Read: John 3:1-21
The streets were mostly deserted. By this hour, the good people of the city were at home with their families. Doors closed. Children tucked safely into their beds. Mothers and fathers were sharing one last quiet conversation by lamplight, before retiring themselves.
From where we stand, only two shadowy figures can be seen. One is approaching, stealthily, from down the street. He stops at every intersection, looking intently in every direction for anyone else who might be there. He hurries across the open space and quickly retreats into the shadows. The other man is seated in the shadows as he watches the first man approach.
As if by divine appointment, Nicodemus walks directly to the spot where Jesus is sitting. He opens the conversation respectfully, even reverently. “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God . . .” So, begins one of the most famous conversations in the New Testament.
Before we examine this conversation, we need to ask, “Who is Nicodemus?” John tells us, first, that he was a Pharisee. As such, he was among the religious conservatives of his time. He was serious about keeping every detail of the law, including the “traditions,” which may be understood as a long list of sub-points to the law. These were written so that no one would ever be in doubt about what they should or should not do in any possible circumstance.
Furthermore, Nicodemus was a ruler among his people. In fact, he was a member of the Sanhedrin, which was the Jewish Supreme Court of that day. So, Nicodemus not only knew the Law, but he regularly participated in the judgment of his people according to the Law. In short, he was a man of great learning and stature. And that was his problem. Somewhere along the way, Nicodemus had begun to suspect that he might not really know what he was talking about after all.
But to his credit, in addition to his learning and authority, Nicodemus was also an honest man. First, he was honest enough to admit to himself that he might not have the answer to the most important question anyone could ask. How can he be sure that all his good works will ultimately be good enough in the eyes of God? Could it be possible that the judge of his people might himself be condemned in the Judgment? A frightening thought.
Nicodemus was also honest enough to admit that Jesus had clearly been sent by God as a teacher. Otherwise, how could he perform all these miraculous signs. This was more honesty than his colleagues on the Sanhedrin were capable of. (Mark 11:27-28) They saw Jesus as a threat to their own authority, and their minds had been made up from the beginning to resist him—to the end.
Finally, Nicodemus was a careful man. He had to be. He understood the danger of his position. Essentially, he was an honest man, surrounded by powerful, dishonest men. He couldn’t afford to say or do anything foolish. But he had to know the truth. So, he gathered his private questions and went out to find Jesus—at night–unobserved.
Jesus had watched him approach. He knew his whole life story as he watched, and he understood the pain that pushed him to this encounter at this time, in this place. His heart was deeply stirred with compassion. He allowed Nicodemus to open the conversation. With some hesitation, like a tentative opening move in a game of chess, Nicodemus began. But Jesus stopped him after one sentence.
“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (John 3:3 ESV) There it was! The whole issue was clearly exposed. It was as if Jesus was saying, “We aren’t here to discuss finer points of doctrine, or the proper interpretation and application of the Law. We aren’t even here to argue about the validity of some of your traditions. You’re asking if all this effort will be enough in the final analysis. You want to know if, at the end of your life, you’ll be welcomed into the eternal kingdom of God.” (As a Pharisee, Nicodemus did believe in the resurrection. The nagging question was—then what?)
Jesus’ answer was both blunt and devastating. This conversation was only two sentences in length at this point, and already Jesus had answered all Nicodemus’ questions with an emphatic “NO! It’s NOT enough!” Nicodemus had to have been shocked by Jesus’ interjection, as well as completely bewildered and distressed by his answer. Almost breathlessly, he managed to respond. “How can a man be born when he is old?” (v. 4)
Jesus tried to explain that he was talking about a different kind of birth. It was the birth John had written about in the opening verses of this gospel. “But to all who did receive him . . . he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor the will of man, but of God.” (John 1:12-13 ESV) He emphatically insisted that this birth was produced by the Spirit of God. This birth isn’t discernable with the natural eye. Rather, it’s like the wind, which we can’t see coming; but we can clearly see, and feel, its effects.
Nicodemus was still confused. “How can these things be?” (v.9) The teacher of the Law was still struggling to wrap his mind around spiritual reality. Jesus pointed this out to him. “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?” (v.10)
The question must have hit Nicodemus hard. He had nothing more to say that night. Jesus, however, continued to explain how he (Jesus) would have to be lifted up (on the cross) like Moses had lifted up the brass serpent in the wilderness. (Numbers 21:4-9) There, the people who had sinned, were bitten by poisonous snakes. Many were dying. In desperation, they came to Moses and repented. God told Moses to hang a brass serpent on a pole in the middle of the camp. Whoever came to look at the serpent would be healed. This command required both faith and obedience. God never bothered to explain how this act of looking at a brass serpent could result in healing. He just told them to do it. Those who believed God’s word, and obeyed his command, were healed. Those who argued, “How can this be possible?” all died. Simple as that. Nicodemus knew the story well. He had just never thought to apply the story to himself.
