The DEEP

They Can't See the Forest for the Trees

Too much detail.

John 3:9–12

Nicodemus answered and said to Him, “How can these things be?”

Jesus answered and said to him, “Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not know these things? Most assuredly, I say to you, We speak what We know and testify what We have seen, and you do not receive Our witness. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things?”

Jesus’s teaching has knocked Nicodemus back on his heels. He’s not asking, “How does this happen?” or, “How does this work?” He’s asking, “How is this possible?” It’s an honest question.

As Jesus notes though, a Pharisee should know how the spirit of God works, at least in this world. Still, this criticism sounds harsh. It is, but it’s not directed solely at Nicodemus. “You” at the end of verse 11 (you do not receive Our witness), and in all of verse 12, is plural. “You” there means “the Pharisees.”

Jesus isn’t busting on the Pharisees so much as on the training the Pharisees have received. They’ve memorized great amounts of the Bible. They’ve pledged to follow the law and made great efforts to interpret it. They long for the messiah. Yet Nicodemus came to Jesus by night because there’s peer pressure on him to avoid Him.

Despite all this study, the Pharisees don’t recognize the messiah when He’s sanding right in front of them. Now we see from Nicodemus’s response that the basics of how to see or enter the kingdom of heaven strike Pharisees as impossible.

They can’t see the forest for the trees!


This is a common colloquialism because it’s a common phenomenon. The Pharisees got sucked into the minutiae of the law and lost sight of what it’s all about. That happens a lot because the minutiae are more interesting.

When something is easy or obvious, it doesn’t need to be debated, so it doesn’t get much attention. Meanwhile, the tricky subjects get discussed all the time. So we end up thinking about the tough stuff all the time and the easy stuff gets ignored, even if it’s important. That’s how we miss the forest for the trees.

This is especially important with respect to the gospel. I love to teach advanced doctrines, but understanding the intricacies of how the plan of salvation works is not the key to salvation.

Confess Jesus as Lord of your life. Seek God’s will in all things. Trust Him. Obey Him. He is Lord and we’re His servants.

It all boils down to one word—fealty.


These Monday—Friday DEEPs are written by Mike Slay. To subscribe to all the DEEPs click here:

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The weekly study guides, which include the Monday–Friday devotionals plus related questions for discussion or meditation, are available for download here:

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Except as indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved. ESV stands for the English Standard Version. © Copyright 2001 by Crossway. Used by permission. All rights reserved. NIV stands for The Holy Bible, New International Version®. © Copyright 1973 by International Bible Society. Used by permission. All rights reserved. KJV stands for the King James Version.

Mike Slay

As a mathematician, inventor, and ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church in America, Mike Slay brings an analytical, conversational, and even whimsical approach to the daily study of God's Word.