The Night Nicodemus Talked with Jesus

The story of Nicodemus in chapter 3 of the Gospel of John sometimes stops me in my tracks.

Nicodemus is a Pharisee, so he has high moral and religious standards. Besides, he’s a member of the ruling council in Jerusalem, a man greatly respected there. He may have approached Jesus in the nighttime because he wanted a serious, undisturbed discussion.

Like many in Israel, Nicodemus believed in God’s coming kingdom on earth. He believed all enemies would be defeated and the Messiah would rule righteously. He wanted to be welcomed when the day came.

Nicodemus begins by affirming Jesus with the words: Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him (John 3:2). Perhaps Nicodemus and his peers had shared opinions about Jesus.

Jesus engages Nicodemus in a serious discussion of eternal matters. To this specialist in religion and morality, Jesus announces: Very truly I say to you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again (John 3:3).

Nicodemus asks Jesus quizzically: “By born again do you mean start the cycle of life all over again in my mother’s womb?” Our Lord follows with a fuller explanation.

Very truly I tell you no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit (John 3:5). Water is symbolic of the promised washing away of sins, effected in Jewish thought by the shedding of sacrificial blood. This washing is humankind’s universal need, for all have sinned and do fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23).

Jesus explains that fallen human nature can produce only fallen human nature; that is a fixed reality. But God’s Holy Spirit can and does infuse the seeker with a new quality of life. That’s why it’s called a new birth, or being born again.

The transformation is a mystery, for sure, but so is the wind we feel in our faces but don’t understand its source. Nevertheless, we accept from experience that it exists.

This transformation is often spoken of in Scripture. Ezekiel prophesied to Judah in troubled times: I will sprinkle clean water on you and you will be clean . . . . I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you (Ezekiel 36:25, 26).

All this is of grace — God’s undeserved generosity — and it happens in response to our exercise of the faith God engenders in us as a gift.

The born-again person is not just washed clean; that by itself wouldn’t last very long. But at the same time the Spirit of God indwells him or her. Not infrequently the indwelling Spirit is evident in a believer.

A few days ago a man came to our house to change batteries in a device. He was a total stranger. I sensed somehow that he was a Christian and I asked him. He beamed as he answered that he was a born-again Christian and immediately told me where he worshipped and served.

A new birth brings about change, not all at the same time or in the same way for different people. The change is internal and yet often discernible. Attitudes change. Relationships are corrected. A love to be with God’s people develops. Bad habits are addressed and broken.

So what about Nicodemus? Isn’t he already above reproach? Trying hard? Succeeding in his attempt to “reach upward” to God? Even for Nicodemus, and for people everywhere who are striving to be “good,” the issue remains the new birth — believing in Jesus and inviting him through the indwelling Spirit to exercise lordship over their lives.

That is, the issue is still sin for the “virtuous” like Nicodemus, and spiritual renewal is necessary to gain entrance into the Kingdom now and at the end of the age.

We meet Nicodemus just twice more in John’s Gospel: he is helping Joseph, a secret disciple of Jesus, in the burial of our crucified Lord’s body (John 19:38). We can infer that his encounter with Jesus “re-birthed” and changed him for the rest of his life, and for eternity.

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Image info: Jesus and Nicodemus, by Crijn Hendricksz Volmarijn (1604-1645)

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