We can’t be sure about where Jesus’ words end and John’s commentary begins in these verses. (The red letters continue through verse 21 in my Bible, but that’s just the publisher’s opinion.) In any case, when Nicodemus walked back home that night, he was probably more disturbed than he was before he came. Please understand that Jesus didn’t come, primarily, to calm our anxieties. He came to bring us the truth, and that is often disturbing at first. Throughout the night, and into the next morning, Nicodemus must have continued to hear these words, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. . . You must be born again. . .. whoever believes in him may have eternal life . . . Unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God . . .he cannot see the kingdom of God . . . he cannot see . . .”
Jesus watched him walk away, back into the night. He didn’t try to stop him, because he understood that Nicodemus needed space, and time to think. We all do. The spiritual birthing process is like the physical birthing process in this respect. As the wise old family doctors of past generations would say, the baby will come when he is ready, not before. Nicodemus wasn’t ready—yet. But his story wasn’t finished.
Before we move on, let’s take a minute to summarize what Nicodemus heard Jesus say. First, entrance into the kingdom of God cannot be earned by keeping laws, however many you may invent for yourself. Since this is a spiritual kingdom, we can only gain entrance by means of a spiritual birth. This is a birth accomplished by the Spirit of God.
Second, somehow, this transaction will be made possible by Jesus himself being ”lifted up,” much like Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness. This imagery probably wasn’t entirely clear that night; but it would be later..
Finally, Jesus was clearly calling on Nicodemus to believe in him. This word, in its various forms, occurs seven times within seven verses of our reading. The belief Jesus is calling for was a heartfelt trust that anchored itself in his person and words and work. It is a trust that stubbornly holds on, even when we don’t fully understand.
This was a lot to think about. So, Nicodemus took his time. He couldn’t stop thinking about those words. Later, the chief priests and the Pharisees (Sanhedrin) decided that Jesus had to be silenced permanently. They sent officers to arrest him; but the officers were stopped by the power of his words. They could only come back and report, “No one ever spoke like this man.” Undeterred, these rulers of Israel proceeded to rebuke the officers, and curse the people. That was the moment Nicodemus finally broke his silence. Almost timidly, he did manage to ask about the propriety of condemning a man without a trial. Now it was his turn to be rebuked and insulted. But everyone went home that night with no further action. (John 7:32, 45-53)
When the day finally came for the Lamb of God to be lifted up on the cross, Nicodemus was, no doubt, standing somewhere among the crowd. Suddenly, he could clearly see what Jesus was talking about all those nights before. Jesus’ words had continued to haunt him; but also, to germinate within him. They were finally beginning to bear fruit. The irony is that this man who had fearfully approached Jesus on that earlier night was now prepared to declare himself as a follower of Jesus in broad daylight—at the foot of the cross! And he wasn’t alone.
Another member of the Council, named Joseph, was also standing nearby. (Mark 15:42-43; John 19:38-42) John describes him as a secret disciple—for fear of the Jews. But the secret for both men was finally out. It makes me wonder how long these two men had served together on the Council, listening to all the anger and plots against Jesus, keeping their thoughts to themselves without ever suspecting the other of being a believer. I can imagine the moment when Joseph arrived with permission from Pilate to take the body for burial, and Nicodemus showed up carrying seventy-five pounds of spices. Did they stop and stare at each other in stunned silence? Did they ask simultaneously, “What are you doing here?” One man had a tomb available. The other man had brought the necessary material for burial. It was as if some unseen planner had arranged this. Whatever their relationship had been up to that moment, from then on—they were brothers. Together, they buried the Lord.
As I think about the story of Nicodemus, I see a man on a journey of faith. He begins with an uneasy feeling that he might not be ready to face God in the judgment, despite all the rules he has kept all his life. He goes to Jesus, looking for answers, and is shocked by the answer he receives. He takes his time to process everything he has learned. Finally, in a moment of clarity, he is ready to openly declare himself as a believer, a follower of Jesus. And, to his amazement, he discovers that he is not alone.
The truth is, we are all somewhere on this same journey, from fear to faith. From darkness to light. Just as Jesus saw Nicodemus coming, he also sees you. Furthermore, he knows exactly what you need to move from where you are, to where you need to be. And he’s patient with the process. Today, he’s simply calling you to recognize where you are, and to trust him to help you take the next step toward his kingdom.
Do you believe that?