Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘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.’ Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’ Jesus answered, ‘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.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’ Jesus answered him, ‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
‘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.
‘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.
‘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. (NRSV).
I have a deep admiration for Nicodemus.
Sure, he comes to Jesus under the cover of darkness, seeking a private conversation. Maybe this has something to do with his standing in the Jewish community. Nicodemus is a leader among the Pharisees. People expect religious leaders to be in the know – especially when it comes to matters of God. Perhaps this secrecy reflects the loneliness of leadership. Perhaps it has something to do with his pride.
But it is, at the very least, a pride or loneliness he is willing to fight.
Nicodemus is not content to avoid his heart’s questions. He has carefully observed Jesus and has come to a somewhat controversial conclusion: ‘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.’ Nicodemus believes Jesus is from God.
And even if his peers are closed to this possibility, Nicodemus is both open and willing to act.
Jesus immediately recognises Nicodemus as both intelligent and genuine. Rather than simply agreeing with his observations regarding his mission, Jesus responds with the provocative: ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’
This is a deep and profound compliment: Nicodemus’ observations of Jesus and his mission are far more than simply careful and accurate – the work of a considered scholar. They are actually the work of heaven itself. Nicodemus’ recognition of God’s work in Jesus’ mission reveal that something of heaven has been ‘born’ in him.
So here is Nicodemus, exploring, nurturing, and following the insight of heaven.
Of course, this does not imply this Pharisee understands what is happening to him. Jesus’ ‘born from above’ statement is also designed to throw this law teacher off balance.
And, in this, Jesus is wildly successful. If Nicodemus’ came with his own agenda it is now history. He is drawn into Jesus’ statement and for the remainder of the conversation this teacher and leader does nothing but listen and ask his questions: ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’ And later, ‘How can these things be?’
They are questions of one who is asking: ‘What is God is doing in me?’
In this conversation, Nicodemus – of all people – is found humble enough to play the role of disciple. He is a listener, a learner, a student. And God has, God is, opening his eyes. This Pharisee is, miraculously, in his observing and now conversing with Jesus, ‘being born from above’.
And as such, the teaching of Jesus in this passage is much less a rebuke of Nicodemus, than a gracious explaining of what God is doing in him.
If so, we do well to give this conversation the careful attention it deserves.