In John 3:1-21, we are introduced to someone who, for all of their commitment to religious practice, has seemingly missed the point. But the Good News is that he had the courage to seek out understanding.
The person in question is Nicodemus. He’s a truly fascinating character in the Bible, but we only read about him in three places, and they are all in the Gospel of John. The first is John 3:1-21, the second is in John 7:50, and the final is in John 19:39.
Most of the time in the Scriptures, we find Jesus engaging with relatively average folks, but Nicodemus is an exception to this. He a bigwig. He is part of the aristocracy of Jerusalem. He is a Pharisee who is a member of the Sanhedrin.
The word Pharisee in and of itself already means “The Separated One,” because the Pharisees were people who had separated themselves from ordinary life in order to live intentionally keeping every detail of the law of the scribes. That would be enough to make him someone notable in public life, because being part of Sanhedrin meant that he was part of the Supreme Court of the Jews, limited to 70 members and having religious jurisdiction over every Jew in the world.
If we look a Nicodemus’ journey in the Gospel of John, we see that this passage begins with his inquisitive questioning. This conversation must lead him to at least become curious as to who Jesus is, because in chapter 7, John tells us that Nicodemus reminds his colleagues in the Sanhedrin that the law requires a person (in this case Jesus) to be heard–to find out what they are up to before they are judged. And then finally in John 19, we are led to believe that Nicodemus is ultimately convinced as to who Jesus is, because after Jesus’ death on the cross, he contributes nearly a hundred pounds of myrrh and aloes to assist Joseph of Arimathea in preparing Jesus’ body for burial. Those are customary embalming spices, but the large amounts show us two things: Nicodemus was a very wealthy man, and this was a burial fit for a king.
So this wealthy, upper crust man enters the scene at night. Now, he could have approached Jesus at night for a couple for a couple of reasons. The most obvious would be that, as a prestigious person in society, he might not have wanted to been seen by a lot of people. But it is more likely that during the day, Jesus was surrounded by crowds and was simply hard to access; at night, Nicodemus could get private and undisturbed time with Jesus. The rabbis of the time also believed that the best time to study the law was at night, when a person could do so undisturbed. This study approach is what we witness as Nicodemus begins his conversation with Jesus.
“Rabbi” (i.e., teacher), “we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”
Jesus responds in verse 3, saying “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
The translation of Greek word – anothen – which our NRSV translates “from above” is kind of a tricky word because it can mean a few different things. Like our text reads, Jesus could have been saying, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above” meaning “born from God” But it also can mean, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from the beginning, completely or radically.” And the word also can mean, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born again for a second time.”
This array of potential meanings seemingly left Nicodemus a bit confused. As such, he asks: “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”
And Jesus is kind of like, you really don’t get it, do you? “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above, again completely from God.'”
Jesus’ response reminds me of the little boy who asked his mother where he came from, and also where she had come from as a baby. His mother told him a tall tale about a beautiful white-feathered bird. The boy ran into the next room and asked his grandmother the same question and received a variation of the bird story. He then scampered outside to his playmate with the comment, “You know, there hasn’t been a normal birth in our family for three generations!”
Jesus is like, C’mon man. You’re like a big time teacher in Israel and a public figure, and yet you don’t get this stuff? It’s like the wind: you know it’s there and you even hear the sound of it, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it goes. “So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” It is kind of like he is saying, being in the Spirit isn’t something that you are going to learn by reading about it…
For instance, whenever you see a pregnant woman, you can know for certain that she didn’t get that way by reading a book about babies. Knowing didn’t get her pregnant, but intimacy did.
Those we choose to be intimate with have influence over us. And if you aren’t choosing to be intimate with God, then what or who is it in your life that has influence over you?
Or think about it this way: when a person is drunk, we say that they are under the influence. The influence of alcohol on the brain affects their movement. A drunken person doesn’t walk like they normally walk; they stagger. They don’t talk like they normally talk; they slur. A person under the influence will exhibit changes in their personality. They think they can sing when they can’t. Their speech and coordination are impacted. Something else has taken over their brain. The filling of alcohol leads to control by alcohol.
Jesus is saying that if you want to walk with God and exhibit and see His signs, then you have to let the Spirit have influence over your. And this only happens with intentional humility and obedience.
Transformation doesn’t just occur in Christians because we read about it. Don’t get me wrong, we need to study the Scriptures to learn about who God is and who we are called to be. But transformation occurs because we dare to get close to God by going out and practicing our faith.
Learning to walk in the Spirit is kind of like a baby learning how to walk. At first, it can be awkward and a little wobbly. It takes some time to develop a level of comfort and strength needed to walk well. And in that process, falls happen frequently.
When my son was two, he didn’t realize how big his head was, and he’d run into stuff all the time and get hurt. He’d get all beat up, looking like he was a member of a baby fight club or something, and that’s because the learning process wasn’t always smooth. But he kept at it because he came to realize that the ability to walk will get him a lot farther than he used to get when he crawled on his knees.
So how are you doing in your walk? Are you crawling? Are you sitting still? Are you falling a lot? Are you stumbling? What is that next thing that God is calling you to do to grow in your intimacy with God?
Back to Nicodemus: as if he wasn’t confused enough already by these radical assertions, Jesus then seems to go on to quote five random passages from Numbers 21 to Nicodemus. John 3:1-21 gives us the first two of these passages in verses 16 and 17, and then verses 18-21 give us the rest. The gist of what he is saying is this:
I recognize that you don’t totally believe me, and as such, you don’t really get this. But I’ve experienced this, and you need to come to grips with the fact that essentially, at a deep fundamental level, you’re poisoned. And if you don’t acknowledge that fact and get help? Well, the poison (i.e., the sin) is ultimately going to kill you.
But you need to hear this: there is really Good News. Kind of like God gave Moses a way to save the Israelites from snake poison, God has sent his Son to save you from your sin. We just have to admit that it is a problem and that we need help. And if, in that admission, we will just submit to God, we’ll begin to be healed. At first, it will feel a bit awkward, and you might stumble a bit and maybe even fall, but in the end, you’ll be healed and you’ll be saved.
And listen, he hasn’t come to condemn you. You don’t need to feel guilty. All that is washed away.
We as Christians we miss that last part all the time. This isn’t about God wanting to shame you. If I can be so bold, that’s not even on God’s mind…and it’s not on His mind because He loves you. Think about that. If someone you love does something wrong and gets in trouble and their life is at risk, you don’t care about what they did. All you care about is bringing them home safe and sound.
I don’t know about you, but so many times in my life–like Nicodemus, in spite of all of my best efforts–I just need someone to show me a better way to experience the Kingdom of God.
Each new day is supposed to be a new step progressing on our journey home with Christ. So let me ask you again, in the confession of your heart: how are you doing in your walk? Are you seeing, or starting to see, the Kingdom of God?
Reality Changing Observations:
1. If you had heard/read this story before, what new insight did you have, or what stood out to you this time?
2. Why do you think Jesus spoke as he did to Nicodemus? Why did he choose the language and references he did?
3. What can you take away from the trajectory of Nicodemus’ spiritual journey, based on the mentions in John? How can you relate to him?