Phil skewed his mouth to one side, the way he does when he’s thinking things over. “Well, I was looking here in the third chapter of John. You know, the part about Nicodemus? This is verse 3, in the NIV: ‘I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.’ Seems to me that Jesus is witnessing there.”

“Is he?” I asked. “Or is he just answering a question — or was there even a question asked? I think the Nicodemus passage may be a discussion for another morning run; we need to talk about that passage sometime.”

Jess and Phil looked at each other.

“In the stories of Jesus’ life, the salvation parts — all of them — are answers to direct questions,” I said. “People ask Jesus or a disciple to tell them about salvation, and they get an honest answer. But if salvation is the ‘good news’ that we read about, then why do people have to drag it out of Jesus and the disciples? Or look at Acts 16:17, nlt. In that account, a girl is tagging along behind Paul and Silas, and she is shouting, ‘These men are servants of the Most High God, and they have come to tell you how to be saved.’ But Paul, instead of saying, ‘Uh-huh — sing it, sister; we got the power,’ turns around and commands an evil spirit to leave the girl. So, apparently, Paul recognizes that emphasizing salvation is a misdirection — not to mention an irritant. Which it is.”

“It is?” Jess and Phil responded in stereo.

I gathered the plates and took them to the sink. “We need to think of these verses in the context of the time when they were written. We need to think in the mind-set of the ancients.”

“They were wimps,” Jess said.

Okay, this requires an explanation. As most schoolkids and all marathoners know, in 490 bc, the fate of ancient Greece hung on the outcome of the Battle of Marathon because Marathon was the final obstacle between the invading Persians and the city of Athens. Naturally, the Athenian rulers were on pins and needles, waiting to hear how the battle would turn out. And because this news was so crucial, a Greek warrior named Pheidippides was dispatched from the battlefield to bring the news of the Greek victory to Athens. He ran the roughly twenty-five miles from Marathon, gave his report, and then promptly died of exhaustion.

When Jess had run her first marathon, Phil and I were waiting for her as she crossed the finish line. She had been tired, but was by no means totally exhausted. After she’d caught her breath from the finishing sprint, she looked happily at Phil and me and declared, “Pheidippides was a wimp!”

When Jess made her remark about the ancients being wimps, I laughed and said, “Okay, agreed. All wimps. Every one of them. But wimps with their own cultural roots, which were very different from ours.”

Setting the dishes in the sink, I walked back into my study, retrieved a book from my shelf, and came out reading the text:

The providence which has ordered the whole of our life, showing zeal and concern, has ordained the most perfect consummation for human life by giving it to [him] . . . by filling him with virtue for doing the work of a benefactor among men, and by sending in him, as it were, a savior for us and those who come after us, to make war to cease, to create peace everywhere. . .. The birthday of the god was the beginning for the world of the gospel that has come to men through him.1

I looked up. “That’s a pretty good translation of a birth announcement that was written in koine Greek, the same form of basic, universal Greek used in the New Testament. Whose birth do you think it announces?”

Jess gave me a look like, What kind of softball question is that? “The birth of Jesus, of course,” she said.