicodemus, we should ask ourselves, what would the Lord of Glory share with me, if I would but stand in His presence and be bold enough to…ask?