Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
What made Nicodemus seek out Jesus? He’s a powerful guy, a Pharisee, a rabbi, likely one of the Sanhedrin—the governing council of the Jews. Why did he need to come to Jesus? Jesus is the itinerant preacher. The radical who is attracting big crowds. Nicodemus knows about what Jesus has been doing and he might have just ignored him. Nicodemus could have denounced him and called him a fraud. (This was ultimately the position of the Sanhedrin, who brought him up on charges.) But instead of ignoring him, or just denouncing him, Nicodemus comes secretly to him at night. What motivates this visit?
What was his doubt? He’s been living a good life, a moral life. He’s been following God’s law. He has seen God working in the world—by Jesus’ healing, but undoubtedly he’s seen other signs as well. He knows God. Why would he risk this visit? This week, I kept asking this question—what was so compelling that Nicodemus had to know? I came to one conclusion—Nicodemus must have been afraid of dying. That fear might have had more than one part-- fear of judgment (standing before God Almighty); fear of the unknown (being able to face the great mystery of death) or fear of facing death alone. If Nicodemus had these fears, even though he had been very faithful as a practicing Jew, he might have thought he should hedge his bets and talk to Jesus in the middle of the night.
It seems that this doubt is maybe one of the most powerful doubts we have—what if even though we’ve done everything we’re supposed to do, and when we’ve recognized our failings, we’ve repented and gone back to God—what if at the end God judges us harshly, condemning us? What will happen at death, how do I contemplate the unknowable nature of death or being dead? And what will happen if I die all alone?
Facing these fears is not something that Nicodemus could do by himself. His practices as a good Jew weren’t answering his anxieties. And so he came to Jesus for a conversation in the middle of the night. (Maybe he came in the middle of the night because he was ashamed of being afraid. Maybe he came because he feared his fellow Pharisees who might have condemned him if they’d seen him with Jesus.) But he comes to get answers.
So we hear the discussion between Nicodemus and Jesus. We should remember that this passage comes in the midst of stories of Jesus’ healing. Nicodemus has seen the signs of Jesus’ power, his divinity. But he starts the dialogue with a statement, “Rabbi, 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.‘ Maybe Nicodemus is comparing himself with Jesus—you have power from God, implying, what about me? Or maybe he is just confirming what he thinks he knows, I imagine Nicodemus saying, “You are from God, right? I’ve seen the evidence, you must be from God.”
But Jesus cuts through Nicodemus’ opening and gets right to the central message.
“Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” This is one of the themes of Jesus’ lectures to his disciples—Don’t believe because of signs. Jesus turns Nicodemus’ statement inside out. Nicodemus is pointing to the signs (the signs that he, Nicodemus, sees.) Jesus is pointing to God’s work. We could hear him saying, “It’s not about what you see, it’s about what God does.” Jesus flips the focus away from Nicodemus’ faith and puts the focus on God’s creative power. This idea about being born from above, is about God creating, God fathering each one of us. Jesus is telling Nicodemus that the true knowledge of the kingdom of the God, is not about human recognition, it’s about God’s work in the person—the person being born from above.
Nicodemus is still confused. “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” He is still thinking about human birth, from a mother’s womb. Jesus tries again, “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.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” When he refers to born of water and Spirit, we recall images of baptism—baptized with water and the Holy Spirit. Baptism is God’s sacrament—an outward sign of inward grace. So Jesus is likely talking about the water both with reference to baptism and to the water of the womb and the Spirit of God creating each of us. Jesus is pointing to the way that God is present in everything’s creation—the Spirit that is in each and every thing from the moment of conception into eternity. We don’t always recognize the spirit within us, but God is working like the wind, blowing through us, motivate and invigorating us from the moment of our birth.
Jesus is trying to get Nicodemus to look beyond the human realm. He’s urging Nicodemus to know that God the Father is the father of all of creation. He’s showing Nicodemus that the way to see and know God’s kingdom requires God—it’s not something that human beings do alone. The eternal kingdom is ours because of God’s work in us. We are “born of the Spirit”. God has begun God’s work in us from the moment of our birth. Because of God’s creative force in us, we can know God’s kingdom. It’s not the other way around—our human work to know God doesn’t get us to deeper understanding. This knowledge of God comes from God. All the good works that we do, don’t get us to the eternal kingdom. Even if we follow the commandments, or model our lives on Jesus’ life, that work is not what gets us to eternal life.
But Nicodemus is still in the dark. Jesus begins to get frustrated with his lack of understanding: “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just 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.
Jesus is telling Nicodemus that salvation comes through him. Just as Moses lifted up the bronze serpent, so God has lifted up the Son of Man. Through Jesus’ resurrection (being lifted up) we may all come to believe in God’s power. Jesus is trying to get Nicodemus to see that knowing God is the internal work of the Spirit in Nicodemus. The human mind can’t know eternity on its own. But there is another way.
We don’t hear Nicodemus speak again in the rest of the Gospel chapter. But let’s go back to why Nicodemus was there. Would hearing this message have helped to ease Nicodemus’ fears? If Nicodemus was afraid of judgment—Jesus tells him plainly, “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” If he was afraid of dying alone, Jesus tells him that through belief in the Son of Man he will ascend into heaven. You will not be alone because the Spirit that blows like the wind is working in you. And this is the comfort against the fear of the unknown—just because you don’t know where the wind comes from, doesn’t mean that you don’t know the wind. Just as you don’t know how the Spirit comes to work in you, doesn’t mean that it isn’t bringing you into eternal life.
The Gospel of John presents this dialogue to emphasize the nature of God’s work in us. Jesus concludes with one of the most famous bible passages:
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
By giving us Jesus Christ, his only begotten Son, God gives us eternal life. For John, this eternal life that is promised is not a distant after death reality. It is a present reality, coming to know God through Jesus is to receive new life here and now.
I can see that Nicodemus may continue to have trouble with message. He figures he’s got this life under control—he’s got power and learning, he’s living well and doing good works, he might leave the conversation with Jesus still worried and confused about what’s going to happen when he dies. But Jesus has tried to open up a pathway for Nicodemus and for us.
Instead of focusing on what we can do to achieve God’s favor, we must recognize God’s work in us. Just as God fathered Jesus Christ and gave him up to the human oppressors who would crucify him; so God works in us, from our beginning, the Spirit is in us. When we recognize God’s presence in Jesus and in us, we may receive the new life that God has promised through the resurrection. In this dialogue with Nicodemus, we are shown a way into new life. It’s an internal journey back to where we come from. It’s about aligning ourselves with God—not by doing a set of good works, but by coming to know our own true nature, the divine nature that God has given us.